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David Brainerd on Experiencing the Spirit at Conversion

Brainerd Journal

Experiencing the Spirit

Last week I asked whether we should promise someone an experience of the Spirit at conversion.

I noted that this is what Jesus did with the woman at the well, when he promised that if she asked him, he would give her living water (John 4:10).

This is also what Jesus did with the crowd at the Feast of Tabernacles, when he promised that anyone who came to him and believed in him would receive rivers of living water (John 7:37-39).

When Jesus mentions the living water, he’s talking about the Holy Spirit, who enables us to see and feel the glory of Christ so powerfully that all our heart-thirsts are satisfied (John 15:26; 16:14; 2 Corinthians 3:18).

Then there is Paul, who says that conversion involves the Spirit freeing us from Satan’s blinding power so that, for the first time, we see the light of Jesus’ glory (2 Corinthians 3:18; 4:6).

So, because of what Jesus and Paul taught, I concluded that we should promise people an experience of the Spirit at conversion.

David Brainerd

After writing that post, I remembered David Brainerd.  He was a missionary to the American Indians in the 1700’s, who wrote a detailed journal on how God worked in his own heart, and the hearts of others.

And in this journal he described the conversion of many Indians, and emphasized how they experienced this work of the Spirit.  Here are two examples taken from The Life and Diary of David Brainerd (Moody Press, 1949).

A Medicine Man

Brainerd tells the story of an unbelieving Indian who used demonic power to conjure spells and heal people.

One day, while listening to Brainerd preach, the Indian said he “[felt] the word of God in his heart,” and that he immediately lost all his power to conjure and heal.

But the Indian knew he was not yet saved, so he continued to come hear Brainerd preach.  Then one day “the Word of God took such hold on him that he was brought into great distress and knew not what to do, nor where to turn.”

His sense of conviction and guilt before God went on for a week.  But then Brainerd describes what happened one day while he was preaching —

… while I was discoursing publicly he seemed to have a lively, soul-refreshing view of the excellency of Christ, and the way of salvation by Him, which melted him into tears and filled him with admiration, comfort, satisfaction, and praise to God.

And he concludes —

Since then he has appeared to be a humble, devout, and affectionate Christian; serious and exemplary in his conversation and behavior … In all respects, so far as I am capable to judge, he bears the marks and characters of one “created anew in Christ Jesus to good works.” (pp.298ff)

This medicine man had come to Christ by faith alone, and had received the living water of the Spirit, just as Jesus promised.

An Unbelieving Woman

One Sunday during church Brainerd could see that many Indians were convicted of sin and longing for salvation.

So after the service he met at his home with some of them to worship and encourage them with Scripture.  Here’s what happened to one woman —

While we were singing, there was one … who I may venture to say … was “filled with joy  unspeakable and full of glory [1 Peter 1:8],” and could not but burst forth in prayer and praises to God before us all, with many tears, crying sometimes in English and sometimes in Indian: “O, blessed Lord, do come, do come!  Oh, do take me away, do let me die and go to Jesus Christ!  I am afraid if I live I shall sin again! Oh, do let me die now!  O, dear Jesus, do come!…”  

When she had recovered herself, I asked her if Christ was not now sweet to her soul.  

Whereupon, turning to me with tears in her eyes and with all the tokens of deep humility I ever saw in any person, she said; “I have many times heard you speak of the goodness and the sweetness of Christ, that he was better than all the world.  But oh! I knew nothing what you meant, I never believed you!  I never believed you!  But now I know it’s true!”

Brainerd knew that great joy does not always show true conversion.  But since this woman’s joy focused on the glory of Christ, he believed she had been saved.  Here’s what he wrote in his journal —

I am very sensible there may be great joys arising even to ecstasy where there is still no substantial evidence of their being well-grounded.  

But in the present case there seemed to be no evidence wanting … This sweet and surprising ecstasy appeared to spring from a true spiritual discovery of the glory, ravishing beauty, and excellency of Christ. (p.280)

So this Indian woman had experienced what Paul says happens at conversion —

For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. (2 Corinthians 4:6)

No Empty Gas Tanks

We are like cars.  God has created us to run on the gasoline of the light of Christ’s glory.  And conversion is when God wants to fill our tanks with this heart-satisfying fuel.

So when you point someone to Christ, it’s like you are pushing an out-of-gas car to a gas station.

But think of what happens if we pray with people for salvation, but then before they experience this work of the Spirit, we tell them they are saved and have received the Spirit even though they have felt nothing?

We’ve pushed them to the gas station.  But we’ve encouraged them to leave with an empty gas tank — without the assurance, the joy, the power God wants to give them.

So when you pray with people for salvation, explain what Jesus promises —

  • forgiveness of all their sins (1 John 1:9)
  • no condemnation (Romans 8:1)
  • the gift of Christ’s righteousness covering their remaining sin (2 Corinthians 5:21)
  • adoption as God’s sons and daughters (Galatians 4:5)
  • AND the gift of the Spirit — the light of Jesus’ glory shining into their hearts (2 Corinthians 4:6), rivers of living water satisfying their heart thirsts (John 7:37-39), the Spirit bearing witness with their spirits that they are now children of God (Romans 8:16)

Then pray for them, that God will enable them to repent and trust Christ.  Urge them to turn their hearts from sin, and look to Christ by faith alone for all he has promised.

He won’t leave them with an empty gas tank.

Questions?  Comments?

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Category: Help with Evangelism, The Work of the Spirit


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