From Augustine to Wesley, Spurgeon to Lewis: The conversion experience of well-known Christian leaders throughout the history of the church
Saint Paul (A.D. 5-67)
Apostle and New Testament Writer
As I was on the road, I saw a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, blazing around me and my companions. We all fell to the ground, and I heard a voice saying, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”
Then I asked, “Who are you, Lord?”
“I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” the Lord replied.
“What shall I do, Lord?” I asked.
“Get up,” the Lord said, “and go to Damascus. There you will be told all that you have been assigned to do.”
Bishop, Philosopher, Theologian
The tempest in my breast hurried me out into [the] garden, where no one might interrupt the fiery struggle in which I was engaged with myself, knowing what evil thing I was, but not knowing what good thing I was so shortly to become.
I flung myself down under a fig tree and gave free course to my tears. I cried to Thee: “And Thou, O Lord, how long? Wilt Thou be angry forever? Oh, remember not against us our former iniquities.”
Suddenly I heard the voice of a boy or a girl coming from the neighboring house, chanting over and over again, “Pick it up, read it; pick it up, read it.” Damming the torrent of my tears, I got to my feet, for I could not but think that this was a divine command to open the Bible and read the first passage I should light upon.
So I snatched it up, opened it, and in silence read the paragraph on which my eyes first fell: “Not in rioting and drunkenness, nor in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying, but put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh to fulfill the lusts thereof.” Instantly, as the sentence ended, there was infused in my heart something like the light of full certainty and all the gloom of doubt vanished away.
John Bunyan (1628-88)
Writer, Preacher, “Pilgrim”
One morning [as] I was again at prayer and trembling under the fear that no word of God could help me, that piece of a sentence darted in upon me, “My grace is sufficient.”
By these words I was sustained, yet not without exceeding conflicts. Therefore, I did still pray to God, that He would come in with His Scripture more fully on my heart.
One day, as I was passing into the field, fearing lest yet all was not right, suddenly this sentence fell upon my soul, “Thy righteousness is in heaven,” and I saw with the eyes of my soul Jesus Christ at God’s right hand; there, I say, as my righteousness. So that it was not my good frame of heart that made my righteousness better, nor yet my bad frame that made my righteousness worse; for my righteousness was Jesus Christ Himself, “the same yesterday, today and forever.”
Now went I also home rejoicing.
John Wesley (1703-91)
English Cleric and Theologian
My father pressed me to enter into holy orders. I began to set in earnest upon a new life. I set apart an hour or two a day for religious retirement. I watched against all sin, whether in word or deed. I began to aim at, and pray for, inward holiness.
Being ignorant of the righteousness of Christ, which, by a living faith in Him, bringeth salvation “to everyone that believeth,” I sought to establish my own righteousness. I was now properly “under the law.” Every day I was constrained to cry out, “What I do, I allow not: for what I would, I do not; but what I hate, that I do.”[On May 24, 1738] in the evening, I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s preface to the epistle to the Romans. While he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.
Charles Finney (1792-1875)
“The Father of Modern Revivalism”
In the fall of 1821, after days of despair, anguish and attempts at prayer, Finney made up his mind to make peace with God. He hid himself one evening in a back room at his law office to pray.
There was no fire, and no light, in the room; nevertheless, it appeared to me as if it were perfectly light. As I went in and shut the door after me, it seemed as if I met the Lord Jesus Christ face-to-face. It did not occur to me then that it was wholly a mental state. On the contrary it seemed to me that I saw Him as I would see any other man. He said nothing, but looked at me in such a manner as to break me right down at His feet. It seemed to me that I fell down at His feet and poured out my soul to Him. I wept aloud like a child.
I received a mighty baptism of the Holy Ghost. Without any expectation of it, without any recollection that I had ever heard the thing mentioned by any person in the world, the Holy Spirit descended upon me in a manner that seemed to go through me, body and soul like a wave of electricity. Indeed it seemed to come in waves and waves of liquid love.
A member of our church found me and said to me, “Mr. Finney, are you in pain?” I replied, “No, but so happy that I cannot live.”
Charles Spurgeon (1834-92)
“The Prince of Preachers”
I sometimes think I might have been in darkness and despair until now had it not been for the goodness of God in sending a snowstorm one Sunday morning, while I was going to a certain place of worship. When I could go no further, I came to a little primitive Methodist chapel. A very thin-looking man, a shoemaker, or tailor, or something of that sort, went up into the pulpit to preach. The text was, “Look unto me and be saved, all the ends of the earth.”
The preacher began thus: “My dear friends, this is a very simple text indeed. It says, ‘Look.’ Now lookin’ don’t take a deal of pains. It ain’t liftin’ your foot or your finger; it is just, ‘Look.’ Well, a man needn’t go to college to learn to look. Anyone can look; even a child can look. But then the text says, ‘Look unto Me.’”
Then, lifting up his hands, he shouted, “Young man, look to Jesus Christ. Look! Look! Look! You have nothin’ to do but to look and live.”
Between half-past 10 o’clock, when I entered that chapel, and half-past 12 o’clock, when I was back again at home, what a change had taken place in me! I had passed from darkness into marvelous light, from death to life.
C.S. Lewis (1898-1963)
British Novelist, Academic and Apologist
Really, a young atheist cannot guard his faith too carefully. Dangers lie in wait for him on every side.
I had always wanted (mad wish) “to call my soul my own.” The supernatural had been to me, first, an illicit dram, and then, as by a drunkard’s reaction, nauseous.
You must picture me alone in that room in Magdalen, night after night, feeling the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. In the Trinity Term of 1929, I gave in and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England.
It must be understood that the conversion was only to theism, pure and simple, not to Christianity.
I know very well when, but hardly how, the final step was taken. I was driven to Whipsnade one sunny morning. When we set out, I did not believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and when we reached the zoo, I did. Yet I had not exactly spent the journey in thought. Nor in great emotion. “Emotional” is perhaps the last word we can apply to some of the most important events. It was more like when a man, after long sleep, still lying motionless in bed, becomes aware that he is now awake.
Lin Yutang (1895-1976)
Chinese Writer and Inventor
Born in China to Christian parents and educated in Christian schools, Yutang later renounced his Christianity. A prolific author, his best-known book was The Importance of Living. Later in life, he reconsidered his decision to depart from the Christian faith.
Many people have asked me, some with great joy, some with great disappointment, why I, a self-declared pagan, have returned to Christianity. I have returned to Christianity and have rejoined the Christian church because I wish to re-enter that knowledge of God and love of God which Jesus revealed with such clarity and simplicity.
One Sunday in New York City, my wife asked me to accompany her to church. The church to which she took me was the Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church.
I returned again and again to that church. I returned also to a study of the awe-inspiring simplicity and beauty of the teachings of Jesus. The scales began to fall from my eyes.
It was Jesus Himself who simplified for us the essence of Christianity and its adequacy above any other faith: Upon the two commandments, to love God and to love one’s neighbor “hang all the law and the prophets.” That Person and that Gospel I have found sufficient—a sufficiency which is joyously renewed each day. Nothing less than that Person and Gospel can be sufficient for the world.
For 30 years I lived in this world like an orphan. I am an orphan no longer. Where I had been drifting, I have arrived. The Sunday morning when I rejoined the Christian church was a homecoming.
John Stott (1921-2011)
Influential Evangelical Leader
Here, then, is the crucial question. Have we ever opened our door to Christ? Have we ever invited Him in? This was exactly the question which I needed to have put to me. For, intellectually speaking, I had believed in Jesus all my life. I had been baptized, yes, and confirmed as well. I went to church, read my Bible, had high ideals, and tried to be good and do good. But all the time, often without realizing it, I was holding Christ at arm’s length, and keeping Him outside. I knew that to open the door might have momentous consequences.
On Feb. 13, 1938, Eric Nash came to speak at the school Stott attended.
His text was Pilate’s question: “What then shall I do with Jesus, who is called the Christ?” Mr. Nash was quietly but powerfully insisting that everybody had to do something about Jesus, and that nobody could remain neutral. Either we copy Pilate and weakly reject Him, or we accept Him personally and follow Him.
After talking privately with Nash and taking the rest of the day to think further, that night at my bedside, I made the experiment of faith and “opened the door” to Christ. I saw no flash of lightning; in fact, I had no emotional experience at all. I just crept into bed and went to sleep. But gradually I grew into a clearer understanding and a firmer assurance of the salvation and lordship of Jesus Christ.
I am profoundly grateful to Him for enabling me to open the door. Looking back now over more than 50 years, I realize that that simple step has changed the entire direction, course and quality of my life.
Augustine, John Bunyan, John Wesley, Charles Finney, Charles Spurgeon, C.S. Lewis and Lin Yutang: Excerpted from Famous Conversions, compiled by Hugh T. Kerr and John M. Mulder (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1994). John Stott: Excerpted from John Stott: The Making of a Leader, vol. 1, by Timothy Dudley-Smith (Leicester, U.K./Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1999).