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When Were You Converted?

Matthew 19:16-22

You know how it is, don’t you, that sometimes brief, apparently insignificant incidents in life actually turn out, upon deep reflection, to have much greater meaning …

That’s exactly what happened to me one day when a fellow preacher and I were walking down the seemingly endless concourse at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport. Suddenly a young man with long hair and a bright smile carrying a Bible under his arm walked up to us and said, “When were you converted?” My friend’s reply to him was quite remarkable. Without missing a beat, he said to the young man, “I was converted 2,000 years ago, 20 years ago, and 20 minutes ago.” Confusion swept over the young man’s face as he sputtered out a response, “What do you mean by that? You can only be converted once. Give me the day, the hour, the month, the year.” My friend then said, very gently but very firmly, “Listen to what I am saying. I was first converted 2,000 years ago when Jesus died on the cross to take my sins away. I was converted about 20 years ago when I publicly surrendered my life to Jesus Christ and offered myself to the Gospel ministry. And then about 20 minutes ago, before we headed to the airport, my friend here (he pointed to me) and I were praying for each other’s ministries, and I realized that my relationship with one of the elders in my church is not good. I just now realized that Christ is calling me to change that. So I am on my way home to Ohio determined now to love that man with the love of Jesus Christ.” Well, the young man didn’t say anything more—he just shook his head in bewilderment, turned, and walked away.

It was indeed just a brief, seemingly insignificant incident, but the more I thought about it, the more significant it became. I began to realize that my friend had put his finger on a profound Biblical truth. You see, so many people think of conversion as a once in a lifetime experience which comes only to a select few. But that is not altogether true. To be sure, the New Testament does speak of that kind of conversion experience -the conversion of one who turns dramatically from having no belief in God to having a deep life-changing relationship with God. But the New Testament also uses the word conversion to refer to those who are within the church but who through growth in Christ discover in new ways the life-changing power of the beliefs they profess. Conversion in that sense is not once in a lifetime. It is instead a constantly recurring experience in the life of growing Christians. It may even happen every day. That’s what my friend was trying to say to the young evangelist in the Chicago Airport—that the true Christian is being constantly changed and converted, constantly reshaped and remolded by the transforming power of faith in Jesus Christ.

Therefore today, I want to call your attention to the need we all have—the need to turn our lives around and start then off in a new direction; the need constantly to be opening our lives to the transforming power of Jesus Christ; the need to move out of self-centered living to Christ centered living; the need to be converted anew and afresh every single day. To help us catch hold of that truth from the Scriptures, I wish to hold up before you today the story of the confrontation Jesus had with a young man we call “the rich young ruler.” That story is told in Matthew 19.

Focus first on the man in the story.

We do call him “the rich young ruler.” But I think it’s important for us to remember that only Matthew calls him “young.” Only Mark calls him “rich.” Only Luke calls him “ruler.” So what we have done is to combine the Gospel accounts of the story to give him a title—“the rich young ruler.” But the fact is that, in all three Gospel accounts, it is quite clear that he was a successful and respected man, that he had things going his way in life, and that, in all accounts and by all appearances, he had it made. Notice the word “appearances.” He did appear to have it made. When you looked at his life from the outside, you could see so much that was right with him. However when you looked at his life from the inside, the picture was quite different. Even he knew in his own heart that something in his life was missing. That’s why he came to Jesus in the first place.

Now get the picture clearly. Jesus was talking with a group of people when suddenly this good looking, well-dressed, young man interrupted the proceedings with a question: “Teacher,” the young man said, “What must I do to inherit eternal life”? Now you might think that Jesus would be instantly impressed with that. Here was a brilliant, powerful, successful, young man seeking the guidance of Jesus. You might think that Jesus would be overwhelmed by a sense of gratitude and accomplishment, that at last He was beginning to attract the attention of at least one of the prominent people of His day. But Jesus had no such thoughts. Instead, he quickly responded to the young man’s question by saying, “Obey the Commandments, and you will find God. Take God seriously in your life, and you will know Him.” Then Jesus proceeded to list some of the Commandments. Well, this must have been a shock to the rich young ruler. After all, he had come with a deep theological question, and Jesus was offering him nothing more than a Sunday School lesson in the Law. But the young man quickly concealed his dismay and proceeded to say, “I have obeyed the Law of God.”

Now if we are honest with ourselves what happened next is nothing less than shattering. You see, all too often, we are like that rich young ruler fooling ourselves into thinking that we are serious about God. We come to church, and we worship as if God were the top priority in our lives but all the while our minds wander over subjects like: “What’s for Sunday lunch?” or “What are we going to do this afternoon?” or “What do I have to do this coming week?” But Jesus sees right through us just the way he saw through the polished veneer of the rich young ruler. Jesus said to the young man, “You lack one thing. Sell what you have. Give the money to the poor, and come and follow me.” Wham! That did it. That was too much. The young man slammed the door in the face of the Lord. He wanted no part of that. He thought he was serious about God, but he was not ready to hear and obey what Jesus said. He would have been willing to do almost anything—to pray for hours, to lose himself in the study of the Scriptures, to undertake a pilgrimage—anything. But to give up all that he had earned? No way, that was asking way too much. You see, he wanted God as an “extra” not the “whole of life.” He wanted to retain certain areas of his life for his own control. He did not wish to surrender them to the Lord. He regarded God as a kind of “good-luck charm”—handy to have around in a time of need, but nothing more than that. And so when Jesus confronted him with God’s total claim upon his life, he simply turned and walked away.

Now focus on the message of the story.

Here it as simply as I know how to state it: There is no cheap, easy, painless way to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. That’s tough for us to hear, isn’t it? We come to church talking about how serious we are about God, but when God calls for total commitment—well, like the rich young ruler, we turn and walk away. We don’t like those kinds of ultimatums. And so we begin to twist the meaning of the story. We try to blunt its cutting edge. We attempt to dismiss it by saying things like: “Well, suppose everyone gave everything away?” Of course, that wasn’t Jesus’ intent at all. Jesus knew that it was the rich young ruler’s money that kept him from being completely committed to God, and Jesus knows what it is that keeps us from being completely committed, as well. Maybe it’s our money or maybe not. Maybe it’s our prejudices or maybe it’s a cherished hobby or an immoral habit or an improper relationship. Maybe it’s our job. Maybe it’s our family. Maybe it’s even our religious beliefs, for Heaven’s sake. Does that sound strange? Perhaps. But the fact is that many of us attend worship and casually repeat the words of the faith or sing the verses of the hymns, and yet what we say and sing never really pierces our hearts. The great truths of our faith never move our spirits or set our hearts to pounding and our lips to singing. We never have tears leap into our eyes because of the sheer magnificence of our Messiah and what He has done for us.

Yes, at its bottom line the message of the confrontation between the Messiah and the rich young ruler is: You can’t hold out on God. If we try to hold something back, if we try to hide something from Him, if we let anything at all stand between us and our full commitment to the Lord Jesus Christ, then sooner or later, God is going to back us into a corner and demand that we give it up. There is no escape. There is no hiding place. Sooner or later God’s spirit is going to come flowing into our hearts and our lives, and when that happens, we shall have to decide whether to yield to God’s will and God’s way or to turn and go our own way.

The rich young ruler got the message. Did he ever! Jesus said to him, “You’ve got to give up the one thing that keeps you from being totally committed to God. In your case, it’s your money.” Yes, the rich young ruler got the message all right. It’s just that he didn’t want to hear it. And therefore when confronted with that decision, the Bible says of him, “fie went away very sad for he had many possessions.”


Today, in the name of Jesus Christ, I want to confront you with a question. When were you last converted? When did you last feel the mighty power of God surging into your life? When did you last come to the end of your own resources and die to yourself through Christ so that you might be raised up to new life in Christ? When did you last say to God, “Lord, I offer myself to you nothing held back. Use me as you wish”? When were you last converted?

I pray to God that the last time you were converted is right now!

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