This article is an abridgement of a much longer essay written at the request of the World Council of Churches. It was published in the July 21, 1967 issue of Christianity Today.
The word on the lips of the peoples of the world today is "revolution." Every few days we read in our newspapers of another revolution somewhere in the world; an old regime has been overthrown and a new regime has taken over. Conversion is a revolution in the life of an individual. The old forces of sin, self-centeredness, and evil are overthrown from their place of supreme power. Jesus Christ is put on the throne.
No one can read the New Testament without recognizing that its message calls for conversion. Jesus said: "Except ye be converted … ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven" (Matt. 18:3). Paul encouraged men to "be … reconciled to God" (2 Cor. 5:20) and insisted that God now "commandeth all men everywhere to repent" (Acts 17:30). Paul viewed his office as that of an ambassador for Christ "as though God did beseech you by us" (2 Cor. 5:20). It was James who said: "Let him know, that he which converteth the sinner from the error of his way shall save a soul from death, and shall hide a multitude of sins" (Jas. 5:20), and Peter taught that we are "born again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, by the word of God, which liveth and abideth forever" (1 Pet. 1:23).
In reading the New Testament we are confronted with many incidents of men and women who encountered Christ either personally or through hearing the message preached. Something happened to them! None of their experiences were identical, but most of them experienced a change of mind and attitude and entered an entirely new dimension of living.
In my opinion there is no technical terminology for the biblical doctrine of conversion. Many words are used to describe or imply this experience; many biblical stories are used to illustrate it. However, I am convinced, after years of studying Scripture and observing conversions in the lives of thousands, that it is far more than a psychological phenomenon—it is the "turning" of the whole man to God.
I would suggest three elements which in combination I have found most effective in conversion. The first is the use of the Bible. The Bible needs more proclaiming than defending, and when proclaimed its message can be relied upon to bring men to conversion. But it must be preached with a sense of authority. This is not authoritarianism or even dogmatism; it is preaching with utter confidence in the reliability of the kerygma. A. M. Chirgwin observed that the Reformers "wanted everyone to have a chance to read the Bible because they believed profoundly in its converting power." This could be said of every great era of evangelism. I know of no great forward movements of the Church of Jesus Christ that have not been closely bound up with the message of the Bible.
Recently my attention was called to one of the most thrilling stories I have ever heard about the power of the Word of God. In 1941 an old Tzeltal Indian of southern Mexico approached a young man by the name of Bill Bentley in the village of Bachajon and said: "When I was north I heard of a book that tells about God. Do you know of such a book?" Bill Bentley did. In fact, he had a copy, he said; and if the tribe would permit him to build a house and live among them, he would translate the book into their language.
In the meantime, Bill returned to the United States to marry his fiancée, Mary Anna Slocum. Together they planned to go to Mexico in the fall. But when fall came, Mary Anna returned to Mexico alone. Six days before the wedding Bill had died suddenly, and Mary Anna had requested that the Wycliffe Bible Translators let her carry on his work. When she reached the village of Bachajon, the Indians had been warned against the white missionary, and instead of welcoming her, they threatened her that if she settled among them they would bum her house down. Settling in another part of the tribe, she began patiently to learn the Tzeltal language, translating portions of the Word of God, and compiling a hymnbook in Tzeltal.
Six years passed and Mary Anna was joined by Florence Gerdel, a nurse. They started a clinic to which many Tzeltals came for treatment. Mary Anna had completed the translation of the Gospel of Mark and started on the Book of Acts. A small chapel was built by the Indians who had abandoned their idols for the living Christ. In the highland village of Corralito, a little nucleus of believers grew from five families to seventy Christians, and they sent for the missionary women to come teach them the Word of God. Mary Anna and Florence went and were warmly welcomed by all seventy, who stood outside their huts and very reverently sang most of the hymns in the Tzeltal hymnbook. In little over a year there were 400 believers. One of the most faithful was the former witch doctor, Thomas, who was among the first to throw his idols away.
By the end of the following year there were over 1,000 believers. Because of the pressure of the crowds, Mary Anna could make little progress in her translation work. Concerned, the Indians freed the president of the congregation to help Mary Anna with the translation while they themselves took turns helping in his cornfield. When unbelieving Indians burned down their new chapel, the Christian Indians knelt in the smoldering ruins and prayed for their enemies. In the months following, many of these enemies were soundly converted to Christ.
By the end of 1958 there were more than 5,000 Tzeltal believers in Corralito, Bachajon, and twenty other villages in the tribe. The New Testament in Tzeltal had been completed.
Mary Anna Slocum and another missionary moved to the Chol tribe, where there was a small group of believers who desperately needed the Word of God in their own language. Others came to help. Indians volunteered to build the much-needed airstrip for the mission plane. As the believers multiplied, chapels large and small appeared throughout the area.
When the Chol New Testament was completed, there were over 5,000 believers in that tribe and thirty congregations. One hundred young men had been trained to preach and teach, and a number had learned to do simple medical work. A missionary wrote:
Formerly these Indians were indebted to the Mexican ranchers who lived in the area holding large coffee plantations. They also sold liquor. The Indians, before conversion, were habitual drunkards, in debt to these landholders. To pay off their debts the landowners forced them to work on their plantations whenever they needed work. After the Indians became Christians, they stopped their drinking, paid off their debts and began to plant their own coffee plantations. The coffee of the ranchers was left unharvested. As a result, the Mexican ranchers have been forced to sell the land to the Indians and are moving out of the area.
What a tremendous illustration of the power of the Scriptures! I am more convinced than ever that the Scriptures do not need to be defended but proclaimed.
Secondly, there needs to be a clearly defined theology of evangelism—not so much a new theology but a special emphasis upon certain aspects of the theology that has been in the mainstream of the Church throughout its history, both Catholic and Protestant. It is the theology that focuses attention upon the person and work of Christ on behalf of the alienated in every generation, the theology that invites sinful men to be reconciled to God.
Dr. D. T. Niles has written: "No understanding of Christian evangelism is possible without an appreciation of the nature of Christian proclamation. It is not an affirmation of ideals which men must test and practice; it is not an explanation of life and its problems about which men may argue and which in, some form they must agree; it is rather the announcement of an event with which men must reckon. "God has made Him both Lord and Christ." There is a finality about that pronouncement. It is independent of human opinion and human choice."
Thirdly, there must be an awareness that conversion is a supernatural change brought about by the Holy Spirit, who himself communicates the truth. At every evangelistic conference we hear discussion of "how we can communicate the Gospel to our age." We must always remember that the Holy Spirit is the communicating agent. Without the work of the Holy Spirit there would be no such thing as conversion. The Scriptures teach that this is a supernatural work of God. It is the Holy Spirit who convicts men of sin. Jesus said: "And when he is come, he will reprove the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment" (John 16:8). It is the Holy Spirit who gives new life. "Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost" (Titus 3:5).
There is a mystery in one aspect of conversion that I have never been able to fathom, and I have never read a book of theology that satisfies me at this point—the relation between the sovereignty of God and man's free will. It seems to me that both are taught in the Scriptures and both are involved. Certainly we are ordered to proclaim the Gospel, and man is urged to respond.
However, this one act is not the end of the matter. It is only the beginning! The Scriptures teach that the Holy Spirit comes to indwell each believing heart (1 Cor. 3:16). It is the Holy Spirit who produces the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22), such as love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance. It is the Holy Spirit who guides us and enlightens us as we study the Scriptures (Luke 12:12). We are told that we can also be "filled" with the Spirit (Eph. 5:18). The missionary expansion of the Church in the early centuries was a result of the Great Commission (Matt. 28:19, 20) and no less of the joyful constraint created in believers' hearts at Pentecost. They had been filled with the Spirit. This great event was such a transforming experience that they did not need to refer to a prior command for their missionary activities. They were spontaneously moved to proclaim the gospel.
While there is no doubt that certain persons have a charismatic endowment by the Holy Spirit for evangelism (Eph. 4:11), yet in a sense every Christian is to be an evangelist. In little more than ten years, Paul established churches in four provinces of the empire—Galatia, Macedonia, Achaia, and Asia. Before A.D. 47 there were no churches in these provinces. In A.D. 57 Paul could speak as if his work there was done and could plan extensive tours into the Far West without anxiety lest the churches he had founded perish in his absence for want of his guidance and support. Such speed and thoroughness in the establishment of churches cannot be explained apart from the operation of the Holy Spirit and a sense of responsibility for evangelism by every Christian.
The missionary responsibility was interwoven with the most important offices of the early Church. Each bishop was expected to be an evangelist and to encourage the evangelization of pagans in his own diocese. Some of the renowned missionaries of the post-apostolic period were Gregory Thaumaturgus of Pontus, who became bishop in 240 and carried on successful evangelistic work in his diocese; Gregory the Illuminator of Armenia, under whom a mass conversion took place; Ulfilas, who preached to the Goths; the enthusiastic Martin of Tours; Ambrose of Milan; and Augustine of Hippo. Almost all of these people were converts to Christianity and propagated their newly found faith with a Spirit-filled zeal reminiscent of the apostolic age.
I believe that if our clergy today were filled with the Spirit and out among the people, even on street corners, proclaiming the Gospel in the power of the Holy Spirit, a new day would dawn for the Church. Paul said that in Corinth he did not use clever words or persuasive language. He said: "I determined not to know anything among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified" (1 Cor. 2:2). He knew that in the Cross and Resurrection there was power to change an individual and a society.
Conversion is the impact of the kerygma upon the whole man, convincing his intellect, warming his emotions, and causing his will to act with decision! I have no doubt that if every Christian in the world suddenly began proclaiming the Gospel and winning others to an encounter with Jesus Christ, the effect upon our society would be revolutionary.
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