Conversion: The Gospel-way vs Law-way
Can you please discuss the differences between people who are converted through seeing God's love first and those who are converted through seeing their misery first?
Is this difference shown in how they are seen or in how they act or talk? Would it make a difference in their preaching, if they were ministers?
The Holy Spirit is free in His manner of bringing an elect sinner to embrace Christ and His teaching of salvation. Looking back over their spiritual journey, every saved soul will recognize that they have learned to know their sins, their worthiness to be condemned by God, their salvation through the merits of the Lord Jesus Christ and an inner desire after holiness. The classic trio of the knowledge of our misery, deliverance and gratitude as the Heidelberg Catechism teaches is a universal knowledge all God’s children will be able to relate to.
However, there are many distinct ways in which the Spirit draws men to Christ. It is clearly wrong to insist on one way being better than another as unconsciously is done when we focus too much on any type of conversion. We all should be aware that the story of a conversion is not important though interesting. Some spiritual journeys are hardly to be told in a story. Many fear the Lord from their youth and cannot relate a time when their hearts where changed or when their sins were as Bunyan’s pack! So when you ask them how the Lord brought them on the way, they will struggle to answer for they have always been on the way, at least as long as they can remember. But ask them about the exercises of their heart and they can share that they are feel spiritually so poor and needy; that they mourn over the sins in themselves and others; that they sense a meekness before the Lord while yet they hunger and thirst after being right with God; that have learned to see that this is only possible through the precious Mediator Jesus Christ; that they long and strive to live holy before God and men in showing mercy and love to their neighbours. That ‘story’ speaks far clearer than the story of their experiences in how they came to know these matters. In other words, the story of their day to day living is the real story of their conversion!
Yet, it is clear that the Holy Spirit has ‘ordinary ways’ in which He draws sinners to embrace the Lord Jesus. The most common way is by bringing someone through the alarm of the law to the feet of the Lord Jesus. But equally effective and in many ways far more preferable is when He conquers the heart by love and sweetly brings a soul to surrender himself to walk on the way Jesus Christ. Let’s call the first the ‘law-way’ and the second the ‘gospel-way.’ I will begin with the ‘gospel-way.’
Some of God’s people are brought into the Kingdom through the Gospel-way. With a few words of love the Holy Spirit disarms the hostile sinner to make him or her follow the Lord. As Levi was covetously sitting behind his money-table, stealing from the people who came before him, Jesus passed by. Mark wrote, “And as He (Jesus) passed by, He saw Levi the son of Alphaeus sitting at the receipt of custom.” Undoubtedly every other pair of eyes looked at this man with intense hatred as they came before him to pay the exorbitant amounts he demanded. But then Levi looked up to the next person and he looked into a pair of eyes that shone Divine love. Never did Levi see such eyes looking at him and instantly his heart is disarmed to leave his sinful ways and follow Jesus. There was no ‘law-work’ needed to make him leave his sinful ways. Another example would be Zaccheus (Luke 19:1-10). What drove him to climb the tree to see Jesus isn’t written. Was it a sense of sin or was it a burning curiosity to see this new Rabbi who was reaching out to the publicans and sinners no rabbi ever did? But we know when Jesus stopped by his hide-out and called him down, that the words of Christ took such hold of his heart that he instantly with joy accepted Christ’s offer of salvation. The evidence that this was a genuine conversion is clear in the story of his life after this day. He didn’t shrink to make confession of his sins before all those present. Jesus closed the events of this day with His sealing words, “This day is salvation come to this house, forasmuch as he also is a son of Abraham.” (Luke 19:1-10)
If the Holy Spirit has led you to embrace the precious Gospel of the Lord Jesus as Levi or Zaccheus, be not troubled or vexed with hearing of those who have been led through the narrow straits of the thunders of God’s law. Don’t think a moment that such a way is safer, more desirable or more needed to bring you to the feet of Christ. The reason the law-way is more common is because we are stubborn resisters of God’s call. We fight God with every ounce of our soul! Even though He comes gently and lovingly in His offers of grace to our ear-gate, we bolt the doors of our heart more and more against Him. Only for that reason does the Holy Spirit need to take out heavier artillery to force the surrender of a rebel.
Let it be clear though that those conquered with His love to leave the ways of sin and to cleave to this new Husband Jesus Christ, will all learn the same truths. They all learn to see His necessity as the only Name under heaven; all learn that their sins testify against them; all learn to come with nothing but Christ only at the feet of God; they all learn to see the fullness and excellency of Christ more and more and this makes them quit all sin and run after Him. None that the Holy Spirit saves will remain ignorant of their sins and miseries and of Christ’s all and only sufficiency as Saviour of their soul.
It is clear that the Spirit’s ordinary way to stop a sinner is in the way that most criminals are caught. Not too often is a criminal brought to confession through the way of love. Hardening their hearts, criminals resist to face their crimes and flee the scenes of their wrong. But usually the law (police) catches up with them and they are brought to face their crimes.
As in the daily life, so it is in spiritual life. We all harden ourselves in our career of sin. We refuse to yield ourselves up to God Who in Christ comes with His entreaty to return and reconcile. So through the Word, the Holy Spirit arrests sinners and makes them feel the power of the law. Conviction of sin is felt as the conscience is raked by the Word in the hand of the Holy Spirit. This awareness brings a humbling of the pride, a breaking of the resistance, a trembling on account of what is done. All this together compels the heart to begin to pay heed to God and His Word for now they know that ‘they are the man God has cursed.”
The variety in which the Holy Spirit accomplishes this varies as the leaves on a tree. He may do it gradually or through a sudden blast of conviction. But regardless of how He brings all those He leads through the law-way, all begin to wrestle with the question, “What must I do to be saved?”
It is not the scope of this answer to explore all the ways in which sinners wriggle and wrestle to escape the righteous judgment of God as is echoed in the testimony of his own conscience. But the common end station is ultimately the most important. The Spirit brings them as a convicted and humbled soul at the feet of God with the petition of the publican, “Lord, have mercy upon me for the sake of Jesus Christ, the only acceptable sacrifice and Mediator.”
Our forefathers referred to this ‘law work’ as the preparatory work of the Holy Spirit. He uses it to open our eyes for the absolute need for the blood and righteousness of the Lord Jesus Christ. The preparatory law-work is not saving in itself as the arresting of the criminal is not resolving anything of his crimes and guilt. The law-way is only used to bring a stubborn, proud and guilty man at the feet of the precious Redeemer. Don’t ever think that the Holy Spirit has a joy in taking up the heavy artillery of the law to bring an elect sinner to salvation. No parent feels joyful when they need to take out a heavier rod to discipline a child into obedience but where there is true love, there will be no sparing of the rod.
It is obvious that everyone who has been saved will share his experience of salvation from his perspective. That’s also why you will notice a variety in emphasis among the ministers of God’s Word. It is inescapable that God’s servants will reflect how God has led them personally in the way they preach the Gospel. The Holy Spirit has led me to Jesus Christ through a very gradual and gentle law-way. But I know brothers in the ministry who have experienced the deep and dark sloughs of despond and despair. Others have experienced how their own deceitful hearts may have led them into a by-way that nearly strangled them. Others have been impelled to leave their careers of sin and self by the glory of God’s love. Then there are the Samuel preachers who have always loved the Lord and therefore cannot speak out of their personal experience to those who like Paul have resisted the Lord for many years and finally are struck down.
We preachers need to remain aware of that. The only way to avoid that is to preach the Word of God faithfully and consistently. Years ago I did a series of sermons on conversion from the book of Acts and it was an eye-opening exposition for myself and others. The differences are great but the end result is the same. For where the Spirit works true salvation we all agree to ‘death in Adam and life in Christ.’