What is Conversion?

Conversion is a turning from sin to Christ. Now, let’s think about that. Does conversion happen only once in a lifetime, or does it happen many times? That is the question, I believe, that needs answering.

From my experience, and from my understanding of the Bible and of Christianity, there are four kinds of conversion experiences. First, for a person totally outside the faith, there is an initial conversion experience, when that person comes to Christ for the first time.

Secondly, there is daily conversion. Each day, and many times during the day, we have to turn from sinful tendencies, and turn back to Christ. These “little turnings” are so many daily conversions. By magnifying the initial conversion experience, modern evangelism does not say enough about daily conversion.

Third, there are what I call “crisis conversions.” There are crisis points in every Christian’s life. At these crisis points, the Christian needs to reaffirm his or her faith by making a major break with some problem that has crept up, and make a major turn toward Christ.

Fourth, there are what I called “stage conversions.” By this I don’t mean conversions that are merely put on for show. Rather, I mean that God brings Christians through various stages of growth and maturity, and at each stage it is necessary for the Christian to come to a fuller understanding of what it means to be a Christian.

Now, I don’t think enough justice is done to this matter of stages of life. As a person grows, his understanding of himself, of the world, and of God will change, because he is himself changing. His understanding grows wider, and embraces more factors of life. He becomes aware of things he was not aware of before. Moreover, his understanding grows deeper, and more profound. Learning to adjust to a spouse, and then to children; learning to adjust to authorities on the job, and learning how to relate to subordinates; learning how to manage money; etc. -all of these things cause a person to deepen and widen his understanding. Hopefully, they cause a person to become more and more wise and stable.

These changes of understanding happen slowly and gradually, without our being aware of them. One day, however, we wake up and realize that we have changed. I am not the same person I was ten years ago, I realize. And my understanding of God and of His ways, of what it means to be a Christian, had better change too. My faith needs to deepen and broaden. Once again, I need to give all to Him, because my understanding of “all” has expanded.

This means that the kind of Christian experience I may have had in college is not the norm for my entire life. This is the important point. The college-type Christian conversion experience may be a very important and necessary stage in my Christian development, but it would be wrong (even perverse) for me to try continually to keep up that kind of “lighthearted” Christian experience in the midst of a mature adult world, with all its cares, responsibilities, and tribulations.

This is why the kind of testimonies college (or high school) students make seem off base to me. They are not really relevant to my stage of life as a 60+ year old man. I can appreciate and rejoice in what the Lord is doing with them, but I also see that He is not doing quite the same thing with me.

Between my senior year of high school and my freshman year of college, I too was “converted.” I read Billy Graham’s World Aflame, and I came to understand for the first time that I had to be justified apart from any of my own works and intentions. I accepted Christ into my heart, and for a month I was on a kind of “honeymoon” with the Lord. For years, I told people that I had not been a Christian before, only a “good churchgoer.” I now no longer tell people that.

Was I not a Christian before? Were the young people whose testimonies I heard when I preached not really Christians before they went to college? I think I was, and I think they were, too. What happened was that we came to a new stage of maturity, a stage at which we needed to understand in a new, more profound way, what the Christian faith entails. We went through a crisis, and experienced a conversion.

I believed in Jesus when I was little, and I’m sure “converted” college students did to. We were both loyal to Him. We kept His rules. We went to His church. We sang hymns to Him. We had the kind of faith appropriate for the childish stage of life. When we got to age 17, however, we needed to deepen our faith. We went through a crisis. We had a conversion.

Now, the problem comes in the notion that this experience is the one and only conversion for one’s whole life. If we think that way, we always look backwards to that conversion. We want to recapture the simplicity of that initial warm experience of the love and acceptance of God, and this is a mistake. It freezes faith at an immature level, and prevents us from pressing on to maturity. People influenced by this way of thinking tend to want to recover the experiences of their late teen years.

(To take a parallel example, we see this most commonly in the way people retain a strong, often binding affection for whatever kind of music they listened to in their late teens. People who danced to Lawrence Welk’s “champagne music” were horrified when their teenagers liked the Beatles. Now the Beatles generation has its own children, and they are horrified at modern punk rock. The beatnik generation, which came in between, still clings to the sounds of off-beat folk music. There is nothing necessarily wrong with some of this music, and there is nothing wrong with an occasional nostalgia for childhood, but there can be a real problem when this nostalgia becomes an intransigent refusal to mature.

(Continuing this parenthesis: America is a strange culture. It glorifies youth, and it provides most people with the means to surround themselves with youthful fictions. Women at 30 years of age, after bearing children, want to be as slim and weightless as they were at age 18, a manifest impossibility. Thus, that this kind of intransigent nostalgia is present in the area of faith is no surprise, but it is regrettable. We are called to press on to maturity- in every area of life.)

Thus, I appreciate the “Campus Crusade” type of college conversion experience. I think it is healthy for many young people, and I don’t think it harms anyone. The problem is in making this kind of youthful experience the norm for mature Christian faith.

James Jordan is scholar-in-residence at Theopolis.

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