God's Revolutionary Demand
This article is an abridgement of a much longer essay written at the request of the World Council of Churches. It was published in the July 21, 1967 issue of Christianity Today.
The word on the lips of the peoples of the world today is "revolution." Every few days we read in our newspapers of another revolution somewhere in the world; an old regime has been overthrown and a new regime has taken over. Conversion is a revolution in the life of an individual. The old forces of sin, self-centeredness, and evil are overthrown from their place of supreme power. Jesus Christ is put on the throne.
No one can read the New Testament without recognizing that its message calls for conversion. Jesus said: "Except ye be converted … ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven" (Matt. 18:3). Paul encouraged men to "be … reconciled to God" (2 Cor. 5:20) and insisted that God now "commandeth all men everywhere to repent" (Acts 17:30). Paul viewed his office as that of an ambassador for Christ "as though God did beseech you by us" (2 Cor. 5:20). It was James who said: "Let him know, that he which converteth the sinner from the error of his way shall save a soul from death, and shall hide a multitude of sins" (Jas. 5:20), and Peter taught that we are "born again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, by the word of God, which liveth and abideth forever" (1 Pet. 1:23).
In reading the New Testament we are confronted with many incidents of men and women who encountered Christ either personally or through hearing the message preached. Something happened to them! None of their experiences were identical, but most of them experienced a change of mind and attitude and entered an entirely new dimension of living.
In my opinion there is no technical terminology for the biblical doctrine of conversion. Many words are used to describe or imply this experience; many biblical stories are used to illustrate it. However, I am convinced, after years of studying Scripture and observing conversions in the lives of thousands, that it is far more than a psychological phenomenon—it is the "turning" of the whole man to God.
I would suggest three elements which in combination I have found most effective in conversion. The first is the use of the Bible. The Bible needs more proclaiming than defending, and when proclaimed its message can be relied upon to bring men to conversion. But it must be preached with a sense of authority. This is not authoritarianism or even dogmatism; it is preaching with utter confidence in the reliability of the kerygma. A. M. Chirgwin observed that the Reformers "wanted everyone to have a chance to read the Bible because they believed profoundly in its converting power." This could be said of every great era of evangelism. I know of no great forward movements of the Church of Jesus Christ that have not been closely bound up with the message of the Bible.
Recently my attention was called to one of the most thrilling stories I have ever heard about the power of the Word of God. In 1941 an old Tzeltal Indian of southern Mexico approached a young man by the name of Bill Bentley in the village of Bachajon and said: "When I was north I heard of a book that tells about God. Do you know of such a book?" Bill Bentley did. In fact, he had a copy, he said; and if the tribe would permit him to build a house and live among them, he would translate the book into their language.
In the meantime, Bill returned to the United States to marry his fiancée, Mary Anna Slocum. Together they planned to go to Mexico in the fall. But when fall came, Mary Anna returned to Mexico alone. Six days before the wedding Bill had died suddenly, and Mary Anna had requested that the Wycliffe Bible Translators let her carry on his work. When she reached the village of Bachajon, the Indians had been warned against the white missionary, and instead of welcoming her, they threatened her that if she settled among them they would bum her house down. Settling in another part of the tribe, she began patiently to learn the Tzeltal language, translating portions of the Word of God, and compiling a hymnbook in Tzeltal.