boring is fine but it has to be real

johnmurrayThere’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.

14 thoughts on “boring is fine but it has to be real

  1. I thought “a testimony”, in Christian circles, was generally a reference bearing witness to the Lord’s work in our lives. Most commonly people talk about conversion, but even then it can be as simple as:
    “I didn’t believe, but by the grace of God I now believe.”
    or for the John the Baptists / one godly office bearer I know:
    “By God’s grace, my earliest memory is of belief in Christ and that’s matured and developed but it’s always been there.”

    So in that sense, shouldn’t everyone have a testimony? Is there a definition of testimony that I’m unaware of, which would explain how I’m off?


    That said, happy to agree with your “bottom line”. And wishing you every blessing on your wedding, congratulations :D!


  2. I think the objection is to the expectation either that people should have dramatic stories of despair or ecstasy to tell, or else that people should need to describe their subjective experiences in a way that meets certain socially approved standards or ticks certain boxes, or be seen as a second class or unspiritual kind of Christian.

    I do actually sympathise with this. Not everyone is good at analysing their own feelings or thought processes, and fewer are good at verbalising them. Added to which, people are rarely their own best judges, and what they report could be quite far removed from reality (eg people who thought they weren’t converted till a certain time but with hindsight think it must have actually been earlier, etc), and prone to being influenced by what they hear from other people.

    There are two ways to deal with this, but they shouldn’t be treated as mutually exclusive. One is to give more prominence to the objective instead of prioritising the subjective. Ie, catechise people properly, then when they are able to affirm the doctrines, accept this affirmation in place of a testimony about what they perceive themselves to have experienced.

    The other is to give more prominence to the here-and-now instead of prioritising a past one-off (+/- crisis) event. Ie, instead of insisting that people identify a time when a change happened, ask for evidence in the present – if you’re showing fruits of the new birth *now* then you must have been born again at some point, but worrying endlessly about pinpointing that time is less relevant than growing in grace now.


  3. My worry with some of what I see on Old Life and related sites is not so much with their admirable objection to excessive subjectivity in religion or their avoidance of what can almost become a new legalism of binding a believer to have such and such feelings and this or that special experience or hear God speaking to them or be powerfully moved in worship… etc. I share a lot of this.

    It’s rather a slight concern that they go too far in the opposite extreme and almost ignore the subjective element of religion altogether.


  4. I find this discussion very helpful, I hear a lot of this word “experience” thrown around in gatherings today and it is becoming “central” to discussions, pulpits, small group and a host of other worship based activities. I do not see nor hear of much of this in the Word, but do read a lot of the Cause of the “experience” and the result of the “experience”.
    God and His plan to redeem His people and the chosen method by which He uses. The plain and simple gospel message, straight forward so that a child may understand, and the transformation that happens in a man or a woman as a result of the Holy Spirit taking up residence in the life of a believer. As cath has so put it This work may be so subtle, as in young Timothy who was taught from a child by his grand mother and mother. And of course Saul to Paul. My thoughts are not to focus on the testimony , and “me” but the Gospel message. I find that trading the great commission for my testimony is a lot easier and safer as it rarely requires me to speak about Jesus and the truth of our condition apart from Christ, namely sin, which is increasingly a bad and hurtful word these days. I can talk about me which really does nothing to bring about convictions in the hearer but leaves them in a state of perhaps opinion and ready to proceed with “that may be good for you but here is what I like and I find perfect for me in my life, I ……………etc”.” Feelings are ok and are real they just do not belong as the engine of the train but rather the caboose. Again cath mentions the object of our faith who in a lot of testimonies is not even mentioned. Experience is subjective and our faith is objective and trading one for the other , even unbenounced to the person, takes the glory from Jesus and places it on us, we become the center of attention which never as far as I can find happens in the New Testament. Regular and mediocre is good


  5. Thanks Richard Z.

    Thanks also Richard B. It’s a tricky balance, because clearly the gospel has to get personal at some point – the objective realities of the gospel have tobe realities *to me* – but the danger you rightly identify is that it just becomes all about me. Not so much what *Christ* means to me as what Christ means to *meee* perhaps.


  6. James, the difference between a testimonial piety and a creedal piety is that the former emphasizes the confessor while the latter emphasizes the confessed. So it’s not as if creedal has no category for the confessor, but it’s more inclined say that one has a personal history than testimony.

    Cath, you say your concern is that old lifery goes “…too far in the opposite extreme and almost ignore[s] the subjective element of religion altogether.” But old lifery opposes decisionism which ignores the work of the Spirit in conversion. In following classic Calvinism, old lifery wants to emphasize the mysterious work of the Spirit. How is that to ignore the subjective element of religion? If you mean the confessor’s subjectivity, fine. But not God’s subjective (read: mysterious) work.


    • Zrim, good to hear from you.

      Tell me more about this mysterious work? Is there not a point where God’s subjective work becomes apparent subjectively to the confessor?

      And (with ref to the original post) presumably you don’t mean this work is so mysterious that we have to abandon our confessional clarity that regeneration is instantaneous while effectual calling and sanctification need not be?


      • Cath, it would seem to me that if the subjective and mysterious work of the Spirit did not become subjectively apparent to the confessor that we wouldn’t even have a confessor. How can one confess what he is not first moved (intellectually, affectionately, and willfully) to confess? So, yes, “the Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children.”

        I’m not one to dabble easily in the details of the ordo salutis. However, your point is well taken. Not having been raised in faith and coming to faith later in life, I know what it is to not believe. That said, I’m not sure “instantaneous” best describes the phenomenon of going from unbelief to belief. I for one recall still a gradual process, even if that process was perhaps shorter time-wise than for one raised in faith over time. I recall struggle, a gray window, a time when faith and unbelief came to conscious blows. So if someone with a similar background wants to describe his experience as “instantaneous,” far be it from me to say he’s wrong, but it doesn’t resonate with mine and so I remain skeptical.


  7. Well, I can’t say things felt very instantaneous to me either. But not feeling it isn’t the same as it not happening. The change (death to life, unregenerate to regenerate, condemned to justified) must be enacted in a moment, in the nature of the case. But that’s not the same as saying that that moment can or should or must be discernible in the process (not act) of effectual calling and early sanctification. Trying to determine the ordo salutis on the basis of what people report they feel is always going to be inconclusive – we simply aren’t reliable witnesses of our own internal states or competent judges of what the Spirit is mysteriously doing. So whether people report an instantaneous or a gradual experience, all we can ever do is reserve judgment, as their experience is largely non third party observable, and keep conceptual clarity on the objective fact that there was a moment, if necessary regardless of subjective perception.


    • Cath, all fair enough. But I still wonder…what is to be gained by ensuring the instantaneous nature of conversion (even if indiscernible)? Instantaneous conversion seems more the exception than the rule (gradual conversion), and since old lifery is all about the ordinary it seems unhelpful to the greater balance of the believing community to emphasize exceptional phenomenon. You say, “…all we can ever do is reserve judgment…and keep conceptual clarity on the objective fact that there was a moment…” If by “a moment” you are speaking more loosely or figuratively, then all right. But precisely and literally? I don’t get it and I don’t know why it’s so important to do so.

      Here’s what I know. If I chop off my finger, I go from a 10-fingered man to a 9-fingered man instantly. That may be how human physiology works, but not human belief. Not ordinarily, at least.


      • Human belief from the psychological perspective, seeing as man sees, fine. Human belief from the Spirit’s perspective – all or nothing. It’s not so much conversion as I experience it that needs to be safeguarded (since I would agree, the norm is likely to be the gradual and the exception the instantaneous, as to human perception), as conversion the work of the Spirit, where regeneration is precisely and literally an instantaneous act (even while we affirm that calling and sanctification are gradual processes). The analogy would be better in terms of the conception of new life – there is a point in time when a new creature exists that didn’t before, and that is the case regardless of whether anyone including the new creature will ever be able to pinpoint the actual moment or not.


  8. Pingback: instantaneous matters | ninetysix and ten

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