Converting the Converted 

 

People learn the Truth, they are baptized, they are born again, and they begin spiritual life in some kind of contact with others who have been living the new life for years. For those without a Christian background, the feeling soon arises that things are not as they should be within this community they have joined; there is a sense that the fire which burns in their heart does not burn so strongly in the rest of the community they have joined. This is an extremely common feeling amongst newly baptized members, and I want to discuss it. It is in a way related to another problem which is faced by those brought up in the Faith: the problem that they don't feel like a convert, they only feel that in some ways they are living out parental and community expectation. From whatever background we came to the Faith, let's try not to bleat on about " Christians this, that...they don't..." ; for you yourself are a Christian! We're all in the one body together. And also, remember that if the Lord tarries, twenty years down the road the new converts will probably be saying the same about you.

The majority of our Community were brought up in an environment which breathed the doctrines of the Truth. Social friendships, relatives, the reading matter lying around the family home, girlfriends, husbands...everything breathed Christianity. Of course, this is just as things should be. But inevitably, after two or three generations of it, there are going to be problems. No wonder some psychologists have a field day with us! Some of them would look at us as people unable to really relate to the rest of the world, ignorant of what makes others tick, fearfully defensive and self-justifying, subconsciously living out parental expectations, hopelessly codependent...and getting worse and worse in all these ways.

It would be a blind believer who shrugged all this off as pure libel (" We must expect such persecution, brethren!" ). We must know that elements of this are true. Ask why it is that totally fresh converts to well-established churches increasingly don't seem to fit in, and you'll see a lot of head scratching. Suggest we go out door to door instead of bashing bills (and skating back down the path), and you'll have a church riot on your hands. The fact is, we find it increasingly difficult to relate to those we rub shoulders with in life.

Doctrine In Practice

Another aspect of the problem is the frightening lack of appreciation many seem to have of the basic doctrines of the Gospel. Do we know the Father and the Son? Do we relate with the Son, as we do with the Father (Jn. 5:23)? Are our prayers just words, or part of a real two-way relationship with God? Is our Bible reading God speaking to us, or just running our eyes over black print on white paper? When we pray, is it just one part of our brain talking to another part, a black box we call 'God'?

Israel's Indolence

Ours is not a new problem. Much of Scripture is concerned with how Israel fought- and largely lost- this battle with familiarity breeding contempt. They too clung on to their faith in God, and made some half-hearted testimony of it to the surrounding world. Yet the reality of their relationship with God slipped right away from them. Deep inside them, they felt that God was somehow in limbo; some day He would be an active God, but not now (Zeph. 1:5,12). " You only have I known, of all the families of the earth" , God encouraged them. Their response to this was two-fold. Some of them reacted right against it, by mixing with those other " families of the earth" as thoroughly as they knew how. Others went the other way; they cut themselves off from the world, revelling in their own traditions and the world's persecution of them, cocooning their children, defending their religion to the point that they became aggressive towards any who did not share their views- even within Jewry. The new Israel are faced with the same temptations.

Born Again

But there is a solution. Baptism into the Gospel of Christ creates a new man; it doesn't just ease the conscience of the Christian child. It is a new birth. We must perceive ourselves as being the new man inside us. Paul spoke of his new man as " I myself" (Rom. 7:25). The real spiritual 'us' is totally free from all the things the psychologists accuse us of suffering from: subconscious living out of parental expectation, peer pressure, self-perpetuation instinct. 'I'm being baptized into Christ, not a church, aren't I...?', I was nervously quizzed after one recent baptismal interview in Eastern Europe. Yes, absolutely! Whilst we are eternally grateful to those who taught us the doctrines of Truth, the effect of those doctrines should make us " free indeed" , with a freedom which the world cannot begin to imagine (Jn. 8:36). Our faith is a relationship with God, not a 'religion'. I has been pointed out that Jesus went out of His way not to found a religion; He gave no rituals, no special terminology. It was more of a personality cult based upon His own devotion to the spirituality of the Father; a movement to be followed first and foremost by individuals, whose only basis for collective gathering and existence was in order to articulate the love and grace which they had experienced. Our reward will be " a new name written, which no man knoweth saving he that receiveth it" (Rev. 2:17); our relationship with God now, and in the Kingdom, will in some ways be totally personal (1). Tragically, some who have realized the need for this relationship-based approach to our Faith have apparently not found it in our own community. They have therefore been attracted to other communities which have such an approach, but who lack the doctrinal basics which are the pre-requisite to any relationship with the Father and Son. Herein lies our challenge. We have those doctrinal basics. What we must do is dynamically apply them in our relationship with God.

" Awake!"

If we are properly converted, we ought to live in the same " newness of life" which we see in those who find the pearl of great price without a Christian background. Our ecclesias should have that spirit of urgency and spiritual reality seen in new ecclesias in the mission field. If at our 'conversion' and baptism we didn't feel like the man who suddenly finds treasure in a field, or the sparkling pearl of his dreams, if we don't feel Christ living in us, if we don't feel there is a two-way communication between us and God...perhaps we need another conversion. Not another baptism; but an awakening of the new man which was born again then, and has perhaps been lying dormant. Remember that there were some who believed in the first century, who were told by the Lord Himself that if they continued in His word, then they would be His disciples indeed, " and ye shall know the Truth, and the Truth shall make you free" (Jn. 8:31,32). 'Knowing the Truth' isn't just at our conversion and baptism. There are some stages more in 'knowing the Truth' and really becoming His " disciples indeed" . At baptism, we were " quickened together with Christ" (Col. 2:13). But Paul wrote to the baptized saints at Ephesus: " Awake thou that sleepest, and Christ shall give thee light" (Eph. 5:14). It is thought that Paul is quoting here from a first century baptism hymn; he is encouraging them to be as it were baptized again, spiritually, in coming to life in Christ. Note that the Ephesians were active in the outward work of the Truth (Rev. 2:2,3); but their real spiritual man was asleep.

Most of us can look back and recognize at least one re-conversion in our lives. If it has happened once, it can happen again. The natural man may complain that our spiritual life is sterile, based around a humdrum repetition of mental and behavioural constructs. Yet we must remember that around the corner may lie a completely new spiritual horizon; not a new faith, in doctrinal terms, let it be stressed. But a dynamically new relationship with God and His Son, the characteristics of which we cannot begin to imagine now- a new paradigm in some elements of our daily walk (2).

Harry, Job, Peter, Ephesus

We will not be the first to be 're-converted' after baptism. Many can testify to how they woke up spiritually quite some time after baptism. Harry Whittaker in Letters To George And Jenny relates how he bitterly reacted to his Christian background. The result: his re-conversion, to become (my words now!) Bible student and missionary extraordinaire of the 1900s. And Job came to realize: " I have heard of Thee by the hearing of the ear (as many of us did in cosy ecclesial halls); but now mine eye seeth Thee" (Job 42:5). To see God was something which Job, living in patriarchal times, must have previously thought impossible (Ex. 33:20); but now he had reached a new paradigm. Before his re-conversion, Job was aware of the basic tenets of the One Faith, e.g. resurrection and judgment at the last day. His belief that there was a reward for righteousness led him to puzzle over why he certainly wasn't receiving it in this life. As his intellectual and physical agony increased, he was driven to grasp hold of the reality of those basic doctrines which he was already aware of. There really would be a judgment, an open manifestation of God's justice on earth, and the open relationship with God which his soul longed for. Living broadly contemporary with Abraham, he would have been aware of his description of himself as merely dust and ashes (Gen. 18:27). Yet Job was brought to realize that “I am become like dust and ashes” (Job 30:19). He always had been; but now he realized the desperation inherent in his nature. He clothes himself in ashes to mourn his material losses at the beginning of the book; but at the end, he does this again, as a sign of his repentance for his general sinfulness and weakness.

Or take Peter. He must have seemed a good convert, in many ways. But for him, the true meaning of agape love was unknown. " When thou art converted, strengthen thy brethren" , Christ challenged him. He had to be re-converted, to know the love of Christ that passes human knowledge. And then- " strengthen thy brethren" . The re-converted person will inevitably and unconsciously communicate their 'knowing' of Christ to others. We can " convert" our brethren within the ecclesia (James 5:20). This is but one example of the language of preaching being used about our 'preaching' of the word to those within the ecclesia (3).

Or the believers at Ephesus. " Many that were now believers" there (RSV) " came and confessed and shewed their deeds. Many of them also which used curious arts brought their books together, and burned them before all men...so mightily grew the word of God, and prevailed" (Acts 19:18,19). The language here seems to be intended to connect with the description of baptism in Mt. 3:6, where converts confessed and shewed their deeds at baptism. The way the Ephesians made their statement " before all men" again recalls the concept of baptism as a public declaration. Yet the Ephesians did all this after they had believed. It would seem that we are being invited to consider this as a re-conversion, a step up the ladder. The context is significant. Some who had pretended to be believers and to have the Holy Spirit are revealed for who they are: " they fled out of that house naked and wounded. And this was known to all...dwelling at Ephesus. And fear fell on them all, and the name of the Lord Jesus was magnified" . The fact that the Lord Jesus is so essentially demanding, the way in which ultimately He will judge insincere profession of His Name- this motivated the new Ephesian converts to take their relationship with Him seriously (compare how the Lord's slaying of Ananias and Sapphira also inspired a great desire to associate with Him, Acts 5:l1-14).

The gradient of our spiritual growth curve will not be even. We may go through several conversions, as rungs up a ladder, in the course of our spiritual life. They may be occasioned by intense physical trial, as in Job's case, or by reflection on our sinfulness, as for Peter and David. The fact we still have rungs of the ladder to ascend does not mean that we are necessarily sinful, or displeasing to God. After all, a Father isn't angry with his child for only being 5 years old. Lack of growth is a cause for concern, not anger.

Even Christ...

Our Lord Jesus seems to have gone through stages of progressive humbling of himself, rungs up (down) the ladder, before He was made perfect (complete) by His sufferings (Heb. 2:10): Christ

1. " Made himself of no reputation, and

2. took upon Him the form of a servant, and

3. was made (Gk. 'made himself') in the likeness of men: and...

4. He humbled himself, and

5. became obedient unto death" (Phil. 2:7,8).

The repeated use of the word " and" seems to imply a series of stages. In our Lord's progression towards that ultimate height, of laying down his life for others, we see our ultimate prototype. He stepped progressively downwards in the flesh, that He might climb upwards in the Spirit. This is why we remember His death upon the cross in this bread and wine. As He hung there, He was the summation of all the spiritual growth that had occurred in His life.

The Conversion Of Christ

It seems to me that so often in His teaching, the Lord was speaking to and about Himself. We understand from Phil. 2:8 that on the cross, the Lord "humbled himself". He used just those words in speaking of how the greatest in the Kingdom, the one who would be the most highly exalted (and He surely had Himself in view) was the one who would be the most servile in this life. His references to becoming as a servant He therefore spoke partly as exhortation to Himself (Mt. 18:4; 23:12; Lk. 14:11; 18:14). The Mt. 18:4 reference speaks of humbling oneself in terms of being converted and becoming like a little child. This was lived out by the Lord in His life and ultimately in His acceptance of the death of the cross. Yet this is what "conversion" is essentially about. In the same way as the Lord Jesus Himself had to be "converted" even at the very end of His life, to accept the awfulness of the crucifixion with an almost child-like simplicity (in some ways- e.g. His silence when surrounded by evil accusers, just like "the child in the midst"), so we too will pass through stages of 'conversion'. Note in passing that the same idea of the humble being exalted is used by the Lord in Lk. 18:14 with reference to how the humble man recognizes His own sinfulness. Whilst the Lord was sinless, perhaps part of His humiliation and taking on a servant-form involved His acceptance of the full horror of sin, and His willingness to bear it for our sakes.

There are certain similarities between the cross and the judgment seat, which we will not detail now. When we meet Christ then, the summation of our spiritual lives will be presented before God. If we are trusting in our own strength, that thought should worry us. Our own strivings and development are just inadequate. We could have done more, and better. We know that the weakness of our own natures is not a good enough excuse for our lack of development, our spiritual laziness. For that is what it is. The only way out is through Christ. We are really in Him, God looks at us as if we are as perfect, as spiritually developed and completed, as the Lord Jesus. As the bread and wine becomes part of us, Christ really is in us, and we in Him. The end result of all His spiritual development, His uphill struggles, is now truly shared with us. In the great day of account, that is how God will look upon us; as sharing the spiritual maturity and perfection, in every sense, of that Man who lived and died for us.

And so in the end, our baptisms were but a beginning. A very small one at that. James and John thought they could live the life of identity with Christ and deserve a great reward in the end. But the Lord asked them if they could really be baptized with His baptism. They had, presumably, been baptized by John already. But He tells them that the essential baptism is the life of painful identity with Him. And He tells them that He Himself, who had been baptized in water, had a baptism to be baptized with, that pained Him till it be realized. There is water baptism, and then there is the life of baptism, of dying daily with the Lord, as Paul put it. It may be that this is the simple meaning of the difference between birth / baptism of water and birth / baptism of the Spirit. The literal baptism must be followed by the spiritual baptism, i.e. the life of identification with the death and victory of the Lord in whom we live and move and have our spiritual being.


Notes

(1) Compare the engraving on the stone " which no man knoweth" with the Urim and Thummim stones; the engraving upon them would not have been known to anyone except the High Priest, who perhaps saw them once per year in the Most Holy. Rev. 2:17 earlier speaks of the " hidden manna" , hidden in the Most Holy. It would fit the context if the " white stone" refers to the Urim and Thummim. Alternatively, the reference may be to the " white stone" of the tables of the covenant. The new name written upon them would then connect with the covenant which God writes on the believer's heart as part of the new covenant: " I will put my law in their inward (cp. " hidden" ) parts, and write it on their hearts" (Jer. 31:33; 2 Cor. 3:3). Whilst the terms of the covenant are the same for each believer, the personal promise of the Kingdom is something which no other person can enter into. So we should never be 'bored' with hearing talks about the basic Gospel, the promises which comprise that covenant.

(2) A 'paradigm' refers to a way of understanding and approach which is exclusive of other paradigms. In passing, honest philosophers of science admit that the evolutionist paradigm could just as easily be overthrown by the Creationist.

(3) For more examples of this, see James p.131.