THEOLOGY & APOLOGETICS
Do all Christians have a "salvation moment"?
By Beth Hyduke
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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."
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