When I was four years old, I heard a Sun­day School teacher recite Scrip­ture in a way that cap­tured my heart.

My fam­i­ly and I were in Vic­to­ria vis­it­ing my grand­par­ents. After church we went back to my grand­par­ents’ place for lunch. At some point, I tugged on my mother’s sleeve and asked her to tell me more about John 3:16.

She smiled and repeat­ed the verse for me. For God so loved the world that He gave His only begot­ten Son, that whoso­ev­er believeth in Him should not per­ish, but have ever­last­ing life.” She told me that, if I want­ed to, I could be a whoso­ev­er” too. Keen to not per­ish,” I nod­ded my assent. 

My mom took me into the liv­ing room, a rich­ly uphol­stered space my grand­moth­er had cov­ered with thick, pro­tec­tive plas­tic. My mom and I knelt on the plas­tic car­pet run­ner and put our elbows on the plas­tic-pro­tect­ed couch, and I asked Jesus into my heart. When we fin­ished, my mom told me the angels in heav­en were throw­ing a par­ty over their newest lit­tle con­vert, and soon my fam­i­ly was too. 

It’s not hard to detect the dis­tinct­ly evan­gel­i­cal flavour of my con­ver­sion sto­ry. His­to­ri­an David Bebbington’s famous iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of four key emphases in mod­ern evan­gel­i­cal­ism – con­ver­sion­ism, bib­li­cism, cru­ci­cen­trism and activism – per­fect­ly describes my reli­gious upbring­ing. The need to be saved, the author­i­ty of the Bible, the cen­tral­i­ty of Christ’s work on the cross, and an urgency to tell oth­ers all fuelled the fire of my young faith. They fuel the fire of my mid­dle-aged faith too. 

Of course, over the years, encoun­ters with a liv­ing God and His peo­ple have stretched and some­times rede­fined those four dis­tinc­tives for me. Where I once under­stood activism rather exclu­sive­ly as telling oth­er peo­ple about Jesus, I’ve come to under­stand it must also include good news to the poor (Luke 4:18). Where bib­li­cism once involved an unre­flec­tive plain read­ing of the text, I’ve come to cher­ish the way God’s Word speaks today when its his­tor­i­cal, cul­tur­al and lit­er­ary con­texts are under­stood and respect­ed. And where cru­ci­cen­trism once asked me to focus almost exclu­sive­ly on the cross, I’ve come to see Jesus’ earth­ly life, death and res­ur­rec­tion set­tle our sin debt, but offer us infi­nite­ly more — the pos­si­bil­i­ty of an abun­dant, eter­nal life that starts now. 

But what of con­ver­sion­ism? The longer I’ve walked with Jesus, the more I’ve come to see two things. First, my four-year-old con­ver­sion was utter­ly gen­uine. Sec­ond, I am in des­per­ate need of ongo­ing con­ver­sion. My ini­tial sal­va­tion moment was not an arrival, but a beginning. 

I’ve been resis­tant to the idea of a life­long con­ver­sion process, pre­fer­ring to divide the jour­ney neat­ly into cat­e­gories of jus­ti­fi­ca­tion (you’re in) and sanc­ti­fi­ca­tion (now you grow more like Jesus). Those cat­e­gories are help­ful as long as we don’t stall out at jus­ti­fi­ca­tion. But late­ly I’ve felt Jesus call­ing me to be con­vert­ed, again and again, at deep­er and deep­er levels. 

The great evan­gel­i­cal mis­sion­ary E. Stan­ley Jones helps me. In his book Con­ver­sion, he describes the way mem­bers of a Chris­t­ian com­mu­ni­ty he estab­lished in India shared the work­load so each per­son — even the clean­er of the non­flush toi­lets — could have one day off a week. Clean­ing the latrines was typ­i­cal­ly the work of untouch­ables, and when Jones asked a high­er caste con­vert if he was ever going to vol­un­teer, he shook his head slow­ly. Broth­er Stan­ley,” he con­fessed, I’m con­vert­ed, but I’m not con­vert­ed that far.” 

You must, coun­sels Jones, con­stant­ly enlarge the area of your con­ver­sion. Make your con­ver­sion take in more and more areas of your life.” Sim­i­lar­ly, the Amer­i­can schol­ar Dal­las Willard was fond of point­ing out the New Tes­ta­ment uses the word Chris­t­ian three times and the word dis­ci­ple 269 times. Evi­dent­ly, it was impos­si­ble for the 1st cen­tu­ry Christ fol­low­ers to see a com­mit­ment to Jesus as any­thing less than a pro­gres­sive, ongo­ing appren­tice­ship – a life­long conversion. 

Look­ing back at my mom and I say­ing amen and peel­ing our­selves off all that plas­tic in my grandmother’s liv­ing room, I often joke that the expe­ri­ence real­ly stuck” with me. Jesus real­ly did come into my heart, and He’s nev­er left. But all these years lat­er He still knocks on the hid­den doors of my heart, open­ing them one by one. I am a con­vert He nev­er tires of con­vert­ing. I need only stick with it. 

Orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished March/​April 2018 issue of Faith Today.

Text First Published February 2018

📚 The 2022 – 23 Ren­o­varé Book Club

This year’s nine-month, soul-shap­ing jour­ney fea­tures four books, old and new, prayer­ful­ly curat­ed by Ren­o­varé. Now under­way and there’s still time to join.

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