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. 

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  1. kevin October 8, 2007 at 1:41 pm

    I am a Protestant. I am also born again. Discipling students, I relate to many students who have no Christian experience. They meet Jesus and their lives are changed drastically. I was one such student who can place a time and date on my conversion experience. It was not just the saying of a “sinners prayer”, it was a complete change of heart. It came when I repented of unbelief and accepted that God “really” exists and that the Bible is his “really” his word. God became real. Soon afterwards the details of the gospel took form in my heart.
    But I also see students who have been born and raised in the church. Some say that they have always believed in Jesus. I think that their point of conversion comes when they have a change of hope and a change of life direction. They change their hopes from the hopes in this world to hopes in the Kingdom of God. They stop living for themselves and begin to live for Jesus. It is when they stop praying, “Bless me” and begin to pray, “Lord, how can I glorify you?” it is when they stop living according to their own feelings and reasonable ideas and begin living according to the word of God. It begins when we stop saying, “What do I want to do” and begin to say, “What does God want me to do.” It has to do when we decide to pick up our own cross and begin to follow Jesus daily. It begins when when they bow their knee before God and say , “Have mercy on me Lord, a sinner.” This is the point of conversion for those who think they have always known Jesus. It is possible for them to have clear life testimony, with a time and a date, when you think of it in these terms.

  2. Steve Scott October 10, 2007 at 1:23 am

    Thank you, John, for bringing this up. I am one of those who never had that certain conversion “experience.” My conversion took place over a long period of time. I’ve also encountered the guilt tripping that others place on somebody for not having such an experience. Most often for me it has come in the form of “losing the spark and trying to get it back” exhortations. It is said, “Remember when you first became a Christian? You were overjoyed and zealous and on fire for the Lord and couldn’t wait to tell everybody you knew?”
    Well, uhhh, no. I was terrified and there were many negative changes in my life. Things were overturned. I was also under terrible legalistic teachings and wrestling with man’s teachings when I had as of yet little discernment made things all the worse. The slightest bit of peace and joy took almost a year to happen. The next five or six years went by as I slowly matured to a point of more contentment. Now when people ask I say, “Oh sometime between ’94 and ’95.”
    My conversion didn’t start at the top of the mountain and slowly fade over time like many Christians I’ve heard. The opposite has happened. If anything the former sounds more like the seed that falls on rocky ground instead of the good soil.

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