Friday, June 9, 2017

Book Review: Conversion

Conversion: How God Creates a People. Michael Lawrence. 2017. Crossway. 144 pages. [Source: Review copy]

First sentence from chapter one: In the introduction, I mentioned my friend who was concerned that his well-mannered adult children weren’t really Christians. You might say they were nice, but not new—not new creations. His experience raises questions about the doctrine of conversion, as well as what that doctrine should look like in the life of a church. It’s crucial to get both our doctrine and our practices right. Churches should believe that God makes people radically new, not just nice, through conversion. But they should be able not only to write this out on paper, but also to live it out. What does that look like? In two of the most important passages in Scripture for understanding conversion, both the prophet Ezekiel and Jesus help us answer that question.

Premise/plot: Michael Lawrence's newest book is on the doctrine of conversion. But it's not dry theology--far from it. As he argues in his book, our doctrine of conversion has practical implications. Our doctrine of conversion influences not only how we live our lives daily in our families but also communally in our churches and neighborhoods. Lawrence's main point--one of them anyway--is that Christians can have the "right" the "proper" definition of conversion in their minds, as part of their creed. BUT if this doctrine isn't lived out, isn't experienced, doesn't change our relationships then something is very wrong. Doctrines are to be applied. And our doctrine of conversion is essential for helping the church do church.

Essentially in his book, Lawrence does two things. First, he unpacks the doctrine of conversion. He explains what it is and what it isn't. Being a new creation, being born again, isn't becoming nicer or more moral. It is an act of God--a miracle. Second, he argues that a rightly held doctrine should be rightly applied in our churches, in our homes, in our neighborhoods. Our doctrine of conversion, of regeneration, is closely related to our doctrine of evangelism and missions. And if we hold contradictory doctrines, there's a big problem that we need to address and that we ultimately need to change! 

Lawrence in his own words, 
If conversion means that we are made new through the sovereign, saving work of God that results in a complete reorientation of our hearts in worship, what difference should that make? To begin with, it means that we are not healed therapeutically. Instead, we actually become holy. What does it mean that Christians are holy? It doesn’t mean that Christians are better than others. It doesn’t mean we can adopt a “holier-than-thou” attitude. It doesn’t mean that we’re rule keepers, whether those rules come from the fundamentalist right or the progressive left. Rather, a Christian is holy because he or she has been (1) set apart (2) to a new master (3) with a new love.
Lawrence challenges his readers to rethink how they understand and apply doctrine.

For example, Lawrence points out some of the signs on how to tell if we have been misapplying doctrine. If we've been accidentally teaching the doctrine of nice instead of the doctrine of rebirth.
  • We condemn the world’s sin more than our own. 
  • We put sins in a hierarchy, and tolerate some sins (especially our own) more than others. 
  • In church, we sing songs and pray prayers of praise, not songs and prayers of confession. 
  • We describe our own sins as “mistakes.” 
  • We use Bible stories to teach children to be good rather than to point them to a Savior: “Be like David” not “You need a new and better David, who is Christ.” 
In another chapter, Lawrence describes what a false convert looks like. He writes, "Often, it is someone who...

  • is excited about heaven, but bored by Christians and the local church; 
  • thinks heaven will be great, whether God is there or not; 
  • likes Jesus, but didn’t sign up for the rest—obedience, holiness, discipleship, suffering;
  • can’t tell the difference between obedience motivated by love and legalism; 
  • is bothered by other people’s sins more than his or her own; 
  • holds grace cheap and his own comfort costly. 
Throughout the book he covers essential topics: conversion, repentance, faith, grace, evangelism, God's wrath and justice, heaven and hell, salvation, assurance, discipleship, church and church discipline. 

Some of his definitions:
Evangelism is faithfully communicating an authoritative message from God. It is that message that warns us about our very real need, whether we feel it or not. It is that message that requires a very particular response. And it is that message that, remarkably, converts sinners like you and me by the power of the Holy Spirit. So the question to ask is not, how do we make the sale? It is, how can we communicate the message? The challenge is not technique, but faithfulness and clarity. The gospel has a definite content. The heart of the gospel is that Jesus died and rose again as a substitute for sinners, appeasing God’s just wrath and reconciling us to himself. When we advertise the felt-need benefits of the gospel and neglect the core content of the gospel, we’re not doing biblical evangelism but something less.
Repentance is not a feeling. Repentance is being convicted by the Holy Spirit of the sinfulness of our sin—not the badness of our deeds but the treachery of our hearts toward God. Repentance means hating what we formerly loved and served—our idols—and turning away from them. Repentance means turning to love God, whom we formerly hated, and serving him instead. It’s a new deepest loyalty of the heart. If repentance really is a change of worship, then our churches must not pressure people to make hasty, illconsidered “decisions” for Jesus, and then offer them quick assurance. Instead, we must call people to repent. When we separate repentance from conversion, either because we think it can come later or we fear scaring people off, we reduce conversion to bad feelings or moral resolve. Worse, we risk assuring a “convert” that he is right with God when in fact he is not. It’s almost like giving someone a vaccine against the gospel.
Christian faith is wholehearted trust that God will keep his promises in the gospel. Real faith leans, and depends, and follows, and works. True faith unites itself to a local church even as it unites itself to God. Genuine faith has three aspects to it. First, there’s knowledge. You can’t believe something you don’t know. Second, there’s agreement. It’s not enough to know the claim that Jesus lived, died as a substitute, and then rose from the dead. You have to agree with it. But third, there is also personal trust. It’s not enough to know and agree that chairs are for sitting. Faith means sitting down and trusting the chair with your weight.
His book is packed with truth that we need to hear and hear often. Some of my favorites:

  •  These days, there are lots of different kinds of nice. There’s the polite but detached tolerance of “live and let live” nice. There’s the socially conscious and politically engaged nice. There’s religious nice in many different denominational and faith-community forms. There’s “spiritual but not religious” nice. There’s even what’s known in my town as “Portland nice,” a sort of nonconfrontational, “let’s not make anyone feel uncomfortable, even though we’re silently judging and dismissing you in our minds” nice. But for all the different kinds of nice, the appeal of nice hasn’t changed much in the last two thousand years. To be a nice person, a good person, a person who’s becoming a better person, is to feel good about yourself. It’s that appeal of moral self-commendation that binds our modern variations together into a common religious program that Nicodemus would have recognized (see Luke 10:25–29). Nice allows you to commend yourself to others, and maybe even to God. Nice gives you the means of self-justification and the ability to vindicate your life to whoever is asking. That’s appealing. The appeal of nice is always based on three ideas: an optimistic view of human beings, a domesticated view of God, and a view of religion as a means of moral self-reform.
  • No churches ever explicitly teach the religion of nice. In fact, they typically teach the exact opposite. But those same churches are filled with people who believe that God will accept them based on how good they’ve been. I’ve heard it on too many living rooms couches and nursing home beds. Not perfect—no one ever says that—but good enough.
  • Perhaps the main way we teach nice is how we present Christ. We commend Christ and the gospel as a method of self-improvement. It’s not that we fail to talk about the cross or even sin. It’s that sin is presented as a problem primarily for how it messes up our lives and relationships and gets in the way of our goals. And Jesus Christ is presented as the one who will change all that. We tell people that Jesus will make a difference in their marriages and in their parenting. Jesus will bring love, joy, and peace to their home. Jesus will give them renewed purpose at work. Come to Jesus, and he will make a difference in your life. Jesus, of course, does make a difference in the lives of believers. It’s just not the difference of a better life now in all the ways we might want. After all, what did Jesus say? “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matt. 16:24). That means Jesus might make a difference in your marriage by giving you the grace to persevere with a spouse who no longer loves you. He might bring love, joy, and peace to your home by making you an agent rather than a recipient of those things. He might give you renewed purpose at work by changing your attitude rather than your job description. 
  • When churches look more like the world than Christ, we effectively preach a different gospel. More than likely it will be the gospel of nice. 
  • It’s popular to think of God’s judgment of sinners in hell as God giving us what we ask for—life without God. It’s true that hell is the absence of God’s love. But hell is also the presence of God in his justice, measuring out to sin what it deserves. And it is this, the wrath of God, from which we must be saved.
  • Since God is good, he will pay back injustice and sin what it deserves. And we all have sinned. This has enormous implications for our preaching. For the gospel to make sense, we must preach the justice and wrath of God. Too easily, however, churches downplay these basic truths and so change the gospel. It’s hard to talk about hell and God’s wrath. It is much easier to talk about being saved from purposeless lives, low self-esteem, or unhappiness. So we treat Jesus as the solution to a subjective, internal problem. Come to Jesus; he’ll give you purpose and meaning. The trouble is, subjective problems can be solved through subjective solutions. I might choose Jesus to gain a sense of purpose, but my friend down the street sincerely chooses a career. Who’s to say which is better? It’s all subjective. When we fail to preach the justice of God and downplay his wrath, we are talking about some other gospel. We have changed it from an objective rescue to a subjective path to personal fulfillment.
  • Grace is what saves. Faith is the instrument. Which means: we’re not saved by faith. We’re saved by grace, and faith receives that grace. Faith trusts that gift.
  • What happens when we think faith saves us? Sincerity becomes paramount. We begin to think of faith as a single act—a prayer prayed, a decision made, a card signed, a hand raised—rather than as a whole-life orientation. The trouble is, we can never be sure if we were sincere enough. So insecurity follows, and a culture of rededication develops. Anxious children pray “the prayer” over and over. Youth rededicate themselves at every youth retreat. Adults do the same. All are hoping that this time the expression of faith will be sincere enough. 
  • The language of God’s love is the language of God’s choice, his election. God chooses to love. He doesn’t have to love us. In fact, by all rights, he shouldn’t love us. But he does. God’s love for us isn’t on a whim. If we turn this around, so that God loves us because we chose and love him, Christianity becomes a religion of self-salvation. The message is that God is obligated to save us because of our love, our choice, our sincerity. Our faith, not his love, becomes the deciding factor. And we introduce pride into the heart and soul of our churches. The gospel has been turned on its head.
  • We are saved not by sincerity. Not by intense feelings. Not by loving God or doing any good work. We are saved by God’s gracious work in Christ. When our churches understand and live this out together, we show the whole world that Christian conversion is not like changing political parties or denominations. It’s not a mere change of mind or feeling. Christian conversion is a rescue. It’s a rescue from death to life, from wrath to forgiveness, from enslavement to freedom. And it’s God rescue. Only he can do it.
  •  We were created to worship, and if we won’t worship God, we’ll worship something else. Calling people to repentance, then, means calling for a reorientation of worship. So who or what are we worshiping rather than God? What compels our time and energy, our spending and our leisure? What makes us angry? What gives us hope and comfort? What are our aspirations for our children? Idols make lots of promises, even though they can’t keep them.
  • Repenting means exchanging our idols for God. Before it’s a change in behavior, it must be a change in worship. How different that is from how we often think of repentance. Too often we treat repentance as a call to clean up our lives. We do good to make up for the bad. We try to even the scale, or even push it back to the positive side. Sometimes we talk about repentance as if it were a really serious, religious New Year’s resolution.
  • The problem is not that we have Christians in our churches who still sin. Of course we do. The problem is that we have “Christians” in our churches who are not Christians. But we have given them assurance and told them to never let anyone question it.
  • We can easily harvest, manipulate, and collect decisions. But Jesus told us to go and make disciples. Not decisions, not converts, but disciples—life-long followers who endure hardship, take up their cross, and follow Jesus. 
  • When our churches slip into a therapeutic gospel, we treat the Christian life less as a battle against sin and more as a battle to feel accepted. We stop singing the old hymns about sanctification and perseverance, and sing instead the romanticized lyrics that trade heavily in images of Jesus’s closeness, embrace, and tender touch. We regard every exhortation against sin in a sermon as legalistic, incentivized obedience through guilt. We define our relationship wholly in terms of acceptance.
  • Once again, what’s the difference between the therapeutic gospel and the biblical gospel? In the therapeutic gospel, Jesus has come to fill the void in your heart. In the biblical gospel, he has come to establish his lordship over your life. The therapeutic gospel doesn’t deny that Jesus is Lord. It just ignores it. But the effect is the same, because my heart’s sovereign need for love and acceptance is left unchallenged. I might confess that Jesus is Lord, but his lordship would never lead me into suffering or persecution. It would never confront my sin, especially through the correction of other Christians. It would never ask me to give up my kids to his service, rather than a respectable career. I remain Lord, and my need to feel safe and loved is my ruling principle. 
  • The therapeutic gospel is a half-truth gospel. It tells us that we are loved by God through Christ, and so we’ve been healed from our emptiness. But the whole truth is so much better. It lifts us out of the petty kingdom of our needy heart, changes us, and sets us apart in the service of the King of love. Through Christ, you have been declared holy. And by God’s grace, that is what you will be. 
  • Churches are filled with people who are saved from purposeless, unfulfilling lives. But are they saved from God and his judgment? The biblical doctrine of conversion has enormous implications for our approach to evangelism.
  • Our work is to proclaim a message plainly, honesty, urgently, and confidently. God’s work is to save and convert. Recognizing this changes how we measure success. Success for us does not depend on results or numbers. It depends on our faithfulness. You and I are not responsible for the results, and so we don’t need to pressure or manipulate. We’re not trying to close a deal, which—I must say again—creates false converts. Instead, we are free to love, to urge, even to implore with words of warning and words of peace.
  • The gospel is for Christians because the gospel not only converts us but also produces lasting change in us. Confront sin, lest you risk making people feel more comfortable on their way to hell. But don’t confront by saying, “Clean up and try harder, here are some tips and tricks.” Instead, call each other to renewed repentance and faith, and so prove to each other that you believe.
  • We each have character flaws that make us limp, and we may limp our whole lives. We have to bear with one another’s limps, because if your hope is in Christ, you belong.
  • Our theology of conversion matters in our churches’ discipleship, gospel counsel, and even church discipline, because the presence of sin remains, and we are the walking wounded. We need each other’s help in churches filled with people who will battle with us. 
My thoughts: I thought this was a wonderful refresher. I would definitely recommend this one. I remember vividly when I first learned of the (reformed) doctrine of conversion. It was life-changing, life-giving. It was one of those THIS CHANGES EVERYTHING moments. This book was a great reminder of that initial excitement, the embrace of grace. 

Lawrence's book is relevant; it is packed with truth that we all need to hear. Whether we've ever thought much about conversion or not. To the old, to the young, we could all use some truth.

© Becky Laney of Operation Actually Read Bible

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