The Underestimated Pastoral Power of a Proper Doctrine of Conversion
A proper doctrine of conversion will give you pastoral power.
Let me jump right in with an illustration. I once confessed a wrongful desire to a friend of mine, and I explained that, frustratingly, my theology knew it was wrong, but part of me was tempted to justify it because it felt “woven into the very fabric of my person” and “part of the very wiring of my soul.” Those were the words I used to explain how much the desire felt like me.
My friend, sweetly, simply quoted Ephesians 4 to me: “put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires.” And he emphasized “your old self” like that. Yes, it’s true that such desires may be woven or wired into my very person. You’re old self is corrupt. What did you expect, Jonathan? Those desires, in one sense, are me.
Ah, but there was good news just around the corner. My friend finished the passage: but “be renewed in the spirit of your minds…and put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.” Wait a second, I have a new self, don’t I? There is an old me, sure, but there is also a new me. And this new me is being created…hold on, get this…after the likeness of God.
In short, my friend reminded me of my conversion with a few choice words from Scripture. And where my mood had been melancholic that day, fueled by the frustration of wanting something I couldn’t have, his reminder restored my joy. It gave me hope.
TWO PLACES OF PASTORAL POWER
Do you see how there’s pastoral power in a proper understanding of conversion? In the realities and promises of a new creation life?
1. It gives you the ability to encourage and enliven your brothers and sisters in Christ who are gripped by sin. Maybe it’s an addiction. Maybe it’s a feeling of hatred toward another brother or sister in the church. Maybe it’s an untraceable sense of despair. Whatever. In many such cases, the sin—liar that it is—pretends to be inevitable. It dons the mask of “real” or “authentic” or “just how I feel” or “natural” or even “just.” But a right doctrine of conversion exposes the lie in all such posturing. “Yes, your feelings might be natural, but no, you are bound by it, because Christianity is supernatural. You are free.”
People feel determined by their sin; the Christian doctrine of conversion helps Christians to know that they are not. Even when the fight is long, and every two steps forward seems to be followed by one step backward (or more!), the power of change comes from the recognition of what Christ has done in making a person new.
2. It gives you the ability to assure Christians of their new and different kind of life. Christianity gives the life of the Son, in whose image we are being remade. It’s a life of holiness, love, and unity with God’s people. It’s a life of suffering, but of knowing the hope and power of the resurrection amidst such suffering.
And here’s the amazing thing. Such assurances belong not only to the so-called imperatives of the New Testament: “Go and be holy and united with each other.” They belong to the indicatives: “This is what you are.” There is a new self, and that new self is one with the saints and is holy like the Son.
THE CULTURAL BACKDROP
Now, there is a cultural backdrop to all of this that’s worth recognizing. Our romanticized culture favors the real, the natural, the authentic. Self-discovery and self-expression are our greatest moral acts. And these attitudes have seeped into churches and refashioned our ideas about conversion, membership, and our new identities in Christ. We’re all just seekers, pastors will say. We’re all on our journey. That means you take one step, and then another, and then another.
But what’s missing from the logic of these popular pastoral metaphors is the idea of a decisive break with the past—a rescuing from the domain of darkness; a death and resurrection. A journey of discovery is a vastly differently kind of thing than a burial and a resurrection, an old self and a new self.
Admittedly, journeys do change us. We evolve through journeys. And, truth be told, spiritual growth can feel less like caterpillars and butterflies and more like an evolutionary progression chart. My point is not to say that such language has no points of spiritual connectivity. But we must not forget what the New Testament teaches about the power of the eschaton breaking into history now. New creation now. That’s conversion.
SITTING ACROSS FROM THE ALCOHOLIC
So there you are, sitting across from the alcoholic, the victim of marital infidelity, the ornery deacon who is causing a church split, the young couple who cannot stand singing hymns. What is your task? It’s reminding them that they are Christians.
Perhaps you help them go back to their baptism, like Paul does in Romans 6. They’ve been buried and raised—wow! Do they really want to go on sinning, or look for freedom, or look for the power to forgive, or keep insisting on their own way, just like the world does? How can they? They’ve died to sin, and been raised in newness of life with Christ.
Your pastoral task, one way or another, is to find the words and ask the questions that enable the still-sinful saint to understand what it means to be…now get this…a born again Christian.
Bottom line: preach, teach, sing, praise God in prayer, and counsel a proper doctrine of conversion. There’s underestimated power there. The more your people understand it, the more pastoral power you will have to shepherd them. Not only that, they will possess such power for persuading and equipping one another.