Overwhelmed as with a Stream of Joy: An Autobiography

AS FAR AS MY CHRISTIANITY WAS CONCERNED, particularly during my few years in Leipzig, it was very bad and gross. My intention was to be an eminent and learned man, to gain wealth and to live in good days … The surges of my heart were vain and were directed to future things which I did not have in my hand. I was more concerned to please men and to place myself in their favor than I was for the living God in Heaven. In external matters as well, I copied the world in superfluous clothing and other vanity. In short, inwardly and outwardly I was a man of the world and did not remove myself from evil but drew evil to myself. My knowledge increased but because of it I was ever more pompous. I have no cause to complain to God because of this situation, for God did not cease often very strongly to stir up my conscience and to call me to repentance through his Word. I was truly convinced that I was not in the proper state. I often cast myself down upon my knees and asked God for improvement. The result, however, demonstrated that my actions were of passing intensity. I knew very well how to justify myself before men, but the Lord knew my heart. I was in great unrest and in great misery, yet I did not give God the honor to acknowledge the basis for my disease nor did I seek in him alone the true ease. I saw clearly that I could not acquiesce in such principles on which I based my activities, yet nevertheless I allowed myself to be ever more enmeshed in them through my corrupted nature, and I pushed off my repentance from one day to the next.

I can say only that for twenty—four years I was nothing better than an unfruitful tree which bears much foliage but for the most part evil fruit. In such circumstances my life pleased the world to such a degree that we were able to get along very well together, for I loved the world and the world loved me. I was therefore very free from persecution because among the pious I had the appearance of being pious, and among the evil I was truly evil: I had learned to let my cloak blow in the direction the wind was blowing. No one hated me for the sake of truth because I did not eagerly make people my enemy, nor could they say anything against me truly because I did not live in opposition to them. Nevertheless such a peace with the world was not able to bring any rest to my heart. But concern for the future, desire for position, the desire to know everything, the search for human favor and friendship and other similar things flowing from the evils of worldly love (in particular, however, the continual secret nagging worm of an evil conscience that I was not in the right state), drove my heart as a stormy sea now to one side, now to the other, even though I often presented an external joyousness before others. I spent most of the time in Leipzig in these circumstances and I cannot recall having taken up a truly earnest and basic concern for improvement until 1687.

But in the twenty-fourth year of my life I began to take up this serious question in myself, to acknowledge more deeply my wretched state and to look upon myself with greater earnestness, desiring that my soul might be freed from this state. If I were to say what first gave me the opportunity to come to this, I know of nothing outside of the continual prevenient grace of God, externally indicated by nothing more certain than my theological study, which I grasped only in knowledge and in reason alone. As a result I thought I could deceive people, hold a public office, and tell people what I myself was not convinced of in my heart.

Who is more wretched than I, had I remained in such circumstances, since I grasped heaven with one hand and the earth with the other, wished to enjoy God and the friendship of the world at the same time, or fought first against the one, then against the other, and could hold neither properly. But oh, how great is the love of God, which he manifested to the human race in Christ Jesus! God did not cast me aside because of my deep corruption in which I stood fast, but he had patience with me and helped me in my weakness, since I could not find the courage but only always hoped that I might break through into a true light which is from God.

I was asked to present a sermon in the church of St. John, and I was asked to do so a good time before the sermon was to be presented. My mind was in such a state that I was not only concerned with the mere preaching of a sermon but chiefly with the upbuilding of the congregation. Thinking on this, the text came to me, “this is written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing, you may have life in his name” (John 20:31). With this text I had particular opportunity to discuss true living faith, and how this faith is distinguished from a mere human and imaginary foolish faith. Earnestly considering this matter, the thought came to me that I did not find the faith in myself that I was to demand in the sermon. I therefore left off meditation on the sermon and found enough to meditate on in myself. The fact that I had no true belief troubled me in an ever more serious way. I wished to justify myself and to drive the sad thoughts away but they remained.

When I was among people I covered up my inner misery as much as I could. Once, when I had finished eating, I wished to go with a friend to the superintendent who lived in the area. I took along the Greek New Testament to read. When I opened it up my friend said, “Truly we have in this book a great treasure.” I looked about and asked him if he saw what passage I had opened the testament up to. He said no. I told him to look at the answer: “We have our treasure in earthly vessels” (2 Cor. 4). As soon as he had said these words they struck me in the face. They entered into my heart a little and I thought that it was really not strange that this should thus happen—it seemed thus that a hidden consolation sank into my heart but my atheistic mind immediately brought forth corrupted reason as its instrument to tear the power of the godly word once again out of my heart. I went on the way with my friend and came to the house of the superintendent. He directed us into a room and had us sit down. Hardly had we sat down but the superintendent began to discuss the question “how one should know if he had faith or not.” He said different things about this question, so that a believer might be strengthened. I sat there, however, and initially wondered if such a highly necessary discourse had come to me merely by chance since no one knew for certain of my state. I listened carefully to him but my heart would not be still. Rather, I was by his word much more convinced that I had no faith because I knew in myself the opposite of this mark of faith which is cited from Scripture.

When we said goodbye and I went again with my friend into the city, I revealed my heart to him, saying that if he knew in what state I was, he would wonder how we ever came to discuss such a matter. And he asked, “In what state are you?” I answered “I have no faith.” He was frightened by this and sought to do everything he could to correct me. I opposed him and finally said that I could give him good reasons for what he stated, but it would not help me.

On the following day, which was Sunday, I thought that I would likely lie again in my bed in my earlier unrest. I was also thinking that if no change arose I would not preach the sermon since I could not preach in unbelief and against my own heart and so deceive the people. I did not even know if it would be possible for me to do so. I felt very deeply what it is to have no God to whom the heart can hold, to whom it can confess its sins while not knowing where or who he was who brought forth tears, or if there truly was a God whom man had stirred to wrath. I also knew what it was to see the heart’s misery and great sorrow daily, and yet not know or understand any savior or any refuge. In such great dread I went once more upon my knees on the evening before the Sunday on which I was to preach. I cried to God, whom I still did not know nor trust, for salvation from such a miserable state [asking him to save me], if indeed he was a true God. The Lord, the living God, heard me from his throne while I yet knelt. So great was his fatherly love that he wished to take me finally, after such doubts and unrest of my heart, so that I might be more convinced that he could satisfy me well, and that my erring reason might be tamed, so as not to move against his power and faithfulness. He immediately heard me. My doubt vanished as quickly as one turns one’s hand; I was assured in my heart of the grace of God in Christ Jesus and I knew God not only as God but as my Father. All sadness and unrest of my heart was taken away at once, and I was immediately overwhelmed as with a stream of joy so that with full joy I praised and gave honor to God who had shown me such great grace. I arose a completely different person from the one who had knelt down.

With great care and doubt I had fallen to my knees but with an unspeakable joy and a great certainty I stood up again. When I knelt down I did not believe that there was a God but when I stood up I believed it to the point of giving up my blood without fear or doubt. I then went to bed, but because of the great joy I could not sleep and if I closed my eyes for a few minutes I woke up again and began anew to praise, give honor, and acknowledge the living God who had given himself to be known to my soul. It was as if I had spent my whole life in a deep sleep, and everything to this point had only been a dream and I had just woken up. No one can tell me what a difference there is between the natural life of a natural man and the life which is from God. It was as if I had been dead and now saw that I was alive. I could not stay in my bed that night but I leapt from it for joy and praised the Lord my God. I wished that everything might praise the name of the Lord with me. “You angels in heaven,” I cried. “Praise the name of the Lord with me, the Lord who has shown me such mercy.” Reason stood away; victory was torn from its hands, for the power of God had made it subservient to faith.

Now I experience that it was true what Luther had said in his preface to the epistle to the Romans: “Faith is a divine word in us that changes us and gives us new birth from God (John 1:12) and kills the old Adam, makes us completely other men in our hearts, minds, thoughts and all our powers and brings the Holy Spirit with it.” And “faith is a living, moving trust in God’s grace, so certain that one would die for it a thousand times. And such trust and knowledge in divine grace makes one joyous, bold and delighting in God and all creatures; this the Lord God does in faith.” God now filled my heart with love for him; he gave me to know the highest and only precious good.

On the following day I was able to tell my friend, to whom I had declared my wretched state on the evening before, about my redemption, but not without the tears, and he rejoiced with me. By the middle of the week I returned once again to the sermon I was to preach, with great joy of heart and out of true divine conviction concerning John 20:21, and I could say with truth the words of 2 Corinthians 4:13: “since we have the same spirit of faith; as it is written: I believe and therefore I speak, so we believe and so we speak.”

And this is the period to which I can point as that of my true conversion from this time on my Christianity had a place to stand and it was easier for me to deny the ungodly ways and the worldly lust and to live chastely, righteously, and godly in this world. From this time on I held continuously to God, and I cared nothing for promotion, honor, and visibility in the world, riches, good days, and exterior worldly pomp. Whereas earlier I had made an idol out of learning, I now saw that faith as a mustard seed counts for more than a hundred sacks full of learning and that all the knowledge learned at the feet of Gamaliel is to be considered dirt beside the superabundant knowledge of Jesus Christ our Lord. From then on I also knew for the first time properly what the world is and how it is distinguished from [the life of] the children of God. From then on the world began immediately to hate me and to build up enmity against me … Nevertheless, in this I must praise the great faithfulness and wisdom of God, who did not allow a weak child to be corrupted through strong food, or a pliant plant through an all too chilly wind, but he knew what was best, and in what degree he should give something to his children and through this he tested and guided their faith. Thus, I was not lacking in testings but in them God at all times watched over my weakness, and first give me only a little suffering but later a greater amount of suffering; according to the divine power which I received from him the last and greater sufferings were much easier to bear than the first and smaller ones.

By Auguste Hermann Francke

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #10 in 1986]

Auguste Hermann Francke (1663–1727) was one of the leading figures of the Pietist movement of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. His spiritual struggle and pilgrimage is typical of many in the movement and were included in his “Autobiography” which was first published in 1692. Other biographical details on Francke are found in the Gallery and an excerpt from his essay on “Christian Perfection” is found in “On Christian Perfection”.
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