Salvation versus Conversion. Missiological Implications

The Great Commission

The Great Commission (Matthew Version) Image via Wikipedia

I believe missionaries/evangelists should focus on “salvation” than “conversion.” Of course, there are so many different meanings for the terms, I will give what I mean by them. If you don’t like the definitions… I understand.

Conversion is a single, one-time divine event where a person transitions from a state of judgment to a state of grace, being adopted into the family of God.

Salvation is a process that starts at birth, goes through a time of searching to divine justification (freedom from the penalty of sin) through a process of sanctification (increasing freedom from the power of sin) and ultimately to eternal glorification (freedom from the presence of sin).

A lot of people think of salvation as a one-time event… but I think that theologically speaking, that concept really applies to conversion/adoption/justification/redemption. So one might say that “I am redeemed” but also say “I am BEING saved.” However, even if you don’t like terms as they are used, I think you can agree that these are reasonable concepts (at least within the Evangelical understanding of Christianity). Term “A” refers to a one-time “saving” event. Term “B” refers to a process of growth leading to eternal life (that includes the “saving” event).

8 Reasons for focusing on salvation (process) rather than conversion (event) in missions.

  1. The Great Commission (Matthew version especially) sees mission work in terms of life process. Go into all the world and preach the Gospel (share God’s word to all), baptizing them (those that are responsive), and teaching them to obey (long process of sanctification). There is no “fire and forget” in missions. The John version suggests we are sent out in like manner and calling the Jesus was sent out by the Father. This also suggests a broad understanding of our mission since the mission of Christ was broad.
  2. Overemphasis on the Sinner’s Prayer. While the “Sinner’s Prayer” is a nice encapsulation of some basic Gospel truths, it is just words. We are saved by faith, not by words. Maybe in some parts of the world this is not a problem… but in the Philippines, it is easy to get people to mumble some words if you do some act of kindness for them. Telling a person of faith that they are not saved because they haven’t said the sinner’s prayer is wrong. Telling a person who says the sinner’s prayer that they are saved regardless of their heart is dangerous.
  3. It tends to disconnect “faith” from “faithfulness” and the cognitive from the volitional and active parts of our being. Overemphasis on the one-time experience can confuse us into thinking of faith as a momentary cognitive logical assent. However, faith without faithfulness is not faith. Faith without volitional and active involvement is not real faith. I am not arguing for losing one’s salvation. I am not arguing for a works-based salvation. I am simply pointing out that the idea that faith is simply a “mental assent to a doctrinal truth” is not well-grounded. We should be emphasizing that a Christian is to live a faithful life, choosing daily to follow Christ, ignoring temptations to go astray. A Christian perhaps can be converted without faithfully following Christ, but a young follower of Christ should understand this person to be abnormal… a mutant of sorts. We need to focus on the Christian as a faithful follower/disciple of Christ.
  4. Focusing on conversion tends to make us stereotype non-Christians. Non-Christians may be hard or soft atheists, closed or open agnostics, ignostics, are an innumerable broader range of religious/philosphical and emotional convictions. If conversion is our goal in every gospel presentation, then every presentation without a conversion response is a failure. However, if one recognizes that some non-Christians are completely ignorant, or woefully misinformed about Christ and living as a follower of Christ, then any conversation that leads to a better understanding and brings them to a point that they can ultimately start to follow Him, is a successful conversation. This is the Engel Scale in action. Likewise, if someone is hostile to Christ, and is brought toward a more positive attitude about Christ and following Him, then this also was a success. This is the affective axis on the Gray Matrix. One could turn the straight line scale (Engel) to a plane (Gray) and then to a cube by adding a third axis. This axis would be behavioral. We can not only work to explain God’s truth (cognitive growth) and increase affective/emotional growth of unbelievers, but we can also help them to conform behaviorally. This is touchy since the world is fully of people who conform superficially. However, if we recognize that behavior can be self-destructive and addictive. Helping the unbeliever to find release from the destructive behavior may also be a useful part of their path towards following Christ. Some people need to be freed from their personal demons before they are able to move forward in the path of Christ.
  5. Focus on conversion means that we often expect too much in too little time. It is perfectly normal and healthy for a person to “count the cost” of following Christ. A missionary/evangelist should help them gently through that process rather than forcing a poorly thought out (and perhaps unreal) response. In the case of where a person comes from a culture or family network that is actively opposed to Christianity, focus on a radical conversion experience leads to a clash of culture that the person is ill-prepared (yet) to deal with. Must he or she reject his new faith (at least externally) and revert back to the culture/religious system of those around? Must he/she radically separate themselves and become an outsider? Must he/she become a compartmentalized “closet” Christian. Is their another option? Focusing on following Christ as a journey may allow those interested in following Christ in these situations to work through these challenges with the help of a loving and Christlike mentor.
  6. Focus on conversion is built on the questionable premise that we know who is converted. The Bible, such as in I John, describes how we may know that we are children of God. However, the Bible does NOT give definitive guidelines for knowing if another person is a child of God. The Bible focuses on self-examination. If one is simply focused on conversion, this is a problem. Who should we try to convert? If someone says they are a Christian, should the missionary try to prove to him that he is not really? Of if someone says that he is a Christian, should the missionary ignore him since “he is already saved?” This gets into some of Paul Hiebert‘s ideas regarding Centered Sets, Bounded Sets, and Fuzzy Sets. But even if you don’t like set theory, the concept is pretty simple. A conversion-focused missionary is focusing on the boundary (between the converted and unconverted). But if you can’t be sure where the boundary is (since God is the judge of faith/hearts of others, not us), then what are we really supposed to do? On the other hand, if missionaries are salvation-focused, they are focused on Christ. Why? If a person is not a child of God, what should a missionary do? Direct them to follow Christ and become conformed to His will. If a person is a young believer, what should a missionary do? Direct them to follow Christ and become conformed to His will. If a person is a mature believer, what should a missionary do? Direct them to follow Christ and become conformed to His will. That is much clearer.
  1. Focus on conversion tends to lead towards nominalism. I suppose this is obvious, but the term “easy-believism” came from the over-emphasis on the conversion experience. “All you gotta do is accept the free gift of Christ. It doesn’t cost anything. Jesus paid it all. Just say ‘Yes’ and the blessings of God are yours.” This understanding is so shallow (following Christ has led many to martyrdom… salvation may be free, but it is also costly) and has left many open to apostasy. The church, the mentor, must disciple and nurture young believers, seekers, and mature believers alike. This requires focusing on the full lifespan of a follower of Christ.
  2. Conversion is more quantitative, Salvation is more qualitative. Conversion is an easy metric. I was reading a website of an evangelist of someone I hadn’t heard of who claimed to have led (I believe it was) 800 million people to Christ. Is that true? Presumably that is not even remotely true. But outward conversions (remember, we can’t know what is going on in the heart) is easy to measure. We can count people “walking the aisle,” raising their hand in church, saying the sinner’s prayer, or testifying. In some other religious traditions, one could count going through confirmation, joining a church, or exhibiting some “miraculous” manifestation. Counting this way is easy. But salvation is hard to measure because it is process orientated (Romans 12:1-2 becoming conformed to Christ and transformed) is hard to measure. It is not measurable except in the lives being changed. It is easy to get credit from man and church for conversions, but for the transforming of lives to faithful followers of Christ, we have to go to God for credit. One might argue that the quantitative nature of conversion is better for missionaries to focus on because it easier to measure. But the missionary is meant to be a catalyst of change… not a numbers keeper. In the long run, transforming a few lives will cause greater impact than a lot of shallow decisions.  This is a better thing.

Quoting Harvie Conn regarding Christian mission work in some Muslim cultures:

“’Sound conversion’ become largely limited to one-step transitions of allegiance. That step is essential as initiation into the process. But it must not be isolated either from the process of growing in understanding of what commitment to Christ means or we face again the onslaught of ‘nominal Christianity.’ Faith thus becomes devalued to the act of one moment rather than the attitude of a lifetime that has a beginning at a moment in time,… Conversion must be genuine by all means. But its genuineness will be tested by a lifetime of fruitbearing, not a quick step to some altar rail more ideological than biblical.”

(The Muslim Convert and His Culture, Harvie M. Conn)


2 thoughts on “Salvation versus Conversion. Missiological Implications

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