As a pastor of a church plant in the Minneapolis metro area, I have found the books in the 9 Marks: Building Healthy Churches series to be helpful in teaching congregations why it is important to “grow in loving the church.” The books in this series are faithful to Scripture, solid in doctrine, readable and applicable, and the authors are sound and winsome. Michael Lawrence’s new book, Conversion: How God Creates a People, is an excellent addition.
Mark Dever and Jonathan Leeman define conversion as “someone being brought from spiritual death to spiritual life. From enmity with God to loving the Lord our God. A spiritual resurrection that will eventually show itself in a physical resurrection. Wrath to forgiveness. Death to life. Blindness to sight. Deaf to hearing. Poverty to riches.” Conversion, or regeneration, is the work of God’s Spirit through the gospel to make us “alive together with Christ” (Eph. 2:5). This is entirely the work of God, which he accomplishes because he loves sinners (Eph. 2:4). As Lawrence says, “God doesn’t love us because we love and obey him. In fact, we don’t! God loves us because he loves us (Deut. 7:7–8). He loves us because he’s chosen us and we are his” (38).
The work of God in conversion brings us into a community called the church. The one who is converted is now a part of Christ’s body, which is why we are called to be members of a local church with elders, pastors, and deacons. Our lives are no longer our own, because we are united with Christ and united with his body. We belong to each other, not to ourselves. Our distinction from secular society is marked by holy lives and self-sacrificing love as disciples growing in the grace of Christ, sharing the joys, sorrows, and day-to-day realities of life together (62, 83). This is one of the strengths of this book, as Lawrence emphasizes “the difference doctrine makes in the life of the church. From the way we do evangelism, membership, and discipleship. [This is] a book about doctrine and practice. About conversion and the church. Our theology of conversion matters in our churches’ discipleship, gospel counsel, and even church discipline, because the presence of sin remains, and we are the walking wounded.”
The biblical doctrine of conversion means lives are changed now and forever by the Spirit through the gospel. “Our theology of conversion and the practice that flows from it matter for the world” (128). This is what the biblical doctrine of conversion looks like in a church. Near the end of the book, Lawrence writes about an older gentleman who began visiting the church:
It was a church full of young people, and so quite naturally he stayed on the edge of the community. But he didn’t go away. He observed. He listened. He got to know many of us. And the day came when he put his faith in Christ….[I]t turns out he was a psychiatrist and university professor. All of his training had taught him that what he was seeing in that church wasn’t possible: genuine community that crossed natural barriers; real change that wasn’t just therapeutic adjustment; self-sacrificing love for others that was not transactional. He realized that the only thing that could explain what he was seeing was that God was real and the gospel of Jesus Christ was true. (127)
As a Reformed pastor, I disagree with Lawrence’s view of baptism and how this impacts his view of the local church. This is understandable, however, since Lawrence is himself a Baptist minister. Nonetheless, I heartily recommend this book to church office bearers, members, and visitors. I believe it to be a great encouragement and blessing to Christ’s flock.
Ryan Kron serves as the pastor of Emmaus Road Reformed Church (RCUS). He lives in Eden Prairie, Minnesota.