I’m grateful to Jeremy Walker for posting Spurgeon’s account of his spiritual experience. (Was it his conversion? or was that earlier?) The first paragraph quoted there is very movingly true to life. It’s strange, incidentally, how often unconverted and uninterested people are so quick to take the threatenings of scripture to themselves – people often seem to assume the worst about themselves in their relation to God and consideration of their eternal destiny, even when they don’t go so far as to make that a serious concern and have these matters put right. (Is this conscience?)
But that’s a digression – in Spurgeon’s case he was profoundly concerned about his soul’s salvation, and searching the scriptures anxiously. “When I was for many a month in this state, I used to read the Bible through, and the threatenings were all printed in capitals, but the promises were in such small type I could not for a long time make them out; and when I did read them, I did not believe they were mine; but the threatenings were all my own. . . .” The strange thing, although it’s not unique to him, was how he believed absolutely that the threatenings of scripture were true and applicable in his own case, and somehow overlooked the applicability of the promises at the same time. Is this unbelief? a strange kind of half-belief maybe, convinced that condemnation is justly deserved, but unable to grasp the gospel promises even though it’s the same Word of God that proclaims both, equally authoritatively. It takes the activity of the Holy Spirit to make a person tremble at the threatenings and yet keep implicitly looking God-wards for salvation even when they’re not consciously embracing the promises, and not only so, but it takes the activity of the Holy Spirit to open a person’s eyes to see mercy for sinners written in the scriptures in at least as big and bold letters as the condemnation of sin.
I thought there was something in my archives by John Owen on the discovery of forgiveness, but since I can’t find it I’ll have to paraphrase, somewhat riskily, from memory. Owen says somewhere that it is a huge support to a sin-troubled soul, to realise (or have it revealed to them) that mercy is available. The granting of mercy is a benefit of such magnitude and majesty – even to see that there is forgiveness, whether or not it is extended to yourself personally, must be a gift from the Holy Spirit, and is a tremendous relief. Who, reading the bible as a self-accused, self-confessed sinner, would have thought that such terms as mercy, and compassion, and forgiveness, could be included in it. But mercy is available for sinners in Christ, sure mercies and riches of mercy, for anyone to stake their soul’s salvation on safely. Who is a God like unto thee, that pardons iniquity? his delight is in mercy.
Maybe, then, although I’d be interested to know what other people think, you could say that what distinguishes a non-saving, non-spiritual fear of condemnation from the kind of experience Spurgeon describes, can be seen in the person’s reaction to the truth of the scripture threatenings when that impinges on them – the response can either be to resist and resent how God deals with sin and suppress as much as possible the thought of God and his holiness, or else to acknowledge the entire validity of the condemnation and turn towards God in search of reconciliation instead of away from him. The God who is angry with sinners is the very one who we have to find mercy from: in the same scriptures that condemn sin his mercy towards sinners is displayed at large, to be believed in. Let the wicked forsake his ways, and turn to the Lord, for he will abundantly pardon; hope in the Lord, for with him there is plenteous redemption.