“When did you become a Christian?” For years, I dreaded being asked this question. Admitting uncertainty never felt like a satisfactory answer. I thought it necessary yet found it impossible in my case to pinpoint even a small timeframe of my conversion in order to conform to American evangelicalism’s deeply held assumptions about conversion experiences.

Generally speaking, there are two categories of conversion experiences recounted today. The first category consists of those who were reared in the Christian religion and confess to have believed so early on that they cannot remember a time when they were not believers. The second category consists of those who heard the gospel and experienced the effects of regeneration later in life. These two categories—though they are perhaps the most common—do not make up the sum total of the way in which people experience conversion. Therefore, we must not insist that Christians conform their understanding of conversion neatly into one of these two categories. Rather, we must allow for diversity in the ways that people experience conversion.

Let’s consider a conversion that fits neither of the aforementioned categories. Joey was raised by churchgoing parents. Throughout his adolescent and young adult years, he had a number of conversion experiences, the latest of which took place in late high school. He’s unable to determine with any level of certainty which of those experiences constitute his real conversion. In fact, he’s even voiced the possibility of the Lord giving him faith more recently than his experience in high school. He’s reluctant to call any of these experiences his true conversion moment, because grievous sins befell him after each one. None of them was a definitive moment in which he no longer succumbed to the passions of his flesh. When Joey is asked, “When did you become a Christian?” his answer is, “I’m not sure.” As a prospective church member, Joey was pressed by a clergyman who was looking for a more definitive narrative of his conversion. Yet, in reality, Joey’s narrative closely resembles what many people experience with respect to believing in Christ.

To be sure, this isn’t to suggest that regeneration and conversion are a multistage work; on the contrary, within the ordo salutis (order of salvation), the events of effectual calling, regeneration, conversion, and justification happen simultaneously with respect to chronology (the ordo attempts to distinguish them logically). Rather, acknowledging diversity in conversion experiences is to recognize that the relationship between the reality of regeneration and its fruit in the experience of conversion is not always easy to parse. As such, it’s important to keep in mind the necessary distinction between conversion experiences and the events articulated in the ordo salutis. Our conversion as we recount it describes the way in which we experienced the effectual calling and regenerating work of the Holy Spirit from our perspective as humans. In fact, Dutch theologian Herman Bavinck argued that oftentimes, “it is not even possible to determine the time because conversion, arising as it does from the new life that has been implanted, occurs gradually.”1

To allow for diversity in conversion experiences is to acknowledge that the human perspective does not always align with the divine perspective; that is, how we experience conversion is different from how God performs the work of regeneration. This is even true, to some extent, of those who have had an acute experience of conversion to Christ, because our awareness is finite and our knowledge limited. What matters is not the time, form, or manner of the conversion experience but the substance and essence of the conversion.

There is not one kind of conversion experience for all elect, but there is but one Christ to whom all are converted and one instrument—faith—by which His righteousness is appropriated to sinners.

Why does this all matter? For some, this seems so obvious as to make this discussion unnecessary. Yet, I’d suggest that recognition of diversity in conversion experiences redirects Christian assurance to the true biblical marks of a Christian and most honors the God who converts sinners to Himself. I was once talking with a group of about thirty Christian men. In the course of our time together, I asked how many of them could locate the time of their conversion. Only one man raised his hand. Thereafter, I asked those who did not raise their hands to now do so if this uncertainty has ever rattled their assurance. Almost all of them raised their hands. This anecdotal case study exposes that, even among Reformed Christians, many of us have bought into the Pietistic and revivalistic idea that assurance of salvation depends on the validity of one’s conversion experience.

There’s a tale that is frequently told about a girl who walked the aisle at her church in response to an altar call. After the church service, her father took her to their backyard, where he instructed her to carve the date into an old tree, so that, whenever she was tempted to doubt her salvation, she could go to the backyard and gaze upon the numbers carved into the tree that marked the date of her conversion. This, the father suggested, would dispel her doubts.

While not altogether inappropriate, this method can provide only a minimal degree of assurance in both measure and longevity. Further, what about those who are unable to carve a date onto a tree because they cannot discern when they turned from unbelief to faith?

Scripture provides several tests to discern whether the faith we profess is genuine, but none involve the ability to recount a precise conversion experience with a clear time frame of the Spirit’s regenerating work. We do well not to insist that Christians conform their conversion to an extrabiblical mold that prohibits varieties of conversion experiences. Bavinck thought this was important: “Diversity in conversion is something we need to respect. We must accept the varied hidden and amazing leadings of the Holy Spirit.”2 God has revealed in His Word the substance of conversion, but there can be all sorts of differences in the form, manner, and time of how we experience conversion. Again, Bavinck was convinced that “what matters is not the time but the fact of [conversion].”3

Not every person needs a copy of their birth certificate to know that they have been born. There is much diversity in the manner and form in which sinners experience their conversion. There is not one kind of conversion experience for all elect, but there is but one Christ to whom all are converted and one instrument—faith—by which His righteousness is appropriated to sinners. This much we know, leaving the manner and form in which we experience our conversion to the amazing leadings of the Holy Spirit. We can’t control or even see the wind that blows, but we can marvel at it (John 3:8).

Editor’s Note: This post was first published on August 20, 2018.

  1. Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 4, Holy Spirit, the Church, and New Creation, ed. John Bolt, trans. John Vriend (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 2008), 162. ↩︎
  2. Ibid., 157. ↩︎
  3. Ibid., 162. ↩︎

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