This past week I read more of A History of Christian Conversion, an academic study I have been exploring this Fall. In Chapter 9, author David Kling discusses the Protestant Reformation. Discussing John Calvin, Kling notes this idea:
"Conversion refers to the whole life of the believer whose complete restoration in God's image will not be realized until the consummation of God's kingdom. Until then, then believer finds herself committing and confronting sin in the everyday messiness of personal, familial, social, economic, and political relationships. A life of continual conversion is the only proper response." (p. 220)
Despite the beatific visions of instantaneous and complete transformation sometimes described in evangelical circles, this notion of an ongoing process makes sense to me. It reminds us that we are not "finished" this side of eternity. In other words, there is always room to grow and there is no single point in life at which we might be said to have "arrived." Conversion is not complete in a moment.
Personally and pastorally, I believe that this tracks well with the ways that human beings experience their faith. Even if our compass is set and our destination mapped, we are on life's long journey--one that takes time. It is a trip with many side roads and a host of opportunities to get off track. To help us on our way we need not merely consult the directions at the beginning, but throughout.
Continually being converted means constantly being open to change. Always being ready to admit we are wrong. Ever prepared to be reoriented. Such things can be difficult, requiring deep humility. But: failure to embrace this life of conversion means that lasting change will never be a part of our existence.
Such statements are true not only in conversion to the Christian faith. For instance, they are applicable in an area like substance abuse recovery too. The initial decision to realize one's need and reach out for help is deeply and foundationally important, to be sure. But as those involved in the midst of the process would likely tell you, this is only the beginning. Each day is a new process of sobriety and a renewed commitment to this changed live. It is a continual conversion.
Significant changes are rarely, if ever, effected in a single instant. Though as a Christian believer I affirm the sovereignty of God to do whatever God wants (which can include instantaneous and lasting change), my knowledge of human beings and our often faltering finitude leads me to generally embrace the more common process of continual conversion. It simply follows lived experience.
As I have said before and possibly written on this blog, I believe that the Christian faith is predicated on a simple realization: that we need help. That we are incomplete and broken. That we carry death inside of us and need a source of life that we ourselves cannot create. This first realization is what turns us to God in Christ and orients us in a new way. Yet the story does not end there. Because not only is the first step of the journey into the Christian life a converting confession that we need help. Every other moment of the Christian life is too.
We need help. Not just on that day at the altar or that moment in prayer or that season of a changed mind. We need it later. We need it now. We need it tomorrow. I believe that by the power of the Holy Spirit Christians can be transformed over time. Yet I also know that this work is rarely if ever complete this side of eternity and that there are a host of ways in which we ourselves can lose focus or abandon the path. The willingness to embrace continual conversion can help guide us back.
May we ever be people willing to admit our need for help, seek it, and accept it when offered.