Conversion, Church Planting, And The Due Use Of Ordinary Means

As a follow up to the recent post about the intersection between Acts 29, Mars Hill, and the PCA, someone sent a link to the application to be filled in/out on for the Spanish River Church Planting program. One of the questions on the first page of the application asks, “Year of your conversion.” Now, on the one hand, it might seem generous to ask about the year. That is a fairly broad span of time. Some groups might ask the day because, in the conversionist tradition, one is supposed to know and to be able to repeat exactly when one came to faith.

I have challenged the conversionist paradigm in couple of places. First, in 2017, I published an essay contrasting a Reformed reading of John 3:1–15 with the conversionist interpretation I learned as a young Christian. In 2020 I published a brief essay for The Gospel Coalition, What Is Conversion?, where, in the space allotted, I tried to articulate a classically Reformed view of conversion.

As the Reformed understand conversion, e.g., as it is characterized in the Heidelberg Catechism, conversion begins with the sovereign, gracious, regenerating (renewing) work of the Holy Spirit but it includes more than that. According to our Lord Jesus, as he taught Nicodemus, we do not know when the Spirit has mysteriously granted new life and we certainly cannot control the Spirit. He is not a power to be dispensed by the church at the discretion of her ministers (contra Rome). Jesus said, “You know not from where it comes or where it goes” (John 3:8). The conversionist thinks he knows whence it comes, when it comes, and the sacerdotalist thinks he knows where it goes.

Extra Ecclesiam Nulla Salus Est

In the classical, confessional Reformed understanding of regeneration and conversion it may be that one was unregenerate and then is brought to new life in such a way that he is able to say where and when he came to faith. Things are not always as clear at that, however. I was not, as far as I can say, a believer until I was about 15 or 16. I remember beginning to come to faith at age 15 but I could not say exactly when or where I came to faith. It seems presumptuous for me to say when and where exactly the Holy Spirit brought me to new life. Things become even more complicated when we begin thinking about the place of the visible church in determining when one is a believer. In that period I became very active in a Southern Baptist congregation. They brought me forward to give my testimony before the congregation. I was active in the youth group, Sunday School, and in Campus Life, and in a Bible Study at my high school I did not make a formal profession of faith in a congregation until 1980 or 1981. I was baptized as an infant by an LCMS minister while I was in what today would be called a NICU. It was expected that I would not live very long. I suppose I was enrolled as a member in that congregation. I do not know but I was never catechized and I was never re-baptized.

Though my Baptist congregation, which I never joined, and my Christian friends with whom I fellowshipped for several years, regarded me as a believer from an ecclesiastical perspective, however, it might be fairly said that I was outside the faith since I was outside the visible church. I did not make formal profession of faith in a congregation until until I did so at St John’s Reformed c. 1981. Belgic Confession art. 28 says “there is no salvation” outside from the visible church. Obviously, an explanation of this length and complexity will not fit in the box provided in the church planting application.

What About Covenant Children?

A second question occurred to me as I considered the question on the form: what about covenant children. The Reformed understand of conversion is that it is essentially a mystery. The Holy Spirit grants new life and sweetly renews the human intellect, affections, and will so as to do no damage to their integrity. We are still thinking, loving, and willing or choosing. As a Baptist I sang “Just As I Am” many times and I felt the pressure to come forward to the anxious bench and to be re-baptized but no one held a gun to my held or otherwise tried to force me to act against my will. Indeed, it, in that context, the human will was said to be virtually sovereign so that even God was depending on me to exercise my free will.

The conversionist and the sacerdotalist views coalesce. Both of them make conversion the result of a mechanical process. The Finney-inspired conversionist approach sees conversion as the likely outcome of the correct music and a sufficiently moving sermon and invitation. The sacerdotalist approach sees conversion as the necessary result of the application of the waters of baptism. For the sacerdotalist, the sacrament is said necessarily to confer new life and justification by virtue of its use (ex opere operato).

In the Reformed view, God the Spirit is said to operate freely, sovereignly through the preaching of the gospel (see Romans 10) to bring new life to the elect when and where he pleases. We pray daily that he does it whenever and wherever the gospel is preached. We pray that the Spirit will fill the churches with people from every tribe, tongue, and nation (Rev 5:9), until they burst.

We regularly see covenant children recognized by baptism as members of the covenant of grace, catechized, nurtured prayerfully, who make a credible profession of faith, who received joyfully at the communion table, who have no memory of except that of believing. This is a wonderful gift of God: to have always known the Savior from one’s earliest moment of life. When did the Spirit confer new life? Who can say? What we know is that this covenant child has always given every evidence of being regenerated by the Spirit and has made a credible profession of faith. What a joy this is and it happens all the time in our churches.

I might be able to guess at the year I was regenerated (God was faithful to the sign I received as an infant) but how is a child of the covenant of grace, who, as far as he knows, always known the Lord, to fill in the box on the application? Such a person would seem to be excluded from being a church planter because he cannot complete even the first page of the application?

The Due Use Of Ordinary Means

The question is well intended but it seems to assume a paradigm that is closer to the conversionist paradigm than one closer to the Reformed understanding of conversion. The form would better ask different questions:

  1. Do you believe?
  2. When did you make a credible profession of faith before a session or consistory?
  3. Are are you currently a member in good standing of a confessional Presbyterian or Reformed congregation?

These sorts of questions allow the mystery of conversion to remain a mystery. It is not our business when or exactly where the Spirit did his wonderful work of raising one from spiritual death to spiritual life (Eph 2:1–4). That belongs to the Holy Spirit. What matters to the church and to its assemblies is whether one has been brought to new life and whether one can make a credible profession of faith.

From a conversionist perspective this approach might seem like a recipe for nominalism but consider this: is not nominalism an equally great concern in conversionist circles? How many false conversions have occurred at “revivals”? The church rolls of more than a few conversionist congregations have been known to be inflated with the names of nominal “converts.” What if the desire to know when someone was “converted” is really an indicator of an unhealthy desire to know things we cannot know (which I have characterized as the Quest for Illegitimate Religious Certainty or QIRC)?

The real question is the nature of conversion, the divine institution of the means of grace (on which Calvin spent two books in his Institutes), and the nature and function of the visible church.  What has God said about the nature of conversion? Is not the point of Jesus’ comments to Nicodemus that we must be given new life from above and that only the Spirit can do and when and where he does so is a mystery?

Several years ago some former students of mine had a podcast focusing on “ordinary means of grace ministry.” It was a great idea but it struck me as odd that an “ordinary means” approach to ministry and mission should be just a sub-set among the Reformed. Is it not the Reformed approach ministry and mission? After all, the expression “due use of ordinary means” comes from Westminster Confession 1.7. The Canons of Dort, the Belgic Confession, and the Heidelberg Catechism speak explicitly to the use of the means of grace in conversion. A means of grace ministry is not a boutique approach to ministry.

Are not church planters being sent out to conduct and ordinary means ministry by preaching the law and the gospel, by administering the sacrament of baptism to believers and their children and the Lord’s Supper to those who have made a credible profession of faith before the elders, and by prayer? When we pray that someone would come to faith do we not pray that God the Spirit would do it by making use of the Word gospel heard and preached?

We must not be indifferent to the state of the souls of sinners but we must prayerfully trust them to the mysterious, special, sovereign providence of our gracious God who has ordained both the end and the means.

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.


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One comment

  1. I had a quick look at the Spanish River web-site. I was intrigued to discover that one of the UK church plants that they support is being led by a friend of mine. This plant is being conducted under the auspices of a Confessional Presbyterian denomination — a fact that is not hinted at in the Spanish River web-site, though there is a link to the congregation’s own web-site, which would reveal this. Moreover, the denomination in question stands in direct inheritance of the legacy of Thomas Chalmers and his model of church extension founded on the roles of Presbytery, Kirk Session and Deacons’ Court. There are aspects of this that make me ponder.

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