Everyone wants to be nice. Well, almost everyone. But it takes a miraculous work of God to make someone new. This, in brief, is the main argument of Michael Lawrence’s new contribution to Crossway’s 9Marks: Building Healthy Churches series, Conversion: How God Creates a People.
The miraculous work of God in conversion is particularly emphasized in the first three chapters of the book. Lawrence describes the biblical picture of conversion, explaining that it is a special work of God that results in a “new deepest loyalty of the heart” (p. 53). He argues clearly and effectively against the “decisionism” mindset that plagues evangelicalism and demonstrates that faith and repentance are necessary for true conversion.
True conversion, Lawrence argues, should lead to church membership. “Church membership, at its biblical core, is our affirmation and oversight of one another’s professions of faith and discipleship to Christ, which we make through baptism and participation in the Lord’s Supper. When we baptize people, therefore, it should be the norm that we then take them into membership in our church” (p. 60). The connection between conversion and church membership demonstrates one of the strengths of this book. Lawrence has an unrelenting focus on conversion as a key doctrine for the church, not simply for individuals. While this book is a helpful guide to any Christian wrestling with the doctrine, its particular usefulness, as has been the case in all of the Building Healthy Churches series, is as a tool for a church or church leaders.
In the second half of the book, Lawrence considers how a right doctrine of conversion should affect the lives of church members individually and the church as a whole. In chapters four, five, and six, Lawrence describes how a right understanding of this doctrine corrects common misunderstandings in the modern evangelical church. In chapter four, he argues that conversion should result in greater holiness, not simply therapeutic, Oprah-style healing. Chapters five explains that a church full of converted Christians is a distinct community, not a “designer church” built around a particular ethnic or social identity. In chapter six, Lawrence demonstrates that a correct understanding of conversion is closely tied to our practice of evangelism. If conversion is truly a miraculous work of God, then it is not a sales pitch. Instead, evangelism is “God’s summons of love to sinners” (p. 97).
In the last two chapters, Lawrence paints a picture of assessing conversion in a church that is neither too loose (chapter seven) nor too strict (chapter eight). This last part of the book will be of great value to many pastors and church leaders. The admonitions against attempting to create an overly pure church in chapter eight are a needed warning against a form of legalism that can easily be fallen into. Chapter seven includes a section on assessing true conversion that is one of the most helpful in the book. Rather than relying on a prayer or a simple verbal affirmation when considering whether a conversion is genuine, Lawrence points us to the example of the Thessalonians (1 Thess 3:7–10). Paul pointed to evidence of their faith, hope, and love along with a pattern of active growth. This picture of biblical conversion should shape the way we determine whether someone is truly converted or not. While not every church may end up with the same practices, any pastor or group of pastors would be helped by giving careful consideration to Lawrence’s list of eight steps a church should implement when trying to discern true conversions in this chapter.
As has been the case with the previous contributions to this series that I have reviewed for Themelios, Conversion is a tremendous gift to the church. I highly commend it for any pastor or any Christian who is serious about understanding how a correct doctrine of conversion should shape the life of the church. The only real quibble I have with the book is over some of Lawrence’s terms. First, while most agree with his connection between holiness and being “set apart” in chapter four, Peter Gentry has convincingly argued that the meaning of “holy” is primarily “devoted” not “set apart” (Peter J. Gentry, “The Meaning of ‘Holy’ in the Old Testament,” BibSac 170 : 400–17). However, this admittedly minor adjustment only strengthens Lawrence’s overall argument.
Also, Lawrence has creatively alliterated all of his chapter titles (“New, Not Nice, “Holy, Not Healed,” “Summon, Don’t Sell,” etc.). These are on the whole helpful, but, as is usually the case when any biblical or theological content is shaped around a preconceived structure, they are sometimes distracting. It may be that Lawrence uses alliteration to great effect in his teaching and preaching, but in this format, I found the abundance of alliteration to be amusing, sometimes addling, but not always advantageous.
However, any quibbles I have with the book are minor and do not detract from the overall quality of the book. I will undoubtedly recommend this volume in my church and in my classroom for years to come as a faithful, accessible, and useful tool for considering how to understand and apply the doctrine of conversion in the church.