CONVERSION TO GOD CHAPTER 20
PRINTED BY H. & J. PILLANS & WILSON
WHY SO FEW TURN TO THE LORD.
Many converts at first - Few now - What may reasonably be expected - Whose is the work of conversion? - The limits of hindrances to conversion - God supremely in earnest about the conversion of all - Christians hindering conversion - Inadequate teaching - Supreme authority of God's Word - Summary for inquirers.
AFTER His ascension the first proclamation of Christ secured 3000 converts. It was not long until the number of men reached 5000. "A multitude," "many," "a great company," and "multiplied greatly," are the words descriptive of the additions subsequently made in different places.
It cannot be asserted that there is any such progress now. But if not, why not?
It may be utopian to expect all hearers to become converts. Even under inspired teaching it rarely was so, if ever. Despite the forcible and manifold evidence adduced by the apostles of Christ, opposition and persecution were as frequent as acceptance and friendliness. If men like Paul, with self-sacrifice and skill far beyond ordinary mortals, combined with the providential and supernatural care and co-operation of God, not only often failed to convert their hearers, but in most cases made enemies as numerous as friends, and persecutors as zealous as converts, there is not much ground for hope that uninspired and ordinary men will secure the conversion of all who hear them. We need not marvel if with less zeal, less skill, and less startling evidence, we accomplish considerably less than the first Christians.
But the Word of God endureth for ever. That Word is living and potent. While the generations have been dying, it has retained its vitality. The gospel is unchanged. It is the power of God to salvation today as much as it was 1800 years ago. The remedy never fails. Why then do so few employ it? Even if the ordinary spiritual doctors and nurses are bungling, ought we not to expect more general acceptance of the Great Physician's prescription? What prevents the universal application of Heaven's panacea?
Various causes are in operation making men unwilling to change. But so long as there are honest men, we may expect God's truth to prevail. It is reasonable to expect that every one who believes in God, and earnestly desires to be accepted by Him, will turn as the truth directs, whenever the truth is presented to him. All who hear are not honest. All who hear are not willing to change even to meet the demands of truth. But a large number may surely be reckoned on as desirous to be loyal to the truth. We should presume on the existence of such honest seekers after truth, and we should earnestly labour to discover them, in the sure and certain hope of their acceptance of it and submission to it. But if it is reasonable to think that there are many thus honestly desirous to know the truth, why do Christians find so few who are willing to turn to the Lord?
It will naturally moderate our expectations to remember that Christianity has already enlisted on its side many of these earnest seekers after truth. The greater the number already Christians, the fewer are left with the needful honesty and anxiety. But doubtless there are still many who, if the way was clearly before them, would become the Lord's saved ones. What is now preventing them?
In this inquiry it is needful to take into account how conversion is produced - what forces are in operation, what agents are at work.
WHOSE WORK IS CONVERSION?
1. Conversion is the work of God. All the means which lead on to conversion originate in Him.
The Father, in the depth of His great love, devised the reclamation of man, and freely gave His Son to achieve that great purpose.
The Son, moved also by intense love, left the glory which he had with the Father, assumed our nature, lived in poverty and toil, taught and exemplified the divine will, went about doing good, and died in order that a way of safety might be opened for man.
The Holy Spirit carried on the work after Jesus had ascended to heaven. The Spirit, dwelling in believers, helped them in their infirmities, comforted them, and provided them with manifold evidence of the divine origin of their religion. He brought former lessons of their Lord to the remembrance of the disciples, and He took of the things of Christ and showed to them. Towards the world His work was more of convincing. "When He is come, he will convict the world in respect of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment."
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit co-operated in turning men into the path of safety.
2. Scripture phraseology describes man as an agent in bringing about conversion. The mission of Saul was to turn men. James pronounces a special reward on him who converts a sinner.
As Father, Son, and Holy Spirit co-operate, so is man honoured to co-operate with God as His agent to produce conversion. God accomplishes His work through human agents. His children are His missionaries for the evangelising of the world.
3. The convert is voluntary is turning to the living God. That it is his own act and deed is implied both in the command to turn and in the active part taken by those who become converts. Apart from his own active consent, divine power does not convert man, and his neighbour cannot. Conversion is a voluntary turning of the individual from whatever has been engaged in that is contrary to the will of God, and it is an engaging in whatever is revealed as His will. It is an undertaking to carry out whatever Christ or the apostles of Christ enjoined. It is a co-operation of the individual with God, the basis of the co-operation being the Word of God.
Conversion may therefore be described as the work of three parties - God, a Christian worker, and the person who turns. When the three co-operate, conversion is inevitable.
It may be assumed as indisputable that there is no power in the universe able to prevent the conversion of a man who has God co-operating with him. There may be difficulties many and great to surmount, and there may be opponents in varied forms; but they will not retard the conversion of him who has God working with him. Granted the co-operation of God and man, and the conversion of the co-operating man is assured.
If no power can prevent the conversion of the one who co-operates with God; or, more exactly, if the one co-operating with God is already a convert, actual preventions of conversion can only be caused by one of the three parties concerned in conversion - God, Christians, or the person requiring conversion. Let us then carefully trace these hindrances to their source or sources.
DOES GOD RETARD CONVERSION?
Is there a semblance of ground for imagining that God has ever prevented a conversion? He wishes "all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth" (1 Tim. 2:4). New Testament history confirms what was declared by God upon oath in the Old Testament, that He has no pleasure in the death of the sinner, but in his turning and living (Ezek. 33:11). The progressive revelation which God has given, and the whole mission of His Son, so unmistakably full of love, speak forcibly of His anxiety that all men turn to Him. Any hindering of conversion, by actual interference, or by the mere withholding of some necessary power, would be wofully inconsistent with all that is revealed of His love and character. Why should He swear that it would be a joy to Him if all turned, and yet keep back something needful? And why should the Son have tasted death for every man, if yet the divine arrangements precluded some from salvation? It ought to be understood, wherever the Bible is read, that God desires the salvation of all, and that he has done everything needful to secure it.
I have heard a religious teacher of wide renown, who is said to have done extraordinary things by faith, tell his audience that if the Saviour had wished it, He could have converted all the inhabitants of Palestine at the beginning of His ministry. That kind of talk is probably designed to magnify the power of God; but in reality it only bewilders. If it magnifies almightiness, it overlooks revelation and common sense. Common people cannot understand why God, if he has such power, and is so anxious for the conversion of all, does not convert them. Those at least who take upon them to speak on behalf of God, ought to know that there are some things that even almighty power cannot do. God cannot repent for man; He cannot believe for him; He cannot be baptised for him; He cannot turn for him. And it is impossible for man to remain a free, responsible being, and yet be forced to repentance, conversion, or any other religious act. Even God cannot govern man as a moral being by the laws that control inert matter. The two things are contradictories. Freedom and coercion are mutually exclusive. God has chosen to treat man as a free, responsible, moral being. That therefore precludes him being driven as a machine or moulded as a piece of clay. So long as God deals with man as a responsible and moral being he cannot coerce him to become a convert. If therefore conversions do not take place in abundance, we must not so talk as to imply that He who is supremely in earnest to secure conversion is keeping back something needful. God is true, whoever else is false; He is consistent, though many, blindly advocating His cause, are bristling with hoary inconsistencies.
If conversion is an accomplished fact in the experience of every one who co-operates with God, and if there is no possible blame attaching to God where conversion does not take place, the blame and the hindrances must all be traceable to man. Their source must be either in the Christian acting as agent for God to produce conversion, or in the persons in need of conversion, or in both. Let us first take into account
THE FAILURES OF CHRISTIANS.
They may be blamable in two ways - in teaching and in conduct.
1. God may be improperly represented in teaching.
His character is often exhibited in a distorted manner. He is spoken of as if he demanded impossibilities, and then punished with irrevocable severity those who failed.
His revelation is handled by its defenders as is no other book in the world. A verse, a line, or a word, is taken as a text, and, cut off from its connection, it is used to support the most fanciful and irreconcilable vagaries. Under that treatment, a book can be made to mean anything; there may be read into it whatever the speaker pleases.
Christian teachers generally betray such incompetency, and do their work in such an ineffective manner, that their dismissal would immediately ensue, were they teaching science, or any branch of secular education, under an efficient supervision.
The failure of professed teachers of Christianity to present God and the way of conversion in an intelligible light, goes a long way to explain why so few turn to the Lord. Thousands are in constant religious bewilderment, because of the incomprehensible and unbelievable character erroneously ascribed to God, and because of the unscientific, incoherent, and baseless talking upon the Word of God.
All Christians should aim at being so well acquainted with the Bible as to be able to converse freely upon its meaning. Whether in our sphere we be restricted chiefly to conversation, or we have the more responsible place of public teachers, there should be such a viewing of the connection of any passage remarked upon as to insure at once a correct and comprehensive view. Let the Bible be its own expositor. Gather the meaning of every words from its context and its general Scripture usage. Interpret every verse in full view of its context. And constantly bring the light of other Scriptures to bear on the one specially under consideration. By these means an earnest student, though illiterate, may put to shame a "Rev." who adheres to his fragmentary texts and tacked-on sermons.
2. Inconsistencies of Christians. The followers of Christ are the light of the world; but the light is often as darkness. They are an epistle of Christ, to be known and read by all; but the meaning is often sadly obscured, if the handwriting is not entirely illegible. For Christians not only at times follow Christ at a distance, but also sometimes turn aside; and their sins, not unfrequently, are causes of stumbling to those who study Christianity in Christians rather than in the Scriptures. The conduct of Christians should be a reflection of the character of their Master. If they fail to give a true portrait, onlookers are misled. All Christians have a responsibility so to live that they will recommend Christ and Christianity. Christian reader, are you doing your duty? Are you living Christ?
Earnestness in Christians would often secure the conversion of others; whereas the lack of it is a sad inconsistency. Inquirers cannot be convinced that Christians really believe that divine things are of primary importance while they continue to give paramount attention to earthly things.
If Christians would teach plainly, and live consistently, conversions would undoubtedly be much more numerous. But inquirers should search the Scriptures for themselves, and not be debarred form the enjoyment of salvation by the failures of others. For -
THE FINAL DECISION RESTS WITH THE SINNER.
God has supplied all the necessary means, and the Scriptures make know how man should act. Whether therefore Christians do their duty or not - despite, indeed, all the follies, inconsistencies, and sins of saints - inquirers may learn how to act, and decide to act as the Scriptures direct. But here again there are difficulties to surmount which demand deliberation and resolution.
1. Early religious training is often a hindrance. Impressions made upon us in early life, and by those whom we most esteem and love, cannot be thrown off as an old garment. Accurate impressions thus early acquired are invaluable. But if the impressions that have been learned are in any way aside from the truth, the mischief is incalculable, and the difficulty to become free is great. Both the mischief and the difficulty are greatly enhanced when one erroneously imagines himself to be in possession of the truth. The resultant lesson is that we should always be open to search, examine, compare and if need be, change.
2. Failing to recognise the supreme authority of Scripture deters many. In these days of civil, political, and religious freedom, there is a temptation to carry freedom beyond legitimate bounds. We are happily free, not only in having a say in the making of the laws of our country, but also in adopting any form of religion we please. We can expound the Scriptures, and, so far as the laws of the land are concerned, build any phase of religion thereon without restraint. But where God speaks we should listen, learn, and obey. We are going beyond our province, and are trenching on the prerogative of God, whenever we set aside, or in any way modify, the edicts of Scripture. The Word of God is of supreme authority. What it says should be an end of all dispute. Many fail to turn wholly to the Lord's way, simply because they presume to take the same liberty with God's Word that they would take in the affairs of our realm. Nay, they go farther; they set aside the laws of the heavenly kingdom without the sanction of the King. They would not dare to do so with the laws of the country. In this matter the teachable, obedient spirit of Cornelius requires fostering; i.e., we should pledge ourselves to all things commanded by God.
3. Restraint is irksome. Many practically say, even of the best of kings, "we will not have this man to reign over us." They are not prepared to render unreserved submission, and to give unqualified obedience. All such require to learn that they cannot be both servant and king. Christ is King; we should be servants, and do as we are told.
Honest searching of the Word of God, combined with such a recognition of its authority as leads to willing obedience, must invariably result in conversion. These simple means to secure such a happy result are cordially commended to the reader.
SUMMARY FOR INQUIRERS.
All that leads to conversion and constitutes it may be placed in a two-fold view.
1. What is revealed about Christ. His character, life, and work constitute the basis of conversion and the motive power to produce it. His character brings into view the character of the Father, and His work includes the sending of the Holy Spirit.
2. What is man's part in conversion.
a) He should hear. Hearing is implied in every conversion recorded. God speaks; man is called upon to listen. God has given a revelation, and man's business is to study it carefully.
b) Knowledge results from attentive hearing. It is needful to know what the Scriptures teach before we can act on them. The character of God, and his attitude toward man, are learned from revelation. So also is man's duty.
c) Faith also springs from a careful study of the Scriptures. The more we learn of God, especially as revealed in Christ, the more is the divine One seen to be altogether lovely. We trust Him, and love Him, because we discover Him to be trustworthy and lovable.
d) Repentance grows out of faith in Christ. Repentance is not often named in the accounts of conversion which we have been studying, but it is implied in every one. Man resolves to act as the Lord desires, being assured that it is the wisest and safest thing to do.
e) Confession also flows from faith. Nor is there only confession of sin, but rather confession of the Lord Jesus Christ. This is not formally named in the conversions of Acts, but is distinctly announced in Rom. 10:9-10. A new relationship is being entered upon, and an avowal of the saviour King is made.
f) Calling upon the saving name also ensues. Faith in the Lord Jesus naturally leads to an invoking of His name.
g) Immersion likewise accompanies faith. The baptism of believers is more frequently mentioned than any other condition of salvation. The reader should look back over the conversions that have been examined and note the prominence given to this divine ordinance. Under apostolic teaching all believers were immersed.
All immersed believers are converts.
Reader, have you turned to the Lord as the Word of God directs? The Lord's Word leads to the Lord. Deviation therefrom can never be well-pleasing to Him. Increasingly search that Word. Trustfully and lovingly practise it.
ALEXANDER BROWN INDEX