Genesis 12:1-4, Psalm 121, Romans 4:1-5, 13-17, John 3:1-17
Heidelberg Catechism 88-90
Q88: What is involved in genuine repentance or conversion?
A: Two things: the dying-away of the old self, and the coming-to-life of the new.
Q89: What is the dying-away of the old self?
A: It is to be genuinely sorry for sin, to hate it more and more, and to run away from it.
Q90: What is the coming-to-life of the new self?
A: It is wholehearted joy in God through Christ, and a delight to do every kind of good as God wants us to.
You know the reputation of the Marines and how they do basic training: they break you down. You might have individual courage and initiative, but they break you down. You might be an American citizen with civil rights and an instinct for democracy, but they break you down. After they break you down, they build you up, but different—as a Marine.
They have do this because your natural human instinct is to preserve your own life. When you see gunfire coming at you, your natural instinct is to get away from it. But a Marine has to keep going toward it. It is unnatural to be a Marine. To be a Marine you have to born again, if you know what I mean.
Did you know that in the first centuries of the early Christian church, one of the most productive mission fields was the Roman army? Look, these soldiers had been born as Germans and Gauls and Celts and Thracians and they had had to be converted into Romans, loyal to Caesar, who claimed the titles of Savior and Lord. The analogies were there, to convert again, and be loyal to the Prince of Peace, especially if you knew first hand the real truth of war.
The centrality of conversion is a distinction of Christianity, compared to other religions. Judaism has conversion, but Judaism is not an expanding faith, and if you ask to convert to Judaism, the first response of the rabbi is to discourage you.
Islam is an expanding faith, but its pattern is submission, not conversion. It has nothing in it of being "born again." Indeed, Muslims call Islam the "natural religion of mankind." To be "born again" is actually a very Jewish metaphor, and if you convert to Judaism, you are accepting a new ethnicity. You convert to a whole new life. This Jewish pattern of conversion was made expansive by the gospel, and the first response was to encourage you.
Conversion is so central to Christianity it’s also for people who are already born and raised in the faith. At least that is what Protestants say, and we get that from scripture lessons like the epistle and gospel today. We preach to both pagans and our own congregations that "you must be born again." So if somebody asks me if our church is a "born again" church, I rub my nose and scratch my head and hem and haw and then I say, "Well, yeah, kinda sorta."
However, what people mean today by "born-again" is not the original teaching of the first Protestant churches, the Lutherans and the Reformed. The current notion is that everyone has a definable and even datable conversion experience, that there is a linear break between your old self and your new self, a before and an after, that you start out unsaved, and you accept Jesus into your heart, and then you are saved.
And they mean that if you grow up as a Christian you have to do this the same as any pagan. "Once I was lost, but now I am found. Once I was a sinner, but now I am saved." For many modern Protestants the main point of Christianity is getting saved by being born again. Contrast the Greek and Russian Orthodox, for whom the whole point of Christianity is giving praise and glory to the Holy Trinity.
But the original Protestant doctrine is what you see in our Heidelberg Catechism from A.D. 1563. The old self and the new self are not so much before and after but always both and simultaneous, like a double-decker bus. Conversion is not what happens once, dramatically, but what happens daily, in very small pieces, as you choose again and again to ride the upper deck, despite the rain. And conversion doesn’t mean you weren’t less a Christian the day before. Even the holiest saints go through new conversions every day.
In 1989, after we had immigrated to Canada. I was on an two-day bicycle trip to Camp Shalom with Boyd de Waard and Pim de Koning. As we were coming back through the Six Nations Reserve, a dog came out and chased us and got real close to me. I reached down for my air pump as a club to defend myself, but we outraced the dog. Then Pim laughed and said, "You act like an American." "Why?" "Because you could have broken your air pump and you’d have to buy a new one, but if the dog had bitten you the health care would be free."
When you immigrate you have to convert. It’s a daily thing, and it’s a million small things. Converting miles to kilometers and Fahrenheit to Celsius and habits and attitudes and social norms, converting expectations and expressions. Canada is relatively easy, though the differences are far more than Americans expect. Most immigrants have to convert to whole new languages and their new life gets harder and harder to explain back home.
Immigration is the other image of conversion. We get it from our Genesis lesson. God told Abram, "Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to a the land that I will show you," and isn’t that like being born again.
I am a dual citizen, both Canadian and American. But the deal is that when I’m in America I am legally only an American so I have to behave like an American. When I’m in Canada I am legally only a Canadian so I have to behave like a Canadian. All Christians are dual citizens as well. Your other citizenship is the Kingdom of God. But with this the deal is different. When you’re in America you have to behave like you belong to the Kingdom of God. Well, to do that requires a constant daily conversion.
Christians have to think of themselves as double. You have two natures in you, the old one and the new. At your death, the old dies off and the new one lives on. Until then, you starve the first and feed the second. That’s conversion.
Christianity gets this kind of double-thinking from Judaism. Islam doesn’t do this; the very power of Islam comes from its unitary thinking. But Judaism always balances the opposites and the apparent contradictions. Not either-or but both-and. And now I have yet another one, and it’s about spiritual formation.
Spiritual formation is both growth and not-growth. Spiritual formation is both natural and unnatural. Spiritual formation is both coming-to-life and dying-away.
Last week I said that spiritual formation is as natural as children growing up. They can’t help it if you just give them security and good food. But the opposite is also true. Spiritual formation is like pruning and weeding and pulling up and cutting off. It has repentance in it, and remorse and pain, and discipline.
Conversion and growth are the alternating current of spiritual formation, the negative current and the positive current, and we can’t reduce it to the one or the other. It’s both.
Next week our lessons have something to tell us about how this kind of conversion can take place in a small group context. This week it’s Jesus and Nicodemus. Next week it’s Jesus and the woman at the well. This week Nicodemus drops out of the conversation, next week she stays in. And even though she’s the sinner of the two, she gets empowered at the end. Nicodemus just falls away.
But John 19 tells us that after the crucifixion it was Nicodemus who bought a hundred pounds of spices for Jesus’ body, and who lovingly wrapped his body for burial and laid it in the tomb. I guess he had been riding the bus by standing on the stairs to the upper deck, and now he was willing to be seen up on top. Imagine his joy after the Resurrection when he could tell the gospel writer the story of his secret meeting with Jesus. In Nicodemus there is hope for us. It just always takes a while.
Copyright © 2008 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.