Growing up in evangelicalism, I was one of those kids who felt mediocre at meetings where ex-drug addicts gave their “testimony” of suddenly losing their craving for LSD. My grandmother used to speak of two groups of Christians: those who were “saved” and those who were “gloriously saved.” Everything a good, clean Baptist youth is supposed to be, I didn’t “dance, drink, smoke or chew, or go with girls who do.” So unimpressive was my testimony that I did not even remember the day I was “saved.” That, of course, was a problem…a big one.
From time to time, I even played with the idea of embellishing my spiritual autobiography in the interest of becoming a “trophy” like these other folks (none of whom, I am certain, had embellished their story). The time spent at a friend’s house past my curfew could become a period of rebellion. Yea, in fact, I left home to become a Vegas act…sure, that could work.
In conservative evangelical circles, one must remember the big day. Birthdays would be celebrated with a modified version of the usual song: “Happy birthday to you, only one will not do. It takes two for salvation–how many have you?” Since I “asked Jesus into my heart” on a weekly basis as a child, I simply selected age seven as the date to avoid embarrassment.
Finally, as I was going through Paul’s epistle to the Romans and wanted to share it with the youth group as I entered high school, the pastor, worried about my interest in the theology of that book, asked the familiar query, “Son, when were you saved?” But this time I wasn’t going to reach for a date out of a hat. Before I could catch myself, I heard myself answering, as though I were watching my mouth move from the rafters of his office. “In God’s plan, I was saved before the foundation of the world,” I replied. “Then, in God’s sacrifice, I was saved when Christ died and was raised, and I am being saved by God’s preserving and sanctifying grace.” Years later, Conservative Baptist scholar, Dr. Earl Radmacher, told me, “When someone asks me if I’m ‘saved’ I tell them, ‘I have been, I am being, and I shall one day be saved; now which one do you want to talk about?'” If only there were more Earl Radmachers!
But my pastor was not as accommodating and confidently announced that I was not “saved,” since there was no special date. He told me I was a “Calvinist,” a shibboleth I had never heard of before, but have been forced to wear ever since.
Many who would accuse baptismal regeneration of being a form of works-righteousness have no problem with decisional regeneration, the belief that God has done his part by providing a means of forgiveness, and waits patiently for us to “let him have his way” and “let Jesus come into our heart,” by “making Jesus Savior and Lord.” In many ways, this is at the bottom of the so-called “lordship controversy” addressed in our last issue of Modern Reformation. Many Christians spend their lives questioning whether they are really “saved” because of the nature of their conversion experience, while others who have no interest in Christ and live scandalous, unrepentant lives are self-confident in their depravity, assured of the absurd and preposterous illusion that they are “safe and secure from all alarm” because they signed a card, prayed a prayer, or knelt at an evangelical altar before an evangelical priest. Let us, therefore, take a brief look at some of the biblical material on this matter of conversion.
While Israel is constantly called to renew her covenantal loyalty and reminded of her responsibilities to carry forward redemptive history by insuring the faithfulness of future generations, individual Israelites are not considered unbelievers who need to be converted. There is no “age of accountability” and Jewish children are not told that they must have a radical experience which will make them immediately lose all desire for their sinful cravings. Because they are circumcised members of the covenant community, they belong to the people of God and, therefore, to God himself. Even the children are considered believers whose faith needs to be confirmed and strengthened, not granted.
God issues an absolute, unconditional edict to his redeemed community: “I will be your God and you will be my people,” and the date individual Israelites must remember is the day “when Israel came out of Egypt, the house of Jacob from a people of foreign tongue, [when] Judah became God’s sanctuary, Israel his dominion” (Ps. 114:1). They must never forget the day, not when they “let him have his way,” or when they “accepted Christ,” but “when Yahweh provided redemption for his people; he ordained his covenant forever–holy and awesome is his name” (Ps. 111:9).
Again and again, the Psalmist calls upon the people to remember dates, but they are the dates when God did something important in history: creation, the promise, the exodus, the preservation of the redeemed community in the wilderness, and so on.
From time to time, Israel’s unfaithfulness is met with a divine “cold shoulder,” as God treats his people like any other unbelieving nation. Israel’s national unfaithfulness cannot invalidate God’s unconditional promise to Abraham, which included the decree that Abraham would be “the father of many nations.” “Understand, then,” Paul argues in the New Testament, “that those who believe are children of Abraham” since “the Scriptures foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith,” as Abraham was justified (Gal. 3:6-7).
Therefore, the New Testament is a continuation, not a disruption, in God’s redemptive plan to save a covenant people. In the Gospels, the Jews are called to embrace their covenant Redeemer-King, but the majority refuse to become a part of this Abrahamic community. The unbelieving Jews, therefore, are not the people of God because of their ethnic identity and they can no longer rely on their racial heritage as Abraham’s children (Matt. 3:9; John 8:39-47).
This point is driven home in the epistles as a major theme. The covenant community is established on the basis of faith in Christ. In this way, the believer, sharing Christ’s “last will and testament,” owns all of his riches. As he redeemed his people from Egypt and led them through the wilderness to the promised land, so too he has saved, is saving, and will one day save his people fully and finally at the last day.
Conversion in the New Testament (especially in Acts) is of a missionary type. Pagans hear about Christ for the first time and dramatic conversions take place. But notice, throughout these accounts, from our Lord’s invitations in the Gospels, to the urgent appeals of the apostles, the call is not to conversion, but to Christ. The challenge is not to do something, but to believe something. Christ’s appeal is not, “Convert yourself and you shall be saved,” or “Whoever makes a decision and makes Me Lord and Savior will be born again.” Rather, we read, “Repent and believe” (Luke 13:3). Peter charges people to “Repent and be baptized…The promise is for you and your children….” (Acts 2:38-39).
Thus, while conversion is often radical for the first generation believers, it is usually less dramatic for their children, but the promise is as much for them as for adults. It is difficult for us to accept this idea because of our emphasis on decisional regeneration. Instead of viewing conversion as part of a process in God’s successive activities, we see it as a step we have taken that was truly determinative of our salvation. There must be something, even the smallest effort, on my end which I can show God on judgment day: “Look, here is the one thing I did. You must let me in, because I fulfilled the conditions.” Is there something, however, that is decisive about our acceptance of God’s gracious gift? To answer this question, we have to understand something about order of salvation and the nature and style of conversion itself.
The conversionist vocabulary (“making Jesus Savior and Lord,” “making a decision,” “letting him have his way,” “letting Jesus into your heart,” etc.) is largely the product of an Arminian “order of salvation,” which makes faith logically prior to regeneration. Because terms can be used differently over time, we must be very careful on this one.
First, there is a problem of definition. When the reformers wrote about “regeneration,” they were not thinking about the new birth (as most of us do today), but about “sanctification,” that is, the process of inward moral transformation by the Holy Spirit’s gradual renewal of our sinful affections. Thus, the reformers (and today’s Lutherans), understanding by “regeneration” what we today refer to as “sanctification,” insisted, against Roman Catholic objections, that faith preceded regeneration. But they would never have argued that faith (the decision to trust Christ’s person and work) produced the new birth. The new birth, unlike sanctification, is not a process, but the instantaneous and gratuitous resurrection of those who are spiritually dead. Paul writes, “While you were dead he made you alive….” (Eph. 1:5). “The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Cor. 2:14). “Therefore, it does not depend on a person’s decision or effort, but on God’s mercy” (Rom. 9:16). As Jesus declared, “No one can come to me unless the Father draws him” (John 6:44). Then does it matter whether we receive Christ? You bet! “To those who received him, he gave the right to become children of God”–but read the rest of the verse: “–children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but of God” (John 1:12-13).
Therefore, while we have the responsibility to accept God’s gracious provision, we must never think that such acceptance produced God’s acceptance of us. It was because he accepted us, made a decision for us, and made himself our Savior and Lord that we accept his gift. The new birth gives us the principle of spiritual life which causes us to cry out, “Abba, Father,” and without it all of our works, all of our movements, all of our decisions and rededications are nothing more than the stirrings of those who are only alive, and utterly alive, to sin.
Therefore, the children of the Reformation, though differing on specifics, join voices in the biblical affirmation that “salvation is of the Lord” (Jonah 2:9) and that even our new birth is the result of grace alone, not of human cooperation with grace.
Conversion and repentance can be used, therefore, in two ways without contradiction: we come to a place when we are converted (the new birth, preceding a human response), but this conversion does not change us morally. We trust Christ for the first time (faith) and hate our sinful resistance to him and to his reign (repentance). Nevertheless, these two aspects of the new birth are the fountainheads for growth in faith and repentance–a life of conversion which follows.
The first of Martin Luther’s “Ninety-Five Theses,” which launched the Reformation, was the following:”1. When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent’, he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.”
This was to establish the guardrails against two equally dangerous cliffs. On one side was the precipice of the medieval sacramental system, which promised forgiveness and full repentance when the sinner had jumped through the prescribed hoops deemed appropriate by the priest. A financial contribution could help secure this in Luther’s day. On the other end, there were those, like Erasmus and other humanists, who argued that outward repentance was not important; that conversion or repentance was merely inward. Luther specifically attacks this view in his third thesis.
Once again we are faced with these two equally disastrous alternatives: either to make repentance a once-and-for-all external act of penance (by going through the modern sacrament of the altar call) or by making it exclusively internal, as if it did not matter whether you hate your neighbor, as long as you mean to do otherwise.
We need to recapture this sense of conversion as lifelong repentance. Conversion is never complete in this life and is always demanding. Since we are converted (Rom. 6), the process of repentance and sanctifying conversion is not a goal to which we strive, but a reality from which we live. We do not live godly lives in order to become godly, but because of a reality of godliness which is declared in our justification before God and in the principle of new life implanted within us through the new birth. If our justification depended on our conversion experience, we would never be justified, for conversion is always imperfect in this life. This is why, once again, we must insist that while the new birth precedes faith, the process of conversion follows faith.
If this is the nature of conversion, the style of conversion will differ from person to person. Those who have had dramatic beginnings in conversion ought to treasure the radical nature of God’s grace which they have experienced first-hand. They ought to be able to joyfully share this experience with others without cynical slurs like, “Becky ‘got religion.'” But those who have been raised in Christian homes and have never rebelled against the promise God made to believers and their children are also God’s people and are also being converted. Promised or actually begun in their infancy, conversion and regeneration become as rich a treasure of Christ’s presence as memories of “before” and “after” portraits can be for new converts.
In conclusion, therefore, if the focus of the gospel is Christ, not conversion, and the date we are to remember is a dark afternoon nearly two millennia ago outside Jerusalem’s city gate, what notion of conversion do we substitute?
As we have seen, the Bible records two essential facts: (1) God is the one acting in our redemption and (2) he is redeeming a people, not just individuals.
Our conversionist evangelism largely overlooks these two central convictions. Nowhere in either testament are there calls to, “Let Jesus have his way” or to “make him Lord of your life.” The gospel is a promise, not merely an offer: “I will be your God and you will be my people” (Lev. 26:12). We do not “let” the Alpha and Omega, the Resurrection and the Life, the Author and Finisher of Faith, do anything! It is because of who he is and what he does, not because of what we allow him to do, that he is our Savior and Lord. We do not “make him Lord” any more than someone in the mail room makes the CEO one’s boss, or a child makes her father her parent.
The covenant, with all of its blessings (election, redemption, justification, adoption, sanctification, glorification), is God’s idea.
Second, this Sovereign God is redeeming, not merely individuals who say “yes,” but “a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that [we] may declare the praises of him who called [us] out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once [we] were not a people, but now [we] are the people of God” (1 Pet. 2:9-10). God’s goal is a redeemed and converted people. Unlike the Marines, he is not just “looking for a few good men,” but for a new humanity. He does not simply want a few outstanding trumpet players who “wow” their adoring fans (not a few “testimonies” have fit that picture), but an orchestra, where the attraction lies in the harmony. Therefore, a correct relationship to God can only take place within the context of the covenant community.
Entrance into this new society is secured through baptism, as circumcision served in the Old Testament. This analogy, far from an imposition of a theological system, is directly affirmed by our Lord and his apostles. For instance, St. Paul tells us that we were united with Christ through “the circumcision done by Christ, having been buried with him in baptism” (Col. 2:11). As the apostle Peter assured his audience that the gospel promise was still “for you and for your children,” so too we must challenge any conversionistic evangelism which ignores the covenantal context of conversion.
In this way, the anxiety of Christian children about being converted or born again is removed. They are called to deepen their understanding and experience of God and their inheritance with the saints, but they are not to turn inward, searching for that one radical change in their behavior which they brought about one day when they decided to follow Jesus. Our society is given to conversionism: self-help cures, self-improvement programs with cheerful testimonies and “before” and “after” photos. Dramatic contrasts and sensational reports, while calculated to bring glory to God, often bring glory to those who had the sense to turn their life around. To be sure, “God has no grandchildren,” as Billy Graham wisely said. And there is a danger of so emphasizing the covenantal aspect that children are not encouraged to develop their own relationship with God. But the guardrail must also be raised against the opposite and more general danger in evangelicalism: individualistic and triumphalistic visions which rob God of his glory and his people of their comfort and assurance.
So then, to queries concerning our salvation, we ought to reply:
1. When? Before creation, at the cross, in my lifetime, and in the future. Let this replace, “On July 10, 1965, during the eighth verse of ‘Just As I Am,’ when Brother Fred held a revival at our church.”
2. How? By God’s electing grace, redeeming grace, calling, justifying, and sanctifying grace, and by his glorifying grace (Rom. 8:29-39). This can take the place of, “By raising my hand, going forward during the altar call, and praying the prayer after Brother Fred.” As John Murray writes, “It is necessary to guard against a wrong use of introspection. It is not by looking within, in the attempt to discover the movements of God’s regenerative grace, that faith is evoked. It is preoccupation with the glories of the Savior that constrains faith. We do not rest upon that which is done in us, far less upon that which is done by us. Faith does not feed upon the saving experiences that it evokes.” (1)
3. Where? In the church, where the proclamation of the Word and the administration of the sacraments (baptism and the Lord’s Supper) unite me to Christ and to his people. This is a more biblical response than, “In the privacy of my own heart.”
4. From What? From the guilt and control of our sins in this life, and from the presence of sin in the next. This stands in the place of, “Lack of self-esteem, unhappiness, sickness, etc.” This is part of the problem in our calls to conversion. We spend more time trying to manipulate and persuade people to “make a decision” than trying to explain what it is about which they are deciding. One popular Christian bumper sticker in southern California cheers, “Jesus is the answer!”, to which unbelievers have replied with their own sticker: “If Jesus is the answer, what’s the question?”
5. Why? In the words of the Westminster Shorter Catechism, “to glorify God and enjoy him forever.” Let this replace, “So I could enjoy the happiness of the victorious Christian life,” or other explanations which have oneself at the center.
Let us, therefore, honor conversion not only as an event of turning from sin to Christ, but as a life-long struggle to inherit the promised land. That heavenly home is already promised: it’s unconditional. Regardless of how unimpressive our experiences of growth, zeal, and spiritual success, God has promised this land to all who have placed their faith in Christ alone. But, like the Israelites who wandered in the wilderness, we too must endure the pressures and pains before we may enjoy the reality which the promise offers. Let us long for greater and deeper conversion by casting a skeptical eye on approaches which make radical conversion and instant change in behavior and personality a mark of a genuine new birth. While the new birth, our spiritual resurrection, is instantaneous and is not the product of our cooperation, conversion is a marathon in which we struggle earnestly, and the crown of life awaits us at the finish line.
Instead of constantly measuring our conversion experiences by comparing ourselves to others, or despairing because the radical nature of our initial conversion is followed by the mundane (and not always successful) struggles of the Christian life, “let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith”(Heb. 12:1-2).