This is, I think, the fourth time that I have turned one of Jon’s comments into a post. He asks good questions and offers challenges that I either have not thought of or did not feel I had the time to address in a post.
In a post about true conversion, I wrote: “It seems to me that Washer was reviving a process of conversion I read about in some of the great British evangelists of the 19th and 20th centuries. I think especially of William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army, and Charles Finney. Washer wants to sit with people and explain the Gospel to them and pray until they know they are converted, even if it takes hours. Finney called it ‘the mourner’s bench,’ and he had them come repent and pray there until they knew they were saved.”
Conversion by Agonizing
Jon answered with, “A similar approach of agonising protracted conversion is evident in the writings of Edwards and other Puritans and sometimes can be detected in contemporary Calvinists like John Piper, John MaCarthur and Tim Conway … I am not exaggerating when I say that I HATE this approach. I hate it because reading and hearing about it has been the no.1 cause of doubt, despondency and lack of assurance in my Christian life for over 10 years. I hate it because it paints Christ out to be a reluctant saviour, who has to be grovelled to before anyone has the remotest chance of being saved by him. Some of the Calvinists even said that you could seek and cry and seek and seek yet still end up in hell because God simply decided not to save you. I hate it because it drains any encouragement out of sweet promises biblical promises (such as Matt 11:28, Matt 12:20, Luke 18:14, John 3:16, John 6:37, Acts 2:21, Rom 10:9, Heb 4:16, John 1:9 among many) by adding small print (e.g. they are not true for you unless you “feel” and “know” the Holy Spirit and see loads of fruit in your life).”
I asked Jon if I could use his comment in a post because, despite the post I wrote, I agree with this. I also believe that a lot of people who claim to be converted are not really converted, and we can know this because they make no effort to obey Jesus’ commands. In fact, they are filled with excuses, amply supplied by some who preach faith only, for not obeying, or even being interested in, Jesus’ commands. The apostle John, on the other hand, tells us that anyone who isn’t actively obeying Jesus commands is lying if they claim to know God (1 Jn. 2:3-4).
So we have this very true dilemma. We want people to be saved, but we don’t want people wondering whether Jesus wants to save them. John Bunyan, the author of Pilgrim’s Progress, had that problem. In The Jerusalem Sinner Saved by Grace (I think that was the book) he described 5 years of wondering whether God wanted to save him before he rejected those Calvinist chains, believed, and was set free and saved.
Is Agonizing Prayer for Conversion Scriptural?
Jon wrote, “I don’t think there is huge scriptural warrant for this kind of approach to conversion … but it still, to this day, sometimes causes me to doubt and paints an odious picture of God and Christ in my mind.”
In the linked post, I agreed with Jon in advance that I could not back this process scripturally. I just know that a lot of people who pray the sinner’s prayer, as well as a lot of people who respond to the Gospel scripturally (with baptism), are not converted. I base this on the description of a Christian given in 1 John.
Near the end of John’s first epistle, he writes, “These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life.” This verse is often used, most notably in the extremely popular Evangelism Explosion method, to assure a new convert of salvation.
Those who use 1 John 5:13 in this way apparently have no idea that John wrote a letter before writing that sentence. Even “these thing I have written you” does not prompt them to look at the things John wrote. Crazy.
John’s letter, written to those who believe in the name of the Son of God, says that if we do not keep Jesus’ commands, walk in the light, and love one another, then we do not know Jesus. A converted person, even though he/she sins (1 Jn. 1:7-2:2), has a habit of practicing righteousness by obeying Jesus’ commands (1 Jn. 2:3-4; 3:7-10).
So what do we do about this dilemmma? Many, or possibly most, of our conversions do not produce the converts that the apostle John described. On the other hand, the long hours of agonizing prayer that Washer describes, and John Bunyan and my friend Jon hate, have no scriptural precedent.
Solving the Dilemma
The obvious solution to the problem, and one tried by lots and lots of people, is to disciple these converts. The problem is that many of them will neither show up, nor allow themselves to be contacted. I remember, way too painfully, my first year as a Christian and the people we tried to follow up with after “converting” them during our church visitation with them. All but two refused any further contact with us.
I should comment here that I have recently been to a discipleship (and evangelism) training camp conducted by Curtis Sergeant, who has had tremendous success founding disciple-making movements. The movements he has started, and which his trainees have started, have reached tens of millions of people who continue together in small churches that have stayed in fellowship with one another. Tens of millions is not an exaggeration.
Perhaps what has worked so well in those disciple-making movements (DMM) has been two things: their definition of conversion, and their instant follow-up. In these DMMs, a person who prays a prayer or gets baptized is immediately asked to list people to whom they can pass on their conversion experience. They are asked to “make a list of five people you can share your story with.”
Those who do not want to tell anyone are obviously not really converted. Those who do follow through now have friends they are already reaching out to and a mentor who is following up with them as they try. The training continues from there, teaching them how to study the Bible, how to meet together, how to have accountability groups, etc.
Hmm. Maybe I should have written those last four paragraphs rather than writing that post on true conversion.
Believing Without Feeling
Jon wrote: “As I have said before, I have had zero tangible experience of the Holy Spirit despite praying for it many, many, many, many, many times (and still do most days). It seems to be like I have two choices:
- “Believe the revivalists and preparationists when they say that experience is of the essence of salvation, that I am headed for hell, and therefore assume that God is simply ignoring all of my prayers and is reluctant to save me.
- “Cling to the promises of God in scripture by naked faith and try to press on as best I can.
“As the former will no doubt eventually lead to some sort of mental break down, the only option is the latter. I am not saying I am opposed to experience. I really wish I did know joy unspeakable, to be able to discern the clear witness of the Spirit and to know the love of God deep down. Until that time though, to have any chance of hoping in God’s goodness, all I have is faith.”
Jon’s words here are critical. My complaint in “true conversion” post was about people with no desire and no effort to obey Jesus’ commands, not about those who didn’t “feel” converted. Unfortunately, in the process of talking about Paul Washer’s solution, I most certainly suggested that a person ought to feel converted. That I have to retract.
Who is more to be commended, the person who has a lightning-strike, glorious conversion that fills them with instant joy, or the one to whom this did not happen, yet he/she presses on to follow and obey Christ the best he can?
Jesus said, “Blessed are those who have not seen, yet have believed” (Jn. 20:29).
Based on that we might say—indeed, we must say—that Jon is in a much better position than me. I had a lightning-strike conversion that amazed and changed me to my core. As the Scripture says, “to whom much is given, much will be required.” How much greater will be the reward for those who have not felt the power of conversion, yet have faithfully served?
When we question whether the conversions we are seeing are true, there are two questions involved. One is in regard to what true conversion is, but the other is how to obtain true conversions in those to whom we preach.
Those two questions got confused in my post. In it, I was really questioning what I and those around me here in Selmer need to do in order to see true conversions. In the process I touched in true conversion without focusing on what it is. Let me do that now.
True conversion happens when a person quits living for themselves and starts living for Jesus. It is clear that this involves obeying his commands and loving our brothers and sisters (all of 1 John). Based on everything above, I also conclude that it does not necessarily include feeling anything. Jon is not the only person I know who doesn’t have the feelings, yet is faithfully trying to serve Jesus. There is also the experience of St. John of the Cross and his famous “dark night of the soul.” (If you don’t know about that, it is well worth googling and thinking about.)
That said, there is a promise that the Holy Spirit will bear witness with our spirit that we are the children of God (Rom. 8:16). This is something Jon has agonized over. I can pray and wish for him to have this witness, but on the last day, none of us will be judged by the warm feeling we had in our chest (sorry, Mormons). We will be judged by our works (sorry, evangelicals; see Matt. 25:31-46; Rom. 2:5-8; 2 Cor. 5:10-11; Gal. 6:7-9; 1 Pet. 1:17; etc.).
As said above, I probably should have focused on a successful method of producing obedient converts. You can read about the success of Disciple-Making Movements among Islam nations and in Asia in the books, Miraculous Movements and T4T: A Discipleship Re-Revolution. (I get a commission of you buy the books through these links.)
For information about discipleship movements in your area, go to 2414now.net.