Does it matter when and how you became a Christian, so long as you consider yourself a Christian now?
I have friends who would answer in the negative. There’s no need to get hung up on dates and timelines and what happened when. If someone is walking with Jesus now, that’s enough.
While I understand that perspective, I think gaining clarity on your actual conversion matters a great deal.
Having served as a pastor both in the U.S. and abroad, I’ve been privileged to hear hundreds of testimonies. It happens informally in the hall or at the dinner table, and it happens formally when pastors conduct membership interviews with those interested in joining the church.
Every person is unique, but unclear conversion accounts often follow a threefold storyline.
First, there’s an initial exposure to biblical truth. The person often considers this the point of salvation. Second, there’s a “but then.” The person admits to an extended season of disobedience or disinterest in the things of God. Third, praise God, there’s a breakthrough, which has led the person to spiritual vitality now. Some friend or event helped the person “rededicate my life” or “make my faith my own.”
Why You Need a Clear Testimony
It’s at this point I’ll ask the difficult but necessary question: When do you think you became a Christian? Was it early or late? Do you think you knew the Lord early in your youth and wandered for a number of years before coming back to him? Is it possible you had gospel exposure early on but weren’t truly regenerate until more recent years?
It’s not that everyone needs to be able to pinpoint a specific conversion date. (Most Christians I know can’t do that!) But it is helpful to gain clarity around the general time we were born again—a time that will be evidenced by enduring spiritual fruit in our lives.
Gaining clarity on the general timeline of your testimony, then, really matters. Here are four reasons why.
1. For the Sake of Your Soul
On more than one occasion, gentle pressing (in a membership interview) has revealed people who don’t yet know what it means to be a Christian. They’re confused about the when because they don’t understand the what.
Maybe they’ve had seasons of sustained Bible study or moral resolve that muddy the water and makes them think they must have been converted. Of course, obedience is important—as are Christ-influenced moral desires—but it’s not those points of obedience that save us. We are saved by grace through faith, and then out of that deep gospel well we seek to live Christianly.
2. For the Sake of Your (Verbal) Witness
Clarifying your conversion will help your evangelism. After all, we tend to communicate the gospel to others the way we understand it ourselves. If you think you were saved because you walked an aisle or repeated a prayer, that theology of conversion will show up when you share the gospel.
It’s not that walking an aisle or repeating a prayer can’t be the actions of a truly born-again person (certainly they can be!), but those actions aren’t saving in themselves. For true believers, momentary commitments will be followed by a posture of clinging to Christ. Initial acts of obedience are like little beachheads taken in a life marked by worshiping and following God.
For true believers, momentary commitments will be followed up by a posture of clinging to Christ.
If your testimony involves an initial nod in Jesus’s direction followed by two decades of running from him in disobedience and without conviction—and yet you think that early act was what it meant to become a Christian—then your evangelism will offer the same shallow “salvation.”
3. For the Sake of Your (Embodied) Witness
This topic is personal for me because I professed faith at an early age, called myself a Christian for a long time (while living a life that clearly betrayed my profession), and then really did become a Christian when I was 18.
And you know what? People were watching! None of us lives in a vacuum. My parents and siblings, my coaches and teachers, my drinking buddies and girlfriends—they all had a front-row seat.
We must consider the message we convey when we talk about the timing of our testimonies.
We must consider the message we convey when we talk about the timing of our testimonies. For my part, if I would’ve held tightly to the version of the story that saw me saved at a young age and merely “wandering” through high school, then the witness of my life was that someone can claim Christ and yet live in unrepentant disobedience for years—and that all of this accords with true saving faith.
But that’s not true. God removes our hearts of stone and gives us hearts of flesh. He makes us new creations—the old is gone and the new has come (2 Cor. 5:17). My late father’s testimony involved seeing God change my heart. God truly saved me, and it made him realize that though he also claimed Christ, he was unregenerate.
4. For the Sake of Your Discipleship
Clarifying your testimony also helps in your vigilance against sin. If you’re content to look back at sustained periods of disobedience without conviction and reason that, while certainly not ideal, you were definitely saved, it’s worth asking whether you’ll approach current lapses with proper seriousness. You might even be reticent to call others living in unrepentant sin back to the light. What’s the big deal, after all?
Surely there are more reasons why it’s important to clarify your testimony. The most important thing is undoubtedly whether or not you are in Christ now. Rest there. But let’s also seek to gain clarity—and help others do the same—as to the order of events in our own stories. It will be good for our souls, for the witness of both our words and our life, and for our discipleship.