As I began to pursue my doctoral degree at a doughty bastion of liberal Christianity, the University of Chicago Divinity School, I met Professor Frederick Sack (not his real name, but the story that follows is true). An expert in the history of Christian thought, he became a favorite of mine. He also, however, became a considerable theological nuisance.
Though he was converted and raised in the evangelical tradition, by the time I met him, he had drifted theologically. He had become an expert on the father of liberal theology, F. D. E. Schleiermacher, and I noticed a portrait of Schleiermacher on his office wall. Professor Sack was delighted to talk about Schleiermacher, whom he invoked as one of his patron saints—inasmuch as Presbyterians have such benefactors, he allowed with a small smile.
But what then was I to make of the portrait that hung beside Schleiermacher's? For there in this den of liberalism was the unmistakable visage of John Calvin. Professor Sack was delighted to talk of Calvin, too, as another subject of his professional research and another patron saint. Indeed, he said, over much of his career he had labored to show the theological threads that connected Calvin and Schleiermacher.
So I began to probe a little further into Professor Sack's convictions. I brought up the classic conflict between Martin Luther and Desiderius Erasmus in the 16th century over the extent to which our salvation depends on God's free gift or on our response of faith and obedience. Luther, of course, despaired of human potential and placed salvation entirely in God's hands. Erasmus believed that authentic Christianity consisted of following the moral example of Christ. So, I asked Professor Sack, whose emphasis was most correct?
To my surprise, Professor Sack immediately sided with Luther. It is only by God's grace that we are saved, he affirmed. We have nothing of our own to bring. We are saved only through God's work in the Redeemer.
I was nonplussed. But I persisted. Who, then, is this Redeemer? I meant "Jesus," and he meant "Jesus," but what did each of us mean by Jesus as Redeemer? If he was giving the good gospel answer regarding salvation, perhaps he was a Christian after all.
Jesus was one who was entirely transparent to God, was the reply. He is the one in whom we see God at work reconciling the world to himself. All of this, I thought, was close to the mark, but what about the Trinity? Was Jesus a great man who shows us God, or God showing himself as a man? Professor Sack, who had given such a heartwarming answer regarding Luther and God's grace, now replied that he agreed with Schleiermacher: The doctrine of the Trinity was not a mystery to be believed but a contradiction to be dispensed with. Jesus the Redeemer is the mystical person (as in the classical sense of persona, I concluded, rather like an identity God offers us) through whom we see and relate to God. Jesus is not the physically resurrected Son of God now sitting in heaven in human form, as orthodoxy has affirmed.
I finally put the question that for evangelical Christians, at least, is at the very heart of the matter—as it is for missionary-minded Roman Catholics, Orthodox, and other Protestants. Say that one met a pious Muslim from Arabia, I suggested. Should the Christian try to convert that Muslim to Christianity?
No, Professor Sack replied. He stood with the early 20th-century theologian Ernst Troeltsch on this one. Christianity is the authentic form of religion for us in our culture, but Islam is the authentic form of religion for them in theirs. Conversion would thus be unnecessary—indeed, inappropriate.
Getting to know Professor Sack meant straining my neat theological categories past the breaking point. He seemed clearly (fatally?) liberal on many crucial questions. But he said so many of the right things as well about the gospel. And I thought liberals were all pseudo-Christians who trusted in their own good works to earn God's favor. How could he offer answers on both sides of the great gulf fixed between authentic Christianity and liberalism?
And then the vocational question emerged. How should I treat Professor Sack? Yes, of course I should treat him primarily as my instructor. But he is also a fellow human being who needs salvation, as we all do. Should I pray for him? Should I pray with him? Is he saved, or not, or what?
Professor Sack remained a conundrum to me right through my studies at Chicago. I have since read further work of his on the history of Christian thought with great profit. But what of his soul? What of his destiny?
It was dealing with him and his apparently incoherent ideas (they were not, of course, incoherent to him!) that compelled me, more than anything else in my life, to reconsider the paradigm of conversion and mission I had inherited.
In that paradigm, everyone needed to have a conversion experience. That experience must result in both orthodox conviction and holiness of life. The Christian's task toward his neighbor began with ascertaining whether the neighbor was a Christian. If he was not, one tried to evangelize him and walk with him to the point of conversion. If he crossed over to authentic faith, or was already a Christian, then one's responsibility was to help him understand correct doctrine and live a correct life.
Clearly much depended on discerning the spiritual state of one's neighbor. In my case, I needed to figure out whether Professor Sack was truly a Christian. And I realized that his views were not lining up nicely on my grid. The readings, so to speak, were ambiguous.
So I propose instead a new way of looking at conversion that entails a new way of looking at the Christian mission to one's neighbor. In this new model—at least, new for me, although it in fact is deeply rooted in Christian History—apologetics can find a more appropriate place.
In the old model, apologetics could easily become a form of intellectual browbeating. It was warfare waged on behalf of the neighbor's soul by mowing down his resistance and presenting the gospel with irresistible argument in hopes that he would relent and believe. If he was already a Christian, however, then apologetics took an entirely different tack: It became simply a part of Christian education to confirm his faith and help him evangelize others.
So let us consider now what is, in fact, the goal of the Christian mission. And let us begin by distinguishing it from alternatives.
Our task is not to persuade someone of the superiority of the Christian religion per se. The central goal of Christian mission lies well beyond getting someone to change one religion for another. (Several reasons could be adduced for this, but the most crucial and obvious is simply that no one will be saved merely by practicing a religion, even Christianity.)
Our missionary goal, furthermore, is not just to introduce someone to Christ. Real evangelism, so much evangelical teaching has asserted, lies in bringing people to the point of actual encounter with Jesus. Now, such introductions can well be made, of course, and it is a glorious privilege when God brings such an occasion to pass in one's life. But we must see that making such introductions is only part of the Christian mission.
Instead, our objective as those called to love God and our neighbors—to seek their best interests—is to offer whatever assistance we can to our neighbors toward their full maturity: toward full health in themselves and in their relationships, and especially toward God. In short, when it comes to our neighbors, our goal is to help our neighbors to be fully converted into all God wants them to be. "So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all" (Gal. 6:10).
A Plant's Life
The New Testament speaks of conversion as metanoia: literally, a change of mind. But this is not merely to alter one's opinion on this or that matter. Metanoia is a redirection of one's fundamental outlook—what we might call one's mindset or mentality. It means more than intellectual revolution, furthermore, as it entails change in one's affections and will, the very core of one's self.
This organic metaphor points to the next consideration. Conversion, like the new life of a plant, can be seen in binary fashion, and in two senses.
First, the plant is either dead or alive. "You must be born again," Jesus proclaimed (John 3:7). "Those whose names were not written in the Lamb's Book of Life" will go to hell, prophesied John (Rev. 20:15). Many Christians point to a particular life-changing decision to follow Christ. But even if that decision marks the time of genuine regeneration, that's only the beginning of conversion.
The second sense of conversion is also organic, and now denotes the sense of becoming fully what one has begun to be. The seed matures into the ripe plant. The baby grows into the adult. Jesus calls upon his disciples to "be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect," but he also promises that they will have the help of the Holy Spirit to grow into the fullness of fellowship with God and each other. The Apostle Paul encourages his Philippian flock that "he who began a good work in you will be faithful to complete it."
To be converted (metanoia), then, does not mean to immediately have a fully converted mind, but to begin with a fundamentally reoriented mind (so the first sense) that is then on its way to complete maturity in this new mindset (so the second sense).
Suppose we intend to drive from San Francisco, in northern California, to San Diego, in the far south. I insist on driving, since I've actually visited California once or twice and I never, ever get lost. You graciously concede the wheel, and off we go. The miles and hours go by. You begin to feel uneasy, however, when we pass what looks for all the world like a sign welcoming us to the state of Oregon. I insist that "Oregon" must be a region of California, and that Los Angeles surely must be coming up soon. As we drive through Portland, however, you are convinced I am heading in exactly the wrong direction. And as the Washington state line comes up, you become rather insistent on the point. In fact, you want very much to convert me to your opinion.
What is it, exactly, that you want when you want me to convert? First, you want me to recognize my error. I can't take any further steps until I have agreed that I am, in fact, heading north instead of south. But let's suppose I agree, and I say, "Yes, by golly, this sure looks a lot more like Pacific rain forest than California coastland!"—and yet I don't care. "Hey, Washington is a beautiful place, too. Almost as nice as British Columbia!"
Surely true repentance is what you seek from me. Merely recognizing my mistake is not enough. I must regret that mistake. "I'm heading in the wrong direction, and I'm sorry." Then I must take further action. I must abandon the path I'm on (taking the next exit ramp); turn the car around by crossing over to the other side on the overpass; and get a new start (by getting on the entrance ramp in the opposite direction).
Suppose I do all this. Are you now satisfied? Have I fully converted? No. Not until I drive us all the way to San Diego, which was the point of the exercise. It's good that I'm properly reoriented. In fact, that binary move is indeed the essential move that has to be made if I'm first heading in the wrong direction. But turning around is not enough. Getting to the goal is all or nothing; it is also a binary matter. I'm not there until I'm there. Many theologians thus speak of conversion in multiple stages: repentance (recognition and regret), regeneration (a new start), sanctification (getting closer and closer to the goal), and glorification (arriving at the final destination). Full conversion is all of this.
Many evangelicals have emphasized that true conversion begins with a single, obvious, transformative experience. This fundamental reorientation and renewal marks the true believer's transition from resistance toward God (whether active or passive) and spiritual death to faith in God and spiritual life. Thus many missionary-minded Christians have sought to promote such experiences as authentic conversions. They therefore have marshaled apologetical arguments with one clear goal in view: to help bring someone to that crucial point of decision.
The paradigm case of such experiences in our day is, perhaps, conversion at a Billy Graham mission. Surely his rallies, and his own sermons, promote such single-point conversions. Except that they don't. And it turns out, upon closer inspection, that the Graham meetings and the teaching of Graham himself point to a significantly different understanding of conversion and so-called conversion experiences.
For one thing, the Graham organization never reports "conversions." They report "decisions"—decisions to become a Christian, yes, but also decisions to "rededicate" one's life to God, decisions to live a more pious and disciplined life, and so on. The Graham team never presumes to know just what has happened in a person's life when she testifies to this or that experience. The team can, at least, report that people themselves reported decisions—much as pollsters and sociologists can report what people say has happened to them, being careful not to equate that simply with what in fact has happened to this or that person.
Graham himself preaches at such meetings that it doesn't matter whether one has been an active member of a church. Nor does it finally matter whether one has made a "decision" at a previous rally just like this one. What matters, Graham affirms, is whether one is right with God now, whether one is a disciple of Jesus Christ now. If not, Graham says, it is time to reorient one's life toward God. Is that reorientation a conversion experience? Graham, in fact, is careful not to say. It could be a death-to-life transition, yes. But it might also be the rekindling of an almost-extinguished but genuine faith.
According to his several biographers and his own memoirs, Billy Graham has experienced what amount to at least three, and perhaps four, major spiritual turning points in his life. More than one of them can be called conversion experiences.
His classic conversion experience came as a teenager who went to a revival meeting in his Carolina town to raise a ruckus and walked the sawdust trail instead. As subsequent weeks passed, however, the young Graham was frustrated in his attempt to live out his dramatically new faith: He had been a good lad before, so no one noticed the difference.
And he then went off to Bible school in Florida, where he felt confronted by God over the shallowness and worldliness of his ambitions. He responded with repentance and fresh resolve. But was this his authentic conversion, while the previous one had perhaps been simply a Southern evangelical rite of passage?
Graham reports two more dramatic decisions early in his career as a preacher, each of which opened him up to new vistas of discipleship and ministry. So what were they? Two Christians who have influenced Graham deeply have been his mother and his wife. Both women were raised Presbyterian, a tradition that emphasizes growing up in God's covenant of grace, rather than seeking and expecting a radical conversion experience. Graham points to his mother and his wife as Christians whom he admires for the quality of their faith while allowing that neither of them testify to a particular conversion experience.
In his early bestseller, Peace with God, Graham shares the belief that sinners need to pass from death to life by the regenerating power of the Holy Spirit. There is indeed this binary element to conversion. But we note two points from this book and Graham's subsequent teaching. First, just when that line is crossed may not be evident to anyone but God—including the converted person. Second, having once embarked on the path of discipleship, one must press on to the fully converted life, not daring to rest on one's status as "already saved" but rejoicing in that status as the grounds for cooperating with God so as to "become saved" in the sense of final maturation.
Conversion therefore involves the whole person as one transits from one sort of existence, before knowing Christ, to walking consistently in the Spirit of Christ in every respect. Intellectually, one believes propositions one did not believe before. Morally, one has a different sense of what counts as good and evil, what one ought or ought not to do. Emotionally, one loves what one used to hate or ignore; one shuns former pleasures as toxic and wasteful. One cares about God, other people, the rest of the planet, and oneself in a way one didn't before. Aesthetically, one finds beauty where one once saw nothing worthwhile at all, or perhaps even something repellent. Spiritually, one is sensitive and open to God, but also to the spiritual needs and gifts of other people. And one highly values the physical world, including one's body, as God's good creation.
Christian conversion amounts to a new outlook on everything; a new attitude toward and motivation in everything; and a new relationship toward everyone. Conversion doesn't mean an entirely new way of life, of course, as if non-Christians know nothing of truth, goodness, and beauty, and nothing of God. But the core of one's life is now oriented directly toward the worship and service of God in the person of Jesus Christ. Thus the Christian is, in that fundamental sense, a new person.
When one considers how firmly we tend to hold onto our opinions about even trivial matters; when one considers how difficult it is for us to embrace significantly new ways of looking at things even when it is obviously to our advantage to do so; and then when one considers all of the aspects of Christian conversion beyond the "merely" intellectual—conversion is a huge matter indeed. It cannot be accomplished by our own powers of persuasion.
Among the most distinguished commentators on matters of the spirit was the 18th-century American pastor Jonathan Edwards. In Treatise on the Religious Affections, his classic discussion of spiritual well-being, he writes:
Great use may be made of external arguments; they are not to be neglected, but highly prized and valued; for they may be greatly serviceable to awaken unbelievers, and bring them to serious consideration, and to confirm the faith of true saints: yea they may be in some respects subservient to the begetting of a saving faith in men. [Yet] … there is no spiritual conviction … but what arises from an apprehension of the spiritual beauty and glory of divine things. And such a direct apprehension is a gift mediated only by the Holy Spirit of God.
Jesus warned the sincere and faithful Nicodemus that his righteousness, even the righteousness of a Pharisee, was woefully inadequate. To Nicodemus's consternation, Jesus said, "You must be born again … by the Spirit" (John 3:3-5). The apostles follow their Master in this teaching: Conversion is a divine work only, effected by the Holy Spirit of God (1 Cor. 3:5-7).
One of the most famous conversions of the 20th century is also among the most mysterious. During the summer of 1921, the 29-year-old brilliant Jewish philosopher Edith Stein was visiting colleagues. One morning she happened to pick up a copy of the autobiography of Saint Teresa of Avila and began to read. She stayed immersed in the book for the rest of the day and into the night. The next morning she announced, "This is the truth." She was baptized a Christian the following New Year's Day. No biographer of Stein's has unearthed a single account that explains this event: no letter or remark to a friend, let alone a published memoir. Patricia Hampl simply writes: "What we know: she read Teresa of Avila—and recognized there 'the truth.' And so she followed it." What could produce such a change? Christians would say it was obviously and only the Holy Spirit.
Therefore our human responsibility and opportunity is twofold. First, it is to bear witness, to demonstrate in our living and to articulate in our speaking the Good News of new life under God's reign. We are to show and tell what God has done, is doing, and will do in the world. And second, we are to offer all we can to help each other in moving toward the goal of full conversion, the goal of full maturity and everlasting shalom.
For this is what we owe each other according to the Great Commandment: "Love your neighbor as you love yourself."
The Christian mission is basically simple, even radical. We are to do what good we can, and all the good we can. This conception of mission thus avoids the unhappy dichotomy that has afflicted so many churches, especially in the 20th century: the choice between merely "getting them saved" (the stereotypical evangelical mission) and merely "doing them good" (the stereotypical liberal mission).
Furthermore, we are to do what is our part, with faith in the Spirit of God and in the rest of God's church to do their parts. Thus we do not each have to try to accomplish everything that is good to do in any situation. Rather, we each must serve this neighbor according to his particular need, according to the limits and opportunities of this particular occasion, and according to our particular ability to truly help.
We can conclude, then, with some questions that Christians shouldn't ask, and a question we should always ask instead.
"Is he saved?" I don't know, and I cannot know until "the roll is called up yonder." The actual condition of another's heart is mysterious, even to that individual. So from the outside I certainly cannot presume to know, and therefore I do not need to try to know.
"What can I do to convert him?" Nothing. God's Spirit alone can truly convert. Again, God does not call us to do what we cannot do. So we need not, and must not, try to convert anyone—including through what we might suppose are impressive apologetics.
"Does he need to hear the gospel?" Of course he does. We all do, again and again, until we see Christ face to face. That's one of the reasons Christians take the Lord's Supper regularly: to hear the gospel once again. No one outgrows it.
The good question to ask instead is simply this:
"How shall I treat my neighbor?" And the answer is just as simple: with love. Until all of our neighbors are fully mature in Christ, there is something left for serious Christians to do, and when we have the opportunity to assist that neighbor somehow, then we should take it. I daresay that will keep us all plenty busy until the Lord Jesus returns.
As for Professor Sack? Well, I think we did each other the good that we could do in that academic relationship. And since our paths have diverged widely over the years, I simply must entrust him to the ongoing care of Christ and his church—as I hope Professor Sack has done with me.
John G. Stackhouse Jr. is Sangwoo Youtong Chee Professor of Theology and Culture at Regent College in Vancouver, Canada. Humble Apologetics, from which this article is condensed, was published by Oxford University Press in 2002.
Copyright © 2003 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Humble Apologetics by John G. Stackhouse Jr. is available at Christianbook.com.
For more articles, see Christianity Today's archives on Theology.
Other Christianity Today articles by John Stackhouse include:
Ears to Hear, Eyes to See | Luci Shaw's poetry helps us pay attention to God's world. (Dec. 26, 2003)
Music at the Theological Roundtable | What it teaches us about God and the universe. (November 1, 2002)
The True, the Good, and the Beautiful Christian | Beauty is making a comeback in science and theology. Will it find its place in the lives of believers? (January 7, 2002)
What Has Jerusalem to Do with Mecca? | Two new books on the world's religions raise new possibilities, and new questions, for evangelicals. (September 4, 2001)
Mind Over Skepticism | Philosopher Alvin Plantinga has defeated two of the greatest challenges to the Christian faith. (June 20, 2001)
The Seven Deadly Signs | Ministries that think they can do no financial wrong deceive themselves. (June 30, 2000)
An Elder Statesman's Plea | John Stott's 'little statement on evangelical faith' reveals the strengths and limitations of the movement he helped create. (Feb. 14, 2000)
The Battle for the Inclusive Bible | Conflicts over "gender-neutral" versions are not really about translation issues. (Nov. 5, 1999)
Finding a Home for Eve | We are right to criticize radical feminist scholars—and wrong to ignore them. (Mar. 1, 1999)
The Jesus I'd Prefer to Know | Searching for the historical Jesus and finding oneself instead. (Dec. 7, 1998)
The Perils of Left and Right | Evangelical theology is much bigger and richer than our two-party labels. (Aug. 10, 1998)
Bad Things Still Happen | A concise, clear argument for how God can be both good and omnipotent. (July 13, 1998)
Fighting the Good Fight | A plea for healthy disagreements. (Oct. 6, 1997)
Confronting Canada's Secular Slide | Why Canadian evangelicals thrive in a culture often indifferent to religious faith. (July 18, 1994)
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