And when Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” Mark. 12:34
Conversion is essentially faith in Jesus and repentance from sin emerging from a renewed heart.1 Many seem to understand this, but there is a lack of clarity over how we come to be converted.
What precedes conversion in the life of individuals? Most seem to think conversion is quick; that a person hears about Jesus and is changed. But in reality very few, if any people, are converted in an instant. Of course the beginning of faith/repentance stemming from regeneration is instantaneous, but getting there takes longer than an hour or a service. This is so because God first prepares the soul for conversion.
This is clearly seen in the Puritans’ approach to evangelism, sometimes called preparationism, or seeking evangelism. They taught that coming to Christ “took time, and was expected to take time.”2 They believed a part of this preparation involved “seeking.” Though the Puritans objected to a universal model of experience, they understood this preparation to have the same elements in each convert’s life. In this post I simply want to summarize the puritan doctrine of preparation. In the following post I will give practical application and examples of how we can implement this truth.
In general God’s preparatory work in the unconverted life is conviction (Jn 14, 16), and it can be thought of as having two stages.3 The first stage of conviction is contrition. This is a person’s awareness of his own sin and just judgment. God produces this guilt through the application of the law. Often this will produce an external change, perhaps even a kind of reformation. Here one must be careful not to equate reformation with conversion (a serious danger in our churches today). A little bit of holiness will give the seeker no comfort if their counselors do not give it to them. This reformation will usually collapse on itself showing that it is nothing to boast of before God, but rather that this too is sinful and incomplete and a cause for damnation. Contrition continues until real humiliation is present, the second stage. Humiliation is a condition of the heart that leads a man to conclude he can do nothing to please God and must therefore plead for grace. While the Spirit is working in the heart, man is responding by “seeking.”
Although Calvinists today are often opposed to the concept of “seekers,” it is usually in response to the misuse of the term by many in the church growth movement. Calvinists often used the term to refer to unbelievers that were pursuing Christ and salvation through the means given us by God. Though not a thorough Calvinist, Richard Baxter’s example is common to Puritan practice. He taught other pastors to counsel seekers by encouraging them with, “first, the duty of believing in Christ; and secondly, of using the external means of grace for the time to come, and the avoiding of former sins.”4 Knowing that men cannot change their hearts, he counsels us to say to those seeking, “set yourself to the diligent use of the means of grace till this change be wrought, and then continue the use of these means till you are confirmed, and last perfected.”5
When a person is aware of their lost condition, and are encouraged to believe in Christ for the forgiveness of their sins but have not yet done so we must lay out for them a path to take in which God is likely to regenerate them. The reading of Scripture, prayer, attending worship services, and spending time with believers should be encouraged and structured without giving them the impression that such things will make a person right with God (much more on this later).
Some (us Reformed folk) might wonder how a person can seek God, or be actively involved in spiritual things when God is sovereign in salvation, man is passive in his regeneration, and that the power of God is needed for success - not the work of man. Puritan, and of course biblical, thought is, “Man is passive in regeneration, but before and after regeneration man is active. The convert is passive in regeneration, but not about it.”6 In fact, such “seeking” is not the result of man’s natural interest in spiritual things, but is the result of God’s activity in the individual’s life. As John Owen explained in his treatise on the Holy Spirit, “As the word of God is preached, certain things begin to happen in the hearers as the Holy Spirit brings the word home to them personally. These things usually happen to a person before he is ‘born again.’”7 In other words, when we encourage the awakened unbeliever to seek God, this is predicated on the hope that God Himself is preparing them for Christ.
If we believe that God prepares a person for conversion, and that this may take days, weeks or months it will impact our methodology. In the next post I will lay out what we have done at our church, and what this doctrine means for us practically as Christians, evangelists and churches.
For more reading on Preparationism and Seeking Evangelism be sure to read: John Owen, The Holy Spirit Solomon Stoddard, A Guide to Christ Thomas Boston, The Art of Manfishing Iain Murray’s article on Thomas Hooker -------------------- 1 See Louis Berkhof’s Systematic Theology (Part 4 Ch. 7) or James Boyce’s Abstract of Systematic Theology (Chapter 32) for helpful chapters on conversion. 2 Thomas Boston, Art of Manfishing, pg. 14 3 Iain Murray, Thomas Hooker and the Doctrine of Conversion, pg. 36, 37 4 Richard Baxter, The Reformed Pastor, pg. 250 5 Ibid, pg. 252 6 Murray, pg. 35 7 John Owen, The Holy Spirit, pg. 52