There are two main conversion stories in the New Testament.
First, there is Peter’s. He picks up and follows Jesus but doesn’t ever seem to really understand him. He tries to walk on water and almost drowns, he makes a fool of himself at Jesus’ transfiguration… and Jesus’ arrest… and Jesus’ trial. Even after his incredible sermon at Pentecost, he still gets confused about how to eat and whom to eat with. His was a “crock-pot” conversion – slowly, over time, he came to see the truth.
Then, there is Paul’s. Everything changed in an instant. One moment he is killing Christians; the next moment he’s the Apostle to the Gentiles. His was a “microwave” conversion – quick yet effective.
And these two big conversion stories give us a way to think about our own conversion stories. They have become the filing system we use to organize the stories we hear about finding faith.
Grew up in a Christian home? Baptized at age eight? Active in their youth group? Went to a Christian University where they met their Christian spouse?
File that one under “Peter.”
Grew up in a broken home? Introduced to drugs at age eight? Active in a gang? Went to a party school where they met a Campus minister who helped them get sober and find Jesus?
File that one under “Paul!”
And dividing up conversion stories like this can be helpful. It gives us language to describe our experience. It assures us that, no matter what our particular journey is, there is room for us in the story of God.
But if we aren’t careful, we start to assume that “Peter” conversions are for those who grow up in the church while “Paul” conversions are for the drug addicts, wife-beaters, and convicted murderers. “Peter” conversions are for those who have never really strayed from the straight and narrow while “Paul” conversions are for those who have hit rock bottom.
But that’s not Paul’s story, is it?
Paul wasn’t headed to Damascus for a wild night at a bar. He was headed there to protect God’s holy people from the threat of Christianity.
In other words, Paul’s conversion is not the story of a lost, ir-religious man. It’s the story of a lost and deeply religious man.
And we need to pay attention to that. Because Paul’s conversion is actually a lot like Peter’s. Both men go from being certain they know the truth about God to realizing that they had it completely wrong. God is actually much bigger, better, and more surprising than either could have imagined. Instead of helping God, it turns out they had been hindering God all along.
And if we turn Paul’s conversion into a pattern that fits only the most flagrant of sinners, then we risk missing the convicting reality that we – your most stalwart Christians – may be in desperate need of a radical, life-altering, “turn-on-a-dime” conversion. Even if… No, especially if, we have been Christians our entire lives.
Because it may actually be harder to convert Christians to Christianity than anyone else.
Consider this confession from Dietrich Bonhoeffer:
“I plunged into my work in a very unchristian way, quite lacking in humility. I was terribly ambitious, as many people noticed, and that made my life difficult and kept from me the love and trust of people around me. I was very much alone and left to my own devices; it was a bad time. Then something happened which has tossed about and changed my life to this day. For the first time I discovered the Bible. Again, that’s a bad thing to have to say. I had often preached, I had seen a great deal of the church, spoken and written about it – but I had not yet become a Christian. Instead, I had been my own master, wild and undisciplined. I know that what I was doing then was using the cause of Jesus Christ for my own advantage, and being terribly vain about it. I pray God that it never happens again. Also I had never prayed, or only very little. For all my loneliness I was rather pleased with myself. Then the Bible freed me from that, in particular the Sermon on the Mount. Since then everything has changed. I have felt this plainly, and so have other people around me.”
Does that sound familiar? For some people, the biggest obstacle to becoming a Christian is thinking that they already are a Christian.
Most of us who have been in church for most of our lives assume that we have already had our conversion experience. But what if your true conversion was just around the corner? What if you are about to see God in a wholly new and previously unimaginable way? What if, years after your baptism, you are finally about to become a Christian?
I have a book entitled, “Conversions.” In it, the editors have collected the conversion stories of fifty different Christians from throughout Church history. And one of the things that is most interesting about the book is that, alongside the conversion stories of blatant sinners and skeptical unbelievers, there are just as many stories from people who were Christians their entire lives. They never left the Church, the never denied Christ, the lived relatively holy lives. And yet each of them experienced something that they deemed worthy of the word, “conversion.” I once was lost but now I am found.
Their names include: John Calvin, John Wesley, George Fox, Martin Luther, and significantly for anyone in the Restoration movement – Barton Stone. And if you know anything about any of these Christians, you’ll notice a pattern. These are the movers and shakers of Church history. Each of them had been on the Damascus road, when all of sudden they learned that God was bigger and better and more surprising than they had ever imagined. And they were converted. And they have invited countless other Christians to convert with them.
As it turns out, Paul’s conversion story isn’t just for the hardened sinner. It works for the hardened saint, as well.
Are you a Christian? Consider this your Altar call.