If I was
Trying to be Good . . .
This brief and potent statement provides a magnificent depiction of the concept of biblical, spiritual conversion. Corresponding with conversion are variously “translation,” “alteration” and “exchange,” as in Christ’s life for my life; replacing my self-life with His selfless life. At conversion, priorities and worldviews begin to radically change. The process of discipleship, of becoming literally a “learner-follower” of Christ commences at conversion and is intended to become a life-long pursuit.
The etymology of “conversion” indicates a complete turnaround, (vertere – an intransitive verb meaning “To be about, to turn on, to concern”), implying movement in a new direction in conjunction with a new and fundamentally different kind of life with and in Christ. “Conversion” is not an object, but an action; an action precipitated by the Holy Spirit and responded to by the individual person. Calling sinners to an “altar” in a sanctuary and urging them to “repeat” a “sinner’s prayer” is not necessarily conversion.
On the day when men stand before Christ, Jesus inform us, “Many will say to Me in that day, 'Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?' (Mt. 7:22). These words are prefaced by “"Not everyone who says to Me, 'Lord, Lord,' shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven” (v 21).
Biblical, spiritual conversion is expressed in the testimony of many who have come to Christ in this manner, “What I once loved, I now hate and what I once hated, I now love” indicating a complete transformation of the soul which finds its practical outworking in the mind and the flesh. Conversion is dramatically and fundamentally different from merely speaking formulaic words – it is a core change; a heart change. Conversion is at the same time immediate and progressive. At the moment of true conversion, one is both saved and will be saved from his sins.
In their zeal to “make converts,” or to increase the numbers of active participants in the culture of Christianity and church-life, many contemporary evangelicals have opted for a “Christianity-Light” approach to what once was popularly known as “soul-winning.” Simply respond to the preaching of the gospel by coming to an altar, repeating a prayer, filling in the blanks on the “new convert/salvation card” provided, hopefully (but here the numbers begin to decline) become water-baptized, and then (and the numbers take another drop) become a voting member of a particular assembly. Over time, the new “convert” discovers that the check-box items necessary for eventual admittance into heaven are: Attend church services regularly, pay one’s tithe habitually, be nice to others, occasionally volunteer for church duties (typically titled “Opportunities for Service). This is rather like meeting the terms and conditions of a proposed contract which guarantees future provided service.
Such a life-style will almost certainly guarantee that at the church member’s funeral service, the pastor will preach confidently that the decedent church member’s soul is now in heaven with Jesus and the saints of history.
But overt activity – praying a prayer, attending a church service, paying a tithe, volunteering one’s time are marks of a worldly and non-spiritual view of conversion to Christ. Activities, the outworking of the flesh appeal to the fleshly, worldly, self-conscious world outside the parameters of the kingdom of God.
True, biblical salvation – conversion – is first an inner thing. It must be so since the first cause of our alienation from God is first an inner thing. Sin is not so much an action as it is a heart attitude: An inner thing; a rebellion which says “I” first. True conversion gets to the core issue which appeared in the Garden when our first parents allowed the lure of self-knowledge, of self-gratification, of self-actualization – of being lighted from within by some supposed “self-light,” to supplant God as the First Cause and all-sufficient Benefactor, Source and Sustainer of life.
When Scripture reveals that “there is none righteous; no, not one” and that “all have sinned and come short of the glory of God,” the need for conversion is made evident. When we understand that “all we like sheep have gone astray,” we understand the requirement of replacement and not merely renovation or repair. Humans are fallen, broken things. Without Christ we are not merely mistaken or misguided; we are fallen beings. Without Christ we are ruined broken, destroyed; without Him we are “without hope” (see Ephesians 2:12).
The Message Bible perhaps says it best: We know very well that we are not set right with God by rule-keeping but only through personal faith in Jesus Christ. How do we know? We tried it - and we had the best system of rules the world has ever seen! Convinced that no human being can please God by self-improvement, we believed in Jesus as the Messiah so that we might be set right before God by trusting in the Messiah, not by trying to be good. Have some of you noticed that we are not yet perfect? (No great surprise, right?) And are you ready to make the accusation that since people like me, who go through Christ in order to get things right with God, aren't perfectly virtuous, Christ must therefore be an accessory to sin? The accusation is frivolous. If I was "trying to be good," I would be rebuilding the same old barn that I tore down. I would be acting as a charlatan. What actually took place is this: I tried keeping rules and working my head off to please God, and it didn't work. So I quit being a "law man" so that I could be God's man. Christ's life showed me how, and enabled me to do it. I identified myself completely with him. Indeed, I have been crucified with Christ. My ego is no longer central. It is no longer important that I appear righteous before you or have your good opinion, and I am no longer driven to impress God. Christ lives in me. The life you see me living is not "mine," but it is lived by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. Galatians 2:16-20