Thursday, 17 September 2015

What makes a true conversion?

When Peter saw the disciple Jesus loved, he said to him, “Lord, what about him?” Jesus replied, “...what is that to you? You follow me!” John 21:21-22.

Do you ever feel a little envious when you hear other people’s conversion stories?

There are people who can put a precise date, even an exact time, to the moment they became a Christian. They may have had a vision or some other kind of supernatural experience. Perhaps they had a dramatic healing or a special touch of the Holy Spirit - “baptism” in or with the Spirit, or speaking in tongues.

And you? Well, you certainly reached a point in your life when you decided you believed in Jesus and wanted to follow him, and that was wonderful. But it was all very gradual and undramatic. And when you hear these powerful stories you are tempted to think “Mmm - why not me?”

The message is very simple: don’t feel that way! How you came to faith really doesn’t matter; only (a) that you did, and (b) that you are still “walking humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8).

We preachers can sometimes cause problems here. 

Suppose we want to preach a really evangelistic sermon, making clear the wonder and joy of being born again. What do we do? 

Well, quite possibly we go to the story of Paul’s conversion in Acts 9. There is surely no more dramatic conversion story in the New Testament than this! - a man violently opposed to the church... a supernatural encounter with the risen Christ... a voice from heaven... a falling to the ground... a literally blinding light... humiliation... a total transformation...

This is a wonderful story, and you’d need to be a pretty naff preacher to turn it into a dull sermon. But - and this is the point - it’s a serious problem if we fail to make very clear that this is anything but a typical conversion. Ninety-nine percent of conversions just aren’t like that. So we preachers are guilty of giving a very false impression if we encourage our hearers to think they are. 

When you stop to think about it, it’s striking that, though we meet plenty of Christians in Acts and the rest of the New Testament, we know next to nothing about how they were converted.

All right, there’s the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8: converted in the middle of the desert by a strange man who appears out of nowhere and explains the Bible to him. Strange, certainly; but not remotely in the Paul-on-the-Damascus-road class. 

Likewise the Roman centurion Cornelius in Acts 10. Yes, he had a vision of an angel, but beyond that it was a case of having the facts of the gospel explained to him.

Then there’s the Philippian jailer in Acts 16: he experienced an earthquake in his personal life as shattering as the earthquake that brought his prison down around his ears. Yes again, that was certainly dramatic, but not remotely of the “supernatural” character of Acts 9. 

But what about Lydia, also in Acts 16? All we are told is that “the Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message”. What about Timothy, the young man destined to become Paul’s protégé and spiritual son? From the moment we first meet him he is simply described as “a disciple”: beyond learning that his mother was also a Christian, we are given no clue as to how he became one.

I could go on. How did Stephen, the first martyr for Jesus, become a believer? Or Ananias, Paul’s first mentor? Or dear Barnabas - “Mr Encouragement”? Or Silas, Paul’s missionary companion? Or husband and wife Aquila and Priscilla? Or Apollos? Or Philemon? Or Epaphroditus? Or Aristarchus? Or Euodia? Or Syntyche (I’m sure you remember those two)...?

I’m getting carried away! - but you get the point. 

In all these cases, along with plenty of others, we know nothing or next to nothing. Very likely their conversions were as ordinary, as low-key, as yours or mine. They heard the gospel. They believed. They were baptised and joined the church. And the rest is history.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s good to listen to conversion stories, to hear people’s testimonies. But when we do so we need to remind ourselves, “All right, so this is how Joe, or Mary, or Bill became a believer. Great. But I am not Joe or Mary or Bill. I am me. And God has dealt with me as he saw fit. And that’s all that matters.”

To repeat... the question is not “How did I become a Christian?” but “Am I, today, here and now, living a truly Christian life?”

Or, as I once heard it neatly put, what matters is not past conversion but present convertedness.


Dear Lord, thank you for that time in my life when I first came to follow Jesus - and thank you even more that you help me to follow him still today. Amen.

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