Whenever I sing hymns such as ‘Amazing Grace’ or ‘Amazing Love’ they cause me a little difficulty, because they recount conversion experiences that I do not relate to. As I ponder the lyrics, I find myself beginning to consider an uncomfortable possibility—a possibility that I am, in fact, unconverted. What is more, I suspect that there may be many like me in our churches!
The possibility that a church pastor is unconverted may not be as disconcerting as it seems. You see, I have a hunch that, in one sense, I have not been converted from anything; that I am and have always been a Christian. Having been raised in a church-going family, I was taught about God, went to church, learnt Bible stories, and prayed. I do not remember a time where I did not believe in God, when I did not trust in Jesus. Of course, the nature of this trust developed as my understanding increased (as it continues to do). So as far as I can tell, I have been a believer from birth: an unconverted Christian.
This is, undoubtedly, a great blessing. I have never known a time outside of relationship with God. However, there remain some difficulties—not only of having a less dramatic testimony and awkwardness with certain hymns—but more significantly in understanding certain passages in the Bible. The New Testament was largely written by first generation Christians to first generation Christians.1 The difficulty for believers from birth is what to make of a number of passages that make reference to the former ways of believers.
For example, consider Colossians 3:5-10:
Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry… In these you too once walked, when you were living in them. But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.2
Frequently, these phrases and others are said to describe the pre-conversion self. But what if I do not know a pre-conversion self? If these characteristics of anger, rage and the like belong to this pre-conversion self, how do I explain them when I see these characteristics in myself now? The believer from birth cannot claim to be without sin (1 John 1:8). We therefore need to investigate this issue for the unconverted Christian in two parts: firstly, whether it is right to talk of being a believer from birth; and secondly, if so, what do we make of the references to the “old self” in relation to such people?
Is it right to talk of being a ‘believer from birth’?
It is helpful to first ask whether we believe a child can in fact be an actual Christian, or if we ought to treat them as only a potential Christian until they are able to make a mature profession of faith.
The New Testament certainly appears to treat children as part of the body of believers. Children were accepted and blessed by Jesus (Mark 10:13-16); indeed, the kingdom of God needs to be received like a child. Jesus warns against leading astray children who believe in him (Matt 18:6). The expression “in the Lord”, used by Paul to describe the relation of the Christian to Christ, is used of children who are to obey their parents “in the Lord” (Eph 6:1). The fact that children are addressed in ethical sections such as this indicates that they were thought of as an accepted part of the church. So if this suggests that children can be actual Christians, at what stage might this occur?
We must be cautious about applying adult models of conversion to children. Certainly we may expect an adult convert to be capable of expressing their repentance from sin and faith in Christ’s death as the basis of their forgiveness and reconciliation with God. But it is worth considering what we might expect of a fourteen-year-old Christian, or an eight-year-old, or a three-year-old. Regeneration, being born again as a Christian, is a gift from God and the work of the Holy Spirit, for which there is no academic entry requirement. We must be careful not to dictate to God who he may bestow this gift upon.
Biblical figures such as Samuel and Sampson were consecrated to the Lord from birth (1 Sam 2:21; Judg 13:24-25). Just as the Psalmist describes his sin from birth (Ps 51:5), he also describes his divinely-given trust of God from the womb (Ps 22:9-10, cf. Ps 71:6). The remnant of Israel were upheld by God from the womb (Isa 46:3), Jeremiah was known by God and consecrated by him in the womb (Jer 1:5), and John the Baptist was filled with the Holy Spirit in his mother’s womb (Luke 1:15). Children of believers appear to be in some way specially regarded by God, as Paul describes them as “holy” (1 Cor 7:14). Children are capable of having the Spirit—of being regenerate—from birth, if not before. Consequently, it seems reasonable to assume that some children born and raised in the new covenant community gathered under God’s word are genuine Christians from birth. And I believe I was one of them.3
The search for the old self
What then do we make of the references to former ways of life for a person with no concept of a former way of life, no pre-conversion self, but who is nonetheless a sinner?
Firstly, we have to acknowledge that some passages are specifically addressing the original hearers’ previous way of life before conversion. In particular, this seems likely when Paul is addressing gentile Christians (e.g. 1 Cor 6:9-11). Such passages might not relate directly to believers from birth, but nevertheless they do describe behaviours and attitudes that are not acceptable for a Christian. Furthermore, they are powerful reminders of the transforming power of God’s work in us. Believers from birth can therefore celebrate God’s grace to us in what we all have been saved from, and in humility recognize what we easily could become without God’s help.
Secondly, some other passages seem to be not so much about an individual’s pre-conversion self, but something else. This is particularly the case with the three references to the ‘old self’—or more literally, the ‘old man’—in Ephesians 4:22, Colossians 3:9, and Romans 6:6. For this we need to understand that believers were ‘in Adam’ and are now ‘in Christ’.
The old self, or old man, refers to who we were in Adam—the fallen nature we have inherited by virtue of being human. As Rory writes elsewhere in this Briefing issue, our death apart from God is assured because we are implicated in Adam’s decision. But this former self has been crucified with Christ, in order that “the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin” (Rom 6:6). The crucifixion of the old man is not simply the conversion of an individual. It is what took place once for all in Christ, and so his people share in it.
Our present reality, however, is that as we continue to live in the time between the inauguration of the kingdom by Christ and its fulfilment in his return, we will continue to endure the presence of indwelling sin. Because we are ‘in Christ’ and have life in him (which may be true from birth for some of us), the New Testament writers keep urging us to live out that reality. This is what the calls to remember (and avoid) the old self are about; the ‘new man’ is the reality, so the old man must be resisted. The ongoing effects of our human, in-Adam nature must be recognized and rejected. We must put to death not whatever belongs to some pre-conversion self, but whatever belongs to our sinful self.
So finally, understanding this, I can again confidently sing ‘Amazing Grace’, knowing that, although in relationship to Adam “I once was lost”, I have now been found in a relationship with Christ.
1 Timothy is a possible exception: see Acts 16:1; 2 Tim 1:5.
2 Consider also passages such as Rom 6:5-7, 11:30; Eph 2:1-2, 13, 4:20-24; Tit 3:3; 1 Pet 2:9-10.
3 Certainly, some children of believers walk away from the faith in which they were raised, seemingly never to return, while others return following an apparently genuine conversion experience. Others point to a particular point in time as their ‘conversion’, where they made a conscious decision to follow Christ. While there may be a point of conversion for some children, it may also be simply a point of breakthrough in their comprehension of their already present and developing faith.