Interview with John Zens

John Zens
Thursday, January 2nd 1992
Jan/Feb 1992

Dr. John Zens, pastor of Word of Life Church, Dresser, WI, and editor of Searching Together (formerly the Baptist Reformation Review).

Modern Reformation: What do we mean by “conversion”?
John Zens: There is a problem: we’re “dead in trespasses and sins” (Eph. 2:1), and therefore, have nothing on our end which can restore spiritual life. So there is a need for some kind of new life, and the way the Bible describes this is in terms of the Spirit coming upon people as the gospel is preached. They believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, repent, and “turn from idols to serve the living God.” Sanctification begins, a process over an entire lifetime, through which believers take up their cross and follow Christ.

MR: Many people today look to a conversion experience as the basis for their being “saved.” Is there a danger, especially if conversion is viewed as a process of renewal and renovation, of depending on our own activity than upon the objective, historical work of Christ? Isn’t this a return to the medieval view of justification as a process of moral renewal (i.e., sanctification)?
Zens: That’s a good question. Yes, that is a very great danger. Since Charles Finney in the last century, with Moody, and others, you had an emphasis on a dramatic conversion experience, which usually culminated in a person going forward during an altar call.

Of course, people are saved in different ways and there may well have been people who were converted in spite of the theology undergirding that methodology, but something tragic happened to our understanding of evangelism. People began to look at conversion in terms of an experience they had when they were led through a prayer or walked an aisle.

But this is wrong, first because it points to the wrong event (and, for that matter, to the wrong person–myself), and also because, as I read John’s Gospel, I read about a present tense relationship: I am believing, following, trusting, and so on. The New Testament notion of conversion doesn’t put the emphasis on an emotional moment you may have had fifteen years ago, but on the day-to-day successes and failures of the Christian life.

MR: Our experiences do vary, don’t they?
Zens: Well, that’s why we can’t base our conviction of conversion on our own Christian experience. I don’t remember the exact date I was “saved.” For some, it’s a terrific change from a very free-wheeling lifestyle; for others, its gradual, but for both there is the basic principle of new life which leads them to turn from their sins and follow Christ.

MR: The experiences differ, but the divine gift of the new birth we all share in common.
Zens: Sure. I want to back up a bit and say something about the subjectivism of so much of modern views on this subject. Again, since Finney and others, the emphasis has fallen on an emotional plea for people to respond. There’s just an awful lot of emphasis on doing something or feeling something. Then you start reading their books on sanctification and the emphasis there, too, falls on the individual, his needs, the methods he can follow in order to be filled with the Spirit, or what have you. Formulas have replaced the focus on the historical work of Christ. When he died he secured the salvation, new birth, and sanctification of his people. He didn’t just purchase our justification and then leave everything else up to us. In Scripture I see the indicative and the imperative: Christ has done something for us (indicative); therefore, let us live like those who have been crucified with Christ. The genius of the New Testament is to make the whole system flow out of the objective work of Christ for us.

MR: If there is so much imbalance, how can we as Reformation Christians avoid the other extreme, of so emphasizing the covenantal and objective character of the new birth and this new life that we lose any sense of the genuine excitement of conversion.
Zens: Balance comes by getting an increasingly better grip on the New Testament doctrines, not by simply taking a mediating position between an objective and a subjective way of looking at it. The danger is either to so emphasize Christ’s objective work that experience fades into oblivion, or to so emphasize experience that Christ fades into oblivion. The Lord Jesus Christ must the focus of both our objective hope and our Christian experience. Look at Paul. He has no trouble shifting from explanations of great objective truths to expressing great excitement and calling people to obedience and growth. It’s not an either/or. The key is to be sensitive to everything the New Testament says about this, and not to ignore aspects of the whole revelation. Christ for us and the Spirit working within us are both aspects of that revelation.

MR: The “Jesus Is The Answer” bumper sticker has elicited the reply of non-Christians, “So What’s The Question?” Do we so emphasize the decision without offering an adequate explanation of the issues about which they are deciding?
Zens: If popular evangelists, as they’re called, were really to explain, for instance Luke 14, when Jesus called people to deny themselves and think long and hard about whether they are prepared for an uphill battle, I think they would lose their audience. Coming to Christ isn’t just having your sins washed away and being happy; it’s a matter of following Christ and sharing in his sufferings. People are being called upon to make a decision for Christ without even knowing much about what this salvation is or how it takes place. Do I save myself? Does God save me? Is it something in between? Because the content is shallow, often the duration of the so-called “conversion” is short-lived as well.

When Jesus was asked “What must we do to do the works God requires?” he answered “This is the work of God–that you believe in the One he has sent.” In other words, they wanted a method. But Jesus Christ tells them that they must understand that salvation is not their doing at all. This is essential information for them to know before they can be expected to accept anything or make any decision. Evangelism which gives “converts” the impression that they are saved by their own activity is sure to produce spurious experiences which cannot last for very long.

Thursday, January 2nd 1992

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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