Monday, June 30, 2008

The Beauty of Conversion

by Bill Brace

I simply love conversion stories!

I am totally fascinated by them, be they “live” contemporary renditions or ones from the pages and annals of history. And there are two from church history that have given me inspiration for several decades.

The first comes from the life of John Wesley. As you probably remember, Wesley had preached for many years, both in England and on the soil of colonial America. However, it was not until one evening he found himself in a little Bible study (I guess we would call it a “small group setting” today) on Aldersgate Street in busy London that the gospel finally had full sway in his life. Here is the incident in his own words:

In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed [emphasis mine]. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.[i]

Just great stuff!

Wesley went forth from that experience a different man with a new motivation, a deeper fervor than ever, to preach the gospel of salvation and the matchless charms of Christ.

Several years ago, during one of my visits to London, I made it a special project to locate the site of Wesley’s conversion. I searched and searched up one street and down another. I was just about ready to give up in frustration when I finally spied it—an inconspicuous sign over a doorway that modestly commemorated that night’s (Wednesday, May 24, 1738) effective work of the Spirit. Just a few line’s worth. The man that many historians would claim saved England merited only a small sign, which designated the most important moment of his life, on a hidden side street in the bowels of London. Contrast that with the huge monument of the British military hero, Lord Nelson, that towers high and lofty over the scene at Trafalgar Square not far away. Certainly, the values of man are not the values of God.

The second conversion story comes in the life of young Charles Spurgeon, later to be the greatest Baptist preacher of 19th century England. Spurgeon was a pastor’s son but unable somehow to connect with God. He heard many different pastors of numerous denominations preach from scripture, but somehow or other he just couldn’t come to an understanding of how the gospel worked. Fortunately, he was not easily discouraged.

As a teenager he committed himself to visiting every church and chapel he could find in his hometown. One cold and snowy Sunday, as the story goes, he went out again, somewhat apprehensively, to visit yet another church. But he never made it to his original site of choice. The weather conditions inclined him to enter a little Primitive Methodist Chapel on a side street somewhat short of his intended destination. There were only a few in attendance, and so he decided to sit near the back, under the balcony, to appear as inconspicuous as possible.

The regular pastor never appeared. Instead, a lay person, untrained in the art of preaching, strode into the pulpit. His unrehearsed text that morning was Isaiah 45:22, “Look unto Me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth.” Listen now to how Spurgeon later described that glorious, personal event:

He did not even pronounce the words rightly, but that did not matter . . . [The man went on to proclaim] A man may be the biggest fool, and yet you can look . . . even a child can look. . . .Then he looked at me under the gallery . . . [and] said, “Young man, you look very miserable.” Well, I did; but I had not been accustomed to have remarks made on my personal appearance from the pulpit before. However, it was a good blow, struck right home. He continued, “And you will always be miserable—miserable in life and miserable in death—if you do not obey the text. But if you obey it now, this moment, you will be saved.”[ii]

Suddenly, Spurgeon realized that the gospel demanded only that we look to be saved. At that moment the clouds over his head disappeared, the sunshine of God’s grace radiated in his heart, and he became a new person. And all he had to do was look! He didn’t have to go looking for God; God had been looking all that time for him. A simple concept. A homely truth. But how powerful in its essence.[iii]

Two thrilling conversion stories. Two men who rocked their worlds. Yes, that we all would be so converted each day of our lives as pastors. May we not be satisfied with what we know and have. Rather, let us hunger and thirst for righteousness in the midst of these challenging times. There is still magnificent power in the message of the gospel as it is allowed to reach the inner recesses of the heart. Not only for the individual, but also for the corporate church.

[ii] Taken from (accessed May 5, 2008).

[iii] Both of these conversion stories are told more fully and eloquently by little-known Christian essayist, F.W. Boreham, in his delightful book, A Bunch of Everlastings (New York: Abingdon Press, 1920). I would encourage you to get your hands on a copy if you can. It is one of my most treasured books on the shelves of my study. It was given to me in 1974 by my former academy principal and mentor, Richard Hammond.

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