Essay / Theology

Review of Gordon Smith's Transforming Coversion

In Transforming Conversion: Rethinking the Language and Contours of Christian Initiation (Baker Academic, 2010), Gordon Smith, president of reSource Leadership International, presents a compelling case for why the church must take seriously not only the salvation of humankind but the conversion of humankind as well. What’s the difference? Well, for Smith evangelicals have been bequeathed a heritage of “punctiliar conversion” that has often appeared to bring many souls into God’s kingdom but in time those individuals have not had the staying power. The solution for Smith is that we need to move beyond the idea of punctiliar conversion, that is, that there was a specific day and time when a person came to faith, and focus instead on seeing conversion as a process of initiation that possibly spans years.

The book is divided into ten chapters and the first chapter itself is worth the price of the book. In this chapter Smith gives twelve ways in which Revivalism’s heritage permeates evangelicalism. Without going into detail it is worth noting that this list is painfully accurate. Though it was likely tempting for Smith to demonize this heritage, he does not take this route. In fact, throughout the entire volume Smith’s tone remains critical yet balanced. He is not looking to chastise or dismiss the heritage, but is seeking instead to broaden the heritage in order to recapture a theology of conversion that is not dependant on a moment of “getting saved.”

Smith’s argument can be summarized as follows: God desires that everyone enter into a salvific relationship with him and that they grow in holiness. For Smith both of these events take time and are characterized in particular by the sacraments of baptism, confession and Eucharist. This emphasis on the sacraments, especially baptism and confession, is consistent with other books published by Smith and Transforming Conversion appears to have been written to draw many of these thoughts together. In Smith’s theology baptism “gives structure and form to evangelism and to the initiation into the Christian faith” (p. 139). It is the God-given way that the church’s faith is embodied in her members. It sacramentalizes someone’s conversion and therefore it is not necessarily the result of faith (though it may be that for some) but it can also be seen as the beginning of faith – one’s point of initiation into God’s one, holy, catholic and apostolic church. In baptism, says Smith, the Christian appropriates God’s forgiveness of sins, effects the believer’s baptism in the spirit and incorporates the new believer into the Christian community. Therefore, baptism is indispensible and must be taken seriously. So seriously believes Smith that the church should recapture the early Christian practice of a kind of catechumenate, that is, a period of time when the inquirer/new Christian will be instructed and fully incorporated into the Christian community. There would be four stages to this rite of initiation: 1) the exploration and pre-catechumenate stage where the interests of the inquirer are prioritized; 2) the catechumenate proper where the inquirer would be introduced to the tenets of the faith, God’s call to holiness and what it means to be a Christian; 3) a period of purification where the inquirer is now a candidate for baptism who must spend time examining his/her heart and soul to confirm God’s call to enter into Christian discipleship; and 4) a post-baptismal period where the newly baptized are further instructed “into the mysteries of the faith” (p. 203). All of these stages are facilitated by and take place in the local Christian community. This itself moves away from the evangelical heritage of a personal conversion and, writes Smith, allows the church to be the main instrument of God’s use vis-à-vis conversion.

Thereafter, confession is one of the most powerful acts along the believer’s path to growth in holiness. For Smith the Christian religion is one of penitence and confession helps to ritualize this aspect of the Christian life. Smith says that confession “arises from a deep appreciation and proclamation of the gospel” (p. 136) and that it is a response to God, the divine healer. Further, confession and repentance are at the heart of conversion and spiritual growth, therefore they are essential acts, so much so in Smith’s theology that without repentance there is no spiritual growth. Finally, Smith writes that confession “is one of the most crucial ways by which our lives are anchored in the joy and peace that is the gift of the Spirit” (p. 137). It is the Holy Spirit who convicts, therefore confession is a sign of God’s work in us, giving us hope that we will grow in holiness by way of the Holy Spirit’s indwelling and not through our own moral efforts.

Overall, Smith’s book is an excellent contribution to a theology of conversion and should be read especially by pastors. It is written in a very engaging style and though it is published by Baker Academic, it is not overly academic. Footnotes are few and far between and theological concepts are simply explained. There were two issues, however, in particular where I found myself in strong disagreement with Smith. On pages 154-156 Smith states that water (all water, anywhere) is a reminder of one’s baptism and since our baptism is so significant it must remind us that we are a forgiven people, that we must live in righteousness, that our allegiance is to Christ, that we are part of the church of God and that all the work that we do is God’s work. Baptism for Smith is significant indeed and water is our constant reminder of these truths. Yet, Smith is only an advocate of adult baptism since “baptism properly belongs with repentance” (p. 156). I would simply ask, if water is such a potent reminder of all that we have received in baptism, then why not baptize infants who will have ample opportunity to be reminded of their baptism and its effects? Do baptism and repentance need to be connected by a short interval of time? Could not one’s infant baptism and one’s mature, adult repentance still be connected theologically and spiritually if not temporally? More could be said on this but I will simply direct you to Matt Jenson and David Wilhite’s The Church: A Guide for the Perplexed (T & T Clark, 2010) where they investigate this in greater detail. My other main issue with Smith is that I disagree with his conclusion that non-Christians should receive communion as an act of hospitality or perhaps as a “converting ordinance.” Though the notion of hospitality on the church’s part is very important and though someone may come to faith primarily by way of the Eucharist, these “goods” should never trump good theological and liturgical practice. Though there are many reasons to reject this practice, I will provide one: the Eucharist is a dominical sacrament clearly given by God to the church. If the church is defined as the community of those who are converted to Christ and justified by faith, then the Eucharist is only for those converted to Christ and justified by faith, not for those on the way to conversion or on the way to justification.

My own small disagreements aside, this is an excellent book. One that deserves a good reading by many in the evangelical church. It is time that we begin anew to take God’s command to evangelize seriously and this book is a good instruction manual on how to begin to make that happen.

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