Thursday, June 23, 2011

The Turn-Around

What is real conversion? Some Christian churches require a definite conversion experience, and others do not. What is the Scriptural position? There are in Scripture definite conversion experiences, like those of the Apostle Paul (Acts 9:1-19). But if we look at the original eleven apostles, it is hard to pin down a definite point of conversion. The emphasis in Scripture is on having faith in Christ (Ephesians 2:8,9; Romans 4:4,5; Galatians 3:23-26), not on the process by which we come to have faith. Now Scripture does warn us of the possibility that there are those who have the appearance of being genuine believers but are not (Matthew 7:21-23; 2 Corinthians 13:5; 1 John 2:19). But the basic issue is whether a person has real faith in Christ and His death and resurrection (Romans 3:21-25; 1 Corinthians 15:1-11; 1 Peter 1:18-21), apart from anything they can do to earn it (Titus 3:5,6; Romans 11:6; Galatians 2:21). Now there is a danger of a person having grown up in a Christian church and knowing all the facts and having gone through all the motions, and lacking real faith. But there is also the danger of someone having an emotional experience or simply walking an aisle or saying a prayer, and not having genuine faith.

I would therefore conclude that the question to ask is: does a person right now have faith in Christ alone for salvation, apart from any good works they can do? From this arises certain problems. There are those who hold that once a person puts their faith in Christ, they cannot lose their salvation even if they later lose their faith (John 10:27-30; 1 John 5:11-13; Romans 8:29-30). Now I would agree that a genuinely saved person cannot lose their salvation, but I would also claim that this faith is a gift of God, who will preserve it in the heart (Acts 13:48; John 1:12,13; 6:44,45). But even if you would hold there is such a thing as a saved person with no faith, they are in a very dangerous spiritual condition and need to be recalled from it. There is also the question of infant baptism. Now I do not believe there is a clear basis in the New Testament for baptizing infants. But while there are different understandings of infant baptism, it is my impression that most would be uncomfortable with saying that someone who had been baptized as an infant but currently was without faith was a saved individual. And even if they were, they would be like the person previously mentioned, in a deeply backslidden condition, and should be urged to repent. Therefore, leaving aside the marginal cases, the conclusion I would draw is that the issue is a person's current faith. Some may have stories of sudden violent conversions; others may experience a gradual change, without being able to point to a definite point of conversion. But the important thing is the destination, not the journey we have taken to get there.


  1. You ask some questions which the Church must answer clearly, because they deal with the very essence of our eternal well-being. Sadly, there is no such clarity, even in the denomination to which I have belonged all of my life. I suspect part of the problem lies in the fact that most of our attention is focused on the role of our Lord’s suffering, death and resurrection, and not enough on the Kingdom He proclaimed and which, by His death “he opened to all believers” (as we sing in the Te Deum).

    Let me suggest a few point:

    1. Scripture tells us that “Repentance” is necessary for salvation. It is the first item of the three St. Peter mentions in Acts 2:38. This is a one-time event that, in the literal meaning of the Greek word, means “a turning around.” This is not the same as the contrition and sorrow any child of God feels because of their sins.

    2. Be baptized. There is much debate over whether one can be saved without baptism. Without a doubt, God can save whomever He wants (I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy), even as our Lord promised salvation to the thief on the cross. But the commandment He has left us is to be baptized and to baptize others, so we should follow it.

    3. “Receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” The Lord, the Holy Spirit, comes to dwell in those who have repented and are baptized. As far as the 11 Apostles are concerned, this took place on Easter Sunday, when our Lord came with His visit (John 20:22). Among the many gifts He brings is faith – it is not our own doing. For this reason, most of the major Christian churches believe in infant baptism: faith is the common denominator of salvation; therefore even infants receive faith as a gift.

    4. It is possible to loose one’s faith in this life, but this should not be portrayed as an occurrence that threatens each one of us at every moment. God will see to it that His Elect will enter Paradise, regardless of how things appear to us. Whether we believe in single or double predestination does not affect this fact.

    5. The person who thus becomes a child of God enters the Kingdom of God, which our Lord proclaimed and about which St. Paul spoke (Col. 1: 13), “He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, 14 in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” Within this Kingdom our Lord looks after His sheep who know His voice, even as He promised in the Good Shepherd discourse.

    6. The proclamation of the Gospel is what God has appointed as the means through which the entire process of salvation is started.

    7. The most important aspect of salvation is that it is, first of all, “by grace.” That means that it is all God’s doing, and we need not have any doubts concerning our salvation because of any shortcoming of ours. That is why Martin Luther, whenever he felt assailed by doubts from the Devil, would say, “I have been baptized.” In this he had God’s guarantee of his eternal welfare.

    8. Faith is not the affirmation of certain historical facts about our Lord Jesus; otherwise Abraham could not have had faith. It is a supernatural trust in God which, as mentioned above, is a gift of the Holy Spirit. For this reason, the word “real” before “faith”, “conversion”, or “repentance” is something that only causes people to doubt their salvation. When in doubt, back to “I have been baptized.” In this way, salvation is by grace, without depending on me in any way.

    Peace and Joy!
    George A. Marquart

  2. Thank you for your detailed and thoughtful comment. The issues you raise are ones that would seem to cut across denominational boundaries and are ones that need to be seriously considered. You obviously have given this considerable thought, but I find while I myself in sympathy with many of the things you have said I do feel I have certain reservations about what you have put forth.

    1. I am very concerned to guard salvation from being in any way the result of our works, therefore I would see repentance as seeing our sinfulness and bankruptcy and turning to Christ for salvation. I am not sure if this is the same way you understand it of not. I particularly would want to avoid the idea that there is any value in the natural mans resolution to do good works. Again I do not know if you would agree with me on this or not.

    2. I certainly agree that God commands baptism and that this should not be neglected.

    3. It was not my purpose in this post to deal in detail with the issue of infant baptist, I only brought it up because it was unavoidable given the subject. If you would like to discuss this in detail. Beyond that I am not sure if I am fully understanding your statement here I am not sure there is anything else in it I would disagree with.

    4. While I would say those who lose there faith never really at faith on the whole I in total agreement with your statement here.

    Statements 5 & 6 I would totally agree with.

    7. I have no problem with seeing baptism as a key point to use as reminder in times of doubt however see my reservation below. I certainly do not think we should doubt our salvation because of our shortcomings.

    8. While I would agree that faith is gift of God I would conclude from Scripture that faith is faith in something, nor do I think Abraham was ignorant of God's promise to send One who would crush the head of the bringer of death though he clearly did not understand all the details. While I would agree in wanting to get away from the question of real faith but I do not see it is possible, certainly Scripture calls us to examine ourselves. Not I do not see how reliance on baptism solves the problem. What constitutes a valid baptism if not the faith of the recipient or is being baptized into a church of whatever doctrinal belief equally valid. Therefore while I do not want to encourage extreme navel gazing and believe that a person who is doubting should look to Christ rather then their own faith, I do not see a way out along the path you suggest.

  3. Thank you for your gracious response. It does not appear as if we are very far apart in our beliefs, and I am not sure that the effort to close the gap is worth the effort, inasmuch as I do not see our differences affecting the eternal destination of either of us. I’ll just comment briefly using the numbers above.

    1. I agree with you wholeheartedly. This is what Scripture teaches. If salvation is by God’s grace, then any human contribution is excluded. But this also excludes repentance as our own doing; it is a gift of God worked by the Holy Spirit through the Gospel.

    3. The reality is that the vast majority of all who are baptized today, including me, are baptized as infants. Therefore we have to make sure we understand if and why infant baptism is valid. Otherwise we would all have to be rebaptized at some point, and the Church has never held this to be necessary. I may be mistaken, but I believe that many Baptists do not insist on rebaptizing those who have joined their denomination as adults.

    4. Inasmuch as the person spoken of in the following quotation has “shared the Holy Spirit” it would seem that his faith was genuine before he lost it (Heb 6: 4): “For it is impossible to restore again to repentance those who have once been enlightened, and have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, 5 and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come,…”

    8. The form of the Hebrew verb אָמַן in Gen. 15:6 makes me believe that it essentially means “trust”. It does not imply any knowledge of any facts beyond what God told Abraham in their encounters. Scripture does not tell us what if anything Abraham believed from the First Book of Moses, which was written many years later, although some of the events that are described obviously took place before Abraham. But there is no evidence that Abraham had any soteriology.

    You wrote, “What constitutes a valid baptism if not the faith of the recipient …” Faith is what we receive in Baptism as a gift from the Holy Spirit who comes to dwell in us. Otherwise we are right back to man somehow having to achieve faith before he can be saved. But if it is “by grace”, then there can be no contribution by man, as it is written (Titus 3:5), “He saved us, not because of any works or righteousness that we had done, but according to His mercy, through the water of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit.”

    Peace and Joy!
    George A. Marquart

  4. I would agree that we are not far apart and am somewhat hesitant to respond because I do not want to appear to be trying to embroil you in perpetual discussion and I agree that the issues involved are not matters that effect our eternal destiny. Also the issues of infant baptism and perseverance are well worn issues and part of my reluctance to launch into a discussion of them is feeling we would simply both be rehashing arguments we have both already heard. If you want to know my response to particular arguments or verses or a detailed defense of my positions I would be glad to give them to you. Nonetheless I would offer the following points simply by way of clarification.

    1. I wholly agree that repentance, faith and salvation are totally of grace and from God and nothing we can produce or achieve.

    3. While I do not believe the truth is determined by majority vote, I am convinced is a difference between deliberate disobedience and an imperfect understanding of every issue. If an individual has been given God's gift of faith I am convinced He heal the places they fall short and reckon as baptism a baptism trusted in but not perfectly performed, though I would not discourage rebaptism for those who had genuinely changed their understanding on this issue. (For the record I am not strictly a Baptist though I agree with them on this issue.)

    8. I disagree with you on the faith of Abraham (John 8:56; Romans 4:16-22; Hebrews 11:8-19), but I question this issue is a necessary issue for long term discussion any more than the others.

    I fully agree that faith is a gift of God and not something we can achieve, but even those who believe in infant baptism must receive adult converts such as myself and in that case the faith must precede the baptism. Given that, I cannot see baptism as being in every case the cause of faith and still have the question of what constitutes a valid baptism. If it does not come back to the faith of the individual then it would seem come back to the faith of the parents or the church, and if not what does it come back to?

  5. This will be my last posting on this topic. I promise!

    3. “While I do not believe the truth is determined by majority vote,…” Neither do I. I simply do not know of any new arguments beyond those that the Church has made during the great controversies on this subject.

    With regard to the proper order of things, all I know is that faith is a gift worked by the Holy Spirit. Our Lord said to Nicodemus that, in order to enter the Kingdom of God, one must be reborn by “water and the Spirit.” By “water”, I do not believe He meant anything but Baptism, which is also part of the Great Commission. Baptism is not the cause of faith; the Holy Spirit causes faith. Does one who wants to be baptized already have faith? Whatever they have, it is not something they achieved; it is the result of the Holy Spirit “drawing” them. But our Lord would not want us to be baptized and to baptize if it were not for the great benefits we receive in Baptism. It is not simply a rite - it is a sacrament; that is an act of God through which God promised to give gifts to His children. He has appointed those who are already in His Kingdom to do what He has commanded, through which action He promised to pour out His mercy on those who are baptized. Titus 3: 5, “He saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to His mercy, through the water of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit. 6 This Spirit He poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, 7 so that, having been justified by His grace, we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.”

    Peace and Joy!
    George A. Marquart

  6. You have said this is your last comment and I respect that and will resist any temptation to get my last licks in. As I said these are well worn paths, but if you or anyone else wants a more detailed answer on my part to any of these issues i will be glad to give them.

    Peace and Joy to you also