Conversion, JAN/FEB 1992
When Your "Testimony" Is Boring
Michael S. Horton
1999 Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals
Growing up in evangelicalism, I was one of those kids who felt mediocre
at meetings where ex-drug addicts gave their "testimony" of
suddenly losing their craving for LSD. My grandmother used to speak
of two groups of Christians: those who were "saved" and those
who were "gloriously saved." Everything a good, clean
Baptist youth is supposed to be, I didn't "dance, drink, smoke
or chew, or go with girls who do." So unimpressive was my testimony
that I did not even remember the day I was "saved." That,
of course, was a problem...a big one.
From time to time, I even played with the idea of embellishing my spiritual
autobiography in the interest of becoming a "trophy" like these
other folks (none of whom, I am certain, had embellished their story).
The time spent at a friend's house past my curfew could become a period
of rebellion. Yea, in fact, I left home to become a Vegas act...sure,
that could work.
In conservative evangelical circles, one must remember the
big day. Birthdays would be celebrated with a modified version of the
usual song: "Happy birthday to you, only one will not do. It takes
two for salvation--how many have you?" Since I "asked Jesus
into my heart" on a weekly basis as a child, I simply selected
age seven as the date to avoid embarassment.
Finally, as I was going through Paul's epistle to the Romans and wanted
to share it with the youth group as I entered high school, the pastor,
worried about my interest in the theology of that book, asked the familiar
query, "Son, when were you saved?" But this time I wasn't going
to reach for a date out of a hat. Before I could catch myself, I heard
myself answering, as though I were watching my mouth move from the rafters
of his office. "In God's plan, I was saved before the foundation
of the world," I replied. "Then, in God's sacrifice, I was saved
when Christ died and was raised, and I am being saved by God's preserving
and sanctifying grace." Years later, Conservative Baptist scholar,
Dr. Earl Radmacher, told me, "When someone asks me if I'm 'saved'
I tell them, 'I have been, I am being, and I shall one day be saved; now
which one do you want to talk about?'" If only there were more Earl
But my pastor was not as accomodating and confidently announced that I
was not "saved," since there was no special date. He told me
I was a "Calvinist," a shibboleth I had never heard of before,
but have been forced to wear ever since.
Many who would accuse baptismal regeneration of being a form
of works-righteousness have no problem with decisional regeneration,
the belief that God has done his part by providing a means of forgiveness,
and waits patiently for us to "let him have his way" and "let
Jesus come into our heart," by "making Jesus Savior and Lord."
In many ways, this is at the bottom of the so-called "lordship
controversy" addressed in our last issue of Modern Reformation.
Many Christians spend their lives questioning whether they are really
"saved" because of the nature of their conversion experience,
while others who have no interest in Christ and live scandalous, unrepentant
lives are self-confident in their depravity, assured of the absurd and
preposterous illusion that they are "safe and secure from all alarm"
because they signed a card, prayed a prayer, or knelt at an evangelical
altar before an evangelical priest. Let us, therefore, take a brief
look at some of the biblical material on this matter of conversion.
The Old Testament
While Israel is constantly called to renew her covenantal loyalty and
reminded of her responsibilities to carry forward redemptive history by
insuring the faithfulness of future generations, individual Israelites
are not considered unbelievers who need to be converted. There is no "age
of accountability" and Jewish children are not told that they must
have a radical experience which will make them immediately lose all desire
for their sinful cravings. Because they are circumcised members of the
covenant community, they belong to the people of God and, therefore, to
God himself. Even the children are considered believers whose faith needs
to be confirmed and strengthened, not granted.
God issues an absolute, unconditional edict to his redeemed community:
"I will be your God and you will be my people," and the date
individual Israelites must remember is the day "when Israel came
out of Egypt, the house of Jacob from a people of foreign tongue, [when]
Judah became God's sanctuary, Israel his dominion" (Ps.114:1).
They must never forget the day, not when they "let him have
his way," or when they "accepted Christ," but
"when Yahweh provided redemption for his people; he ordained
his covenant forever--holy and awesome is his name" (Ps.111:9).
Again and again, the Psalmist calls upon the people to remember dates,
but they are the dates when God did something important in history:
creation, the promise, the exodus, the preservation of the redeemed
community in the wilderness, and so on.
From time to time, Israel's unfaithfulness is met with a divine "cold
shoulder," as God treats his people like any other unbelieving
nation. Israel's national unfaithfulness cannot invalidate God's unconditional
promise to Abraham, which included the decree that Abraham would be
"the father of many nations." "Understand, then,"
Paul argues in the New Testament, "that those who believe
are children of Abraham" since "the Scriptures foresaw that
God would justify the Gentiles by faith," as Abraham was justified
The New Testament
Therefore, the New Testament is a continuation, not a disruption, in
God's redemptive plan to save a covenant people. In the Gospels, the
Jews are called to embrace their covenant Redeemer-King, but the majority
refuse to become a part of this Abrahamic community. The unbelieving
Jews, therefore, are not the people of God because of their ethnic
identity and they can no longer rely on their racial heritage as Abraham's
children (Mt.3:9; Jn.8:39-47).
This point is driven home in the epistles as a major theme. The covenant
community is established on the basis of faith in Christ. In this way,
the believer, sharing Christ's "last will and testament," owns
all of his riches. As he redeemed his people from Egypt and led them through
the wilderness to the promised land, so too he has saved, is saving, and
will one day save his people fully and finally at the last day.
Conversion in the New Testament (especially in Acts) is of a missionary
type. Pagans hear about Christ for the first time and dramatic conversions
take place. But notice, throughout these accounts, from our Lord's invitations
in the Gospels, to the urgent appeals of the apostles, the call is not
to conversion, but to Christ. The challenge is not to do something,
but to believe something. Christ's appeal is not, "Convert
yourself and you shall be saved," or "Whoever makes a decision
and makes Me Lord and Savior will be born again." Rather, we read,
"Repent and believe" (Lk.13:3). Peter charges people to "Repent
and be baptized...The promise is for you and your children...."
Thus, while conversion is often radical for the first generation believers,
it is usually less dramatic for their children, but the promise is as
much for them as for adults. It is difficult for us to accept this idea
because of our emphasis on decisional regeneration. Instead of viewing
conversion as part of a process in God's successive activities,
we see it as a step we have taken that was truly determinative
of our salvation. There must be something, even the smallest effort,
on my end which I can show God on judgment day: "Look, here is
the one thing I did. You must let me in, because I fulfilled
the conditions." Is there something, however, that is decisive
about our acceptance of God's gracious gift? To answer this question,
we have to understand something about order of salvation and
the nature and style of conversion itself.
The Order of Salvation
The conversionist vocabulary ("making Jesus Savior and Lord,"
"making a decision," "letting him have his way," "letting
Jesus into your heart," etc.) is largely the product of an Arminian
"order of salvation," which makes faith logically prior to regeneration.
Because terms can be used differently over time, we must be very careful
on this one.
First, there is a problem of definition. When the reformers wrote
about "regeneration," they were not thinking about the new
birth (as most of us do today), but about "sanctification,"
that is, the process of inward moral transformation by the Holy Spirit's
gradual renewal of our sinful affections. Thus, the reformers (and today's
Lutherans), understanding by "regeneration" what we today
refer to as "sanctification," insisted, against Roman Catholic
objections, that faith preceded regeneration. But they would never have
argued that faith (the decision to trust Christ's person and work) produced
the new birth. The new birth, unlike sanctification, is not a process,
but the instantaneous and gratuitous resurrection of those who are spiritually
dead. Paul writes, "While you were dead he made you alive...."
(Eph.1:5). "The man without the Spirit does not accept the things
that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishnes to him, and
he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned"
(1 Cor.2:14). "Therefore, it does not depend on a person's decision
or effort, but on God's mercy" (Rom.9:16). As Jesus declared, "No
one can come to me unless the Father draws him" (Jn.6:44). Then
does it matter whether we receive Christ? You bet! "To those who
received him, he gave the right to become children of God"--but
read the rest of the verse: "--children born not of natural descent,
nor of human decision or a husband's will, but of God" (Jn.1:12-13).
Therefore, while we have the responsibility to accept God's gracious
provision, we must never think that such acceptance produced God's acceptance
of us. It was because he accepted us, made a decision for us, and made
himself our Savior and Lord that we accept his gift. The new
birth gives us the principle of spiritual life which causes us to cry
out, "Abba, Father," and without it all of our works, all
of our movements, all of our decisions and rededications are nothing
more than the stirrings of those who are only alive, and utterly alive,
Therefore, the children of the Reformation, though differing on specifics,
join voices in the biblical affirmation that "salvation is of the
Lord" (Jon.2:9) and that even our new birth is the result of grace
alone, not of human cooperation with grace.
The Style of Conversion
Conversion and repentance can be used, therefore, in two ways without
contradiction: we come to a place when we are converted (the
new birth, preceding a human response), but this conversion does not
change us morally. We trust Christ for the first time (faith) and hate
our sinful resistance to him and to his reign (repentance). Nevertheless,
these two aspects of the new birth are the fountainheads for growth
in faith and repentance--a life of conversion which follows.
The first of Martin Luther's "Ninety-Five Theses," which launched
the Reformation, was the following:
1. When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, 'Repent', he willed
the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.
This was to establish the guardrails against two equally dangerous
cliffs. On one side was the precipice of the medieval sacramental system,
which promised forgiveness and full repentance when the sinner had jumped
through the prescribed hoops deemed appropriate by the priest. A financial
contribution could help secure this in Luther's day. On the other end,
there were those, like Erasmus and other humanists, who argued that
outward repentance was not important; that conversion or repentance
was merely inward. Luther specifically attacks this view in his third
Once again we are faced with these two equally disasterous alternatives:
either to make repentance a once-and-for-all external act of penance
(by going through the modern sacrament of the altar call) or by making
it exclusively internal, as if it did not matter whether you hate your
neighbor, as long as you mean to do otherwise.
We need to recapture this sense of conversion as lifelong repentance.
Conversion is never complete in this life and is always demanding. Since
we are converted (Rom.6), the process of repentance and
sanctifying conversion is not a goal to which we strive, but a reality
from which we live. We do not live godly lives in order to become godly,
but because of a reality of godliness which is declared in our justification
before God and in the principle of new life implanted within us through
the new birth. If our justification depended on our conversion experience,
we would never be justified, for conversion is always imperfect in this
life. This is why, once again, we must insist that while the new birth
precedes faith, the process of conversion follows faith.
If this is the nature of conversion, the style of conversion will
differ from person to person. Those who have had dramatic beginnings
in conversion ought to treasure the radical nature of God's grace which
they have experienced first-hand. They ought to be able to joyfully
share this experience with others without cynical slurs like, "Becky
'got religion.'" But those who have been raised in Christian homes
and have never rebelled against the promise God made to believers and
their children are also God's people and are also being converted. Promised
or actually begun in their infancy, conversion and regeneration become
as rich a treasure of Christ's presence as memories of "before"
and "after" portraits can be for new converts.
In conclusion, therefore, if the focus of the gospel is Christ, not
conversion, and the date we are to remember is a dark afternoon nearly
two millenia ago outside Jerusalem's city gate, what notion of conversion
do we substitute?
As we have seen, the Bible records two essential facts: (1) God is the
one acting in our redemption and (2) he is redeeming a people,not just
Our conversionist evangelism largely overlooks these two central convictions.
Nowhere in either testament are there calls to, "Let Jesus have
his way" or to "make him Lord of your life." The gospel
is a promise, not merely an offer: "I will be your God and
you will be my people" (Lev.26:12). We do not "let"
the Alpha and Omega, the Resurrection and the Life, the Author and Finisher
of Faith, do anything! It is because of who he is and what he does,
not because of what we allow him to do, that he is our Savior and Lord.
We do not "make him Lord" any more than someone in the mail
room makes the CEO one's boss, or a child makes her father her parent.
The covenant, with all of its blessings (election, redemption, justification,
adoption, sanctification, glorification), is God's idea. Second, this
Sovereign God is redeeming, not merely individuals who say "yes,"
but "a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people
belonging to God, that [we] may declare the praises of him who called
[us] out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once [we] were not a
people, but now [we] are the people of God" (1 Pet.2:9-10). God's
goal is a redeemed and converted people. Unlike the Marines, he is not
just "looking for a few good men," but for a new humanity.
He does not simply want a few outstanding trumpet players who "wow"
their adoring fans (not a few "testimonies" have fit that
picture), but an orchestra, where the attraction lies in the harmony.
Therefore, a correct relationship to God can only take place within
the context of the covenant community.
Entrance into this new society is secured through baptism, as circumcision
served in the Old Testament. This analogy, far from an imposition of
a theological system, is directly affirmed by our Lord and his apostles.
For instance, St. Paul tells us that we were united with Christ through
"the circumcision done by Christ, having been buried with him in
baptism" (Col.2:11). As the apostle Peter assured his audience
that the gospel promise was still "for you and for your children,"
so too we must challenge any conversionistic evangelism which ignores
the covenantal context of conversion.
In this way, the anxiety of Christian children about being converted
or born again is removed. They are called to deepen their understanding
and experience of God and their inheritance with the saints, but they
are not to turn inward, searching for that one radical change in their
behavior which they brought about one day when they decided to follow
Jesus. Our society is given to conversionism: self-help cures, self-improvement
programs with cheerful testimonies and "before" and "after"
photos. Dramatic contrasts and sensational reports, while calculated
to bring glory to God, often bring glory to those who had the sense
to turn their life around. To be sure, "God has no grandchildren,"
as Billy Graham wisely said. And there is a danger of so emphasizing
the covenantal aspect that children are not encouraged to develop their
own relationship with God. But the guardrail must also be raised against
the opposite and more general danger in evangelicalism: individualistic
and triumphalistic visions which rob God of his glory and his people
of their comfort and assurance.
So then, to queries concerning our salvation, we ought to reply:
When? Before creation, at the cross, in my lifetime,
and in the future. Let this replace, "On July 10, 1965, during
the eighth verse of 'Just As I Am,' when Brother Fred held a revival
at our church."
How? By God's electing grace, redeeming grace, calling,
justifying, and sanctifying grace, and by his glorifying grace (Rom.8:29-39).
This can take the place of, "By raising my hand, going forward
during the altar call, and praying the prayer after Brother Fred."
As John Murray writes, "It is necessary to guard against a wrong
use of introspection. It is not by looking within, in the attempt to
discover the movements of God's regenerative grace, that faith is evoked.
It is preoccupation with the glories of the Saviour that constrains
faith. We do not rest upon that which is done in us, far less
upon that which is done by us. Faith does not feed upon the saving
experiences that it evokes" (Col.Writ.,vol.2, p.259).
Where? In the church, where the proclamation of the
Word and the administration of the sacraments (baptism and the Lord's
Supper) unite me to Christ and to his people. This is a more biblical
response than, "In the privacy of my own heart."
From What? From the guilt and control of our sins
in this life, and from the presence of sin in the next. This stands
in the place of, "Lack of self-esteem, unhappiness, sickness, etc."
This is part of the problem in our calls to conversion. We spend more
time trying to manipulate and persuade people to "make a decision"
than trying to explain what it is about which they are deciding. One
popular Christian bumper sticker in southern California cheers, "Jesus
is the answer!", to which unbelievers have replied with their own
sticker: "If Jesus is the answer, what's the question?"
In the words of the Westminster Shorter Catechism, "to glorify
God and enjoy him forever." Let this replace, "So I could
enjoy the happiness of the victorious Christian life," or other
explanations which have oneself at the center.
Let us, therefore, honor conversion not only as an event of turning
from sin to Christ, but as a life-long struggle to inherit the promised
land. That heavenly home is already promised: it's unconditional. Regardless
of how unimpressive our experiences of growth, zeal, and spiritual success,
God has promised this land to all who have placed their faith in Christ
alone. But, like the Israelites who wandered in the wilderness, we too
must endure the pressures and pains before we may enjoy the reality
which the promise offers. Let us long for greater and deeper conversion
by casting a skeptical eye on approaches which make radical conversion
and instant change in behavior and personality a mark of a genuine new
birth. While the new birth, our spiritual resurrection, is instantaneous
and is not the product of our cooperation, conversion is a marathon
in which we struggle earnestly, and the crown of life awaits us at the
Instead of constantly measuring our conversion experiences by comparing
ourselves to others, or despairing because the radical nature of our
initial conversion is followed by the mundane (and not always successful)
struggles of the Christian life, "let us run with perseverence
the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author
and perfecter of our faith"(Heb.12:1-2).§
Dr. Michael Horton is the Chairman of the Council of the Alliance
of Confessing Evangelicals, and is associate professor of historical theology
at Westminster Theological Seminary in California. Dr. Horton is a graduate of
Biola University (B.A.), Westminster Theological Seminary in California (M.A.R.)
and Wycliffe Hall, Oxford (Ph.D.). Some of the books he has written or edited
include Putting Amazing Back Into Grace, Beyond Culture Wars, In
the Face of God, and most recently, A Confessing Theology for Postmdern