(Development of this topic can be found in Acceptable to God without being Saved?)
I’ve been in the ministry for a long time, and I can tell you that no organization will let just anyone speak to its people. I have been vetted over and over again. The questions are usually pretty much the same over and over again.
When and what were the circumstances when you trusted in Jesus?
What ministries (churches, para-church organizations, etc.) have you been involved with?
What seminary training have you had?
What were you going to speak on at our gathering? What passages were you going to use?
If you different in any particular with the teachings of our group, will you agree not to speak on those issues?
The vetting process is supposed to be a way to protect the group from false teachers and divisive persons. This is entirely understandable. I’ve done the same thing every time I invite someone to speak to those in my ministry. I always get a like-minded person.
The problem with this process is simple: if I am wrong in what I believe, getting a like-minded person to speak only reinforces the error and even makes it seem more acceptable since now it is supported by yet another person in the ministry.
The title of this article comes from an experience my seminary president, teacher, mentor, and friend, Dr. Earl Radmacher, had when he gave an introductory prayer just before he spoke to an audience on the topic of salvation. In his opening prayer, he basically asked God to save him as he delivered his message so that what he said might be the greatest benefit possible to his hearers. When he said, “Amen,” he looked out at the people gathered before him and observed that, by the look on their faces and the few that whispered among themselves, there was high concern and possibly a touch of fear that they might have asked an unsaved man to preach in their pulpit.
This thinking is not rare among Christians. There is a tendency to think only in one way about the concept of salvation in the Scriptures. Most assume that when a person is saved, he is saved from the penalty of eternal condemnation (an eternity in hell) and is given a place in heaven with God. Apart from that single idea (and the assumption that it is a correct one), few Christians know anything more about salvation. Dr. Radmacher was a pioneer in expanding the thoughts on the doctrine of salvation. (For more on the terms save and salvation see the article “Bad Theology won’t send anyone to Hell” and my book, The Grand Spiritual Assumption.)
I would like to do the same thing in relation to a term that describes a corollary concept to salvation, namely, the concept of conversion. If you have been around the Christian movement for long, you are sure to have heard a message on the need to convert the lost to Christianity. Maybe you’ve even heard a message on the conversion of the Apostle Paul. Formerly a Pharisee, Saul persecuted those who believed that Jesus was the promised Messiah. But on the road to Damascus with letters from the high priest in his hand, which letters gave him the authority to bring any Messianic Jew from Damascus back to Jerusalem for a trial. He was trying to destroy this new movement called The Way. This Jesus, Saul’s peers had convinced him, could not be the promised Messiah. So to protect the Jewish faith he loved, he sought out the supposed heretics to force them to recant their new faith by turning away from this heretical belief in Jesus.
Then Jesus appeared to him on that road to Damascus in a dramatic fashion. Saul, who later during his missionary journeys became known as the apostle Paul, believed in Jesus during this Damascus Road experience, received the Holy Spirit after Ananias came to him to give him back his sight, and was baptized. But nowhere, in the immediate passage or in the several times that Paul recounts this encounter with Jesus, does he ever describe his new faith in Jesus as a conversion. No one else in the Bible describes Saul has having been converted either.
These facts may strike me harder than they do you. The reason for this is that the first sermon I ever gave in the ministry was on the conversion of Saul. Where did I get that idea? Where did I get that terminology? It was the accepted viewpoint of the day. Everyone referred to Saul’s encounter with Jesus on the Damascus road as a conversion experience. So, I did too. And when I did, I was following the overwhelming conviction of the day, but I was not following the teaching of the Bible because it never refers to Saul as being converted. Man’s ideas will never mirror God’s unless he is teaching God’s Word specifically (Isa. 55:8-9).
Rather than giving the slightest hint that he was now adhering to a new faith or a new religion, Paul would say over and over that he still believed everything that he used to believe. Nothing had changed in his belief system. Nothing whatever!
He didn’t suddenly realize that he had been “lost” and doomed for hell before he believed in Jesus.
He didn’t admit that his righteousness before believing in Jesus was somehow deficient or less than true righteousness.
He never admitted to having been given a “gift of righteousness” for a legal standing before God so that he could be pardoned for all the sins he had committed or would ever commit in the future.
He never admitted that his Jewish faith ~ what he believed and how he lived on a daily basis ~ was in any way displeasing to God or in violation of the Scriptures as he understood them.
He believed in the one true God.
He believed that this God would judge him for how he had lived his life.
He believed in a coming Messiah; he just didn’t believe that Jesus was that Messiah at first.
But what he believed and how he responded found approval before God because he said, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, that he was righteous ~ being justified over and over by God in the same way that Abraham had been in Gen. 15:6 and Gen. 22:9-14 (Rom. 4:4 and Js. 2:21; cf., also Rom. 4:22-25; Phil. 3:6).
The Greek terms that are rarely translated conversion or convert are used thirty-five times. Yet when you check your concordance, you will find that only in six instances is the translation of these Greek terms translated conversion (once, Acts 15:3), convert (noun, twice, but not by the usual Greek terms in question, see Rom. 16:5 and 1Tim. 3:6), or converted (verb, three times, Ps. 51:13; Matt. 18:3 and John 12:40, all of which are speaking of God’s people who needed to be “converted,” or turned back to Him.
If Paul’s ministry throughout the Book of Acts is carefully analyzed, it is readily apparent that Paul was not trying to “convert” anyone. What was he trying to do? Acts 26:18-20 is probably the best summary, and Acts 17 is probably the best example of what took place in Paul’s ministry, and how it took place. When these are considered carefully, one sees that conversion was never the point of Paul’s ministry. Rather, Paul’s point was to urge “a turning (or returning) to God, not a conversion to Christianity.” God in His grace overlooks bad theology without lowering His standard for righteous living.
In the end what do we have? We have an apostle of Jesus Christ who was never converted! Oh, may Heaven help us! We’ve been studying all these many centuries the life, ministry, and writing of an unconverted man! But he was God’s man nonetheless.
We have misunderstood and misused the terms convert and conversion. The Biblical evidence is stacked against the orthodox, Christian understanding and usage. No one needs to be “converted” to Christianity when he believes in Jesus and receives the life that He gives upon faith in Him. If by the term Christianity we meant a belief in Jesus and a tenaciously spiritual pursuit of all that has been revealed through Him (including all the liberties that He has set in place), then belief in Jesus was necessarily involve conversion.
The point I’m making here is this: the religion that the world knows as Christianity is further removed from what the Bible sets forth than we think. We basically believe assumptions that men have formulated rather than the expressly stated truths of divine revelation. Consequently, we need to re-think all of the terms associated with the concept of salvation in the Bible. Do you think God expects less? Do you think we will get a pass at the Judgment Seat of Christ when our teachings are critiqued? Hebrews 10:31 will still be true then as it ought to be true now.
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