Elizabeth writes... I've been thinking about Christian conversion and how we often view our own stories in a linear fashion and want to mark some point in time on a straight line from birth to death that marks our transition from not-a-Christian to Christian.
I have had discussions over the years with Christians on topics like, “Once saved, always saved,” and, “Can someone lose their salvation?” Interestingly, there are verses in the Bible that seem to leave these questions open.
All of this talk presumes a view of conversion as an “in-out” proposition. Let’s take a look at this in-out question...
Imagine Jesus invites Jill in. Jill accepts the invitation and lives in Christ for a number of years. Then one day, she decides she wants out. Can she get out? According to “once saved always saved” Jill can never get out. She may choose to act like she’s out, but she’s really still in and living in denial.
Then we have Andy, he wants in, but he’s not really sure he can live up to the standards of being in. He tries for a while, but royally screws up one day and is kicked out. Most of the time Andy still acts like he’s in, but he’s afraid if he tries to get back in, he’ll just screw up. According to “you can lose your salvation” thinking, Andy is out and will only be let back in if he behaves properly.
In either case, the in-out questions is answered in regards to a point in time. Is this the question we should be asking and trying to answer from our point of view?
In the Gospels Jesus uses many different metaphors or expressions when talking to people about faith:
you must be born again to see the kingdom of God (John 3:3),
he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me and I in him (John 6:56),
I am the light of the world, he who follows me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life (John 8:12),
My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow me; and I give eternal life to them, and they shall never perish: and no one shall snatch them out of My hand (John 10:27-28),
I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes n Me shall live even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die (John 11:25-26),
I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but through Me (John 14:6),
...and many more.
In just these few passages of Scripture we find complexity in what it means to be a Christian. Receiving, partaking, responding, relating, believing, choosing – all are part of the process of being converted, of choosing to follow Christ.
We are fooling ourselves if we think we can boil this mystery of being born again down into a brief moment in time when a person prays a prayer or walks an aisle to the altar. Even in physical human birth, the seed takes nine months to grow to the point of being birthed into this world.
Some have found it helpful to talk about different models of conversion, using:
set theory where in-out thinking is called bounded-set thinking, focused on the boundaries and whether a person is in or out; or
centered-set thinking focuses more on the process and the direction of the individual – are they moving toward the center - which in this case would be Jesus - or are they moving away.
Both of these models of conversion are still very linear and don’t leave much room for the complexities of life as we experience it.
Perhaps the study of complex systems and chaos theory could provide us with a workable model for conversion and help to change our thinking about evangelism and discipleship.
The term chaos when used in relation to chaos theory is at odds with the common usage of the term. We commonly think of chaos as complete disorder, but chaotic systems have the appearance of disorder but are actually governed by a set of deterministic laws. In applying this to a person’s experience of conversion, chaos theory would allow for seemingly random behavior within God’s system of grace, or as I like to say, unpredictability governed by grace.
We would do well to accept the variability and unpredictability of the activity of God in the world and leave the questions of who is in and who is out, who is moving towards or who is moving away, to God who governs it all with grace.
When we place conversion as the goal of our evangelism we run the risk of becoming judge and jury of a shallow faith that doesn’t resemble the kind of Kingdom living Jesus came to usher in.