The Distinguishing Traits of Christian Character

Gardiner Spring, 1829


It is no certain evidence that a man is born of God because he can specify the particular time when he believes he was converted. I have no doubt that there are those who can tell the period of time when they passed from death unto life. And this may be deemed a happy circumstance in their religious experience. When the love of God is so sensibly shed abroad in the soul, and the light of His countenance so sensibly descends upon the heart and the glory of God so sensibly fills the mind, that the time of its influence can be distinctly discerned—it may well be the source of grateful rejoicing. But this is by no means the experience, even of the great body of God's people.

So far as I have been able to form any estimate of this subject by far the greater part of real Christians are the subjects of a true work of Grace before they themselves are aware of any change having taken place. The Holy Spirit does not always shine upon the work He has wrought in the heart immediately upon changing it; and the reflex act of the mind that discerns the change is frequently is reserved for a period considerably subsequent to the change itself. It is no proof that a man is not a Christian, that he cannot tell when he was converted. Nor is it any proof that he is a Christian that he can tell the time of his supposed conversion, because it is a very possible thing that the conversion, the date of which he is so ready to specify, may be delusive and spurious.

The time and manner of conversion can never decide either the genuineness or spuriousness of the work. The most that the great body of Christians can say as to these is, "I cannot tell how the work was accomplished. All I know is that a sensible change has taken place in the course of my affections, and that whereas I was once blind, now I see."

Let none suppose that by this I mean to say that a change of heart is attended with no visible effect. There are effects which cannot be concealed and which lie open to the inspection of every eye. All I wish to say is that it is not a certain and infallible effect that the subjects of it should be ascertained of the exact time when it took place. It is as true of religious affections as of any other, that "the tree is known by its fruits."

Examine yourself, therefore, and see whether you are in the faith. There is a hope that is as an anchor to the soul; and there is a hope that perishes when God takes the soul away. I would not wound you but I am jealous for you even with an anxious jealousy. You have been converted to the profession of religion, but have you been converted to the grace of religion? Who runs so as to obtain? Who fights not uncertainly and as one that beats the air? Who is, not almost, but altogether a Christian?

See to it that you do not build your hope upon the sand. You may rest satisfied with the mere name to live, but if it is so, the time will come when you will be confounded with disappointment and sink into despair. Alas! that there should be any who think themselves vessels of mercy, when they are only the vessel of wrath fitted to destruction. Oh, I charge you before God and His holy angels, to be faithful in this concern.

I shall endeavor to present you with a few considerations hereafter that may enable you to decide with greater accuracy whether you are building on the Rock than do those negative evidences which have been presented in the preceding pages, and which may perhaps distress you. But I would rather see your hopes die now. than your souls hereafter. I would rather see the mask rent asunder now, than torn off by the hand of discriminating righteousness hereafter. I would rather see you weep now, than weep and wail forever.