There’s a post newly appeared on Old Life on the topic of conversion. It includes a suggestion (in the middle of a lengthy quotation) that rather than being a moment of crisis, ‘it could just as likely be the case that the movement from spiritual death to spiritual life is gradual and life-long.’
Since some nasty gremlin seems to be thwarting my recent attempts to post comments on Old Life, here’s a quick blog post instead.
Two things to agree with in general.
1) It’s okay not to have a testimony. It’s doctrinally wrong and pastorally unhelpful to ‘insist upon experiences and encounters and restrictions and insights’ to prove whether someone is a believer or not.
2) It’s important not to confuse the work of the Spirit with gushes of emotion. We’re saved by faith, not by feeling – by faith in Christ’s work for us, not by sensing the Spirit’s work in us. (Or as a comment on the post so aptly puts it, ‘the important thing about “faith” is not the “experience” but the object of faith.’)
But two cautions deserve a mention too.
1) It’s unhelpful to use the term ‘conversion’ to refer to the whole course of someone’s career as a believer. Our confession and catechisms distinguish between effectual calling, regeneration and sanctification. Both effectual calling and sanctification (can) take place over a period of time. But regeneration is instantaneous. It happens in a moment, a specific point in time. Whether or not it is subjectively experienced as a crisis, it is nevertheless objectively a one-off event. We can be ‘converted to God little by little’ if by conversion there you mean effectual calling. We can be ‘converted to God little by little’ if by conversion there you mean sanctification. But it is a faithful saying, unworthy of all sarcastic tone, that ‘a person is either alive or dead, and to go from the wretched state of the latter to the exalted state of the former requires a monumental form of divine intervention.’ That divine intervention is what we otherwise call regeneration, and regeneration does not happen ‘little by little, by stages.’
2) Boring is fine. Conversions don’t have to be dramatic. But conversion does have to happen. Otherwise you won’t be saved.
Many people may be called by the ministry of the Word, and may have some common operations of the Spirit, yet they never truly come unto Christ, and therefore cannot be saved (WCF 10.3). Contrary to what is asserted in the quoted article, it has never been the case that ‘affirmative answers to questions commonly asked at a public affirmation of faith were a sufficient gauge to a man or woman’s standing before God.’ Giving the right answers is a sufficient gauge to someone’s standing within the visible church – sure. That’s right and proper, but that’s not the same as their standing before God, which is presumably what ultimately matters.
Effectual calling, as the work of God the Spirit, involves convincing us of our sin and misery, in a way different from the expedient ‘I have sinned’ of a pharaoh or the compulsive trembling of a Felix. It involves enlightening the mind spiritually and savingly to understand the things of God – which is something other than understanding the technicalities on only a theoretical level. It involves renewing the will, in such a way that the natural choice stops being sin and is instead Christ. All of this might quite likely happen ‘little by little, and by stages,’ and the point when it culminates in being quickened and renewed by the Holy Spirit might not be discernible either to the person being called or anyone else, but it is all qualitatively and supernaturally different both from what they themselves were like before the Spirit began to work and from anyone who the Spirit does not work in.
Whether the switchover is experienced as some awful crisis or barely perceived at all, its necessary outcome is spiritual reality in the mind, will, and affections – a renewed nature which should embrace the church, clergy, creeds, and liturgy, but which is not the product of the most reformed of creed or liturgy.
The bottom line
* The fact that Calvin uttered the words ‘we are converted to God little by little, and by stages’ does not warrant today’s Calvinists blurring the distinction between the instantaneousness of regeneration and the extended-in-time-ness of effectual calling and sanctification.
* The fact that some people misguidedly insist on dramatic conversion narratives and intense religious experiences does not warrant blurring the distinction between being unconverted and being converted, blaming some ‘revivalist impulse’ of the eighteenth century, when the teaching of our pre-existing confessional documents is so clear.