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And the Lord said, My Spirit shall not always strive with man.- Gen. vi. 3.
IN speaking from this text I shall pursue the following outline of thought, and attempt to show:
I. What is implied in the assertion, My Spirit shall not always strive with man; II. What is not intended by the Spirit's striving; III. What is intended by it; IV. How it maybe known when the Spirit strives with an individual; V. What is intended by His not striving always; VI. Why He will not always strive; and, VII. Some consequences of His ceasing to strive with men.
I. What is implied in the assertion, My Spirit shall not always strive with man?
1. It is implied in this assertion, that the Spirit does some times strive with men. It is nonsense to affirm that He will not strive always, if the fact of His striving sometimes be not implied. Beyond all question, the text assumes the doctrine that God by His Spirit does strive sometimes with sinning men.
2. It is also implied that men resist the Spirit. For there can be no strife unless there be resistance. If sinners always yielded at once to the teachings and guidance of the Spirit, there could be no striving on the part of the Spirit, in the sense here implied, and it would be altogether improper to use the language here employed. In fact, the language of our text implies long-continued resistance -- so long continued that God declares that the struggle shall not be kept up on His part forever.
I am well aware that sinners are prone to think that they do not resist God. They often think that they really want the Spirit of God to be with them,and to strive with them. What, indeed! Think of this! If a sinner really wanted the Spirit of God to convert or to lead him, how could he resist the Spirit? But in fact he does resist the Spirit. What Stephen affirmed of the Jews of his time, is true in general of all sinners, Ye do always resist the Holy Ghost. For if there were no resistance on the sinner's part, there could be no striving on the part of the Spirit. So that it is a mere absurdity that a sinner in a state of mind to resist the Spirit should yet sincerely desire to be led into truth and duty by the Spirit. But sinners are sometimes so deceived about themselves as to suppose that they want God to strive with them, while really they are resisting all He is doing, and are ready to resist all He will do. So blinded to their own true characters are sinners.
II. What is not intended by the Spirit's striving.
Here the main thing to be observed is that it is not any form of physical struggling or effort whatever. It is not any force applied to our bodies. It does not attempt to urge us literally along toward God or heaven. This is not to be thought of at all.
III. What, then, is the striving of the Spirit?
I answer, it is an energy of God, applied to the mind of man, setting truth before his mind, debating, reasoning, convincing, and persuading. The sinner resists God's claims, cavils and argues against them; and then God, by His Spirit, meets the sinner and debates with him, somewhat as two men might debate and argue with each other. You are not, however, to understand that the Holy Ghost does this with an audible voice, to the human ear, but He speaks to the mind and to the heart. The inner ear of the soul can hear its whispers.
Our Savior taught that when the Comforter should come He would reprove the world of sin, of righteousness and of judgment. (John xvi. 7-11.) The term here rendered reprove refers, in its proper sense, to judicial proceedings. When the judge has heard all the testimony and the arguments of counsel, he sums up the whole case and lays it before the jury, bringing out all the strong points and making them bear with all their condensed and accumulated power upon the condemnation of the criminal. This is reproving him in the original and legitimate sense of the word used here by our Savior. Thus the Holy Ghost reproves the world of sin, of righteousness, and of judgment. Thus does the Spirit convince or convict the sinner by testimony, by argument, by arraying all the strong points of the case against him under circumstances of affecting solemnity and power.
Not by direct perception of His agency, through any of your physical senses; for His presence is not manifested to these organs. Not directly by our consciousness; for the only proper subjects of consciousness are the acts and states of our own minds. But we know the presence and agency of the Spirit by His works. The results He produces are the legitimate proofs of His presence. Thus a person under the Spirit's influence, finds his attention arrested to the great concerns of his soul. The solemn questions of duty and responsibility to God are continually intruding themselves upon his mind. If he is a student over his lesson, his mind is drawn away continually, ere he is aware, to think of God and of the judgment to come. He turns his attention back to his books, but soon it is off again. How can he neglect these matters of infinite moment to his future well-being?
So with men of every calling; the Spirit of God turns the mind, and draws it to God and the concerns of the soul. When such results take place, you may know that the Spirit of God is the cause. For who does not know that this drawing and inclining of the mind toward God is by no means natural to the human heart? When it does occur, therefore, we may know that the special agency of God is in it.
Again, when a man finds himself convinced of sin, he may know that this is the Spirit's work. Now it is one thing to know one's self to be a sinner, and quite another to feel a realizing sense of it, and to have the truth take hold mightily of the deepest sensibilities of the soul. The latter sometimes takes place. You may see the man's countenance fallen, his eye downcast, his whole aspect is as if he had disgraced himself by some foul crime, or as if be had suddenly lost all the friends he ever had. I have often met with unrepentant sinners who looked condemned, as if conscious guilt had taken hold of their inmost soul. They would not be aware that they were revealing in their countenances the deep workings of their hearts, but the observing eye could not help seeing it. I have also seen the same among backslidden professors, resulting from the same cause -- the Spirit of God reproving them of sin.
Sometimes this conviction is of a general and sometimes of a more special nature. It may enforce only the general impression, I am all wrong; I am utterly odious and hateful to God; my whole heart is a sink of abomination in His sight; or in other cases it may seize upon some particular form of sin, and hold it up before the sinner's mind, and make him see his infinite odiousness before God for this sin. It may be a sin he has never thought of before, or he may have deemed it a very light matter; but now, through the Spirit, it shall rise up before his mind, in such features of ugliness and loathsomeness, that he will abhor himself. He sees sin in a perfectly new light. Many things are sins now which he never deemed sins before.
Again, the Spirit not only convinces of the fact that such and such things are sins, but convicts the mind of the great guilt and ill- desert of sin. The sinner is made to feel that his sin deserves the direst damnation.
The case of an infidel of my acquaintance may serve to illustrate this. He had lived in succession with two pious wives; had read almost every book then extant on the inspiration of the Scriptures -- had disputed, and caviled, and often thought himself to have triumphed over believers in the Bible, and in fact he was the most subtle infidel I ever saw. It was remarkable that in connection with his infidelity he had no just views of sin. He had indeed heard much about some dreadful depravity which had come down in the cur rent of human blood from Adam, and was itself a physical thing; but as usual be had no oppressive consciousness of guilt for having his share of this original taint. His mind consequently was quite easy in respect to the guilt of his own sin.
But at length a change came over him, and his eyes were opened to see the horrible enormity of his guilt. I saw him one day so borne down with sin and shame that he could not look up. He bowed his head upon his knees, covered his face, and groaned in agony. In this state I left him and went to the prayer-meeting. Ere long he came into the meeting as he never came before. As he left the meeting he said to his wife, You have long known me as a strong-hearted infidel; but my infidelity is all gone. I can not tell you what has become of it -- it all seems to me as the merest nonsense, I can not conceive how I could ever have believed and defended it. I seem to myself like a man called to view some glorious and beautiful structure, in order to pass his judgment upon it; but who presumes to judge and condemn it after having caught only a dim glimpse of one obscure comer. just so have I done in condemning the glorious Bible and the glorious government of God.
Now the secret of all this change in his mind towards the Bible lay in the change of his views as to his own sin. Before, he had not been convicted of sin at all; now he sees it in some of its true light, and really feels that he deserves the deepest hell. Of course he now sees the pertinence and beauty and glory of the Gospel system. He is now in a position in which he can see clearly one of the strongest proofs of the truth of the Bible -- namely, its perfect adaptation to meet the wants of a sinning race.
It is remarkable to see what power there is in conviction for sin to break up and annihilate the delusions of error. For instance, no man can once thoroughly see his own sin, and remain an Universalist, and deem it unjust for God to send him to hell. When I hear a man talking in defence of Universalism, I know be does not understand anything about sin. He has not begun to see his own guilt in its true light. It is the blindest of all mental infatuations to think that the little inconveniences of this life are all that sin deserves. Let a man once see his own guilt, and he will be amazed to think that he ever held such a notion. The Spirit of God, pouring light upon the sinner's mind, will soon use up Universalism.
I once labored in a village in the State of New York where Universalism prevailed extensively. The leading man among them had a sick wife who sympathized with him in sentiment. She being near death, I called to see her, and endeavored to expose the utter fallacy of her delusion. After I had left, her husband returned, and his wife, her eyes being now opened, cried out to him as he entered, O my dear husband, you are in the way to hell - - your Universalism will ruin your soul forever! He was greatly enraged, and learning that I had been talking with her, his rage was kindled against me. Where is he now? said be. Gone to the meeting, was the reply. I'll go there and shoot him, he cried; and seizing his loaded pistol, as I was informed, he started off When he came in I was preaching, I think, from the text Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell? I knew at the time nothing about his purpose -- nothing about his pistol. He listened awhile, and then all at once, in the midst of the meeting, he fell back on his seat, and cried out, O I am sinking to hell! O, God, have mercy on me. Away went his Universalism in a twinkling; he sees his sin, and now he is sinking to hell. This change in him was not my work, for I could produce no such effects as these. I was indeed trying to show from my text what sinners deserve; but the Spirit of God, and nothing less, could set home conviction of sin after this sort.
Again, another fruit of the Spirit is developed in the case of those persons who are conscious of great hardness and insensibility. It not infrequently happens that men suppose themselves to be Christians because they have so much sensibility on religious subjects, To undeceive them, the Spirit directs their attention to some truth that dries up all their sensibility, and leaves their hopes stranded on the sea-beach. Now they are in great agony. The more I hear, say they, the less I feel. I was never in the world so far from being convicted of sin. I shall certainly go to hell. I have not a particle of feeling. I can not feel if I die.
Now the explanation of this singular state is usually this: The Spirit of God sees their danger -- sees them deceiving themselves by relying on their feelings, and therefore brings some truths before their minds which array the opposition of their hearts against God and dry up the fountains of their sensibility. Then they see how perfectly callous their hearts are toward God. This is the work of the Spirit.
Again, the Spirit convicts the soul of the guilt of unbelief. Sinners are very apt to suppose that they do believe the Gospel. They confound faith with a merely intellectual assent, and so blind themselves as to suppose that they believe God in the sense of Gospel faith.