COVER STORY – CONVERSION
I certainly believe that the Lord works conversions, I just don’t think my actions always show it. If you’re like me, you find it comfortable—even exciting—to share God’s Word with those you find agreeable. If they look like me, share similar interests, and carry a friendly demeanor, the light bulb goes off: “I should encourage this person to come to church! I think he’d be receptive.” But if a person doesn’t meet those standards, the conclusion is, “I think I’d be wasting my time.” This mindset is a shameful denial of the converting power of the Holy Spirit. To be converted means to be changed from one state to another entirely. It’s not a side-shimmy into faith as my subconscious prerequisites imply.
Consider the Apostle Paul’s trip to Athens (Acts 17:16-34). Exploring the marketplace and likely marveling at the wide range of exotic goods, he was soon overwhelmed by the presence of rampant idolatry—statues and shrines dedicated to every god that man could invent. He even found an altar dedicated “To the Unknown God.” I’m quite certain if I had been there that day, I would have kept a low profile. “I’m clearly an outsider here. They won’t believe anyway.”
Paul didn’t think that. He went to the local synagogue and reasoned with the Jews and believing Greeks concerning Jesus and the resurrection. A group of philosophers was present and, hearing these new ideas, invited Paul to share his teachings at the Aereopagus, the hill outside the city that served as a debate floor. “Thanks for the invitation, but I’d actually better get going.” That might have been my response to the unbelieving Athenians, but Paul leapt at the opportunity.
During his discourse, Paul revealed an important truth about both his audience and every person to whom you have opportunity to witness. Speaking about every individual, Paul revealed that God “has determined their preappointed times and the boundaries of their dwellings, so that they should seek the Lord, in the hope that they might grope for Him and find Him.” (Acts 17:26-27) This is an important truth to bear in mind. Every citizen of this world is born with a knowledge that God exists.
The problem is, left to their own devices, people cannot find God. They can only invent gods created in man’s image. The Greek gods, for example, were imagined to be far off and unconcerned about mankind, which existed to serve them. If they left Mount Olympus, it was to seek petty vengeance. How different man’s gods are from the God revealed in the Bible! Paul declared that God was “not far from each one of us,” and that “He’s not worshiped with men’s hands, as though He needed anything.” (Acts 17:25; 27) Instead of punishing every slight, God overlooked the times of ignorance, “but now commands all men everywhere to repent.” (Act 17:30)
Indeed, God has come near. He entered humanity as our stand-in and has come near again through His saving Word. He does not need our service, rather He came “to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:28) He does not immediately respond to our arrogant failures with vengeance; instead, He calls us to repentance so He can satisfy our guilty consciences with His healing forgiveness. Praise be to God for revealing these truths to us! For we were not born Christian; we were on the fast track to hell. We were each entirely opposed to God’s will, and yet He now calls us His saints through Christ. That is total change!
Contrary to any pre-determinations I might have made about the Athenians, some came to faith that day. It is not our job to analyze whether a person might believe the Gospel. The power to convert does not lie in a person’s “receptivity,” for then none of us would believe. God alone is the one who saves.
Samuel Rodebaugh is pastor of Immanuel Lutheran Church in Winter Haven, Florida.