The lifelong journey of following Christ
When I was four years old, I heard a Sunday School teacher recite Scripture in a way that captured my heart.
My family and I were in Victoria visiting my grandparents. After church we went back to my grandparents’ place for lunch. At some point, I tugged on my mother’s sleeve and asked her to tell me more about John 3:16.
She smiled and repeated the verse for me. “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” She told me that, if I wanted to, I could be a “whosoever” too. Keen to “not perish,” I nodded my assent.
My mom took me into the living room, a richly upholstered space my grandmother had covered with thick, protective plastic. My mom and I knelt on the plastic carpet runner and put our elbows on the plastic-protected couch, and I asked Jesus into my heart. When we finished, my mom told me the angels in heaven were throwing a party over their newest little convert, and soon my family was too.
It’s not hard to detect the distinctly evangelical flavour of my conversion story. Historian David Bebbington’s famous identification of four key emphases in modern evangelicalism – conversionism, biblicism, crucicentrism and activism – perfectly describes my religious upbringing. The need to be saved, the authority of the Bible, the centrality of Christ’s work on the cross, and an urgency to tell others all fuelled the fire of my young faith. They fuel the fire of my middle-aged faith too.
Of course, over the years, encounters with a living God and His people have stretched and sometimes redefined those four distinctives for me. Where I once understood activism rather exclusively as telling other people about Jesus, I’ve come to understand it must also include good news to the poor (Luke 4:18). Where biblicism once involved an unreflective plain reading of the text, I’ve come to cherish the way God’s Word speaks today when its historical, cultural and literary contexts are understood and respected. And where crucicentrism once asked me to focus almost exclusively on the cross, I’ve come to see Jesus’ earthly life, death and resurrection settle our sin debt, but offer us infinitely more – the possibility of an abundant, eternal life that starts now.
But what of conversionism? The longer I’ve walked with Jesus, the more I’ve come to see two things. First, my four-year-old conversion was utterly genuine. Second, I am in desperate need of ongoing conversion. My initial salvation moment was not an arrival, but a beginning.
I’ve been resistant to the idea of a lifelong conversion process, preferring to divide the journey neatly into categories of justification (you’re in) and sanctification (now you grow more like Jesus). Those categories are helpful as long as we don’t stall out at justification. But lately I’ve felt Jesus calling me to be converted, again and again, at deeper and deeper levels.
The great evangelical missionary E. Stanley Jones helps me. In his book Conversion, he describes the way members of a Christian community he established in India shared the workload so each person – even the cleaner of the nonflush toilets – could have one day off a week. Cleaning the latrines was typically the work of untouchables, and when Jones asked a higher caste convert if he was ever going to volunteer, he shook his head slowly. “Brother Stanley,” he confessed, “I’m converted, but I’m not converted that far.”
You must, counsels Jones, “constantly enlarge the area of your conversion. Make your conversion take in more and more areas of your life.” Similarly, the American scholar Dallas Willard was fond of pointing out the New Testament uses the word Christian three times and the word disciple 269 times. Evidently, it was impossible for the 1st century Christ followers to see a commitment to Jesus as anything less than a progressive, ongoing apprenticeship – a lifelong conversion.
Looking back at my mom and I saying amen and peeling ourselves off all that plastic in my grandmother’s living room, I often joke that the experience really “stuck” with me. Jesus really did come into my heart, and He’s never left. But all these years later He still knocks on the hidden doors of my heart, opening them one by one. I am a convert He never tires of converting. I need only stick with it.
From the March/April 2018 issue of Faith Today