Transforming Conversion: Rethinking the Language and Contours of Christian Initiation. By Gordon T. Smith. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2010. 208 pp. Paper, $22.00.
As in most evangelical books on salvation or conversion today, the author argues that salvation does not occur at a point in time (cf. pp. 146, 203). He calls the idea that there is some “bare minimum” a person must do to be saved “a minimalist approach.” That approach, he says, “has led to the emphasis on the idea of a punctiliar [point in time] conversion, which is not consistent with either the biblical witness or the actual experience of Christians” (p. 112).
In this book he is “not looking for a minimalist response to the question: not what must we do to be spared the horrors of hell? but rather what must we do to know the transforming grace of God? We are looking for a good beginning, an experience of the justifying grace that is integrated with the purposes of God for our lives” (p. 112). He argues here that to be saved one must submit and be reformed.
This leads him to a discussion of Acts 2:38, which he says is “the paradigmatic [primary example] text in Acts on conversion” (p. 113). He argues that both turning from sins and submitting to water baptism are necessary in order for a person to be converted (pp. 113-25). He calls repentance “this radical turning” (p. 124) and says, “[Peter in Acts 2:38] is not preaching a different gospel from that of Paul when he responds with ‘Repent and be baptized’ rather than ‘Have faith in God’” (p. 125). Of course, Paul never answered the question what must I do to be saved with “Have faith in God.” And Peter was not asked “What must we do to be saved?” but rather “What must we do?” The Jews who asked Peter that in Acts 2:37 were already believers and born again. Their concern was not salvation, but escaping the terrible guilt they now felt since they realized they had a part in crucifying the Messiah.
The author wishes to distinguish between conversion and salvation, though he says that they are “intimately linked.” Conversion he says “is a human response to the saving initiative of God.” Salvation, he says “is the work of God” (p. 4). In his view we should not speak of when were “saved,” as though salvation was some past event only, but instead we should think more about where we are in the process of conversion (see pp. 1-19), since conversion is an ongoing human response to God’s saving initiative that requires not merely initial repentance and water baptism, but ongoing turning from sin and obedience to God.
Smith says this of evangelism: “Evangelism is, at its heart, a call and an invitation to enter into this covenant relationship and into a life—evident most obviously in the liturgical rhythms of the church—of grace filled with the reign of Christ and continually in alignment with the reign” (p. 132). Later he says concisely, “There is no conversion until and unless we learn obedience” (p. 203).
I do not know Smith’s church affiliation. I couldn’t find where he mentions that.
I recommend this book for those wishing a thorough library dealing with Lordship/works salvation.
Robert N. Wilkin
Journal of the Grace Evangelical Society