While those who speak these testimonies are trophies of God’s grace, these extraordinary experiences should not be the standard or rule when it comes to conversion any more than a “slow” or ordinary conversion. Of course, this has much to do with the Great Awakenings (I & II) here in the United States, and is still discussed in journals, books, and the blogosphere.
Here’s Bavinck’s level-headed approach to conversion experience (by way of a few quotes).
“Although true conversion is always the same in essence, yet in the manner and the time when it occurs, there are all sorts of differences.”
“When we take as our standard the way Paul, Augustine, and Luther came to conversion and apply it to the conversions of which our missions tell us, we are, aside from a few exceptions, sorely disappointed. The motives for the conversions that come to our attention are frequently very different from what we would have expected or wished.” Bavinck goes on and explains reasons why and ways in which people turn to Jesus. He also explains that there are differences in conversion experiences between those who have grown up in a Christian home and those who have not. For those who have grown up in a solid Christian home, conversion may not consist of an “outward and visible change, but it always includes a heartfelt sorrow over sin and a sincere love for God and his commandments.”
“Sin is so multiform that everyone has their pet sin of which they above all experience the power and from which they need deliverance. And the gospel is so full of riches that one moment it can enlighten and comfort a seeker-of-salvation with one truth and the next with another. This diversity in conversion is something we need to respect. We may not simply make one type the standard and apply it to all others. We must accept the varied hidden and amazing leadings of the Holy Spirit. We may no more demand from everyone a ‘penitential struggle’ and ‘breakthrough’ period of dread and despair and a sudden subsequent surge of peace and joy, than we may at once infer the authenticity or inauthenticity of conversion from a variety of intense feelings and odd incidents.”
Here’s the key: “What matters more than anything else in the case of these most necessary and important changes in a person’s life is not the form and the manner, but the substance. And about that substance no human can judge but only God, who knows the hearts of people. All we can say is that true conversion always consists both in hating sin and fleeing from sin, and in a sincere love of God and his service.”
This is pretty important stuff to ponder. I’ve heard of new Christians with radical (and great!) conversion experiences who float from church to church, holding their conversion experiences and attitudes as the norm and standard. The reason they floated around from church to church is because they couldn’t find a church full of experiences and attitudes like thiers. Instead, many of the churches were “cold” because most of the people grew up in that church and couldn’t explain their conversion well.
Sometimes that critique is a point well taken, but at the same time, Bavinck’s words should make us a bit more “accepting” when it comes to conversion experience. It’s not the intense feelings or odd incidents that prove our conversion, but the internal and sometimes slow, quiet work of the Spirit making a person hate sin and love righteousness. Sometimes that takes 20 years! Grace, says Bavinck, restores nature; it works with, not against it. In my own pastoral experience, I’ve had to counsel Christians who had no huge conversion experiences to not worry so much. It certainly doesn’t help when churches make people who have had radical conversions “stars” or “celebrities.”
Since this is already longer than our usual posts, let me put one more quote of Bavinck out there: those who focus “completely on a sudden crisis, an intense wave of emotion, a conscious turnaround,” make it “appear as if one were saved ‘by conversion rather than by Christ.'” Amen.