January 16, 2021

Open Thread: Does Conversion Include An Experience?

saves.jpgDespite the fact the the pedigree committee has recently met and found me a Barthian mutt, I am a Southern Baptist. Classic Southern Baptist fundamentalism has been a constant in my life for as long as I can remember.

I want to open up a discussion on one theological and experiential aspect of that heritage that I no longer embrace: the belief that conversion includes a definite and discernible subjective experience.

In the typical Southern Baptist sermon, a lost person is invited to come forward and “get saved.” “Getting saved” means, of course, to become a Christian, but it’s expressed in various terms, such as to “accept Christ,” or to “pray to receive Christ” or to “ask Jesus into your heart.” In many sermons, this is coupled with other statements that promise definite, discernible subjective experience.

“You will be born again.” This is expressed as an experience a person will have, will know that they have had, and will feel that they have had. It is not just the expression of a promise, but of something you will be able to describe later.

“You will leave here rejoicing in your salvation.” In other words, you are going to experience happiness and joy.

“You’ll know that Jesus has come into your heart.”

One pastor I hear frequently says things like this: “Come forward and experience the love of God.”

I’m not sure what this means, but it explicitly promises an experience.

The promise of a conversion experience also appears in testimonies. Christians often say they can remember when God saved them, or that they know the moment Jesus came into their lives. They testify to the sudden onset of peace, the taking away of sinful desires, the lifting of depression and a complete certainty in what has happened “in their heart.”

If your denominational background didn’t use any of this kind of language, then you were far from revivalism and very far from the kind of Christianity that dominates in much of evangelicalism. The expressions may not be this strong, but they are just as real: Conversion is accompanied by a conversion experience.

So, do you agree? Does conversion register with a discernible subjective experience? What would you say to someone who insists that to be born again must include a discernible experiential starting point?

Open thread from this point on. Let’s hear what you have to say.


  1. l.pilgram-

    I have heard almost those exact words and thought to myself,”but God remembers, who cares if you can?”…good analogy, I’ll keep that in mind.

  2. Lonely Pilgrim,

    While I disagree with the wording that the pastor used about not having an experience, I do know that you can lose a love just as he expressed.

    I did, for a time, lose my second love and I didn’t even realize for a time. (I rediscovered it by attending a meeting where I was surrounded by other chemists, and learning new things. )

    This scared me, because if I could lose my second love, what about losing my first love.

    So, we do need to know how to “restore unto me, the joy of Thy salvation”, as the Psalmist says. For some, it may be beauty in art or music, or retreats, or good books, etc.

  3. The promise of a conversion experience also appears in testimonies. Christians often say they can remember when God saved them, or that they know the moment Jesus came into their lives. They testify to the sudden onset of peace, the taking away of sinful desires, the lifting of depression and a complete certainty in what has happened “in their heart.”

    The problem comes when this becomes Can You Top This, and those who didn’t have such a Damascus Road Experience can’t REALLY be Saved (TM). It leads to the pettiest forms of one-upmanship (even to the point of “I REMEMBER the EXACT day, hour, minute, and second I was SAVED; do you?”) and total dismissal of those who didn’t have such a bells-and-whistles experience.

    I believe IMonk has written over and over about how the altar call mentality has held back a LOT of Baptists and Evangelicals; in concentrating on the Exact Moment of Conversion, they denigrate any prep that came before and/or the growth and life that comes after. Which is why you see “rededications”, “walking the aisle” time and time again; when only the moment of birth matters, you try to go back into the womb again and again instead of growing up.

    (Which also relates to “Wretched Urgency”; tearing down someone’s confidence that they’re Saved allows you to put a notch on your Bible by “Witnessing” and “Saving” them (with yet another Moment of Decision conversion experience), with the accompanying brownie points before the Bema. I became a notch on about half a dozen Bibles that way.)

    My church (Romish Popery with its Satanic Death Cookies) holds that both types of conversions — Damascus Road Moment or gradual growth/cathechization — are valid, varying from individual to individual. Some have a spectacular and definite Moment of Conversion; some come so gradually into the faith they can never put a specific “flip point” on it. (Like “how many hairs form a beard?”) Yet both are valid.

  4. Dan Smith says

    New Testament Christians certainly “experienced” salvation, physically and spiritually, when they were baptized:

    Acts 2:38 And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.

    Acts 8:36,37 And as they were going along the road they came to some water, and the eunuch said, “See, here is water! What prevents me from being baptized?” And he commanded the chariot to stop, and they both went down into the water, Philip and the eunuch, and he baptized him.

    Acts 22:16 And now why do you wait? Rise and be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on his name.’

    Rom 6:1 What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? 2 By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? 3 Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4 We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.

    Galatians 3:27 For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.

    Colossians 2:12 having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead.

    1 Pet 3: 21 Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ,

  5. Anna,

    I think you kind of missed the point of what I was saying.

    First, the preacher (an evangelist by the way not a pastor) who said this was a traditional SBC revivalist. He believed in “Once Saved Always Saved.” In other words, he didn’t really believe one could lose his/her salvation and not know where he/she had lost it. His claim then was that if one didn’t know when and where one was saved that one was not actually saved at all.

    Second, my overall point in the analogy I used is that one knows that he/she got in the car and started driving because he/she is actually in the car driving now. In the same way one knows that he/she started following Christ at one time because he/she is following Christ now. One’s initial step of following Christ may have been very dramatic and memorable or not so dramatic and memorable. But that is irrelevant to whether or not one is a follower of Christ now.

  6. I wonder how many conversion experiences can really be called a “definite and discernible subjective experience”. I think most of what we call Christian experiences are fickle and hard to define if we don’t approach them with a bunch of extra biblical assumtions.

    Most of the interactions with God in scripture were things that people experienced as something objective. Paul was really blinded, really heard a voice, really saw a light. There were also others there to confirm at least part of his experience.

    I personally spent way too much of my life as a folower of Jesus worried about not having adequate conversion experience or enough “experiences” after I started willfully following Jesus. I often doubted if I really was converted, ect.

    In hind sight, I realize that almost all of the experiences that other Christians tell me about are rather sketchy. For the most part I assume that they are real experiences, but the problem is that there is more assumption than proof involved in defining them. Yes we’ve all experienced some kind of strong feelings towards God at one point or another, but I think it is a mistake to try and make them more than what we KNOW they are: strong feelings. We make a bigger mistake when we make them some kind of measuring stick for others.

  7. the moment i believed what Christ has done for me on the cross so that i will no longer pay for a punishment i can not surely pay, i know, i have become a child of the Father. no tears came running down my cheeks. i did not hear the angelic choir sing nor did feel the flapping of their wings to welcome me as a newly saved by grace sinner. there was no drama from within and outside of my physical and non-physical body. it was plain believing i9n Christ’s saving power for me.

    was the absence of the “expected conversion experience” made me a less child of God? no. i don’t think so.

  8. well, what sort of ‘subjective’ experience counts? Resolute commitment to Christ is a subjective experience; but it’s not (I should hope) contained within and instant and certainly not the same thing as the spiritual ecstasy that sometimes accompanies conversion.

    I can speak from an Anglican/Wesleyan tradition here: John Wesley himself (while already having been a priest and missionary) experienced a very powerful experience of the Holy Spirit in which he felt ‘subjectively’ the assurance that he was forgiven and renewed. Now he immediately began to identify this as a conversion – that he (though already a priest) had been a child of the devil, but in that moment at Aldersgate, we was brought from death to life and became a child of God. Then he went out on a whirlwind mission of reaching others for Christ.

    But much later after studying the Bible and doing revival ministry for decades, he came to believe that the first experience at Aldersgate was not quite so radical as it had seemed at the time. He came to believe that he HAD been a Christian before “the experience”, only that in that experience his commitment to and energy from Christ was taken up a level by God’s grace (no doubt precisely so that he would embark on his revival ministry).

    Now I believe (with the broad catholic tradition, and based upon John 3, Titus 3, etc.) New Birth is by water (of baptism) and by Spirit (Spirit baptism, or Spirit-filling). If you study the book of Acts closely you will see that “filled” and “baptized” with the Spirit are used synonymously and further that various people are said to be “filled” with the Spirit on various occassions (not simply once). This is very confusing for those of us who like nice, neat categories.

    From all this I think we can say several things: Different individuals will experience these things differently in different orders and so there can be no set formula that applies to all individuals; furthermore the same individual may interpret a single Holy Spirit experience in different ways, depending on his level of theological maturity. And all of this is OK. We should not get hung up on “the experience” of conversion and whether or not this or that individual fits our formula (or our attempts to vindicate our own personal experience). What we should do is call people to commit themselves to Christ as his disciples, baptize them with water in the name of God, and (probably with laying on of hands or annointing) pray for the Holy Spirit to work in them. If these things happen (though we can only ‘objectively’ verify the water baptism; we can only guess, based upon the fruit, as to the personal commitment and the work of the Spirit), the person has been converted – though they may indeed have new “conversions” – that is experiences of the Holy Spirit, or fillings with the Spirit, that utterly change the course of their lives and move them into new ministry.

  9. Hi, latecomer to this thread, must be the distance to Australia!

    I have long mused on the concept that “I have been saved, I am being saved, and I will be saved”.

    I view my life in terms of how I intersect with salvation history (“history” in terms that its past present and future is timeless). I do happen to remember the time 31 years ago in our small school gym where as a 16 year old I made a conscious decision to dive into the river of salvation history. Does this mean my life had not crossed it previously? No, in fact i believe I was marked with the sign of faith at my (infant) baptism. When I reflect on my past I can see circumstances that can only be described as ‘savific”.

    Earlier this year when I felt like following God has been a waste of my life and I was about to give it all up and just be a “good” person, I again had an intersection with salvation history and could only describe the experience as conversion. Not a raise the hand, walk the isle conversion, but a change of mind and heart, a metanoia, a 180 degree turn that only occurs in meeting the grace of God.

    Was this a “…discernible subjective experience? Yes but that was a by product of the depths I felt I was at. Coming in contact with the living God is always an “experience” whether or not feelings are involved.


  10. When I was in high school, two friends shared with me how important their relationship with God was to them, and I craved a similar relationship. I have no memory of a single moment when I became a Christian, but later, when asked when I was saved, I could only say that in November 1985 I was lost, and by January 1986 God had changed my life and had taken it in a direction that I never would have chosen on my own. My conversion was dramatic, but not a single moment when I “asked Jesus into my heart”. I have never doubted my salvation, though. I remember who I was and thank God for His grace and mercy to save me from that life. Many have had more sudden conversions, many more gradual. We are all on the same road in the end.

  11. “Does conversion register with a discernible subjective experience? What would you say to someone who insists that to be born again must include a discernible experiential starting point?”

    I answer this from a point of view from one who had a very powerful conversion event, I will not say “experience” because the event was object Cross not subjective experience. And THAT is the difference of between two religions. However, that experience was not salvation, RATHER, the undiluted proclamation of Christ and Him crucified. So, I’m one who had the “event” kind of conversion, however, I without shaking, defend against the necessity of it. And when people require it of a person they throw them upon law and into themselves and away from Christ.

    I would say to question number one that to POINT, unabashedly, to such is deception because we are not to put our trust in experience any more than in faith itself but the Cross of Christ. We do not point to faith itself or experience but the Cross of Christ. To necessitate a “discernible experience” is pagan religion point blank. That does not mean that an event, like Paul’s may not happen, but Paul HIMSELF would not say, “I come to know nothing among you but my discernible subjective conversion experience”, but said, “I come to know nothing among you but Christ and Him crucified.”

    To question number two, the one who insists upon this, I would say point blank he/she is preaching another gospel, a false religion, a cursed message and is cursed (per Paul in Galatians), declaring a false god of a pagan religion and is just using christnese monikers to cover it up and knows not Christ at all. And I’d say that all the way to my grave.

    Death and suffering is a fine instrument for clearing up these false messages because NONE of them will help one bear up under such crosses, trials, persecutions or tribulations. This is why Paul can glory in them, not because suffering is “good” and a way to eternal life, but rather by them these false idols are burned up because they cannot withstand the pressure. “Christ has lived, died and risen FOR YOU” what God has done bears us through. “You must have a discernable conversion experience”, will not survive trial and suffering.

    Scenario: It your day. You lay there in that hospital bed dying, body racked with cancer or your heart is about to give out. You are in your certain last moments. The reality of death is no longer “out there” in the undiscernable tomorrow. Death has arrived, the Law is upon you, no more time for “doing” or “having” a life altering “experience”. You are now the thief on the cross. The room is full of friends and family most of which who are delusional like we all are about our own mortality. Most of them are itching to get out of that room where you lay dying before their eyes. They cannot stand the infernal reality because deep down they, we all, are next. So, there you are alone, dying, no hours left, and your family and friends are equally moments away from pretty much forgetting about you after you do die by the time they get to Applebees for suppertime. Your breath is labored, fear is upon you, darkness is near, no more days left, no more minutes left.

    Possible Message #1 comes from some blubbering deluded pastor: “You must have a discernable conversion experience”. Boy do you ever feel better. No! Terror is now greater than before because this idiot in your last minutes told you, “You must have a discernable conversion experience”.

    Possible Message #2 comes from a real dying man like yourself, just not his physical time yet, a REAL pastor with the REAL voice of Christ: “Christ has lived, died and risen FOR YOU”. If you’ve been baptized he points you back to that Gospel upon you, maybe he feeds you Christ’s body and blood. Or you get baptized into Christ for the first time, never having been before, you have God’s name now, Jesus, “Yaweh saves”. Now you can go to sleep joyfully as the peace that surpasses all understanding sweeps over you.

    IN the later do you “experience” something? You bet you did but it is because you where told what God/Jesus DID FOR YOU, not because YOU HAD TO HAVE an experience.

    Two different messages, two different religions. Suffering clears them up and distinguishes the two.


    Larry KY

  12. I was just reading the newest newsletter from Voice of the Martyrs today. In it is the story of a Coptic Christian in Egypt, who is tortured and eventually killed for his faith. At one point he tells those who are persecuting him and want him to convert to Islam “I’ll never leave the Lord. I love Him. I WAS BORN A CHRISTIAN, will remain a Christian and will die a Christian.” (all caps for emphasis there). Now I can hear the theological thought police, “No one is born a Christian. There has to come a moment in your life when the Holy Spirit speaks to you and convicts you of your sin and you come to faith in Christ.” So, according to some, even though this young man died for refusing to renounce Jesus as the Son of God and embrace Islam, he wasn’t saved.

    Some days I’m just convinced that American Christians live with too much ease. Especially when we have time to figure out whether or not someone who has died for Christ was really a Christian or not. Strange indeed.

  13. urban otter says

    Late to the party as usual, but the insistence that conversion be accompanied by an experience is what ultimately drove me out of Christianity.

    If you were raised to believe that accepting Christ into your heart as your personal Lord and savior causes a subjective inner experience to happen, what are you supposed to conclude when such an experience failed to occur?

    You believed, confessed with your mouth, were baptized, and…. nothing.

    Insisting that subjective inward personal experience is the evidence of Christian conversion is to throw one type of religious mind into despair.

  14. NaisdilsSaw says

    Nothing seems to be easier than seeing someone whom you can help but not helping.
    I suggest we start giving it a try. Give love to the ones that need it.
    God will appreciate it.

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