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. Whatís 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 Ė if it ever does.
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 itís
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.
important that we recover the biblical meaning of the word
"conversion". Itís 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.
-- 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 Godís 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 personís 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 hasnít 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.
Lord himself says, without hesitation, qualification, "I am Way, Truth, and
Life. I alone am this."
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 oneís way.
(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. Itís obvious that his invitation rejected means to forfeit
reality and be left with illusion.
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 havenít yet turned. Itís obvious that his
invitation rejected leaves us with life spurned, life renounced, death.
view of the fact that everything that issues from our turning toward Jesus
Christ in response to Godís 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?
word comes to have a negative connotation when the church loses confidence in
Christís ability to turn people to himself, when the church feels that it has
to do Christís 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 doesnít
render the gospel credible. It may render a psychiatrist necessary, but it
doesnít render the gospel credible. We should cheerfully acknowledge right
here that Jesus Christ alone can render his truth credible. And if he
couldnít, our slick machinations wouldnít help. Letís 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.
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
hasnít begun at all.
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 Ė most, in fact Ė 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
couldnít be in love since they didnít fall into love instantly would be
dismissed with the wave-off he deserves.
have never doubted that some people Ė a few Ė 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 isnít important. How we come to be disciples
isnít 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.
-- In the second
place conversion is a turning toward the church. Many people have
difficulty grasping this point. They donít 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 isnít a club, albeit a club
that is "a force for good." The church Ė and the church alone
Ė 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 arenít
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.
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 couldnít 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 donít 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) Ė to religion. You donít assume
responsibility in the local congregation; instead, you look on your hero with
coiffed hair from afar. Itís 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.
in the midst of all this there remains a truth we dare not forget: Jesus Christ
isnít divided. His head isnít 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? Itís 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
we are dwelling on the fact that Jesus Christ isnít 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 individualís gift or talent
is, itís useless unless itís 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.
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.
-- In the third place conversion is a turning toward the world. Iím
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. Iím 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 naÔve fascination with the worldís folly
and a senseless seduction through the worldís corruption. James is correct.
Uncritical friendship with the world is spiritually fatal.
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. Itís
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 doesnít 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
books in scripture grip me as much as the book of Revelation. Iím 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 worldís 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 isnít 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. Whatís the sacrifice
Johnís 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
didnít 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
earthís rulers ultimately, our priestly service to the world can never
be fruitless finally.
Itís time we reclaimed the word ďconversionĒ. 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 Godís 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 kingís will is done without exception even as the king himself is loved without end.
Victor Shepherd June