RPM, Volume 19, Number 12, March 19 to March 25, 2017

Thoughts on Religious Experience

The new birth an event of great importance—The evidences of the new birth—Diversities of experience in converts—Examples—Causes of diversity

By Archibald Alexander


There is no more important event which occurs in our world than the new birth of an immortal soul. Heirs to titles and estates, to kingdoms and empires, are frequently born—and such events are blazoned with imposing pomp, and celebrated by poets and orators. But what are all these honors and possessions but the gewgaws of children—when compared with the inheritance and glory to which every child of God is born an heir! But this being a birth from above, and all the blessings and privileges of the young heir, of a hidden and spiritual nature, the world around cannot be expected to take a lively interest in the event. It is with the children of God as with the divine Savior; "the world knows them not, as it knew him not". (1 John 3:1) The night on which He was born, there was a great crowd of the descendants of David, collected from every part of the Holy Land, where they were scattered abroad; but none of all these knew that a Savior was born that night. Yet the angels celebrated the event in a truly celestial hymn, and announced the glad tidings to a company of simple shepherds, who were watching their flocks in the open field. So these celestial inhabitants, the messengers of God, take a lively interest still in events in which a mirthful and ungodly world feel no concern. For "there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner that repents". (Luke 15:10)

How they know certainly when a soul is born to God, we need not inquire; for they have faculties and sources of knowledge unknown to us. We know that "they are all ministering spirits, sent forth to minister for those who shall be heirs of salvation" (Heb 1:14) but how they carry on their ministry we cannot tell. If the evil spirit can inject evil thoughts into our minds, why may not good spirits suggest pious thoughts, or occasionally make sudden impressions for our warning, or change, by some means, the train of our thoughts? No doubt the devil soon learns the fact, when a sinner is converted unto God; for he has then lost a subject, and perhaps no conversion ever takes place which he does not use every effort to prevent.

But, to return to our subject, the implantation of spiritual life in a soul which is dead in sin, is an event the consequences of which will never end. When you plant an acorn, and it grows, you do not expect to see the maturity, much less the end of the majestic oak, which will expand its boughs and strike deeply into the earth its roots. The fierce blasts of centuries of winters may beat upon it and agitate it—but it resists them all. Yet finally this majestic oak, and all its towering branches, must fall. Trees die of old age, as well as men. But the plants of grace shall ever live. They shall flourish in everlasting verdure. They will bear transplanting to another climate—to another world. They shall bloom and bear fruit in the paradise of God. At such an hour one is born in Zion unto God. Few know it. Few care for the event, or consider it of much importance. But, reader, this feeble germ, this incipient bud, will go on to grow and flourish for infinitely more years than there are sands upon the seashore.

To drop the figure—this renewed soul will be seen and known among the saints in heaven, and assisting in the never-ceasing songs of those who surround the throne of God and the Lamb, millions of ages hereafter. Pure and holy shall it be—"without spot or wrinkle or any such thing". (Eph 5:27) Bright as an angel, and as free from moral taint—but still distinguished from those happy beings, to whom it is equal, by singing a song in which they can never join; in wearing robes made white in the blood of the Lamb; and claiming a nearer kindred to the Son of God than Gabriel himself. Can that event be of small import, which lays a foundation for immortal bliss?—for eternal life?

Let us, then, patiently and impartially inquire into some of the circumstances and evidences of the new birth. And here I cannot but remark, that among all the preposterous notions which a new and crude theology has poured forth so profusely in our day, there is none more absurd, than that a dead sinner can beget new life in himself. The very idea of a man's becoming his own father in the spiritual regeneration is as unreasonable as such a supposition in relation to our first birth. Away with all such soul-destroying, God-dishonoring sentiments! "Who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man—but of God" (John 1:13)—"Born of the Spirit" (John 3:8)—"And you has He quickened who were dead in trespasses and sins". (Eph 2:1)

But who can trace the work of the Spirit in this wonderful renovation? Can we tell how our bones and sinews were formed in our mothers' wombs? Surely, then, there must be mystery in the second birth! As our Lord said to Nicodemus when discoursing on this very subject: "If I have told you earthly things, and you believe not, how shall you believe if I tell you of heavenly things?" (John 3:12) "The wind blows where it wills, and you hear the sound thereof—but cannot tell whence it comes, and where it goes." (John 3:8)

There are, doubtless, great diversities in the appearances of the motions and actings of spiritual life in its incipient stages. The agent is the same, the deadness of the subject the same, the instrument the same, and the nature of the effect the same—in every case. But still, there are many differing circumstances, which cause a great variety in appearance and expression; such as the degree of vigor in the principle of life communicated. I know, indeed, that there are some who entertain the opinion, that the new creature as it comes from the hand of God—if I may so speak—is in all respects identical or of equal value. But this is not the fact. There is as much difference in the original vigor of spiritual as of natural life. Now, who does not perceive what a remarkable difference this will make in all the actings and external exhibitions of this principle?

As in nature, some children as soon as born are active and vigorous and healthy, and let all around know quickly that they are alive and have strong feeling too; whereas others come into the world with so feeble a spark of life, that it can hardly be discerned whether they breathe or have any pulsation in their heart and arteries; and when it is ascertained that they live, the principle of vitality is so weak, and surrounded with so many untoward circumstances and symptoms, that there is a small prospect of the infant reaching maturity; just so it is in the new birth. Some are brought at once into the clear light of day. They come "out of darkness into the marvelous light" (1 Pet 2:9) of the gospel. "Old things are" consequently "passed away, and all things are become new". (2 Cor 5:17) The change is most obvious and remarkable. They are as if introduced into a new world. The Sun of righteousness has risen upon them without an intervening cloud. Their perception of divine things is so new and so clear, that they feel persuaded that they can convince others, and cause them to see and feel as they do. Indeed, they wonder why they did not always see things in this light, and they do not know why others do not see them as they do. Such people can no more doubt of their conversion than of their existence. Such a case was that of Saul of Tarsus. Such also was the case of Colonel James Gardiner.

Now this bright day may be clouded over, or it may not. In the case of the two people mentioned, there does not seem ever to have arisen a passing cloud to create a doubt whether indeed they had been brought to enjoy the light of a heavenly day. But many a day which begins with an unclouded sun is deformed by dark and lowering clouds, and even agitated with tremendous storms, before it closes. So it may be in the spiritual life. Some commence their pilgrimage under the most favorable auspices and seem to stand so firmly on the mount that they are ready to say, "I shall never be moved." (Psalm 30:6) Yet when their Lord hides His face they are soon troubled, and may long walk in darkness, and enjoy no light or comfort. And commonly this change is brought about by our own spiritual pride and carelessness.

The opinion commonly entertained, that the most enormous sinners are the subjects of the most pungent convictions of sin and the most alarming terrors of hell, is not correct. In regard to such, the commencement of a work of grace is sometimes very gradual, and the impressions apparently so slight, that they afford very little ground of optimistic expectations of the result. On the other hand, some people of an unblemished moral character, and who, from the influence of a religious education, have always respected religion and venerated its ordinances, when brought under conviction, are more terribly alarmed and more overwhelmed with distress than others whose lives have been stained by gross crimes. Pastor John Newton, 1725-1807, when awakened to some sense of his sinful and dangerous condition, which occurred during a violent and long-continued storm at sea, though his judgment was convinced that he was the greatest of sinners, and he doubted whether it was possible for him to be saved, yet seems to have had no very deep feelings or agitating fears. He says, "It was not until long after (perhaps several years), when I had gained some clear views of the infinite righteousness and grace of Christ Jesus my Lord, that I had a deep and strong apprehension of my state by nature and practice; and perhaps until then I could not have borne the sight. So wonderfully does the Lord proportion the discoveries of sin and grace. For He knows our frame, and that if He were to put forth the greatness of His power, a poor sinner would be instantly overwhelmed, and crushed as a moth."

And though from this time there was a sensible change, and his mind was turned towards true religion, yet it is evident from the history of his life, as well as his experiences afterwards, that grace existed during several years in the feeblest state of which we can well conceive. It appeared so much so to himself, that he warns all people from considering his experience a model for them. "As to myself," says he, "every part of my case has been extraordinary—I have hardly met a single instance resembling it. Few, very few have been rescued from such a dreadful state, and those few that have been thus favored have generally passed through the most severe convictions; and, after the Lord has given them peace, their future lives have been usually more zealous, bright, and exemplary than common."

Now this is the opinion which I think, is taken up rather from theory than an observation of facts. I think that those people who have been most conversant with exercised souls will say that there is no general rule here—that very pungent convictions and deep distress are found as frequently in those who have been preserved from outbreaking transgressions, as in those noted for their immoralities. There seems, indeed, more reason for severe convictions in the latter case—but convictions are not uniformly proportioned to the magnitude of crimes. And in truth, we are incapable of comparing together the heinousness of the sins of different people. The moral man, as we call him, may be the greater sinner of the two, when weighed in the balances of the sanctuary. I heard a popular preacher once undertake to prove that moral men and formal professors must, in all cases, be far more wicked than the blaspheming infidel and gross debauchee. The argument was plausible—but labored under one essential defect; and I was of opinion, and still am, that such a doctrine is highly dangerous, and calculated to encourage men to go to all lengths in wickedness.

When I was a very young preacher, I expressed the opinion, in a sermon preached in North Carolina, that the mere moralist and formalist were more out of the way of conviction than the openly profane. When the sermon was ended, a fierce-looking man came up to me and said that I had delivered precisely his opinion on one point, and mentioned the above sentiment. I inquired, when he was gone, who he was, and found that he was the most notorious profligate in all the country; and not long afterwards he was apprehended and imprisoned, at the head of a company engaged in felonious acts. This taught me a lesson which I never forgot.

Mr. Newton proceeds thus: "Now as, on the one hand, my convictions were very moderate, and far below what might have been expected from the dreadful review I had to make; so, on the other, my first beginnings in a pious course were as faint as can well be imagined. I never knew that season alluded to (Jer 2:2; Rev 2:4), usually called the time of 'first love'." And then he relates facts which give sad evidence of a very low state of grace; and if it had never risen higher, we would certainly have been inclined to believe that he was not a subject of saving grace. But this leads me to remark a fact analogous to what is common in the natural world; that the infant which, when born, barely gives evidence of life, may not only grow to maturity—but in size and strength may far exceed those who commenced life with more activity and vigor; and so in the spiritual life, when the incipient motions and affections are very feeble, the person may eventually become a mature and eminent Christian, as we have no doubt John Newton did.

Another instance of a similar kind, if my memory serves me, was Richard Cecil, who had also been for many years a profane infidel—but who, in process of time, became one of the most eminent Christians, as well as spiritual ministers of his day. Dr. Thomas Scott, also, was a Socinian, and yet a preacher in the established Church; but the progress of illumination and conviction in his mind was very gradual. His 'Force of Truth' is an admirable little work, and furnishes a full illustration of the sentiment which I wish to inculcate—that grace, in the commencement, is often exceedingly faint and feeble, and yet may grow into a state of maturity and comparative perfection.

In the experience of Jonathan Edwards, as recorded by himself, we find no account of any deep and distressing convictions of sin at the commencement of his religious course, though afterwards, perhaps few men ever attained to such humbling views of the depth and turpitude of the depravity of the heart. But his experience differs from that of those mentioned above, in that his first views of divine things were clear and attended with unspeakable delight. "The first instance that I remember of that sort of inward, sweet delight in God and divine things, that I have lived much in since, was on reading those words, 1 Tim 1:17, 'Now unto the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only wise God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.' As I read these words, there came into my soul, and was as it were diffused through it, a sense of the glory of the Divine Being; a new sense, quite different from anything I ever experienced before. Never had any words of Scripture seemed to me as these words did. I thought with myself, how excellent a Being that was, and how happy I would be, if I might enjoy that God, and be enrapt up to Him in heaven, and be as it were swallowed up in Him forever!" "From about that time I began to have a new kind of apprehension and ideas of Christ, and the work of redemption, and the glorious way of salvation by Him. An inward, sweet sense of these things, at times, came into my heart; and my soul was led away in pleasant views and contemplations of them. ... After this, my sense of divine things gradually increased, and became more and more lively, and had more of that inward sweetness. The appearance of everything was altered. There seemed to be, as it were, a calm, sweet cast or appearance of divine glory, in almost everything. God's excellency, His wisdom, His purity, and His love seemed to appear in everything."

The difference between this and many other cases of incipient piety is very striking. And yet these views and exercises do not come up to the standard which some set up in regard to Christian experience, because they are so abstract, and have such casual reference to Christ, through Whom alone God is revealed to man as an object of saving faith. And if there be a fault in the writings of this great and good man on the subject of experimental religion, it is, that they seem to represent renewed people as at the first occupied with the contemplation of the attributes of God with delight, without ever thinking of a Mediator. But few men ever attained, as we think, higher degrees of holiness, or made more accurate observations on the exercises of others. His Treatise concerning Religious Affections is too abstract and tedious for common readers; but it is an excellent work, although I think his fourteen signs of truly gracious Affections might with great advantage be reduced to half the number, on his own plan. The experimental exercises of religion are sure to take their complexion from the theory of doctrine entertained, or which is inculcated at the time.

The VARIETY which appears in the exercises of real converts does not depend alone on the different degrees of vigor in the principle of spiritual life—but on many other circumstances, some of which will now be noticed. The benefit of sound doctrinal instruction to the newborn soul has already been mentioned—but demands a more particular consideration. What degree of knowledge is absolutely necessary to the existence of piety cannot be accurately determined by man—but we know that genuine faith may consist with much ignorance and error. Suppose two people, then, to have received the principle of spiritual life in equal vigor—but let the one be ignorant and the other well instructed; it is easy to see what a difference this will make in the exercises of the two converts, and also in the account which they are able respectively to give to others of the work of grace on their hearts.

It is here taken for granted, that nothing but divine truth can be the object of holy affections, or furnish the motives from which true Christians are bound to act, and that faith in all its actings has respect to revealed truth. That which is unknown can be the object neither of faith nor love; and that which is known obscurely, and viewed indistinctly, can never operate with the same effect as that which is clearly understood. Accordingly, our missionaries inform us that we ought not to expect the same consistency of maturity in the religion of real converts from heathenism as from religiously educated people in our own country. It is a lamentable fact that in this land of churches and of Bibles there are many who know little more of the doctrines of Christianity than the pagans themselves.

The proper inference from the fact stated is, that they are flagrantly in error, who think that the religious education of children is useless or even injurious; and their opinion is also condemned who maintain that it matters little what men believe provided their lives are upright. All good conduct must proceed from good principles—but good principles cannot exist without a knowledge of the truth. "Truth is in order to holiness", and between truth and holiness there is an indissoluble connection. It would be as reasonable to expect a child born into an atmosphere corrupted with pestilential vapor, to grow and be healthy, as that spiritual life should flourish without the nutriment of the pure milk of the Word, and without breathing in the wholesome atmosphere of truth. The new man often remains in a dwarfish state, because he is fed upon husks; or he grows into a distorted shape by means of the errors which are inculcated upon him. It is of unspeakable importance that the young disciple have sound, instructive, and practical preaching to attend on. It is also of consequence that the religious people with whom he converses should be discreet, evangelical, and intelligent Christians; and that the books put into his hands should be of the right kind.

There is what may be called a 'sectarian peculiarity' in the experimental religion of all the members of a religious denomination. When it is required, in order that people be admitted to communion, that they publicly give a narrative of the exercises of their minds, there will commonly be observed a striking similarity. There is a certain mold into which all seem to be cast. By the way, this requisition is unwise; few people have humility and discretion enough to be trusted to declare in a public congregation what the dealings of God with their souls have been. When ignorant, weak, and fanciful people undertake this, they often bring out such crude and ludicrous things as greatly tend to bring experimental religion into discredit.

The practice seems also to he founded on a false principle, namely, that real Christians are able to tell with certainty whether others have religion, if they hear their experience. Enthusiasts have always laid claim to this 'discernment of the spirits', and this enthusiasm is widely spread through some large sects; and when they meet with any professing piety, they are always solicitous to hear an account of their conviction, conversion, etc.

Sincere dialogs of this kind among intimate friends are no doubt profitable; but a frequent and indiscriminate disclosure of these secret things of the heart is attended with many evils. Among the chief is the fostering of spiritual pride, which may often be detected when the person is boasting of his humility. In those social meetings in which every person is questioned as to the state of his soul, the very sameness of most of the answers ought to render the practice suspect. Poor, weak, and ignorant people often profess to be happy, and to be full of the love of God—when they know not what they say. It is amazing how little you hear of the spiritual conflict in the account which many professors give of their experience. The people know what kind of answers is expected of them, and they come as near as they can to what is wished; and it is to be feared that many cry "peace", when there is no peace, (Jer 6:14; Jer 8:11) and say that they are happy, merely because they hear this from the lips of others. Hypocrisy is a fearful evil, and everything which has a tendency to produce it should be avoided.

Among some classes of religious people, all 'doubting about the goodness and safety of our state' is scouted as inconsistent with faith. It is assumed as indubitably true, that every Christian must be assured of his being in a state of grace, and they have no charity for those who are distressed with almost perpetual doubts and fears. This they consider to be the essence of unbelief; for faith, according to them, is a full persuasion that our sins are forgiven. No painful process of self-examination is therefore requisite, for every believer has possession already of all that could be learned from such examination.

Among other groups, doubting, it is to be feared, is too much encouraged; and serious Christians are perplexed with needless scruples originating in the multiplication of the marks of conversion, which sometimes are difficult of application, and, in other cases, are not scriptural—but arbitrary, set up by the preacher who values himself upon his skill in detecting the close hypocrite; whereas he wounds the weak believer, in ten cases, where he awakens the hypocrite in one. I once heard one of these preachers, whose common mode was harsh and calculated to distress the feeble-minded, attempt to preach in a very different style. He seemed to remember that he should not "bruise the broken reed", nor "quench the smoking flax". (Isa 42:3; Matt 12:20) A person of a contrite spirit heard the discourse with unusual comfort—but at the close the preacher resumed his harsh tone, and said, "Now you hypocrites will be snatching at the children's bread" on hearing which, the broken-hearted hearer felt himself addressed, and instantly threw away all the comfort which he had received. And though there might be a hundred hypocrites present, yet not one of them cared anything about the admonition.

In some places, anxious inquirers are told that, if they will hold on praying and using the means, God is bound to save them; as though a dead, condemned sinner could so pray as to bring God under obligation to him, or could secure the blessings of the covenant of grace by his selfish, legal striving. These instructions accord very much with the self-righteous spirit which is naturally in us all; and one of two things may be expected to ensue: either that the anxious inquirer will conclude that he has worked out his salvation, and cry peace; or that he would sink into discouragement and charge God foolishly, because He does not hear his prayers, and grant him his desires.

There is another extreme—but not so common among us. It is, to tell the unconverted, however anxious, not to pray at all—that their prayers are an abomination to God, and can answer no good purpose, until they are able to pray in faith. The writer happened once to be cast into a congregation where this doctrine was inculcated, at the time of a considerable revival, when many sinners were cut to the heart and were inquiring, 'What must we do to be saved?' He conversed with some who appeared to be under deep and solemn convictions—but they were directed to use no means—but to believe, and they appeared to remain in a state of passivity, doing nothing—but confessing the justice of their condemnation, and appearing to feel that they were entirely at the disposal of Him who "has mercy on whom he will have mercy". (Exod 33:19; Rom 9:15,18) The theory, however, was not consistently carried out, for while these people were taught not to pray, they were exhorted to hear the gospel, and were frequently conversed with by their pastor.

But this extreme is not so dangerous as the former, which encourages sinners to think that they can do something to recommend themselves to God by their unbelieving prayers. The fruits of this revival, I have reason to believe, were very precious. Even among the same people and under the same minister—the exercises of the awakened in a revival are very different. In some seasons of this sort, the work appears to be far deeper and more solemn than in others.

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