1 And you were dead in the trespasses and sins 2 in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— 3 among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.
Conversion stories are all the rage in our “postmodern” context. Unbelievers thus pride themselves on claiming to have once been the Christianiest people you ever did meet. But alas! They finally met Reason, rejected Jesus Christ her alleged enemy, and went out of the Church to preach to those of us who remain in the faith about our sins of ignorance and anti-intellectualism.
They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us. (1 John 2.19) And here many unbelievers take offense to our pointing out that they never truly believed. We are mocked for our contention that those who drop their faith so easily as that were never even really believers. Mocking is not thinking. The unbeliever who meditates only a moment upon what it is he or she is claiming about the genuineness of his or her de-conversion story would, apart from blindness, see the absurdity of being offended at what the Christian is saying.
We are not saying that unbelievers never knew God. (Romans 1.19) We are not saying that they never had faith. (James 2.19, 24) We are not saying that they were never with us. (1 John 2.19) They were born into our congregations. They were raised in our Sunday Schools. They learned our confessions, catechisms, and creeds. They participated in the sacraments and ordinances. They sat under the preaching of the Word. They were as wholly involved in the programmatic life of the church as any man or woman could be. They did good works, they called Jesus ‘Lord,’ and they believed themselves to be Christians. (Matthew 7.21-23) We need not deny any of this to the unbeliever.
But we do deny that they were ever known by God. (Galatians 4.9; Matthew 7.23) We do deny that they ever had faith from God. (Ephesians 2.8-9; Matthew 24.23) We do deny that they were ever of us. (1 John 2.19) In short, we do not believe that unbelievers were ever anything else but unregenerate sinners in need of a Savior whom they continue even now to deny. (John 5.40; 8.34) Salvation belongs to the Lord. (Jonah 2.9; Romans 9.16) Unbelievers should happily join us in proclaiming that though they tried to ‘fit in with the church crowd’ they were never supernaturally regenerated. (John 1.12-13) For unbelievers to resist this understanding of their pasts is for them to affirm that everything Christians speak of being true with regard to the Christian faith – from the existence of God to His supernaturally granting life to those who trust in the person and work of His Son the Lord Jesus Christ – really is true! Why would an unbeliever want to affirm such things?
They were never born again, never saved, never justified – there was never any union with Christ. Yet people are offended at hearing such basic tenets of the Christian faith. Why? Could it be that they still want to believe they are on God’s side? Could it be that an utter rejection of Christ as Lord terrifies them? Perhaps they just really want to have that conversion story to fall back on and fluster unsuspecting Christians? I do not know.
What I do know is that we were once just like them. Dead in our sins. Disobedient. Enslaved by desire. Children of wrath, just like they are. And so we have insight into the lives of unbelievers. We know what it is like to be them. Apart from God reaching down to save them, they will never know what it is like to be us. We can empathize. We can sympathize. We can love them and desire to see them saved while hating the sins that stain them. We were once lost, but now we are found. We have the true conversion story.
But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, 5 even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ— by grace you have been saved— 6 and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7 so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 8 For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.
Ephesians 2:4-10 (ESV)