Reviewed by D. Jeffrey Mooney
Michael Lawrence is concerned with the obvious gap between theology proper and practical theology (how our fundamental beliefs appear in the life and structure of the local church). In addressing this matter, he has written a book on biblical conversion, which is a bedrock to almost all other issues pertaining to the life and work of the/a church. I am not sure there is a more significant and timely topic. In his book, Conversion, Lawrence covers eight points necessary to understand conversion and its implications for both the individual and the church. This review will follow his outline.
Lawrence first emphasizes the uselessness of “nice” or moralism and pursues instead the freedom that comes with being created into something new. By “new” the author means that the idea of regeneration must be at the heart of how Christians talk about salvation, and certainly should be the fruit for which they evaluate “personal decisions.”
He highlights the difference between the deadly concept of sincerity, distinguishing it from the work of God and the reality of human sinfulness, thus making the human being the object of salvation rather than the subject of a transaction with God. The push toward “sincerity” is ubiquitous in evangelical circles (though inadvertent, given the discord such a notion strikes with what almost all conservative evangelicals believe about salvation). The sincere human engineering a response from God rather than God saving a helpless sinner seems to be the only “salvation” known and understood by mainline protestants.
In discussing the human response to the gospel call, Lawrence de-emphasizes the concept of “decisionism,” an idea that belongs in the consumer market, which has its own set of values, paradigms, and categories, almost none of which appear in the New Testament. He rather emphasizes the decision to follow Jesus, thus becoming a disciple. Becoming a disciple by seeing someone amazing and following, rather than a decision brokered by a salesman, who is “closing the deal” appears to be the only way the New Testament discusses the human response to the gospel, according to Lawrence.
Lawrence discusses the necessity and beauty of holiness. Models of salvation that reduce holiness to a judicial state and those who create a category of merit for personal morality miss the concept altogether. By contrast, the author demonstrates in a clear, concise, and biblical way that holiness is relational, liberating, active, hope-filled, desirable, and necessary.
In the last four chapters, Lawrence spends time deliberating the implications for individual lives, church practice, evangelism, and church life. He calls into question the entire paradigm that emerged from Donald Magavern and the Church growth movement, stating, “. . . to all appearances, the strategy works. . . .But is it Christian?” By this rather provocative inquiry Lawrence clearly doesn’t question whether it is Christlike to reach out to people, but rather questions whether this approach is consistent with how the Bible talks about unsaved people, salvation, the gospel, and the church. He urges his readers to think through the identity of the church, its origin, its mission, and question the seemingly more limited strategies that separate generations, races, and cultures. He never questions the hearts and intentions of the practitioners of the movement – and justifiably so. There is no room to throw stones at people who wish for more people to hear the gospel in a strategic manner, but Lawrence does justifiably and charitably ask if this is what we are seeing in the Bible or are we following a foreign paradigm that is discordant with the idea of conversion.
Perhaps most unnerving to most readers my age and older (50 somethings) will be Lawrence’s excellent chapter on evangelism. Lawrence addresses the seemingly limited scope of “felt needs” evangelism. This is a tricky topic because it tends to be practiced by people who genuinely love others and want them to find Jesus. However, Lawrence respectfully demonstrates the wrongheadedness of deemphasizing the core elements of the gospel, like forgiveness, repentance, and deliverance, and essentially assuming that the New Testament writers were tending to the felt needs of first century Europeans and Palestinians. Regardless of how attentive the New Testament writers were to the people’s needs of their day, they never abandoned the essential elements of the gospel. You will find no hyper Calvinism here. Lawrence walks his readers through a practical and encouraging framework for presenting the gospel of Jesus Christ to those with, not merely “felt needs,” but real ones they may not feel.
Responding to the more reductionist approach to assurance of salvation of his childhood, Lawrence emphasizes the need to describe and define genuine faith, which he characterizes as having three elements: knowledge, agreement, and trust. He demonstrates from the Bible that real faith is something one sees played out in the lives of those claiming it and provides the reader eight practical ways that we (local churches) can help to engineer assurance in the lives of our congregation.
In his last chapter, Lawrence addresses another extremely popular idea, namely the notion of “belonging before believing.” Belonging is absolutely central to the human experience, but how does that work in church. Again, previous answers to this question seek to galvanize community around pragmatic categories and vocational identities. Lawrence demonstrates that all such approaches fall short of taking seriously even a basic biblical understanding of conversion. However, Lawrence justly cautions conservative churches away from the mistakes of previous generations, who inadvertently constructed morality code-words and behaviors that merited one’s belonging. Instead, he once again addresses the notion of holiness, following 1 Corinthians in his discussion and provides a well orbed sense of holiness as hope driven rather than behavior modification. Further, and helpfully so, Lawrence provides a list from 1 Corinthians of those that may not fit the ideal categories but belong in the very heart of community, including the immature, the weak, and the wounded. Lawrence also demonstrates that there is a difference between these categories and the scandalous category of individualism that merits discipline and ejection from the church. Sin is not the issue – everybody in the church sins. Unrepentant sin is the issue. This chapter will hopefully resonate with both church leaders and students alike, who may be tempted to follow the rather plastic Jesus type approach to unrepentant sinners. By this I mean treating those who embrace their sin AND call themselves Christian as such, unlike Jesus, who only embraces those who don’t call themselves Christian and want rescue from sin.
Michael Lawrence’s book could not be more clear, concise, and generous. Only the most cynical reader will find a contentious tone in the book. While unpopular with status quo, the book simply seeks to explore some of the pop Christianity’s more uncritically accepted ideas in the light of the biblical notion of conversion. Loving people, helping people feel they belong, tending to their felt needs, and other primary categories used by evangelicals are both biblical and reasonable, but should never be exercised at the expense of the most central reality of the gospel, namely that God brings sinners to life by his power. Most evangelicals believe this idea. Lawrence appeals to them to shape their methodology accordingly, so that the power of God appears most clearly in the supernaturally created people of God.
D. Jeffrey D. Mooney is Professor of Old Testament Interpretation and Theology at California Baptist University and Senior Pastor of Redeemer Baptist Church, Riverside CA.
Buy the books
Conversion: How God Creates a People