Halfway Home

Three Things Americans Get Wrong about Conversion

This summer I lived for a few weeks near the largest park in San Jose, Costa Rica. There was a well-marked dirt path for joggers, but we were a mile from the starting line, so I always started at the halfway point. As I jogged the loop from middle to finish, and then from the starting line back to halfway, I reflected several times on the order of events in the prodigal son’s journey. His story did not begin at the pig troughs; it began and ended at home. So when the prodigal son repented “came to himself,” this was not the beginning, but the middle of his story. We must not skip to the climax.

When a person turns to God for the first time, they are, in a sense, already halfway home. They have come to the dead end of the prodigal road, and turned around disappointed. C. S. Lewis wrote The Pilgrim’s Regress to explain salvation not just as a journey, but as a return home. He wrote in a letter at the beginning of his Christian journey, “it is emphatically coming home.” [1]

As we remember stories, we tend to throw the details overboard until we only have the vaguest highlights; if we remember only one thing, it is the climax, or the high-point of the story’s arc. In reflecting on conversion stories, we usually get the milestones, but we jettison the beginning, end, and supporting characters. So here are some reflections that may help us to see conversion in a better light, so that we can be less shocked when they do not happen the way we plan.

1. Conversion is a beginning, but it is not the beginning.

Conversion is the beginning of a new life, but it is not the beginning of the story for God, who sees all. For God it is a culmination. A mother knows what it took to bring a baby into the world; everyone else rejoices at the results. So God alone knows the lengths and depths of his work of salvation. As always, we gaze and rejoice at results; God and intercessors live in the process.

Some would argue that God broke into Saul/Paul’s life like a sudden light, when God knocked him off his ass in Acts 9. His is the most unanticipated conversion in the Bible. The problem, though, is that Luke carefully sets the scene of prevenient grace in Saul’s life before he is ever called Paul. He mentions Saul twice: first, he holds the clothes of the stone-throwers at Stephen’s honor killing. Then we are told that Saul, though he avoided the dirty work, “approved of his execution.” (Acts 7:58-8:1).

Stephen’s last words were “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” Stephen’s prayer was honored when Jesus appeared to Saul and turned his hostility into humility. It was not anticipated by Saul, but it was anticipated by God. Prayer and prevenient grace were working in tandem.

Predestination, prevenient grace, and prayer are the preparation for salvation that we are never fully aware of in our own story. As an outsider Luke could note Stephen’s prayer for Saul as Stephen joined in God’s purposes. But only God could imagine the alchemy that would turn Saul into Paul. God had set his hook in Saul long before anyone had prayed. We must remind ourselves of God’s perspective: conversion is the beginning of the true Christian life, but it is never the beginning of the work of God in our lives.

2. Conversion is individual, but never personal

When the lost son returned in Jesus’ parable, the father ordered the fatted calf to be slain. This meant a huge party which would involve the entire village coming to rejoice with the returned son. Culturally, the son had greatly shamed the father, but the father absorbed all this shame and returned for it public honor. Conversion normally has public effects.

Paul in Galatians 6 makes two statements that explain a Christian’s basic responsibility. He starts with shared responsibility: “bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.” Then he gives us individual responsibility: “each will have to bear his own load.” These two concepts always balance each other.

In America we have all but forgotten shared responsibility. Not very long ago, the custom of Western Christians involved family worship, which meant a daily time of corporate prayer, Bible reading, and perhaps a hymn. Today we read the Bible alone, we pray alone, and we choose our own church—sometimes separate from our spouse. All the while we subjugate the music and preaching to our personal standards. In many cultures, all of these are corporate decisions made for the good of both the family, and the family of God.

Biblically, conversion is individual. The door is only wide enough for one to enter at a time. Christ’s Kingdom can divide families, and requires that we spurn parents and siblings in comparison to our love for God.[2] We cannot fly to heaven on anyone else’s coattails.

However, the New Testament authors understood salvation as something that also influenced the destiny of a person’s household. So Jesus told Zacchaeus, “Today salvation has come to this house.” (Luke 19:9) The nobleman with the dying son believed, along with all his household. (John 4:53) Luke and Paul mention salvation in a corporate, family context five more times in the New Testament.[3] In the case of the jailer in Acts 16, he and his family are saved (v. 31), baptized (v. 33), and believe (v. 34) as one. Granted, the Scriptures balance the group and the individual—yet corporate responsibility is a concept that is practically absent in the American church and family life. My life with God (or my life apart from God) affects everyone around me. I am my brother’s keeper.

3. Conversion is rarely instantaneous.

For years C. S. Lewis was having discussions with J. R. R. Tolkien, questioning the logic of his atheism. They were meeting several times a week, often talking past midnight on all kinds of topics, when finally, reluctantly, Lewis turned to God. He was a theist for over a year before he turned to Christ. (He was 32 at the time.) When God began changing his heart, this very learned man described his conversion in the most imaginative terms; he said it felt like shedding a coat of armor that he had worn all his life, or opening a door that he had kept permanently locked. And we all thank God that he stirred this great mind to repentance after many years of pride and unbelief.

Most of us require many years of God’s kindness to lead us to repentance, yet we are discouraged when a friend isn’t radically converted after visiting one or two church meetings. Boreham has a great essay in which compares seeking true conversion to whaling, in which the stakes are higher, and more patience is required:

Only the cheap prizes are cheaply won; the really precious things of life come to us through blood and agony and tears. [4]

God prepared for thousands of years to send his son. Missionaries have only been making organized and intelligent forays into the entrenched world of Islam for  a century or two. We have not tried all we can. Let’s remind ourselves: he is not slow as we count slowness—but patient.

When God revealed himself to Moses, he said that he was longsuffering. Have we forgotten how longsuffering he was for us? Have we forgotten how patient he was? Did we forget that the new birth also comes with birth pains? Or has conversion become to us a momentous result of a momentary effort? Let us take patience so that we can watch and pray with God’s lonely work of salvation, as his kindness leads many to repentance.

________________________

[1] Quoted by Colin Duriez, Tolkien and C. S. Lewis: The Gift of Friendship.

[2] For instance, Jesus said, “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father… Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.” (Matthew 10:34-37)

[3] Cornelius the centurion (Acts 11:14), Lydia (Acts 16:15), the Philippine jailer (Acts 16:31-34), Crispus (Acts 18:8), and Stephanas (1 Corinthians 1:16).

[4] F. W. Boreham, “The Whaler.” The Uttermost Star, Part I, ch. VI.

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