What Is Conversion?

What I share in this and the preceding chapter on the new birth and conversion is not intended to stir up and confuse, but to clarify. If there is no confusion on your part about these matters, I submit that there is an enormous amount of it among many persons.

   For example, I find that I am far from alone in my frequent puzzling about certain older Christians who seem not to have taken seriously Jesus' commandment that we love one another as He loved us.

   What of these saints who have been "born again" for years and years, but who still ignore Christ's strong teaching concerning the speck in another's eye, when there is a beam in our own?

   What of the long-time believers who condemn certain behavior patterns in new Christians when their very condemnation is the direct opposite of what the Son of Man said He came to do? The Son of Man did not come to condemn the world, He came to save it, to identify with it. To heal it by reaching toward it with the offer of His own love and righteousness.

   What of the corpulent saints who click their tongues disdainfully at social drinking, while licking their lips at

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the prospect of second helpings of the calorie-laden dessert?

   What of the fevered, compulsive "soul-winning" efforts of the Christian businessman who underpays his employees and shades his income tax report?

   What of the select little inner circles of evangelicals who not only refuse to extend normal human courtesy to other Christians who don't hold their exact marginal emphasis, but who blaze away at them in periodicals and from platforms? How do they resemble the Christ of the Cross who chose to come to the earth to die at a time when men were being crucified with their arms stretched out toward the whole world?

   In short, what of those Christians who are tight-lipped, self-righteous, unlocking, intolerant and critical? Are these persons born again? Yes, I believe they are. With all they knew of the nature of Christ, they have placed their faith in Him. And when anyone does this, He comes to live within.

   However, conversion means that we turn around and go the other way. The human way is to condemn. The human way is to criticize and feel self-righteous. The human way is to become proud of religious self-effort and works, to be "justifiably" dishonest, to be gluttonous. And so, the kind conclusion, as I see it, is to realize that the saints who do not much resemble Jesus Christ in their life attitudes have not truly turned all the way around. They have not put their entire wills into their conversion.

   Dr. Billy Graham once told me that he believes there are varying stages of conversion. This makes excellent sense to me. If conversion takes place in the conscious mind, then we are personally and individually responsible for the extent of it. Those uncontagious saints among us are merely those who, through self-love or off-center teaching, have not seen the necessity to turn around all the way, so that their inner attitudes are reversed also.

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   I do not doubt that they are born again. This is God's part. The new birth takes place in our unconscious and it is always the work of the Spirit. Conversion rests with us. God respects the choice of mankind. He could not change us in the depths, if He did not.

   Christ may well have come to indwell the depths of a believer, but because He does respect our wills, we can refuse Him access to our conscious minds. They are under our control, if we are normal mentally. In a word, He can be "bottled up" in the depths by our un-Christlike conscious behavior patterns and attitudes.

   The Christian who approaches life with a clenched fist is bottling up the Christ life within. This is his choice. He may go on doing it. But no one needs to go on showing no trace of a family resemblance to God, because when the new birth takes place, one is born of God into a new family. The Berkeley translation of John 1:12 and 13 is excellent. It declares what God has done for us, but it throws the weight of the evidence of His Presence directly upon us where it belongs: "To those who did accept Him, He granted ability to become God's children, that is, to those who believe in His name; who owe their birth neither to human blood, nor to physical urge, nor to human design, but to God."

   We will go more deeply into this in Chapter 16. For now, "To those who did not accept Him, He granted ability to become God's children." To bear a family resemblance to the Father. The extent of our resemblance to Him is directly involved in the extent of our conversion. We decide just how much we want to fall under His influence.

   A child may be born of an earthly father and yet take none of his advice, cultivate none of his characteristics, refuse to obey him entirely in certain areas, and the old adage, "Like father, like son," falls apart!

   In a letter I received only today as I write this chapter, a woman — newly wise in the true ways of the Lord Himself —

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although she has been a Christian for many years, wrote: "I came to my senses when, at last, my husband looked at me and shouted, 'I certainly don't want what you have!' He was the one I most longed to reach for Christ, but at that moment I saw that my religious ways were repellent to him. He didn't shout, 'I don't want who you have,' he said he didn't want what I had."

   This woman's conversion, which began long ago, was extended in its scope when she saw this important truth. Conversion can and should be continuous. We do decide about our conversions. The first impetus toward Christian conversion springs from the Spirit. The initial call is from God. But a human being can be converted, as Dr. White pointed out, to any of a number of systems of thought aside from Christianity. The new birth, as spoken of by Jesus, is limited however, to contact with Christ as God in the flesh.

   Perhaps those of you who read this book as new Christians also remember the time of your conversions. But there will be countless others who do not remember any conversion experience at all. I lovingly but definitely contend that if they believe in Christ, this does not mean they are not Christians and it does not indicate that they have not been born of God.

   I am aware that some will disagree. This is all right. I am merely attempting to share what I have come to see as I have lived and studied and spoken with other Christians and with Christ during these last ten years. Here again is the dreadful danger of using our "boxes" to confine truths which cannot be confined. At least they cannot be confined without losing some of their value to us.

   I am thinking now of several authentic Christians whom I know personally — some of them you would know — who cannot give an exact date of their conversion experience. Most of them were reared in authentically Christian homes. They have believed in Jesus Christ and

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followed Him from childhood. Their lives show that without a doubt they are converted, but they simply do not remember the time. Jesus made a clear point here, too: "By their fruits, ye shall know them."

   Conversion comes slowly and gradually to some. This, too, depends largely upon the background, environmental influences and disposition of the person. But if their personalities show the fruits of a life lived with Christ, who can doubt the authenticity of their experiences?

   To some, particularly those converted as adults, the road is so rough at times that the cry goes up, "I don't think I was ever really converted anyway!" By now, I've lost track of the number of times I've luxuriated in this misguided complaint. If we are genuinely concerned about our conversion, we can be pretty sure we are genuinely converted. Otherwise, we just wouldn't care. I must admit I have stopped indulging in this plaint since I have come to see the difference between the new birth and conversion. Because when I protested the authenticity of my conversion, although I didn't see it then, I was really only suspecting myself. I was responsible for the validity of my conversion. It took place in my conscious mind. But as long as I had the new birth confused with conversion, I felt relieved when I doubted my own experience, because although I might not have admitted it, I was really complaining that somehow God must not have done His part with me! Just because I was violently tempted to do something which I knew I should not do, I jumped quickly behind the cooked-up conclusion that probably "nothing" had really happened to me after all.

   If only we could all see that it isn't a "thing" which happens to us anyway. It is a relationship into which we enter with a living Person. A Person who has said He will never leave us nor forsake us. So while the success or joy of my Christian life depends upon my cooperation with Christ, my Christian life is Jesus Christ Himself.

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   If He was telling the truth when He said, "Lo, I am with you always," then my tremblings and complaints about having lost "it" become the foolish mouthings of a person who is simply not thinking.

   I may lose my joy, if I am ill or disobedient, or neglect my prayer-life and Bible study, but I cannot, no matter what I do, lose Christ — or He was misleading us when He said He would never leave us.

   To another type of person, the mere mention of conversion is repulsive. He cringes in horror from the prospect of any deep emotional experience involving a religious belief. Actually, there are many professing Christians who take this view.

   Dr. Ernest White says they pride themselves in "belonging to the class which William James in his book, The Varieties of Religious Experience, calls the healthy-minded, or the once born, in contradistinction to the sick-minded or the twice-born."1

   Of these persons, Dr. White says, "Such people are unconsciously, or perhaps consciously, afraid of their own emotions, and have suppressed them to a large extent. They take an over-optimistic view of life and are either incapable of seeing the evil and shady side of life or they evade it by closing their eyes to it. They have never passed through the conflicts of mind which precede and lead up to conversion, and have therefore never felt the need for such an experience."2

   The self-development cults by-pass the evils of sin and pain by simply denying that they exist at all. To all such people, Christian conversion seems both unreal and superfluous. They seem to be aware of no particular conflicts to be resolved, no disturbance of mind — with Pippa they smile and chant, "God's in His heaven, all's right with the world." As Dr. White describes them, "They are like a man who in the course of a journey comes to a hill

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which he must either climb or go around if he is to reach his journey's end. Instead of struggling on, he sits down at the bottom of the hill and whistles a merry tune, and persuades himself that the hill is not there at all."3

   During the five years in which I directed the dramatic radio program Unshackled, I interviewed and wrote the script for the broadcast of over two hundred conversion stories. There were stories of men and women from all walks of life. In the main, they were persons who had turned to Christ at the Pacific Garden Mission in Chicago, after a varying number of years on Skid Row. I soon became aware, however, that we could easily be confusing certain of our listeners who had not shocked themselves or society by personalities gone out of control. Permission was given me then to dramatize stories, on occasion, which were more like those of our average listener.

   Of course, I do not need to express my own conviction that conversion is needful. I am sure all of my other writings verify this. The changed direction of my own life verifies it. But from my observation during these past ten years, I am convinced that the actual types of conversion experiences vary almost as much as people vary.

   The overly sensitive conscience may cause a violent emotional upheaval at conversion. The quiet, contained, balanced person in control of his personality patterns may come decisively, but silently and calmly, into the life with Christ. The important thing here is not that he is calm and quiet about it, but that the controlled personality needs a Saviour just as urgently as the cursing, uncontrolled, bottle-clutching man from Skid Row.

   The emotional nature of a man's conversion to Christ seems to me to depend upon several things. If he has knowingly hurt and harmed many people, as had many of the persons whose stories I dramatized, I observed that there was great emotional conflict when he saw his

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sin, and great emotional relief when he recognized his forgiveness.

   If the childhood of the convert was made fearful by a bad-tempered, violent father, the pre-conversion struggle to believe in God's love was often intense.

   If the father happened to be a strict, domineering Christian legalist, who held a rod literally and figuratively over the son's head, then I discovered tears came quickly as the person whose story I was writing told me of his conversion. He would remember great trembling. "I shook like a leaf. I guess I was afraid of God. I thought He must be like Dad!"

   Some told of great weeping before and after their conversions. These were usually men with heavy guilt on their consciences. Others wept before and laughed afterwards.

   Another young man, not from the Mission, wrote the background of his own conversion story. It was beautifully done, with tasteful restraint. He was a Ph.D. and had come quietly and definitely into his commitment to Christ. The lack of emotional display in no way diminished his total surrender.

   Some experienced conversion because of a quiet, deep, gnawing sense of need. Of something missing in their lives. Others experienced deep, shattering conviction of sin at the outset.

   In my own conversion experience, I cannot honestly say I experienced remorse over sin in my life until a year later. Mine was a tricky mind. I had my conscience well under control. The trouble was, it was under my control. Therefore, it was out of tune with God's plan for me. Now, under His control, sin in my life causes me distress in a way I couldn't have coped with then. My own conversion was marked with a strange mixture of wonder at the possible discovery of God and a ghastly realization that I had lived my life cut loose from its moorings. My

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pre-conversion conflict was great. My conversion moment quiet and brief. And then great peace — and enthusiasm.

   The actual mental conflicts and emotional reactions to conversion vary according to the temperament and background of the individual. What counts is the sincerity of our hearts — the total placing of our wills into His hands. This, too, comes slowly to some. And whatever the pre-conversion conflict, the important thing is that after conversion, after we have rested our case with Him, there is peace. There will be recurring conflict, but in the midst, peace with God.

   We have Christ's own word for it that when we open the door, He will come in. The new birth is His work. And although we are empowered by the Holy Spirit to turn around and begin to follow Christ, the clean-cut-results of our conversions are our conscious responsibility.

   We are to stack our intellectual blocks in a corner and come as little children to the Father, in faith that we can know Him as He is in Jesus Christ. Forgiveness is the result of our asking. And the courage for our asking comes by faith in what we know His heart to be like.

   We need to face the fact that although God always takes care of our new birth Himself, the success of our conversion depends upon our willingness to obey the One who has come to indwell us. We decide whether or not our conversion involves our total personalities.

   Many people realize sin in their lives, come to the point of accepting Jesus Christ as their Saviour, and then turn back. Why is this?

   I believe it is because, at that moment, the cost to them seems too high. It is true that Jesus told us that no wise man will build a house without counting the cost of it to himself. But it seems to me that those who turn back are, at least sometimes, victims of inadequate teaching about Jesus Christ. Somewhere along the line they

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have dragged along the too common concept that Christians are people who strive and strain "to do right." Nothing could be farther from the truth about the authentic Christian life. On the Cross God took full responsibility for every human being. "Surely He has borne our sicknesses and carried our sorrows... He was bruised for our iniquities; the punishment which procured our peace fell upon Him, and with His stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned each one to his own way; and the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all."

   If we see clearly that the young Man on the Cross was God in the flesh, we see that God Himself laid on Himself our iniquity and our sorrows. He has taken full responsibility for us all. Those who turn back fail to realize that Jesus has invited us to get into the yoke with Him. Until we try out this invitation for ourselves, we somehow cannot quite believe that the burden does become light. Those who turn back have not seen Him as He is. They have not seen that He would ask nothing of us which He would not give us the power to do. They have not seen that He would ask nothing from us which would not be for our ultimate good. They have not realized that Good Friday is good because a completely good God hung on His Cross that day, revealing Himself clearly for the first time to everyone.

   I almost turned back myself. Those moments of hesitation just before my final submission to Him stand out clearly to this day.

   But I could not turn back. I was one of the fortunate ones who had been shown something of the true nature of God Himself, through Jesus Christ. At the moment of my turning I weighed the cost to me, but my thoughts were not whirling around a plan of salvation or a doctrinal emphasis or a fear of someone's concept of hell. They were whirling, I admit, but they were circling

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around Christ Himself. I merely had proven to me that afternoon in October, 1949, that Jesus knew what He said when He declared, "I, if I be lifted up... will draw all men unto me."

   I had been pointed to Jesus Christ Himself, as God in the flesh. And I found Him irresistible. 

Chapter Sixteen  ||  Table of Contents