Lawrence, Michael. Conversion: How God Creates a People. Wheaton, IL: Crossway. 137 pp. $14.99.
When people find out I’m a pastor, they often want to tell me about their relationship with God. These can be wonderful conversations; there are few things more encouraging than meeting people with an evident love for Jesus. More often than not, however, I leave those conversations discouraged. Many people identify as Christians but don’t seem to have any interest in Jesus or his church. They were baptized as children, were active in a youth group, or prayed the sinner’s prayer, but they haven’t actually followed Jesus in a long time.
Of course, this isn’t just a problem outside of our churches. Most churches have more members than attenders, have baptized people who never show up again, struggle to find volunteers at a level appropriate to their membership, and spend lots of time trying to engage members who don’t seem to want anything to do with their church. Why is there such a disconnect in our culture and in our churches between confessing Jesus as Savior and actually following him? Is it a problem with our evangelistic techniques, poor leadership, boring worship services, bad programs, or something else?
Michael Lawrence, Senior Pastor of Hinson Baptist Church in Portland, Oregon, believes the problem is what we actually believe about conversion, and then how we put that belief into practice. He emphasizes that the problem is with what we actually believe about conversion, not with what we say we believe about it. After all, if you are a Christian, you have experienced conversion, which is accepting Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior through repentance of our sins and faith in the gospel. Our churches likely have an orthodox statement of what conversion is. However, what we actually believe is always seen in what we do.
Lawrence clarifies what conversion is by examining several ways in which we distort it. Conversion is not simply becoming a better person or cleaning up your life. We need to be made new, not be made nice. Conversion is not merely a sincere decision to start following God (though this needs to happen), but an act of God’s grace we experience through repentance and faith. Repentance is not moral resolve to change or a feeling of guilt, but a reorientation of worship, a lifestyle of following Jesus instead of sin. Faith is not mentally accepting a set of ideas, reciting a magical verbal formula, or being spiritual, it is wholehearted trust that God will keep his promises of the gospel, and living accordingly.
Conversion clarifies not just our theology, but how we live it out. There are subsequent chapters on what conversion means for our personal lives, our evangelism, our churches, and our ministries. We are called to be holy, individually and corporately, demonstrating the truth of the gospel through our changed lives together. Evangelism is faithfully communicating an authoritative message from God, not a sales method that changes depending on someone’s felt needs. Assurance of salvation is found by looking to Christ as we live with others, living out our faith in a community of grace.
The book ends with a chapter on why the doctrine of conversion matters. It matters because salvation matters and we need to know what it means to be saved. It matters because God wants us to be his people. It matters because our world needs to know that God is there and genuine change is possible. Conversion is God’s work, yet it happens through the faithful ministry of local churches. We must understand what conversion really is and then live like it.