Head and heart: what is necessary for conversion?

By Michael Marchal, JBL:NAAC Board Member

The Bride and Bridegroom from Song of Solomon by artist Mark Dukes at St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church, San Francisco

There is no right or wrong way to fall in love. Some do so quickly and forty years later are still happily married. Others grow into it and always say how glad they are that they knew each other so well before they committed themselves. Yet this is no hard-and-fast division. Few people these days seem to elope, and even the more cautious still experience that magic moment when they realize that their feelings for the other person have taken a profound change.

The same thing is true for an adult who comes to us seeking to become a Christian. Some have recently experienced a crisis moment, a deeply charged emotional experience of the personal love of Jesus for them. Others have been faithful but not enthusiastic Christians for years but are just now coming alive in their personal relationship with Jesus. And so, the first fact that we need to discern about an adult seeker is where they are coming from.

To be honest, our various churches have often overemphasized one component or the other, and this excessive focus can lead us to fail to understand how God is working with each individual, for both head and heart are components necessary for a mature relationship.

Just as those who have fallen in love quickly really need to get to know their potential partner before making a lifelong commitment, so those who have had a conversion experience need to find out more about this Jesus to whom they feel called to surrender their lives. They need to seek him in prayer and Bible reading certainly, but also through Bible study and mentoring and the experience of living within a community of committed Christians whose lives reveal both how to live like Christ in our world and what the cost of such discipleship is.

A fact that it is sometimes good to ponder is that you can’t baptize yourself. Someone else, acting in the name of the Church, must give you rebirth by water and the Spirit. Yes, the Ethiopian eunuch is immediately baptized by the deacon Philip and then rides on out of the story, but the general picture created in Acts is of a community “faithful to the teaching of the apostles, to the community, to the breaking of the bread, to the prayers,” and to the service of the poor.

And those who are only just coming alive in their heart after years of Bible reading and study, or even theological training, have sometimes been acting as if being religious was somehow like doing math, you learn the principles, study the situation, and come to a conclusion. They come to us looking for a program. Yet a mature conversion is not just amassing knowledge about Jesus or even living by his ethical principles—good as that attempt may be. Instead, it is getting to know him personally and intimately—leading to a lifelong commitment to him and to the community which is his living presence today.

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