Conversion is what makes the difference between someone who is simply seeking God and someone who has entered into a saving relationship with God. In a former post, we talked about this briefly. Conversion makes a difference, and it is a necessary step in one’s Christian spiritual formation–hear me say that I believe we need to call people to real conversion experiences. Conversion, however, is not the end of the road, as we all know from experience. I’m reminded of Scot McKnight’s King Jesus Gospel, where he writes that we’ve become soterians (calling for salvation) rather than evangelicals (preaching the gospel), equating giving people an opportunity to “pray the prayer” with preaching the gospel. But I digress.
The way we call people will impact the way they understand their future life in Christ. It is imperative that we not only make available chances for people to come to Christ in a conversion experience, but also that we adequately explain just what is happening in them.
Conversion is a combination of God’s work and our work. It is, from God’s perspective, all by grace. It is a gift we receive. From our perspective, God’s grace makes possible also the gift of faith. In repentance, we turn from sin and turn to God in faith. According to Wesley,
Saving faith is not belief in the truths of the Bible. Satan believes this and is Satan still.
Saving faith means putting your confidence in the grace of God.
Saving faith means assurance that Jesus is the Son of God who died and rose again for me.
Saving faith means we rely on this Christ. We no longer rely on ourselves but on Him.
Saving faith means obedience. Wesley said this is obedience to all the commands of God, internal and external; obedience of the heart and of the life; in every temper and all manner of life.
This definition of saving faith is active and alive. It does not see salvation as an act of the past. We might ask, “I’m glad you were saved, but are you saved today?” Perhaps we ought to remember the Greek perfect tense verb as our example: salvation/conversion is something God accomplishes in us in the present that has impact in the future.
Conversion accomplishes four things in us:
Justification: What God does for us by pardoning our sins (Harper, The Way to Heaven, p. 55). Romans 3:21-24 says, “But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.” Notice how in these verses, Paul talks about the righteousness–being made right with God–has been made possible through faith in Jesus Christ. Everyone sinned, but everyone was also justified–pardoned from their sin–by his grace. We would do well to emphasize verse 24 in our preaching just as much as verse 23.
New Birth/Regeneration: “Renewing our fallen nature” (Harper, p. 56). This is renewal of the moral image of God, making us new creations in Christ empowered to live above sin. It is a change in heart, mind, will and action. The natural image and the political image are now also able to begin their renewal. Romans 6:1-4 says, “What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.” Paul continues in Romans, now talking about how we have died with Christ to sin. Our baptism symbolizes our deadness to sin and the new life that Christ brings. This is not just a new life as someone who now identifies himself or herself as a Christian, as if the newness were solely in self-identity. It is newness in the heart.
1 John 3:8-9 says, “The one who does what is sinful is of the devil, because the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work. Those who are born of God will not continue to sin, because God’s seed remains in them; they cannot go on sinning, because they have been born of God.” God’s seed in this verse refers to Jesus Christ. They cannot go on willfully sinning. This verse is not saying we will never sin again, but our new birth in Christ enables us to live above the power of sin and to actually choose God over sin every time.
Reconciliation/Adoption: The relationship that was broken by sin, between God and us, is restored (Harper, p. 58). We are adopted as sons and daughters of God. 2 Corinthians 5:17-21 says, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Through Jesus Christ, God restored a broken relationship with us (and now calls us to tell the world about it!).
Colossians 1:21-22 says, “Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior. But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation.” Note how Paul says we were once “alienated” from God and were enemies. Enemies in our own minds, that we thought of God as an enemy because of our evil behavior. How is this possible? Perhaps we assumed that God would want nothing to do with us and we wanted nothing to do with him too.
Initial Sanctification: Inward and outward holiness begins. God not only calls us righteous but makes us righteous with the righteousness of Christ. In real purity, our hearts are made places where the Spirit can dwell. Romans 6:19b-22 says, “Just as you used to offer yourselves as slaves to impurity and to ever-increasing wickedness, so now offer yourselves as slaves to righteousness leading to holiness. When you were slaves to sin, you were free from the control of righteousness. What benefit did you reap at that time from the things you are now ashamed of? Those things result in death! But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life.”
If conversion accomplishes these four things–justification, the new birth, adoption and reconciliation, and the initial work of sanctification, that’s a lot to pack into a sermon. Most of you haven’t even made it through this whole post it’s so long. My point is, can we reimagine better ways to communicate the necessity and benefits of conversion than a quick call to salvation using the Romans Road? I believe we can, and we must. It will have to involve relationships, and it will probably have to take place outside of our worship services. Does God honor commitments made in those 5 minutes? Certainly. I just think we can improve on it.
With no church Feb. 25th because of snow, I skipped preaching about Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane. On to a three-part miniseries on salvation. The idea is taken from Brian McLaren’s A Generous Orthodoxy. The book stretched me, and though I don’t agree with everything McLaren says, I like his way of putting a few keys words to God’s saving us.
The three words are judgment, forgiveness, and teaching. Here’s the sermon.
Text: Psalm 97
Introduction: A Broader, Fuller Understanding of Salvation
Salvation. What comes to your mind when you hear that word? Perhaps the day you accepted Christ as Savior. Maybe you think of forgiveness of sins and being able to go to heaven. Easter is coming up. The time when most of us are reminded of what Jesus did so we could be saved. Jesus died on the cross so we wouldn’t have to.
In Western Christianity, our tendency is to look at salvation as accepting or acknowledging Jesus’ death on the cross. In a moment in time, we cross over from death to life by accepting Christ as Savior. I affirm that. There is a time in each Christian’s life when he or she decides to follow Jesus. When I was five years old my parents knelt beside me at my bed and I prayed to accept Christ as Savior. I had a “born again” experience. I’m sure most of you can attest to the time you were saved.
But too often we look at our salvation experience, we hold it high in the air, like waving a championship trophy around, and we remember that day as the “day” God saved us. In doing that, we disregard what God had been doing prior to that. Maybe you were invited to church by a friend, and you had never been to church. You came for three months before accepting Christ. And during those three months your dad passed away. People of the church came to your family with meals and helped you out. Also during those three months, you saw how those people lived and acted differently, and you were convicted of sin. You had thought that all Christians were hypocrites and had judged them. You asked God to forgive you for that. And then one Sunday, you came to an altar of prayer. The tendency for us is to focus on the altar experience and forget the rest. God was saving you before you even knew it.
And too often we look at salvation as being salvation from hell and a pass into heaven. Salvation in the Bible never explicitly means this. Not once. Salvation simply means “rescue” or “deliver from destruction” or “get out of trouble.” That trouble could be war, famine, an enemy, poverty or something else. God repeatedly delivers His people from these types of things, like when He leads them out of Egypt to the Promised Land, or when an angel frees Peter from prison. God intervenes in order to rescue them from whatever it is. Sometimes He intervenes to save them from themselves, as He allows the Assyrians and Babylonians to carry Israel and Judah off to exile.
It’s like a story I read on cnn.com yesterday. A man snowmobiling in Montana came to an area where an avalanche was starting. He tried to beat it driving 80 mph but couldn’t. He tumbled off his snowmobile and laid face up in four feet of snow. He passed out thinking he would die. Eight hours later, his cousin finally found him. He made it out alive. This is the kind of rescue we’re talking about.
This doesn’t mean that salvation isn’t about going to heaven. That’s a sure thing. Jesus says to the thief that he will be in paradise, and at the Last Supper says He will drink the wine again with His disciples in His Father’s kingdom. Salvation is about going to heaven when you die. But that’s not the whole story.
Today marks the beginning of a miniseries of sermons about how God saves us. So we won’t necessarily be looking at things like putting our faith in Christ. Instead, we’ll see what God is doing for us to rescue us. Our goal is to get beyond relishing the moment of salvation to living the life of the saved.
Saved by Judgment
Brian McLaren, in his book A Generous Orthodoxy, says that God saves us primarily through three things. The first of those is judgment.
The first thing that most people think of when they hear “judgment” in church is hellfire and brimstone. Or they think of God damning all the sinners. Judgment to most people is seen as a negative thing. Our perception of God’s judgment is colored by the judgment we’ve received from others. I’m sure all of us can think back on moments when we’ve been judged. I remember first getting to Baraboo and hearing countless times (not from you) that I was so young to be a pastor. Most people didn’t mean anything by it, but I could sense that some were thinking, “He’s not only so young, he’s too young. And incapable and naïve and good luck.” These were Christians and non-Christians. I was being judged and it hurt.
I bet all of us, if we’re truly honest, can think of times we’ve misjudged other people. So the cycle goes on and on. We are judged and we misjudge. When God speaks to us about judgment, what is our natural reaction? Aagh! Flip the page. I’d rather read Song of Songs than that!
God says that judgment is not only necessary as part of this rescue process…it’s also a good thing. If you don’t believe me, turn to Psalm 97. We’ll see what judgment really is.
Psalm 97: “The LORD reigns, let the earth be glad; let the distant shores rejoice. Clouds and thick darkness surround him; righteousness and justice are the foundation of his throne. Fire goes before him and consumes his foes on every side. His lightning lights up the world; the earth sees and trembles. The mountains melt like wax before the LORD, before the LORD of all the earth. The heavens proclaim his righteousness, and all peoples will see his glory. All who worship images are put to shame, those who boast in idols—worship him, all you gods! Zion hears and rejoices and the villages of Judah are glad because of your judgments, O LORD. For you, O LORD, are the Most High over all the earth; you are exalted far above all gods. Let those who love the LORD hate evil, for he guards the lives of his faithful ones and delivers them from the hand of the wicked. Light is shed upon the righteous and joy on the upright in heart. Rejoice in the LORD, you who are righteous, and praise his holy name.”
Judgment—A Good Thing
God’s judgment is a good thing. Just count how many times you see the word rejoice or be glad. I count five times. Two in verse 1, two in verse 8, and one in verse 12. Verse one says that the earth should be glad, and the distant shores rejoice. Both the earth and the distant shores are words referring to people of other nations. The Gentiles, the people who don’t know God, are supposed to rejoice. Why? Because the LORD reigns. The LORD is king, that’s what he’s saying. As a king reigns over his people, God reigns over all the earth. God’s reign is marked by two things: righteousness and justice. We see in verse three that they are the foundation of his throne.
God is righteous. Righteousness means knowing the way to walk and walking in it. It means knowing right from wrong and always choosing right. God is the One who holds the righteous standard. He’s always right and never wrong. He’s fair.
God is also just, a word also translated judgment. McLaren says, and this is printed in your bulletin, “But in the biblical context, judgment is generally a good thing. It means the coming of truth and justice into our deceived and oppressed world. If some bad and dishonest people are out to deceive or oppress others, God brings justice by bringing judgment—the natural consequences of their bad actions—on the evildoers so they are incapacitated and can’t fulfill the additional evil they intended.
If others are misjudging you, God comes as your vindicator, your justifier. God tells the truth, which exposes the lies of your misjudgers. Over and over again, biblical writers anticipate the day when God will come to judge evil, to expose it and permanently incapacitate it while vindicating good. They speak of this as a profound and joyful kind of salvation.”
Judgment is a good thing. God’s judgment is not like ours. It’s a way to stop those who are misjudging, who are oppressing, from doing more evil. And in this passage, it’s a way to stop people from worshiping idols. All the imagery about clouds and thick darkness, about fire and lightning and mountains melting is from Deuteronomy 4. In Deuteronomy 4, Moses recalls the days Israel was at Mount Horeb, standing at the foot of the mountain while Moses went up to hear from God. And Moses says the mountain blazed with fire to the very heavens, with black clouds and deep darkness. The LORD spoke to Israel out of the fire. They heard Him, but did not see a form. Moses then tells them that because they didn’t see a form, they should watch themselves carefully so they don’t make idols when they enter the Promised Land.
Idol worship ended up being Israel’s chief sin. Over and over we hear of kings worshiping Baal. We even see Israel make a golden calf at Mount Sinai. God had come to them in the darkness of the cloud telling them not to worship idols, and they did.
And so the second time he comes like this is for judgment: to stop them from doing this, from committing more evil acts, from oppressing their neighbors and neglecting the poor. All of the imagery from this psalm is used in the prophets to speak of God’s judgment on Israel and the nations for worshiping idols. They are put to shame, and the idols they worship are commanded to worship the LORD.
Again, before you start thinking this is a bad thing, look at verses 7-8.
All who worship images are put to shame, those who boast in idols—worship him, all you gods! Zion hears and rejoices and the villages of Judah are glad because of your judgments, O LORD.
Here’s the result of God coming in judgment. Rejoicing. Judgment is a good thing. ALL PEOPLES see the glory of the LORD, for God is exalted above all gods. His judgment results in not only Israel praising Him, but also the nations of the world praising Him. All these people stuck in sin worshiping false gods are saved from this as God intervenes to rescue them.
I’ve told you this story before, and it’s worth telling again. My dad was working construction and fell off a roof, causing brain damage. He’s not the same dad I knew before. But what I haven’t told you is that before this accident, dad hadn’t been to church in years. He had a business deal go sour with a man from our church, a man who did not pay dad for work he did, and dad’s bitterness kept him from attending church. After the accident my dad renewed his commitment to Christ and has been faithful in church attendance. It makes him proud to see me pastoring.
I feel like God used my dad’s accident as a way of judgment. Through that, it caused my dad to see the truth, to quit holding the grudge, and to go back to church. Was it a bad situation? Yes. But a bad situation that rescued my dad from what could have been a total slide away from God.
Earlier, I mentioned reasons why we misunderstand what judgment is all about, or reasons why we de-emphasize it. I left one reason out. And that’s because God sent His Son to “be judged” for our sin. So we focus on the cross and on the forgiveness offered to us through it. But we mustn’t forget that judgment had to come first. Jesus was judged so we could be forgiven. Isaiah 53:4-5 says, “Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.”
God intervened through His Son to rescue us. And Jesus sent the Holy Spirit who judges us. His judgment is called conviction of sin. Without it, there can be no salvation, no forgiveness, no rescue.
So…judgment is a good thing. Ask yourself now, “What could God be judging me/convicting me of? Are there any idols in my life? Did I not listen to His voice from the think clouds of darkness the first time? Am I allowing Him to rule as King with righteousness and justice?”
Take this time to pray and ask God to convict you.
Now go with God, rejoicing in His saving judgment.