November 12, 2013

The corruption of conversion

by Jesse Johnson

Is conversion easy to experience, or difficult? If you can’t remember your conversion experience, is it likely you are not saved? Do all people come to faith the same way? Does conversion always bring assurance of salvation? Is conversion seen in a decision that is made, or in a process that is experienced?

Turning to God

Turning to God, by David Wells, documents how the doctrine of conversion has been withering away for centuries. Written in 1989, then updated and re-released in 2012, the book catalogs various attacks against a Christian understanding of conversion, and it contains Wells’ call for evangelicals to cultivate a robust understanding of how we entered the Christian life. He shows how the questions asked above illustrate the difficulty inherent in any effort to understand conversion.  

Wells does not simply lay the blame for an inadequate view of conversion on the contemporary church. Rather, he traces how we got to where we are. In the middle ages, much of European Christianity was poisoned by Roman theology, and developed a view of the Christian life that was almost entirely focused on sanctification. Writings from that time focus on sin and the means of grace, but seldom mention the act of conversion and contain almost no concept of justification whatsoever (pp. 95-97). It was not until the reformation that the doctrine of conversion was reintroduced to the Christian theology, a development championed specifically by Calvin.

But Calvin also stressed the concept of assurance, on which later theologians—especially the puritans—increasingly focused. While the puritans agreed with Calvin that conversion should result in moral change, the puritans also stressed the difficulty of obtaining assurance that one had actually been converted. The result was a substantive difference inside of protestant Christianity concerning conversion. Was conversion easy to experience, or was it difficult? Did conversion require preparatory work by the Spirit to prepare the person to repent? Or could it be experienced at once, ‘out of the blue,’ so to speak (pp.101-102)?

The result was a hybrid answer—conversion was difficult to bring about, but could happen instantaneously. This thought process opened the door for professional evangelists to step in. Whitefield, the Wesleys, Finney and Moody all owed their success to the fact that the Christian world viewed them as uniquely equipped by God for the purpose of orchestrating the difficult act of conversion. With this change, “evangelism moved outside of the churches” and conversion was “reduced to an experience” that could be ushered in by evangelists (pp. 106-107, also discussed on p. 50).

Of course our current period of church history bears the scars of this change:

“What happens to the substantial number of people who ‘decide’ for Christ, but find that their decision was apparently empty of spiritual reality? And who is to accept responsibility for this situation—the person who made the decision or the person who elicited it?” (p. 70).

wellsWells does not merely point out the problem, but he offers solutions. One in particular stands out as the book’s most substantial contribution to advancing our understanding of conversion. He argues that church leaders should see two basic types of conversion: those from ‘outsiders’ and those from ‘insiders’ (pp. 24, 29, 30, 80).

Outsiders are those who grow up not knowing about the gospel. Basically conversion comes to these people through evangelism, often facilitated by a crisis moment. When the outsider is converted, change in his life is evident, and his conversion is accompanied by an obvious change in his religious affiliation as well as dramatic repentance from sins. Think of Gentiles in Acts, or of those in Nineveh under Jonah.

Insiders are those who grow up hearing about the gospel and knowing about God. For them, conversion is certainly more of a process, and it likely does not come with a crisis point. A time period for the person’s conversion might not even be feasible to identify, and those who know the convert well may not even be able to distinguish a radical change. Examples would be those in Israel under the preaching of the OT prophets.

Wells argues that confusing these two types of conversions leads is largely responsible for much that is wrong with our contemporary understanding of regeneration. I agree with Wells on this point. I came to Christ as an outsider, and had a moment in time when I gave my life to the Lord. Later when I heard pastors say things like “if you don’t know when you gave your heart to the Lord, then it is likely you are not saved,” that made sense to me. But now that I have friends who grew up in the church and who cannot identify a particular moment of time when they were converted, I see how harmful it would be to use that as a basis to question their salvation.

The other side of that problem is the use of the sinner’s prayer on young children who are inside the church. By trying to give them an identifiable time when they “said the prayer,” parents and church leaders are treating these church ‘insiders’ as ‘outsiders.’ The result of this ill-constructed evangelistic effort is that the child does not see conversion as an act of God on his heart which caused him to turn to the Lord, but rather he sees conversion as a decision to be made; and clearly, decisions are lousy markers of salvation.

The last half of Turning to God gives advice for witnessing to religious outsiders such as Jews and Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists, and good-old-fashioned materialistic capitalists. The section on materialism seeks to explain how living in a free-market economy reduces evangelism to a basic “present the information, push for a purchase” mentality, as if we were selling a product door-to-door. But obviously if conversion is seen as a decision—like making a sale—and you couple that with theology that says you can’t lose your salvation, then most western evangelists are selling a broken product.

Wells wrote this book from the notes to lectures he gave at the Lausanne Consultation on Evangelism in Hong Kong in 1988. I’m not sure what the audience was like then, but it reads like it is particularly aimed at pastors and evangelists—specifically the kind that might employ The Sinner’s Prayer ®, or use statistics to track their “conversions.” But with that said, I would not hesitate to recommend this book to anyone who thinks seriously about evangelism. It would also be particularly useful to those who are trying to witness to Jews, Muslims, Hindus or Buddhists, as those sections are more succinct than a full book on those religions.

This is not a perfect book. Because it was based on various lectures he gave, some of the chapters don’t quite fit with the whole. It may have simply been me, but I had a hard time initially figuring out what the main point that connected everything together was. I’d be curious if anyone else who has read this book had that same difficulty.

But with that noted, Turning to God is solid statement about how the doctrine of conversion has fallen on hard times, and what we can do to repair it. If you read this book, you will come away thinking more clearly not only about evangelism, but about how you personally came to faith in Jesus.

Jesse Johnson

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Jesse is the Teaching Pastor at Immanuel Bible Church in Springfield, VA. He also leads The Master's Seminary Washington DC location.
  • kevin2184

    At the risk of oversimplification, the pitfall that I find being an “outsider” is that even though I have the “benefit of knowing when my justification (i.e., salvation) occurred (and even that I can only pinpoint down to a 7-day period), I find that with such an awareness, I need to be even more vigilant to not allow the assurance of my justification mitigate against my participation in the Holy Spirit’s on-going sanctification process in my life. Because of the radical and disruptive change that occurred in my life when I was saved, I can fall into the trap of believing that the “working out of my salvation in fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12) has already occurred. I find that I constantly need to remind myself of verses Eph 2:9 and Titus 2:14 regarding what I was saved for (doing of “good works”) which produce the fruits that the Lord taught (Matthew 7) would be the evidence of one who has truly been saved by His grace.

  • Scott C

    One of the most insightful and yet seemingly unheard of books on the subject of conversion is Stephen E. Smallman’s book “Spiritual Birthline: Understanding How We Experience the New Birth.” I highly recommend this book. It helped me sort through the issues you bring up in this post. He says we often use Paul’s dramatic conversion experience as the model for all conversions. But when you consider the disciples of Jesus, it is not entirely clear when they experienced the new birth (notwithstanding dispensational transitions, but I digress).

    He also makes careful distinctions between conversion and regeneration. Too often in Evangelicalism those two concepts are blurred and people think they are one in the same. Regeneration is the work of the Holy Spirit creating new hearts and minds that allow the person who is being effectually called by God to both “see” and “enter” the kingdom of God (John 3). Regeneration is the work of the Holy Spirit whereas conversion is our response to that work. Furthermore, without the transformative work of regeneration one is not enabled to repent and believe (convert).

    • Sweet. Thanks Scott. I haven’t read that, but I appreciate the recommendation.

  • Eric

    I was converted as an “outsider” at the age of 17, coming to church with absolutely no Christian background or context. My motivations were even less than pure in that a certain attractive young lady was involved. However it happened (sovereign grace!), I made a public profession of faith that was genuine and real. However, it was two and half years before I understood the full implications of the gospel and Christ’s calling on my life. Long story short…I came in as an “outsider”, made an initial profession, and became an “insider” before I really understood the gospel which, of course, I’m still growing in affection for and awe over some 27 years later. When people ask, I’ll give the short answer of the “outsider” date, but if I go more in-depth, I’ll say my conversion occurred over that two and half year period in which I became an “insider.” A real challenge is to shepherd my believing son who is clearly and “insider” and mildly struggles with this topic. Thanks for the post.

  • Kairos4me

    Interesting book it seems. I also came as an outsider and through a crisis time in my life. I do remember the day I gave my life to Jesus but I can say for sure that the regeneration is a long process, a never ending one I’d say. In the beginning the fire of the first love is all I could remember, but it is when the fruit in my life started to appear that I could truly say I converted to Christ.
    Thank you for the post, this explains so much to me. I am reading ” Is Jesus the only Savior” by James R. Edwards, it is an interesting book, so far it talks about issues that we confront when we deliver the gospel and how to make our faith stronger.

  • Not sure I’d be considered outsider or insider. I didn’t “grow up in” the church so to speak..our family started attending church regularly (Methodist) when I was 12 and by then I was already well into my rebellious self, however from the time I was taught the things of God I never doubted. I always believed the bible was true in all it proclaimed yet had no real Spiritual understanding and so never let it affect the way I wanted to live my life. Walked my first “aisle” by 13..then again at 18…and again..

    Of course I was still blind as a bat.

    My “doctrine of conversion” (and sovereignty for that matter) begun developing immediately when I was actually born again at 44. I was alone reading the bible for the first time in years. Trying to understand the sins of another when God, in His great mercy, chose that time to show me my own. In those moments I knew something was taking place in me that was definitely not from me-those thoughts were not my own because my quite settled view of who God was and what it meant to be a Christian were literally being thrown all up in my face and I was Ashamed and utterly broken over my sins. I knew that God was holy, holy, holy; and I was a dead worm. I Praise God continually for interrupting my utterly blind, self-righteous life!

    Since my own conversion experience I’ve come to think of each individual conversion, each heart-change as completely unique in it’s “make-up”, like a snowflake. All made by the same Creator, same Spirit.

    I agree with Wells’ “call for evangelicals to cultivate a robust understanding of how we entered the Christian life.” Indeed! As well, a robust understanding of true Repentance. By God’s grace alone I understood this (as such) immediately.

  • 4Commencefiring4

    I sometimes wonder if we’re all overthinking this just a bit as we try–foolishly, and outside of our marching orders–to determine who is saved and who is not. Untimately, we can’t know anymore than we can say what the price of silver will be by next April. God keeps the Book of Life, and so far as I know doesn’t give free peeks into it. Yet even the most seasoned and responsible theologians (I don’t have present company in mind) are going about declaring whose names are going to be found written there and whose won’t be–or at least, aren’t there as of today.

    All I know is my own heart, and I’ve lived too long to think I’ve got the inside skinny on so-and-so’s salvation. Just recently, the president of a seminary (that was apparently rather evangelical) declared himself to be an atheist, and a popular liberal commentator wrote an article for Christianity Today that she had come to Christ. In both cases, had I been required to bet, I’d have lost. Shows me what I know.

    Some claim to have come to faith, as Paul did, in a flash. Some not so much. Campus Crusade for years tallied the results of evangelical outreaches by handing out cards with two check boxes on them to indicate “prayed to receive Christ” today and “prayed to recommit” to Him, as though this was an eternal distinction to be made, and their workers placed each in the respective stacks and tabulated. Really? Is that a biblical division? You’d think they were doing “hanging chads” or something. You dared not place any cards in the wrong stack.

    Our task isn’t to get numbers; it’s to simply be witnesses and make disciples where an open door is found. Leave the eternal results up to the One who is the Author of salvation, and let go of making that call ourselves. We can’t anyhow.

    • Hi 4Commencefiring4,

      I agree with you that it isn’t for us to “get numbers” or assess exactly who-is-or-isn’t in Christ, and that the final “call” belongs to God. I don’t think that’s the point of this article though.

      For instance when we see people accepted into the church by the pastorate as true disciples (Christians) yet the fruit in their life does not bear out a true conversion, we are called to “judge those within the church” (1Cor. 5:12). Not only for their own eternal good but for the good of the church..(not to mention of the pastors themselves).

      I think Wells’ call for better understanding of how we “entered the Christian life” is a wise one in this regard. The more prominant point being made is that depending on our individual “insider/outsider” backround, there will be a difference in the way our conversion experience is borne-out; and we can’t judge whether a person is really in Christ by that. I know there’s more to the article (and Well’s endeavors) but that’s my take away.

      Since my own conversion I’ve looked on with fascination at how others have been brought into Christ. Observing the beauty of growth in Christ (in others and myself) has helped me away from my former judgmentalism in this area of understanding conversion.

      • 4Commencefiring4

        Good points, and if I was not centered on the article’s main thrust it’s because I sense that, quite often, we not only insist on the core essentials the Bible tells us one MUST believe to be a christian, but we also spend a great deal of time and energy compiling a growing list of what one CANNOT believe and still be one. And if a person was an “outsider” when saved, there should be a more definitive change to his life than if he had “come up in the church.”

        And then we use these benchmarks to decide that Joe is probably saved, and Louise might not be. I’m not talking just behaviors, but also beliefs, doctrines, even habits. There are those who, for instance, insist that “no true christian” would believe in an old universe, or carry a firearm, or use anything other than the King James, or who stay away from unsaved people lest they be dragged into sin.

        Some believers have no compunction about watching TV nightly, while others wouldn’t even own a television because it’s an invite to Satan to come into their home. In some circles, if you are a dispensationalist, or a Calvanist, or an evolutionist, or a “continuationist” (or are some other kind of “ist” or follow some “ism”), or a Libertarian, or divorced, you’re off the reservation.

        Yes, there’s objective truth and there’s objective error. But how much effort do we expend smoking out those who don’t check off all the “right” boxes (i.e., the ones we checked off)? Our mission, as I undertand it, is to win the unsaved to faith. But there’s so much balkanizing of the Body over these and other matters that we’ve got our plates full just choosing up sides over immersion vs sprinkling.

        • I hear ya on many of those is all too easy to become unbalanced isn’t it? When our ministry becomes more about ticking-off do’s and dont’s and the outsides of cups and whatnot our love for the brethren can get cold fast. We all have our weaknesses. I understand we must be cautious, humble, teachable, prayerful, forgiving…my but we have been forgiven much.