Are You Really Born Again?
“Christianization or Conversion?”
John said he still believed in Jesus. He told me he became a Christian at a church camp when he was twelve. He was baptized and began attending church services at least twice a week. In his college years he “slacked off,” but after he got married he and his wife regularly attended church together. Everything appeared to be in place spiritually; he had even considered the possibility of going into the ministry. He had few doubts and lived a clean life. His performance appeared to indicate he was an exemplary Christian. However, one day he got tired of it and “quit” being a Christian. He did not take up another religion—he simply dropped out. When we met later at a memorial service, John told me he felt better now that he was away from the church, even though he knew his wife and family were praying for him. John had conformed to standards of Christian belief and behavior but he had never understood that he was guilty before God because of his sin, so he felt no need to trust in Jesus as his Savior. He thought highly of Jesus as a great spiritual teacher, but he was not converted.
José, from San Jose, glared at me from behind the bars of his San Quentin prison cell. He did not want a Bible from me. He had been given one while he was at the San Francisco County Jail. José had been raised in the Roman Catholic Church but he claimed to have been “baptized in the Spirit” as a teenager at a big church in Los Angeles. At the age of thirty-five he was serving a “three strikes” sentence (in California, any third conviction for a serious offender means a mandatory sentence of twenty-five years to life) and wondered what had happened to his Christianity. After talking with José for an hour or so, I realized what his problem was: he had no idea why Jesus died on the cross, and he had no sense of forgiveness. Moreover, he did not pray or read his Bible, he refused to attend the worship services at the chapel, and he looked down on those convicts who claimed to be Christians—yet he claimed to have received “the baptism of the Spirit.” José had been Christianized; he had been tricked.
Right next to José’s cell was that of Mike from Oakland. Younger than José by a dozen years, he had been in lockups for twelve years and had just “graduated” to San Quentin. Raised in a Baptist church, he had been immersed in the baptismal tank at the age of five, sang in the choir from the age of six, and began preaching when he was nine. At seventeen he was in the California Youth Authority. At the age of twenty-five he converted to the Nation of Islam. I asked Mike: “Were you really a Christian in the first place?” He said, “Come on, man, don’t talk like that! I just told you all I did in church.” Mike had no conversion experience though—that is, he neither expressed a sense of needing to be forgiven nor of needing a Savior. The way he put it was that he always believed. Mike, my conviction was, had been very heavily Christianized, and when that wore off, he was open for something else to take its place.
I met Sherie when she attended a divorce recovery workshop I hosted. Her second marriage had failed, and a friend had suggested she come to the workshop. During the course of the workshop I spent several hours talking with her. After the failure of her first marriage, some friends came to her rescue and helped her put the pieces of her life back together; she accompanied them to their church. She said she had been a committed Christian from the moment she was “saved.” She had even led worship in a charismatic church and had been involved in ministry at a local jail. Several years later she met a non-Christian, fell in love, married, and abruptly left the church and her Christianity behind, shocking and disappointing her Christian friends. She was very aware, however, of what had happened to her—she simply embraced the lifestyle and philosophy of her rescuers. She thought she was Christian because she did all the right things, said the right things, and strongly “believed.” But she gradually lost interest, and her new marriage gave her an excuse to leave the church.
Bob, whom I met while officiating at a wedding, was a typical middle-class, church-going American. He told me, and I summarize: “I’m a baptized member of a Christ-centered church, and I’ve prayed to receive Jesus many times, and I’ve rededicated my life many times. I’ve been through discipleship classes, I’ve submitted to the lordship of Christ, and you could say my life was in order. But why don’t I feel like a Christian? Why don’t I believe like a Christian? Why don’t I enjoy being a Christian?”
Gladys made a decision to become a follower of Jesus in 1975. She became convinced that Jesus rose from the dead and would return to take her to heaven. As a student at a liberal arts college, she embraced an evolutionary theory that suggested there was no need for God and that men invented religion in order to make sense of life and bring order to society. After a failed romance, she began studying eastern religions. She soon tired of that and took up reading the Bible and other Christian literature. She was looking for proofs that God was real, and after exploring Christian apologetic material, Gladys became convinced that Christianity was true. The Christian world-view, Gladys realized, was credible. Many intelligent people were Christians and the cultures spawned by Christianity the most substantial in the world. Christian art, history, music, architecture, and Christian rites and ceremonies were all viable and compelling to her. Also, at about the same time, she had found a church that provided a sense of belonging and community. Wanting to identify with her new friends on a deeper level, she openly declared that she had decided to believe in Jesus. Later, in 1980, she alternately attended two of America’s major Christian-based cults, being unable to make up her mind which was the true religion. In 1990 she packed up her religious books and took them to a charity; that was the year she decide she wasn’t a Christian after all.
During the forty years of my ministry, I have spoken with many people like John, José, Mike, Sherie, Bob, and Gladys. Often raised in the church, these people usually participated in the normal activities of a church, including baptism, membership classes, public statements of faith, and discipleship classes. Yet some did not continue as Christians, and others had no inner conviction they were Christians. Why? Because they were never converted in the first place!
The Dangers of Christianization
Many people think they are born-again Christians, when in fact they have merely been Christianized. To be infused with Christian principles, to participate in the normal activities of a church, is never the same as experiencing actual conversion. The false conversion that comes with Christianization may eventually cause people to look for something else to satisfy their spiritual hunger. Most often, however, people assume their Christianization is true conversion.
It may be thought that I have too high a view of conversion—meaning that I expect too much of a person who says he is a Christian. The argument is this: If a person is not an adherent of another religion or philosophy and is a good person who believes in God, Jesus, the Bible, attends church once in a while, and so on, isn’t that enough? I admit that many inside and outside Christian circles would say that it is enough. But when we look at what it means to be a Christian in the Scriptures, it is apparent that it is not enough. True Christianity generally begins with a conviction that sin has separated us from God and that Jesus Christ is Savior and Lord. Once God opens our eyes to this reality, we receive the new birth in a way and manner we do not control. The lifelong experience of growing up into the fullness of Jesus begins there. And although the believer is not perfect, there will still be some evidence of their new birth right from the beginning. This was certainly evident in those who were converted in Scripture—people like Matthew, Zacchaeus, Paul, and many others. There is life following a new birth; there is nothing when there is a stillbirth.
While growing up, I too was Christianized and did not understand the true message of the gospel. An illustration of this took place when I was applying for the air force. A section of the paperwork I had to fill out had to do with religious affiliation. I checked the box marked “Christian” and for denomination I put “Episcopalian.” As far as I understood, I was Christian. Since I was not Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, etc., I thought I that I must be a Christian. I had never been in an Episcopalian church, and I had no clue as to what an Episcopalian was. I had, however, read Vance Packard’s book The Status Seekers, and I had learned that the Episcopalian denomination was the most prestigious. Being a status-seeker myself, I became an “Episcopalian Christian” by checking a box.
I am not alone. In the USA we are born into a so-called “Christian culture.” I and my contemporaries grew up learning something about church, God, and the Bible—by osmosis at least. Many of us were baptized, became members of a church, and even attended Sunday school, especially when we were young. It only made sense that we were Christians. This is not so prevalent today, because many young people have little or no idea about church and Christianity. Perhaps it is clearer for young people now—they do not presume they are “Christian.” But it was not that way for me.
It is a common understanding among Christians that conversion occurs as a result of such things as coming forward in a church service and praying “the sinner’s prayer,” being baptized, joining a church, reciting a statement of faith, making a decision to believe in Jesus, or behaving like a Christian. In themselves, these things tend to Christianize rather than convert, and relying on then as proofs of conversion lacks any biblical authority. There are the exceptions, of course—God will do what he will do. He will convert people through all sorts of ways, but in our evangelism and preaching we must put into practice sound biblical methodology rather than relying on tradition and “what seems to work.”
The story of the Rev. William Haslam, an Anglican priest in the mid-eighteenth century in Cornwall, England, vividly illustrates this idea of Christianization. Born into the church, he was baptized, confirmed, and ordained. He met every requirement of the church—without being converted. His congregation in Cornwall knew that he was unconverted, and they began to pray for him. One day while preaching in his own church, he was converted.*
Those events took place long ago, but the same story is repeated in our own day. Why are so many people merely Christianized rather than converted? Why do so many people experience the form and not the substance? The answer lies in the fact that true biblical conversion is a mystery that men and women will never fully comprehend. Biblical conversion is accomplished by God alone; salvation belongs totally to God. We, however, are not content with this and so have invented means by which a person is supposed to be able to receive salvation. When people fulfill whatever is proffered as means of salvation, they are pronounced Christians. Men and women, by nature, seek acceptance and approval; most do not have a sense that salvation and the forgiveness of sin is the real issue. From a desire to belong, people will often do certain things, almost mindlessly, and what is actually taking place is that they are becoming Christianized or falsely converted.
Reaching Out to the Christianized
Christianization poses an exceptional problem for preachers, because people have been taught to rely on the prescribed recitations and rites of their churches for salvation rather than coming to Jesus for forgiveness and salvation. The preacher must challenge the façade of Christianization with conversion-oriented preaching.
It must be said that the unconverted do not like such preaching! They will often vigorously oppose what is, in fact, their only hope. In response to conversion-oriented preaching they may become angry, sometimes to the point of violence. They can only take so much preaching for conversion before they either go off looking for a “friendly” church that has a minister who delivers “positive messages,” or worse still, they attempt to stifle a conversion-oriented preacher by political maneuvering within the church. People who have been simply Christianized and not truly converted can become dangerous within a congregation. They can split churches, cause acrimonious dissension, and sometimes end the ministry of a conversion-oriented pastor.
It is not a pleasant task to awaken the “righteous.” The “righteous” do not respond to Jesus, but sinners will. Jesus found that to be so. Self-righteous Pharisees attacked Jesus, and he responded, “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinner sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:32).
Christianization is a powerful delusion. It results in people erroneously thinking that they are safely on their way to heaven. These lost “righteous” are, in the words of the Puritan preacher Jonathan Dickinson, “sleeping on the brink of hell.” The gospel preacher must wake them up! What is the alternative? Surely, one day the unconverted will hear Jesus say, “I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!” (Matt. 7:23).
*Evangelical Press and Earthen Vessel Publishing have jointely republished the account of Rev. Haslam’s conversion. From Death Into Life is the title of Haslam’s account of his conversion and the amazing events that followed.