Charles Spurgeon often preached about the experience of salvation — as in answering possible objections of unbelievers, urging them to move past those objections or obstacles to come to Christ; or overall consideration of how people come to Christ. From my recent reading come two sermons (#559 and #570) from 1864 (volume 10) on this topic. The first one (sermon #559) describes various unbelievers and their different responses – how they are kept lame, as with this excerpt:
Some are still lame, though they have faith, through ignorance. They do not know what being saved is. They entertain wrong expectations. They are trusting in Christ, but they do not feel any surprising emotions; they have not had any remarkable dreams, or visions, or striking emotions of excited joy, and therefore, though they have “faith to be saved,” they have not the faith of a present salvation. They are waiting for something, they hardly know what, to embellish their faith, or to fortify it with signs and wonders; now, poor soul, why do you wait? These things are not necessary for salvation. In fact, the fewer you have of them, I think, the better—especially of things which are visionary. I rather tremble for those who talk much about sensible evidences; they are too often the frivolities of unstable hearts. Beloved, though you may have never had any ecstatic joys, or suffered any deep depression of your spirits, if you are resting on Christ, it does not matter one whit what your feelings have been or have not been! Do you expect to have an electric shock, or to go through some mysterious operation? The operation is mysterious, too mysterious for you to discern it; but all that you have to do with is this—“Do I believe in Jesus? Am I simply depending upon Him for everything?” If you do, you are saved, and I pray you to believe this!
One observation from this sermon: all the people he describes at least have a basic worldview of belief in God – and then various “religious” reasons for fearing to come to God. Very likely this reflected the actual worldview backgrounds of the people of Spurgeon’s day, Victorian England. In all his sermons to this point, indeed, he never considered the case of people who professed atheism, those who had so suppressed the knowledge of God as to really think in naturalist, anti-supernatural and anti-theist terms. Even today the majority of unbelievers are not of the atheist type (and even less likely to be reading such a sermon in the first place), but after so many years of modernism and even post-modernism I suspect it is more common than in Spurgeon’s day.
Also from reading this sermon, the thought: how amazing it is that God saves each of us in different ways, dealing with us and our own personality and background. We don’t all have the same experiences in the process of conversion (from the time leading up to it through the time of regeneration / saving faith), and thus we observe great variety of people and their conversion/salvation experiences. Some cannot point to a specific moment when they came to saving faith, but instead a gradual process and general period of time (as for instance, those in Christian homes with childhood conversions), while others (as with my own case, and also the testimony of Spurgeon himself) recall a specific point in time. While, as in the Spurgeon quote above, people should not be “looking” to “feel any surprising emotions; they have not had any remarkable dreams, or visions, or striking emotions of excited joy,” yet in my own case God graciously did provide the sudden understanding and sudden, excited joy.
Where sermon #559 prompted these thoughts, Spurgeon comes through – as though in answer – a few sermons later, with #570 to specifically consider the variety of means used in conversion. A very helpful sermon, with a longer text than is usual for Spurgeon’s textual style preaching – John 1:37-51 – Spurgeon here provides many insights into the experiences of “The First Five Disciples,” and their four different types/methods of conversion. Were you, however, to examine any five persons, I suppose you would find similar disparity. Pick out five Christians indiscriminately and begin to question them how they were brought to know the Lord, you will find methods other than those you have here; and probably quite as many as four out of the five would be distinct from the rest.
- Andrew and John – the fruits of preaching
- Simon Peter – Private instrumentality, not by the preaching of the Word
- Phillip – without either the public Word or private instruction, but directly by Jesus, and
- Nathanael – partly through private instrument, but also the preparation and Christ’s divine word to convince him.
An excerpt, describing the third case:
in some cases no apparent instrumentality is used. We have known some who on a sudden have felt impressions, from where they came or where they tended they did not know. In the midst of business we have known the workman suddenly check his plane—a great thought has entered into his brain—where it came from he could not tell. We have known a man wake up at midnight—he could not tell why, but a holy calm was upon him, and as the moon was shining through the window, there seemed to be a holy light shining into his soul, and he began to think. … We cannot tell, brethren, when God may regenerate His elect, for though we are to use means, and cry to God to send forth laborers into the vineyard, yet the sovereign Lord of all will frequently work without them. The Word which has been heard in years gone by, the Scripture which was known in childhood, may by the direct power of the Holy Spirit, without any immediate apparent means, turn the man from darkness to light. …What preparation of heart there had been before, I cannot tell. What still small voice had been speaking before this in Philip’s ear, we do not know. Certainly the only outward means was this voice of Christ, “Follow Me.” And there may be in this House some who will be converted this morning. You do not know why you are here, you cannot tell why you strayed in; but yet it may be—God knows—Christ would have you come here because He would come here Himself.
The 1689 Exposition Series has several lessons regarding the Christological view of what happened at Pentecost, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.
Some of this material, regarding the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament age as compared to now, was also addressed and in more depth, in David Murray’s blog post series (reference this previous blog post): the quantitative difference, that the indwelling Holy Spirit in OT saints was like a water-dropper as compared to a pressure washer.
From this 1689 series lesson, another interesting difference between the work of the Holy Spirit in the OT versus now: The Holy Spirit came in an Official, Formal sense at Pentecost; Christ also made His official/formal entrance at His incarnation. Christ, the second Person of the Trinity, always existed and was active and present in the Old Testament (before His formal entrance at the incarnation). Christ even appeared, in the many theophanies/Christophanies of the “Angel of the Lord,” in visible form many times to the Old Testament saints — such as to the patriarchs, Moses, and later Joshua, as well as later appearances (such as to Samson’s parents in Judges 13). 1 Corinthians 10:4-5 further tells us that Christ was the Rock that followed the people of Israel in the wilderness.
In like manner, we can know that the Holy Spirit existed before Pentecost (no error of Sabellianism, a type of modalism), was active and present in that age, and indwelled believers. What came at Pentecost, that had not occurred before, included the greater quantity (a great outpouring, seen in the later massive number of believers saved in the book of Acts, as compared to the relative trickle of believers before that time) as well as this formal, official entrance — an entrance that occurred in connection with the other historical events of that time. Following after Christ’s incarnation, death, burial, resurrection, and ascension, came what Christ had promised would come, what He told the disciples to wait for (Acts 1:4-5).
Continuing through the 1689 Exposition series, the in-depth study of chapter 8 of the confession (Christ’s mediatorial work) includes a lesson on the question of Christ’s burial (available here) and time in the grave, specifically looking at the issue of the Apostles’ Creed (see this recent post that also mentions the Apostles’ Creed) and its statement that “he (Christ) descended into hell.”
This statement did not appear in the earlier forms of the Apostles’ Creed, but showed up by the 4th century. Later Christians have considered the importance of this early creed, desiring to show the continuation of the orthodox faith from its early history — and have thus attempted to explain what the early church meant by this statement. This lesson in the 1689 series mentions six “interpretations” of what was meant by “he descended into hell”:
- Rufinus – the first interpretation, from A.D. 390: it means “he descended into the grave, the abode/realm of the dead.” Yet this is redundant, as the previous phrase has already told us that “he was buried.”
- John Calvin – the view described in the Heidelberg catechism. Jesus suffered hell on the cross; the sufferings, felt in His soul, an infinite amount of wrath in a finite period of time. Certainly this is true, but does not fit with what the Apostles’ Creed meant—the sequence is wrong. If they had meant this, the line would have been earlier in the creed, instead of after the part about being crucified, buried and dead.
- The view of the Westminster confession and the 1689 London Baptist Confession, also stated in the Westminster Larger Catechism: “He remained in the state of the dead; the realm of the dead.” Again, redundant to say buried and descended into being dead.
- The “Roman Catholic” view, which is also commonly taught in Arminian Baptist churches: this view expands into much speculation, though at least they come up with scripture references, as for instance the story in Luke 16 of the rich man and Lazarus in Abraham’s bosom. Here is the idea that Christ during this time went in His soul (not His body) into the holding place where OT saints were waiting for the application of redemptive work; He preached the gospel to them (“got them fully saved”) and then brought them out from there into heaven. Other proof-texts for this view include Ephesians 4:8-9 – “He descended into the lower regions” (some think this means hell, below Earth, instead of the Earth itself). A better way to understand this, though, is the contrast between the lower regions as the earth, versus the higher regions (ascending to heaven). Additional texts for this view include 1 Peter 3:18-20 and 1 Peter 4:4-6, and the above lesson explains the supposed idea here as well as other ways to understand these texts.
- The Lutheran view: Jesus went to hell, to the place of torment for the damned – not to suffer, but to preach judgment upon them and declare His victory and Lordship, as somehow an inauguration of His victory march. The problem here is complete speculation with no proof from scripture, plus the fact that Christ’s burial was part of His humiliation; this was before the resurrection, and not at all the time of His exaltation.
- The Anglican view: Jesus went down to the place of the dead, and gave a fuller explanation of the gospel to the OT saints who were waiting there. Again, this is only speculation, with no proof from scripture or any indication that the writers of the apostles’ creed believed this.
As Hodgins observed, in quoting Wayne Grudem on this subject, certainly we should appreciate the Apostles’ creed as an early statement from the historic church. But the historical importance alone is not a good reason for “keeping” this phrase and seeking to somehow explain it away. We don’t really know exactly what the early church meant by it, and a survey of early church history does tell us that the early church fathers were wrong on some of their theology. This is certainly brought out in the RTS Christian History series, including the fact that understanding of the Trinity, and even the nature of the Father and Son, was not fully developed until the Arian controversy in the mid-4th century; before that time, even Tertullian held onto some idea of the Son being subordinate to the Father and just didn’t develop his thoughts to the full level that is now considered an orthodox view of the Trinity.