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, 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).
Wells 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.