Are We Putting too much Emphasis on the Moment of Conversion?

“Time will tell.”

It was a surprising response in some ways. The response came from a pastor that I have a ton of respect for, and it came after he recounted a fairly dramatic story of a conversion of a recent church member.

The guy had an encounter with Jesus, and everything changed for him. It was one of those stories that you want a video crew there to film; it would be a great testimony video someday to bring out and show the power of the gospel in someone’s life. No doubt, the pastor was grateful for this person and his story, but he was retelling the conversion experience as a way of emphasizing the need for an ongoing discipleship process in the church.

He told the story of this person’s conversion and then asked, “Is this man a Christian?” Of course he is, I thought. He did what so many people in North American have done over the years – he heard the gospel, was invited to respond, and prayed and gave his life to Jesus. That’s when the pastor answered his own question:

“Time will tell.” And that’s the part of the story that really stuck with me.

You, like me, probably know someone in your life who at one time or another had what seemed to be a really genuine encounter with the gospel. They heard the word of truth, accepted they are a sinner, and asked Jesus to forgive them and be the Lord of their lives. And though the decision seemed genuine at the time, over the years you’ve seen them slowly but surely drift from that original moment until now they are just another story of someone who prayed a simple prayer, maybe got baptized, but now seem to have no real affection for Jesus.

Those experiences have caused me to wonder if we have, perhaps, put too much emphasis on the moment of conversion. It’s not like we shouldn’t emphasize that moment; Saul was changed in an instant. Peter cast the net at Pentecost and people responded. At some point, for all of us, we stopped not believing and started believing. So sure, the moment is important.

But there’s also got to be a reason why time and time again the Bible tells us not just to be converted, but to remain. To abide. To persevere. To continue on to the end. This seems to be a recurring theme in Scripture, perhaps even more so than those examples of a given moment of conversion. Is it possible, then, that we are overemphasizing that moment to the detriment of the exhortation to simply continue on? To keep believing? To stay in fellowship?

Perhaps that imbalance might be at least part of the reason why there are many people, at least in the North American definition of Christianity, claim themselves to be “born-again” and yet show no real allegiance in their day to day lives to Jesus. Many of us were raised inside a religious system that taught us (unintentionally) to place our hope in a single moment. A prayer. An experience. That one thing we can come back to over and over again as if to say that because we had this one experience then we are surely safe forever.

Now again, the value of that moment is important. We cannot move to a way of thinking that assumes that just because we know the right lingo and have the right answers that our hearts have been genuinely changed by Jesus. Let’s not overcorrect, because overcorrection is what got us to the over emphasis in the first place. One of the reasons we have such an emphasis on the single moment is that for generations, conversion was assumed due to class attendance, a pledge of allegiance, or some other kind of means. We looked around generations ago, and wisely saw churches filled with good citizens who had unchanged hearts. Ironically, though, we look around now and see some of the same thing, albeit because of a different reason.

Let’s instead recognize that perhaps the right question is not, “When did you become a Christian?” but “Who or what are you trusting in right now?” In other words, are you really remaining right now, or are you relying purely on a moment from the past? Difficult question, but perhaps one that can bring some clarity and definition to what it means to, at a present moment, be “in Christ.” Time will indeed tell.

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