One of the Dirtiest Words Today: C——–n
I was recently called in for my semi-annual performance review where I work as a financial advisor. My regional manager was dutifully engaging me in pleasantries about life and family when I casually mentioned that I would be preaching at my local church the following Sunday.
As if on cue, my manager smiled, leaned back into the folds of his leather chair, and launched into a monologue about how preachers can be wonderful financial advisors because they have a “way with words and with people.” Preachers are “the best story-tellers,” and so on.
With sadness I noted his conception of preachers as “story-tellers,” but I politely nodded and genuinely appreciated his desire to connect with me. He then lamented the poor “preachers” he has heard in his Reform Jewish context. Yet, he proceeded to say, he felt confident that I did a better job in “motivating others to be better people,” since “that’s really what it’s all about.”
Not wanting to lose an opportunity for the gospel (and perhaps dispel the notion of preachers as mere story-tellers), I tried, albeit poorly, to draw an analogy between what I aim to do in preaching and what I aim to do in financial advising. In advising, I review a person’s financial status, assess the dangers and potential pitfalls of his current position, and then attempt to direct him down a path of financial security. “The task of preaching can be similar,” I noted. “I help them know something about God and their precarious position apart from him, and I then point them toward the good news of the gospel in Jesus Christ.”
My analogy didn’t have the intended effect, or perhaps it did, for he quickly retorted, “You’re not actually trying to convert people, are you?”
I could tell from his response that I had just crossed the line and confirmed his greatest fear: I was one of those Christians. You know, the kind who doesn’t respect other people’s personal beliefs, who insensitively interfere in other people’s business, and who arrogantly presume that you must think like them—or else.
He did not say as much, but it was written all over his face. With a smile I said, “Sure I am. Does that surprise you?”
He didn’t know quite how to respond, and so in the ensuing minutes I tried to help him understand that the gospel is not merely about making people behave better outwardly, but being born again from within (John 3). A Christian is one who repents of their sin and believes in Christ (cf. Mk 1:14). Sadly, what my Jewish friend found so obnoxious was not Christ’s claim upon his life that he repent and believe, but that I actually preached this message of conversion to others.
CONVERSION—A DIRTY WORD?
What’s the point of the story? Conversion is dirty word. It’s scandalous in today’s pluralistic and relativistic world to contend for one religious truth over and against another. It smacks of pride, arrogance, disrespect, perhaps hatred, maybe even violence.
This is the consensus among many of the secular elite. Popular television personality Bill Maher believes Christianity can only be explained as a “neurological disorder.” Only the most unenlightened, uneducated, and uncouth Neanderthal would both believe and contend for a conversion to religious faith, especially Christianity. It’s absolutely what the modern man does not need.
And Maher simply represents what secular humanism as a movement has been saying all along. To quote from their own manifesto, “traditional theism . . . and salvationism . . . based on mere affirmation is harmful, diverting people with false hopes of heaven hereafter. Reasonable minds look to other means for survival.” Reasonable minds . . . you can hear the condescension dripping from the pen.
Some go further, of course. They say such attempts at diversion (i.e. conversion) actually breed violence. In a publicized letter to the Pope John Paul II, Hindu scholar Swami Dayananda Saraswati argued that “religious conversion destroys centuries-old communities and incites communal violence. It is violence and it breeds violence.”
There is a sense in which I agree with Saraswati. Forced conversion at the edge of a sword–be it in modern day Islam or ninth-century “Christianity” under Charlemagne–will incite violence. But of course for Saraswati and the liberal academic establishment, it is no less violent, demeaning, and contemptible to simply say the words out loud, “hell does exist, and people will consciously suffer for eternity on account of their sins.” Such is the confused world we live in.
Of course, a Christian should not be too surprised when the world scorns and derides his or her message (though neither should we erect needless opposition to the gospel and then glory in our persecution as a Christian badge of honor). We are promised that the message of the cross is nothing other than foolishness to those who are perishing (cf. 1 Cor 1:18). And yet there is a sense of embarrassment in some ostensibly Christian circles for “conversionist” theology. Ashamed of their heritage, these self-professed Christians attempt to blaze a new (i.e. better) and more respectable path forward.
Just in recent months the Vatican and World Council of Churches–which includes more than 350 mainline Protestant, Orthodox, and related churches–began working on a “common code for religious conversions.” Input is also being solicited from Muslim leaders.
The fact that the various constituencies within this group hold to differing gospels ought to make us immediately suspect. Nonetheless, their hope is to “distinguish between witness and proselytism, making respect for freedom of thought, conscience and the religion of others a primary concern in any encounter between people of different faiths.”
The specific findings and recommendations of this commission will not be complete for another few years, but a few things are patently clear. For starters, “respect” is cherished and prized above everything, including truth. And the way to show respect to others is to not proselytize them (seek their conversion), but to bear witness to one’s own truth while appreciating their truth.
In short, what used to be understood as the radical need for regeneration and conversion has been eviscerated. We might say that this common code for religious conversion is really just a common code for non-conversion.
Yet it seems that conversion is even under attack among some professed evangelicals. This ought to strike us as nonsensical. Our English word “evangelical” comes from the Greek word for “good news.” What is this good news? It is that we, who are at enmity with God in our sin, can now be reconciled to him on account of Christ’s death and resurrection, when we repent of our sin and believe upon Christ. Conversion from our former way of life and thinking to Christianity is required. This much should be blatantly obvious.
Nonetheless, Brian MacLaren, perhaps the most prominent leader within the emerging church movement, calls for a reconsideration of conversion, if not an outright rejection of it. He writes in A Generous Orthodoxy,
I must add, though, that I don’t believe making disciples must equal making adherents to the Christian religion. It may be advisable in many (though not all) circumstances to help people become followers of Jesus and remain within their Buddhist, Hindu, or Jewish contexts. This will be hard, you say, and I agree. But frankly, it’s not at all easy to be a follower of Jesus in many ‘Christian’ religious contexts, either.
We are told to embrace other faiths “willingly, not begrudgingly.” To be fair, McLaren asserts the uniqueness of Christianity apart from other religions. And yet his belief in “a gospel that is universally efficacious for the whole earth,” his unwillingness to “set limits on the saving power of God” in reference to the unevangelized, and his belief that we must continually expect to “rediscover the gospel” as we encounter other religious traditions, “leading to that new place where none of us has ever been before,” raises significant and serious questions. Frankly, I have difficulty seeing how he is recommending anything Christian, let alone orthodox. In the end, his proposals are eerily similar to those being set forth by the Vatican and the WCC.
CONVERSION—A BIBLICAL IDEA?
Given how narrow-minded and bigoted conversion appears to the modern mind, must we contend for it as Christians? In other words, is a doctrine of conversion biblically required?
Absolutely. Although, the word is rare in the New Testament (cf. Matt 23:15; Acts 6:5; 15:3; 1 Tim 3:6), the idea of conversion is central to the storyline of Scripture.
The common words in Hebrew (shub) and Greek (epistrephô) that picture conversion are regularly translated “turn,” “turn back,” “return,” or “restore” in our English text. We read in Ezekiel 33:11, “Say to them, ‘As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways! Why will you die, O house of Israel?’”
Similarly in Isaiah 55:7: “Let the wicked forsake his way and the evil man his thoughts. Let him turn to the Lord, and he will have mercy on him, and to our God, for he will freely pardon.”
In the New Testament, Paul says that Christ sent him to the Gentiles in order to “open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me” (Acts 26:18). He also recounts how the church in Thessalonica “turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God” (1 Thes 1:9).
Luke says of John the Baptist, “Many of the people of Israel will he bring back to the Lord their God” (Luke 1:16).
This picture of conversion as “turning” or “returning” is also seen in Christ’s regular call to “follow me,” as when he says, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (cf. Matt 16:24; Mk 8:34; Luke 9:23). Or, “anyone who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me” (Matt 10:38). Following Christ is costly. Taking up one’s cross means forsaking everything. To the individual enslaved to his wealth, for instance, Jesus says, “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me” (Mark 10:21). To the disciple who wants to bury his father, Jesus commands, “Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead” (Matt 8:22).
CONVERSION—WHAT IT IS AND ISN’T
So what exactly is conversion? Can we sum it up?
Repentance and Faith
First, this picture of conversion as turning from self, and humbly following after God, can be captured in two words—repentance and faith. Conversion equals repentance and faith. In conversion, we turn our minds, emotions, and wills from the service of an idol (namely, self) to another (God). By faith we then trust in God and his word, believing like Abraham and all of God’s saints that he who promised is faithful. In this sense, conversion and repentance are inextricably linked. As one writer helpfully puts it,
Repentance, the forsaking of sin and the cultivating of a new hope, and faith, turning to Christ in belief and trust, are related to one another as two sides of a coin. The two are interdependent responses, each incomplete without the other. Thus conversion involves both a believing repentance and a penitent faith.
Radical and Costly
Second, the call to conversion is both radical and costly. It is costly because it necessitates the denial of self. To follow Christ is to subjugate all earthly pleasures and desires before his will. We ourselves, even our family, all take backstage before this unyielding commitment to our king.
It is radical because it exchanges darkness for light, dead idols for the living God, the passing wealth of this life for the enduring riches of heaven. The radical nature of conversion is also witnessed in some of the more extraordinary conversion accounts recorded in the book of Acts (cf. Paul in ch. 9; Cornelius in ch. 10; Philippian jailer in ch.16). Even if the process is slow and we can’t point to a moment in time when the Lord brought us out of the realm of darkness and into the realm of light, this doesn’t mean the change is any less dramatic and distinct. One is no longer a child of the devil, but has been adopted as a child of God (cf. 1 Jn 3:10).
Not Mere Dialogue
Third, conversion is not mere dialogue or conversation. Sadly, this is commonly misunderstood. Dialogue is often presented almost as an end itself. I share my Christian experiences, you share your Buddhist experiences, and we’re both the better for it, since “we’re all recipients of the same mercy, sharing in the same mystery.”
But dialogue is not the end, conversion is. Of course, no conversion can take place without respectful dialogue, and no conversion is possible unless God initiates supernatural change in the heart. Nonetheless, we do not walk away from a dialogue happy if our friend still rejects Christ. Rather, like the prophets of the Old Testament, Christ, and Paul, we weep and mourn for those who remain in their sin and refuse to follow after God (cf. Matt 23:7).
Not Just a Journey
Fourth, conversion is not a journey. In a journey one may wander, but never arrive. He may learn, but never comes to any conclusion. Many today say that the journey (merely learning) is itself sufficient.
But journeying is not enough. We must enter into God’s kingdom. We must reach the final destination, for there will come a time when the bridegroom will come, and those that are not with him will be shut out of the wedding feast (Matt 25:10).
Fifth, the call to conversion is neither optional nor negotiable. The biblical writers do not merely encourage, but command in the most unequivocal terms that all must turn and follow after God in Christ. Notice how many of the commands above are accompanied with a corresponding warning. Failure to repent and turn to God is no minor matter. It forfeits life for death, judgment and hell.
And yet the call to conversion is never accompanied with physical force, manipulation, or coercion. Christians should persuade and reasons with words, no more (2 Cor 4:1-2). Their only “sword” is the word of God and the witness of their lives. Nothing could be sharper or more effective (cf. Heb 4:12).
So just how biblically necessary is conversion? When Paul and Barnabas were at Lystra and Derbe, the people witnessed their miracles and confused them for the Greek gods of Zeus and Hermes. Paul and Barnabas’ response is instructive:
But when the apostles Barnabas and Paul heard of this, they tore their clothes and rushed out into the crowd, shouting: “Men, why are you doing this? We too are only men, human like you. We are bringing you good news, telling you to turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made heaven and earth and sea and everything in them” (Ac 14:14-15).
There would be no syncretism, no amalgamation of the Christian gospel and Greek mythology (or Buddhism, or Hinduism, or anything else for that matter). Paul and Barnabas insisted that all turn from these worthless false gods to the living God. They insisted on nothing short of a wholehearted, radical conversion.
BENEFITS FOR BELIEVERS
Conversion lies at the very heart of Christianity. To sacrifice it is to sacrifice nothing other than the gospel and the good news it promises to all. This is surely reason enough to defend a clear and robust understanding of biblical conversion. Lord willing, we’ll think more about the theological doctrine and its implications in our next piece.
But do we need to say anything more? Here are just two reasons why a proper understanding of conversion is important not only to God and the unconverted in our midst, but to our own spiritual well-being as believers.
First, a proper understanding of conversion promotes humility and makes grace meaningful. Paul writes, “Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior. But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation” (Col 1:21-22ff).
Or consider Peter, “For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God” (1 Pet 3:18).
What were we? Before conversion, we were unrighteous, alienated, and enemies of God. And this is not figurative language or hyperbole. We concern ourselves with terror attacks, invest in costly alarm systems for our homes, and fret over whether our cars have side air bags—all in an attempt to feel safe and secure. But imagine for a moment what it would be like to have the God of the universe as your enemy. The Bible says we really were at enmity with God, and more to the point, he with us (cf. Ja 4:4)!
How else can we explain the pain, agony, and wrath of the cross, if not that God was propitiating his own anger towards us, enemies of his holiness and justice?
If conversion is not necessary, neither is the cross.
We must preach the gospel to ourselves again and again, remembering in all humility what we deserved, and then rejoicing at the tremendous grace God has shown in reconciling us through the cross of Christ.
Second, a proper understanding of conversion fuels our missionary endeavors. The world is in danger. There is a spiritual battle for the souls of men. Satan would like nothing more than to see today’s church lulled into complacency by suggesting that a radical conversion to Christianity isn’t finally necessary. “Sure,” the voices of inclusivism or universalism say, “it might be preferable to call for conversion, but is it really necessary? A first-class airline seat may be preferable to a coach ticket, but both finally arrive at the same destination, right? So let people remain where they are.” By definition, both inclusivism (which says that some “anonymous Christians” may be saved through Christ, even though they haven’t consciously repented and believed in him) and universalism (which says that all humanity will be saved) destroy the biblical witness and our impetus for world missions.
We do well to remember these words of Christ instead:
Once again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was let down into the lake and caught all kinds of fish. When it was full, the fishermen pulled it up on the shore. Then they sat down and collected the good fish in baskets, but threw the bad away. This is how it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come and separate the wicked from the righteous and throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth (Matt 13:47-50).
Only in Christ are all made alive and reconciled to God (cf. 1 Cor 15:22). Thus, it is absolutely incumbent upon any Christian to preach this call to conversion, imploring all to be reconciled to God through Christ (cf. 2 Cor 5:17-21).
CONCLUSION: ONE OF THOSE CHRISTIANS?
“You’re not actually trying to convert people, are you?” That moment with my boss was uncomfortable. No one wants to share the gospel only to receive the look of death and horror that cries, “you honestly believe that . . . about God . . . about me? How could you?!”
I don’t enjoy being divisive any more than the next guy. And yet the gospel presents two dialectically opposed ways to live. We are either saved or unsaved, converted or unconverted, a sheep or a goat, a God-worshipper or an idolater, a son of God or a son of the devil, on the narrow path or on the broad path, in the realm of light or darkness, destined for heaven or condemned to hell. We neglect or reject this doctrine at our own peril.
Robert Duncan Culver said it well:
Conversion is as important to the experience and ministry of every minister of the Word and genuine Christian witness as birth to a baby or oxygen to a fire. Without it we are nothing in the kingdom of God and, Jesus said, destined to be cast out of it and, like weeds in the wheat field at harvest time, to be removed from the field and burned in the fire where ‘there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth’” (Mat 13:36-42). 
Don’t be apologetic. Be one of those Christians. Conversion may be a dirty word, but if so it is the one dirty word the Christian must preach with all boldness and passion.
Besides, what’s the alternative? Telling people that this world is enough? That their selfish, vain, addiction-ridden, and futile lives are just fine the way they are? That being renewed in the image of God is not all that its cracked up to be?
I can’t imagine anything more discouraging—and damning!
1. See http://www.worldnetdaily.com/news/article.asp?ARTICLE_ID=42906. The broader context is as follows. “We are a nation that is unenlightened because of religion. I do believe that. I think that religion stops people from thinking. I think it justifies crazies. I think flying planes into buildings was a faith-based initiative. I think religion is a neurological disorder.” In the interview Maher goes on to say, “I don’t hate America. I love America. I am just embarrassed that it has been taken over by people like evangelicals, by people who do not believe in science and rationality. It is the 21st century. And I will tell you, my friend. The future does not belong to evangelicals.”
2. See http://www.americanhumanist.org/about/manifesto2.html.
3. See http://www.maaber.50megs.com/eighth_issue/open_letter_e.htm.
4. See their press release at http://www2.wcc-coe.org/pressreleasesen.nsf/index/pr-06-12.html.
5. Brian MacLaren, A Generous Orthodoxy: Why I Am a Missional, Evangelical, Post/Protestant, Liberal/Conservative, Mystical/Poetic, Biblical, Charismatic/Contemplative, Fundamentalist/Calvinist, Anabaptist/Anglican, Methodist, Catholic, Green, Incarnational, Depressed-yet-Hopeful, Emergent, Unfinished CHRISTIAN (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004 Paperback), 293.
6. Ibid, 283 and 295.
7. Ibid, 124, 294, 293. Additionally, when asked about the exclusivity of the gospel (which would necessitate a conversion to Christ in contrast to an “inclusive” or “universal” gospel that offers hope to all, including the unconverted in this life), McLaren simply says such questions are “weapons of mass distraction.” He dismisses the question and refuses to answer. Sadly, this non-answer is an answer. See A Generous Orthodoxy, 42.
8. Bruce Demarest, The Cross and Salvation (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1997), 263-4.
9. Brian McLaren, A Generous Orthodoxy, 291.
10. Robert Duncan Culver, Systematic Theology, (Christian Focus Publications, 2005), 700.