A Study in the Ways we Talk About Conversion
When I was in school growing up I loved English but hated grammar. I loved to read and write but I hated having to learn to identify the subject from the object or to know what a subjunctive clause was. I used to think, just let me read or write something and when I see it on the page I can tell you if it’s good grammar or not by the way it looks. I can even tell you what’s wrong with it but what I can’t do (nor can I see any reason to learn to do) is use the fancy words to tell you that it’s got a misplaced modifier or a dangling participle. I don’t know what those things are. I’ll just tell you that that word doesn’t belong there or this phrase doesn’t work here and I can fix the sentence and we can all go home happy. My teachers and I never quite saw eye to eye on this.1
I especially hated prepositions. If you asked me right now, I couldn’t define a preposition in a way that would pass a high school examination. I remember one grade school teacher saying that if a cat can do it, it’s a preposition. Words like over, on, through, beneath – a cat can do those things so they’re prepositions. I’m pretty sure that example breaks down at some point, but it’s the best I can do.
All of this matters because this morning, despite my reticence, I want to consider two prepositions from the Bible. And if you’re like me, you might feel tempted to shut down at this point, but I urge you to stay with me because this is not a grammar lesson. This is study in Christian conversion that will be accomplished by paying attention to the prepositions, “in” and “into” as they’re used in the New Testament.
I’ve been thinking a lot about conversion lately. By that I don’t mean that I’m thinking about converting to anything myself but that I’ve been thinking about the concept of conversion in general. In the past several months I’ve read the conversion stories of some of the great Christian thinkers like C.S. Lewis and Saint Augustine and also some recent Christian leaders like D.L. Moody and even Billy Graham. I’ve also been in school lately studying the history of Christian movements – everything from the Great Awakenings to the rise of Evangelicalism to the Pentecostal movement. And through all of this I’m wondering what causes someone to change from one set of beliefs and practices to a completely different set of beliefs and practices? How does conversion work?
And lately, just for my own personal interest, I’m starting to pursue a line of thinking that asks questions about the psychology of conversion. This sort of thing might strike some of us as odd. We understand that conversion is a spiritual process. We either respond to the Holy Spirit’s prompting and make changes – or – we are changed almost in spite of ourselves by the Holy Spirit – or – some combination of both occurs depending on your theology, I suppose. And I agree with that. But surely our mind and our make-up play a role as well. It’s obvious. Certain people will respond to certain modes of communication that others won’t. Every week somebody loves my sermon and somebody else hates it.2 There has never been a week where this hasn’t been the case. People can always be counted on to respond differently. Not all of us are as relational as others, for example. Not all of us are wired emotionally the same way. Not all of us are as expressive as others. Some of us are more governed by reason and logic than others. God, in His wisdom made us all with different temperaments. All of this plays a role in how we respond to various forms of preaching, teaching, or gospel proclamation.
But I’ve also been thinking about not only how we respond but how much we respond. This means looking at the spiritual versus psychological factors involved in why some people change more than others. My father in law was nearly a complete pagan as a young man, and then went forward at an altar call and started attending church, studying his Bible and tithing the very next week because that’s what he was told to do and he’s kept it up for the rest of his life. Others come forward with the same sincerity, believing in the same truths, are told the same things, and then change very little. In individuals, is it just that some people resist the Spirit more than others or is it that some people are of a different temperament than others? And it’s even more interesting when we talk about cultures instead of individuals. For example, why are North American Christians less different and set apart from North American non-Christians than Christians in Africa are from their non-Christian countrymen? Any study will show you that the divorce rate is the same in the American church as in the American culture, American Christian give away 2.5% of their income while non-Christians give away just over 2%. In nearly every measurable comparison of behavior Christian and non-Christians in this country are almost identical. That’s just not true everywhere. Why? Is it just that some cultures are more open to change? Is it the fault of mass media? Or is it that the Holy Spirit is stronger is in Kenya than in Canada? To put it bluntly, why do some conversions seem to stop just short of any real change?
One answer may be in the prepositions. The way we talk about faith amongst ourselves and the way we present faith to the unconverted matters a great deal. And over the past sixty or so years the main metaphor used by evangelicals in America (that’s us) to talk about faith is to say that to become a Christian is to invite Jesus into your heart. Into is the preposition in that sentence. To be converted is to have Jesus in your heart. And make no mistake, that’s clearly a Biblical way of speaking. In his letter to the Ephesians Paul writes in chapter 3 verses 16 and 17, “16I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, 17so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith.”
Paul wants Christ to dwell in the hearts of the Ephesians through faith. He wants Christ to come into – that’s the preposition – into their hearts. Now, that’s not the only way the Bible talks about conversion, and in fact, using the same prepositions it speaks about it a very different way. Here’s what Paul writes to the Romans in chapter 8 verse 1, “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus…”
Notice the difference? Paul says to the Romans that those who have received salvation are no longer condemned. But what’s the metaphor for salvation? It’s those who are “in Christ.” It’s those who have stepped into Christ who are no longer condemned.
In the first passage, Christ came into us; in the second, we came into Christ. What we have here are two Biblical metaphors, both using the preposition in or into, which pertain to salvation or conversion. Now if we took a survey of all North American evangelical Christians about the day they felt they were converted, which language would the majority of them use? Would they say, “I invited Christ into my heart on such and such a day…” or would they say, “I came into Christ on such and such a day…”
It’s pretty clearly the first one. The second one just doesn’t sound right to most of our ears, probably because the first one is so prevalent. It’s the one we use in children’s evangelism, for example. I heard a true story the other day about a little girl whose grandfather was going in for open heart surgery and she asked her dad if the doctors would be able to see Jesus when they opened grandpa’s heart. It’s the kind of story that makes you say, “awww…” and it’s a good question and it’s illustrative of the power the metaphor for having Jesus in your heart has, especially for young children. And again, it’s Biblical to speak this way.
But here’s something interesting. Of all the times the prepositions in or into are used in relation to Jesus in the New Testament, the overwhelming majority are used to say that it’s we who are in Christ rather than Christ who is in us. Both are there, but the dominant form in the New Testament is to say that it is we who enter into Christ at conversion rather than the other way around. Here are some other examples:
- 1st Thessalonians 2:14 – For you, brothers, became imitators of God’s churches in Judea which are in Christ Jesus. (Here the churches are considered to be the people who are in Jesus rather than described as the people who have Jesus in them.)
- Galatians 3:27 – For all of you who were baptized in Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Here we enter into Christ at baptism and being in Christ changes our whole identity.)
These are just two examples of how the Bible more often tends to see conversion as us entering Christ rather than Christ entering us. There are lots of others. The phrase “in Christ” occurs 27 times in the book of Ephesians alone versus the one example I already gave in Ephesians of Christ dwelling in us. Interesting.
It’s interesting that we’ve gone the other direction and made our recent speech about conversion almost universally about Jesus entering into our hearts rather than about us entering into Christ. Why’d we do that? When did that start? Those are the kinds of questions that might make someone who’s interested in the psychology of conversion look a little deeper. This seems to be an evangelical phenomenon. Other traditions don’t talk about salvation this way. It’s particular to us. I don’t want to give a history lesson here, but the history is fascinating, so let me just say this about the beginnings of evangelicalism: American evangelicalism has been around only since about WWII when certain Christians began to feel that instead of being liberal Christians who didn’t believe anything in the Bible was to be taken literally or fundamentalists who believed everything in the Bible was inerrantly literal, that they would be a middle way between the two. And instead of viewing the surrounding culture as pure contamination and escaping it like fundamentalists, or uncritically embracing the surrounding culture and adapting or even changing the gospel to fit it like the liberals, they would let some things from the culture in and keep some things from the culture out. It was a middle way; a dangerous way that meant everything had to be discussed and debated with the hope that the Holy Spirit would lead us to truth. It was called evangelicalism.
From the start, evangelicalism has put a strong emphasis on personal conversion. Not all forms of Christianity do this. And from the start, the phrase of choice for conversion has been to become “born again” by accepting, inviting, or receiving Jesus Christ into your heart. The lead figure for evangelicals in the early days was none other than Billy Graham and his influence has been enormous. His common invitation was to ask (in my best Billy impersonation), “Have you received Jesus into your heart?” But he wasn’t the only influential one. In 1954 a little booklet came out by a man named Robert Munger. It was called My Heart, Christ’s Home. It took the metaphor for Jesus coming into a heart and put it in story form as if your heart had several rooms and each one must be made right by and for Jesus if he were to live there. The booklet sold for ten cents a copy and has been re-published numerous times since. By conservative estimates, there are at least 10 million copies in circulation today. In the 70’s, The Billy Graham association gave away hundreds of thousands of them as follow up to their crusades. In 1992, the evangelical publisher Inter Varsity Press asked Munger to update it and released it again. IVP has released 27 editions and printed it in 16 languages to date. It has had a massive influence on the way we view conversion.
Going on simultaneous to this was another organization known as Campus Crusade with its founder Bill Bright. Campus produced an even smaller document, known as a tract, called the Four Spiritual Laws. These laws lay out the good news of Christ and at the end the reader is invited to pray to receive Christ so that he can enter into their life, or their heart. Now, if you’re waiting for the hammer to drop from me, you’re going to be disappointed. I don’t think Billy, or Munger, or Campus Crusade are bad.3 Randa and I send money to Campus every month.4
All I’m trying to establish is that the major drivers of the evangelical engines for conversion all prefer the Biblical idea of Jesus coming into our lives rather than the Biblical idea of our lives coming into Jesus. This has been our phrase of choice from the beginning and remains so today. Again, this is in spite of the Bible’s preference to speak of conversion the other way around by a tremendously wide margin. What I’m trying to do is make a case for speaking of salvation the way the Bible does. I don’t want to abandon the “Jesus in my heart” language but I want to us to learn to stress the “entering into Jesus” language more. In other words, we need to get our prepositions in proportion. I want us to think and speak more about salvation as entering into Christ. And here’s a few reasons why.
First of all, think of the implications of each metaphor. Each suggests that there is one thing that fits inside of another thing; ie. that one is smaller than the other. To have Jesus come into your heart or life is to suggest that your heart or life is bigger than Jesus. To be in Christ is to suggest that Christ is bigger. This creates some very subtle perceptions.
First of all, with the language of Jesus coming into my heart there is the unintended perception that I don’t have to change much. My life is what it is and Jesus can come into my heart and with a few tweaks here and there can make my life in its present form work better. He’ll improve my marriage! He’ll give me an advantage in the job market! He’ll keep me safe! He’ll bring me blessing! It’s all about him making my life in its present form work better. Now not everybody comes right out and says that, but isn’t that the way American Christianity plays out in practice? Jesus can come into my heart, but I still make the decisions. It’s my life. He can be my savior, but not my Lord. He can guide me, but not command me. It’s my heart and like any guest he can make himself comfortable but as long as he’s under my roof I’ll make the rules around here. It’s not fun to talk this way but it’s difficult to deny that this is the way we understand salvation when you look around the church today and see very little difference between how we live and how the world lives. Again, this is fairly unique to North Americans. It’s a big life but a little Jesus.
In contrast, when it’s we who are in Christ, it’s we who are little and Christ who is big. What was it John the Baptist said? “[Jesus] must become greater; I must become less.” (John 3:30) That’s an entirely different attitude. To decrease in stature is contrary to the American dream. But to be in Christ is to see clearly that I am now beholden to something bigger than me; bigger than my right to do as I please, yes even bigger than my plans, hopes, and dreams. If that is how salvation is presented to me it requires a whole lot of careful consideration and counting of the cost before making that decision. It’s probably not the kind of decision I want to make immediately after a sermon or reading a 16 page book or 8 page tract. When Jesus speaks of conversion he asks us to count the cost.5 The cost is our very lives. Instead of increasing the self, it’s almost like asking you to die to the self. Now which is more in tune with the overall message of the New Testament?
Consider also the implications for community. We live in the most individualistic culture the world has ever produced. One reason we prefer speaking of Jesus coming into my life is because it heightens the role of the individual. We’re a nation of rugged individualists. If Jesus comes into your heart, whatever happens in that transaction is particular to you. It is an individual event. But if you come into Christ you have stepped into the same Jesus that billions of others have stepped into. By definition you are never in Christ alone, but always together with others. That changes our perception of things.
It means that you’re stepping into something that already exists and the expectation is that your life changes to conform to Christ and his community. Change is implied. Paul writes the Corinthians, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” (2nd Cor. 5:17) This cuts against the grain of our whole culture because it says that serving and preserving the individual self is not our highest priority. In fact, the individual self that we know has to go in favor of something new.
One of the reasons we have such struggles with the New Testament theme of dying to ourselves is because talking about salvation exclusively in terms of Jesus coming into our hearts implies that something new has come into something old. Jesus has come into our existing hearts. And yes, he may tidy the place up a little, but it’s still our heart. He will change it, but not overwhelm it by tossing it out and creating something new. The old has not gone and there is no need for the new to come.
And when it comes to community this is the difference between joining a club and being born into a family. I can think about the church as a club. I can look around and say that she has Jesus in her heart, and he has Jesus in his heart, and I have Jesus in my heart so we have a very strong point of connection. But it’s a connection based on what we share between us as individuals, like the connection between Saturn drivers, or Mariners fans. It’s a real connection. The connection began the moment the connecting thing came into your life. You bought a Saturn or went to your first ball game at Safeco and you loved it and thought about hanging out with people who’ve had similar experiences when the same thing entered their life. So you joined a club of people. Now there are plenty of Mariners fans who aren’t part of the fan club and plenty of Saturn drivers who don’t get together at car shows. They can do this because it’s an individual thing – no strings attached. Just like there are plenty of people who have accepted Jesus into their hearts but are part of no Christian community. See, no matter how radically you love your Saturn, you as an individual are not totally defined by it, or are only defined by it as much as you want to be. It came into your life when your life was already established. It didn’t make you a new creation. In your mind, it enhanced the old one. And therefore any connection you feel towards others will last until you buy a Camry, or move to Boston and start cheering for the Red Sox or a church that better meets your needs. If you don’t do any of those things, that connection can last indefinitely for as long as you keep re-upping and buying Saturns, but it will always be a connection between individuals who have believed the Saturn sales pitch.
But that’s a far cry from being born into a family. The moment you were born (or born again) you entered this family. You didn’t get to choose that family. It didn’t enter you by virtue of some preference you had. If so, most of us would have chosen a different family. But that wasn’t an option. You just entered it by being born (or born again). It’s bigger than you, and your preferences, and your changing and shifting whims or even needs. You are an individual, but at the same time, you’re not because what you’ve entered will shape you. All of us are shaped by our families. Even those of us who never knew one of our parents are shaped by that absence. Your family will form you into who you will become. It will make claims on you. These claims are not dependent upon something entering you but rather on the fact that you entered something. Now which is the Biblical model for community – a club or a family? Obviously a family. And which do the majority of our churches resemble more? I think we’re more like a Jesus club than a family. Jesus entered into our hearts like a Saturn entered our garage. It changes our life a little, and maybe we start hanging out with some new friends, but everything is still very much on our terms. Easy come, easy go.
This is the deal evangelicals struck with the culture. For the sake of our sales numbers, we’ll present conversion in the easiest possible terms. It’s quick and painless. Our evangelistic philosophy is “Don’t let them leave the showroom floor.” Decide now. Today is the day of salvation. This is the hour of decision. If you died tonight do you know where you’d end up? We’re pushing for instant decisions and we’re getting half baked Christians. In the Bible, when instant conversion happens, it’s always a miraculous work of the Spirit. And conversions tend to be near total and cultures tend to be changed. Think of Paul or Pentecost. Evangelicals learned to present a reasonable facsimile, and our culture remains unchanged. In the post WWII instant-consumer culture that spawned us, we’ll present Jesus in such a way that you can consume him to enhance your lives. Life if better with Coke. Life is better with Jesus. The problem is that Scripture presents Jesus in a way that consumes us. Jesus is not a tame lion. In the Silver Chair the young girl Jill asks the lion Aslan if he’ll promise not to do anything to her if she comes near. Aslan says he’ll make no such promise. She asks if he eats little girls. He says, “I have swallowed girls and boys, women and men, kings and emperors, cities and realms.”6 See there is no question of Aslan being consumed by Jill. The only question is whether or not Jill wants to be consumed by Aslan.
That’s how the New Testament frames conversion. Did you know that in the Gospel of John, lost in our English translations, the preposition into is attached to the word believe? 36 times “believe” is followed by “into.” In John 3:16 when we say that whoever believes in Jesus shall not perish, the actual Greek preposition is “believe into” Jesus. To believe “in” something means to accept a set of doctrines or statements. I believe in Jesus means that I believe that Jesus died for my sins and rose again so I receive him into my heart. To believe into something is more than just intellectual assent; it’s a believing that moves us into union with the object of our belief. One commentator writes, “Faith, for John, is an activity which takes men right out of themselves and makes them one with Christ.”7
There’s another preposition. To move into Christ is to come out of ourselves. This aspect of conversion is lost when we only talk about Christ coming into our hearts. Look, all I’m arguing for is a return to Biblical language about salvation. That includes wanting Jesus in our hearts, but emphasizes our lives being in Jesus. The way we talk about things tends to be the way we come to understand them which in turn becomes the way we live them out. I leave you with this challenge: Ask yourself what it means for you to be in Christ. Meditate on that phrase throughout the week. Ask yourself how your conversion experience may have been different if you were invited to come into Christ rather than been invited to ask Jesus into your heart. Consider how radical your conversion really was. Do you want Jesus to get you to heaven, and maybe tidy up your life a little on the way? Or do you want to be made new? Do you want a whole new life? We’re talking about the very core of what it means to be Christian.
There is room for both ways of speaking of conversion, but the proportion matters. Isn’t it time to speak and live as a people who are in Christ? As an example, we’ll close with the prayer of Jesus from John 17, immediately before his arrest. Close your eyes and listen to Jesus as he prays for us and pay attention to the prepositions he uses. Let’s pray.
(Pray John 17:20-26)