The Marvelous Providences of God in the Conversion of Sinners

From John Flavel’s The Mystery of Providence (Works, IV:377-82)

Now there be divers things in those providences, that are versant
about this work, which are exceeding sweet and taking: As,

1. The wonderful strangeness and unaccountableness of this work
of providence, in casting us into the way, and ordering the occasions,
yea, the minutest circumstances about this work. This you
find in Acts viii. 26, 27, 28, 29, 30, &c. The Eunuch, at that very
instant when he was reading the prophet Isaiah, hath an interpreter,
one among a thousand, that joins his chariot, just as his
mind was by a fit occasion prepared to receive the first light of the
knowledge of Christ.

And how strange was that change (how far soever it went) upon
Naaman the Syrian! recorded, 2 Kings v. 1, 2, 3, 4. that the
Syrians in their incursions should bring away this girl, (likely her
beauty was the inducement) and she must be presented to
Naaman’s wife, and relate to her the power of God that accompanied
the Prophet; though you find in that particular case there
had never been an instance given before; Luke iv. 27. Doubtless
the whole of this affair was guided by the signal direction of providence.

So for the conversion of the Samaritans it is observed, John iv.4.
Christ must needs go that way, i. e. it lay just in the road betwixt
Judea and Galilee; and that at the sixth hour, i. e. high
noon, he rests himself upon Jacob’s well, still seeming to have no
other design but his own refreshment by sitting and drinking
there. But Ο what a train of blessed providences follow this,
which seemed but an accidental thing! first the woman of Samaria,
and then many more in that city are brought to believe in
Christ, as you find verses 29 and 41.

It is noted by Melchior Adams, in the life of Junius, how very
an atheist he was grown in his younger years; but in order to his
conversion to God, first a wonderful preservation of his life in a
tumult in Lyons in France must make way, which forces from him
the acknowledgment of a Deity. Then his father sends for him
home, and with much gentleness persuades him to read the scriptures:
he lights upon the first of John, and with it he sensibly feels
a divine supernatural majesty and power seizing his soul, which
brought him over by a complete conversion to Jesus Christ. Thus,
as the woman of Tekoa told David, “Doth God devise means to “bring back his banished.”

Lavater tells us, that many Spanish soldiers going into the wars
of Germany, were there converted to Christ by falling into the
cities and towns inhabited by godly ministers and pious Christians,
Mr. Robert Bolton, though an excellent scholar, yet in his
younger years was a very irreligious person, and jeerer of holy
men; but being cast into the company of godly Mr. Peacock, was
by him brought to repentance, and proved a famous instrument in
the church of Christ.

A scrap of paper, accidentally coming to view,hath been used as
an occasion of conversion. This was the case of a minister in
Wales, who had two livings, but took little care of either. He
being at a fair, bought something at a pedlar’s standing, and rent
off a leaf of Mr. Perkin’s catechism to wrap it in, and reading a
line or two in it, God set it home so as it did the work.

The marriage of a godly man into a carnal family hath been ordered
by providence for the conversion and salvation of many
therein. Thus we read in the life of that renowned English worthy
Mr. John Bruen, that in his second match it was agreed that
he should have one year’s diet in his mother-in-law’s house. During
his abode there that year (saith Mr. Clark), the Lord was
pleased, by his means, graciously to work upon her soul, as also
upon his wife’s sister and half-sister, their brothers, Mr. William
and Mr. Thomas Fox, with one or two of the servants in that family.

The reading of a good book hath been the means of bringing
others to Christ. And thus we find many of the German divines
converted by reading Luther’s books: yea, and what is more
strange, Mr. Sleidan in his commentary tells us, that Vergerius,
though he were present an eye and ear-witness to that doleful case
of Spira, which one would think should move a stone, yet still
continued so firm to the Pope’s interest, that when he fell in some
suspicion among the cardinals, he resolved to purge himself bv
writing a book against the German apostates: but whilst he read
the Protestant books, out of no other design but to confute them;
whilst he is weighing the arguments, is himself convinced and
brought to Christ. He finding himself thus overcome by the
truth, imparts his conviction to his brother, a zealous papist also.
This brother deplores the misery of his case, and seeks to reclaim
him. But Vergerius entreating him to weigh well the Protestant
arguments, he also yields; and so both immediately betook themselves
to preach justification by the free grace of God through the
blood of Christ.

Yea, not only the reading of a book, or hearing a minister, but,
(which is most remarkable) the very mistake or forgetfulness of a
minister, hath been improved by providence for this end and purpose.
Augustine once preaching to his congregation, forgot the
argument which he first proposed, and fell upon the errors of the
Manichees, beside his first intention; by which discourse he converted
one Firmus his auditor, who fell down at his feet weeping,
and confessing he had lived a Manichee many years. Another I
knew, who, going to preach, took up another Bible than that he
designed, in which, not only missing his notes, but the chapter also
in which his text lay, was put to some loss thereby: but, after a short
pause, he resolved to speak to any other scripture that might be presented
to him, and accordingly he read that text, 2 Pet. iii. 9. “The
Lord is not slack concerning his promise,” &c. And though he
had nothing prepared, yet the Lord helped him to speak both
methodically and pertinently from it: by which discourse a gracious
change was wrought upon one in the congregation, who hath since
given good evidence of a sound conversion, and acknowledged this
sermon to be the first and only means thereof.

The accompanying of others in a neighbourly civil visit hath
been over-ruled to the same end. Thus many of the Jews accompanied
Mary unto Bethany designing only to manifest their civil
respect; but there they met Christ, saw the things which he did,
and believed on him, John xi. 4a.

Mr. Firmin, in his Real Christian, p. 97, 98. tell us of one who
had lived many years in a town where Christ had been as clearly
and as long preached as in any town in England: this man, when
he was about seventy-six years of age, went to visit a sick neighbour:
‘A Christian friend of mine (saith mine author) came to see him also,
and finding this old man there, whom he judged to
be one that lived upon his own stock, civility, good works, &c.
he purposely fell into that discourse, to shew how many persons
lived upon their duties, but never came to Christ. The old man
sitting by the bed-side, heard him, and God was pleased to convince him that he was such a person, who had lived upon himself without Christ to that day; and would say afterwards, Had I died before threescore and sixteen, I had perished, for I knew not Christ.

The committing of a godly man to prison hath been the method
of providence to save the soul of a poor keeper. So Paul, Acts xvi.
27. was made a prisoner to make his keeper a spiritual freeman.
The like success had Dr. Barns in queen Mary’s days, who afterwards
celebrated the Lord’s supper in prison with his converted

The scattering of ministers and Christians by persecution from
cities and towns, into the ignorant and barbarous parts of the country,
hath been the way of providence to find out and bring home
some lost sheep that were found there to Jesus Christ, Acts viii. 1,
4. The like signal event hath since followed upon the like scattering
of godly ministers, whereof there are many pregnant instances
this day.

A servant running away from his master (likely upon no other
design but to live an idle life) ; yet falling into such places and
companies as providence ordered (in a design to him unknown)
hath thereby been brought to be the servant of Christ. This was
the very case of Onesimus, who ran away from his master Philemon
to Rome; where, by a strange providence, (possibly a mere
curiosity to see the prisoners), he there falls into Paul’s hands,
who begat him to Christ in his bonds, Philem. ver. 10, 11, 12, 13,
14, 15, 16.

Going to hear a sermon in jest hath proved some men’s conversion in earnest. The above-named Mr. Firmin, in the forecited book, tells us of a notorious drunkard, whom the drunkards called father, that one day would needs go to hear what Wilson said, out of no other design it seems but to scoff at that holy man; but
in the prayer before sermon, his heart began to thaw; and when he read his text, which was John v. 14. “Sin no more, lest a worse thing come unto thee;” he could not contain: and in that sermon the Lord changed his heart, though so bitter an enemy, that the minister on lecture-days was afraid to go to church before his shopdoor. “Lo, these are parts of his ways; but how small a portion is known of him?”

The dropping of some grave and weighty word accidentally, in
the presence of vain carnal persons, the death of an husband, wife,
or child, a fit of sickness, with a thousand other such like occasions, have been thus improved by providence to the conversion of souls.

And no less remarkable and wonderful are the designs of providence
in ordering the removes, and governing the motions of ministers
from place to place in order unto the conversion of souls.
Thus oftentimes it carries them to places where they intended not
to go; God having (unknown to them) some elect vessels there,
who must be called by the gospel.

Thus Paul and Timothy (a sweet and lovely pair) when they
were travelling through Phrygia and Galatia, were forbid to preach
the word in Asia, to which probably their minds inclined, Acts
xvi. 6. And when they assayed to go into Bithynia, the Spirit
suffered them not, ver. 7. But a man of Macedonia, (i. e. an angel
in the shape or habit of a man of that country, appeared to
Paul in a vision, and prayed him, saying, “Come over into Macedonia, and help us,” ver. 9. and there did God open the heart of Lydia.

I knew a pious minister, now with God, who falling in his study
upon a very rousing subject, intended for his own congregation,
was strongly moved when he had finished it, to go to a rude, vile,
profane people about five miles off, and first preach it to them.
After many wrestlings with himself, not being willing to quench
any motion that might be supposed to come from the Spirit of
God, he obeyed, and went to this people, who had then no minister
of their own, and few durst come among them. And there
did the Lord, beyond all expectation, open a door, and several profane
ones received Christ in that place, and engaged this minister to
a weekly lecture among them, in which many souls were won to

The same holy man, at another time, being upon a journey,
passed by a company of vain persons, who were wrestling upon a
green near the road: and just as he came against the place, one
of them had thrown his antagonist, and stood triumphing in his
strength and activity. This good man rode up to them, and turning
his speech to this person; told him, Friend, I see you are a
strong man; but let not the strong man glory in his strength: you
must know, that you are not to wrestle with flesh and blood, but
with principalities and powers, and spiritual wickednesses: how sad
will it be, that Satan should at last trip up the heels of your hope,
and give you an eternal overthrow! and after about a quarter of
an hour serious discourse upon this subject, he left them and went
on his journey. But this discourse made such an impression, that
the person had no rest, till he opened his trouble to a godly minister,
who, wisely following the work upon his soul, saw at last
the blessed issue thereof in the gracious change of the person,
whereof he afterwards gave the minister a joyful account. Ο how
unsearchable are the methods of providence in this matter!