Superficial Conviction

Ichabod Spencer (1798-1854) wrote a book called, A Pastor’s Sketches, that details his conversations with different people concerning the way of salvation. In the book he has a chapter called, “Superficial Conviction,” in which he describes a certain young man who had an apparent conversion, but later fell away. Spencer had been preaching a series of messages on the justice of God and the wickedness of the human heart, and this young man along with some of his friends were angered by his messages. They could not tolerate them. They could not fathom a God of justice, nor believe that the human heart was as depraved as Scripture said it was.

One evening, Spencer was preparing to preach again, and he received word that these young men planned to show up at the meeting with stones to stone him. Spencer was undeterred. Knowing that his preaching had alarmed them, he resolved to preach that night on the wickedness of men and the anger of God against the wicked. The evening came and he preached the messages without any conflict. The young men were present, but no one stoned him.

After the preaching, Spencer held a meeting for anyone interested in becoming a Christian. Some of the young men came. A few months later they joined the church. But when Spencer interviewed one of them for membership, something the young man said stuck out to him as a concerning statement. Spencer confronted him about bringing stones to the church to stone him, and the young man denied it and said, “I know my heart was wicked enough to do almost anything, but it never was bad enough to do that.”

It was this last statement that concerned Spencer, because this appeared to be an indication that the young man was not fully convinced of the depths of his own depravity, and therefore the great need he had of a divine work of grace in his heart. He acknowledged a certain level of wickedness in his heart, but could not see himself as so evil that he would be capable of violence.

Spencer kept the statement in mind. The church received him into its membership, and for a time Spencer believed the young man was a true believer—just with some erroneous beliefs. Nothing that couldn’t be corrected. He remarked, “And though I believed, and had always acted on the principle, that true experimental religion will always lead its subjects to a knowledge of the great essential doctrines of the Christian system—indeed, that to experience religion is just to experience these doctrines—I came to the conclusion that this principle would not adjudge him to be unfit to become a communicant.”

The young man appeared to live a Christian life for the next couple of years as long as he was a member at Spencer’s church. But he eventually moved to another city, and when he did, Spencer learned that the man was no longer attending public worship, and had become a “profane and intemperate” man. Spencer went to see him, and when they met, he discovered the young man had become nothing more than a Pharisee—self-righteous and believing in his own goodness. The young man told him, “Indeed, I never did think my heart was so bad as some people tell of. I never did much hurt; and as to being so bad that I can’t reform, I know that I can turn from sin when I please.”

Spencer’s original suspicions had been confirmed. The young man did not have an intellectual problem with doctrine, he had a heart problem with sin. The statements he had made were coming out of his heart. And what they revealed was a person not convinced of his radical depravity, but of his inherent goodness in need of slight corrections.

Spencer concludes this account with a perceptive reflection:

I have often thought that a truly regenerate man cannot have any doubt of the entire depravity of the heart. If he does not see that, it is probable that he does not see his heart. And hence his repentance, his faith in Christ, and his reliance upon the Holy Spirit, will probably, all of them, be only deceptions. My observation continues to confirm me more and more in the opinion that to experience religion is to experience the truth of the great doctrines of divine grace.