While attending the funeral of a seminary colleague's mother last week, I got chatting afterwards to one of the members of the local congregation, and the subject got around to the time and circumstances in one's life when one accepts Jesus as Lord.
This raises a number of questions - the first one being the influence of one's surroundings on a decision to come to Christ. Take ministers, for instance. Most of the ministers I know grew up in Christian homes, many being "sons / daughters of the manse", which is a churchy term for those whose fathers were ministers. Note too my use of "father", since most churches did not ordain women until fairly recently (the first in the MCSA being in 1976).
However, my friend Shane, who has been in the ministry for around 12 years, did not grow up with Christian parents, and nor did I. What's also interesting in our case is that both of us were brought up by our mothers alone (with our parents getting divorced while we were young); both of us became Christians in our late teens; and both of our mothers accepted Christ shortly after our own conversion.
In the absence of a Christian influence in the home, what then brought us to salvation? In Shane's case, it was the weekly tutelage of a faithful Sunday School teacher (which he attended because all of his friends did), while for me it was the result of a long struggle in coming to understand what the "Duty to God" line of the Scout promise really meant. As time went by, an overwhelming sense that "being Christian" was far more than mere attendance at church resulted in an eventual encounter with the living Christ.
Contrast this image of our upbringing with the picture in our homes now that we have families of our own. Shane married a "daughter of the manse" and ministered for a number of years with his father-in-law. Belinda and I met shortly after we had both accepted Jesus as Lord. Shane's two children have stood at the front of the church chanting "pwaise the Lord" from the time they began to walk, while our son James does not recall any particular day on which he decided to invite Jesus into his heart since, as he told his tearful parents some five years ago, "Jesus has always been my Lord".
The second question is around the nature of people's conversion experiences. John Wesley, for instance, speaks of a "heart strangely warmed". Shane's conversion was a classical "spiritual U-turn", leaving behind a lifestyle of drinking and fast motorcycles to follow Jesus. Mine was an "intellectual" conversion - a point came in my life when the life and teaching of Jesus was "made sense", and it therefore seemed pointless to any longer resist following Him. James had no conversion experience at all, since for him there were no "BC days".
What, then, does all this say about people and their relationship with Christ? Those who subscribe to Calvinist theology would cite the events described in this blog post as evidence of "predestination" - a doctrine that stipulates that God predetermines who will be saved, and who won't be. Somehow, though, I cannot buy this line of thinking. Freedom of choice is too large a factor. Continuing with the parallels between my friend Shane and I, both of us are the most stubborn so-and-so's to walk on God's great earth. We change when we want to change, not when someone else says we must. Only if things make sense to us will we go along with things.
I can therefore only deduce that God's infinite wisdom and prevenient grace (now there's a good Wesleyan word for you!) means that not only is each individual presented with an opportunity to accept Jesus as Lord, but that such opportunity is presented to each according to where they are. So why, then, was Shane, to quote Chris Rea's lyrics, on "The Road To Hell" when he encountered Christ? Why did it happen to me in the cold, intellectual environment of a university lecture hall? How is it that James was effectively born saved? And why did John Wesley spend umpteen years as an Anglican priest and a lecturer in theology before his understanding of who Jesus is moved from his head to his heart?
None of us will ever know the answer. But just as Jesus called His first disciples from an assortment of different characters, so Jesus continues to call different people in different ways. For me, this points to two things: Firstly, in the words of John Wesley, "all can be saved". And secondly, if this is true, the Gospel message cannot be presented in a "one size fits all" package if we are to be truly effective for Christ.
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