12 October 2004

when thou art converted

In Luke 22:32, after Jesus predicts Peter's denial, he adds, "But I prayed for you, that your faith doesn't fail: and when you are converted, give strength to your brothers." The verb that the KJV translates as "converted" could as easily be translated as "turned back." And such a translation is probably preferable.

After all, within the religious culture of evangelicalism, the notion of "conversion" is taken to refer almost exclusively to that initial turning from unbelief, when one first comes to God in faith upon hearing the message of the Gospel. Such a use of the term is not, of course, foreign to the New Testament. For instance, on several occasions we read in Acts of people "turning" to the Lord in response to the apostolic message (Acts 3:19; 9:35; 11:21; 14:15; 15:19; 26:18, 20).

But even in many of these instances, those who turned were already faithful Jews, looking for the Messiah, or righteous Gentiles who had trusted in the God of Israel. As such, their new-found faith was not a faith that arrived de novo, but a powerful work of the Spirit, transforming their faith from one of expectation and anticipation, into one of fulfillment, a resting in the eschatological victory that God had accomplished in Jesus Christ.

Peter's turning back to Jesus after his denial, however, was not an initial turning in faith, but rather a return to God after sin, when his faith had faltered. Jesus had even prayed that Peter's existing faith not fail, indicating thereby that Peter already was "converted" in the popular sense of the term.

More broadly, James speaks of the "conversion" that is experienced by those brothers in Christ who stray from the truth and fall into sin, when they are once again led back to God (5:19-20). Most generally, every time we turn to God in faith, resting anew in what he has done for us in Christ, turning away from sin and other distractions, it is a conversion. We might even speak of a "continual conversion" to which we are committed by our baptisms.

Over the years I have heard many testimonies of conversion and many of these have been wonderful witnesses to the power of the Gospel to call people to faith in Jesus Christ, the Spirit freeing them from bondage to sin and degradation and spiritual darkness.

I have also heard many testimonies--in many ways likewise wonderful--but also, in some respects, rather peculiar. These are testimonies that go something like this:

I was born and raised in a Christian home and learned about Jesus from childhood. But when I got to college, I realized that I hadn't turned my life over to God completely and hadn't trusted him with my very own faith. Yet God's grace met me then, in the midst of some struggles, and I finally became a true Christian.

I've heard this kind of testimony from those who were raised within the Reformed tradition as much as from those raised within other Christian traditions.

Now, let me be very clear on a couple of points.

First, I do not doubt for one moment that at times something very much like what these testimonies describe is quite literally true. There are those who, for whatever reason, were raised in a Christian home of some sort, perhaps even were baptized as infants, and who learned something of Jesus who, nonetheless, never trusted Christ. Sometimes this is due to parents who only had the barest of connection to the church or who themselves understood little of the faith. Sometimes this is due to churches that are spiritually bankrupt and where the Gospel is occluded by legalism, liberalism, or self-help feel-goodism. Whatever the case, I recognize that this sometimes happens.

Second, I do not doubt for one moment that those who give these kinds of testimonies did in fact undergo a significant spiritual experience in early adulthood that can be rightly described, in biblical terms, as a "conversion." God was calling them to new responsibilities and challenges, often within the context of college, often away from their parents, old friends, and home church. And I am confident that the Spirit does often use such circumstances to engender a kind of spiritual "growth spurt," infused with all the earnestness and energy of youth, so that many turn in faith to God afresh. And this too is a wonderful thing.

What I question, however, is the way in which the dominant evangelical culture teaches our young people to interpret and describe their experience: as a "conversion" in the narrow, popular sense, by which these individuals become, for the first time, "true Christians."

Consider the oddness of the following sort of testimony:

I was born and raised in an English-speaking home and learned to speak English from childhood. But when I got to college, I realized that I hadn't embraced the English language completely and hadn't made it into my own personal language. Yet a kind English professor met me, in the midst of a literature course, and I finally became a true English-speaker.

Now, of course, something like that is actually quite often true. Many of my students do come to college with very little self-conscious grasp of the English language and only modest facility in its formal written expression. They just take their English language skills for granted, given that they are native speakers. Then through a series of experiences--some bad grades on essays, difficulty comprehending difficult texts, and so on--they come to a new appreciation for the language, set themselves to improving their skills, and see a sudden growth in their reading and writing abilities.

But none of this entails that they weren't really English-speakers before (except perhaps in a hyperbolic and poetic sense) and it would be very odd to insist that they only truly became English-speakers now, while before they were just "going through the motions."

If we are Reformed, we believe that God is the God of our children and that the covenant and promises are theirs, sealed to them in baptism. Thus we are called to raise our children in the faith, trusting in those promises, in hope that throughout their lives they can honestly sing with the Psalmist, "You made me trust in you even at my mother's breast" (Ps 22:9).

This does not mean that our children will not have significant experiences of spiritual growth, where they turn to God in renewed faith and a sense of Christian vocation. Even later in life, many of us no doubt experience analogous transitions in connection with marriage, birth of children, illness, death of loved ones, change of vocation, struggles with sin, and so on--even if not always accompanied by the same kind of enthusiasm or eagerness of those on the cusp of adulthood.

But we need to think about how we describe these experiences in light of God's covenant and promises. At the very least our emphasis should be less upon the experience itself as something that we undergo or a new commitment that we have made, and more upon the faithfulness of God who continues to call us to himself in the Gospel, even in the midst of new challenges and situations.

What bothers me is that by teaching people to interpret their spiritual journeys in terms of finally becoming "true Christians," we inadvertently disparage that nascent faith they may have once expressed at their mother's knee or in their Sunday School classrooms or when they confessed the Creed in the liturgy. We also may encourage a species of unbelief, by which we come to doubt the reality of the spiritual lives of children, setting a cloud of suspicion over any youthful profession of faith--a childlike trust that Jesus presents as the very model of true faith.

Finally, we run the danger of seeing conversion wholly in terms of a one-time initial experience and blunting the edge of the biblical view of conversion that stands as God's call over our whole ongoing life in Christ, a life which always remains a matter of repentance and faith from beginning to end, time and again turning to God so that we may rest anew in the promises of the Gospel.