One Great Difference Between A Covenantal Piety And The American Conversionist Alternative

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.

    Post authored by:

  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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26 comments

  1. Amen Dr. Clark. As one who was born and baptized in the Reformed Church, I certainly have had and continue to have my struggles against the world, the devil and my own flesh. Thank God I do not have the power or ability to choose, for I would be doomed.

    • Yes, thank God for His indwelling Holy Spirit, His revelation of Christ as my Savior, His conviction and chastisement as a loving Father, His prayers and intercession, His illumination of the Word, and the promise that He will never leave me or forsake me is my great hope, comfort, and assurance. He is the down payment that seals and guarantees everlasting life in Christ. Without Him I would be forever lost, but He has found me!

  2. “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.”

    Scott,

    Are you saying that a person can be saved under the preaching of a false (Billy Graham) gospel?

    “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.”

    Scott,

    Are you saying that Billy Graham preached the Holy Gospel?

    “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.“

    Scott,

    Are you saying that a person can believe (for a time) that their salvation was at least partly a matter of their own ” free-will”, and therefore a person can be saved – truly saved – believing (for a time) the damnable heresy and false gospel of Arminianism?

    “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.”

    Scott,

    Can a person have true faith while denying the biblical truth that Christ died only for His sheep and, instead, believing that Christ the Lord of Glory shed His precious blood for everyone, including those burning in hell?

    “For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek” (Romans 1:16).

    Is a false gospel “the power of God unto salvation”, Scott? Can the Spirit of Truth work through a lie?

    • William,

      There were 7,000 under Jezebel who did not bow the knee to Baal. God had his elect in every time and place and uses unusual and even irregular means at his good pleasure. God used those who preached Christ out of false motives (see Philippians).

      Do I agree with everything Graham ever said? No. Was everything he said false? No. Did people come to faith through his preaching? Yes. Does that mean we should endorse his preaching generally? No. I know people who came to faith through Graham’s preaching. Enough of the gospel was present often enough.

      Do immature Christians think false things? Yes. If you want to precise William, believers were saved when Christ paid for their sins at Calvary. The sovereign, free Holy Spirit applies that work in time after the cross. What genuine, if confused believers, confess is one thing. What they actually believe is something else.

      I was an Arminian for a time. I was also a believer. I know Arminian believers whose personal faith, I think, contradicts their confession. Further, the Reformed have never said that there are no believers even in Rome. We’ve always called them to come it and be separate.

      All the Reformed came out of Rome. Were they, every one of them, unregenerate until they came out of Rome? How are you not doing exactly what Fries is doing, trying to pinpoint the moment of regeneration when our Lord Jesus clearly says it is a mystery.

      I’m distinguishing between the preceptive/revealed will and the secret providence of God. We know the former, we do not know the latter except after the fact. The plain facts are that God the Spirit has sometimes used Balaam’s Ass and his modern successors to call his elect to true faith.

      Following the preceptive will of God we who believe ought to join ourselves to true churches, i.e., those with the marks of the true church (Belgic Confession art. 29), the pure preaching of the gospel, the pure administration of the sacraments, and the use of church discipline even as we recognize the freedom of the Spirit to do as he wills without consulting us.

    • William, the Holy Spirit always works through the means of grace, in spite of the sinful men that may be administering it, even in a confusing and corrupt way. That is why the true Church will always persist even as it did under Jezebel and the idolatry of the Roman Catholic mass before and after the Reformation. Something I learned from Dr. Clark always sticks with me, that the true Church is always in, with, and under the administration of the means of grace no matter how sinful men may try to corrupt it. Not that we support such corruption, but the marvel is that God can use even evil intentions for the good of His elect. I find that a great comfort to know when I see the great deterioration of Christendom in our time. The gates of hell will not prevail against it.

  3. I, for one, thank God for the Billy Graham Crusade that came to our city when I was young. My father helped as an usher, and he took the whole family. All three children in our family became Christians at that time. I clearly remember being convicted of my sin and my need for a savior at that Crusade. We ended up in a “reformed-ish” church and received quite a bit of good instruction during our growing up years. It was not until much later that I was brought to a fully Reformed understanding, but that time was a turning point for our family.

  4. I’m glad that Jesus can condescend to our weak human intellects. I think it’s a bit harsh to think that a person can call upon the Lord and be rejected based upon a misunderstanding. Who’s calling arminians heretics.

    • That depends on what you mean by a “misunderstanding.” If your “misunderstanding” is that you do not grasp that salvation is through trust in the righteousness and satisfaction of Christ alone, but you are also looking to stand right with God by your good works, or anything you have done, like making the right decision, and you trust in that as part of your right standing with God, I’d say that little “misunderstanding” will damn you to hell unless you repent of your heresy. That is why the Canons of Dort were written, to refute just such heresy.

    • dr. clark

      I read your post, thanks for the correction, I meant the second statement in light of Arminian doctrine. But I didn’t highlight that.
      good providence brothers

  5. Dear Scott,
    The first time I met you, was at Stephan and Carrie Coleman’s house, after church to celebrate the baptism of Molly Coleman. What divine providence that was for me. I grew up without any religion at all, not even attending and Easter Service, or Christmas Service. My parents were not atheist and there was no outward antagonism regarding Jesus Christ, just nothing.

    However as I look back over my years (more now to count) I see God was there, guiding me and guarding me for I was his elect. He gave me a best friend that I went to church with when I was young, not often, but at least six or seven times a year. However I was sat at their dinner table at least once a week, and there was always the Lord’s Prayer and a reading from “Our Daily Bread.” Always.
    Each and every service, at the end of the Preaching of the sermon, the pastor would have ever one bow their head in their pews and he would pray, and he would preach the simple gospel, and then he would ask anyone that hadn’t already believed in Jesus if they believed, and ask you to raise your hand while keeping your eyes closed.

    When I was about 10 I raised my hand. Of course being 10 I did open my eyes and peek around a bit, and there were about 3 others that I noticed.

    Then the Pastor asked us to pray a prayer of confession of sin, and repentance and asked us to ask Jesus Christ to Save us from our Sins. I prayed this prayer.

    I really don’t know exactly when I became regenerate. That used to bother me. It wasn’t until my early twenties when God called this wretched sinner to “Gather” in church. All I can explain is that all of the sudden one weekend I had a knew knowledge that I hadn’t had before, “I had to attend Church.”

    What church? I wasn’t anxious, I just went. I ended up feeling at peace in a Calvary Chapel. Would I ever attend a Calvary Chapel now, No, but the Lord met me where I was, and he drew me to himself. Was I regenerate then? God only knows. I was baptized in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, in a Jacuzzi, with 25 others.

    Then I went to a Mega Church for awhile, and it was Mega, 3000 attendees. Did I mention that I was living in Las Vegas. Then my husband left me, (simple version) and I sold my house, and my business and moved back home. At some point my Dad felt the call to begin going to church, but he was nominal believer, going back to his own Presbyterian Roots. I had grown up going to a Presbyterian Church.

    I went to a Congregational Community Church, that later on has gone Universalist. Then I met my husband, David who has his own providential story, but God had already guided him to a fairly good reformed church.

    When I sat the first time in a worship service at Valley Presbyterian Church, I was amazed how much at home I felt.

    Dave immediately was giving me White Horse Inn CDs to listen to, and as a good student, I listened and listened and listened, and read my bible and read my bible, and I was amazed at all I was learning.

    We were married, and baptism of infants was something that I really wasn’t convinced about, but becoming more and more. Yous little booklet was the last I read, and then I was convinced, and understood.

    So, we had our own blessings, two of them, and they were both baptized into the church around 1.5 months old. We too had an after party. Molly Coleman and our Peter are the same age and so are Oliver Coleman and our Natalie, are the same exact age. They kept on going, as you know.

    Anyway, so there you were in their tiny little house, and I was of course knew you thru them, and through your literature and books (there were less of them then.) I was so grateful to God to meet you in person twelve years ago.

    So, Now Peter is 12, and this Lord’s Day he is professing his own faith in Jesus Christ before his church family. He is my first, and he is a splendid boy, but he is a boy through and through.

    I am so entirely glad to have read this blog today of all days, for although I hold (cling) to the promises offered in the Covenant of Grace, and We have tried to be faithful to obey our own commandments as parents, there is still a little part of me that is a Conversationalist. I suspect that there is a little bit of that in all of us.

    So, thank you from the bottom of my heart for your dedication to teach and to correct and rebuke, using the Word of God.

    My father became a true believer through his cancer but through the Preached Gospel in Church, and he is now present with the Lord Jesus, I became a Christian in my adulthood, through many churches that were full of error, but still the ordinary means, the Preached Gospel and My own son, hasn’t known a day in his life without Jesus Christ, 52 days a year for 12 years, minus a few for illnesses.

    So I am a living stone and example of the God’s saving act: “For the promise is to you and to your children” (Acts 2:39) He is still working in me and in my son, and it’s often messy since all converts are a tangled mess of old sin, and new creation, however through the same Spirit that justified me, we are assured that He will sanctify us, and glorify us. And we too will rest in Eternity with Jesus Christ.

    Sorry for the length of this comment, It was meant to be a story of God’s Faithfulness to his covenant promise, and I hope that it came across as that. To God be the Glory forever and ever, Amen

  6. The problem is that non-Reformed American Pietism is found inside Reformed and Presbyterian churches and seminaries.

    • Bullseye Gil! The confessions and more specifically the regulative principle of worship have become anachronisms at least in the PCA churches I have attended. Specific to this discussion, in one particular church the sermon ends every Sunday with “the invitation”. While the pastor publicly decries “altar calls” he does much the same thing with a slightly different methodology. The “invitation” is delivered with the same psychological pressure that one would find in a “conversionist” church. Maybe worse than that is the fact that the assurance that the saints might otherwise have is assailed.

  7. In the Revivalistic background I was raised in, “Conversion” basically boiled down to Jesus PLUS something else. Along with having an experience, other “necessities” could include being absolutely certain you are sincere enough before you pray the Sinner’s Prayer, believing to the best of your ability the pre-requisites of the Four Spiritual Laws, expressing sufficient sorrow/repentance for sins (Promising to give them up), and making certain that you are also accepting Jesus as your Lord, not just Savior.

    Then the proof that one’s transaction with God “took”, was an immediate life change that had to be noticeable to others. Continuing to struggle with sin is a sign of a a false conversion experience. In some cases, multiple baptisms are included.

    I realized much later in life that all of this really wasn’t much different than what led to The Reformation in the first place.

    • I’d say, you “nailed it!” That’s the problem with the conversionist paradigm, looking to faith in Jesus, plus something else. If we put any trust in that something else, we are not trusting in Christ alone.

  8. I definitely focus on the fact that God chose/saved me but I also marvel at the When; as I cannot remember a time when I didn’t believe. One of my earliest and truly-cognitive memories of faith was when I started Kindergarten at Lutheran school in 1973. I’m sure I believed before that. I heard the word preached in church and the work of the Holy Spirit converted me as a wee tyke. Praise God!

  9. The numerous adult conversions in Acts make the conversionist paradigm experientially plausible to many Christians.

    • What such people fail to realize is that the Word of God is authenticated by miraculous signs unique to the ministry of the Apostles. The miraculous signs that confirmed the Apostles, as those chosen by God to give us His Word, are no longer needed since the Scripture is complete. The really alarming aspect of this idea that I can have my own personal word from God, my own miracle, and my own personal unmediated encounter with the risen Lord is that it leads to personal, subjective experience providing the authority for the faith in place of the objective, ordained means that God has given us in the Word and sacraments. Then that still, small voice has just as much authority as the letters of Paul or the Gospels. This traces its origins to Pietism which puts personal subjective experience on an equal,or even higher level, with with the ordained means of grace of God’s Word and sacrament. That in time leads to abandoning the Reformed, confessional faith in favor of subjectivism. That is why Pietism gives birth to both Liberalism and conversionism because in both of these versions of Christianity, the faith is all about me, my subjective opinion and what I have experienced.

    • Hi Angela. I’m just saying many Christians come to the conversionist paradigm honestly through the stories in Acts. And many of them, even if they don’t understand the unique place of Apostolic age miracles in redemptive history, are sophisticated enough to recognize that personal unmediated encounters with Christ were unique and not to be repeated. They still see the conversionist paradigm in the more ordinary crisis conversions of people like the Ethiopian eunuch, Dionysius and Damaris, and the Philippian jailor.

    • The Philippine jailor’s conversion involved a miraculous sign confirming that the Apostles were sent by God, so that falls under the unique category of Apostolic age signs. The Eunuch and Dionysius and Damaris came to faith by following the Word preached by the Apostles, in a very ordinary, noncrisis way, by the means of grace, as we do today. We are not told exactly when they believed, so I would argue that none of these examples can be used to support crisis conversionism. I find that many who want to pinpoint the exact time of their conversion are likely to use Paul as a model. They look to a moment in time when there was a decision or strong emotions as proof that they are born again. The problem is that they are looking to their experience for assurance rather than trusting in Christ alone. That is the problem with what Fries is preaching, that not only must you have a crisis conversion, but you should doubt your salvation if you can’t remember when you came to faith. That transfers trust to an event and a time rather than trusting in Christ alone.

    • Matthew, thank you for your kind comment. It really gets me going when people want to add to the gospel of salvation by grace alone, through faith alone in Christ alone. The Heidelberg Catechism expresses the gospel so well in #60 and #61: “God, without any merit of my own, out of mere grace imputes to me the perfect satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ…if only I accept this gift with a believing heart…I can receive this righteousness and make it my own by faith alone.” Conversionism, makes the gospel conditional on experience, and so denies grace alone, as we see in the quote from from Fries. It also robs God of his full glory in our salvation. I believe it can lead people to believe in a false gospel of Christ plus my experience.

  10. Dr. Clark, we can’t blame it all on Charles Finney (not that you do). Some of the Puritans were sure that a real Christian could tell, not only exactly when he was saved, but by what steps adn stages it occurred. At least some New England churches required the ability to recite this as a condition of church membership.

    • Pietism is the basis of conversionism. A desire for my personal experience with the risen Lord rather than trust in the Word of God and the sacraments as personal confirmation of God’s favor, as assurance of salvation. The focus then is on the experience as the basis of our hope, rather than Christ as He is revealed by the ordained means of Word and sacrament! “Oh foolish Galatians, who has bewitched you, having begun in the Spirit, are you made perfect in the flesh?”

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