Christians have over the centuries used differing, and sometimes even contradictory, terminology to describe conversion. How does a person begin the Christian life? What are the initial experiences that evidence a person’s salvation?
Catholics and some Protestants have sometimes suggested that the Christian life begins with baptism. This accords well with biblical texts like St. Peter’s invitation to “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins.” St. Paul, likewise, said: “Get up, be baptized and wash your sins away, calling on his name.”
But many Christians challenge the idea that baptism has a causal role in conversion. They particularly disparage the practice of infant baptism, which they claim lacks biblical warrant. They argue that baptism is a sign, not a cause, of the inward experience of the grace that comes to a person through faith.
Some Christians, particularly Evangelicals, use the term “born again” to describe one’s entrance into the Christian life. This language has the imprimatur of Jesus himself, who coined the term when he told a respected religious leader that he “must be born again,” for one cannot otherwise “see the kingdom of heaven.” Evangelicals understand a person to be born again by an act of God that in some way corresponds with a person’s faith in Jesus.
Descriptions such as those given above are grossly oversimplified and cannot be understood apart from the theological milieu from which they come. It’s clear that differences exist, but it may be possible to harmonize some of these perspectives, since the vocabulary of conversion, as it is used in the various theological camps, is not necessarily mutually exclusive.
However, in discussions of conversion, insufficient attention has been given to the word itself. In theological parlance, “conversion” is commonly used to describe the moment of entry into the Christian life. But the Scriptures rarely, perhaps never, use the term in this way. In Scripture, conversion is something that happens to a person, which begins to turn him or her into something he or she had never been before. As such, conversion is more than a starting point.
Conversion changes a person’s identity, not merely his or her destination. Usually when the subject of conversion is discussed, the underlying assumption is that the whole point of conversion is to alter one’s destination from hell to heaven. But the biblical passages about conversion lack a strong emphasis on destination. Rather, the emphasis is placed on the change a person experiences, a change that brings healing and forgiveness and a new kind of life.
It is regrettable, but in some parts of the Church the emphasis on a person’s introduction to the Christian life – call it conversion, if you will – is emphasized to the neglect of almost everything that follows. The Christian gospel is reduced to an invitation to the afterlife and, as such, has little bearing on the way a person lives in the present.
Where such views are held, the broad biblical term “salvation” is used synonymously with much narrower terms, like “forgiveness” or “justification.” But this is something the biblical writers do not do. The confusion of these terms results in a truncated gospel, in which the good news is about nothing other than getting into heaven when one dies.
To be fair, some who hold this view go on to say that a person who has responded to the good news ought to obey God, as a way of expressing appreciation to him. But this hardly does justice to biblical teaching or personal experience. The Bible does not speak of people being saved into heaven but into a kingdom and a life – a life that starts now and continues forever.
If the moment of conversion is what Christianity is all about, then faith will, of necessity, seem irrelevant to daily life. But conversion is to a qualitatively different, transformed kind of life. It begins now, not at some future date, and is relevant to everything a person is and does.
Published first in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, November 23, 2013