Friday, October 21, 2011

When Converting from the Perfect to the Imperfect is a Good Thing

Last week I asked the question, “When was Peter saved?” and invited you to answer the question for yourself.  So when was it?  When he was first introduced to Jesus and started following him?  When he confesses that Jesus is the messiah, the son of the living God?  After the resurrection, when he professes his love for Jesus three times?  Or maybe at Pentecost when he received the Holy Spirit?  Or maybe, as some have suggested, Peter was saved the moment God chose him as one of the elect, before the foundations of the world were laid. 
There is no doubt about the moment of Paul’s conversion: on the road to Damascus.  But there is no clear-cut event like that in Peter’s life.  Part of the problem is in our choice of language, which is not to say that it’s merely an issue of language and not theology, for in fact our choice of language shapes our theology.  So when we subsume the entire event of salvation  into the event of conversion, there is a problem.  Conversion is an initial event; salvation stems from that event, just as birth is the initial event of life but is not the totality of that life.  No one says of their birthday, “I lived on August 30, 1959,” but “My life began on August 30, 1959.”  Yet we often point to the moment of conversion and say, “I was saved when I was ten-years-old.” 
But even then there is a problem, for life doesn’t really begin; rather life is passed on in a complex process in which a living  sperm of a living father and a living egg of a living mother combine to produce a living zygote which becomes a living fetus which becomes a living baby which grows into a living toddler etc.  That life is present at each stage is indisputable; when it began is trickier to pin down.  So also with the conversion event, which often isn’t an event at all.  The moment of decision is often an event, but there is a sense in which conversion has been going on before that decision as a person  over time becomes convinced that Jesus is savior and Lord.  Perhaps more importantly, conversion continues after the moment of decision.  I accepted Christ and was baptized when I was ten, but I can firmly say that I am more convinced now that Jesus is the savior and Lord of the world than I was then.  I have accepted more of Jesus’ teachings as being trustworthy enough to pattern my life after than ever before.  I understand more about Jesus’ teaching on the Kingdom of God and seek it more than ever before.  I am being converted more and more into a Kingdom person.  Does that mean I am more saved than I was before?  No, but I am more converted than I was before, no question.
The biggest difference is that at 10 I was committed to Jesus being the way to life in heaven after death, while today, in addition to that, I am more—though perhaps not completely—committed to Jesus being the way to life on earth before death.  The caveat is because I know that I’m not fully committed to turning the other cheek, for instance.  Slap me, and my first reaction—and maybe last reaction—is probably still to slap back.  Though I know I am supposed to love my enemies, I don’t yet really want to do it and am therefore not fully committed to doing it.  My want-to still needs converting.  Though I know I am supposed to present my life to God as a living sacrifice, there are things in my life that I am still not yet willing to sacrifice to God—including my life, or should I say my death.  As I recently heard a friend say, “The problem with a living sacrifice is that it keeps trying to crawl off the altar.”  That’s me: I keep trying to crawl off the altar.  That part of me is not converted yet. 
Maybe the biggest problem is that we equate salvation with forgiveness of sins.  Forgiveness of our sins is part of our salvation, but, like the moment of decision, is not the sum total of salvation.  Salvation cannot occur without the forgiveness of sins, but it is more than the forgiveness of sins.  We are saved from our sins, but we are also saved to a new way of living that is fit for the kingdom of God. 
So it’s different to ask, “When was Peter forgiven,” than to ask, “When was Peter saved?” or “When was he converted?”  When was he forgiven?   I’d say before the foundations of the world.  When was he saved and/or converted?  Well, I have found for me that it’s a life-long process, and it appears to be that way for Peter as well. Maybe we ought to forget that past-perfect tense when speaking of salvation and conversion and move to the past-imperfect tense.  The difference between the two is that with the past perfect tense an action is seen as having been completed in the past, while with the past imperfect the action is seen as begun in the past but not completed; it is seen as continuing into the present.  It's the difference between "I was saved" (perfect) and "My salvation began back on..." (imperfect); between "I was converted" and "My conversion began...."  
And then we will all realize that we still have work that needs to be done, and it's not optional work.  It is the ongoing necessary work of salvation, of converting to a person who knows full well how to thrive in the kingdom of God.

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