Thoughts on Religious Experience

Archibald Alexander, 1844

Piety in children—Comparatively few renewed in childhood—Soul awakened in different ways—Legal conviction not a necessary part of true religion—Progress of conviction

Many believe that infants are naturally free from moral pollution and, therefore, need no regeneration. But this opinion is diametrically opposite to the doctrine of Scripture, and inconsistent with the acknowledged fact that, as soon as they are capable of moral action, all do go astray and sin against God. If children were not depraved, they would be naturally inclined to love God and delight in His holy law; but the reverse is true.

There is no ground for those who are still impenitent to comfort themselves with the notion that they were regenerated in early childhood—for piety in a child will be as manifest as in an adult; and in some respects, more so, because there are so few young children who are pious, and because they have more simplicity of character and are much less liable to play the hypocrite than people of mature age. Mere decency of external behavior, with a freedom from gross sins, is no evidence of regeneration; for these things may be found in many whose spirit is proud and self-righteous, and entirely opposite to the religion of Christ. And we know that outward regularity and sobriety may be produced by the restraints of a religious education and good example, where there are found none of the internal characteristics of genuine piety.

Suppose then, that in a certain case grace has been communicated at so early a period that its first exercises cannot be remembered, what will be the evidences which we should expect to find of its existence? Surely, we ought not to look for wisdom, judgment, and the stability of adult years, even in a pious child. We should expect, if I may say so, a childish piety—a simple, devout, and tender state of heart. As soon as such a child should obtain the first ideas of God as its Creator, Preserver, and Benefactor, and of Christ as its Savior, who shed His blood and laid down His life for us on the cross—it would be piously affected with these truths, and would give manifest proof that it possessed a susceptibility of emotions and affections of heart corresponding with the conceptions of truth which it was capable of taking in. Such a child would be liable to sin, as all Christians are—but when made sensible of faults, it would manifest tenderness of conscience and genuine sorrow, and would be fearful of sinning afterwards. When taught that prayer was both a duty and a privilege, it would take pleasure in drawing near to God, and would be conscientious in the discharge of secret duties. A truly pious child would be an affectionate and obedient child to its parents and teachers; kind to brothers and sisters, and indeed to all other people; and would take a lively interest in hearing of the conversion of sinners, and the advancement of Christ's kingdom in the world.

We ought not to expect from a regenerated child uniform attention to serious subjects, or a freedom from that gaiety and volatility which are characteristic of that tender age; but we should expect to find the natural propensity moderated, and the temper softened and seasoned, by the commingling of pious thoughts and affections with those which naturally flow from the infant mind. When such children are called, in Providence, to leave the world, then commonly their piety breaks out into a flame, and these young saints, under the influence of divine grace, are enabled so to speak of their love to Christ and confidence in Him, as astonishes, while it puts to shame aged Christians. Many examples of this kind we have on record, where the evidence of genuine piety was as strong as it well could be. There is a peculiar sweetness, as well as tenderness, in these early buddings of grace. In short, the exercises of grace are the same in a child as in an adult, only modified by the peculiarities in the character and knowledge of a child. Indeed, many adults in years who are made the subjects of grace are children in knowledge and understanding, and require the same indulgence, in our judgments of them, as children in years.

To those who cannot fix any commencement of their pious exercises—but who possess every other evidence of a change of heart, I would say: Be not discouraged on this account—but rather be thankful that you have been so early placed under the tender care of the great Shepherd, and have thus been restrained from committing many sins to which your nature, as well as that of others, was inclined. The habitual evidences of piety are the same, at whatever period the work commenced. If you possess these, you are safe. And early piety is probably more steady and consistent when matured by age, than that of later origin, though the change, of course, cannot be so evident to yourselves or others.

The education of children should proceed on the principle that they are in an unregenerate state, until evidences of piety clearly appear, in which case they should be sedulously cherished and nurtured. These are Christ's lambs—"little ones, who believe in Him" (Matt 18:6; Mark 9:42)—whom none should offend or mislead upon the peril of a terrible punishment. But though the religious education of children should proceed on the ground that they are destitute of grace, it ought ever to be used as a means of grace. Every lesson, therefore, should be accompanied with the lifting up of the heart of the instructor to God for a blessing on the means. "Sanctify them through your truth; your word is truth." (John 17:17)

Although the grace of God may be communicated to a human soul at any period of its existence in this world, yet the fact manifestly is, that very few are renewed in early childhood. Most people with whom we have been acquainted grew up without giving any decisive evidence of a change of heart. Though religiously educated, yet they have evinced a lack of love to God, and an aversion to spiritual things. Men are very reluctant, it is true, to admit that their hearts are wicked and at enmity with God. They declare that they are conscious of no such feeling—but still the evidence of a dislike to the spiritual worship of God they cannot altogether disguise; and this is nothing else but enmity to God. They might easily be convicted of loving the world more than God, the creature more than the Creator; and we know that he who will be the friend of the world is the enemy of God.

Let the most moral and amiable of mankind, who are in this natural state, be asked such questions as these: Do you take real pleasure in perusing the sacred Scriptures, especially those parts which are most spiritual? Do you take delight in secret prayer, and find your heart drawn out to God in strong desires? Do you spend much time in contemplating the divine attributes? Are you in the habit of communing with your own hearts, and examining the true temper of your souls? No unregenerate people can truly answer these, and suchlike questions, in the affirmative.

It is evident, then, that most people whom we see around us and with whom we daily converse, are in the gall of bitterness and bond of iniquity, and, continuing in that state, where Christ is they never can come. And yet, alas! they are at ease in Zion, and seem to have no fear of that wrath which is coming. Their case is not only dangerous—but discouraging. Yet those who are now in a state of grace, yes those of our race who are now in heaven, were once in the same condition. You, my reader, may now be a member of Christ's body and heir of His glory; but you can easily look back and remember the time when you were as unconcerned about your salvation as any of the mirthful, who are now fluttering around you. The same power which arrested you is able to stop their mad career. Still hope and pray for their conversion.

But tell me, how were you brought to turn from your wayward, downward course? This, as it relates to the external means of awakening, would receive a great variety of answers. One would say, "While hearing a particular sermon, I was awakened to see my lost estate, and I never found rest or peace until I was enabled to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ." Another would answer, "I was brought to consideration, by the solemn and pointed conversation of a pious friend who sought my salvation." While a third would answer, "I was led to serious consideration, by having the hand of God laid heavily upon me in some affliction." In regard to many, the answer would be, that their minds were gradually led to serious consideration, they scarcely know how.

Now in regard to these external means or circumstances, it matters not whether the attention was arrested and the conscience awakened, by this or that means, gradually or suddenly. Neither do these things at all assist in determining the nature of the effect produced. All who ever became pious must have begun with serious consideration, whatever means were employed to produce this state of mind. But all who, for a season, become serious, are not certainly converted. There may be solemn impressions and deep awakenings which never terminate in a saving change—but end in some delusion, or the person returns again to his old condition, or rather to one much worse; for it may be laid down as a maxim, that religious impressions opposed, leave the soul in a more hardened state than before; just as iron, heated and then cooled, becomes harder. In general, those impressions which come gradually, without any unusual means, are more permanent than those which are produced by circumstances of a striking and alarming nature. But even here there is no general rule. The nature of the permanent effects is the only sure criterion. "By their fruits you shall know them." (Matt 7:20)

That conviction of sin is a necessary part of experimental religion, all will admit; but there is one question respecting this matter, concerning which there may be much doubt; and that is, whether a law-work, prior to regeneration, is necessary; or, whether all true and beneficial conviction is not the effect of regeneration. I find that a hundred years ago this was a matter in dispute between the two parties into which the Presbyterian church was divided, called the old and new side. The Tennents and Blairs insisted much on the necessity of conviction of sin by the law, prior to regeneration; while Thompson and his associates were of opinion that no such work was necessary, nor should be insisted on. As far as I know, the opinion of the necessity of legal conviction has generally prevailed in all our modern revivals: and it is usually taken for granted, that the convictions experienced are prior to regeneration. But it would be very difficult to prove from Scripture, or from the nature of the case, that such a preparatory work was necessary.

Suppose an individual to be, in some certain moment, regenerated; such a soul would begin to see with new eyes, and his own sins would be among the things first viewed in a new light. He would be convinced, not only of the fact that they were transgressions of the law—but he would also see that they were intrinsically evil, and that he deserved the punishment to which they exposed him. It is only such a conviction as this that really prepares a soul to accept of Christ in all His offices; not only as a Savior from wrath—but from sin. And it can scarcely be believed, that that clear view of the justice of God in their condemnation, which most people sensibly experience, is the fruit of a mere legal conviction on an unregenerate heart. For this view of God's justice is not merely of the fact that this is His character—but of the divine excellency of His attributes, which is accompanied with admiration of it, and a feeling of acquiescence or submission. This view is sometimes so clear, and the equity and propriety of punishing sin are so manifest, and the feeling of acquiescence so strong, that it has laid the foundation for the very absurd opinion, that the true penitent is made willing to be damned for the glory of God. When such a conviction as this is experienced, the soul is commonly near to comfort, although at the moment it is common to entertain the opinion, that there is no salvation for it. It is wonderful, and almost unaccountable, how calm the soul is in the prospect of being forever lost.

An old lady of the Baptist denomination was the first person I ever heard give an account of Christian experience, and I recollect that she said that she was so deeply convinced that she should be lost, that she began to think how she should feel and be exercised in hell; and it occurred to her, that all in that horrid place were employed in blaspheming the name of God. The thought of doing so was rejected with abhorrence, and she felt as if she must and would love Him, even there, for His goodness to her; for she saw that she alone was to blame for her destruction, and that He could, in consistency with His character, do nothing else but inflict this punishment on her. Now surely her heart was already changed, although not a ray of comfort had dawned upon her mind.

But is there not before this, generally, a rebellious rising against God, and a disposition to find fault with His dealings? It may be so in many cases—but this feeling is far from being as universal as some suppose. As far as the testimony of pious people can be depended on, there are many whose first convictions are of the evil of sin, rather than of its danger, and who feel real compunction of spirit for having committed it, accompanied with a lively sense of their ingratitude. This question, however, is not of any great practical importance; but there are some truly pious people who are distressed and perplexed, because they never experienced that kind of conviction which they hear others speak of, and the necessity of which is insisted on by some preachers. Certainly that which the reprobate may experience—which is not different from what all the guilty will feel at the day of judgment—cannot be a necessary part of true religion; and yet it does appear to be a common thing for awakened people to be at first under a mere legal conviction.

Though man, in his natural state, is spiritually dead, that is, entirely destitute of any spark of true holiness, yet is he still a reasonable being, and has a conscience by which he is capable of discerning the difference between good and evil, and of feeling the force of moral obligation. By having his sins brought clearly before his mind, and his conscience awakened from its stupor, he can be made to feel what his true condition is as a transgressor of the holy law of God. This sight and sense of sin, under the influence of the common operations of the Spirit of God, is what is usually styled conviction of sin. And there can be no doubt that these views and feelings may be very clear and strong in an unrenewed mind. Indeed, they do not differ in kind from what every sinner will experience at the day of judgment, when his own conscience will condemn him, and he will stand guilty before his Judge. But there is nothing in this kind of conviction which has any tendency to change the heart, or to make it better.

Some indeed have maintained, with some show of reason, that under mere legal conviction the sinner grows worse and worse; and certainly he sees his sins to be greater in proportion as the light of truth increases. There is not, therefore, in such convictions, however clear and strong, any approximation to regeneration. It cannot be called a preparatory work to this change, in the sense of disposing the person to receive the grace of God. The only end which it can answer is to show the rational creature his true condition, and to convince the sinner of his absolute need of a Savior. Under conviction there is frequently a more sensible rising of the enmity of the heart against God and His law; but feelings of this kind do not belong to the essence of conviction. There is also sometimes an awful apprehension of danger; the imagination is filled with strong images of terror, and hell seems almost uncovered to the view of the convinced sinner. But there may be much of this feeling of terror, where there is very little real conviction of sin; and on the other hand, there often is deep and permanent conviction, where the passions and imagination are very little excited.

When the entrance of light is gradual, the first effect of an awakened conscience is, to attempt to rectify what now appears to have been wrong in the conduct. It is very common for the conscience, at first, to be affected with outward acts of transgression, and especially with some one prominent offence. An external reformation is now begun: for this can be effected by mere legal conviction. To this is added an attention to the external duties of religion, such as prayer, reading the Bible, hearing the Word, etc. Everything, however, is done with a legal spirit; that is, with the wish and expectation of making amends for past offences; and if painful penances should be prescribed to the sinner, he will readily submit to them if he may, by this means, make some atonement for his sins. But as the light increases, he begins to see that his heart is wicked, and to be convinced that his very prayers are polluted for lack of right motives and affections. He, of course, tries to regulate his thoughts and to exercise right affections; but here his efforts prove fruitless. It is much easier to reform the life, than to bring the corrupt heart into a right state.

The case now begins to appear desperate. The sinner knows not which way to turn for relief and, to cap the climax of his distress, he comes at length to be conscious of nothing but unyielding hardness of heart. He fears that the conviction which he seemed to have is gone, and that he is left to total obduracy. In these circumstances he desires to feel keen compunction and overwhelming terror, for his impression is that he is entirely without conviction. The truth is, however, that his convictions are far greater than if he experienced that sensible distress which he so much courts. In this case, he would not think his heart so incurably bad, because it could entertain some right feeling—but as it is, he sees it to be destitute of every good emotion and of all tender relentings. He has got down to the core of iniquity, and finds within his bosom a heart unsusceptible of any good thing. Does he hear that others have obtained relief by hearing such a preacher, reading such a book, conversing with some experienced Christian? He resorts to the same means—but entirely without effect. The heart seems to become more insensible, in proportion to the excellence of the means enjoyed. Though he declares he has no sensibility of any kind, yet his anxiety increases; and perhaps he determines to give himself up solely to prayer and reading the Bible; and if he perishes, to perish seeking for mercy.

But however strong such resolutions may be, they are found to be in vain; for now, when he attempts to pray, he finds his mouth as it were shut. He cannot pray. He cannot read. He cannot meditate. What can he do? Nothing. He has come to the end of his legal efforts; and the result has been the simple—deep conviction that he can do nothing; and if God does not mercifully interpose, he must inevitably perish. During all this process he has some idea of his need of divine help—but until now he was not entirely cut off from all dependence on his own strength and exertions. He still hoped that, by some kind of effort or feeling he could prepare himself for the mercy of God. Now he despairs of this, and not only so—but for a season he despairs, it may be, of salvation—gives himself up for lost. I do not say that this is a necessary feeling, by any means—but I know that it is very natural, and by no means uncommon, in real experience.

But conviction having accomplished all that it is capable of effecting, that is, having emptied the creature of self-dependence and self-righteousness, and brought him to the utmost extremity—even to the borders of despair, it is time for God to work. The proverb says, "Man's extremity is God's opportunity." So it is in this case; and at this time, it may reasonably be supposed, the work of regeneration is wrought, for a new state of feeling is now experienced. Upon calm reflection, God appears to have been just and good in all His dispensations; the blame of its perdition the soul fully takes upon itself, acknowledges its ill-desert, and acquits God. "Against you, you only, have I sinned and done this evil in your sight, that you might be justified when you speak, and be clear when you judge." (Psalm 51:4) The sinner resigns himself into the hands of God, and yet is convinced that if he does perish, he will suffer only what his sins deserve. He does not fully discover the glorious plan according to which God can be just and the Justifier of the ungodly who believe in Jesus Christ.

The above is not given as a course of experience which all real Christians can recognize as their own—but as a train of exercises which is very common. And as I do not consider legal conviction as necessary to precede regeneration—but suppose there are cases in which the first serious impressions may be the effect of regeneration, I cannot, of course, consider any particular train of exercises under the law as essential. It has been admitted, however, that legal conviction does in fact take place in most instances, prior to regeneration; and it is not an unreasonable inquiry—'why is the sinner thus awakened?' What good purpose does it answer? The reply has been already partially given; but it may be remarked, that God deals with man as an accountable, moral agent, and before he rescues him from the ruin into which he is sunk, he would let him see and feel, in some measure, how wretched his condition is; how helpless he is in himself, and how ineffectual are his most strenuous efforts to deliver himself from his sin and misery. He is therefore permitted to try his own wisdom and strength. And finally, God designs to lead him to the full acknowledgment of his own guilt, and to justify the righteous Judge who condemns him to everlasting torment.

Conviction, then, is no part of a sinner's salvation—but the clear practical knowledge of the fact that he cannot save himself, and is entirely dependent on the saving grace of God.