Monday, June 17, 2013

The Experience of Conversion


There was that moment...

Lying on the floor weeping in hopelessness, I handed everything to God. For the first time in my life, I had to really let go of all outcomes and recognize I was helpless, out of control and if God didn’t step in and take over, all was lost.

Then gently, God’s presence washed over me and I had a sense of divine peace. God gave me a little spark, the first spark of hopefulness I had felt in over a decade. I stood up, changed somehow. My life slowly strengthened over the years and I have never gone back to feeling hopeless again. Something true happened that afternoon.

I had given my life to Christ as a child, and had remained faithful to Him, never going through a rebellious teenage period. Yet my life had fallen apart and for years I had prayed, no begged God for help and had no such supernatural experience. However, that day, the experience did happen, that day. Why didn’t God make me feel His presence earlier? What was this blessed experience that rerouted my course of despair and put me on the path of joy again?

Internal Conversion Experience

I related the story to an evangelical Sunday School Class and was told that I experienced the Holy Spirit and had a true “born-again” conversion. My relationship with Christ before, they explained, had not been authentic because it had been based upon my will rather than my heart and that was legalism.

I was confused, for I had a vibrant relationship with Christ and felt spiritually secure for decades before this experience.

However, with my fundamentalist friends, the pressured question “Have you been saved?” had an expected date attached. For years I replied with the date of my story.

Over the years I have learned that many Christians expect a feelings-based, internal moment used to verify for them that you are a child of God.

External Conversion Experience

While Catholics and other Protestant denominations encourage a deep, personal relationship with Christ, they have always taught that we are born again at baptism. Faith is given freely by God and we respond with an act of the will. We choose baptism.

In the historical Christian teaching, faith is an act of the will in response to God’s outpouring of grace. Only recently, since the 19th century has faith been related to “Christ coming into your heart” by means of an emotional, internal experience.

The Bible lays out baptism as this public act of faith:

Or don't you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. If we have been united with him like this in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection.  Romans 6: 3-5

[A]nd this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also--not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a good conscience toward God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ. I Peter 3: 21

Baptism, an external and public act of commitment to Christ, allows no personal subjective judgement. Baptism leave no ambiguity like a personal revelation does. 

Therefore, when the external sign of effective grace in baptism is rejected, as many Protestants reject, another proof is sought after, many times in the emotional realm.

The disturbing effect of demanding an emotional experience is that a person’s salvation is judged by how well a person can express this born-again moment. Such judgements can appear very arrogant and prideful, even elitist. 

"You're testimony didn't convince my spirit that you really invited Jesus into your heart, therefore I am not convinced you are a true Christian." This is often how some Christians come across.  

Some people never have that experience and they are left desolate, assuming God never loved them. Often people become atheists because this expected experience never was given to them, so they quit believing altogether.

Jesus gave us a public act to cut through all personal opinions and judgments. Baptism is the public act of our faith that brings us into the New Covenant. 

One of the reasons Christ chose this external signs of the covenant of faith is because feelings and internal experiences cannot always be trusted. Feelings of holiness can begin to replace true holiness. The lifelong journey of faith includes struggles, temptations and growing in grace and glory. A feeling of God in your heart undercuts the journey.  

In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. Heb. 12:4

 However, I consider my life worth nothing to me, if only I may finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me--the task of testifying to the gospel of God's grace. Acts 20:24

Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. I Cor. 9:24

[God Disciplines His Sons] Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Heb. 12:1

God chose an external, material signs of grace that can accompany internal experiences, but the act of will allows us to know for certain we are children of God. 

My moment of experiencing God's grace that day on the floor wasn't what saved me. It didn't bring me into the New Covenant. It was a great blessed experience with Christ that had repeated itself several since, but the feelings, the experience had no power to save me, only encourage me in the path I had already chosen with my will.

Christians can have wonderful mystic internal experiences, but they should be counted blessings and not evidence of their Christianity.

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