ARTICLES

Volume 13 - Issue 1

Conversion: a comparison of Calvin and Spener

By Tony Lane

What is conversion? This is an important question to ask, since so much evangelical concern and effort is devoted to the end of obtaining conversions. Reflections on the methods and techniques of evangelism are commonplace, but less attention is directed to the goal itself. What does it mean to be converted? Some of the issues involved will be highlighted by a comparison of the subtly different emphases of Calvin and Spener.

John Calvin will need no introduction to the readers of Themelios. Philipp Jakob Spener may not be so fortunate. He is best known as the founder of pietism. He was born in Alsace (then still part of Germany) in 1635. As a young man he was influenced by Johann Arndt’s True Christianity (1606–1609), which stressed the inadequacy of sound doctrine without a relationship with God and holiness of living. Spener entered the (Lutheran) ministry and taught the same. In 1666 he became senior pastor at Frankfurt, where he sought to reform church practices. In 1675 he wrote the preface to an edition of Arndt’s sermons. The preface was so popular that it was reprinted the same year on its own, with the title Pia Desideria, i.e. Holy Desires.1 In this work Spener set out a programme for reform which became the manifesto of a new movement called (to Spener’s displeasure) ‘pietism’.

In the Pia Desideria Spener laments the sorry state of the contemporary church, argues from the promises of God and the actual state of the early church that conditions can improve and puts forward six specific proposals for reform. In the present context it is his teaching on conversion that concerns us.

Spener was writing at a time when virtually all citizens were baptized (as infants) and therefore (according to Lutheran doctrine) believed to be regenerate. In this situation Spener bemoans the prevalence of nominal Christianity: ‘if we judge by this mark [love], how difficult it will be to find even a small number of real and true disciples of Christ among the great mass of nominal Christians’ (p. 57). Spener does not deny that baptism is ‘the real “washing of regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit” (Tit. 3:5)’ (p. 63). (Incidentally, John Wesley, who is to Anglo-Saxon evangelicalism what Spener is to German pietism, also held onto the traditional Anglican doctrine of baptismal regeneration.) But Spener would not have people imagine that baptism was enough, regardless of how one then lives. ‘Nor is it enough to be baptized, but the inner man, where we have put on Christ in baptism, must also keep Christ on and bear, witness to him in our outward life’ (p. 117). Similarly, one must not claim to be justified by faith without recognizing that ‘godly faith does not exist without the Holy Spirit, nor can such faith continue when deliberate sins prevail’ (p. 64). There is no true Christian faith without an inner change, a heart knowledge of God and a godly life. The problem of nominal Christianity was acute, not least among the clergy. Some of them led scandalous lives. Others did not but still exhibited a thoroughly selfish and worldly spirit. ‘Although they themselves do not realize it, they are still stuck fast in the old birth and do not actually possess the true marks of a new birth’ (p. 46).

Spener’s opposition to nominal Christianity was to become a hallmark of both the pietist and the evangelical movements. To what extent was it also a part of the teaching of the Reformers? A three-point comparison of Spener and the evangelical tradition with Calvin will reveal some interesting similarities and differences.

Calvin, like Spener, is well aware of the fact of nominal Christianity. There is the phenomenon of the ‘temporary faith’ of the reprobate.2 Apart from non-Christians and true believers, there are two other categories. Some are nominal Christians and are ‘initiated into the sacraments, yet by impurity of life denying God in their actions while they confess him with their lips, they belong to Christ only in name’. Others are ‘hypocrites who conceal with empty pretences their wickedness of heart’ (3:14:1). Calvin has a clear doctrine of the ‘invisible church’. In the visible church ‘are mingled many hypocrites who have nothing of Christ but the name and outward appearance’ (4:1:7). The invisible church is the small and contemptible number of the elect hidden in a huge multitude (4:1:2). Calvin certainly did not believe that mere church membership and participation in the sacraments was any guarantee of salvation. But, as the term ‘invisible church’ implies, Calvin was opposed to attempts to separate the wheat and the chaff, to say who is elect (4:1:7–9). The invisible church is invisible not because it meets in secret or because its members are invisible but because its boundaries are known only to God. Only God can discern accurately whose profession of faith is genuine (2 Tim. 2:19). We are called to exercise a judgment of charity ‘whereby we recognize as members of the church those who, by confession of faith, by example of life, and by partaking of the sacraments, profess the same God and Christ with us’ (4:1:8). Evangelicals are usually willing in theory to accept that they cannot read people’s hearts and divide the wheat from the chaff, but this does not usually stop them from at least having a shot at making the division. The acknowledgment that God alone reads hearts is relegated to the small print.

Calvin, like Spener, insists that church membership and outward participation in the sacraments do not suffice for salvation. There must be an inner change brought about by the Holy Spirit. There is the need to live a godly life. Without the sanctification of the Holy Spirit there is no true faith or knowledge of Christ (3:2:8–10). But while Calvin emphasizes this, he has very little to say about a conversion experience. Calvin stresses the need for saving faith, but he does not imply that it must come at an instant. Regeneration for Calvin is a lifelong process.

This restoration does not take place in one moment or one day or one year; but through continual and sometimes even slow advances God wipes out in his elect the corruptions of the flesh, cleanses them of guilt, consecrates them to himself as temples renewing all their minds to true purity that they may practise repentance throughout their lives and know that this warfare will end only at death (3:3:9).

Calvin could speak of his own ‘sudden conversion’ to the Protestant cause, but he does not seem to have regarded such as the norm.

Calvin, like Spener, was opposed to the lax standards of the contemporary church and sought to improve them. He had a clear doctrine of church discipline (4:12) and his efforts in establishing discipline at Geneva are well known. But Calvin’s response to lax conditions was not quite that of Spener and the evangelical tradition. Spener bemoaned the fact that many of the clergy were unregenerate. Evangelicals respond to the laxity of nominal Christianity with a call to conversion, treating nominal Christians as ‘non-Christians’. Calvin’s approach was somewhat different. Because of his doctrine of the invisible church, he did not presume to identify the nominal Christians. Instead he treated all of his congregation as professing Christians. If they fell into serious sin they were treated as erring sheep in need of discipline rather than non-Christians in need of conversion.3

So far we have compared Calvin and the evangelical tradition without any attempt to judge between them. There are a number of issues that arise out of the comparison.

First, Calvin was unwilling to separate the wheat and the chaff. Evangelicals might do well to pay more attention to his qualms. It would be wrong to suggest that all professions of faith must be taken equally seriously (Acts 8:20–23). But we need to be more fully aware that all of our judgments are provisional. The apparently nominal Christian may turn out to be a weak Christian who will in the fulness of time blossom into full maturity. The out-and-out convert may turn out to be rocky soil (Mk. 4:16f.).

Secondly, evangelicals generally see instantaneous conversion as the norm. It is of course acknowledged that some have a gradual conversion, but this tends to be seen as the exception to the rule. Perhaps we should be willing to learn more from Calvin’s concept of conversion as a process. Even when adults come to faith through a crisis experience there is usually a process which precedes it. This is especially true of those brought up in a Christian home. My job includes interviewing prospective students. Very often those from a Christian home will refer to two crisis experiences: one in the early teens and another in the later teens. Some will refer to their conversion, followed by a deeper commitment later. Others will refer to a step towards God culminating in their conversion later. I suspect that in many (not all) of these cases we have people who have ‘grown up into’ faith and have sought to interpret their experience in terms of sudden conversion, since this is what is expected. Maybe we should think of two alternative ‘models’ of becoming a Christian: ‘growing gradually into faith’ and ‘sudden conversion’. Few will fit fully into one category rather than the other, but the experience of most Christians fits more into one than the other. Those who are brought up in Christian homes are more likely to have ‘grown up into faith’, while others are more likely to have undergone a conversion experience. Both ways are equally valid.

Thirdly, if we need to recognize that conversion can be the culmination of a process, we need equally to see it as the beginning of a process. It does not matter too much whether we call conversion/regeneration a lifelong process or whether we insist that conversion must be followed by lifelong growth as a Christian. Either way, we must make sure that conversion is seen as the start of the Christian race, not as its conclusion. With some evangelicals there is so much emphasis on conversion and the gaining of converts that this obscures all else. The emphasis is on numerical growth to the exclusion of growth in maturity. There is a medical term for this sort of growth: cancer.

Fourthly, we need to consider the content of conversion. Certain types of evangelistic effort are notorious for producing multitudes of ‘converts’ who are never seen again. One inner-city church was recently called upon to nurture over fifty ‘converts’ from Mission London. Only one of them appears to be continuing as a Christian. We would all agree that this is not satisfactory, but what is the solution? Why did these converts not continue? Perhaps the problem lies in the definition of conversion. Did they fail to continue or did they never start? What is conversion? Many who would regard an expression like ‘letting Jesus into your heart’ as superficial would nonetheless be happy to define conversion as repentance and faith, an inward change. This is certainly central to conversion, but is it enough? It would be more in keeping with the practice of Acts and the theology of the epistles to expand the definition to include baptism and embarking on a life of Christian discipleship within the fellowship of the church. But what difference does it make simply to change a definition? Is it not just a matter of words? No. It is important both because we use the word conversion so much (unlike the Bible) and because evangelism is geared to obtaining converts. The only way to avoid the problem of a flood of transient ‘converts’ is to rethink the definition of conversion. It is also important because for the NT the church is itself a part of the gospel message. You cannot preach the full gospel without preaching about the church. To have God for one’s father implies, of necessity, having his other children as one’s brothers and sisters. It is a contradiction in terms to talk of being God’s child without belonging to his family. Conversion is not just entering into a private relationship with God. It means joining God’s family, which is not some abstract mystical concept but is composed of actual human beings around us.

Finally, if our definition of conversion is expanded in this way it has another important consequence. As we accept a broader and fuller definition of conversion it becomes harder to see instantaneous conversion as the norm. After all, few folk today follow the pattern of Acts and repent, believe, are baptized and join the church all on the same day! For most these four elements come over a period of time. Furthermore, different people will go through these stages in different orders. Some may be baptized and confirmed before they come to saving faith. Others may not be baptized until later. This is a simple fact, whatever we may think ought to happen. But how should we react to the fact that for most people conversion in the full sense does not happen all at once? We must not fall into the trap of making conversion a two- or three-stage event, with certain steps following in a prescribed order. In the NT repentance, faith, baptism and church membership are held together as different aspects of what it means to become a Christian. Theologically it is disastrous to separate them—whether by separating faith from repentance or faith from baptism or baptism from confirmation or conversion from receiving the Holy Spirit. In practice conversion may happen by stages (like the healing of the blind man in Mk. 8:22–26), but we must not develop a multi-stage doctrine of conversion, any more than a multi-stage concept of healing. Conversion is, theologically speaking, a single event which may, in practice, happen gradually over a period of time and in stages.


1 There is an English translation of the Pia Desideria, translated by T. G. Tappert (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1982). Page numbers in the text refer to this edition.

2 Institutio 3:2:10–12. Further references in the text are to the Institutio. Quotations are taken from the F. L. Battles/J. T. McNeill translation (London: SCM/Philadelphia: Westminster, 1961).

3 Calvin’s attitude to pastoral care is well brought out in H. T. Mayer, Pastoral Care (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1979), ch. 6.

Tony Lane

London School of Theology