Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Understanding the Times

Vicar! I've been converted!
“Vicar,” I remembering saying back in 1971, “I’ve been converted!”

“No you haven’t!” was the instant response followed by a discussion the next day in which this Anglo-Catholic vicar told me in no uncertain terms, “Too much religion is very bad thing!”

That was 1971 and I had, despite what my vicar said, been “converted.” He, the vicar, didn’t believe in conversion as such; at least, not the evangelical variety involving what has customarily been termed a “born-again” experience in which a discernible change takes place from a life of sin to a life of Christ-exalting godliness. But, thirty-five years later, I still insist I was right and he was wrong. I had been “born-again.”

The problem (one of many) is that different folk employ words to mean different things – a bit like Humpty Dumpty in Alice in Wonderland who, at one point, says to Alice, “I decide what words mean.” Take “born-again”, for example. It’s a perfectly good term, taken from John’s writings (Gospel and epistles), and especially the account of Jesus conversation with Nicodemus. We “must’ be born-again, Jesus insisted, else we will not enter the kingdom of God (John 3:3, 7).

But it has become fashionable in the media of today to employ this term for something less than what Jesus intended by the term. Thus, anyone who wants evangelical kudos will employ “born-again” in his or her resume to ensure the vote of the Bible-belt. But, we run ahead of ourselves. What does the Bible have to say about “conversion”?

The idea of conversion, a turning, or returning, to God lies behind a group of words in both Old and New Testaments, but chiefly by the word evpistre,fw [epistrepho] and refers largely to that decisive turning to God whereby, through faith in Jesus Christ and on the basis of what Christ has achieved for us in his life, death and resurrection, a sinner secures present entry into the kingdom of God and receives forgiveness of sins now as a foretaste of that which will be a reality in the world to come (Matt. 18:3; Acts 3:19). It is an unrepeatable event. You cannot be converted more than once!

It is fascinating, for example, that Paul employs this term when speaking to the pagan and supposititious folk in Lystra. Having arrived in the region where the Roman author Ovid had set his famour work, Metamorphosis – a story in which two of the Greek gods, Hermes and Zeus (Mercury and Jupiter), had assumed mortal flesh – the pagan population of Lystra, on hearing Paul and Barnabas speak and witnessing a miraculous cure of a cripple, began to exclaim: “The gods have come down to us in the likeness of men” (Acts 14:11). Paul responded by saying to them, “we bring you good news, that you should turn from (the verb is evpistre,fw) these vain things to a living God” (Acts 14:15). Since Paul doesn’t cite any Scripture (he’s not speaking to Jews in a synagogue as he was in Pisdian Antioch, for example, but to pagans who didn’t know the Scriptures at all), it is nevertheless interesting that he insists that they are in the wrong and that they need to turn. In other words, he is underlining a concept of sin and te need for repentance (a turning away from sin and towards God).Conversion then involves repentance and faith. Thus Peter links the two ideas in his Pentecost sermon: “Repent therefore, and turn again, that your sins may be blotted out” (Acts 3:19). Paul summarizes his early ministry before Agrippa in similar terms, saying that he had declared “to those in Damascus, then in Jerusalem and throughout all the region of Judea, and also to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God, performing deeds in keeping with their repentance” (Acts 26:20).

Again, in 1971, I was converted and its effects are with me to this day. Can you say the same?


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