How To Know?
In my continued reading on the topic of conversion, I recently engaged the Puritans. This branch of Christianity arose out of the ferment of the English Reformation and had an impact both in that country and in the nascent New England region of our own. Known for probing the depths of their own conversion stories, Puritans desired to learn if they were truly converted.
The reason for such personal analysis had to do with their theological framework. Built upon the idea of predestination in matters of salvation, Puritans knew God's will to be inscrutable and their own works to be ineffective in their salvation. If salvation, then, was simply the action of God and not humanity, one needed to determine whether or not God had indeed moved upon a human heart--converted them, if you will.
This question of confirmation of conversion or assurance of salvation is not limited to Puritans, however. Whether or not one follows a predestinarian framework, many of those who identify with religious faith have wondered if they really believe "deep down." If they really have gone through a religious change. If they really are in right standing before God. If all of it is real. While not all of these many be the same questions as the Puritans, but they are real ones all the same.
One of the ways that the Puritans looked to answer their open question(s) about conversion is through a recourse to personal experience. Could someone testify to a converting experience? Could they show a time or times in their life when God impacted them? Did their life show evidences of conversion?
If memory serves, the combination of the words "experiential" and "experimental" led (at least in the 18th century) to seeing aspects of human experience as a kind of scientific evidence of God's existence and God's own workings in our heart. Laying out our experience was a way of making a case of what was truly happening.
While we have come, I think, to question the validity of experience as any kind of objective proof, I submit that it has value. Certainly it can be worthy for the individual. And shared experiences or similar experiences by different individuals are, I think, evidences that beg some consideration too.
Over time, the idea of a converting pattern or ordo salutis ("order of salvation") emerged in Puritanism that could involve a number of stages or movements. This served as both a descriptor and pattern for the faithful. Helpful in a way, it also could over-define the experience of conversion. Ironically, it may have led Puritans to assume too much knowledge about the ways of the inscrutable God. It could also seem to limit God's action or acceptable kinds of conversion experiences.
Yet the reality of conversion was broader than seemingly allowed. Consider the unique experience of someone like Richard Baxter, (1615-1691) whose life of faith did not follow the normal mold, could nevertheless testify to God's gracious work. For him, as for us, it was worth noting that "God breaketh not all men's hearts alike." As we consider conversion, it is worth keeping such a statement ever in mind. On both a human level of lived experience and in a theological framework holding to God's infinity, the possibilities inherent in conversion can be broader than sometimes imagined.