“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.”
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.