If a person is raised in a Christian home, do they need to have a personal conversion? Or will they just grow gradually into faith through watching and listening to their parents and other people in the home? People are often confused about this issue. When I talk about conversion, lifelong churchgoers often look strangely at me, as if to say, “I’ve been a churchgoer all my life; why do I need to be converted?”
Of course, the Lord works in many different ways, and it’s certainly possible (and perhaps even common?) for the children of devout Christians to become devout Christians themselves in a slow and imperceptible way without any experience like the ‘giving your life to Christ’ that evangelicals like to talk about (I’m married to a person like that!). Possible, even common, yes – but not automatic or certain. Here’s what’s also possible: parents have had genuine encounters with the living God, and have organized their lives around religious activities, which they involve their kids in from the beginning, but all the kids pick up is the religious activities, and not the experience of the living God. I know it’s possible (and I think it’s very common), because until my early teens I was one of those kids.
Today in my devotions I read one of the great conversion stories of the Bible: Jacob’s ladder. Jacob was raised in a religious home. He was the grandson of Abraham and Sarah and the son of Isaac and Rebecca; his parents and grandparents had experienced the touch of God many times in their lives. However, up to this point Jacob appears to have spent his life as a totally self-centred schemer, out to best his twin brother Esau (who was a few minutes older than him, and thus the heir) at every opportunity. Through a series of events too long to recount here (read it in Genesis 27), Jacob cheats his brother of his birthright and ends up running for his life because of his brother’s threat to kill him. His mother suggests that he go back to her people in Haran, and so he sets off on the long journey.
On the way, he sleeps and has a dream; he sees heaven opened and a stairway, with angels ascending and descending on it, and God at the top. God speaks to him and says,
“I am Yahweh, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac. I will give you and your descendants the land on which you are lying. Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth, and you will spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south. All peoples on earth will be blessed through you and your offspring. I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you” (Genesis 28:13-15 NIV 2011).
Note how God describes himself: he is the God of Abraham and Isaac, but not yet of Jacob, despite the fact that Jacob was raised in a religious home. The key appears to be that Jacob has not yet met Yahweh for himself; all his religion is hearsay from others. But now he is confronted with the reality of God in a way that is obviously very profound and that changes the course of his life. He wakes up from his sleep and says, “Surely Yahweh is in this place, and I was not aware of it…How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven!” (vv.16-17).
Poor Jacob; he has not yet figured out that every place is the house of God and the gate of heaven, and that Yahweh is in every place. He thinks he’s stumbled onto a particularly holy place, but what has actually happened is that he’s been touched by a particularly holy and loving God who is present everywhere. But Jacob sets up a stone, pours consecrated oil on it, and calls the place ‘Bethel’ (‘house of God’). He hasn’t yet realized that (to quote a hymn by John Newton) ‘every place is hallowed ground’.
His conversion is also very incomplete. God’s promise to him (see above) is complete and unconditional, but Jacob’s response is to try to strike a bargain with God (totally unnecessary, as God has just made an unconditional promise to him, but Jacob no doubt struggles to accept unconditional love). Here’s what he says:
“If God will be with me and will watch over me on this journey I am taking and will give me food to eat and clothes to wear so that I return safely to my father’s household, then Yahweh will be my God and this stone that I have set up as a pillar will be God’s house, and of all that you give me I will give you a tenth” (vv.20-22).
Poor Jacob! He thinks he and God are equals and he thinks he can strike a bargain with God! He doesn’t realize that God has an agenda for him too: it will involve a slow process of transformation, a gradual turning from his self-centredness and deceit. It will take his whole life long, and it will also involve a realization that God is God and Jacob is not, so any covenant between them will not be an equal partnership. It is for God to promise and command; it is for Jacob to thankfully receive God’s unconditional love and to do his best to be faithful.
So Jacob’s conversion experience is vital, and it is real, but it is not the whole story: it is just the beginning. So it is with us too. I also had a conversion experience as a young teenager, in which ‘the God of my father and mother’ became real and personal to me too. but it was not the end of the story; far from it. Forty-one years later, the journey still goes on and the transformation is far from complete. Truly conversion is a lifelong process.
Nevertheless, for some of us who were raised in religious homes, a kick-start is necessary. Not for everyone, perhaps. If you were raised in a Christian home and the living God is a daily reality to you, if you know Christ and press on day by day to know him better, then that moment of consciously ‘giving your life to Christ’ may not be necessary for you. But on the other hand, if you’ve been a churchgoer all your life but have never sensed the touch of the living God – if your entire religious experience is based on hearsay – then maybe what’s necessary is for you to hear again the promises of God in Christ and to make a conscious response in prayer.
Perhaps, if you understand the invitation that God is giving you, the only thing you need to say is “Yes, Lord”. Or perhaps something like this would help:
Lord Jesus, I realise that you already know me and that you love me. Now I want to get to know you too. Please forgive me for everything in my life that comes between us, and help me to renounce it as I learn to live the life of God’s kingdom. Help me to follow you faithfully, and to grow to love you more and more. Amen.