Not long ago I was at a training event where the group leader had us stand in a line and rearrange ourselves a few times, such as in order of age, height, number of years working in our profession, etc. At one point, he asked us to all get in line based on our conversion date, that is, the day we remember giving our life to Christ. I imagine he didn’t give this prompt a second thought, but this was actually rather awkward for me because I don’t remember a specific day I prayed the sinner’s prayer or responded to an altar call to “ask Jesus into my heart”. I was fortunate to grow up in a Christian home and cannot remember a time I don’t remember hearing and knowing the good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I can’t remember a time that I went from not believing it was true to believing it for myself. Certainly as I got older I more fully embraced my faith for my own in a proactive and tangible way, but the fact remains that I don’t really have a “Jesus birthday” in that sense. I think I may have been the only one who had this problem since most people didn’t have trouble getting in line for that activity even as I fumbled to find a place in the row. I don’t think the leader of the team-building activity was intending to “conversion shame” me nor were the other participants questioning my salvation. However, the assumption that we all had a specific, memorable, and perhaps even dramatic conversion experience reminded me of this common “cultural difference” between different Christian circles.
This question of conversionism is nothing new. It was part of the issue which led to the so-called “Half-Way Covenant” in colonial American congregationalist churches. A strong emphasis developed on having a discrete conversion experience in order to be a church member; the result was that people who could not recount such an experience were not granted full church membership and, among other things, they could not take Communion. The Half-Way Covenant was a compromise that permitted parents to have their children baptized in the church even though the parents were not considered full members. In fact, the parents were generally not even considered regenerate because they did not have a conversion narrative they could recount. As you can imagine, this policy created great controversy and eventually died out. (Ironically, I suspect many churches today may have the opposite problem of not clarifying carefully enough about someone’s commitment to Christ before permitting them to join as a member.)
When I was in high school, I was being interviewed by elders in a presbyterian church in order to become a member. Having come from a different denomination where I was asked to be rebaptized as a believer in order to join, I was concerned about needing to recount the specifics of my conversion experience. Indeed, “unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3). Being born into a Christian family does not guarantee your salvation. I’d also never been in a membership interview with several elders asking me questions, so I was quite nervous. When they asked about my personal faith, I hemmed and hawed a bit about my un-glamorous account, apologizing that I had a rather underwhelming story. The pastor smiled and said I did not need to be unduly stressed about this. Yes, they certainly wanted to see that I had truly placed my faith in Christ, but there are many people who do not remember a specific conversion date who are just as saved-by-grace as people who do have such a memory. The question was whether I believed the good news of the Gospel to be true and whether my life showed “fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matt 3:8). Paul says Timothy had “known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus”, and not just from childhood—the Greek literally says “from infancy” (2 Tim 3:15).
I was relieved by this pastor’s gentle reassurance that I did not need to reconstruct a memory I did not have. He reminded me of the assurance I have in Christ which does not depend on my praying a special prayer or even my recollection of when I first trusted in Him. Our true and saving faith depends on Christ alone, “the author and perfecter of our faith” (Heb 12:2), who lavishes all of His children with unmerited grace. I’m not sure I ever leaped in my mother’s womb at the thought of Jesus’ presence (Luke 1:41)! But I do know that for any of us, if we trust wholly in Christ at any age, we are His holy and beloved ones, redeemed by Him who is the “Way, the Truth, and the Life” (John 14:6). Daily we show we are His by the work of the Spirit in our lives, even as we ever thank God for our new birth.