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Entries in Conversion (3)


The reality of the sanctified mind

I'm re-reading Confessions for my Church History class. I have an assignment to write a book review on a primary source document, and my choices were Confessions or City of God. I wonder how many in my class will read City of God, considering the review is due on October 13th.

I love Confessions. I loved it the first time I read it, and again last fall when I read it for a class on Augustine. This time, I have to be a more critical reader if I'm going to review it. 

The role of memory is obviously crucial in Confessions, and Augustine comments frequently that he sees it as God's sovereignty that he does remember things so that he can record them. I'm about to start Book X, where he really gets into the role of memory, but it is important even in Book VIII, where his dramatic conversion is found.

In Book VIII.5, he continues on a theme of recounting the conversion of a man named Victorianus. He is moved by the account and wants to do the same, but still struggles:

I longed to do the same, but I was held fast, not in fetters clamped upon me by another, but by my own will, which had the strength of iron chains.

So these two wills within me, one old, one new, one the servant of the flesh, the other of the spirit, were in conflict and between them they tore my soul apart.

The whole of Book VIII leading to Augustine's point of crisis is filled with similar emotionally charged language. It is obvious that Augustine was torn. The first time I read Confessions, many years ago, I recognized similar experiences; knowing that something was wrong, but not being able to understand exactly what. That was the reality of a mind which had not yet been converted, which had not been changed by the Spirit.

Works of memoir such as Confessions are not written as if the author is right in the moment. Their very nature is that they are reflective. Any memories he has of the events will naturally be processed through his own current state of thinking. Augustine wrote Confessions at least ten years after his conversion, and he didn't write it all at once, but over a period of three years from 397-400. There was no journalist following alongside Augustine, recording his thoughts. Augustine wrote Confessions through a sanctified mind. So, while his descriptions of his reactions are vivid, there is a very good chance that at the time, he didn't fully understand what he was going through. Anyone who has been a Christian long enough recognizes in the second quoted passage above echoes of Romans 7. We don't call into question the veracity of the narrator's account, but we do understand that his words cannot help but be influenced by the present.

This does not mean that we can't rely on the words of Augustine. But as a work of memoir, we have to recognize that it cannot be a complete reproduction of the past. Augustine, at the time of writing, had become a mature Christian and a bishop. He was changed. Augustine cannot help but see his past through his present. The transformative power of the gospel is such that we begin to see everything as the new creatures we have become. Before conversion, it was the same: we saw the world through our current condition. After conversion, we are changed. That is one of the best things about Confessions is that we see the power of conversion.

I share Augustine's wonder at how I can remember certain events which were ultimately crucial to my own conversion. And like Augustine, I marvel at God's sovereignty in putting each piece into place. God has given me the ability to name the condition I faced prior to my conversion. But at the time, I suspect I really did not know what my ailment was. Praise God for his timing in revealing everything, leading to my conversion.



In Chapter 10, Section 2 of the Westminster Confession, the subject matter is the effectual calling of God:

This effectual call is God's free and special grace alone, not from anything foreseen in man, who is altogether passive therein, until being quickened and renewed by the Holy Spirit, he is thereby enabled to answer this call, and to embrace the grace offered and conveyed in it.

In his book Truths We Confess, R.C. Sproul expands on this section, laying out the difference between monergism and synergism. Monergistic work is done by one person alone; synergistic work is co-operative. The work of salvation in the believer's heart is a monergistic work according to the Confession. There are those, of course, who do not believe the Confession, but rather believe that the individual demonstrates some sort of co-operation; his co-operation is that final 1%.

Sproul reminds us at the end of the chapter:

We enter the house of God as people who understand that once we were dead, and now we are alive. We were blind but now we see. We had no affection in our heart for the Lord Jesus Christ, and now our heart pants for the Lord even as a deer pants for the water brooks. This is not because we pulled ourselves up by our own bootstraps, but because God, in his great love and mercy that he has poured out upon us, has rescued us from the grave.

I remember distinctly the night I was converted. I had been reading the bible for the past number of weeks. I had questions. I wanted to ask the woman who gave me the bible to answer some questions, but it was only Wednesday and I would not see her until the weekend. I wandered around my house pre-occupied, wrestling with those questions. Finally, later that evening, I could not take it any longer. Questions or not, I wanted to be called one of Christ's. I bent by my bed, and in a very ineloquent prayer asked God to do to me whatever it took to make me belong to Him. I repented of my sinfulness and asked to be acceptable to Him. 

I suppose some would say I "co-operated" by praying. But who gave me the desire to pray? Who was compelling me to? I had been thinking about it for quite a while; why that night?

I know spiritually blind people. One whom I've known a very long time is very polite when we talk of spiritual things. She doesn't object, she nods her head, and she is very agreeable. But she is blind. She does not see her need, and she does not become agitated when the reality of sin is discussed. I can see in her eyes that she has no idea what I'm talking about. Perhaps her time is coming. Perhaps she will have her eyes opened somewhere down the line. For now, it is not a matter of her resisting God's grace. She simply isn't seeing or hearing it.

When I look back at what I was like before I was converted, I see my blindness. I knew there was a problem, alright, but I had no idea what it was. I needed to have my eyes opened to what the situation was. That night, twenty-nine years ago, my eyes were opened to my sin. I was blind no longer. I was compelled to believe. Those words in my bible cried out for a response in a way they had not before.

This, like Sproul says, should generate gratitude. It should squash my pride and self-sufficiency. It seems to me that believing that I had some sort of role in my own salvation interferes with real gratitude. From death to life; from blindness to sight. It was all of God.

But God, being rich in mercy, because of his great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ -- by grace you have been saved. (Eph. 2:4-5)


A tale of one redeemed

Who would have imagined it? Who would have predicted that a girl who grew up in a home where the gospel was never preached, and the name of Christ was frequently used as a curse word would grow up to be a theolgoy nerd?

There was no interest in spiritual things in my childhood. For the Roman Catholic church, there was great antipathy, but no church even at Easter or Christmas. Belief seemed pretty unlikely. How could I believe upon someone I had never heard of?

Snippets here and there: attending Sunday school with a friend, hearing the creation story in a Kindergarten class, a teacher in 4th grade who said, "God loves you;" a Gideon who gave out bibles to a group of fifth graders.

And yet it was not enough.

Circumstances revealed need, revealed sin, revealed helplessness. Trials, questions, and doubts that assail most teenagers ;and still it was not enough.

I opened the pages of a burgundy leather bound bible to be confronted with my worst fear: you are not a Christian unless you have confessed Christ. 

13 For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”

14 How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? 15 And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!” (Rom. 10:13-15)

I needed to hear. I needed the Word of God. There is no salvation outside of faith in Christ, and the only way I could understand that was the revealed Word of God. 

That was many years ago. When I was a child, there was still a greater chance that someone actually believed in God even if he didn't do much about it. It was palatable to hand out Gideon Bibles in schools; people still belived in truth and error. Today, a child can grow up in a home like mine, where God is never mentioned, but he won't ever find the end I found unless someone shares the word with him. 

It is a popular notion to assert that the church, because it holds doctrinal positions it isn't willing to abandon, is chasing away the younger generation with its conduct. If a church won't be silenced about doctrinal truth which is dificult, it is labeled intolerant and ineffective. In this day of growing secularism, it is believed that we need more compassion, more help, more understanding to attract people to the church. And that is likely true.

But we still need the Word of God. We still need people who will proclaim it boldly. We need people who will say, "I am not ashamed of the gospel because it is the power of God for salvation for everyone who believes." We need them desperately.

There are people everywhere with great needs; physical, emotional, and financial. But their greatest need is stil salvation from sin. We can assist an individual with every benefit possible need for food and shelter, but ultimately, if he's still separated from God by his sin, he's still in trouble.

There were any number of people who were kind to me when I was a teenager, isolated, bullied, and sad; the people I babysat for, my parents' friends, teachers, my relatives. And I drank in their encouragement and felt comfort in their love and support.

But it wasn't enough.

My heart was restless until it found its rest in God.

And how did I get that? From someone who knew I needed to hear.

May we who claim compassion for those who are weak and struggling remember that the gospel still needs to be proclaimed.