Question: How do you become a Christian?
(Common) Answer: “Say ‘yes’ to Jesus.”
Is this good enough?
I would suggest it isn’t. Is this any different than saying “yes” to a new pair of shoes or the latest Instagram trend? This is not a robust understanding of conversion found in Scripture. True conversion is more akin to dying than buying (Matthew 16:24–25). But conversion can be treated as if we were adding Jesus to our pantheon of idols for a little extra hell insurance or moral uplift. Now, I’m not suggesting that saying “yes” to Jesus isn’t necessary to conversion; it just isn’t sufficient.
Thick versus Thin Conversion
Gordon Smith—pastor, theologian,professor, and author of several books on the Christian life—proposes a different, and perhaps offensive, view of conversion. He argues that conversion should be robust (i.e., “thick”) enough to set the converted person on the Christian path of spiritual transformation: “The bottom line is that we are enabled through conversion to experience the grace of a good beginning, a beginning so good that it serves as the foundation for a life growing and maturing in grace, wisdom, strength, and joy” (Smith, Beginning Well, 127). If we start well, we will continue well. As my rector is fond of saying, “We will keep ‘em with what we catch ‘em.” If we do not catch them with a robust call to Christ, then new Christians will not grow that way.
Smith summarizes the problem: “the tragic fact is that many are misevangelized and misinitiated into the Christian faith and community because some approaches to evangelism leave people with only bits and pieces of what it means to come under the reign of God. The result is a poor foundation for growth and maturity in the Christian life” (Beginning Well, 149).
The Seven Aspects of Conversion
The solution Smith proposes is a robust and holistic view of conversion, articulated in seven inseparable but distinct clusters. To be clear, he does not see this as a path or order to conversion. Instead, these factors, taken together, lead to a mature conversion that sets the foundation for growth in further maturity.
Smith categorizes the first four as internal elements:
- 1. Belief: the intellectual component
- 2. Repentance: the penitential component
- 3. Trust and the assurance of forgiveness: the emotional or affective component
- 4. Commitment, allegiance, and devotion: the volitional component
The last three are the essential external aspects of a proper conversion:
- 5. Water baptism: the sacramental component
- 6. Reception of the gift of the Holy Spirit: the charismatic component
- 7. Incorporation into the Christian community: the corporate component (Beginning Well, 138–41)
Often Christian conversion is associated with one or several of these components, but not all seven. While Smith argues that the core of conversion is belief and repentance, he insists that all seven dimensions are necessary for a full conversion (Beginning Well, 146–47).
This list might seem overwhelming, but imagine what a new convert would look like if they went through all seven steps! If we take all of these together, it seems pretty apparent that we need to move from thinking about conversion as a moment to practicing conversion as a process that occurs in a community that helps guide and foster a person through these seven aspects of conversion.
Start Well to Grow Well
A good beginning leads to good progress. As Smith has defined it, fully-orbed conversion becomes the grounds and framework for ongoing spiritual growth. “We begin well, and then we embrace a pattern of formation that fosters spiritual transformation” (Beginning Well, 152). This pattern is based on the pattern of conversion expressed in the Christian life:
- 1. Renewal of the mind
- 2. Daily turning from sin
- 3. Growth in dependence on God
- 4. Submission of the will
- 5. Holy Communion
- 6. Growth in the gifts of the Holy Spirit
- 7. Active participation in the community of faith
There is so much of God’s grace and goodness in this rendering of the Christian life. What we learn at the beginning, or learn as we progress, is the pattern of our continued growth. This means that if we didn’t start well, we are continually given opportunities to continue to grow further up and further into Christ.
In commending Smith’s seven aspects, I am under no illusion that this will be done perfectly. Looking back at my own life, I could easily argue that I wasn’t fully converted until about twenty-eight (though I said the sinner’s prayer when I was five and was baptized at eight). What these aspects provide are the Scriptural contours of the Christian life begun and continued well. These are not boxes to check but the framework of the Christian life begun and lived. Thus, I am commending these seven aspects because they clearly identify the multiple dimensions of conversion and connect them to the Christian life.
But When Does Someone Become a Christian?
Some might ask, when does someone actually become a Christian, according to Smith? Smith avers that this is the wrong question because it pushes us back into the minimalism he is pushing against. These seven aspects are not a checklist, but are based on Scripture’s robust understanding of what it means to become a follower of Christ. We could ask when Peter became a Christian and have several different responses. Smith wants us to move away from trying to get notches on our conversion belt and, instead, create space for people to become submitted to Christ in his Church from the beginning.
Perhaps the issue behind this question is assurance, knowing that we are in Christ. Smith argues that this comes through the process of growing in all seven aspects. As an Anglcian, I want to point to the sacrament of baptism as essential for the sense of assurance. But, herein lies the problem of isolating one of the aspects from the rest: if I turn baptism into my sole assurance, avoiding church participation, repentance, allegiance, or rest, my baptism becomes a totem of false assurance. All seven aspects, in the end, bring us into personal communion with Christ and that is where assurance is found. I know that my sense of assurance did not grow through knowing when I was “saved,” but by growing into a more profound sense of Christ’s union to me and mine to him in the context of the Church and his Body. Whether you’ve been a Christian for days or decades, it can be healthy at least to ask yourself where you stand in terms of belief, repentance, obedience, etc.
Smith’s vision of beginning well pushes against a shallow view of conversion and exhorts the Church to evangelize for holistic conversions. Are we calling seekers to a solitary decision or a way of life? Conversion is the foundation and framework for growing into maturity in the Christian life. What does this mean for the Christians and the life of the Church? I would suggest that it means at least the following:
- 1. We need to see Conversion as a process, not only an event, though there will be events in the process.
- 2. It means we need to offer a space, a path, and a community for people seeking to become Christians to explore, struggle, and encounter the living Jesus Christ as they grow in belief, belonging, and becoming.
- 3. Finally, any meditation on the contours of the Christian faith invites us to ask, where do we need to hear and grow in the gospel?