In re-reading John Stott’s excellent Basic Christianity, I was reminded of sharing the gospel with a neighbor on several occasions many years ago. For months he (we’ll call him Ralph) and his wife would come to our home Bible studies and ask good questions. Over time, however, I realized that the kinds of questions Ralph posed seemed like a feigned attempt to show interest in order to be be accepted by others in the group. He eventually admitted that he was agnostic about the existence of God, the work of Jesus on his behalf, and other similar topics.
One day he and his wife were out for a stroll and stopped by for a visit. I invited them in and we sat in my office for more than an hour as he raised more questions and I offered more answers. Periodically his wife would try and clarify things but ended up with as many questions as he did. “How can we be certain God exists?” “What if the Bible is just another story written by humans and ends up being false? How do you know it’s historically accurate?” “Jesus seems like a good person, but how can he die for me in my place?” “And, what about the other world’s religions? Are they all wrong?” “God would not send people to Hell if they don’t know about Jesus, would he?” So went the battery of questions. Though my cautious replies were rarely refuted (which led me to think that he was not just arguing), he insisted upon pursuing his inquiries. Asking questions seemed more important that finding answers.
Finally, I asked him “Ralph, if I could answer all your questions and concerns to your satisfaction, would you then be willing to commit to Jesus as Lord and Savior?” The silence was deafening. After a long pause he said, “No…..I guess I wouldn’t.” At that point it became crystal clear to me, and to him, that something much larger was at stake than mere knowledge or understanding. Stott writes:
In seeking God we have to be prepared not only to revise our ideas but to reform our lives. The Christian message has a moral challenge. If the message is true, the moral challenge has to be accepted…You cannot fix God at the end of a telescope or a microsope and say ‘How interesting!’ God is not interesting. He is deeply upsetting….We have to be ready not just to believe, but to obey.
So how does obedience or repentance fit with conversion to Christianity?
The biblical notion of repentance entails a behavioral change as well as cognitive one. Though it involves a knowledge of and regret for our offense (e.g., Mt. 27:3; 2 Cor. 7:9-10; Heb. 12:17 KJV), repentance unto conversion always issues in a determined active response to abandon a lifestyle dominated by sin (see, Is. 59:20; Ez. 14:6; Mt. 3:8; 4:17; Lk. 5:32). Sadly for Ralph something in this world was more attractive than the world God offers in Christ.
The Bible insists that repentance is not only desired by God but demanded by him (Acts 17:30; 2 Pt. 3:9) and was the beginning and end of Jesus’ message (Mt. 4:17; Lk. 24:46-47). Repentance involves turning from everything(one) seeking to rule our lives and turning to God as the sole Lord, Ruler, and Master of all (Mt. 6:24; 12:30; Acts 3:19; 14:15; 20:21; 26:20; 1 Thess. 1:9). Repentance is more than just a change of mind, it is a change of masters! Since repentance unto conversion is granted by God (Acts 11:18; 2 Tim. 2:25), it cannot be viewed as a work wrought by humans apart from God’s action, nor does it lie dormant within the human soul just waiting to sprout up at the right time. “Salvation comes from the LORD” (Jonah 2:9).
I never learned whether or not Ralph became a Christian since moving away from that neighborhood. But, I’m confident that he was confronted with a biblically faithful Gospel that calls on us not only to believe but to behave.
Sola gratia! Sola fide!