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A Threefold Conversion

 

John 14:6

 

Everyone is aware that words change meaning as they are used day-by-day and bandied about. According to the Oxford English Dictionary to be stoned is to have rocks hurled at oneself. According to street-talk, however, to be “stoned” is to be under the influence of marijuana. Only a few years ago the word “gay” meant merry or lighthearted; “gay” now has a meaning entirely unrelated to its previous meaning. What’s more, the recent meaning of “gay” is so deep in the North American psyche that the word will be a long time recovering its original meaning – if it ever does.

A similar change has befallen the word “conversion”. In scripture the word means “turning”, specifically a turning to God. Today, however, the word refers to a psychological development, an emotional experience. Biblically the word is associated with the human will. Today it’s associated primarily with feeling. Biblically “conversion” is entirely a response that God has equipped us to make and moved us to make. Today the word refers to something we initiate out of our own resources.

It’s important that we recover the biblical meaning of the word “conversion”. It’s even more important that we act upon our new understanding. This morning, then, I want us to probe together the significance of a threefold conversion.

I: — In the first place conversion is a turning toward Jesus Christ. Before I say another word about our turning toward him, let me state as strongly as I can a truth that we must always keep before us: we can turn toward him only because in him God has first turned toward us. The mere fact of the Incarnation, of God’s coming among us in Jesus Christ, demonstrates his turning toward us. Supremely in the cross God has turned toward us. Having turned toward us God will never turn away from us, never turn back from us, never turn his back on us; never abandon us, betray us or quit on us. Facing us now in Christ Jesus, God quickens in us the desire to turn and face him. More than quicken in us the desire to turn toward him, God fosters in us the capacity to turn toward him. Having given us both the desire and the capacity to turn toward him, God then invites us to do just that. There is nothing more crucial in any person’s life than that development wherein the invitation is heard and the summons is unmistakable and the fork in the road is undeniable. Everything hangs on this development. Let us make no mistake. God hasn’t turned toward us in Christ Jesus inasmuch as he has nothing better to do. He has turned toward us precisely in order to have us turn toward him. There is no more critical juncture than this.

Our Lord himself says, without hesitation, qualification, “I am Way, Truth, and Life. I alone am this.”

“Way” bespeaks road, pilgrimage, venture; it also bespeaks destination gained, arrival enjoyed, fulfillment guaranteed. Plainly our Lord insists that his invitation rejected means meandering, staggering, stumbling, groping, everything we associate with losing one’s way.

“Truth” (capital “T”) in scripture means reality. To face Jesus Christ is to know reality. To keep company with him, to be soaked in the Spirit that he pours forth, to live in that relationship with his Father to which he admits us: this is reality. It’s obvious that his invitation rejected means to forfeit reality and be left with illusion.

“Life” bespeaks responsiveness, responsiveness not only to him but also (as we shall see in a minute) responsiveness to others who have turned to face him, as well as responsiveness to those haven’t yet turned. It’s obvious that his invitation rejected leaves us with life spurned, life renounced, death.

In view of the fact that everything that issues from our turning toward Jesus Christ in response to God’s having turned toward us in Christ; in view of the fact that everything that issues from this is blessing, pure blessing, then how did “conversion” come to have such a bad press? How did many thoughtful people come to associate it only with something negative?

The word comes to have a negative connotation when the church loses confidence in Christ’s ability to turn people to himself, when the church feels that it has to do Christ’s work for him and create a point of contact for him in others. The traditional point of contact has been guilt. Undeniably there is a guilt that is proper before God; that is, there is that for which people should feel guilty because they are guilty. And to be sure our Lord knows what to do here and never fails to do it. Far removed from this situation, however, is artificial guilt that is worked up by assorted means of manipulation. Nothing has done more to discredit Christian proclamation than the psychological manipulation of people through inducing artificial guilt. Such manipulation doesn’t render the gospel credible. It may render a psychiatrist necessary, but it doesn’t render the gospel credible. We should cheerfully acknowledge right here that Jesus Christ alone can render his truth credible. And if he couldn’t, our slick machinations wouldn’t help. Let’s admit for once and for all that to believe in Jesus Christ is to trust him to render compelling the truth that he himself is. Our emotional schemes may amuse or distress other people; in no way do they render our Lord credible.

The second reason “conversion” has a negative connotation is that it has been hijacked by those who want to capture it exclusively for a coming-to-faith that is as sudden as it is dramatic. People who “saw the light in an instant”; people for whom it “all fell into place at once”; these people have tended to say that unless discipleship begins as theirs began it hasn’t begun at all.

This is not true. There are as many ways of coming to faith as there are ways of coming to be in love. To be sure, a few people, very few, fall in love “at first sight.” Far more people – most, in fact – take much longer to conclude that they are in love. Most people come to be in love through a protracted process replete with hesitation, doubts, misgivings, as well as enthusiasms, ardour and anguish. Nevertheless, one day they are overtaken by the awareness that they are indeed in love. Anyone who told them that they couldn’t be in love since they didn’t fall into love instantly would be dismissed with the wave-off he deserves.

I have never doubted that some people – a few – come to faith suddenly and dramatically. I have only one request to make of these people: that they stop casting aspersion on those whose coming to faith has stolen over them as quietly, yet as surely, as the dawn steals over a still-dark world. How long it takes to come to be in love isn’t important. How we come to be disciples isn’t important. Only one thing matters: that we begin to turn toward him who has already turned wholly toward us, that we set out (however tentatively at first) on the road of discipleship.

II: — In the second place conversion is a turning toward the church. Many people have difficulty grasping this point. They don’t see any connexion at all between Jesus Christ and the church. But of course they see no connexion in that they misunderstand the nature of the church. The church isn’t a club, albeit a club that is “a force for good.” The church – and the church alone – is the body of Christ. To turn toward Jesus Christ is always to turn toward all of him, head and body together. When we turn toward our Lord we aren’t turning toward a severed head; neither are we turning toward a headless torso. In other words, to be related to Jesus Christ is to be related to all of him, body as well as head. To abide in Christ, then, is to abide in his community. To cherish him is to cherish his people. To love him is to love his people, however disfigured they are.

Yet how reluctant many people are to endorse this! Think of the attitude aided and abetted by television programming. TV religious broadcasting was intended originally for sick and shut-in people who couldn’t attend public worship. Now, however, it is shamelessly put forward as a substitute for public worship. You sit at home and click the channel-changer. You don’t worship; rather, you allow yourself to be entertained. After all, the channel-changer allows you to move from basketball to a talk-show to a soap opera (whose principal theme is always adultery) to a newscast (whose principal theme is usually house-fires and car crashes) – to religion. You don’t assume responsibility in the local congregation; instead, you look on your hero with coiffed hair from afar. It’s much easier to admire the TV star than it is to endure the local pastor. If scandal beclouds the TV presentation, such scandal is incomparably easier to withstand than the anti-gospel currents and divagations of the local congregation.

Yet in the midst of all this there remains a truth we dare not forget: Jesus Christ isn’t divided. His head isn’t severed from his body. If we are going to face him and embrace him, then we are going to embrace all of him, head and body. Why is embracing all of him so very difficult? It’s difficult because of the jarring discrepancy between head and body. The head is fair to behold while the body is often ugly. The head is handsome while the body is frequently disfigured. The head is resplendent while the body is blemished. What we often forget, however, is this: every last person who is possessed of any faith at all in Jesus Christ came to such faith only through the body, the church. You and I are not the first Christians. Who preserved the truth of Christ for us? Church fathers in Egypt did, even as the church of that era was riddled with political intrigues that make politics anywhere today appear virtuous. Who preserved the truth of Christ for us? Mediaeval thinkers did, including those thinkers whose thinking often obscured the gospel as much as it honoured the gospel. Who preserved the truth of Christ for us? The Protestant Reformers did, even though they remained inexcusably blind to those overseas mission-fields for the sake of which Roman Catholic Jesuits bled to death or were burned at the stake. Who preserved the truth of Christ for us? John Wesley did, even though he was laughably eccentric and lacking in self-perception, as his failed marriage attests, Wesley being as upset at his wife’s departure as I am upset when a Jehovah’s Witness finally departs my house. More recently, who handed on the truth of Christ to me? Ministers did who couldn’t discuss philosophy with me; Sunday School teachers did whose sincerity didn’t quite hide their prejudices; my parents did even though they frustrated me with their failure to understand where I hurt and why. Yes, the body is frequently disfigured, always dishevelled, sometimes disgraced. Still, it is only by means of the body of Christ that anyone ever comes to know the master himself.

While we are dwelling on the fact that Jesus Christ isn’t a severed head but rather can be loved only as his body is cherished, we should review some scriptural truths that we are prone to forget. We should recall that God wills a people for himself, a people. To come to faith in Jesus Christ and to be added to the people of God, to the body of Christ, are two inseparable aspects of a single event. We should recall that innermost private faith in Jesus Christ and outermost public confession of him are always fused in scripture. Where there is no public confession (one dimension of which is public worship) there simply is no faith. We should recall that however weighty an individual’s gift or talent is, it’s useless unless it’s added to the talents of others in the congregation. A solitary piccolo player sitting by himself on a darkened stage in an unheated Roy Thomson Hall is useless.

That conversion which is a genuine turning toward Jesus Christ is always also a turning toward the church. To endorse our Lord in faith is always to endorse his people in love.

III: — In the third place conversion is a turning toward the world. I’m aware that someone is going to remind me immediately of what the apostle James has to say: friendship with the world means enmity with God. I’m aware of what James says, and I agree with him without hesitation: there is an attitude to the world that is an uncritical admiration of the world, an unwitting appropriation of a fallen world, a naïve fascination with the world’s folly and a senseless seduction through the world’s corruption. James is correct. Uncritical friendship with the world is spiritually fatal.

The point is, however, that the Christian is no more to be uncritical of the world than his Lord is uncritical of the world, even as the Christian loves the world as his Lord loves it. God never allows his people to turn their back on the world for one unarguable reason: God himself never turns his back on it. It’s plain, then, that two attitudes to the world are forbidden the Christian. One attitude is a Pollyanna view that pretends everything is rosy or near-rosy or soon-to-be-rosy, newspaper-writers being no more than doomsayers who take perverse delight in exaggerating human foibles. The other attitude forbidden the Christian is despair of the world. God doesn’t permit his people to despair of the world, for God himself has appointed the world to a destiny more glorious than anything the world can imagine about itself: namely, a creation healed, the kingdom of God .

Few books in scripture grip me as much as the book of Revelation. I’m startled every time I peer into the book and come upon the two sharpest contrasts anyone could imagine. On the one hand, the people for whom John writes are suffering atrociously at the hands of the world, and John speaks of the world in the strongest terms: “dragon”, “whore”, “beast”, “blood-drinker”, “saint-slayer”. On the other hand, the very people who have suffered so much at the hands of the world’s conscienceless cruelty are forbidden to abandon the world. In the first chapter of Revelation John insists that Christians have been made “priests”. The function of priests, biblically, is to intercede. Christians are to intercede tirelessly on behalf of the world. Their priestly service, their intercession, certainly includes prayer but isn’t restricted to it. They are to intercede on behalf of the world in any way they can, intervene in the world in any way they can, however much that world disdains them and abuses them. In the Hebrew bible priests have another function: they offer up sacrifices. What’s the sacrifice John’s readers are to offer up? Themselves! Christians are priests who offer up themselves for the sake of the world. John can make this point, however, only because of a truth he has acknowledged in the preceding verse: Jesus Christ is “the ruler of kings on earth.” (Rev. 1:5-6) Our Lord rules the world, ultimately. No one else does. The Roman Emperor Domitian didn’t rule it when John was writing the book of Revelation, even though Domitian thought he did. Jesus Christ is “the ruler of kings on earth.” Then of course Christians have a priestly ministry, an intercessory ministry, to exercise on behalf of the world: because Christ rules the earth’s rulers ultimately, our priestly service to the world can never be fruitless finally.

 

It’s time we reclaimed the word “conversion”. Conversion is a turning toward the one who has already turned toward us. To turn toward him, however, is also to turn toward and never forsake all that he has pledged himself to; namely, the church and the world. The church, of course, is God’s demonstration project, the first installment, of what he intends to do for the world; namely, recover a rebellious creation and render it that kingdom wherein the king’s will is done without exception even as the king himself is loved without end.

 

                                                                                               Victor Shepherd  

June 2005