The Three Conversions of the Christian Life
By Kevin Martin and Robert Michael Lewis
Resource Publications. Pp. 74. $10.00

Review by George Sumner

Christianity “turned the world upside down” (Acts 17:6) in various ways, and one of them was conversion, the exclusive and decisive turning of one’s life to God, in response to the decisive event of the death and resurrection of Jesus (for the classic treatment of this, see Arthur Darby Nock’s Conversion).

This does not mean that conversion itself has not been multi-faceted, both in individual lives and in the global mission of the Church. For example, in his Confessions, Augustine’s hearing the voice saying “take up and read” in the garden (8.12.29), is actually one of several resolutions of personal crises. To identify moments of conversion plural has its own history, into which Martin and Lewis’s short, incisive book, The Three Conversions of the Christian Life, brief in length and direct in style, and so well suited to a lay study group, may be placed.

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The authors, who bring a wealth of pastoral experience to their task, have made deceptively simple yet astute decisions at the outset. They listen anew to the key passages in the New Testament itself, supplemented with an appealingly eclectic series of vignettes of saints. This is at once traditional and contemporary. I am reminded of Charles Taylor’s comment in A Secular Age that in our time the best apologetic may simply be narrating the lives of modern saints.

If the book has a weakness, it is that its subtitle, Turning to Christ, Turning to the Church, Turning to Mission, is misleading. For, to the authors’ credit, they understand the “three-fold converted life” to be required for the “fullness of life turned to Christ” (p. 4). They assume individual commitment to him, participation in the community as his body, and movement outward into his world as a single movement toward and into Christ. Christology undergirds them all. They go on to illustrate this best as they find all three dimensions in Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus in Acts 9 and Jesus’ conversation with a contrite Peter in John 21.

At the end of the book, Martin and Lewis step back briefly and exhort us to what missiologists have called “holism,” and a prior generation of Episcopalians called “three streams Anglicanism” (though now social action replaces the charismatic movement). The evangelistic (and personal), the sacramental (and corporate), and the missional (and world-ward) form an unbreakable threefold cord. Implied is a criticism of some more stark positions, for example “Jesus without religion,” church as social benefit, or church as either “political party at prayer.”  In each case, in one way or another, we are “conformed to the pattern of this world” (Rom.  12:2). So we are brought back, as our authors gently contend, to conversion as the central question of this challenging era of the Church’s life.

About The Author

The Rt. Rev. Dr. George Sumner, ordained priest in Tanzania in 1981, is the Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Dallas. He has served in cross-cultural ministry in Navajoland and has a doctorate in theology from Yale. Bishop Sumner is married to Stephanie Hodgkins.

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