One of the difficulties I find in explaining the Reformation to people of our time is that we often assume that the Reformers were converted the same terms we think of our own conversion. In some cases this involves thinking that they reached a point in which they decided to abandon unbelief and to believe. On the one hand, you can raise a lot of suspicion by suggesting to persons who believe in the importance of personal conversion for real Christianity that the Reformers had no such experience. On the other hand lies the dishonesty of failing to understand their thought and experience on their own terms rather than ours. They were Christians, but they did not express their Christianity in every way as we do.
It seems like a good opportunity to make a few things clear.
1 You are not saved because of a personal decision you made. You can only be saved because God choses to convert you. God may do this suddenly, or he may do it gradually. Your conversion may be so gradual or so early that you are not conscious of a specific time during which you went from unbelief to belief. It seems to me that if we think carefully about believing, we do not find that believing is something we deliberately decide to do. We are persuaded about something or not, and what we discover when we become introspective is that we already really do believe (or still do not because we aren’t persuaded). The point is, we find out that it is already true, not that we can make it true.
It is one thing to be converted, it is another thing to be conscious of how it transpired. When, for example, did I go from acknowledging the existence of the person who would be my wife to loving her? I am not sure. Nor do I live in a situation in which I have to examine myself and give an account that demonstrates that transition. The question is (if the question even arises): do I love her now, not do I have a memory of at any point coming to love her. When we ask people about their conversion these days, we ask them about their understanding of that event. It was not a question that I find the Reformers making (which does not mean it is an invalid question) (that I do not find them making that question may be entirely due to my limited exposure to what they wrote, but I have encountered nothing that leads me to think otherwise). An event may not be a specific point of time, and it may take place without being entirely understood by the person in the midst of it. The rise of the papacy, for example, was an event: long, complex, and with many inadvertent factors. We cannot make the requirement for conversion that you can explain what happened.
The Reformers, then, are not so strange. What is, is that there came a time when a personal (as opposed to an impersonal one acknowledged, such as a creed) profession of faith (tell us in your own words) became important, but that was after the Reformation, not before and not during. When nobody is being asked to describe his own experience of conversion, nobody thinks of it in those terms. The question that causes is, when did we start doing that and why?
2 Salvation may be spoken of as personal possession, but if you omit the fact that Salvation is something for which you wait, then you have left out a crucial part. You will be saved if you are found believing, and genuine faith will persevere. A decision, an experience of conversion is not necessarily the same thing. If your trust is in having made a decision, you are trusting the wrong thing. If your trust is in Jesus Christ, then you are trusting the right thing. It doesn’t matter when you started doing this or how you got there, what matters is that you, in fact, are.
3 God is sovereign in the use of means for the conversion of the elect. These means may include, in certain eras, the complete absence of alternatives to Christian belief. It is entirely possible that you are assumed to believe, that you also assume that you believe, and this unexamined assumption be true or false. A false assumption will damn you, but a true assumption is possible. It seems to me entirely possible for a true believer to assume he is one without consciously experiencing conversion. The test which takes it beyond assumption, which is crucial, is not retrospective; it is contemporary: am I repenting? Not, did I repent? Am I believing? Not, did I believe? That is all.
Right? There is actually a lot of my own past struggle with assurance woven through that, which, I realize, is personal experience. It shows we use it to order things, and must; but it has to be used correctly. Have I? What am I missing?