Early on in my Christian walk (Christ saved me in 2005), I was quite disturbed by what we might call “puritan conversions,” by which I mean conversions which were long drawn-out processes of conviction of sin and growing awareness of one’s utter inability to be saved or believe by their own efforts. I think that these stories were hard for me to swallow for two reasons: 1. my theology was then very man-centered; it seemed cruel that God would seem to hold at arms length anyone who truly sought salvation, and 2. having grown up in the American Christianity of altar calls and “crusades,” I didn’t understand what the men in these stories didn’t get. Why were they so held by guilt and condemnation? Didn’t the fact that they were even having such an experience prove rather that they had truly been born again? Perhaps they just didn’t understand grace, or so I thought at that time.
Having come to see and love the doctrines of grace about 4 years after my conversion, I now love to read conversion stories like these. I have selected three men’s conversion stories which were most definitely “Puritan conversions,” even though only one of them could be called a Puritan proper. Read them and after I will comment on what I think we can learn from them and apply in the local church.
Jesse Mercer: Calvinistic Baptist in Early 1800s Georgia who rallied many to the call of missions. For an excellent biography on Mercer, see Dr. Anthony Chute’s work A Piety above the Common Standard: Jesse Mercer and the Defense of Evangelistic Calvinism.
“I now felt a deeper and more abiding concern, but what to do I knew not, for it was now suggested that there was no hope for me, but that the time once was when I first sought the Lord, when my conscience was tender, when I was young and had committed but little sin, that the Saviour would have taken me in the arms of love and blessed me; but, inasmuch as I had cast off those early impressions, and desired that God would connive at my love of sin, and still take me to heaven when I died, and thus rejected the Lord in my childhood, the promise “suffer the little children come unto me and forbid them not, for of such is the kingdom of heaven,” was to me lost, forever lost. I now thought I was given over to unbelief and hardness of heart, to spend the rest of my days in hopeless despair. Whatever my end might be, it was, however, my heart’s desire that I might sin no more.”
Later he wrote:
“I now thought I had a clear view of the plan of salvation through Jesus Christ, and saw plainly how sinners might be saved who would come to him aright, confessing their sins and believing in his name. Seeing it thus, I tried with all the faculties of my soul to believe, but could not; and so I concluded I had not come aright, and was rejected. I was glad, and in my greatest distress rejoiced that others could believe in Christ, and by believing, flee the wrath to come. My heart’s desire was to be holy, and I loved God because he was holy. I trembled at the thoughts of the great God who made me, and whom I adored. My secret desire then was that others might be saved, for I wanted none to accompany me in my banishment from Heaven to the regions of misery and despair to which I believed I was doomed. I had been some three years earnestly seeking the forgiveness of my sins, and had seen the time when I could weep over them, but now my heart was hardened, and my tears all dried up, save only to weep because I could not weep. While on the verge of despair, I was walking alone on a narrow, solitary path in the woods, poring over my helpless case, and saying to myself wo is me! Wo, wo is me! For I am undone forever! I would I were a beast in the field! – At length I found myself standing with my eyes steadfastly fixed on a small oak that grew by the pathside, and earnestly wishing that I could be like the little oak when it died and crumbled to dust. At that moment light broke into my soul, and I believed in Christ for myself and not another, and went on my way rejoicing.”
Humphrey Mills, who was brought to grace through the preaching of Richard Sibbes
“I was for three years together wounded for sins, and under a sense of my corruptions, which were many; and I followed sermons, pursuing the means, and was constant in duties and doing; looking for Heaven that way. And then I was so precise for outward formalities, that I censured all to be reprobates, that wore their hair anything long, and not short above their ears; or that wore great ruffs, and gorgets, or fashions, and follies. But yet I was distracted in my mind, wounded in conscience, and wept often and bitterly, and prayed earnestly, but yet had no comfort, till I heard that sweet saint . . . Doctor Sibbs, by whose means and ministry I was brought to peace and joy in my spirit. His sweet soul-melting Gospel-sermons won my heart and refreshed me much, for by him I saw and had much of God and was confident in Christ, and could overlook the world . . . . my heart held firm and resolved and my desires all heaven-ward.”
“I was years and years upon the brink of hell—I mean in my own feeling. I was unhappy, I was desponding, I was despairing. I dreamed of hell. My life was full of sorrow and wretchedness, believing that I was lost.”
“I sometimes think I might have been in darkness and despair until now, had it not been for the goodness of God in sending a snowstorm one Sunday morning, while I was going to a certain place of worship. I turned down a side street, and came to a little Primitive Methodist Church. In that chapel there may have been a dozen or fifteen people. I had heard of the Primitive Methodists, how they sang so loudly that they made people’s heads ache; but that did not matter to me. I wanted to know how I might be saved….The minister did not come that morning; he was snowed up, I suppose. At last a very thin-looking man, a shoemaker, or tailor, or something of that sort, went up into the pulpit to preach. Now it is well that preachers be instructed, but this man was really stupid. He was obliged to stick to his text, for the simple reason that he had little else to say. The text was—”LOOK UNTO ME, AND BE YE SAVED, ALL THE ENDS OF THE EARTH” (Isa. 45:22) He did not even pronounce the words rightly, but that did not matter. There was, I thought, a glimmer of hope for me in that text. The preacher began thus: “This is a very simple text indeed. It says ‘Look.’ Now lookin’ don’t take a deal of pain. It aint liftin’ your foot or your finger; it is just ‘Look.’Well, a man needn’t go to College to learn to look. You may be the biggest fool, and yet you can look. A man needn’t be worth a thousand a year to look. Anyone can look; even a child can look. “But then the text says, ‘Look unto Me.’ Ay!” he said in broad Essex, “many on ye are lookin’ to yourselves, but it’s no use lookin’ there. You’ll never find any comfort in yourselves. Some say look to God the Father. No, look to Him by-and-by. Jesus Christ says, ‘Look unto Me.’ Some on ye say ‘We must wait for the Spirit’s workin.’ You have no business with that just now. Look to Christ. The text says, ‘Look unto Me.’ “Then the good man followed up his text in this way: “Look unto Me; I am sweatin’ great drops of blood. Look unto Me; I am hangin’ on the cross. Look unto Me, I am dead and buried. Look unto Me; I rise again. Look unto Me; I ascend to Heaven. Look unto Me; I am sitting at the Father’s right hand. O poor sinner, look unto Me! look unto Me!” When he had . . . . managed to spin out about ten minutes or so, he was at the end of his tether. Then he looked at me under the gallery, and I daresay with so few present, he knew me to be a stranger. Just fixing his eyes on me, as if he knew all my heart, he said, “Young man, you look very miserable.” Well, I did, but I had not been accustomed to have remarks made from the pulpit on my personal appearance before. However, it was a good blow, struck right home. He continued, “And you will always be miserable—miserable in life and miserable in death—if you don’t obey my text; but if you obey now, this moment, you will be saved.” Then lifting up his hands, he shouted, as only a Primitive Methodist could do, “Young man, look to Jesus Christ. Look! Look! Look! You have nothing to do but look and live!” I saw at once the way of salvation. I know not what else he said—I did not take much notice of it—I was so possessed with that one thought . . . . I had been waiting to do fifty things, but when I heard that word, “Look!” what a charming word it seemed to me. Oh! I looked until I could almost have looked my eyes away. There and then the cloud was gone, the darkness had rolled away, and that moment I saw the sun; and I could have risen that instant, and sung with the most enthusiastic of them, of the precious blood of Christ, and the simple faith which looks alone to Him.”
So what can we learn from these stories:
First, because conversions can often take years, we must be very careful to not “confer” salvation prematurely on someone. I remember that at such an evangelistic event, when I had come forward to altar call to “pray the prayer,” that there was a gentleman (his motives were no doubt very good) told me and others around us that now that we had accepted Christ, Satan would try to get us to doubt our salvation, but that we must never doubt it. Yikes! With that sort of theology, a person who is still very much a child of the wrath will look with a fatal sense of security at the conviction of the Holy Spirit as those it were the condemnation of the Devil. We must be prepared to pray for and preach the gospel for years to people who come to church without rushing to cover up the awkwardness of the fact that the person is still not converted.
Second, we must be willing in our examination of prospective church members to tell those who do not show the fruit of a regenerate life that, judging by what they’ve told us, we have no reason to think that they are truly converted. And then we will explain the gospel again to them, plead with them to repent and believe, and tell them that we will pray and walk with them until God does (if it is his will) in fact bring about that new life. This must be done with great care; we ought to be generous lest we condemn some weak saints with poor theology. Still we must be willing to at least draw a hard line.