Wesleyan Wisdom: Crisis – the prelude to conversion

The adults who never remember the time where “we did not see ourselves as Christians” have been fewer and fewer as Sunday School attendance has declined.  Religious conversions  by  osmosis have about gone the way of the  dinosaurs.   Even in families loyal to The United Methodist Church, we have lots of teenagers who are not attending Sunday School, youth activities, or worship with their family.  Also, the pipeline from the local church to the denominational college has about collapsed.   In corporate America,  expectations for aspiring  neophytes to have a “church relationship” in their resumé have disappeared.  Sunday itself is, for most  elements of our society “just another day.”   We must  now see conversion in the context of cultural pluralism, a pluralism requires the local church and individual Christians t o be proactive in cultivating mentoring relationships with colleagues at work, neighbors, and “kith and kin.”  As United Methodists, we have been very hesitant to talk with people about the place of our faith in our lives or what a personal relationship with Jesus Christ could mean in their lives.  God is calling us to reform and transform our denominational culture!

Amazingly, conversions are still happening! As Jesus put it, “the fields are white with harvest.”  Interaction between followers of Jesus and persons in crisis is transforming millions of lives.  Potential  converts are careful,  reserved, almost coy, but, as John Wesley would have put it, “souls are still being awakened.”  The challenge is that most conversions are not happening in, or directly through, the local church.  They happen in “Walk to Emmaus,” or a para-church campus group, or a church of another  tradition.

We need to cultivate “relational evangelism” rather than the stereotypical “propositional evangelism.”   Dr. Harry Emerson Fosdick once wrote that every person is like an island that, upon first impression, has no harbor, no inviting beach, no place for a visiting ship to put ashore.  However, he wrote, if you circle the island slowly and carefully, you will find a place to land.  If we apply that  philosophy to Christian conversion, we will  be patient, careful, kind, and considerate, and through evangelism that is more relational than propositional, we can bring an unlimited number of people to Christ.

The key to conversion is an awakening , usually precipitated by some sort of life crisis.  John Wesley had the insight that all unconverted children of God are not unhappy all the time; rather they are spiritually asleep!  They think they are happy, but sooner or later, they sense an inner vacuum, an emptiness they try to fill with sins of the flesh, tangents and ventures, and sins of the spirit.   He defines sin as “dis-ease” and being saved as “taking the cure.”  Randy Maddox, Wesley scholar at Duke Divinity School,  points out that these are clinical terms, not courtroom terms like “guilty,” “pardoned,” or “condemned.”   Contrary to contrary to John Calvin and most of the tracts we find in restaurants and restrooms out lining “God’s plan of salvation”  Wesley  uses the terminology, “God’s Way of Salvation.”  Conversion does not being with our behavior; it begins with God’s love on the morning of creation, including our personal creation.   Our sinful behavior might describe us, but it does not define us! We are defined as “Imago Dei”(made in the image of God).

Some evangelist explained God’s preparing and persisting love this way: “Two truckers  sat side by side on bar stools at a truck stop in Louisville.  One said to the other, “Where you from?”  He answered, “Pittsburgh.” Next question, “Who you drivin’ for?”  The second man told him the name of the line written on his trailer.  The first man now extended his hand and introduced himself. The second trucker responded.  Then the first  trucker said, “I know your daddy in Pittsburgh and he described you to me.  He is old now but he gave me a message t o give to you if I ever met up with you on the road.  I have looked for you for years to tell you that your Daddy loves you and wishes you would come home again before he dies.”  The second trucker  now  told t he stranger why he left and why had never gone back.  The first man said, “Well, that was a long time ago and a lot of water has gone under the bridge.”  He asked for his check, said he had to hit the road, stuck our his hand and said, “Pleased to meet you and glad I can finally tell you that ‘Man you have a daddy who loves you.”

Wesleyan grace theology affirms that  the first words that lead to conversion are,  “God loves you.”  Is there always an immediate positive response to that message?  No.  Conversion is predicated not only on the well-chosen time and words of “good tidings.”  Conversion is also predicated on our response. Again it is Randy Maddox who  introduces us to two “big words” with gargantuan implications!   Calvinists believe that God’s grace is imputed to the “Unconditionally elected.” Conversion, for them, is solely divine initiative.   Dr. Maddox word for this is “monergism.” That is, God is the only force in conversion—the obvious meaning of “mono.”

Jacob Arminius of Holland,  John Wesley, and “mainstream Methodist theology,” God’s saving grace is  what Dr. Randy Maddox calls  “co-operant,”  Dr. Maddox calls this “synergism.” That is,  God’s grace is offered to all, but  like human love, God’s grace  can be accepted or rejected.  Wesley insisted that one dimension of our being created in the image of God is free will.  We are not saved by our free will; we are saved solely by God’s grace.  However we have the free will to reject God’s grace. Therefore, as Paul put it we are saved “by (God’s) grace  through (our) faith.”  This is so very biblical.

Now the question is, “When and under what provocation are we, with our will to reject or accept grace, open  to conversion?  When  the Roman governor, Felix, “listened to Paul talk about faith in Christ Jesus, Felix answered, “Go your way now.  When I have time, I’ll send for you.”   Felix never did.  In Acts 24:27, we read that Felix was transferred and Luke gives us this sad commentary on Governor Felix’ procrastination: “Since Felix wanted to grant a favor to the Jews, he left Paul in prison.”

Multiple millions in every generation are told through some person or medium, “God loves you,” but they make no response.  Wesley  believed that in addition to our five physical senses, we have an innate spiritual sense, but that most people are “spiritually asleep,” and not ready or willing to admit their need for saving grace. In the words of Frank Sinatra’s crooning solo, “I’ll do it my way.”  They repress and push away the “soul whispers” of prevenient grace. Jesus was clear: “Come to me when you are weary and heavy laden and I will give you rest.”  That is the key!  We must be perceptive in recognizing when people in our circle of relationship are “weary and heave laden.”

Beginning with the Genesis 1:26 proclamation that “God created humankind in his own image….”,  Wesley spoke of “original righteousness.  We often hear Romans 3:23 misquoted as “All have come short of the glory of God.” Wesley is careful to translate it, “All have fallen short….”.   But does God abandon us when we fall or when we reject our Maker or when we resist divine love?  No!  God pursues us like what Francis Thompson called “the hound of heaven.”  Our theology on God’s pursuing love is seen in t he three parables of Jesus that Luke puts in his chapter 15—the story of a lost coin, a lost sheep and a lost boy. All are lost but all are still loved.  We are saved by God’s  “hound of heaven” grace, but God does not “zap” us.

Wesley believed and preached that  in some propitious moment , we experience a spiritual crisis. He called it “awakening of the soul.”  In this experience, God’s whispering to our soul is finally heard, or, more properly stated, “received.”   This may come early in life or at any stage or any “season of life” along the way.  This theology is seen in many places, but note Revelation 3:20 & 22—“Look!  I am standing at the door and knocking.  If any hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to be with them, and will have dinner with them and they will have dinner with me….If you can hear, list en to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.” When Holman Hunt painted his conception of that verse of God’s Word, he painted a door with no latch on the outside! The Holy Spirit “knocks” but we must  open from within. Again, we have the prerogative of receiving God’s saving grace or shutting it out of our lives.

Most often, the context of our spiritual crisis has either a past or a present  mentoring relationship—a coaching, caring relationship.   The context  might be a retreat, a revival meeting,  military combat,  a college Bible study group, Holy Communion, or Sunday worship.  Amazingly, it might be a sermon!

Our spiritual crisis might come in late childhood, especially if we are  reared in a Christian home and church.  It  might come  later when we are frightened,  like the proverbial “foxhole prayer” or in ICU. The crisis might come while we are  watching a sunset or rocking a critically ill child.  It might even come the morning one sobers up from a drunk  or a near overdose and, like the “prodigal son” of Jesus’ parable, “comes to one’s self.”  We do God’s creatively saving grace a gross discredit if we create formulae like “the sinner’s prayer” or “the Roman road,” or “Four Spiritual Laws.”   This is “cabining, cribbing, and confining” the Lord God Almighty and His relationship with His children. We are as diverse as snowflakes in a winter storm and God meets us where we are. Whatever  the context, we  finally open up  “ the door of our heart” for  the Holy Spirit to bring us an inner peace, a sense of being cleansed, forgiven, redeemed.

Whatever the context, whatever the crisis, our response is a reality check that our life lacks something—something that we need, something that we want.  Like any addict, we admit our addiction to “self-management”  and cry out,  “I need help.  My life is not fulfilling.”  We are a candidate for radical change.  We desire more.   We are a searching pilgrim. Again, this search can come to a perceptive child, an adolescent, or any stage of adulthood, including one’s death bed. We must not be chronological with the crisis or the quest.  Neither must we promise that opening the “door of our heart” to Jesus answers all of life’s riddles, solves all of life’s issues, or immunizes us from heartache, tragedy, or the laws of nature.

(Our next column about conversion is “what happens to us, in us, and through us when we are converted to embracing Christ as Savior and Lord)

UMR Columnist Dr. Donald W. Haynes is a retired pastor, an adjunct instructor at  Hood  Theological Seminary, a Church staff “visitor,” and a follower of Jesus. He is also the author of “On the Threshold of Grace — Methodist Fundamentals.”

Donald W. Haynes, UMR Columnist

Donald Haynes

Dr. Donald Haynes has been an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church for more than 50 years and is a member of the Western North Carolina Annual Conference. A recipient of the Harry Denman Evangelism Award, Dr. Haynes is the author of On the Threshold of Grace—Methodist Fundamentals; serves as an adjunct faculty member at Hood Theological Seminary; and is the Assistant to the Pastor in Evangelism at the First United Methodist Church of Asheboro, North Carolina. Dr. Haynes has written for The United Methodist Reporter since 2005.

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The United Methodist Reporter wants to encourage lively conversation about The United Methodist Church and our articles in the belief that Christian conversation (what Wesley would call conferencing) is a means of grace. While we support passionate debate, we cannot allow language that demeans or demonizes others, and we reserve the right to delete any comment we believe to be harmful or inappropriate. We encourage all to remember that we are all broken and in need of Christ's grace, and that we all see through the glass darkly until that time we when reach full perfection in love. May your speech here be tempered with love, and reflection of the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. After all, "There is no law against things like this." (Galatians 5:22-23)
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E. S. Duggins
E. S. Duggins

As a former Methodist, one who grew up in a little country church, but who heard the gospel and experienced “crisis conversion” at the age of fourteen, I am pleased to see that there is yet in this denomination, an apparent movement toward a true life with God. I am sorry though to see (as it appears to me) that in some cases there is a zeal for God, but a zeal without adequate knowledge. This is tragic, (again, as it appears to me) and it calls for Methodist pastors to become more biblical, even if it goes beyond traditional… Read more »

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