It has often been thought, in evangelical circles, that Christian conversion is normally preceded by intense conviction of sin and awareness of one’s perilous state outside of Christ. This has been documented Joel R. Beeke and Paul M. Smalley in their recent book, Prepared by Grace, for Grace: The Puritans on God’s Ordinary Way of Leading Sinners to Christ, and is discussed here by Donald Macleod.
The template is summarised by Jonathan Edwards: ‘God makes men sensible of their misery before he reveals his mercy and love.’ It is true that thinkers such as Edwards taught that there was a great variety in the degree of conviction that people experienced. Nevertheless, the idea that conviction ordinarily precedes conversion became widespread. It was, it has been claimed, the dominant view of Luther and Calvin, of English Puritans such as Richard Sibbes, William Perkins, John Preston and William Ames, and of New England Puritans such as Thomas Hooker, Thomas Shepherd and John Cotton. More recently, adherents can be found in the form of J Gresham Machen and D.M. Lloyd-Jones.
Scriptural evidence, however, is rather thin. The accounts of John the Baptist, Peter, Andrew, James, John, Philip, Nathanael, Matthew and Zacchaeus do not so much as hint at a preparatory law-work. The conversion of Lydia would seem to have been rather smooth. Even the Philippian jailer, for all his anxiety, was not confronted with the demands of the law but with a presentation of the gospel.
Galatians 3:24 can scarcely be recruited in support of a preparatory law-work. The AV rendering of that version (‘the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ’) is misleading: Paul’s meaning is that the law was in charge ‘until Christ came’ (ESV).
It is true that, according to Romans 3:23 is is ‘through the law that we become conscious of sin’, but it is perilous to infer from this that a certain strength of conviction is necessary for saving faith. Judas, after all, felt such distress over his sin that he hanged himself. In times of revival, some of those who experience the most intense conviction never actually come to Christ. They prove to be stony-ground hearers.
We should never attempt to divorce saving faith from repentance. To do so would be to embrace ‘cheap grace’ (Bonheoffer). But we should be careful not to impose too prescriptive a set of expectations on the experience of conversion. Children of believing parents quite often come to faith at an early age and without great pangs of conscience. The French evangelist Cesar Malan said that God awoke him as a mother awakens a child, with a kiss. Bishop Handley Moule reported that he experienced the most intense convictions of sin long after his conversion. What counts, after all, is the fact that one has come to Christ, not the emotions that have preceded or accompanied that journey.
One danger of a slavish adherence to the ‘conviction always precedes conversion’ template is that it encourages delay. The evangelist’s is not to prepare people for grace, but rather to press for an urgent response.
The saving work of Christ in the soul will leave its psychological footprint. But this work ‘is always mysterious, and it may be far more difficult to trace the Redeemer’s footprints in our spiritual lives than to trace the Maker’s footprints in creation’ (Macleod).
When, with Luther, we see the saving work of Christ primarily in terms of relief from guilt and a troubled conscience, then we are magnifying his priestly office. But Christ is not only priest: he is also prophet and king. And although faith must eventually embrace all three offices, it may begin at any one of them. It may indeed begin with his priestly office. But it may equally begin with Christ as the answer to the quest for truth (his prophet office), or with an assurance that Christ has the whole world in his hands (his kingly office).
What counts, in the end, is not that we have had the same experience, but that we have Christ. And whoever has the Son has life.