By John Flavel
In nothing does Providence shine forth more gloriously in this world than in ordering the occasions, instruments and means of conversion of the people of God. However skillfully its hand had moulded your bodies, however tenderly it had preserved them and however bountifully it had provided for them; if it had not also ordered some means or other for your conversion, all the former favours and benefits it had done for you had meant little. This, O this, is the most excellent benefit you ever received from its hand. You are more indebted to it for this, than for all your other mercies. And in explaining this performance of Providence, I cannot but think your hearts must be deeply affected. This is a subject which every gracious heart loves to steep its thoughts in. It is certainty the sweetest history that ever they repeated; they love to think and talk of it. The places where, and instruments by whom this work was wrought are exceedingly endeared to them for the work's sake, yea, endeared to that degree, that, for many years after, their hearts have melted when they have but passed occasionally by those places or but seen the faces of those persons that were used as instruments in the hand of Providence for their good. As no doubt but Jacob's Bethel was ever after that night sweet to his thoughts (Genesis 48:3), so other saints have had their Bethels as well as he. O blessed places, times, and instruments! O the deep, the sweet impressions, never to be erased out of the memory or heart, that this Providence has made upon those on whom it wrought this blessed effect at years of discretion, and in a more perceptible way!
But lest any poor soul should be discouraged by the display of this Providence because he cannot remember the time, place, instruments and manner when and by which conversion work was wrought, I will therefore premise this necessary distinction, to prevent injury to some, while I design benefit to others.
Conversion, as to the subjects of it, may be considered two ways; either as it is more clearly wrought in persons of riper years, who in their youthful days were more profane and vile; or upon persons in their tender years, into whose hearts grace was more imperceptibly and indiscernibly instilled by God's blessing upon pious education. In the former sort, the distinct acts of the Spirit, illuminating, convincing, humbling, drawing them to Christ and sealing them are more evident and discernible. In the latter, these are more obscure and confused. They can remember that God gave them an esteem and liking of godly persons, care of duty and conscience of sin; but as to the time, place, instruments and manner of the work, they can give but a slender account of them. However, if the work is savingly wrought in them, there is no reason they should be troubled because the circumstances of it are not so evident to them as they are to others. Let the substance and reality of the work appear, and there is no reason to afflict yourselves because of the lack of evidence of such circumstances.
But where the circumstances as well as substance are clear to a man, when we can call to remembrance the time when, the place where, the instrument by whom that work was wrought, it must needs be exceedingly sweet, and they cannot but yield a fresh delight to the soul every time they are reflected upon.
There are many of the following occasions which, it may be, we took for stragglers when they first befell us, but they proved scouts sent out from the main body of Providence, which they make way for.
Now there are various things in those providences that respect this work, which are exceedingly sweet and taking, as namely:
The wonderful strangeness and unaccountableness of the work of Providence in casting us into the way and ordering the occasions, yea, the minutest circumstances about this work. Thus you find that the Eunuch, at that very instant when he was reading the prophet Esaias, had an interpreter, one among a thousand, that joins his chariot just as his mind was by a fit occasion prepared to receive the first light of the knowledge of Christ (Acts 8:26-30).
And how strange was that change, however far it went, upon Naaman the Syrian (2 Kings 5:1-4)! that the Syrians in their incursion should bring away this girl - likely her beauty was the inducement - and she must be presented to Naaman's wife, and relate to her the power of God that accompanied the prophet; though you find in that particular case there had never been an instance given before (Luke 4:27). Doubtless the whole of this affair was guided by the signal direction of Providence.
So for the conversion of the Samaritans, it is observed that Christ must needs go that way (John 4:4) - it lay just in the road between Judea and Galilee - and at the sixth hour, i.e., high noon, he rests himself upon Jacob's well, still seeming to have no other design but his own refreshment by sitting and drinking there. But O what a train of blessed providences follow this which seemed but an accidental thing! First the woman of Samaria and then many more in that city are brought to believe in Christ (verses 29 and 41).
It is noted by Melchior Adams in the Life of Junius how much of an atheist he was in his younger years; but in order to bring about his conversion to God, first, a wonderful preservation of his life in a public tumult at Lyons in France must take place, which forces from him the acknowledgment of a Deity. Then his father sends for him home and with much gentleness persuades him to read the Scriptures. He lights upon the first of John, and with it he feels a divine supernatural majesty and power seizing his soul, which brought him over by a complete conversion to Jesus Christ. Thus, as the woman of Tekoa told David, does God devise means to bring back His banished (2 Samuel 14:14).
Lavater tells us that many Spanish soldiers, going into the wars of Germany, were there converted to Christ, by going into the cities and towns where godly ministers and Christians were.
Robert Bolton, though an excellent scholar, yet in his younger years he was a very irreligious person and a jeerer of holy men; but being cast into the company of godly Mr Peacock was by him brought to repentance and proved a famous instrument in the Church of Christ.
A scrap of paper, accidentally coming to view, has been used as an occasion of conversion. This was the case of a minister in Wales, who had two livings, but took little care of either. Being at a fair he bought something at a pedlar's stall, and tore off a leaf of Mr Perkins' Catechism to wrap it in, and reading a line or two in it, God sent it home so as it did the work.
The marriage of a godly man into a carnal family has been ordered by Providence for the conversion and salvation of many therein. Thus we read in the life of that renowned English worthy, John Bruen, that in his second match it was agreed that he should have one year's diet in his mother-in-laws house. During his abode there that year the Lord was pleased by this means graciously to work upon her soul, as also upon his wife's sister and half-sister, their brothers William and Thomas Fox, with one or two of the servants in that family.
The reading of a good book has been the means of bringing others to Christ. And thus we find many of the German divines converted by reading Luther's books; yea, and it is more strange, Sleyden, in his Commentary, tells us that Vergerius, though he were an eye and ear witness to that doleful case of Spira, which one would think should move a stone, yet still continued so firm to the pope's interest that when he fell into some suspicion among the cardinals he resolved to purge himself by writing a book against the German apostates. But while he read the Protestant books, out of no other design but to confute them, while he is weighing the arguments, he is himself convinced and brought to Christ. He, finding himself thus overcome by the truth, imparts his conviction to his brother, also a zealous papist. This brother deplores the misery of his case and seeks to reclaim him; but Vergerius entreating him to weigh well the Protestant arguments, he also yields, and so both immediately gave themselves to preaching justification by the free grace of God through the blood of Christ.
Yea, not only the reading of a book or hearing a minister, but, which is most remarkable, the very mistake or forgetfulness of a minister has been improved by Providence for this end and purpose. Augustine, once preaching to his congregation, forgot the argument which first he proposed, and attacked the error of the Manichees beside his first intention. By this discourse he converted one Firmus, his hearer, who fell down at his feet weeping and confessing he had lived a Manichee many years.
Another I knew who, going to preach, took up another Bible than that he designed, in which, not only missing his notes but the chapter also in which his text lay, was put to some loss thereby. But after a short pause he resolved to speak on any other Scripture that might be presented to him and accordingly read that text: 'The Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some men count slackness' (2 Peter 3:9). And though he had nothing prepared, yet the Lord helped him to speak both methodically and pertinently from it, by which discourse a gracious change was wrought upon one in the congregation who has since given good evidence of a sound conversion and acknowledged this sermon to be the first and only means thereof.
The accompanying of others in a neighbourly civil visit has been overruled to the same end. Thus many of the Jews accompanied Mary unto Bethany, designing only to manifest their civil respect, but there they met Christ, saw the things which He did, and believed on Him (John 11:45).
Firmin tells us of one who had lived many years in a town where Christ had been as clearly preached as in any town in England. This man, when he was about seventy-six years of age, went to visit a sick neighbor. 'A Christian friend of mine,' says my author, 'came to see him also, and finding this old man there, whom he judged to be one that lived upon his own stock, civility, good works, etc., he purposely fell into that discourse, to shew how many persons lived upon their duties, but never came to Christ. The old man sitting by the bedside heard him, and God was pleased to convince him that he was such a person, who had lived upon himself without Christ to that day; and would say afterwards, 'had I died before threescore and sixteen, I had perished, for I knew not Christ.'
The committing of a godly man to prison has been the method of Providence to save the soul of a poor keeper. So Paul was made a prisoner to make his keeper a spiritual freeman (Acts 16:27-34). The like success had Dr. Barnes in Queen Mary's days, who afterwards celebrated the Lord's Supper in prison with his converted keeper.
The scattering of ministers and Christians by persecution from cities and towns into the ignorant and barbarous parts of the country, has been the way of Providence to find out and bring home some lost sheep that were found there to Jesus Christ (Acts 8:1, 4). The like signal event has since followed upon the like scattering of godly ministers, of which there are many outstanding instances at this day.
A servant running away from his master, probably out of no other design but to live an idle life, yet falling into such places and companies as Providence ordered, in a design to him unknown, has thereby been brought to be the servant of Christ. This was the very case of Onesimus who ran away from his master Philemon to Rome, where by a strange Providence, possibly a mere curiosity to see the prisoners, he there falls into Paul's hands, who begat him to Christ in his bonds (Philemon 10-16).
Going to hear a sermon in jest has proved some men's conversion in earnest. The above named Mr. Firmin tells us of a notorious drunkard whom the drunkards called 'father' that one day would needs go to hear what Wilson said, out of no other design, it seems, but to scoff at that holy man. But in the prayer before the sermon his heart began to thaw, and when he read his text: 'Sin no more, lest a worse thing come unto thee' (John 5:14), he could not contain, and in that sermon the Lord changed his heart, though so bitter an enemy that the minister on lecture-days was afraid to go to church before his shop door. 'Lo, these are parts of his ways, but how small a portion is known of him?'
The dropping of some grave and weighty word accidentally in the presence of vain carnal persons, the death of a husband, wife or child, a fit of sickness, with a thousand other such like occasions, have been thus improved by Providence to the conversion of souls.
And no less remarkable and wonderful are the designs of Providence in ordering the removals and governing the movements of ministers from place to place, for the conversion of souls. Thus often it carries them to places where they did not intend to go, God having, unknown to them, some elect vessels there who must be called by the Gospel.
Thus Paul and Timothy, a sweet and lovely pair, when they were traveling through Phrygia and Galatia, were forbidden to preach the Word in Asia, to which probably their minds inclined (Acts 16:6), and when 'they essayed to go into Bithynia, the Spirit suffered them not' (verse 7). But a man of Macedonia, i.e., an angel in the shape or habit of a man of that country, appeared to Paul in a vision and prayed him saying: 'Come over into Macedonia, and help us' (verse 9), and there did God open the heart of Lydia.
I knew a pious minister, now with God, who, falling in his study upon a very rousing subject, intended for his own congregation, was strongly moved, when he had finished it, to go to a rude, vile, profane people about five miles off and first preach it to them. After many wrestlings with himself, not being willing to quench any motion that might be supposed to come from the Spirit of God, he obeyed and went to this people, who had then no minister of their own and few durst come among them. And there did the Lord, beyond all expectation, open a door, and several profane ones received Christ in that place and engaged this minister to a weekly lecture among them, in which many souls were won to God.
The same holy man at another time, being upon a journey, passed by a company of vain persons, who were wrestling upon a green near the road. Just as he came near the place one of them had thrown his antagonist and stood triumphing in his strength and activity. This good man rode up to them, and turning his speech to this person, told him: 'Friend, I see that you are a strong man, but let not the strong man glory in his strength: you must know that you are not to wrestle with flesh and blood, but with principalities and powers, and spiritual wickednesses. How sad will it be that Satan should at last trip up the heels of your hope, and give you an eternal overthrow!' After about a quarter of an hour's serious discourse upon this subject, he left them and went on his journey, but this discourse made such an impression, that the person had no rest till he confided his trouble to a godly minister, who wisely following the work upon his soul, saw at last the blessed issue thereof in the gracious change of the person, of which he afterwards gave the minister a joyful account. O how unsearchable are the methods of Providence in this matter!
Nay, what is yet more wonderful, the Providence of God has sometimes ordered the very malice of Satan and wickedness of men as an occasion of eternal good to their souls. A very memorable example of this I shall here give the reader, faithfully relating what, not many years past, occurred in my own observation in this place, to the astonishment of many spectators.
In the year 1673, there came into this port a ship of Poole, in her return from Virginia. In this ship was one of that place, a lusty young man of twenty-three years of age, who was surgeon in the ship. This person in the voyage fell into a deep melancholy, which the devil greatly improved to serve his own design for the ruin of this poor man. However, it pleased the Lord to restrain him from any attempts upon his own life until he arrived here. But shortly after his arrival, upon the Lord's day, early in the morning, being in bed with his brother, he took a knife prepared for that purpose and cut his own throat, and then leapt out of the bed, and though the wound was deep and large, yet thinking it might not soon enough dispatch his wretched life, desperately thrust it into his stomach and so lay wallowing in his own blood till his brother awakening made a cry for help. Hereupon a physician and a surgeon coming in, found the wound in his throat mortal, and all they could do at present was only to stitch it and apply a plaster with the design rather to enable him to speak for a little while than with any expectation of cure; for before that, he breathed through the wound and his voice was inarticulate.
In this condition I found him that morning, and apprehending him to be within a few minutes of eternity, I laboured to work upon his heart the sense of his condition, telling him I had but little time to do anything for him, and therefore I desired him to let me know what his own apprehensions of his present condition were. He told me he hoped in God for eternal life. I replied that I feared his hopes were ill-grounded, for the Scripture tells us: 'No murderer hath eternal life abiding in him.' But this was self-murder, the grossest of all murders, and insisting upon the aggravation and heinousness of the fact, I perceived his vain confidence began to fall and some meltings of heart appeared in him. He then began to lament with many tears his sin and misery and asked me if there might yet be hope for one that had destroyed himself and shed his own blood. I replied, the sin indeed is great but not unpardonable, and if the Lord gave him repentance unto life, and faith to apply to Jesus Christ, it should be certainly pardoned to him. Finding him unacquainted with these things, I explained to him the nature and necessity of faith and repentance, which he greedily sucked in and with great vehemence cried to God that He would work them upon his soul, and intreated me also to pray with him and for him that it might be so. I prayed with him and the Lord thawed his heart exceedingly in that duty. Loathe he was to part with me, but the duties of the day necessitating me to leave him, I briefly summed up what was most necessary in my parting counsel to him and took my leave, never expecting to see him more in this world. But beyond my own and all men's expectation, he continued all that day and panted most ardently after Jesus Christ. No discourses pleased him but Christ and faith, and in this frame I found him in the evening. He rejoiced greatly to see me again and intreated me to continue my discourses upon these subjects; and after all told me: 'Sir, the Lord has given me repentance for this sin; yea, and for every other sin. I see the evil of sin now, so as I never saw it before. O, I loathe myself; I am a vile creature in my own eyes! I do also believe; Lord, help my unbelief. I am heartily willing to take Christ upon His own terms. One thing only troubles me. I doubt this bloody sin will not be pardoned. Will Jesus Christ apply His blood to me, that have shed my own blood?' I told him Christ shed His blood even for them that with wicked hands had shed the blood of Christ, and that was a sin of deeper guilt than his. 'Well,' said he, 'I will cast myself upon Christ. Let him do by me what he will.' And so I parted with him that night.
Next morning the wounds were to be opened, and then the opinion of the surgeons was that he would immediately expire. Accordingly, at his desire, I came that morning and found him in a most serious frame. I prayed with him, and then the wound in his stomach was opened, and by this time the ventricle itself was swollen out of the orifice of the wound and lay like a livid discoloured tripe upon his body and was also cut through; so that all concluded it was impossible for him to live. However they stitched the wound in the stomach, enlarged the orifice and fomented it, and wrought it again into his body, and so stitching up the skin, left him to the disposal of Providence.
But so it was that both the deep wound in his throat and this in his stomach healed, and the more dangerous wound sin had made upon his soul, was, I trust, effectually healed also. I spent many hours with him in that sickness, and, after his return home, received this account from Mr Samuel Hardy, a minister in that town, part of which I shall transcribe.
I was much troubled at the sad providence in your town, but did much rejoice that he fell into such hands for his body and soul. You have taken much pains with him, and I hope to good purpose. I think, if ever a great and thorough work were done such a way, it is now, and if never the like, I am persuaded now it is. Never grow weary of such good works. One such instance is, methinks, enough to make you to abound in the work of the Lord all your days...
O how unsearchable are the ways of Providence in leading men to Christ! Let none be encouraged by this to sin that grace may abound. These are rare and singular instances of the mercy of God, and such as no presumptuous sinner can expect to find. It is only recited here to the honour of Providence, which works for the recovery of sinners in ways that we do not understand.
As providence orders very strange occasions to awaken and arouse souls at first, so it works no less wonderfully in carrying on the work to perfection. This it does in two ways.
First, by quickening and reviving dying convictions and troubles for sin. Souls, after their first awakening, are apt to lose the sense and impression of their first troubles for sin, but Providence is vigilant to prevent it, and effectually prevents it. Sometimes Providence directs the minister to some discourse or passage that shall fall as pat as if the case of such a person had been studied by him and designedly spoken to. How often have I found this in the cases of many souls who have professed they have stood amazed to hear the very thoughts of their hearts revealed by the preacher, who knew nothing of them! Sometimes Providence directs them to some proper rousing Scripture that suits their present case, and sometimes it permits them to fall into some new sin which awakens all their former troubles again and puts a new efficacy and activity into the conscience. The world is full of instances of all these cases, and because most Christians have experience of these things in themselves, it will be needless to recite them here. Search but a few years back, and you may remember that, according to this account, at least in some particulars, Providence ordered the matter with you. Have you not found some rod or other prepared by Providence to rouse you out of your security? Why, this is so common a thing with Christians that they many times presage an affliction coming from the frames they find their own hearts in.
Secondly, Providence gives great assistance to the work of the Spirit upon the soul, by ordering, supporting, relieving and cheering means, to prop up and comfort the soul when it is over-burdened and ready to sink in the depths of troubles. I remember Mr Bolton gives us one instance which fits both these cases, the reviving of convictions, and seasonable supports in the depths of troubles. It is of a person that by convictions had been fetched off from his wicked companions and entered into a reformed course of life. But after this, through the enticement of his old companions, the subtlety of Satan and corruption of his own heart, he again relapsed into the ways of sin. Then was providentially brought to his view that Scripture, Proverbs 1:24-26. This renewed his trouble, yea, aggravated it to a greater height than ever, insomuch that he could scarcely think, as it seems by the relation, his sin could be pardoned. But in this condition that text, Luke 17:4, was presented to him, which sweetly settled him in a sure and glorious peace.
Nor can we here forget that miraculous work of Providence, in a time of great extremity, which was wrought for that good gentlewoman Mrs Honeywood, who under a deep and sad desertion, refused and put off all comfort, seeming to despair utterly of the grace and mercy of God. A worthy minister being one day with her and reasoning against her desperate conclusions, she took a Venice-glass from the table and said: 'Sir, I am as sure to be damned as this glass is to be broken', and therewith threw it forcibly to the ground. But to the astonishment of both, the glass remained whole and sound, which the minister taking up with admiration, rebuked her presumption and showed her what a wonder Providence had wrought for her satisfaction, and it greatly altered the attitude of her mind. 'How unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past finding out!' (Romans 11:33). 'Lo, these are parts of his ways, but how little a portion is heard of him!' (Job 26:14).
And now let me expostulate a little with your soul, reader. Have you been duly aware of your obligation to Providence for this inestimable favour? O what it has done for you! There are various kinds of mercies conveyed to men by the hand of Providence, but none like this; in all the treasury of its benefits none is found like this. Did it cast you into the way of conversion, and order the means and occasions of it for you, when you little thought of any such thing? How dear and sweet should the remembrance of it be to your soul! methinks it should astonish and melt you every time you reflect upon it. Such mercies should never grow stale or look like common things to you, for do but seriously consider the following particulars.
How surprising was the mercy which Providence performed for you in that day! Providence had a design upon you for your eternal good, which you did not understand. The time of mercy was now fully come; the decree was now ready to bring forth that mercy, with which it had gone big from eternity, and its gracious design must be executed by the hand of Providence, so far as concerned the external means and instruments. How aptly did it cause all things to fall in with that design, though you did not know the meaning of it? Look over all the before-mentioned examples, and you will see the blessed work of conversion begun upon those souls, when they minded it no more than Saul did a kingdom that morning he went out 'to seek his father's asses' (1 Samuel 9:3, 20). Providence might truly have said to you in that day, as Christ said to Peter: 'What I do thou knowest not now, but thou shalt know it hereafter' (John 13:7). God's thoughts are not as our thoughts; but as the heavens are higher than the earth so are His thoughts higher than ours, and His ways than our ways. Little did Zacchaeus think when he climbed up into the sycamore tree to see Christ as He passed that way what a design of mercy Christ had upon him, who took thence the occasion of becoming both his Guest and Saviour (Luke 19:5-8). And as little did some of you think what the aim of Providence was when you went, some out of custom, others out of curiosity, if not worse motives, to hear such a sermon. O how stupendous are the ways of God!
What a distinguishing and seasonable mercy was ushered in by Providence in that day! It brought you to the means of salvation in a good hour. In the very nick of time, when the angel troubled the waters, you were brought to the pool (John 5:4). Now the accepted day was come, the Spirit was in the ordinance or providence that converted you, and you were set in the way of it. It may be you had heard many hundred sermons before, but nothing would stick till now, because the hour was not come. The Lord did, as it were, call in the word for such a man, such a woman, and Providence said: 'Lord, here he is, I have brought him before thee.' There were many others under that sermon that received no such mercy. You yourselves had heard many before, but not to that advantage, as it is said: 'And many lepers were in Israel in the time of Eliseus the prophet; and none of them was cleansed, saving Naaman the Syrian' (Luke 4:27). So there were many poor, unconverted souls beside you under the Word that day, and it may be, to none of them was salvation sent that day but to you. O blessed Providence that set you in the way of mercy at that time!
What a weighty and important mercy was providentially directed to your souls that day. There are mercies of all sizes and kinds in the hands of Providence to dispense to the sons of men. Its left hand is full of blessings as well as its right. It has health and riches, honours and pleasures, as well as Christ and salvation to dispense. The world is full of its left hand favours, but the blessings of its right hand are invaluably precious and few there be that receive them. It performs thousands of kind offices for men; but among them all, this is the chiefest, to lead and direct them to Christ. For consider, of all mercies, this comes through most and greatest difficulties (Ephesians 1:19, 20).
This is a spiritual mercy, excelling in dignity of nature all others, more than gold excels the dirt under your feet (Revelation 3:18). One such gift is worth thousands of other mercies.
This is a mercy immediately flowing out of the fountain of God's electing love, a mercy never dropped into any but an elect vessel (1 Thessalonians 1:4, 5).
This is a mercy that infallibly secures salvation; for as we may argue from conversion to election, looking back, so from conversion to salvation, looking forward (Hebrews 6:9).
Lastly, this is an eternal mercy, one which will stick by you when father, mother, wife, children, estate, honours, health and life shall fail you (John 4:14).
O, therefore, set a special mark upon that Providence that set you in the way of this mercy. It has performed that for you which all the ministers on earth and angels in heaven could never have performed. This is a mercy that puts weight and value into the smallest circumstance that relates to it.