If you believe you’ve “always been a Christian” it’s pretty likely that you’ve never been a Christian.
— Micah Fries (@micahfries) April 24, 2018
This issue arises frequently for Reformed pastors in the USA, where since perhaps the 18th century a “conversionist” paradigm for understanding the Christian life has dominated. By conversionism I mean the view that unless one can remember a specific time, event, or experience during which one became a believer, one is most likely not actually converted. To put this view in its best, monergistic, Augustinian light, it assumes that we are able to know what the Spirit is doing, when, where, and how. At its worst, this view thinks of conversion as something produced through manipulation (e.g., through music and emotive preaching) and the human free will, upon which God is said to be contingent. How often have we heard well-meaning but deeply misguided preachers appeal to Revelation 3:20, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me” to imply that God would save us if only we would allow him.
Suffice it to say that the biblical picture of salvation is rather different. Our Lord in no way implied in Revelation 3:20 that humans have the ability to will the contrary. The same God who sent 10 plagues upon Pharaoh and Egypt, who parted the Red Sea, and who delivered his people through it on dry ground is the same God who saves his people today.
I have explained at length from John chapter 3 why it is a mistake to think that we can know what our Lord Jesus explicitly says that we cannot know: “Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:7–8; ESV).
Make no mistake. No one comes to new life and true faith apart from the sovereign, gracious, mysterious, wonderful work of the Holy Spirit. The same Spirit who hovered over the face of the deep (Gen 1:2) also gives new life to dead (Eph 2:1–4) sinners. You must be born again (or from above). The mistake comes when we identify that fact with a particular experience of praying a prayer, walking the aisle, or making a decision for Christ. We should all rejoice when someone is brought to new life, even if through irregular means (e.g., a Billy Graham Crusade or the like). It is not our business to tell the sovereign, free Holy Spirit where and when he may work. It is our business, however, to pay attention to what he has told us, in Scripture, to do and say and he tells us to pay attention to the “revealed things” which are “for us and for our children forever” (Deut 29:29). Scripture tells us that the Spirit ordinarily operates through the preaching of the gospel:
How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!” But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?” So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.
This is why the Reformed churches confess as we do in Heidelberg Catechism 65:
65. Since then we are made partakers of Christ and all His benefits by faith only, from where comes this faith?
The Holy Spirit works faith in our hearts by the preaching of the Holy Gospel, and confirms it by the use of the Holy Sacraments.
The divinely revealed pattern is that the Spirit uses what Paul calls the “foolishness” of gospel preaching to bring his elect, all those for whom he died, to new life and true, saving faith in Jesus the Savior (1 Cor 1:20–31). “Faith comes from hearing and a hearing through the Word of Christ.” Praise God that salvation is not really dependent upon the “free will” of dead sinners. In such a case we should never be saved but God is gracious and he saves us despite our blindness and stubbornness, even if we refuse (for a time) to give him full credit for all that he did. “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Eph 2:8–10; ESV).
In contrast to the conversionist paradigm, in truth, it is often the case that true Christians cannot really recall coming to new life and true faith. As our Lord Jesus said, it is a Spirit-wrought mystery. The difference between the confessional Reformed paradigm and the conversionist paradigm in this matter is that the Reformed can explain this phenomenon and the conversionist only knows to bring the Christians faith into doubt, thus pushing the believer to uncertainty, fear, and even despair. Believer, if you are trusting Christ now—and that is what really matters!—then you are by grace alone, through faith alone, a Christian. Our conversionist friends mean well but they are confused, influenced by a century or more of revivalist and Pietist teaching and rhetoric. They think they know what the Spirit is doing and when (or worse, they are influenced by that heretic Charles Finney, who believed that he could do what only the Spirit does).
Because the work of the Spirit is mystery, no one really knows exactly when he came to faith. What we do know is that we came to faith, that we believe now. It is not necessary for one to be able to say where or when he came to new life and true faith. That is a human invention not biblical truth. Our confidence is not in our experience nor in our memory of an experience but in Christ, in his person, in his finished work for us, in the promises of God to all who believe, in the good news. If, as far as one knows, one has always been a believer, then give thanks to God for his covenant mercies and grace. After all, he promised: “I will be a God to you and to your children” (Gen 17:7). He repeated that promise in the New Covenant through the Apostle Peter: “For the promise is to you and to your children” (Acts 2:39). This is the covenantal alternative to the conversionist paradigm. By covenantal I refer to God’s covenant promise in Genesis 17 and Acts 2 and elsewhere. The covenantal paradigm relies for salvation and assurance upon God’s free grace and covenantal promises administered in his visible covenant people, the church. That promise is true and operates even where a particular church or tradition may not recognize it. Praise God for his covenant mercies and accept his promises and rest in them. It is completely unnecessary to look for comfort in anything else beyond Christ and his promises. The revivalist “altar call” is a false, man-made sacrament. The signs and seals of his gospel are baptism, the sign of initiation into the visible covenant community, and the Lord’s Supper, the sign of his renewal to you of the promise made in the gospel preached. What a wonderful blessing it is never to have known a day when one did not believe. What a blessing always to have known God as one’s heaven Father and Jesus as one’s Savior, and the Spirit as one’s comforter.
One should also praise God if, as I, was baptized as an infant but came to faith later. It is not for us to tell the Spirit when he should bring that promise to realization in a particular case. As we saw in the explanation of John 3 (linked above), even when we remember a time when we did not believe and then came to faith, we should be cautious about saying, “I came to faith at such and such a time.” Our confidence is not in times and events but in Christ, his gospel, and in the sovereign, life-giving work of the Spirit.
So, we admire the zeal of our conversionist friends but we must reject their explanation of Scripture and their view of the Christian life and thus their prescriptions for our Christian life. We wish them well and we bid them good-bye as we seek to unite with a congregation and tradition whose explanation of these things is more faithful to the Word of God.