On August 28, 2008, the Lord put to death a man who was an atheistic, drug-addled dealer, womanizer, drunkard, liar, thief, idolater, and suffice it to say: the fool of fools; the laziest of sluggards; the chief of sinners. I have the “exciting” testimony that many within the church are eager to lift up as an example of God’s grace and faithfulness. I came to Christ in a rather uproarious manner. Not only was I arrogant enough to think out of thousands of years and millions of people that I’d be the one who could sufficiently dismantle the historic faith, I had a life that boasted of doing things my way. I did what was right in my own eyes and didn’t particularly care how much damage it caused along the way.
God plucked a rebellious atheist out from the depths of a life of wanton rebellion. God saved a man given to the extremes of foolishness in nearly every way. Amazingly enough, God implanted a new heart with new desires and new affections. What was once a heart enslaved to sin became a heart enslaved to God. What was once a life devoted to delighting in evil became a life seeking to be devoted to glorifying God and delighting in Him forever, and one where, if the Lord wills, I will go on to plant a church this upcoming year as the lead pastor.
Indeed, it was a paradigm shift. I walked away from the life that I knew, which in retrospect wasn’t all that great to begin with. Yet this is, in a nutshell, why my testimony is “exciting” to many within the church. It has been that way since the day I was granted faith, and while some have placed more weight on it than others, it has nonetheless always been a point of amazement to Christians. Most recently, when I went through the church-planting approval process with the North American Mission Board, everyone in the room perked up when I mentioned who I was prior to Christ.
The fact that I have rather sordid past tends to be a strange form of currency with many in the church, as if this gives me more credibility, or perhaps means that I love Christ more than the one who has never shared my experience. People are shocked to hear of my past simply because it is unbelievable in light of who I am today. I get that in one sense, but this is the power of the gospel we proclaim. This is the gospel that gives hope to the worst offenders—that enables Christians to say that indeed, rapists, murderers, drug-dealers, thieves, liars, gossipers, slanderers—whatever is the sin that enslaves you—can be forgiven. The gospel is scandalous.
The gospel promises not only that the worst can be forgiven, but that God will not leave us “as we are,” but continue in transforming us into the image of His Son. Yet more than this, the gospel is scandalous because it levels the playing field between the “worst of the worst” and the ordinary, moral pagan. The reason I say this is rather simple, but it bears stating plainly here: the gospel requires that we all see ourselves as worthy of eternal punishment as a result of our sins. All men are wicked before a holy and just Lord. God’s impartiality shines through, revealing that not a one of us is unstained with sin, nor any less in need of a Savior than the worst sinner imaginable.
The reason for this is that grand sin of mankind is not that they’ve committed the most egregious deeds imaginable, but that mankind has not honored the Lord as Creator, nor have they given Him thanks. This is the reason one can look at a perfectly upright pagan and call them to repentance, for though they have perhaps even lived a life more noble than many a Christian, they are doomed to an eternity in Hell simply for their rejection of Christ. The manifestation of one’s sins in these more “heinous” sins we see is, in reality, the result of the highest order sin of living without reference to God. In other words: it is the futile thinking of one who rejects God as Creator that results in them being handed over to the litany of sins we find particularly nasty.
This is particularly why we find such sins as “disobedience to one’s parents” amongst Paul’s vice lists—for all such manifestations of sin are an unnatural consequence to a debased mind, meaning these sins are a perversion of how things are supposed to be in the natural order of things. Thus, these vice lists are a result of a debased mind subjected to judgment—not the root cause of a debased mind. The point being: the root cause is the same, whether or not you have a conversion story like my own. Your mind was subjected to futility in the rejection of God, and therefore, it required Divine intervention to rouse you from the dead. It required an act of mercy and grace from the One who has the power to “un-corrupt” the mind, and then give it over to righteousness instead.
The danger of “exciting” testimonies is that people tend to put the weight on experience rather than Scripture’s claims. People downplay the severity of every man’s sins before a holy God, and therefore, they downplay the magnitude of every sinner’s repentance before that holy God as a result of believing the gospel. The reason I say this is rather simple in my own example: people immediately make it about the life I lived rather than about the gospel of Christ. There’s almost this sort of reveling in how bad my life was before Christ stepped in to intervene. If that weren’t the case, people wouldn’t glorify the exceedingly dark days of my rebellious past. They wouldn’t care—not in the grand scheme of things. They would look upon me as any other person in Christ, as one having received the miracle of miracles, right alongside my son who just realized one day that he has always believed the gospel he has heard from the day he was born.
More problematic than this is that I believe the conversion story tends to make a litmus test of those who profess Christ, in that people are looking for a credible experience rather than a credible profession of faith and trust in Christ. What I mean by this is that people are often looking for the radical transformation of an individual’s life rather than the paradigm shift of heart and mind that accompanies genuine faith. In other words: people are assessing the merits of one’s faith based on how grand the experiential change is rather than the objective confession of faith in Christ and Christ alone for the forgiveness of sins.
The problem with this mentality is twofold: people can change their behavior for a multitude of reasons, but secondly, this places more weight on individuality rather than the corporate reality of salvation. We are saved unto a body—not merely as individuals who just so happen to belong to the body of Christ. We have a fundamental problem with focusing greatly upon the individual story in our culture, and one that I believe proves detrimental to other, corporate aspects of our faith. The reality is that we have been grafted in to Christ Himself and collectively are saved unto this purpose. We are not individual shoots sustained and nurtured as individual trees.
The point being: we think far too much of the individual and far too little of the corporate entity that is the church. I can say this with the utmost confidence simply because the de-conversion stories of apostates tend to draw as much focus from the Evangelical world as the conversion stories of those with particularly seedy pasts, like my own. Yet the secondary result of such rugged individualism plays out in how little people consider the necessity of gathering with that body they have been saved to. More clearly: a ruggedly individualistic understanding of salvation (i.e. a heavy weight on the individual conversion story) affects how one view the importance of going to church and being part of that body.
People look upon themselves as a part of the universal church—and this is undoubtedly true if they are in Christ—yet they often fail to see themselves as truly part of the whole body. Rather, they picture themselves as a component part of that body that is able to survive and thrive apart from the body’s presence.
Yet part and parcel to this gathering is the nature of all those who gather—whether exciting conversion story or not. Together they form this incredibly beautiful and wondrous testimony of God’s faithfulness to a myriad of people from all walks of life. He has saved not only a man such as myself, but others with far fewer skeletons in their closets (and arguably, some with more than my own). The goal is not to prop up a particular person and their story—as if God’s grace was somehow all the greater in the midst of a particularly dirty conversion. Rather, the goal is for us to lift up a unified song in praise to the One who has saved all of us, for not a single blameless man, woman, or child was to be found.
It is not the changed life of the atheistic, drug-addled dealer, womanizer, drunkard, liar, thief, and idolater that contains the gospel. Your personal testimony is not the gospel. Your changed life doesn’t contain the answers mankind so desperately needs to hear. The changed life is a product of the gospel—but it is not the gospel. In and of itself, it is but one of millions of similar stories where someone’s life in shambles comes to order. With the gospel, it is a story of redemption—but one need not have an entirely messed up life in order to bring the hope of the gospel. The truth of the matter is that whether you’ve lived a life similar to mine, or you’ve lived a rather mundane, boring life as a morally acceptable person in the world’s eyes—your testimony is not what brings hope to the hopeless. Christ is. Your testimony will not save anyone. Only the gospel will.
The details of how that plays out in each individual’s life doesn’t matter as much as the fact that one grand story of redemption is taking place, particularly through the work of God in Christ. For that reason, I find the “boring” conversion story all the more attractive—for it is a testimony of familial faithfulness and intergenerational faithfulness on the part of God Himself. It required an “exciting” conversion at one point. It required that God step in and change the trajectory of a family who knew nothing of God, as He then made them a people of His own possession, and in this we ought to always rejoice greatly.
Yet what it is supposed to produce is a faithful Christian home where the gospel is present, and children didn’t need to hit rock bottom or have a definitive point where they “choose” Christ. Even if the child so chooses to eschew all of God’s blessings and go the way of the sluggard, which is a hedge of thorns, God has still made a highway where there was none before. All such a child must do is return to the way he knows and was raised in; he need not forge an entirely new path. Yet the goal is the same: the “exciting” conversion story ought to produce little “boring” conversion stories that will in turn continue to progenate and produce more and more “boring” conversion stories through faithful generations of Christian families. You should hope and pray that your children have such a “boring” testimony, and that your grandchildren do too.