Originally published on June 2014
What is Christian conversion? What does ‘becoming
a Christian’ mean? Is it God’s work, or is it human choice?
In 1978, heavy rains caused widespread flooding in Singapore and, when relief was still unexpected, the rains stopped. That evening, instead of floodwaters, fifty-five thousand people poured into the city’s largest public venue, and over the course of five dry days, three hundred thousand people attended the Singapore Billy Graham Crusade, and almost 1200 professed new faith in Christ. To many Christian observers, a providential event had taken place similar to what was recorded in Acts 2 when 3000 people “accepted [Peter’s] message [and] were baptized.” Meanwhile, scholars studying development in Singapore also noticed that the number of people identifying themselves as Christians was growing in tandem with rapid socio-economic progress. For example, data analyzed by the Economist Intelligence Unit concluded that Singapore had leapfrogged from 36th place in1988 to 6th place in 2013 on their list of The Best Countries ToBe Born In. At about the same time, the Straits Times reported that between 1920 and 2000, those who identified themselves as Christians had increased threefold and, in1990, almost 40% of those with university qualifications and a quarter of post-high school graduates professed themselves to be Christians. In China, as the real gross domestic product(GDP) propelled upwards by a factor of fifty with growth in per capita income doubling every decade since 1978, an impressive parallel upswing of over forty times in ProtestantChristianity also took place between 1950 and 2006. Something similar appears to have taken place in these countries.
Some observers consider these developments to bean encouraging affirmation of “God’s power for salvation to everyone who believes.” Indeed, Scripture provides a richly encouraging and soundly practical explanation for what‘ blessedness’ means. Together with evidence from history and the testimonies of God’s people, Scripture explains howChristians who put their trust in God experience a new transforming freedom that also reaps huge benefits for their communities and for many generations thereafter. However,I would suggest that not many Christians are clear about the relationship between the enviable socio-economic progress in places like Singapore and China and Christian faith. Indeed, those who seek are likely to find truths that are insightfully unsettling yet uplifting! More seriously, many Christians appear to lack a clear understanding about what ‘becoming aChristian’ really means, or why the Gospel is “God’s power for salvation.” The psychiatrist, Robert Jay Lifton, explains that the danger of this lack of understanding is particularly acute in fast-modernizing societies because the sense of whoa person is tends to become less clearly defined, progressively more fragile, and easily shaped by shifting views. Consequently, in their harried rush to attain a secure future amidst a competitive and challenging socio-economic environment, many Christians live as if their lives were nothing more than a human product. These Christians, by placing their trust in human wisdom; and depending on human strength and solutions that oppose Biblical ethical injunctions, wittingly or in ignorance, turn away from God.The tragedy of such a reality is that in Jeremiah 17, God says that such lives are not at all blessed because they lose the capacity to recognize true prosperity and goodness.
So, what is Christian conversion? What does ‘becoming a Christian’ mean? Is it God’s work, or is it human choice? Is it a dramatic emotional event that may fade as suddenly as it occurs? Is it the result of human persuasion ora response to community pressure? Is there a relationship between conversion and transformation, and between conversion and community? What difference does ‘becoming a Christian’ make for a person, his/her community, the world at large, and for generations to come? Gordon Smith, a theologian who examined what Christians believe about conversion, warns of a trend since the nineteenth century ofEvangelical Protestants who think of ‘becoming a Christian’ asa particular point-in-time human action or decision, and as an“easy and relatively pain free” personal subjective transaction to secure a new status and a place in heaven. He points out that, consequently, ‘church’ came to be regarded as “a dispenser of religious experiences and opportunities that I can take or leave to better meet my needs.” In 2011, a doctor of aesthetic reconstructive surgery illustrated an extreme and mistaken view of what ‘becoming a Christian’ means when he confessed that,
“I have been a ‘Christian’ for 20 years …
because it was fashionable … all my friends
were becoming ‘Christians’. I wanted to be
baptized so that [whenever] I filled in a form, I
could put there ‘Christian’. In truth, I never had
a Bible … I went to church for a while [then] I
got tired. I said it’s time to go to [university],
and to stop going to church. I had a lot more
things to pursue … girls, studies, sports, … After
all, I had achieved all these things without God
… so who needs God? I myself can achieve
anything I [wanted].”
The honest confession of this doctor and the warning of those like Gordon Smith urge us to take seriously the sobering declaration Jesus makes in the Gospels that,“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven…” Thankfully, Scripture records God’s reassurance many times over, such as in Isaiah 42:16, whereGod says “I will take the hand of those who don’t know the way, who can’t see where they’re going [and I will] be a personal guide to them … to show them what roads to take[and] make sure they don’t fall into the ditch.” With theseScriptural truths in mind and fortified by what I have discovered through careful examination of history and the testimony of those whose lives have been transformed inChrist, I close these reflections with an urgent and confident call to you, the reader, to be like the people of Berea, who were commended by the Apostle Paul because they investigated the Scriptures carefully to ascertain the truth for themselves.
Ms Eirene Wee was an executive advisor and a strategy development consultant to global corporations on market and organizational analysis, joint ventures, and issues related to leadership and succession. Prior to her work with OMF International, Eirene was Managing Partner of the POTTER Group and served as Asia Pacific Regional Director for Trans World Radio. She will teaching an intensive BGST course on Jul 11, 25- 26 called the Business of Conversion 1: Conversion & Transformation in Chinese Marketplaces at Emmanuel B-P Church.