In our recent Catholic and Evangelical dialog one of the excellent questions that the Catholic theologians posed to us as evangelical Protestants was how we understood the doctrine and role of conversion in the Christian life. There can be no doubt that a defining centerpiece of evangelicalism is the doctrine and experience of conversion. At times it would seem that this is the defining experience for most evangelicals; i.e., a definitive (conscious and generally remembered as to the time and date) conversion experience.
So our Catholic friends expressed their dismay at how they often hear evangelical Christians use this conversion paradigm as their way of saying who is and is not a real Christian. They even referred to hearing some evangelicals say, “If you can’t date it, you’ve got to do it.” They stated that for them, as Catholics, this expression sounds very much like a work that we do in order to be a Christian. They asked us how we would explain the role of conversion in the Christian life.
First, their insights are noteworthy and important. Evangelicals too often make experience the center of their faith. “Have you been born again?” becomes the big question and the answer is always found by being able to definitively say that you can recall a moment in time when you “trusted Jesus” by “inviting him into your heart.” If you’ve done this then you are saved but if not you are lost and outside the faith. We agree with them that this emphasis is not only wrong but at times quite misleading. While each person must be born from above (cf. John 3:3, 7-8) it is clear that this miracle of regeneration is not always discernible or known to the one who is born of God. What will be known, over time, is that the one who is truly born of the Spirit loves Christ and seeks to follow him, by faith, as his disciple. For some the beginning of the Christian journey is linked to a powerful conversion story but for many, if not most, it is not. Putting stress on dating your conversion story creates a number of real problems. One obvious example is the very pride that our Catholic brothers cited that they see in some evangelicals when they use this model to judge others who have not had the exact same conversion experience.
Second, the point that was made by our Catholic brothers about this seeming like a “work” is very good one really. We generally do not think of it this way but if you can get inside their emphasis as Catholics you can better understand why it seems this way to them. We talk about this one thing that everyone has to do and then insist that if they haven’t done it they are not Christians. It ends up being our decision, our work, our part, that decides who is shown the grace of God. While popular Catholic practice can lead to many assuming that they are saved magically by the sacraments, without a living faith in Christ alone, popular evangelical theology can do much the same by putting all the stress on whether or not you have accepted Christ through praying a sinner’s prayer. Then, no matter what you do, you are considered a Christian, a display of what is classically called antinomianism; i.e., living without law, or lawless living by abusing grace.
Finally, we all agreed that conversion is plainly a biblical truth, as is the work of regeneration ("new birth"). What we differ over is how redemption is applied to the believing person. Our Catholic brethren put a lot more emphasis upon the power of the sacraments and the role of the visible church, seen as the repository of God’s grace, to give us his grace. We believe in sacraments and also believe grace comes to us by Word and Spirit through the preaching of the gospel and baptism and the Lord’s Supper. The emphasis, and thus our differences, are to be seen as related to our different doctrines of the Church, as I have previously noted.