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9Marks Explained : A Letter From Mark Dever

The Beauty of Conversion

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Editor's note: Like last week's two previews, 9Marks thought you would enjoy one more preview of the upcoming 9Marks Journal on the underestimated doctrine of conversion (stay tuned).

To many, the Christian doctrine of conversion appears anything but beautiful. They say it’s coercive—“No one will force their beliefs on me!” Or it’s offensive—“Who are you to say that what I believe and how I live is wrong?”

In those senses, of course, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. The most important thing about doctrine is not whether it’s ugly or beautiful, but whether it’s false or true. That said, the true doctrine of Christian conversion is just plain beautiful.

On one level, conversion is beautiful in the same way that all kinds of transformations are beautiful. In primary school, children study the metamorphosis of caterpillar to butterfly or tadpole to frog. In Sunday School, children learn how those transformations illustrate the change in a human heart from “dead in sin” to “new creation.” A flower blooms, an egg hatches, a baby bird spreads its wings for the first time. Each of these transformations is beautiful in its own way, but they are also all beautiful in the same way. In so many nooks and crannies of creation, God has hardwired the revelation of his glory which is brought to bear in the changing of spiritual death to eternal life.

One of the laws of the natural world is that things left to themselves don’t progress but regress. Everything dies. Yet in this very realm, God has encoded the beauty of change to something better here and there. Are these not all signposts to the wonder of salvation?

In fact, conversion is bigger than this. It is beautiful in its simplicity (think Romans 10:9) and in its complexity (think Ephesians 2:1-10).

But it’s not enough to say that salvation is beautiful. Let’s show.

BEAUTIFUL IN ITS ORCHESTRATION

Conversion is beautiful in its orchestration. There is a defining moment of conversion: one moment we don’t savingly believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and that God has raised him from the dead, and the next moment we do.

That initial decision to believe, to lay hold of Christ with the empty hand of faith, is the moment a predestined sinner minding his own business gets tangled up in the ordo salutis. God’s crosshairs were on him from time immemorial, but now the effectual call has met its appointed time. The planned way of a man has been interrupted by God’s guidance of his steps (Prov. 16:9).

Conversion is in some sense both the fruition of God’s plan and one point along its route. It’s a decisive moment, but how much deliberation is behind that moment! We see the outline of this deliberation in Romans 8:30: “And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.” Our eyes can behold people repenting and professing their faith in Christ, but they cannot behold the eternal weight of glory leading up to it and flowing out after.

There are multiple volumes to write about each step in Romans 8:30’s outline. There is beauty within beauty within beauty. A mustard seed of faith planted in the broken heart of a desperate sinner is the culmination of God’s foreknowing this sinner from before the foundations of the earth. Even in eternity past God, in grace, overlooked the eternal offense of this individual’s cumulative lifelong sin, predestining him in love for adoption as a cherished son. And then God sent his only begotten Son to provide the sinless atonement for him, that he could be justified by the righteousness of Christ upon the Spirit’s regenerating of his stony heart. It’s simply staggering, isn’t it? And that this seed of justifying faith would grow through the faithfulness of the Father to administer a sanctifying faith, again through the Spirit’s work, all the way to the promise of glorification, is more staggering still.

BEAUTIFUL IN ITS PROMISE

Conversion is beautiful in its promise. And oh, that promise! Isn’t it getting at what we all really want? What saint and sinner alike hope for every day? Everyone wants change. Everyone wants to believe bad will become good, and wrong will be set right. We all have our ideas on how this can be accomplished, but everyone basically wants the same thing—life.

God has set eternity in our hearts (Eccl. 3:11), and every waking moment thereafter is an expression of worship of one god or another, the expression of our innate desperation for the real, the true, the lovely, the promise of better and righter. Bruce Marshall famously wrote, “The young man who rings the bell at the brothel is unconsciously looking for God.”[1] This is true for all our idolatries—be they sex or spirituality—but the overarching truth is that no one left to his own devices is seeking the God (Rom. 3:11). We want our gods to be God. What we are looking for is, in fact, found in the One whom we wickedly want to avoid.

So those who “find God” are actually those who are found by God. Our comforter the Spirit is scouring the earth, seeking whom he may raise to life. God is patient with his foreknown idolaters, not wanting any of us to perish but all of us to come to repentance. His Spirit turns the lights on in our heart, calls out “Come Forth” from the mouth of our tomb, and the unbelievable becomes believable. I can be different! I can change! I can know God and thereby know life! As the hymn says, “No guilt in life, no fear of death—this is the power of Christ in me!”

The gospel reveals the real hope for me and for this world. All the beauty of creation, of the arts, of the human striving for progress and enlightenment is summed up and found true in Jesus Christ incarnate, crucified, buried, resurrected, and glorified. And just as his resurrection is firstfruits (1 Cor. 15:20-23), so our conversion to saving faith is the promise of conversion to immortality—that “we shall all be changed” (1 Cor. 15:50-53).

BEAUTIFUL IN ITS MYRIAD WORKINGS

Conversion is beautiful in its myriad workings. The conversion of men to saving faith in Christ is beautiful in all the decisive moments it encompasses. Many in my generation and others “got saved” as we walked down an aisle, raised our hand, or repeated a formulaic prayer. And many in my generation who have become pastors will not resort to such special pleading in order to invite response to the gospel. We must all take care to make sure the biblical gospel is preached in biblical ways. But what a miracle that God uses fallible men exercising imperfect means to administer the perfect power of the good news of Jesus Christ!

I am not a dispensational pretribulational rapturist (anymore) but my conversion came after the Holy Spirit in his wisdom used a cheesy 1970’s “left behind” type of movie to soften my heart to desire Jesus for forgiveness and security. I would not employ such means today, but I am grateful that God is not snobby about the ways he brings his children to life. He doesn’t put on airs. His strength is perfected in our evangelistic weakness, even in our flawed preaching and pleading. It is amazing to me how God simultaneously works through and in spite of our gospel ministry.

All conversions to Christ result from finally beholding him as our Christ, the offering for our salvation. An obvious example is Saul’s conversion on the road to Damascus. Very dramatic, that moment. For others, the moment is less dramatic. A child prays a prayer in children’s church. A man goes forward at the end of a church service. One fellow I know said he’d sat in church every Sunday for nearly three years before it finally occurred to him, “Wait—I need to be saved. I need to believe this.”

In his novel That Hideous Strength, C.S. Lewis in his inimitable way captures the ordinariness and the heaviness of one woman’s conversion:

What awaited her there was serious to the degree of sorrow and beyond. There was no form nor sound. The mould under the bushes, the moss on the path, and the little brick border, were not visibly changed. But they were changed. A boundary had been crossed. She had come into a world, or into a Person, or into the presence of a Person. Something expectant, patient, inexorable, met her with no veil or protection between…

In this height and depth and breadth the little idea of herself which she had hitherto called me dropped down and vanished, unflattering, into bottomless distance, like a bird in a space without air. The name me was the name of a being whose existence, she had never suspected, a being that did not yet fully exist but which was demanded. It was a person (not the person she had thought), yet also a thing, a made thing, made to please Another and in Him to please all others, a thing being made at this very moment, without its choice, in a shape it had never dreamed of. And the making went on amidst a kind of splendour or sorrow or both, whereof she could not tell whether it was in the moulding hands or in the kneaded lump…

The largest thing that had ever happened to her had, apparently, found room for itself in a moment of time too short to be called time at all. Her hand closed on nothing but a memory. And as it closed, without an instant’s pause, the voices of those who have not joy rose howling and chattering from every corner of her being.

“Take care. Draw back. Keep your head. Don’t commit yourself,” they said. And then more subtly, from another quarter, “You have had a religious experience. This is very interesting. Not everyone does. How much better you will now understand the Seventeenth-Century poets!”

...But her defenses had been captured and these counter-attacks were unsuccessful.[2]

The demons oppose her, sometimes contradicting directly, sometimes changing the meaning of her experience. But nothing — not even angels or demons — can separate Jane from the love of God. So in the quiet of an English garden, as in the expectant prayers at the sanctuary altar, or in the solitude of a lonely soul reading a Bible in an armchair, eternity drops down.

The myriad ways God brings dead people to life are beautiful, some instantaneously recognizing stark new realities, others realizing of their need over time. Some hear the message for the first time and respond in faith. Others hear the message all their lives but do not have the spiritual “ears to hear” until some day far down the road. This is artful. There is God, in the vast array of human experience and daily life, in the mundane and the spectacular, rehearsing resurrection over and over again. And even the most ordinary of conversions is extraordinary. The angels celebrated no less for my daughter’s first expression of saving faith in her room at bedtime a few years ago than they did Paul’s 2,000 years ago. Every conversion is a miracle. And the great beatific vision of Christ makes beatific visions of us (2 Cor. 3:18).

BEAUTIFUL IN ITS SOURCE

Conversion is beautiful in its source. Because the Creator is glorious, all he does is glorious. And because of this vital truth, it is not true enough to say that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” Beauty lies objectively in the triune Godhead, whether beheld by mortals or not. David asks to dwell in the house of the Lord and to gaze upon the Lord’s beauty (see Ps. 27:4), but even if the Lord does not answer such prayers, his beauty is not diminished one bit.

On the other hand, God’s beauty—more often called his glory—is reflected, magnified even, in the increase of beholding. So one of the beauties of God’s raising dead men to new life is that they come to reflect his beauty in sermon and song and hearts filled with thanksgiving (Col. 3:16). After Peter witnessed the sufferings and resurrection of Christ, he was able to refer to himself as “a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed” (1 Pet. 5:1). To answer the call of the gospel in saving faith, then, is in some way to obtain that beauty, and so magnify it. “To this he called you through our gospel,” Paul writes in 2 Thessalonians 2:14, “so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Conversion is beautiful because God is beautiful. He is beautiful in the greatness and majesty of his glory, the weighty sum of all his attributes and qualities. The way the Bible talks about God’s beauty is, well, beautiful. From the holiness brought to bear in the Pentateuch narratives to the gushing of the psalmists to God’s epic reply to Job to the wonderment of the prophets to the witness of the Gospels to the epistles’ ecstatic exultations and divine doxologies to John’s bewildering apocalypse, the Bible is beautiful with God’s intrinsic and overwhelming beauty.

And this God—this marvelous, inscrutable, and holy God—knows us and loves us and chooses us and calls us and saves us. “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6). For all the beauty of conversion (and there is still more to be explored for all eternity), it is sourced in and overshadowed by the beauty of God himself, whose glory extends without limits for all time, as well as to us, that we would see it and know Jesus and be changed forever.

Jared C. Wilson is the pastor of Middletown Springs Community Church in Middletown Springs, Vermont and is the author, most recently, of Gospel Wakefulness (Crossway, 2011).

[1] Bruce Marshall, The World, The Flesh and Father Smith (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1945), 108.

[2] C.S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength (New York: Macmillan, 1970), 318-319.

Topics: Conversion

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That is the most beautiful article I think I have ever read! I have reread it 3 times, brought tears to my eyes. Every conversion IS a miracle! Your words were so poetic. Thank you for an amazing dose of the Gospel today. I shall reread this many times over, I am sure of it.

This past year we saw 250 people come to Christ through and within our church ministry. Each and every one of them was a beautiful story of redemption. Thanks for reminding me of that truth.

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