Formations 06.06.2021: Conversion, Dramatic or Otherwise

Acts 9:1-9, 17-20

A hair-raising conversion testimony is a badge of honor in some Christian communities. My campus minister in college summed up the sentiment with the example of the man sharing his testimony thusly: “I used to drink, get into fights, and run around with loose women. But then, at the age of ten, I surrendered my life to Christ….” Who wants to hear about people who grew up in church and passed rather gently into personal faith in Christ when you can hear a titillating story of depravity and ultimate redemption?

Paul’s Damascus Road experience—and how we sometimes fixate on it—is a major factor behind this attitude. I’ve even heard overeager “evangelists” who have questioned the authenticity of someone’s faith if they can’t point to a specific point in time in which something like this happened to them.

But is that really what the Bible teaches? True, there are plenty of stories in the book of Acts about dramatic conversions. Without exception, these stories describe the first time the gospel is preached in a particular city. Of course, the first people to respond are going to observe a profound shift in their beliefs and lifestyles from what they knew before. But what about their children? Is it not possible to gradually awaken to faith through years of nurture from believing parents, Sunday school teachers, and other Christian role models?

As it turns out, I do remember a specific point in time in which I said Yes to Jesus. And as it turns out, my conversion testimony is pretty bland even so. I was a squeaky-clean church kid the Sunday before, and I was the same squeaky-clean church kid the Sunday after.

May I be honest with you? I’m not sure that what we find in Acts 9 is best described as a conversion story in the first place. Yes, Paul’s stance toward Jesus changes forever over three days of contemplating what happened to him on the Damascus Road. But go back to the text and read what it says. Jesus tells Ananias that Paul “is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel” (9:15).

When Paul tells his story years later, he seems to have a clearer sense of what Jesus demanded of him. To the crowd in Jerusalem, he reports Jesus as saying, “Get up and go to Damascus; there you will be told everything that has been assigned to you to do” (22:10). Later, Ananias assures Paul, “You will be his witness to all the world of what you have seen and heard” (22:15).

By the time he tells his story to King Agrippa, Paul’s hindsight is even clearer. Here, he reports Jesus telling him:

I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you to serve and testify to the things in which you have seen me and to those in which I will appear to you. I will rescue you from your people and from the Gentiles—to whom I am sending you to open their eyes so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.

Acts 26:16-18

Is that a conversion or a call to preach? An invitation to turn away from sin or an apostolic commissioning to carry the message of Jesus to the world?

One thing is certain: After meeting the risen Christ on the road to Damascus, Paul’s entire life takes a new and unexpected direction. Once a fierce persecutor of the church, now Paul is commissioned to proclaim the good news that he has found in Jesus.

That’s what happens when Jesus enters the picture. Suddenly or gradually, dramatically or subtly, things change: our priorities, our behaviors, our outlook on everything. We may gain a sense of purpose that we didn’t know before. In time, we may even find the courage to risk something big for something good.

And it can happen even without blinding lights and heavenly voices.

Discussion

• What is the upside to having a dramatic conversion experience? Is there a downside? Explain.
• What is the upside of having a subtle and gradual conversion experience?
• How can baptism serve as a milestone in our spiritual journey?
• How can the community of believers nurture people of all ages into authentic faith?

Darrell Pursiful is the editor of Formations. He is an adjunct professor at Mercer University and an active member of the First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia.

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