If you are a Christian, how did you come to faith? Were there foundational experiences or influences that came before your “moment of conversion?” I bet there were. For many Christian people, the story of how we came to faith appears as a process. God works in time and space. He draws people to himself, often over a period of time.
Christians are people who are called bear witness to Christ. The idea that God often draws people to Himself through a process means we are rarely, if ever, the sole voice proclaiming the Gospel to another person. Hebrews says we belong to a “great cloud of witnesses” (Heb 12:1).
By God’s grace, Christian people get to be part of the process of other people coming to know the mercy and grace of Christ. This is such a huge honor and joy. So how does that process work? Pastor Tim Keller does a fantastic job of unfolding what this process often looks like. As the pastor at an outward facing church, I wanted to distill down what he has to say about how this process often works. This post will focus on why coming to faith often looks like a process, and in a following post, we’ll take a look at the path that process often follows.
What follows is adapted from Tim Keller’s book, Serving a Movement: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City.
First, let’s remember what we affirm.
Keller: “Many people process from unbelief to faith through ‘mini-decisions.’ We hold to the classic teaching about the nature of the gospel: to be a Christian is to be united with Christ by faith so that the merits of his saving work become ours and his Spirit enters us and begins to change us into Christ’s likeness. You either are a Christian or you are not — you either are united to him by faith or you are not — because being a Christian is, first of all, a ‘standing” with God.’”
Here, Keller affirms (and we at Christ Presbyterian Church agree) that there are no degrees of conversion. A person is either justified by grace through faith in Jesus Christ, or they are not. So when we talk about the process of conversion, we are not talking about degrees of conversion, but rather appealing to the truth that the good work God begins he brings to completion.
Keller: “However, we also acknowledge that coming to this point of uniting to Christ by faith often works as a process, not only as an event. It can occur through a series of small decisions or thoughts that bring a person closer and closer to the point of saving faith. In a post-Christendom setting, more often than not, this is the case.”
Why is this the case?
Keller: “People simply do not have the necessary background knowledge to hear a gospel address and immediately understand who God is, what sin is, who Jesus is, and what repentance and faith are in a way that enables them to make an intelligent commitment. They often have far too many objections and beliefs for the gospel to be readily plausible to them.”
This is a big reality I see all the time. More and more, people have not read the Bible or studied religion. In a sound bite culture which tends to turn complicated, historical truths and concepts into oversimplified caricatures, it should come as no surprise that people who have not been near the heart of orthodox Christian teaching would have misconceptions about what Christians believe. If a person has learned about Christianity through the news, they have mostly gotten a diet of politics and scandal. If they have learned through Christian mainstream music, they may conclude that Christians have an unrealistic view of suffering, struggle, pleasure, and how the world works.
Beyond this, we must admit that while Christianity is a faith simple enough for children to understand and embrace, it is also not “self-evident” to the person who has never really investigated the basic claims of Gospel faith.
How do we embrace the process and serve to aid in it?
Keller: “Most people in the West need to be welcomed into community long enough for them to hear multiple expressions of the gospel — both formal and informal — from individuals and teachers. As this happens in community, nonbelievers come to understand the character of God, sin, and grace. Many of their objections are answered through this process. Because they are ‘on the inside’ and involved in ongoing relationships with Christians, they can imagine themselves as Christians and see how the faith fleshes out in real life.”
Maybe this is your story. A lot of the process of conversion is the work of asking questions and seeing and hearing responses from genuine believers—people giving a reason for the hope that is in them. My prayer for Christ Presbyterian Church is that we would be a church filled with people involved in ongoing relationships with people who do not share their faith, and that the Lord would work through these friendships to make himself known.
(Part 2: What the Process of Coming to Faith Often Looks Like)