Are You Really Born Again?
No subject is more important to consider than conversion, because we will all die sooner or later, and then we will face judgment.
CONVERSION BEGINS WITH GOD
Conversion comes after some kind of presentation of the message of the gospel of Jesus Christ is made. This presentation could be through the spoken word (such as preaching), or through television, film, drama, music, tract, audiotape, video, book, Bible, etc. Somehow the message of the gospel comes to a person. He may be seeking the kingdom of God; he may be simply curious; or he may just be at the right place at the right time. He may be tormented and grief-stricken or be joyful and self-satisfied. Nevertheless, the message of the gospel comes to the person’s attention. Paul wrote, “Faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ” (Romans. 10:17).
When I heard Robert D. Lewis preach about Jesus at the First Baptist Church in Fairfield, California, I knew nothing of the gospel. Worse, what I thought I knew was inaccurate. Nothing Christian made sense to me—not the Bible, not the words of hymns, and especially not the preaching. However, one truth eventually got through to me: I was a sinner who was far away from God. It made be both angry and sad—I was convinced I was lost! The realization that I was lost came from God’s Holy Spirit because it is the Holy Spirit who convicts us of sin (John 16:8). This was not an idea I would naturally (or easily) embrace about myself. The fact is I was quite confident as a young man and not anxious or full of guilt.
The unconverted are not usually troubled about their sin. Rather sin may be unnoticed, excused, redefined, and/or defended. It must be so, for who would easily own up to it? The unconverted person may recognize his destructive behavior towards himself or others, but he is unlikely to think of his sin as a violation of God’s law and an offence to a holy and righteous Judge unless the Holy Spirit shows that to him.
The second truth the Holy Spirit revealed to me was that Jesus is the Savior.
In both instances (the revelation that I was lost and the revelation that Jesus is the Savior) nothing spectacular happened. There was no voice from heaven; there were no observable phenomena of any kind. Nor were there any unusual or overwhelming feelings. There may indeed be feelings and emotions involved, but generally the convicting work of the Spirit is thoughtful, imaginative, and spiritual—a conflict of wills. Spiritual conviction is stronger than anything external could be; it is inescapable, compelling and gripping.
For the first time in my life I saw my need, and at the same time my attention was riveted on Jesus. I cannot explain how this happened; I only know it did. My conversion followed what might be called a classical conversion pattern, and I have witnessed the same in many other people. One thing is clear: I did not figure anything out about Jesus on my own. Jesus said, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” (John 6:44; see also Matt. 16:17; John 16:14-15; Acts 16:14; Galatians. 1:15-16). I was drawn to Jesus, but I did not understand it at all.
The Holy Spirit reveals to us both our own lost condition and that Jesus is the Savior. The following are biblical references that support these truths. Paul wrote, “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Corinthians. 1:18). Paul went on to say, “The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned” (1Cor. 2:14).
Not only are we unable (due to our fallen condition) to know the truth of the gospel but we are also under the influence of the enemy, the devil. Paul writes, “The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Corinthians. 4:4). The unconverted person faces a hopeless situation given the forces that are marshaled against him. Although he may be acquainted with religious philosophies and theologies, he is blind to the message of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
A key passage on conversion is found in John 3. Jesus told Nicodemus, an esteemed religious leader, that “no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again” (John 3:3). This made no sense to Nicodemus. How could a grown man be reborn? Jesus did not explain how. He said that rebirth is beyond human control: “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit” (John 3:8). Nicodemus practiced his religion very carefully and with great reward from his peers. He did everything he thought was required of him. However, he could not, by his own volition, cause himself to be born again; he could not give spiritual birth to himself. Only God, the Father, gives new birth.
After the Holy Spirit of God has convicted us of our sin and revealed Jesus to us as the one who saves us from sin and its terrible penalty, we must come to Jesus for cleansing from sin; we must come to Jesus exclusively and trust him for forgiveness. We must come to the risen Savior, who shed his blood for us on the cross, and throw ourselves upon God’s mercy. Out of the Father’s great love for us, he sent his unique, eternal Son to this earth. God the Son became flesh, became a man, and lived among us. God the Father sent his Son to die on the cross in fulfillment of the prophecies of Scripture, and placed upon him all our sin. Jesus was the perfect sacrifice, because he was holy and pure and without sin.
HOW DOES AN UNCONVERTED PERSON COME TO JESUS?
I do not want to suggest a “method” for conversion, but since Jesus is the living, resurrected Lord, we can have a relationship with him. We can come to Jesus in prayer, confessing and repenting of our sin. We can come to Jesus for his mercy. We can come to Jesus to have our sin covered by his blood. We can come to Jesus. We can talk to Jesus. We can ask Jesus to save us. We can come to Jesus through prayer—not a special prayer, not through a particular set of words that can be written down or recited—just through talking to Jesus about what is on our heart.
Jesus died in the place of sinners; the blood of Jesus cleanses us from all our sins, however awful they may be. Biblical faith, which is trust in Jesus alone, is not derived from any work or action that we can do. Faith means trusting and relying exclusively on Jesus and what he accomplished on the cross. But saving faith is impossible without the enabling work of the Holy Spirit. In Acts 13:48 it is written that “all who were appointed for eternal life believed.” To believe in Jesus is to come to him for salvation. Faith is not an idea, notion, wish, hope, doctrine or theology about Jesus. Biblical faith is trusting that only Jesus can and will save us, and we are given this saving faith.
Jesus declared, “All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away” (John 6:37). Whoever comes to Jesus is given to Jesus by the Father. First, there is God’s work; then, by the enabling of the Holy Spirit, a person trusts in Jesus for salvation. It is clear that no one initiates a move toward God out of his own will. No mechanism or set way is given as to how a person comes to Jesus. Instead, there is that gap that I referred to as a mystery in the previous chapter. Only God knows the mystery of how a person comes to Jesus. When someone does come to Jesus, however, he or she is converted and freely receives forgiveness of sin and everlasting life.
Over the years I have noticed that when the Scripture is silent on some point, it is for a reason. If we knew the method by which conversion occurred, we would surely attempt to control it; we would add to it; we would corrupt it. Salvation belongs to God; it is his work. Yes, a person comes to Jesus and is wonderfully and mysteriously converted. The Holy Spirit brings a person to Jesus in a way we do not understand.
People are converted in many different ways. One person who recognized his lost condition and was seeking salvation was converted when he read about the substitutionary death of Jesus on the cross in a booklet by Charles Stanley. Another person, having been merely Christianized for many years and being entirely miserable, was converted instantly during a sermon on the living, resurrected Christ. I know of one person who was converted while singing one of Charles Wesley’s hymns.
During the First Great Awakening in America (between about 1735 and 1745) tens of thousands of people were converted without responding to any appeals to come forward or to pray a specific prayer. While John Wesley, George Whitefield, Gilbert Tennant, Jonathan Edwards and many others were actually preaching, people were being converted. There was loud groaning as people agonized over their sin; men and women fainted out of fear of having broken God’s law. In the case of Gilbert Tennant, it was common for people to be converted after his preaching—on their way home, lying in bed that evening, the next morning at breakfast, or later in the day while out plowing in the field. So it was in the great revivals and awakenings throughout history. So it is today.
Any person who is convicted of his sin and sees Jesus as the remedy for his sin can come, by the power of the Holy Spirit, to Jesus. Acts 16:31 is a clear declaration of the gospel: “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your household.” That was the answer Paul and Silas gave to the Philippian jailer’s question, “What must I do to be saved?” So, what did the jailer do? Like does not tell us. The jailer was baptized, but the act of baptism does not save. Baptism follows conversion; it does not produce it! The fact is, there is no mechanism, there is no sinner’s prayer, no coming forward, no testimony, no work at all. The jailer had heard the testimony of Paul and Silas. The Holy Spirit convinced the jailer of his desperate need and revealed Jesus to him as Savior. That is how Jesus said it would be. The jailer was converted and we are not told how; he was simply commanded to believe in the Lord Jesus for salvation—and he did.
Instead of preaching for true conversions, many preachers have resorted to gimmicks such as church-growth techniques, how-to fifteen minute sermons, and forms of feel-good entertainment to get “seekers” into the pews. Rarely do we find preaching for true conversion. One reason for this may be that many pastors have discarded the doctrine of hell and have become blind to the possibility that their parishioners may be heading there. I believe many conversion-oriented preachers resort to unbiblical methods to effect conversion, such as the sinner’s prayer, because these methods have become the tradition in many evangelical churches.
In the days of Solomon Stoddard’s “half-way covenant,” people were baptized, admitted into church membership, and even ordained as ministers despite the fact that they were unconverted. We face the same problem today. Therefore, we need preachers with the boldness of Jonathan Edwards (the grandson and successor to Stoddard at the First Church in Northampton, Massachusetts) to preach the necessity of true conversion. If we do not preach for true conversion, unconverted people in our churches will one day hear Jesus say, “I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!”