In Conversion, Michael Lawrence addresses the theological and practical problem that leads to false conversion in the church, especially among the children. He laments that,
Too often our confessional theology says one thing, while our practical theology says something else. We say that regeneration makes us new creatures in Christ, but then we teach our kids a moralism that atheists could duplicate.”Conversion, p. 14
Lawrence demonstrates how a biblical understanding of conversion shapes church practice as it relates to evangelism, membership, discipleship, and view of the church.
Lawrence, Michael. Conversion: How God Creates a People. Wheaton: Crossway, 2017. 137 pp.
Here are the arguments of each chapter (the eight chapter titles are in bold). Conversion necessitates being born again because Christians are new, not nice. Christians are those who are saved, not sincere. Those converted to Christianity understand that salvation is from God’s wrath by his grace because of his love and into his people—not merely being sincere. Conversion creates disciples, not decisions; the response to the gospel is real repentance and faith in Christ. Conversion creates people who are holy, not healed. Christians are being made holy because they have been set apart to a new master with a new love; they are not merely rule-keepers.
True conversion teaches that Christians should be distinct, not designed; the church must not be patterned after the world, but practice church discipline and intentional love for one another. When evangelizing, summon, don’t sell by presenting the gospel clearly and honestly, while maintaining a sense of urgency with confidence in God’s Word. With new professing believers, assess before you assure by practicing meaningful membership, including a slow membership process, participation in the Lord’s Supper and baptism, the practice of church discipline, and building relationships through encouragement, discipleship, and counseling. Lawrence explains,
Assurance is a community project. Paul and others can report to what they’ve seen, and encourage the Thessalonians accordingly. When we realize that assurance doesn’t just depend on what I said but on what you see, an amazing thing happens. I stop simply staring at myself, and I invite you to look at me. I in turn look at you. The Christian life and the church change from being about assuring myself to being about assuring you. Suddenly the local church becomes an incredible gift of God to encourage and help us. It’s no longer a place to preen and pose, but a place to point out evidences of the Spirit’s work in one another’s lives—an assurance of faith co-op.”Conversion, p. 104
Finally, churches must be charitable, not chary, since Christians belong to Christ not because of their maturity and holiness, but because they have placed their hope in Christ.
In Conversion, Michael Lawrence challenges the inconsistency of a church’s theology of conversion with its practical application. He does this with theological clarity and gracious restraint.
First, he clearly and biblically clarifies what conversion is and what it is not. Conversion is not merely being nice or sincere. It does not happen merely by making decisions. Conversion is being made new and saved by God’s grace through repentance and faith. Lawrence argues that
Churches should believe that God makes people radically new, not just nice.”Conversion, p. 17
Second, Lawrence carefully defines faith and repentance as responses to God’s saving grace.
Grace is what saves. Faith is the instrument, which means that we’re not saved by faith. Rather, we’re saved by grace, and faith receives that grace. Faith trusts that gift. This is why Martin Luther emphasized the fact that we are saved through faith alone…. But what happens when we think faith saves us? Sincerity becomes paramount. We begin to think of faith as a single act–a prayer prayed, a decision made, a card signed, a hand raised–rather than as a whole-life orientation…. Faith isn’t an emotion God evaluates by its intensity. Faith is trust, and it’s only as good as the object of its trust.”Conversion, p. 37
Regarding repentance, he says,
Repenting means exchanging our idols for God. Before it’s a change in behavior, it must be a change in worship. How different that is from how we often think of repentance.”Conversion, p. 51
Lawrence also provides a helpful description of a false convert. One must note, however, that the descriptions are general characteristics of a false convert. While a true believer may at times be like one or two of the descriptions below, it is not the general posture or trajectory of his life. Here is Lawrence’s description of what a false convert looks like:
he 1) is excited about heaven, but bored by Christians and the local church; 2) thinks heaven will be great, whether God is there or not; 3) likes Jesus, but didn’t sign up for the rest–obedience, holiness, discipleship, suffering; 4) can’t tell the difference between obedience motivated by love and legalism; 5) is bothered by other people’s sins more than his or her own; 6) holds grace cheap and his own comfort costly.” (53-54)Conversion, pp. 53-54
Moving from theology to practice, Lawrence applies conversion to the church practice of membership and church ordinances. Perhaps the most controversial is his suggestion not to offer assurance through baptism too quickly (p. 27). He warns,
We risk assuring a ‘convert’ that he is right with God when in fact he is not. It’s almost like giving someone a vaccine against the gospel.
You know how a vaccine works. It uses a defective agent to fool the body into thinking it’s been infected so that it will produce antibodies. Then, when the real infection shows up, the body is prepared to fight it off. Likewise, calling people to ‘make a decision’ without calling them to repent not only risks creating a false convert, it also risks vaccinating a person against the real gospel. They think they already have Christianity! Then we double down by saying, ‘Once saved, always saved.'”Conversion, p. 53
Lastly, Lawrence, with careful restraint, balances true conversion with the pursuit of holiness. On one hand, Lawrence argues that the church must be distinct from its surrounding culture by taking holiness seriously through the practice of corrective church discipline (p. 83). Yet on the other hand, he also argues that churches must be charitable, not chary (ch. 10) based on how Paul views the Corinthian church. A professing believer belongs to the church and must be accepted, not because he reached a certain standard of holiness or level of maturity, but because he continues to repent of his sins and believe in Jesus.
Here is the rub: if the doctrine of regeneration matters in churches, it will be demonstrated by 1) paying attention to membership; 2) conducting membership interviews; 3) celebrating examples of repentance (not morality); 4) practicing church discipline; and 5) keeping baptism, membership, and Lord’s Supper connected (p. 29).
Here are two interviews with Michael Lawrence regarding his book, Conversion. The first one is a 1-minute promo video:
Here is the Pastors’ Talk podcast interview: