Wilbur F. Tillett, “The Holy Spirit’s Preparation of Man for Salvation” (1902)

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[This post first appeared at GospelEncounter.wordpress.com]

“The Holy Spirit is the author of every movement of man’s soul toward salvation… The Spirit of grace, which is but another name for prevenient grace, “is the sole efficient cause of all spiritual good in man: of the beginning, continuance, and consummation of religion in the human soul.” Grace … when it takes a personal form, it need not be distinguished from the Holy Spirit”

– Wilbur F. Tillett (1902)

Below is an excerpt from Wilbur F. Tillett’s 1902 book, Personal Salvation: Studies in Christian Doctrine Pertaining to the Spiritual Life, pages 133, 143-152:

The Holy Spirit’s Preparation of Man for Salvation. — Conviction of sin is a result of the Holy Spirit’s application of the preached word and the divine law to the heart and conscience of a sinner, and is often irresistibly produced; but while the sinner may be convicted against his will, and in spite of efforts to the contrary, yet he is not irresistibly converted. Under conviction he is free either to resist the wooings of the Spirit or to follow the Spirit’s leadings on to repentance and faith. A moral free agent is never more free than in that intense and critical moment when he is irresistibly awakened and brought to a knowledge of his true condition. It is the most critical and responsible moment in all his life; for then it is that his eternal destiny is hanging in the balance, and nothing but his own will can determine which way the scales of destiny shall be made to turn.




The tendency of sin is to lull to sleep and deaden the conscience in proportion as the power and guilt and danger of sin increase; and from this deadly sleep of sin the sinner can be aroused only by the Holy Spirit, whose influence is an ever-present accompaniment of the preached word and of all other efforts to save lost souls.

Conviction of Sin Defined. — When a sinner, under the preaching or reading of the Word of God, awakes to a due sense and realization of his sinful and lost condition; of the dominion of sin over him, and his powerlessness to change his sinful nature; of his guilt before God on account of his many sins in word, thought, and deed—then he experiences what in Biblical and theological language is called conviction of sin. To produce this conviction of sin is the first specific work of the Holy Spirit in the salvation of an individual soul. “However obstinately and effectually the truth may be resisted as a ruling power, as truth it cannot be resisted.” Hence a man may be convicted of his sins not only without any active effort of his own will, but even against his will. This does not mean, as we shall presently see, that he may be converted against his will.

Scripture Proof and Instances of Conviction.— When Christ promised to send the Holy Spirit, he said: “And when he is come, he will reprove the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment” (John xvi. 8). In the Revised Version this same passage reads: “And he, when he is come, will convict the world in respect of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment.” In fulfillment of this promise the true preaching of the word of salvation is in “demonstration of the Spirit and of power.” The effect of Peter’s sermon on the day of Pentecost was to produce conviction and is thus described: “Now when they heard this, they were pricked in their hearts, and said unto Peter and to the rest of the apostles, Men and brethren, what shall we do?” Paul’s conversion was preceded by conviction:

“And he fell to the earth, and heard a voice, saying unto him, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me? And he said, Who art thou, Lord? And the Lord said, I am Jesus whom thou persecutest: it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks. And he trembling and astonished said, Lord, what wilt thou have me to do?” (Acts ix. 4–6).

The conversion of the Philippian jailer is described in similar language: “And [he] came trembling, and fell down before Paul and Silas, and brought them out, and said, Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” (Acts xvi . 29, 30).

The Effect of Conviction. — The first effect of conviction of sin is to lead a man to abhor himself. Thus in Isaiah ( vi . 5–7) :

“Then said I, Woe is me! for I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips, for mine eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts. Then flew one of the seraphim unto me, having a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with the tongs from off the altar: and he laid it upon my mouth , and said, Lo, this hath touched thy lips; and thine iniquity is taken away, and thy sin purged.”

“Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord,” said another. Sin cannot endure the presence of the holy God; either the sin must be removed and purged, or the guilty sinner must withdraw from that God who is “a consuming fire.”

“O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death?” (Rom. vii . 24) is the exclamation of a man under conviction, groaning to be delivered. But the answer is not far off: “I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord.”

If under the overpowering sense of guilt the convicted sinner is made to feel that “the whole head is sick , and the whole heart faint,” that “from the sole of the foot even unto the head there is no soundness in it; but wounds, and bruises, and putrefying sores,” the Spirit that thus convicts makes haste to add: “Wash ye, make you clean; put away the evil of your doings from before mine eyes; cease to do evil; learn to do well; … Come now, and let us reason together, saith the Lord; though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.” (Isa. i . 16-18).

The Holy Spirit’s Work in Conviction Primary and Fundamental.— The Holy Spirit is the author of every movement of man’s soul toward salvation; but his influence implies, and, indeed, requires, a certain co-operation of the human agent before the salvation of any soul is accomplished. The spirit of grace, which is but another name for prevenient grace, “is the sole efficient cause of all spiritual good in man: of the beginning, continuance, and consummation of religion in the human soul.” Grace is the love of God for fallen man, as shown in and through Christ, with an emphasis upon his ill desert through sin; and when it takes a personal form it need not be distinguished from the Holy Spirit, who applies the meritorious atonement of Christ to the actual salvation of men.

“My grace is sufficient for thee.”

“Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, saith the Lord.”

“By grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it [that is, the divine plan of salvation through faith] is the gift of God.”

Thus, no matter how true it is that man’s free will determines the question of his own salvation , divine grace ever has the preeminence, both in the provision and the application of redemption. “No man can come unto me, except the Father which hath sent me draw him,” and this drawing is the specific work of the Holy Spirit. The fact that “it is God which worketh in us, both to will and to do of his good pleasure,” is given by the inspired writer as the reason why we should “work out our own salvation with fear and trembling.” Without the assurance that God is working in us, man’s salvation would be hope-less, it matters not how much he should work himself.

Varying Manifestations of Conviction. — The effects of conviction are very different in different individuals, being dependent upon temperament, knowledge, past character, age, and various other circumstances. A person of a demonstrative physical and mental temperament, under conviction, would likely be more powerfully swayed by emotion than one of an opposite temperament. A child seeking salvation cannot be expected to have the accompaniments and signs that often characterize the conviction of one who has been for many years a sinner . A “moralman,” when moved to seek salvation, rarely ever has the powerful compunctions of conscience that characterize the excessive and outbreaking sinner.

A certain amount of feeling usually accompanies conviction of sin; but conviction, properly speaking, belongs to the intellect rather than the emotions; it is knowledge, rather than feeling. Occasionally a man says that he knows he is a sinner, and wants to be saved, but that he does not “feel” that he is a sinner, and imagines that he cannot be converted until he “feels” convicted. An aroused conscience is the true test. If conscience and consciousness bear witness to sin and to the need of salvation, the amount of feeling possessed is a matter of altogether secondary consideration. “All the fitness he requireth is to feel your need of him.”

One may be truly convicted of sin, and yet through mistaken notions not realize it. At the close of a heart-searching sermon, a man once came forward for prayer. The preacher welcomed him, and said: “Do you feel that you are a sinner and want to be saved?”  “No,” said he, “I have come because I have absolutely no feeling whatever. I know I am a sinner, and I thought that, if I could sit absolutely unmoved under such an appeal as that, I was surely in danger of being forever lost; and so I have come to ask the prayers of the Church, chiefly because I have no feeling whatever, but I want to be convicted of sin.” Of course he had all the conviction of sin and all the feeling that were necessary for seeking and obtaining salvation. As a matter of fact, he was soon soundly converted, and became a most useful member of the Church, though it became necessary for him to learn that, for himself at least, being a Christian and serving God was a matter of principle and not of feeling, for the looked-for “feeling” never came.

The Spirit’s Influence Not Irresistible in Conviction.— It was a saying of one of the early fathers that “He who made you without you, and redeemed you without you, will not save you without you.” While the Holy Spirit may, and often does, irresistibly convict a sinner of his sin, he does not irresistibly convert and save him from his sin.

Conviction is not always followed by conversion, as is shown by the case of Felix: “And as he [Paul] reasoned of righteousness, temperance, and judgment to come, Felix trembled, and answered, Go thy way for this time; when I have a convenient season, I will call for thee.” (Acts xxiv. 25). There is no evidence that the “convenient season” ever came.

“My Spirit shall not always strive with [or rule in] man” is a passage of Scripture which implies that man may resist or drive away the Spirit that wooes, draws, strives with, and convicts him. “Ye stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears,” said St. Stephen, “ye do always resist the Holy Ghost: as your fathers did, so do ye.”

“And ye will not come to me, that ye might have life,” said the Master.

It is not unfrequently the case at revivals of religion that one who “comes to scoff remains to pray;” one who fights against the Spirit’s influence may, in spite of himself, be profoundly convicted, and then, when convicted, he may cease to resist the Holy Ghost, and may surrender to Christ and be saved. But while this is often happily the sequel to conviction, yet such is the nature of moral free agency that man’s sinful and stubborn will can resist all the influences of the Spirit and all the overtures of mercy, and refuse to give up the life of sin of which he stands consciously convicted. However awful it may be to contemplate such an alternative for a sinner after he has been once awakened, yet such is sometimes his guilty choice, and his end is death.

Conviction of Sin a Moral Crisis in Life.— Convictions of sin oftenest occur during revivals of religion and under the preaching of the word. Nevertheless, as the agent that produces conviction is the Holy Spirit, and as the instrument is chiefly the word—whether as preached, or read, or spoken, or sung, or prayed, or lived, matters not—conviction of sin may take place at any time.

When a person is convicted of sin, he is confronted with a moral crisis in his life. It is a point, rather than a prolonged period. It is too intense and terrible an experience to be prolonged. If one under conviction does not soon yield to the Spirit, his influence is withdrawn; his voice, not being heeded, ceases to be heard; and the sinner settles down into a state of spiritual indifference, to arouse him from which is more difficult than before he was convicted. It is a fearful thing to trifle with conviction of sin, and to drive away the Spirit of God when he is striving with the immortal soul, warning of sin and the judgment to come, and wooing to Christ and eternal life.

Those who are “almost persuaded” to yield and seek salvation at one revival service are rarely ever the ones who are “fully persuaded” at the next return of a season of grace, but are generally farther away from Christ and harder to reach and to move than they were before.

The gospel is a savor of life unto life, or else of death unto death. It is possible to grieve away the Spirit of God, so that he may never return again. What fearful words were those uttered by the Master:

“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, which killest the prophets, and stonest them that are sent unto thee; how often would I have gathered thy children together, as hen doth gather her brood under her wings, and ye would not! Behold, your house is left unto you desolate: and verily I say unto you, Ye shall not see me, until the time come when ye shall say, Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord.”

“And when he was come near, he beheld the city, and wept over it, saying, If thou hadst known, even thou, at least in this thy day, the things which belong unto thy peace! but now they are hid from thine eyes.”

A “day of grace” comes to all, and such is the day when the Spirit of God convicts of sin. “If slighted once, the season fair may never be renewed.” The natural inquiry of every truly awakened soul is, “What must I do to be saved?” to which the inspired answer is: “Repent of thy sins, and believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved.”

“If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

He who convicts stands ready to convert.

The whole book is available online: Personal Salvation: Studies in Christian Doctrine Pertaining to the Spiritual Life