The history of conversions to Christianity has a surprising number of staunch critics of the Gospel that after examining the biblical evidence (sometimes without any witness other than the Gospel itself) admit their own errors and profess faith in Christ.
Even though the final stages of their decision process is often idiosyncratic, many go through a period of deliberation extending over years, suggesting that coming to faith has emergent properties (the product of the whole is greater than the sum of the parts) that are not easily explained.
If the criteria for accepting evidence in the postmodern era focuses on who tells the better story, then these conversion stories provide substantive evidence that the Gospel is indeed one of the best stories around.
The Apostle Paul
The pattern set by the Apostle Paul is emblematic. The Book of Acts introduces Paul, formerly a devout and highly educated Jew known as Saul, as a key instigator in the stoning death of Stephen (Acts 7:58). As a prosecutor of Christian converts from Judaism, we can surmise that Saul’s only evangelists were Christians being dragged off to prison and, likely, killed (Acts 8:3).And Saul was not just another prosecutor, he was infamous among disciples, as we read:
“But Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.” (Acts 9:1-2)
But even this prosecutor was not beyond salvation. On the road to Damascus Saul met the risen Christ and was blinded by the experience. He was then led by hand to Damascus where he refused to eat or drink anything for three days. On the third day, God appeared to a disciple named Ananias instructing him to visit Saul. KnowingSaul’s reputation, Ananias objected.Nevertheless, Ananias visited Saul, healed his blindness, and baptized him. Within days, Paul began preaching that Jesus is the son of God in the synagogues and learned that his former colleagues among the Jews were plotting to kill him. Paul escaped Damascus by being lowered at night over the city walls in a basket (Acts 9:3-24).
Paul’s conversion changed his life from chief prosecutor to Christian evangelist (that is, wanted criminal) within no more than a couple weeks. Paul’s conversion story made a big impression on the church, which we know because the author of the Book of Acts, Luke, repeated the story three times (Acts 9, 22,26) and because many Christians never got over their fear of Paul because of his role in persecuting the church (Acts 9:26).
Augustine of Hippo (354 – 430 AD)began life as a wealthy pagan son of a Christian mother who as a young man had a son by a concubine. Fond of partying, sexual immorality, and keeping questionable company, he confessed of robbing a neighbor’s orchard just for kicks and giggles. When at age 32 Augustine finally came to his senses, he confessed his sin to God in private, as he reported:
“Such things I said, weeping in the most bitter sorrow of my heart. And suddenly I hear a voice from some nearby house, a boy’s voice or a girl’s voice, I do not know, but it was a sort of sing-song, repeated again and again, Take and read, take and read.” (Foley 2006, 169)
Augustine borrowed a book of scriptures from his friend, Alypius, and opened it randomly coming to this verse:
“Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy.” (Rom 13:13)
Convicted immediately of his sexual sin, he took this passage as a word from God to him personally and went to his mother to announce that he was a Christian (Foley 2006, 160).
Hounds of Heaven
Having lost his mother at an early age and being dispatched to various, questionable boarding schools thereafter by his father, C.S. Lewis became a bitter young, philosophical atheist. Nevertheless, Lewis writes using different metaphors about God’s pursuit of his soul. For example, he writes:
“But, of course, what mattered most of all was my deep-seated hatred of authority, my monstrous individualism, my lawlessness. No word in my vocabulary expressed deeper hatred than the word Interference. But Christianity placed at the center what then seem to me a transcendental Interference. This is my business and mine only.”(Lewis 1955, 172)
“And so the great Angler played His fish and I never dreamed that the hook was in my tongue.”(Lewis 1955, 211)
But for Lewis the metaphor that he highlights most obviously is that of a divine Chess master in two separate chapter titles: check and checkmate (Lewis 1955, 165, 212). What metaphor would appeal to a scholar and intellectual? Lewis writes of returning to faith in 1929, when he was 31 years old (Lewis 1955, 228).
Other stories of conversion abound. Among the most dramatic stories are those of Muslim converts who have grown up knowing really no Christians at all, but drawn for some reason into studying the Bible and becoming believers. Or consider the story of atheist and journalist with the Chicago Tribune, Lee Strobel (2016), who, after learning that his wife had become a Christian, sets out to prove Christianity is a hoax and ends up becoming not only a believer, but also an evangelist and pastor. Or how about Rosaria Butterfield (2012), who, as a leader among lesbian feminists, set off to write a research paper on the Christian Right only to come to faith and become a pastor’s wife.
The template for these conversions is often hostility to the Gospel, deep study of it, and a final ah-ha moment—often unexpected—when the decision for faith takes place. This template suggests that the Gospel story is compelling, but it requires serious reflection and the journey of faith is unique to the individual.
Butterfield, Rosaria Champagne. 2012. The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert: An English Professor’s Journey into Christian Faith. Pittsburgh: Crown & Covenant Publications.
Foley, Michael P. [editor] 2006. Augustine Confessions (Orig Pub 397 AD). 2nd Edition. Translated by F. J. Sheed (1942). Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc.
Lewis, C.S. 1955. Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life. New York: Harcourt Book.
Strobel, Lee. 2016. The Case for Christ: A Journalist’s Personal Investigation of the Evidence for Jesus (Orig Pub 1998). Grand Rapids: Zondervan.
Foley, Michael P. [editor] 2006. Augustine Confessions (Orig Pub 397 AD). 2nd Edition. Translated by F. J. Sheed (1942). Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc. (Goto Part 1; Goto Part 2; Goto Part 4)
Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra
In part one of this review, I gave an overview of Augustine’s life and Confessions. In part two, I focused on his attitude about sin. Here in part three, I will look at Augustine’s journey of faith.
Augustine comes to faith at the age of thirty-two having struggled with sin, as discussed earlier, and giving up his career as a teacher of rhetoric and his betrothal to a younger woman to be ordained as priest. His conversion to Christianity is remarkable, not only because of the things that he gave up, but also because he actively considered the Manichean philosophy and because of the active influence of his Catholic mother, Monica. The timing of his conversion also coincided with a mystical experience.
Conviction of Sin
Augustine’s struggle with sexual passions caused him great anguish before his conversion and the story of the conversion of Victorinus, a fellow professor of rhetoric in Rome (142) weighed heavily on him. Augustine writes:
“Now when this man of Yours, Simplicianus had told me the story of Victorinus, I was on fire to imitate him: which indeed was why he had told me. He added that in the time of the Emperor Julian, when a law was made prohibiting Christians from teaching Literature and Rhetoric, Victorinus had obeyed the law, preferring to give up his own school of words rather than Your word, by which You make eloquent the tongues of babes.” (147)
These are not the words of a stoic philosopher. Augustine writes like a man in chains to his sin saying:
“Thus I was sick at heart and in torment, accusing myself with new intensity of bitterness, twisting and turning in my chain in the hope that it might be utterly broken, for what held me was so small a thing.” (167).
As Augustine then confessed his sin to God in private, he writes:
“Such things I said, weeping in the most bitter sorrow of my heart. And suddenly I hear a voice from some nearby house, a boy’s voice or a girl’s voice, I do not know, but it was a sort of sing-song, repeated again and again, ‘Take and read, take and read.’” (169)
Augustine borrowed a book of scriptures from his friend, Alypius, and opened it randomly coming to this verse:
“Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy.” (Rom 13:13 ESV)
Convicted immediately of his sexual sin, he took this passage as a word from God to him personally and went to his mother to announce that he was a Christian (160).
He later prays:
“O LORD, I am Thy servant: I am Thy servant and the son of Thy handmaid. Thou hast broken my bonds. I will sacrifice to Thee the sacrifice of praise.” (163)
Having prayed for his conversion his entire life, Augustine’s mother died later that year.
Rosaria Champagne Butterfield . 2012. The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert: An English Professor’s Journey into Christian Faith. Pittsburgh: Crown & Covenant Publications.
Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra
What is conversion?
In postmodern thinking, conversion is an act of treason. The modern thinker believes in objectivity—a single, objective reality exists which we can study, understand, and agree on. By contrast, the postmodern thinker believes truth is socially constructed. There is not one objective truth; there is only your truth and my truth. The interpretative community (the social group) in power determines reality. Therefore, the convert from one worldview to another is accordingly a traitor (or heretic) to the interpretive community (social group) left behind. Because community boundaries are vigorously defended, conversion can be accompanied by significant costs to the convert.
In her book, The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert, Dr. Rosaria Champagne Butterfield writes about her conversion from lesbianism to Christianity.
Dr. Butterfield’s use of the word, convert, in her title suggests the vast distance that she traveled. One converts from one religion to another, not from one hobby to another. Lesbianism is a secular (atheistic) religion with its own philosophy (deconstructionism), cultural markers (hair-style; clothing; vocabulary; 8), public testimony (x), evangelism (8), and social networks (50). She writes:
When I became a Christian, I had to change everything—my life, my friends, my writing, my teaching, my advising, my clothes, my speech, my thoughts. I was tenured to a field that I could no longer work in (26).
A change in worldview requires a world of change. She refers to lesbianism as a sin of identity (23). What this means is that when we establish our primary identity in anything other than Christ, we commit idolatry—sin that violates the second commandment . Workaholism is another common sin of identity.
In her biblical exploration of her sin, Dr. Butterfield focuses on an interesting passage:
As I live, declares the Lord GOD, your sister Sodom and her daughters have not done as you and your daughters have done. Behold, this was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy. They were haughty and did an abomination before me. So I removed them, when I saw it. (Ezekiel 16:48-50 ESV)
The sin of Sodom was not just immorality but more importantly pride—a focus on self, entertainment-driven lust, love of money, and neglect of the poor (30-31). Does this description sound familiar?
The details of Rosario’s conversion experience are fascinating. Her spiritual journey began with a research project. She decided to write a book on the hermeneutic (interpretative principles) used by the Christian Right—people such as Pat Robertson. Her research involved studying the Bible 5 hours a day (12) and led her to begin studying Greek (the New Testament is written entirely in Greek; 7). A newspaper article that she published critiquing the gender politics of Promise Keepers  generated a lot of mail, including a thoughtful letter from a local pastor, Pastor Ken, who invited her to call and discuss the article (7-9). She called. They began a conversation that extended over a period of years as she pursued her research. But the book was never completed. From her own study of the Bible (aided by Pastor Ken’s non-anxious pastoral presence and biblical interpretation) Rosario became convinced that what the Bible said about God was true (13, 8). Baptized and raised Roman Catholic, Rosario began attending and later joined the Reformed Presbyterian Church (RPC) . She later married an RPC pastor (94).
Rosario’s claims to be a leader in the gay rights movement (4) are not lite fluff. To see this, just check out her reading list in preparing her proposed book on the Christian Right. For example, she read Augustine’s Confessions (50), John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion (17), and Kevin Vanhoozer’s Is There a Meaning in This Text? (87-89). These are books that challenge most seminary students—if they have read them at all—and they are required reading in understanding Christian hermeneutics (study of interpretation) and epistemology (study of knowledge). If you think that English professors sit around reading Emily Dickson all day, you vastly underestimate Dr. Butterfield’s academic bona fides .
A key takeaway from Rosario’s conversion testimony is that it was the subversive activity of the Holy Spirit, not a clever evangelist, that led her to Christ. Like many converts from Islam, her conversion began with study of the Bible .
Another important takeaway concerns Pastor Ken’s ability to be a non-anxious presence for Rosario. The RPC has a strong intellectual grounding in Calvin’s systematic theology. Systematic theology is holistic which implies that no aspect of life or faith is doctrinally neglected—its strength lies in its completeness. A non-anxious presence begins with emotional intelligence but requires intellectual rigor. Lesbians, like Muslims, ask tough questions. One earns their respect by being able to field the questions credibly, honestly, and humbly without fear. Pastor Ken’s RPC background helped him keep up his end of the conversation.
The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert reads like Augustine’s Confessions. As a young man, Augustine also struggled with sexual sin. And, after converting to Christianity, he played an important role in the monastic movement which encouraged candidates for ministry to practice celibacy. Augustine’s deep theology particularly influenced a young monk in the 15th century—a certain Martin Luther whose work was at the center of the Protestant Reformation. Protestants all owe a debt of gratitude to Augustine, who struggled with and overcame sexual sin. The Apostle Paul writes: And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. (Romans 8:28 ESV)
Rosario’s book is short having only 5 chapters:
Conversion and the Gospel of Peace;
Repentance and the Sin of Sodom;
The Good Guys: Sanctification and Public Worship;
The Home Front: Marriage, Ministry, and Adoptions; and
Homeschooling and Middle Age.
These chapters are preceded by a forward and acknowledgments and followed by a bibliography and other resources.
Rosario’s confession is likely to become a classic, in part, because it is timely and, in part, because it can be read on multiple levels. On the surface level, it reads as a reinvestment story : there I was; here I am. For the surface reader, she provides lots of interesting details about her life both as a lesbian and, later, as a pastor’s wife and home-school teacher. Beneath the surface, however, lies Dr. Butterfield, the intellectual. What is a presuppositional problem? (8) What is the ontological fallacy? (13) What does it mean not to believe in objectivity? (14) I was intrigued and was sorry that Rosario did not write and explain more. In particular, why did she become a lesbian? 
What is conversion? For Rosario, it was like the Copernican Revolution. The earth went from being the center of the universe to being a planet rotating around the sun. The Copernican Revolution simplified the mathematics of planetary motion. It was much the same for Rosario. When she displaced self with the Triune God, her life was simpler, more joyful, and kingdom focused .
What are the implications for the church? For the surface reader, Dr. Butterfield’s conversion is incomprehensible and terribly inconvenient for those that have been co-opted by ardent lesbianism and related postmodern philosophies. For deeper readers, this review only scratches the surface. Bottom line? Read and discuss the book. It is worth the time for those who believe in the resurrected Christ.
You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me (Exodus 20:4-5 ESV).
 By contrast, her academic specialty, Queer Theory, is a topic that I have no background to evaluate (2).
 For example, read or listen to the testimony of Khalil (www.MoreThanDreams.tv/Khalil.html).
 See John Savage. 1996. Listening and Caring Skills: A Guide for Groups and Leaders. Nashville: Abingdon Press, pages 82-84.
 The only real hint in the book arises when Rosario write: I had not always been a lesbian. But once I had my first girlfriend, I was hooked and I was sure that I found my “real” self. (14) This description reads as if one who, having tasted blood, desired more—an addiction consistent with deconstructionism’s focus on power.
 One of the Pharisees asked him to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and reclined at the table. And behold, a woman of the city, who was a sinner, when she learned that he was reclining at table in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster flask of ointment, and standing behind him at his feet, weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears and wiped them with the hair of her head and kissed his feet and anointed them with the ointment. Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner.” And Jesus answering said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” And he answered, “Say it, Teacher.” “A certain moneylender had two debtors. One owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he cancelled the debt of both. Now which of them will love him more?” Simon answered, “The one, I suppose, for whom he cancelled the larger debt.” And he said to him, “You have judged rightly.” Then turning toward the woman he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not ceased to kiss my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven– for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little.” (Luke 7:36-47 ESV)
But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ,
by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world (Galatians 6:14 ESV).
How do you introduce yourself?
Paul’s first statement after his name is to say he is an apostle and, not through men, but through Jesus Christ (v 1). In other letters, Paul refers to himself either as an apostle or as a slave (δοῦλος) of Christ. Moses is likewise referred to as a slave of the Lord (מֹשֶׁ֖ה עֶ֣בֶד יְהוָ֑ה (Joshua 1:1 WTT))
Paul’s introduction as an apostle is surprising because in the Greek apostle (ἀποστολικός BDAG1010) means messenger, envoy. For most of the apostles, the term referred to disciples who were specifically appointed by Jesus and had served Jesus for three years (Mark 3:16-19). By contrast, Paul never knew Jesus during this ministry and never followed him. Quite the contrary, Paul persecuted the church (Acts 8:3). Paul’s commissioning as an apostle came through a vision of the risen Christ (Acts 9:4-19). Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus led him to a dramatic change in faith and calling much like the prophet Ezekiel (2:1-3). We might expect that Paul would brag, not about his call, but about his education under Gamaliel (Acts 22:3).
After his introduction (vv 1-2) and a blessing (vv 3-5), Paul gets down to brass tacks: I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel (Galatians 1:6 ESV). Paul basically accuses them of heresy and twice lays down a curse (ἀνάθεμα) on those that might preach it (vv 8-9). Verse 6 accordingly sets up an important theme for the entire letter. What is the “grace of Christ”; what is this “different gospel”; and how do they differ? Paul then goes on to justify his authority to offer this critique—the focus of the rest of chapter 1.
Paul’s careful introduction of himself and his autobiography form an important foundation for the gospel that he presents latter in his letter. His unusual credentials as an apostle called directly by the risen Christ, not by men (v 1), serves to initiate this foundation. He then argues that the gospel of Christ is a revelation, not of men, but of Christ himself (vv 10-12). Paul’s schooling as a pharisee (in this different gospel) and persecution of the church make it unlikely that he simply thought up a new doctrine (vv 13-16). Neither was Paul taught by the Jerusalem church nor Christian leaders whom he only visited after 3 three years in Arabia (vv 17-20). In fact, he was already preaching and teaching in Syria and Cilicia before he had any contact with the church (vv 21-24). The point of this long biography is to reinforce the uniqueness of the gospel of Jesus Christ which Christ and Christ alone revealed to Paul.
How does your faith story affect the faith that you profess?
What is your faith story? How did your life experiences affect it?
Why does scripture need to be interpreted? Which methods of interpretation do you know about and use?
What kinds of literary genre do you find in scripture? What is Galatians? All of it?
How does the author’s view, the view of scripture, and your view differ?
What is a concordance? How is used?
Why do we need commentaries?
How do you introduce yourself? How does Paul? What is unique about this introduction? (v 1)
Who did Paul write to? (v 2) Where are the church or churches of Galatia?
When was this letter written?
Which kind of writing would you call verses 3-5?
What does Paul say in verses 6-9? What is the theme of Galatians?
Why does Paul talk about being a people pleaser and the fact that his teaching comes from revelation? (vv 10-12)
Why does Paul dive into his personal history? (vv 13-17)
Why does Paul distance himself from the Jerusalem church leaders? (vv 18-20)
Why does Paul distance himself from the Judean church? (vv 21-24)
What is so unique about Paul’s background? (vv 23-24)
En cuanto a mí, jamás se me ocurra jactarme de otra cosa sino de la cruz de nuestro Señor Jesucristo, por quien el mundo ha sido crucificado para mí, y yo para el mundo (Galatas 6:14 NVI).
¿Cómo te presentas?
Primera declaración de Pablo después de su nombre es para decir que él es un apóstol y cómo – no a través de los hombres, sino por medio de Jesucristo (v 1). En otras cartas, Pablo se refiere a sí mismo, ya sea como un apóstol o como esclavo (δοῦλος) de Cristo. Moisés se refirió asimismo a como esclava del Señor (מֹשֶׁ֖ה עֶ֣בֶד יְהוָ֑ה (Josué 1:1 WTT))
Introducción de Pablo como apóstol es sorprendente porque en el griegos apóstol (ἀποστολικός; BDAG 1010) significa mensajero, enviado. Para la mayoría de los apóstoles, el término se refiere a los discípulos que fueron nombrados específicamente por Jesús y habían servido a Jesús por tres años (Marcos 3:16-19). Por el contrario, Pablo nunca conoció a Jesús durante este ministerio y nunca lo siguió. Muy por el contrario, Pablo persiguió a la iglesia (Hechos 8:3). Puesta en marcha de Pablo como apóstol llegó a través de una visión del Cristo vivo (Hechos 9:4-19). La experiencia de Pablo en el camino a Damasco, le llevó a un cambio dramático en la fe y llamar al igual que el profeta Ezequiel (2:1-3). Podríamos esperar que Pablo se jactaba, no acerca de su llamado, sino de su educación bajo Gamaliel (Hechos 22:3).
Después de su introducción (vv. 1-2) y una bendición (vv. 3-5), Pablo llega al grano: Me asombra que tan pronto estén dejando ustedes a quien los llamó por la gracia de Cristo, para pasarse a otro evangelio (v 6). Paul básicamente los acusa de herejía y dos veces se establece una maldición (ἀνάθεμα) en las que puedan predicar (vv 8-9). En consecuencia versículo 6 establece un tema importante para toda la carta. ¿Qué es la “gracia de Cristo”, ¿qué es este “evangelio diferente”, y en qué se diferencian? Pablo luego pasa a justificar su autoridad para ofrecer esa crítica – el enfoque del resto del capítulo 1.
Cuidadosa introducción de Pablo de sí mismo y de su autobiografía forman una base importante para el evangelio que presenta este último, en su carta. Sus credenciales inusuales como un apóstol llamado directamente por el Cristo vivo, no por los hombres (v 1), sirve para iniciar esta fundación. Luego sostiene que el evangelio de Cristo es una revelación, no de los hombres, sino del mismo Cristo (vv 10-12). Escolarización de Pablo como fariseo (en este evangelio diferente) y la persecución de la iglesia hacen poco probable que simplemente ideó una nueva doctrina (vv 13-16). Ni fue Pablo enseña la iglesia de Jerusalén, ni los líderes cristianos a los que sólo visitó después de 3 tres años en Arabia (vv 17-20). De hecho, él ya estaba predicando y enseñando en Siria y Cilicia antes de tener cualquier contacto con la iglesia (vv. 21-24). El punto de esta larga biografía es reforzar la singularidad del evangelio de Jesucristo, que Cristo y sólo Cristo reveló a Pablo.
¿Cómo su historia de fe afecta a la fe que profesas?