In recent years, many high-profile Christians (and many more low-profile ones) have “deconstructed” their faith.
Although I am not an expert on this subject, I am aware of some pushback to that term, so while I am going to define it, please note that I will use the word “deconverted” from here on out.
This post is a public exploration more than anything. Although I am “by default” committed to the doctrine of eternal security as a consequence of my own tradition, it is not a formalized church tradition by which I am bound.
And I have to admit, I think those who argue for the legitimacy of apostasy have some good arguments. But the goal here is not to rehash papers that have already been written.
Thus, I want to being the process of “thinking out loud” about a particular question: What if there’s a difference between “salvation” and “conversion?”
Generally speaking, deconstruction begins when one has realized an incongruity between the expectations of his faith and the reality he is experiencing in his life.1
At some point along the way, the cognitive dissonance grows too great to bear, and this person begins to “tear down” (deconstruct) his faith until the point when was is left becomes minimally acceptable.
For some, this stops short of disbelief in Jesus. For others, it stops just short of disbelief in God. For others still, it leaves nothing left and withers away into unfettered atheism.
The “reconstruction” process is the “adding back” of former ideals and previously unconsidered ideas in order to test and discover what the individual can consistently believe again.
Many “progressive Christians” have followed this course.
For this piece, let’s set aside Progressive Christianity. I want to consider the person who was once “on fire” for God, and not only in the “week away at teen camp” sense. Rather, in the deeply committed sense, where the individual was doctrinally stout and even held a position of leadership in his local church.
The Difference Between Salvation and Conversion
I first stumbled across this idea during a YouTube live conversation with The Mentionables a while back.
It occurred to me, based on an observation by Mentionables leader Joel Furches, that Christians don’t tend to make a distinction between “salvation” (God’s work) and “conversion” (man’s work).
Notice what I am NOT saying. It is very important you understand that I am not a synergist. I do not believe man takes any part in saving himself. It is entirely a work of God.
Hence the need, potentially, for a distinction between these two items.
A Tension of My Own
In the theological sense, I am never surprised when I see someone leave the faith. After all, 1 John 2:19 is still in the Bible. People will leave. And indeed, I think this verse is strong evidence that apostasy is not possible.
That said, I would be telling a lie to deny that it seems like there is more going on. Jesus said in Matthew 7:22-23:
Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works? And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity.
Once again, another verse that seems to suggest a person can do many things in the name of Jesus, and yet he can infallibly say, “I never knew you.”
But… what about all those sermons they preached? What about the debates where they crushed atheist opponents? What to do with the Bible studies and discipleship groups they led? What about the people they invited to church? What about the times they inconvenienced their own lives to do something for Jesus?
For now, working on the assumption that the above verses are crystal clear and it is impossible to a person to lose genuine salvation (i.e., they were never a Christian to begin with if they fall away), what explains the disparity?
It is at this juncture I think it wise to detach “salvation” from the meaning of “conversion.”
Salvation is fully the work of God. It is a Christian term. There are judicial and forensic things happening (some of which I explored here) specific to the claims of the Bible which have nothing to do with the individual.
Conversion, on the other hand, is the work of man. Why? Because it is not limited to Christianity. People convert to Islam and other world religions all the time. Conversion is a “mental ascent” based on a response to some emotional or logical input.
It is very important we do not treat this as a distinction without a difference. I think there’s a very important difference.
God does the saving work.
But not once has a message at church been directed at God, telling him why he should save somebody. Notice, the messages are preached to people in the pews.
Because some sort of response is necessary. If there is no “come,” why preach, teach, and evangelize? But of course, “coming” is not without its limits. A person can come; but who says God is “saving” when that person is “coming?”
It seems to me the failure to make a distinction between conversion and salvation is a logical consequence of easy believism.
Consider these three notions:
- When a person says they believe and confesses with their mouth, they are saved.
- A person cannot lose their salvation.
- Lots of people did #1 and claim to have lost their salvation.
There’s a fly in the ointment, here.
For if one cannot fall away, then those identified in #3 are still saved. This would result in people who do NOT believe in God going to heaven when they die, and would seem to require God forcing them there against their will.
I think we can all agree that doesn’t sound right.
So, one might now appeal to 1 John 2:19 and say “they were never with us.” But then, what of #1?2
It is inconsistent to say that salvation is engendered by adherence to a set of facts or emotional responses but that salvation was never a factor in the case of one who met those conditions and then falls away.
We are faced, I think, with the uncomfortable reality that one can ascent mentally (and even buy in emotionally) to the reality of Christianity, all the while being separated from our Lord.
What This Means
It means that “deconversion stories” are not necessarily “desalvation” stories, and we should be careful not to think of them as such.
Make no mistake, this will be offensive to the person who has left. They converted! They felt the feelings, believed the facts, performed the rituals, and everything else.
Ultimately, the same kind of thing happens in nearly every world religion. They believed as much as they knew how. And while we should be sensitive, we should not allow our sensitivities to deny reality.
The concepts of salvation and conversion must, I think, be kept distinct.
Of course, there are many more questions:
- If conversion does not always equal salvation, does salvation always equal conversion?
- What if true apostasy is possible?
Could a person convert and then somewhere “along the way” be genuinely saved? (I have some surprising thoughts here that could apply in the case of a person saved young.)
Does this affect how we raise our children?
How do we KNOW we are saved and not just converted?
I’ll be exploring these questions in future posts. Stay tuned!
Thanks to Joel Furches, an expert in the subject of deconversion, for this language.
I am attempting to avoid the debate between Easy Believism and Lordship Salvation, though I understand we are on the precipice of that discussion. I would like to keep this squarely in the context of the “conversion event.”