My life-changing response to God’s love—my conversion—came through a conversation with Christ. I was a young skeptic—ready to dismiss my Sunday-School charade of faith—when a chain of unlikely events caught my attention. Was God at work? Did he actually exist? Or, more to the point, if he did exist was he trying to catch my attention?
What came next can be compressed to this: I picked up a Bible and began reading the Gospel of Matthew. When I reached the Sermon on the Mount the reading turned into a conversation. What Jesus said had personal impact: as if the writing was meant for me.
What were the key features? When Jesus spoke about sin in chapter five I recognized myself as a sinner. Then I asked—inwardly but in fully formed thoughts—what he expected of me. He answered in what I read next: perfection! This back-and-forth was repeated as I raised follow-up questions, each of which was addressed just a verse or two later.
When I reached Matthew 6:33 he said, “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness.” I took it as a personal invitation and responded with an unconditioned, “Yes, Lord, I’m yours!” That exchange continues to define my life.
One impact is that I still come to Bible reading for my ongoing conversation with God. I bring my questions and concerns to Bible reading and I find his presence there, still answering and stirring new questions.
My experience raises a question: do all true conversions come by way of a conversation with God? Did my personal encounter reflect a necessary feature of salvation, or was it one option among many—or, perhaps, an exception to the rule?
If it depends on what I hear from others it seems to be exceptional—but should it be? We usually hear of two other approaches to conversion. One has been called “decisionism”: as people are invited to make a “decision for Christ.”
The assumption here is that a person’s mind and will are engaged by the speaker’s reasonable and compelling case for the gospel. Faith, then, is the listener’s agreement with gospel claims that includes a practical embrace of those claims—the “trust and obey for there’s no other way” portrayal of faith.
A second widespread approach to faith is the educational—“catechetical”—model. It usually starts with infant-baptism in the believing community. God is understood to be present both in extending needed grace to the infant through baptism, and then in supporting the child’s progression to adult faith with Christian education as his means of grace.
It’s worth noticing that both the decision and catechetical forms of faith are cooperative: divine and human actions are required. The decision model focuses on the adult choice to believe the gospel; and the catechism model relies on church training and the student’s eventual expression of agreement in order to be confirmed in the faith.
Yet something may be missing in both models. In each case the symmetry between God’s efforts and the person’s efforts are based on knowing and choosing: God informs and we choose.
What isn’t addressed is a changed heart—something only accomplished by the Spirit’s ministry. We can think of John 3 here. And the first fruit of the Spirit is a transforming love. That’s not to say that decision-based or training-based models of faith preclude an encounter with God’s Spirit and his love poured out in our hearts. Yet in many settings that love isn’t portrayed as God’s basis for awakening faith.
In James 2:19 we’re reminded that simple knowledge isn’t the sole basis of faith: even demons believe in God. And the Jewish religious leaders in the New Testament were premier representatives of an educational and decision-defined—behavioral—form of faith. What was missing? Jesus told them in John 5:42, “you do not have the love of God within you.” In other words, the calling of Matthew 22:37 to love God isn’t a passing thought. And we’re aware of 1 Corinthians 13—of faith, hope, and love—as well.
It might be argued, of course, that love is equated with obedience in John 14:21 so that love is just another word for self-determined obedience. But even a cursory reading of the context tells us otherwise. The metaphor Jesus uses in the next chapter—the vine-branch-fruit imagery—presents love and obedience as borne out of our abiding in his love, so our love is a fruit of his love and not the other way round.
So what of the conversion-as-a-conversation model of faith? The central premise is that a once-deaf—or a once-blind—heart is now able to hear and see. In Paul’s expression of Ephesians 1:18, “the eyes of our hearts” are enlightened by the grace of God. The former “hardness of heart” (Ephesians 4:18) that once supported alienation and ignorance of God is now undone.
All we do is listen and respond.
“Respond to what?” some might ask.
To his self-giving—as the Word of God—and to his Spirit-generated Scriptures that tell us of himself. In effect he invites us into a conversation he’s had with the Father and the Spirit from eternity past and that will continue into the eternal future for all who know him.