Do all Christians have a "salvation moment"?

By Beth Hyduke

Paul had a pretty specific "salvation moment." One second he was persecuting the church, and the next he was a part of the church. Do all believers have to have such an event? One thing to keep in mind when examining the life of Paul is that he in no way sought out his Damascus road experience; it was something external that happened to him outside of his personal control — you might even say without his consent. In Acts 9, we read that the Lord intervened in Paul's life in a personal and very dramatic way, in part to underline the significance to him and others of what had happened to him. Prior to the Damascus Road experience, Paul was directly involved in vicious persecution of Christians and the Church (Acts 8:1-3, 22:19-20); in 9:1 it says that Paul was "still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord." Such an extreme and publicly verifiable (Acts 9:7-9) experience made his conversion story plausible to Christians who would otherwise, understandably, be untrusting and afraid of him (Acts 9:13, 21), as well as endorsing and confirming Paul in his new role as an Apostle, rather than a persecutor, of the Christian Church (2 Corinthians 10-13, Galatians 1, 2:8). I think it's also important to remember that Paul's experience, though it was quite dramatic, sudden, and exciting, was essentially just another instance of a true conversion; there are many unrecorded conversions that are no less miraculous because God chose to operate less dramatically. In the Christian perspective, any unbeliever coming to Christ is a miraculous work, a life from death transformation with the end result being a brand new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17). From a human perspective, Paul's conversion may seem more desirable than our own comparatively mundane experiences, but we need to remember that God does not view things the same way people do. Rather than looking at the superficial, God looks deeper (1 Samuel 16:7, John 7:24). In God's eyes, the murderous adulterer who cusses like a sailor is in the same boat as the quiet, religious, outwardly pious hypocrite; they are both sinners destined for hell if God does not intervene and regenerate them. Paul's conversion was authored by God just as all true conversions are — though stylistically different from mine, no more miraculous than mine, because in both cases, Paul and I were dead in our sins when God intervened to bring us to new life in Christ (John 5:24, 20:31, Romans 6:4, 2 Corinthians 5:17).

I have been a Christian for fifteen years. My conversion happened very gradually and slowly, and for three years after I became a Christian I continued to wrestle with doubt and assurance (knowing I was saved) because my feelings often conflicted with my understanding of God's promises; I knew what the Bible said but I did not feel saved and forgiven (more on that in a moment). My experience was not the blinding flash of Paul's dramatic conversion but a slow burn which God used to drive me to question and seek Him out, to convict me of my sin and convince me of the truth, and to deliver me into the arms of the loving and worthy Savior. So steady and gradual was this experience, I cannot honestly pinpoint the day or even the month it finally and definitively happened. Some people can. My husband is one of those people; I was privileged to know him and to be present with him on the day he became a Christian believer. My point is that the Lord works in all people differently, but in each person that He saves, He operates according to their individual needs. Because He has made you as a completely unique human being, your conversion will be completely unique to you. If He sees fit to lead some gradually to Christ, growing us and shaping us slowly, this kind of conversion must be exactly what we need for optimum development and spiritual growth.

Unfortunately, many Christians hold up the dramatic, public conversion as somehow superior to the quiet conversion experience. For such people, the focus is all wrong — it tends to be on the experience itself and the emotions it produces rather than on the reality and genuineness of the conversion. This is because it is commonly misunderstood that spiritual regeneration occurs by human means and through personal acts of faith and repentance (as opposed to spiritual regeneration being a sovereign act of God in supernaturally giving new birth to the elect — John 3:3-8, Ephesians 2:4-5). Because of this crucial error, a dramatic, emotional conversion experience is deemed preferable because it is seen as the sure mark of someone's salvation. So prevalent is this opinion, many churches (at least here in the US) manipulate their audience (through music, lighting, oratory, pageantry etc.) in an attempt to create the kind of environment that is conducive to such dramatic "experiences," giving more importance to the experience of conversion than to the biblically-endorsed method of teaching pure gospel truth by which the Spirit works to initiate and foster faith and salvation (Romans 1:16, 10:17).

The fact is, plenty of Christians come to faith in Christ quietly, undramatically, and without fanfare or audience, and their faith is no less genuine or of any less value than someone who had a sudden conversion. Journalist and former atheist Lee Strobel spent 21 months in a private, intense investigation of Christianity before the evidence finally destroyed his skepticism and he committed his life to the Lord. Actress Colleen Townsend Evans found herself invited to a Christian conference and came to Christ afterwards while mulling over what she had heard. "I went for a walk and said, 'God if all this is true, if this is the answer and if you are the way, I want to give my life to you...everything.' There were no voices, no visions, but that was the beginning. I walked along the road that morning with a totally new life." In his autobiographical book Surprised by Joy, CS Lewis wrote this about his conversion: "I was driven to Whipsnade [a zoo in London] one sunny morning. When we set out I did not believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and when we reached the zoo I did. Yet I had not exactly spent the journey in thought, nor in great emotion...It was more like when a man, after a long sleep, still lying motionless in bed, becomes aware that he is now awake."

Whether a person's conversion is sudden and dramatic or gradual and seemingly ordinary is not the crucial issue; what is critical is has it happened to you? The Bible is clear that either the Holy Spirit is indwelling you or He isn't. It is of paramount importance that we know that this has happened to us; it is not necessary that we know exactly when it happened.

This brings us back to the issue of assurance. Some days you may feel empty inside, you don't spend enough/any time in the Bible, and find that this time away from God negatively affects your thought life. This is an experience all Christians can personally relate to. As the old hymn "Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing" goes, we are all "prone to wander and to leave the God we love." Because we still have our old sin nature, we still sin against God and against others and we are still drawn towards spiritually unhealthy lusts and cravings. You want to do the things of the flesh — not because you haven't had the dramatic conversion experience you desire — but because your sin nature is still active within you, warring against your desire to do what is right. This conflicted nature is what Paul wrestles with in Romans 7:18-23:
For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do — this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it. So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God's law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me.
If you are a Christian and you are experiencing sin in your life that you want to be rid of, it does not mean that you need to be reconverted or have some dramatic, supernatural experience. It means that you need to deal with the sin, addressing it in repentance and asking for God's forgiveness and strength to overcome it. Sanctification (the ongoing work God does in us after we are saved) is a lifelong process in which we are made more and more able to become dead to sin and alive to righteousness. We become more aware and sensitive to sin in our lives, and through our weaknesses and inabilities, recognize our true dependency on God. Philippians 1:6 says, "...He who began a good work in you will perfect it" until the end. First Peter 5:10 says, "And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will Himself restore you and make you strong, firm, and steadfast." Unlike feelings or emotions that come and go, these are God's surefire promises all Christians can rely on.

If the sin in your life is causing you to doubt your salvation, I highly recommend that you read 1 John which deals with the theme of assurance: "I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life" (1 John 5:13, emphasis added). John goes on to offer a series of tests we can employ to determine whether we are truly saved. (John MacArthur did a great sermon on these spiritual tests of faith in 1 John titled Is It Real? that I would recommend.)

In closing, I want to share with you an illustration that was helpful to me after I became a Christian but was still wrestling with assurance. I had heard many Christians give testimonies in which they described their conversion in terms of the way they felt during or immediately afterwards — expressing feelings of deep joy or peace or belonging — but my own experience was so different that it made me wonder what I had gone through and whether it was authentic. I eventually came to realize that the presence or absence of such emotions was such a secondary consideration, it is almost immaterial. Maintaining a commitment to Christ, especially when doubts, obstacles, and problems spring up, requires something much more substantive than good feelings. Additionally, while it is true that conversion results in inevitable change, sometimes awareness of the change does not come right away but takes time to dawn on you. Here's the applicable illustration that helped me see this: When you cross the border from Switzerland to Italy, the scenery doesn't become instantly Italian. It's still cold and starkly alpine for a number of miles. It's only as you go further into Italy that slowly the snow gets left behind and the sun gets warmer and it becomes obvious you are now in a different country. The border represents the moment of decisive change from one nation to another, but only as you press on into the new country can you expect to discover just how different a place you are now in.

In the Christian life, changes for some are immediate and obvious, while for others, they only become apparent as you press on in faith, seeking to grow in grace. Studying in and meditating on the Word, praying, worshipping with other believers in fellowship, and daily committing yourself to God in service are the means God uses to sanctify us and to prepare us for eternal life with Him.

Published 6-16-2015