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What About Sudden Conversion?

Sudden conversion is the very heart of the gospel.

I am very intrigued by the new invention that is now being foisted upon some parts of the American people, whereby on closed-circuit television they can ask you a question, you can sit in your home and push a button, and they have an instant response. That has all kinds of possibilities. Someday we will all have that. We will do catalog shopping through that with two-way communication.

I wonder this morning what would happen if you had buttons and I said, "Now, what do you think of the validity of sudden conversion? Do you think it really is a possibility? What do you think about a Billy Graham rally, in which every night many go forward to have a sudden conversion or reconversion?"

Would you say, "Oh yes, of course!" and push the number one button? Or would you say, "Well, maybe sometimes it works," and push the number two button? Or would you say, "Listen, that's not what the whole thing's about at all. That's all some kind of psychological game," and push button number three?

Now I have no idea what kind of response we'd get from this congregation. I suspect we'd have a lot of people who would push the one button, because some of you have been converted suddenly.

We all wonder whether a person can really change.

The great question is found in the song Fagan sings in the musical Oliver just before the walls are about to crash in on him and his little gang of pickpockets he'd trained to work for him. His life is about to be called into account, and he sings this song: "Can a man change? Can a man change? Can a man change?"

That is the great question today. All of us in various ways want to know. At report card time: can the grasshopper ever become an ant? On the job scene with the real estate salesman or the insurance salesman: can the procrastinator ever get out and really sell? In the marriage scene: can the touchy, critical spouse ever become a lover? Can a fat person ever become thin? Can the alcoholic ever become sober? Can the spendthrift ever become prudent and have a positive bank account? Can the clumsy person ever play a good golf game or a tennis game? Can the chronically depressed person ever become happy? Can the shy introvert ever become a spontaneous person who can celebrate the gift of life?

Now you can add your own questions here, but the question is the same: can people change? Is sudden conversion really a possibility?

The possibility of sudden change or sudden conversion is one of the most relevant topics in almost every area of human endeavor. The psychologists and the psychiatrists and the psychotherapists now are debating whether Freud was right. He seemed to say that you cannot transcend your childhood; the best you can do is to make peace with what your parents did to you. You can't really change.

Freud's most recent disciples, like Erik Erikson, say, "Oh yes, Freud was great. He opened up the whole unconscious to us. But he was wrong there. Yes, you can transcend your childhood. You don't have to be what your parents made you." Good news, if it's true.

This church is full of medical experts, doctors, and nurses, and you tell us there are two types of people, basically: Type A and Type B. Type A's are driven, can't-relax, hard-working overachievers, who are prone to get a cardiovascular disease and to die prematurely. The Type B kind of goes barefoot through life, smelling daisies, liking what he sees, maybe not achieving too much, but really enjoying things. They'll probably live a long time.

Now, instead of treating all the Type A's who get sick, you doctors are saying, "Is there a chance that a Type A can become a Type B?" You are talking about conversion. Can you radically change the way you approach life and your lifestyle?

And penology, for example. We now have a penal system that, give or take, produces a 90 percent recidivism rate, which means that nine out of ten people who go out of a penitentiary in our country go back again. The rehabilitation rate is abysmal. Former Chief Justice Warren Burger said recently, "To put people behind walls and bars and do little or nothing to change them is to win a battle but lose a war. It is wrong. It is expensive. It is stupid." Well, what are we doing? What are you doing? The penologists aren't doing very much. What are you doing to change what happens to people who by some circumstance become criminals?

In education, some far-out educators now are suggesting that IQ is not a fixed thing. When they give you your test in grade school and tell you you're a 90 or a 110 or a 130 or something, now they're suggesting IQ may not be fixed. There may be ways people's IQ can be raised. This is a question of conversion. Can you change radically a person's IQ? Some are saying it's possible.

In Russia, I'm told, today the number-one graduate-study subject is conversion, but not from a Christian or spiritual point of view. They understand the political significance that if there is a way to change a person's values, motivations, goals, and lifestyles, you have the ultimate power beyond nuclear weapons. So they want to know: If it's possible, how can we as a political force for the state use sudden conversion? So, you see, it's a very timely subject.

All people have the opportunity to be suddenly converted.

And now, what does the Bible say about conversion? Let me suggest to you two things.

First of all, it's the very heart of the gospel. The gospel says to us that it's never too late for anyone to change. No one is locked into what he or she has always been and done. You are not a prisoner of your track record. You can change. That's the very heart.

For too long the church has thought sudden conversion—the Billy Graham kind of conversion—is for the fundamentalists, for the weird charismatics, for gospel-mission people, skid-row winos, and those kinds of people. Listen, friends: Conversion and the possibility of sudden conversion is God's gift to everybody. Whether you're liberal, conservative, high church, or low church, it's God's hope for all of life. It's the very heart of the gospel, whatever your political or theological stance is. It's never too late. God is in the business of sudden conversion. It's not for certain kinds of people.

We can think of classic cases. Here is C. S. Lewis: militant atheist, Oxford don. The last thing he wants is to be converted. God sneaks up on him, and Lewis is "surprised by joy," and he says, "I am dragged kicking and screaming—the most reluctant convert in all the world—into the Kingdom."

Or here is John Wesley: fanatical son of a minister, a missionary to America, a great theological mind, but a total failure as a human being and a minister. One day he sits in the chapel in England, a failure as a missionary, and his "heart is strangely warmed." He becomes a great fountain for life. John Wesley becomes converted.

Or here's Bill Stringfellow in our generation, the most brilliant lawyer in his class at Yale Law School, who sits in his room quietly and reads the Bible. God gets hold of him, and Bill Stringfellow begins his ministry in Harlem in New York.

Or there's my neighbor in Sanibel Island before I came here. I had a neighbor in his 80s who had been a vice-president for McGraw-Hill, one of the great publishing firms of our land. He was a brilliant businessman. He was a senior vestryman in the Episcopal church, on the city council in Sanibel, respected, and loved by all. One weekend, he went off to a Cursillo Movement conference with a bunch of lay people who began praying with him and talking about Jesus.

This beautiful man comes home transformed and says to his neighbors and friends, "I met Jesus." "What happened to you?" He says, "I don't know. I fell in love." "He's always been a good man," his neighbors said, "but now he's a new man." You see, there's no single type that conversion happens to.

Or there's a missionary, such as Frank Laubach in the Philippines, who despite his bitterness at age 45 becomes the man who invents the system of learning that has taught millions and millions of people in the world to read.

Or Saint Augustine, the monk with a mistress, who is struggling with his soul, sitting under a tree, saying, "O Lord, make me pure, but not yet." One day God gets him, and Augustine becomes Saint Augustine.

There's William Booth, a very unlikely, rough-cut man, who says over a hundred years ago, "Nobody in London cares about the poor, the drunks, the winos." He invented the Salvation Army. One day he said, "Lord, I give you everything there is in this man William Booth. Do with me what you will." A movement starts that changes the lives of tens and hundreds of thousands of people, because one man is suddenly converted. My friend went back there a while ago and said, "I sat in the chapel where this happened to William Booth, and I said, 'O Lord, do it again. Do it again!' "

You see, there is not a type for sudden conversion. The Bible tells us that all of us have this opportunity.

Zacchaeus is a case study of sudden conversion.

Now our story this morning is fascinating: Zacchaeus. Let's look at one case study from Scripture. Jesus is coming to Jericho. You know Jericho. Jericho is an amazing town: way below sea level, by the Jordan River. It used to be a very important center of commerce. All the trade routes going east and west of Jerusalem went through there. King Herod had a palace there. Mark Antony gave Jericho to Cleopatra as a present. Remember when the walls of Jericho fell down earlier? Jericho is a fascinating place. Now it's more of a quaint little town. But then it was a very important center.

Jesus is coming through Jericho—a moment of great excitement. People all come out to see this strange, weird, holy man who may be the Messiah. Now, who is there? Zacchaeus comes, and he's curious about who this person is. He's short, and the crowds are there and he can't see, so he climbs a tree. (So often the rich are people who have no regard for custom: they dress funny, they wear sloppy clothes, they drive funny cars. When you're rich, you have nothing to prove.

So Zacchaeus, being a rich man, is free to do something ridiculous: He climbs a tree. He doesn't fear being laughed at. He's up there saying, "I want to see this thing." He's curious.

One question I often ask people I meet on planes or someplace is this: "Listen, when did God first get your attention?" It isn't "When were you converted?" but rather "When was the first time God intrigued you, and you said, 'Hey, is there something to this?' " Someplace along the way, Zacchaeus was intrigued about the person of Jesus, because he climbs a tree out of curiosity.

Jesus passes by in the parade with a crowd of people on both sides of the road, and he looks up and sees Zacchaeus up there (like he saw you one day). He says, "Zacchaeus, come down. We're hungry, me and my men, and we need a place to go to eat. Will you feed us? We need to go to your house." "Oh, would I ever!"

And Zacchaeus scrambles down, goes home, and gets the servants going. And there he and Jesus have an amazing encounter.

Why do you think, out of the entire city of Jericho, Jesus picked Zacchaeus? I used to think it was because Jesus said, "I'll pick the meanest, rottenest, worst man here in town to show the power of God." I don't think that anymore. I think Jesus went through that town, and said, "Where is the person who is the hungriest, the most ready, the most open? Why it's this man up here!" who happens to be the least pious, the least religious, but the most open to what God has for him. So he says, "I'll take the easiest case around. Zacchaeus, you come on down." So Zacchaeus comes down and receives Jesus gladly.

What do you think happened? Luke tells us a condensed story. They go home and they sit and eat a luncheon banquet, I'm sure. If you were a novelist, how would you describe the conversation? Who does most of the talking? Do you think Jesus is a boring know-it-all who tells Zacchaeus all about God and conversion and prayer and where to worship and all that? Do you think Jesus becomes the great inexhaustible fountain of wisdom, which he was? Or do you think when you're in the presence of God, he sits and asks you, "How are you doing? Tell me about your life. How did you get so rich? Do you have any friends? How do you and your wife get along? Do your kids love you? Talk to me."

I don't know what happened, and you don't know what happened, but I have a feeling that when you sit in the presence of unconditional, ultimate love, which Jesus is, he makes you the agenda. So when you and I go out in his power to meet people (and we're all ministers in this church, you are if you're a believer), we can say, "Tell me about you."

All the hurts, the pain, the sins, all of the joys—everything—comes out of Zacchaeus. He is now accepted by the ultimate Being in the universe, God himself in Jesus. He is so free, he says, "Wow! I'm going to pay back fourfold everything I defrauded!" (That was not generous. The Roman law said if you defraud somebody, you pay back fourfold.) "I'll meet the law's requirement, but beyond that, I'm going to give away half of what I own." That was voluntary. And Jesus said, "Today, salvation has come, not just to this man but to this house." Jesus pronounced salvation.

It's an amazing thing—a sudden conversion. Zacchaeus goes cold turkey, like people who have gone off drugs with Jesus' help—no drying-out time, cold turkey. Many of you have joined AA in this church and suddenly, with the Twelve Steps' help, you suddenly stopped drinking and there were no withdrawal symptoms. Cold turkey, he gave up his money, his lifestyle. And salvation is pronounced.

What is sudden conversion all about? Well, the best definition I've heard came from William James, the psychologist, who said, "To be converted is a process, gradual or sudden, by which self, hitherto divided and consciously wrong, inferior and unhappy, becomes unified and consciously right, superior and happy in consequence of its firmer hold upon religious values." You can't beat that for a psychological definition.

How sudden is conversion? Conversion can be a long time coming. It's like babies, who are born suddenly, but the pregnancy was there for nine months. No sudden babies are being born. Sudden conversion looks sudden, but for a long time people have struggled and wrestled. Zacchaeus, I'm sure, was a good example of that.

The "Hound of Heaven" from Frances Thompson's wonderful poem has pursued you down the labyrinth of corridors of your life. You've run from God and run from God, like C. S. Lewis did. One day, you turn around, and he grabs you! But, you see, it's been coming for a long time. Then people say, "You changed just like that!" "Well, yeah, but I ran for a long time before I was changed." Sudden conversion may not be so sudden.

Detecting the fruits of a sudden conversion.

What marks authentic change? Our Scripture gives us four things: First, here is a man who now has a new center to his life. He loves Jesus. His center now is God himself in Jesus. The second mark is he loves himself. He's full of joy. He has become his own best friend. Because of his love for Jesus, he's suddenly at peace with himself, and there's joy. The third thing is now he is free to use things instead of acquiring them. There's nothing wrong with having wealth, but now wealth is something to give away and use. And, fourth, he loves his neighbors: "I will give it away to the poor. I will pay back." Before, he loved things and used people. Now he loves people and uses things. Four radical signs.

When Jesus sees these things—that Jesus has become the center of Zacchaeus's life, he loves himself, his things are now expendable, and he loves his neighbors—he says, "This is what salvation is all about. It's happened. It's come to your house. Rejoice and celebrate."

What causes this kind of response? It's love. To be in the presence of unconditional love; to have to prove yourself or justify yourself no longer; to find that suddenly, as wrong as you are, you're accepted; is a powerful thing.

I read a most extraordinary feature article in the New Yorker magazine by Bruno Bettelheim, who said that the English translations of Freud do him a gross injustice where he speaks about the soul. The translators in English call it the mind. He said that Freud never wanted psychoanalysis to become a medical or scientific specialty.

Bettelheim said, "Here's what Freud said: 'What was needed is an emotional closeness based on an immediate sympathetic comprehension of all the aspects of a person's soul.' What was needed was what Freud occasionally spoke of explicitly but much more often implicitly: 'a spontaneous sympathy of our unconscious with that of others, a feeling response of our soul to theirs.' "

Now here's a quote: "Psychoanalysis," Freud wrote in a letter to Jung in 1906, "is in essence a cure through love." You won't find that in American psychoanalysis, because the translations are all wrong. Freud said this is not science; this is not medicine. This is where one person unconditionally loves somebody, and that releases the person to be become whole.

Jesus is the ultimate person. When he and you are together and you feel this, then all of the defenses go, and you are loved.

The key is this: We are all loved this way by Jesus, but can you accept it? Can you believe it? Can you receive it? That's what makes the difference. Judas and Peter both sinned. Judas said, "It's all over; I blew it!" and killed himself. A lot of us are killing ourselves because we can't believe we're loved. Peter wept, and Jesus came and said, "It's okay. You blew it, but you are still loved. It's never too late. You can begin again." And that's the good news.

So who are the converted people? Abraham, the liar. Jacob, the cheat. David, the adulterer. Rahab, the harlot. Peter, the coward. Nicodemus, the Presbyterian elder or preacher, the theological type. All converted. Paul was converted suddenly on the Damascus road, but then he went for three years in the desert to say, "How do I reorder my life?" (That's why we have classes in churches for people who have been converted. They can come and re-sort their priorities, study the Word of God, learn to pray, and learn dialogue with God.) This is the good news about sudden conversion.


I read about a man who retired from 40 years of business, of catching the 7:30 bus every morning. His first morning after his retirement, his wife served him breakfast, and he said, "Honey, I don't like these eggs this way." She said, "But I've been serving eggs over lightly for 40 years. Why didn't you tell me before?" He said, "I never had time."

I never had time. When is the time to consider conversion? Now is the time, today is the accepted hour, and that's what the good news is all about. Today, salvation can come to your house or to mine.

1989 Bruce Larson

Preaching Today Tape #72

A resource of Christianity Today International

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Sermon Outline:


I. We wonder whether a person can really change

II. All people have the opportunity to be suddenly converted

III. Zacchaeus is a case study of sudden conversion

IV. Detecting the fruits of a sudden conversion