Let me revisit an important question. Is a distinct conversion always part of an authentic faith? Or in a day to come will professed believers who lack a decisive conversion hear the Lord say, “Depart from me. I never knew you.”
As a starter, we must never take on God’s role. If someone claims to be a believer and embraces primary Bible truths, we accept that profession. Even if the claim isn’t always matched by practice. David failed in the case of Uriah. Peter denied Jesus. John Mark abandoned Barnabas and Paul. In each case they were restored. God, alone, knows hearts.
To be sure, a professing believer’s report of meeting Jesus, along with a life profile of devotion to Christ, reassures all of us. In church history we find conversion reports woven into church practice. Among the early American Puritans, for instance, a “testimony” of new birth was needed for church membership. And this gateway event continues to be used in many settings.
But why was (and is) a conversion testimony important? There are at least a couple of reasons. One is tied to Christ’s call for new birth in John 3. Another—closely related—is the impact new birth brings to a person’s life and to the church as a whole.
As a starting point, does a testimony-based-faith actually differ from other expressions of Christianity? And, if so, what other options are there?
We can note at least three other pathways: socialized faith, decisional faith, and reasoned faith.
Socialized faith is the fruit of believers training children in the faith. The trainees who embrace the instructions go on to live in alignment with these lessons. Very often there is no distinct before-and-after transition—a “conversion.” Instead a person’s understanding matures over time and the main focus event of faith is baptism.
Decisional faith may be tied to New Birth faith but it’s not necessarily the same thing. The aim here is to elicit a person’s response to a call for faith. It might come in a one-on-one meeting with a gospel presentation that leads a nonbeliever to a decision to become a Christian. It might also be tied to an alter call at a church service; or to an outreach event.
Reasoned faith is similar to socialized faith but it tends to focus more on a person’s formal agreement with creedal information offered by their church. The process is, once again, based on training—as in a catechism (educational program)—that leads to a final exam. If the candidate passes the test he or she receives a formal confirmation of their faith.
A distinct new birth, by contrast, features an encounter: a soul “meets” Christ. And the focus is on Christ, by his Spirit, as the initiator. Then faith, in turn, is a response to God who awakens a once dormant—“dead”—heart. It differs from socialized faith with its sense of a clear shift. Spiritual life—with the language of “light” and “delight”—displaces prior darkness and doubts.
As we noted at the start by alluding to Matthew 7:23 the crucial feature here is to “know” God. Jesus restated this in his prayer of John 17, “And this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” In each context the call to “know” God reflects an intimate bond over against simply knowing about him. The latter teases the intellect; the former changes the heart.
Once again, no onlooker can finally measure another person’s heart status with God—that’s private. But there are some stiff Bible warnings about people who claim to be Christians yet don’t show any sign of Christ’s life in practice. Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, said as much: “You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit” (Matt. 7:17-18).
At least two tests of genuine faith are offered in John’s gospel: those who “know” Christ will have a responsiveness to Christ’s word (8:31-59); and a love for other believers (13:35). Both reveal God’s spiritual paternity … just what Jesus demanded of the outwardly religious Nicodemus in John 3: “You must be born again.”
So, too, Paul’s distinct conversion in Acts captured his own moment of meeting Christ. Jesus, we learn, told him at the time, “I am sending you to open [Gentile] eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me” (Acts 26:17-18). This sort of transformation is hard to miss!
Peter also made being born again a central feature of faith in 1 Peter 1. So it’s puzzling when some Christians treat calls for New Birth conversions as exotic and unnecessary. It may even bring into question their own standing with Christ, especially if they also lack an avid appetite for the Scriptures and/or prove to be reluctant to love other believers.
Why raise this issue? Because some presumptive Christians may want to examine themselves by using these two tests. Especially if the Spirit might nudge them by saying in a Heart to heart whisper, “Yes! Pay attention! Give your heart to me!”
It might just bear real fruit.