Conversion and Conversionism

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One of the points I have been seeking to emphasize recently is the importance of evangelicalism. But let me break out what I mean by this because confusion on such a point is pretty easy.

I grew up in the context of North American evangelicalism, which includes two things that are pertinent to this discussion. One is the central emphasis on the new birth, and the other is a host of cultural trappings that developed around that emphasis. I grew up in what might be called cultural evangelicalism, but in a home that emphasized the nature and reality of the new birth (a reality that also characterizes historical and confessional evangelicalism).

After I became Reformed I found myself gradually estranged from many aspects of cultural evangelicalism, ambivalent about some of it, affectionate toward the remainder, but still conversant with all of it. Because of this history, whenever I start emphasizing the importance of something called “evangelicalism,” I think that some people believe that my roots are calling me home, or that I somehow want Reformed Christians who have never darkened the doors of Jesus junk store to head down there now to get themselves some Testamints(R). As St. Paul said, whenever he was accused of this very same thing, me genoito!

One of the reasons that I was able to grow out of that particular expression of the faith was the recognition that the historic and confessional expressions of the Reformed faith articulated and expressed the evangelical center I held dear much more capably than the cultural evangelicalism around me did. I stayed faithful to my heritage of evangelicalism, even as I grew in it.

Heart conversion is an absolute necessity if a sinful man is ever to see a holy God. But conversionism is not any such thing. Conversionism is a set of cultural expressions that grew up around a particular set of the Holy Spirit’s movements in history. But those cultural expressions are not absolute. No human cultural expressions ever are. But the Word of God is absolute, and the Spirit’s work in the hearts of sinful men never, ever changes. The transformation of life to death is unmistakeably the same kind of thing, from Adam to the last sinner in.


So the only thing I am pressing for is a warm embrace of confessional evangelicalism, which teaches the necessity of heart conversion. It does not teach “conversionism.” I am not even pressing for anybody who holds to it to call it evangelicalism. In our circles, the doctrine of the effectual call contains everything I want to represent and stand for on this issue. You can tell this from the italics below, which are mine.  

“All those whom God hath predestinated unto life, and those only, He is pleased, in His appointed time, effectually to call, by His Word and Spirit, out of that state of sin and death, in which they are by nature to grace and salvation, by Jesus Christ; enlightening their minds spiritually and savingly to understand the things of God, taking away their heart of stone, and giving unto them an heart of flesh; renewing their wills, and, by His almighty power, determining them to that which is good, and effectually drawing them to Jesus Christ: yet so, as they come most freely, being made willing by His grace” (WCF 10.1).

Other covenant members are not effectually called in this same way.

“Others, not elected, although they may be called by the ministry of the Word, and may have some common operations of the Spirit, yet they never truly come unto Christ, and therefore cannot be saved” (WCF 10.4).

So there is a true coming to Christ, brought about by this effectual call, which is a change of nature, a giving of a heart of flesh for a heart of stone, a renewal of the will, a transfer out of a state of sin and death into a state of enlightenment, and this is all the evangelicalism anybody needs.

So if the Testamints(R) thing was bugging you, as the Australians say, no worries.

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