John 20:31 “But these things are written that ye might believe on the Son of God, and that ye might have life through his name,”
Francke experienced a dramatic conversion while he was preparing a sermon on John 20:31. Realizing that he did not have the experience he was preaching about, begging for God to come into his life, everything changed in a moment.
“I knew how, at that time, to discuss all the doctrines of theology and morals, and could prove them from the Bible. I was correct in my external conduct, and neglected none of the forms of religion; but my head, not my heart, was affected. Theology was to me a mere science, in which only my memory and judgment were concerned. I did not make it practical. When I read the Bible, my effort was to become acquainted with its doctrines, not to apply them to myself; and though I wrote volumes of notes upon it, I never took care that its precepts should be written on my heart.” The influence which Kortholt exerted upon him, at this period, was such as to lead him, at times, to pray earnestly, that God would change his heart, and give him the spirit of his children. He often walked alone upon the sea-shore in the neighbourhood, and meditated upon three things: how he should become holy, how he should become learned, and how he should acquire the talent of making his knowledge useful to others. He was, however, still in darkness as to the means of obtaining the favour of God and deliverance from sin. P. 19.
Francke was accustomed to call Luneburg the place of his spiritual birth. It was here that he was led to the adoption of those views, and to the exercise of those feelings which so strikingly mark his after life, and which brought upon him so much censure from the enemies of vital piety. We have already given some account of his spiritual state, up to the time of his departure for Leipzig. At that place, he manifested much zeal in the study of the word of God, and some inclination to a more devoted life; but still he did not feel at ease with himself. There was something wanting to his happiness — a void in his soul which the world could not ﬁll. He knew that he was far from being in either a safe or proper state, but was, notwithstanding, unacquainted with his own heart and his spiritual helplessness. He was without that faith which consists not in an exercise of the intellect — which is not a thing of mere knowledge — but a sincere confidence and trust in God, and a sense of the preciousness of the Saviour.
Francke has given an account of this part of his life and of his conversion, of which the following is the substance: — “About the twenty-fourth year of my age, I began to feel, more than ever before, my wretched condition as to spiritual things, and to desire more ardently that I might be delivered from it. I do not remember that any external means led to this result, unless it may have been my theological and biblical studies, which I pursued, however, with an entirely worldly spirit. I was surrounded at this time (at Leipzig,) with the temptations which worldly society constantly presents, and was not a little affected by them. But, in the midst of them, God, of his mercy, sent his Spirit to lead me away from every earthly good, and inclined me to humble myself before Him, and pray for grace to serve him in ‘newness of life.’ These words of Scripture were impressed upon my mind: ‘ For when ye ought for the time to be teachers, ye have need that one teach you again what are the first principles of the oracles of God.’ (Heb V. 12.) — I had been engaged in the study of theology for nearly seven years, and was familiar with the doctrines of our church, and could defend them against opposers; I had read the Bible much, and many other practical works; but all had only affected my understanding; my heart was as yet unchanged, and it was necessary for me to begin anew to be a Christian. I found myself so deplorably situated, so bound to earthly things, and so attached to the pursuit of knowledge, that though I felt the need of reformation, I was like one cast into a mire, who can only stretch out his hands and ask for aid. But God, in his inﬁnite compassion, did not leave me in this helpless condition. He removed obstacle after obstacle from before me, and thus prepared the way for my deliverance from the bonds of sin. I became diligent in using the means of grace, and neglected no opportunity of worshipping and serving Him. I began to see a little light dawning upon my path, but it was more like twilight than the perfect day. I seemed to have placed one foot upon the threshold of the temple of life and salvation, but lingered there, being too much attracted by the temptations of the world to enter. The conviction of my duty was very strong, but my habits were so fixed upon me, that I could not avoid indiscretions in word and action, which caused the keenest pain. At the same time, there was such a change in my feelings, that I now longed after and loved holiness, spoke of it frequently, and declared to some of my friends, that I was determined to live, hereafter, a godly life. Such a change was observable in me, that some of them thought me a very devoted Christian; but I know well that I was, at that time, too much under the influence of the world, and that my resistance to my evil dispositions was very feeble. How miserable would have been my condition, had I continued in this state, grasping earth with one hand, and reaching after heaven with the other — desiring to enjoy both the world and God, but being at peace with neither! How great is the love of God manifested to men through Christ Jesus! He did not cast me off forever, as I richly deserved, on account of my heinous sinfulness, but bore with me, supported my weakness, and enabled me to seek him. I can testify, from my own experience, that man has no ground of complaint against God in the matter of his salvation, for he ever opens the door of mercy to the soul that sincerely seeks his grace. He has taken me by the hand and led me forward as a tender parent does her offspring, and even when I would have left his side, he has brought me back again. He has, in answer to my prayer, placed me now in a situation where the world need not allure me from the path of duty, and where I have every advantage for serving him.”
This situation to which he alludes was that at Luneburg, where he was free from the distracting cares and duties, as well as the temptations of Leipzig, and enjoyed the society of a few truly devout Christians. He now made the duties of religion a constant object of his attention, and devoted much of his time to secret prayer and meditation.
Shortly after his arrival at Luneburg, he was appointed to preach a sermon in the church of St. John, principally with the design of giving him the opportunity of improving himself in the art of public speaking. But his mind was now in such a state that he could not be satisﬁed with the idea of merely making a display of his talents before the people; he desired rather to do them good. While he was thus meditating, he fell upon the text, “But these things are written that ye might believe on the Son of God, and that ye might have life through his name,” and chose it as the subject of his sermon. From these words he proposed to show the nature of true faith in Christ, as distinguished from a merely imaginary or speculative belief. While reﬂecting upon this passage, the thought arose in his mind, that he himself had no such faith as that which he was about to describe; and so much did it affect him, that he neglected his sermon entirely, and turned his attention to himself. He sought, in various ways, to obtain that state of feeling which he desired; but the more he strove, the greater was his doubt and difﬁculty. He found no relief either in the word of God or the writings of pious men; all were alike obscure and unmeaning to him. “My whole past life,” says he, “now came before my mind, and I could look over every part of it as one who examines a city from some lofty steeple. At ﬁrst, my attention was attracted by individual sins; but soon I forgot them in the contemplation of that one which had been the fountain of all the rest, unbelief.” This discovery of himself threw him into the greatest distress. He had neither rest nor peace, but spent his time principally alone in his apartment, sometimes restlessly walking up and down — and then falling upon his knees, and praying “to the God whom he did not know,” as he expresses it; sometimes saying, “If there be a God, oh! let him have mercy on me.”
“One Sabbath,” he continues, “it seemed to me, that I could not, in this state of mind, preach the sermon which had been appointed me, and I thought of postponing it again; for I could not bear the idea of preaching against my own experience, and deceiving the people as to my own state. I felt deeply what it is to have no God upon whom my soul could depend: to mourn over sin, and yet know not why it was, or what it was that caused me such distress; to deplore my wretchedness, and yet know no way of deliverance—no Saviour; even to be ignorant whether there was a God who could be angry with me! In this state of anguish I kneeled down again and again, and prayed earnestly to that God and Saviour in whom I had, as yet, no faith, that if He indeed existed, he would deliver me from my misery. At last he heard me! He was pleased, in his wondrous love, to manifest himself, and that, not in taking away, by degrees, my doubts and fears, but at once, and as if to overpower all my objections to his power and his faithfulness. All my doubts disappeared at once, and I was assured of his favour, I could not only call him God, but my Father. All my distress was dispelled, and I was, as it were, inundated with a ﬂood of joy, so that I could do nothing but praise and bless the Lord. I had bowed before Him in the deepest misery, but I arose with indescribable peace and joy. I seemed to myself to have just awaked from a dream, in which all my past life had been spent. I was convinced, that the world, with all its pleasures, could not give such enjoyment as I now experienced, and felt that, after such a foretaste of the grace and goodness of God, the temptations of earth would have but little effect upon me.”
A few days after this, he preached the sermon already mentioned, and with much peace of mind. He was able to say, now, with the Apostle, “We have the same Spirit of faith, according as it is written; I believe, therefore have I spoken; we also believe, and therefore speak.”
From this time he dated his conversion, and, forty years after, in his last prayer in the garden of the Orphan House, he said, that a fountain had been opened in his heart from which streams of happiness had uninterruptedly ﬂowed. From that time, religion had been to him a reality, enabling him to deny himself all ungodliness, and every worldly desire and affection. Francke, began at that time to regard the honour of God and the salvation of men, as the most important of all subjects, and to estimate the riches and honours of the world as “vanity of vanities.” He had now obtained that knowledge for which he had been so long seeking; and the display which is made in his experience, of the blindness of the natural man, is truly striking and instructive. With the Bible constantly before him, and books upon practical piety shedding their light upon his path, he wandered, as if in perfect darkness, till God shone into his mind with “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in Christ Jesus.” It was not until he had been brought to a most humbling conviction of his unworthiness, and helplessness, and despaired utterly of obtaining deliverance from sin by his own efforts, that he could see the meekness of the Lord Jesus as a Saviour; and not until he felt an assurance of pardon, through faith in him, that he found any permanent peace.
This is the only plan upon which the sinner can be admitted to the favour of God; and it is the glory and love, manifested in this plan, which it will be the privilege of the saints above, forever to admire and adore.
We close this chapter with some extracts from an account of his views and feelings, at this time, which he wrote at the request of some Christian friends, and which was afterwards published under the title, of “The Christian’s Life of Faith.”
“This,” he begins, “is the confession of my faith, the truth which I have learned from the word of God, and which the Holy Ghost has sealed upon my heart; this is the course in which I run the Christian race, and the path by continuing in which I shall be pre-served from every false way, and obtain the prize of life.
“I acknowledge myself a poor and wretched worm. I have, by sinfulness, exposed myself to temporal and eternal death. But the Son of God has given himself for me, and reconciled me to the Father by his blood, so that God no more imputes my sins unto me, but reckons to me for justiﬁcation, the righteousness of his Son, which I receive by faith.
“Through this faith, which is the operation of the Holy Ghost, I am truly justiﬁed, and in this justiﬁcation have found peace with God.
“I do not, however, profess to be without faults, and inﬁrmities. On the contrary, I know that those which I have discovered in myself, are almost innumerable; and those which his eye alone beholds, are far more numerous. Yet since I am in Christ Jesus, God pardons, and overlooks them all, as a tender father the failings and misconduct of his child.
“But though I thus trust that I am not under condemnation, his grace does not render me careless, and secure; it rather excites me, daily, to be more and more renewed in the spirit of my mind. God has implanted within me a ﬁlial fear of him, which preserves me from sinning against his face.
“I daily ﬁght against sin, and crucify the ﬂesh, with its affections and lusts; yet I cannot do this in my own strength; but through the Holy Spirit, which dwells in me. He purgeth me daily, as a branch of the vine, that I may bear more fruit.
“I am, in truth, cleansed through the word which Christ has spoken, and in which I have believed; and this is no vain imagination; for Christ has truly loved me, and washed me in his blood, so that my salvation is rendered sure, through grace.
“My beginning, progress, and ending, is by faith in Jesus Christ. When I feel my utter inability, and acknowledge that I can do nothing of myself, and cast myself alone upon his mercy, and look to the Lamb of God, who bore our sins, I feel a new power communicated to my soul.
“1 do not seek to be justiﬁed in one way, and sanctiﬁed in another. I have but one way and that is Christ, who is the way, the truth and the life.
“I rest on nothing but Christ, but when I plead the pardon of sin, so I cleave to him alone, in my efforts, to increase in faith, and hope, and love.
“When I yield myself to his control, and do not oppose the workings of his Spirit, he then works in me, both to will and to do of his good pleasure. Happy are they who do not turn away from his inﬂuences.
“To the humble, the Lord is friendly, for the graces of the Spirit are richly dispensed to contrite hearts.
“While the soul acknowledges no merit in itself, but ﬁnds its all in Christ, we shall be ﬁlled with heavenly peace: but as soon as we become puffed up, we tread a path of error, strewed with anxiety and danger.
“Nevertheless, God has his appointed seasons for the trial and humiliation of his people; and although the believer may not depart from the right way, he must expect to pass through many tribulations, that the secret depravity of his heart may be revealed to him.
“How readily do we deviate from the straight and narrow way! How often does the believer suffer himself to be led away from Christ, and his trust in him, to attempt a mere legal obedience! How prone is he to forsake the Gospel, for the law!
“The Gospel has a divine simplicity, and makes the believer kind and affectionate towards all men. The Gospel is a shining light; a pure stream of peace; it leads us away from dependence upon ourselves; it introduces us to the enjoyment of God, and puts us in possession of salvation.
“Blessed is the man who is not ashamed of his hope; a shame which all must experience, who follow the doctrines of men, and trust in them more than in Christ.
“The carnal heart discerns no other way of obtaining happiness, than by its own works; but the way of the Lord is directly the reverse. He brings down our pride, shows us how vain is all our sufﬁciency, that He may be all in all. Lord Jesus! lead me by thy good spirit in the right way.”
These extracts will show that Francke had already become well acquainted with the true nature and importance of faith, that doctrine which was so much mistaken at that time. He here describes this grace, principally in reference to the experience of the believer’s own heart. That he did not make it a mere matter of feeling, and of no practical effect upon his life, as is too often the case, will be abundantly proved in the succeeding part of the narrative.
August Hermann Francke, Memoirs of Francke, (Philadelphia, American Sunday School Union, 1830), pp. 25-39.