No Conversion, No Christianity (Leonardo De Chirico)
The name ‘Christian’ is characterised by the insistence on the personal need for salvation and the personal responsibility to respond to God’s grace in repentance and faith. The gospel is both an announcement of God’s intervention to save and a summons to respond with faith. In David Bebbington’s terms, ‘conversionism’ (together with Biblicism, crucicentrism and activism) captures the heart of evangelical Christianity in that it recognises the centrality of a personal encounter with Jesus Christ resulting in forgiveness of sin and a changed life.1
Jesus’ injunction to Nicodemus ‘You must be born again’ (John 3:7) becomes paramount for each and every person. Regeneration through conversion is the necessary threshold for salvation and therefore for recognition as a Christian. It is achieved by the Holy Spirit through the preaching and witness of the gospel to which men and women respond in repentance and faith.2 Salvation does not come by simply being born into a Christian family, nor from being part of a Christian environment. Not even being a formal member of a Christian church, nor having received a sacrament of Christian initiation earns salvation. It is not by merit, it is not by works, it is not by tradition: it is by grace alone through conversion to Jesus Christ.
The personal experience of salvation ushers people into the Christian life. Reflecting on the centrality of conversion as an evangelical account of the initiation to the Christian faith, Holmes argues that ‘Evangelicals are those who preach the same gospel of punctiliar conversion and immediate assurance available through faith alone’.3 This is not to suggest, however, that there is a single pattern and timing of conversion. In this respect, Klaas Runia correctly says that ‘When it comes to the “form” of conversion, there are some differences of opinion among evangelicals (is conversion instantaneous, so that one can mention time and place, or is it more in the nature of a process?) but generally Evangelicals do not prescribe a particular method or a particular manifestation. The emphasis is on the fact of conversion, not on its particular form.’4 A non-converted Christian is a contradiction in terms.
D.W. Bebbington, Evangelicalism in Modern Britain. A History from 1730s to the 1980s (London: Unwin Hyman, 1989). ↩
Cf. the recent study on being ‘born again’ by John Piper: Finally Alive. What Happens When We Are Born Again (Fearn: Christian Focus, 2010). ↩
Stephen R. Holmes, ‘Evangelical Doctrine: Basis for Unity or Cause of Division?’, Scottish Bulletin of Evangelical Theology 30.1 (2012) 64. ↩
Klaas Runia, ‘What is Evangelical Theology?’, Evangelical Review of Theology 21.4 (1997) 299; see also David Wells, Turning to God. Biblical Conversion in the Modern World (Exeter: Paternoster, 1989). ↩