There are some sentiments which I believe essential to the very state and character of a true Christian. And these make him a Christian, not merely by being his acknowledged sentiments, but by a certain peculiar manner in which he possesses them.
There is a certain important change that takes place in the heart, by the operation of the Spirit of God, before the soundest and most orthodox sentiments can have their proper influence upon us.
It is sometimes called a new birth, sometimes a new creature or new creation, sometimes the causing light to shine out of darkness, sometimes the opening the eyes of the blind, sometimes the raising the dead to life.
Till a person has experienced this change, he will be at a loss to form a right conception of it; but it means not being proselyted to an opinion, but receiving a principle of divine life and light in the soul.
And till this is received, the things of God, the truths of the gospel, cannot be rightly discerned or understood by the utmost powers of fallen man who, with all his wisdom, reason and talents, is still but what the apostle calls the natural man, till the power of God visits his heart (1 Corinthians 2:14).
This work is sometimes wrought suddenly, as in the case of Lydia (Acts 16:14), at other times very gradually. A person who before was a stranger even to the form of godliness, or at best content with a mere form, finds new thoughts arising in his mind, feels some concern about his sins, some desire to please God, some suspicions that all is not right.
He examines his views of religion, hopes the best of them, and yet cannot rest satisfied in them. Today, perhaps, he thinks himself fixed; tomorrow he will be all uncertainty. He enquires of others, weighs, measures, considers, meets with sentiments which he had not attended to, thinks them plausible, but is presently shocked with objections, or supposed consequences, which he finds himself unable to remove.
As he goes on in his enquiry, his difficulties increase. New doubts arise in his mind; even the Scriptures perplex him, and appear to assert contrary things. He would sound the depths of truth by the plummet of his reason, but he finds his line is too short. Yet even now the man is under a guidance which will at length lead him right. The importance of the subject takes up his thoughts and takes off the relish he once had for the things of the world. He reads, he prays, he strives, he resolves; sometimes inward embarrassments and outward temptations bring him to his wits’ end. He almost wishes to stand where he is, and inquire no more. But he cannot stop. At length he begins to feel the inward depravity which he had before owned as an opinion: a sense of sin and guilt cut him out new work. Here reasoning will stand him in no stead.
This is a painful change of mind, but it prepares the way for a blessing. It silences some objections better than a thousand arguments, it cuts the comb of his own wisdom and attainments, it makes him weary of working for life, and teaches him, in God’s due time, the meaning of that text, “To him that worketh not, but believeth on Him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness.” Then he learns that scriptural faith is a very different thing from a rational assent to the gospel; that it is the immediate gift of God (Ephesians 2:8); the operation of God (Colossians 2:12); that Christ is not only the Object, but the Author and Finisher of faith (Hebrews 12:2); and that faith is not so properly a part of that obedience we owe to God, as an inestimable benefit we receive from Him, for Christ’s sake (Philippians 1:29); which is the medium of our justification (Romans 5:1); and the principle by which we are united to Christ, as the branch to the vine (John 17:21).
John Newton (1725 – 1807)