Thursday, March 22, 2012

The Conversion Magnet

Conversion: A Magnet Word

Conversion of St. Paul by Michaelangelo

The noun “Christian” attracts adjectives: evangelical, born-again, nominal, professing, real. So it is also with the verb “converted.” It seems to be a magnet that attracts adverbs: truly, genuinely, thoroughly, deeply, almost. The noun “conversion” likewise draws qualifying adjectives.

As used among evangelicals, including “experimental” Calvinists, conversion seems to be associated not so much with objective change as with a distinct subjective experience that results in radical moral transformation. The issue then is not whether one is no longer irreligious or a follower of another religion but now a Christian, or no longer an unbeliever but now a believer. Rather, conversion is a matter of the internal experience that makes one a Christian believer that leads to a change of character and conduct, sensed by the new believer and observed by others as having occurred. “Have you been converted?” is really a question having to do with what you have experienced and how you now live rather than one of the faith you hold and the Savior whom you trust and follow.

The Westminster Standards use the word group once (to my knowledge), that in the Shorter Catechism in an exposition of the working of the ordinary means of grace:

Q. 89. How is the word made effectual to salvation?
A. The Spirit of God maketh the reading, but especially the preaching, of the word, an effectual means of convincing and converting sinners, and of building them up in holiness and comfort, through faith, unto salvation.

When it comes to the Bible use of the English words convert/conversions to translate Hebrew and Greek words has declined.

The English Standard Version chooses the convert/conversion word group times in translation, all in the New Testament, as a noun 5 times. It translates “proselyte, turning, firstfruits, first, and neophyte, each once. 

Acts 13:43
And after the meeting of the synagogue broke up, many Jews and devout converts to Judaism followed Paul and Barnabas, who, as they spoke with them, urged them to continue in the grace of God

Acts 15:3
So, being sent on their way by the church, they passed through both Phoenicia and Samaria, describing in detail the conversion of the Gentiles, and brought great joy to all the brothers.

Romans 16:5
Greet also the church in their house. Greet my beloved Epaenetus, who was the first convert to Christ in Asia.

1 Corinthians 16:15
Now I urge you, brothers —you know that the household of Stephanas were the first converts in Achaia, and that they have devoted themselves to the service of the saints—

1 Timothy 3:6
He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil.

The New International Version uses them 8 times, all in the New Testament. The New American Standard Version uses the words once in the Old Testament, 9 times in the New. The King James Version uses them 5 times in the translation of the Old Testament translation and 10 times in New Testament.

My purpose is not to do word studies of English, Greek, and Hebrew words, but to give background information in order to make an observation. And, like all theological terms, covert/conversion represents a concept, not just the original words in the Hebrew and Greek Bibles and the choices of an English word by translators.

The way convert/conversion are used expresses a tension among Calvinists, roughly coordinate with the Old-Side and New-Side, or catechesis and revival. Old-side Calvinists are uncomfortable with the emphasis on conversion as subjective by new-side Calvinists, and new-side Calvinists are anxious about the failure of old-side Calvinists to make it experiential. This leads to Old-Siders describing the New-Siders pejoratively as “conversionists” and New-Siders sometimes warning of an “unconverted ministry” who will produce “unconverted Christians.” Old-Siders worry about “enthusiasm” while New-Siders “dead orthodoxy.”

Conversion means turning, returning, changing, but what is the nature and essence of the turn, return, change?

There is no doubt that conversion can include a distinct conscious experience that results in immediate and radical transformation. The Apostle Paul’s testimony of his “conversion” is sufficient to establish that. But it is reasonable to ask if it always does and if it must. Does conversion necessarily entail a conscious, marked subjective experience that results in radical moral transformation discernible to the believer and undeniably obvious to others? Or, is conversion fundamentally a turning God with and by faith in Christ? Must one say, “I experienced something, felt something, sensed something had happened to me”? Or, may one simply say, “Now (and in many cases, “So long as I remember”) I believe in Jesus and trust him and his saving work for my acceptance by God.”

It is surely possible for a person to make a profession of truth and not be converted. But, is it not also possible for a person to put such an emphasis on one’s experience and moral transformation as to, in effect, trust what one has experienced and become rather than wholly in the righteousness of Christ? And, is it possible so to emphasize experience and transformation as to lose sight of what is the essence of saving faith and, again in effect, to deny salvation wholly by what God does for us rather than what God does in us?

May conversion be a confirmation of the faith into which a covenant child was baptized and in which he was nurtured? Is conversion essentially a turning from sin’s guilt and condemnation to Christ for forgiveness and righteousness (which does lead to discipleship that longs for deliverance from sin’s presence and power and for conformity to Christ’s character and conduct)? Or must one feel something? Must one be able to testify to and describe an experience if one has been converted? May sanctification in a converted person progress fitfully and haltingly or must a converted person evidence an immediate and radical (though there may be setbacks) moral transformation?

This is not to deny anyone’s experience. Nor is it a failure to rejoice in the radical transformation of character and conduct that sometimes occurs. Nor is it to encourage antinomianism, denial of the right use of the three uses of the law, or laxity about the ongoing transformation of heart and life. It is rather to say the essence of conversion is nothing less than but nothing more than turning to Christ and entrusting oneself to him for salvation as he is offered in the gospel.

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