I was honored to be the camp pastor of the Sovereign Grace Youth Camp in Conway, Missouri this past week. What happened over those few days will be something I will never forget—God graciously brought conviction of sins, and then forgiveness and peace upon several young souls. These campers came as sinners and under the wrath of God, but happily went back home forgiven and justified in the sight of God.
It seems that many of them were under a measure of conviction at the beginning of the week, but came under heavy conviction at the Wednesday evening service. After the sermon, there was quietness and weeping throughout the assembly. For fifteen minutes, no one moved or said anything. The common cry of those who were broken, when asked what was wrong, was: “I am so guilty.” When the service was dismissed, some under conviction remained for counsel, while others left the building only to return for prayer and counsel. Some found secluded places to pray alone, while others remained weeping in their seats. Some cries turned to tears of rejoicing as professions of faith followed. Two young ladies, feeling physically sick, left to go to the dorms and refused to come out the next morning. After one broke down in repentance, the other young girl soon broke down as well—which after receiving a clear conscious before God they realized that they no longer felt sick. One young man, who traveled to the camp with my wife and I, came to faith, with his burden of sin removed, the following night. Still others were seeking God and praying for God to save their souls even as the camp ended. Many people made public professions of faith, while other campers would leave camp to go back to their homes under conviction. Only time will tell if these professions are a result of true conversions, but the counselors and I have good reason to believe that they were a byproduct of not mere human emotions or manipulation, but a result of God’s supernatural and sovereign grace.
As I reflect upon what took place, here are a few of my thoughts.
It is important to have a burden for our lost children and to pray for them daily
Their parents and church family had faithfully prayed for each of these young people prior to their conversions. Nine of the young ladies who were converted were mentioned by name that very morning in the counselors prayer meeting. The young man who traveled to the camp with my wife and I, was placed on our church’s prayer list because a month earlier I had asked him if he was a Christian—he responded by saying, “No sir, but I want to be.” Immediately I was burdened for his soul, and would have our church (Grace Bible Church in Conway, AR) pray specifically for this young man’s salvation at this youth camp. A prayer that was graciously answered. I also learned after returning that my father’s church (Grace Baptist Church in Batesville, AR) had prayed Wednesday night for God to move mightily upon the service. This prayer too was answered. The ladies prayer group from Bible Baptist Church (St. Louis, MO) prayed for the youth camp, the pastor’s wife of Bridgetown Baptist Church (Nesbit, MS) held an impromptu prayer meeting and sent out a list of all the campers and counselors to so that every person at the camp would be lifted up to God by name. Only the Lord knows how many prayers were ushered up to God on the behalf of these young people—and not a single prayer went unheard by our Lord. Thus, we should never grow weary of praying for lost souls and for God to move upon our services. God works through prayer—may we continue to pray without ceasing.
The Messenger is only a Vessel—and the Work and Glory is to God Alone
Evangelists who use emotional pressure and tactics to talk people into making a public profession have room to boast in their accomplishment—they, and not God, produced an outward profession. Yet, those who simply preach the Word and see people converted afterwards know that they did absolutely nothing. Every sermon that I preached this last week was a repeat. No conversions followed the first go around. Yet, it pleased God to use these messages, at least in part, to convict lost souls. God alone is responsible for bringing true repentance and faith. I felt like an empty vessel. I felt like a spectator. I was given the privilege, along with the other counselors, to be an eyewitness of God’s power and grace that night. It was as if God showed up mightily and all that we did was watch the grace and power of God at work. To God alone be the glory is not just a nice thing to say, but for those who eyewitness the grace of God know that it is the only thing that can be said.
With this in mind, those, who like Spurgeon, are used by God to bring many souls out of darkness by their preaching, are not necessarily any more important or godly than those who faithfully preach week after week with no conversions. Although one sermon alone by Peter was used by God to convert five-thousand souls, Peter was no more able to impart saving faith than Jeremiah who saw no conversions under his whole ministry. Although we all desire to be used by God for the salvation of many, the important thing for all of us is to remain faithful.
The Importance of the Objective Truth
After counseling with those under conviction, I have come to a higher appreciation of the objective truth and certainty of the gospel message. Salvation is not based upon feelings. Thank the Lord for that. Some under conviction seem to complicate faith. It seems that some think that they need to experience conversion before they can place their faith in Christ. They have a hard time believing God’s promise of salvation, and thus they think that they need to experience God’s forgiveness, as evidenced by some form of conversion experience, before they can trust God. This seems to be based upon a false notion that our emotional and spiritual experience is what brings us peace with God, rather than peace being obtained by faith in God’s Word. It is not a matter of how we feel, but a matter of if we believe and trust God. In essence, putting too much stock in our feelings is placing our faith in our faith, rather than placing our faith in Christ. Christ has said in His Word that all who believe shall be saved—it comes down to if we believe this or not. This promise is given to us, and faith in the promise should be enough to give us the assurance that our sins are forgiven. It is not faith in our faith that saves us, but it is faith in the promise of God. This is why the objective word is so important. Faith looks to Christ, and not to itself, and understanding this truth is vital when counseling lost and broken souls who are seeking God’s forgiveness.
The Importance of the Subjective Emotions of Guilt and Peace
Without contradicting my last point, I have come to appreciate the subjective and emotional side of conversions better as well. Our emotions or experiences are not what save us, but it is impossible to be saved without a measure of guilt and then a measure of peace to follow. Experiencing the feeling of guilt is vital because there is no salvation without repentance of sins. And, is there such a thing as repentance without feeling guilty, sorry and remorseful for our sins? How can sinners desire a salvation from sin if they do not inwardly feel guilty and sorry for their transgressions against God? They can’t. Conviction and guilt is a part of the conversion experience. Not only guilt, but also assurance is important in our conversion experience. As we noted above, faith in God’s promise, at least in part, brings some measure of assurance and peace within the heart. How do we have faith in Christ for forgiveness of sins if we do not truly believe that Christ has forgiven us from our sins? Not all Christians are blessed with the same degree of assurance, but all Christians at least have enough assurance in God’s promise for them to cast themselves upon the mercies of Christ. Otherwise, if they had no assurance or confidence in the gospel promise they would not believe it. So, although guilt and assurance do not save us, they are common feelings for those who repent and believe the gospel.
With all this in mind, I believe that it is very dangerous to seek to give troubled souls an artificial assurance that does not come by their own inward faith in Christ. It is dangerous to tell those under heavy conviction and guilt to find relief in any other thing than looking to Christ in faith. Some churches tell those battling with guilt and doubt to look to their baptism, others churches tell them to look at their past or present experiences, and still others seek to bring assurance to troubled souls by pronouncing absolution upon them. Guilt and assurance are both subjective experiences and are a part of the common conversion experience. Only present faith in God’s word should bring those under conviction the assurance that they need. Man cannot do this—only God can impart saving faith and the assurance of salvation from their sins. So we must be careful not to rush those under conviction to the waters of baptism until they themselves have apprehended the peace which comes from believing in Christ for themselves.
In conclusion I am just thankful for the mercies of God who is able to draw sinners, even young sinners, to Himself by granting them repentance and faith towards God. My prayer now is for those who left the camp still under conviction that God may grant them faith in Christ Jesus and the peace that follows.