Jesus answered him, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God."
Two books have come out recently that describe great examples of Christian conversion. In one, a British journalist goes from left-leaning political views to the realization that Christianity is his refuge, both in a deeply personal sense and in terms of worldview. In the other, an elite American soldier discovers that meeting physical challenges in the service of his country is not enough-he must serve God above all else.
The British journalist is none other than Peter Hitchens, whose brother, the late Christopher Hitchens, was a well-known atheist and author. Peter too was an atheist for much of his life, growing up with much cynicism towards the English church and state: "I had replaced Christianity and the Churchill cult with an elaborate socialist worldview-because I had decided that I did not wish to believe in God or in patriotism." He goes on to say that "I was shocked and (like Virginia Woolf) almost physically disgusted if any acquaintance turned out to believe in God." Hitchens is coldly analytical in describing his previous state of mind.
What does it take, then, to turn such a man around, to re-awaken in him openness to faith? Logical arguments? Not exactly-it seems that, among other things, it took the viewing of a painting. Hitchens was visiting the Hotel-Dieu in Beaune, France. He discovered, at this ancient hospital, a picture entitled 'The Last Judgement' by Rogier Van der Weyden. He describes the experience as follows:
"Still scoffing, I peered at the naked figures fleeing toward the pit of hell. . . But this time I gasped, my mouth actually hanging open. These people did not appear remote or from the ancient past; they were my own generation... A large catalogue of misdeeds, ranging from the embarrassing to the appalling, replayed themselves rapidly in my head. I had absolutely no doubt that I was among the damned, if there were any damned."
At such moments, the phrase "Jesus died for our sins" has crystal clear meaning. It is the good news, it is the cold drink of water for a man dying of thirst; it is the realization that God's undeserved love can be attained.
Hitchens explains in uncompromising detail a long, complex re-thinking of his worldview. He eventually states of Christianity:
"Only one reliable force stands in the way of the power of the strong over the weak. Only one reliable force forms the foundation of the concept of the rule of law. Only one reliable force restrains the hand of the man of power... ".
From the extreme awareness of personal sin there emerges a new life and a new way of looking at the world. There is something going on here besides feeble human reasoning!
There are some interesting contrasts between the story of the conversion of Peter Hitchens and the story of the conversion of soldier Chad Williams. In Seal of God, we read about Chad, an all-American fun-loving boy. He grew up in a beach town in California. He was very athletic, living for his swimming and surfing and professional skateboarding. He exerted very little effort in school. After graduation, he is at loose ends, but it occurs to him one day that being a Navy SEAL-an elite soldier-would satisfy his sense of pride and give him opportunities for athletic activities.
Chad describes in fascinating detail all of the rigors of the SEAL training program. It appears that the new recruits are pushed to the limits of human endurance-and even beyond. Only the toughest-both physically and mentally-can possibly survive the training by ordeal.
Remarkably, Chad succeeds, or thinks he has. But after becoming a full-fledged SEAL, he continues to indulge in bad habits-particularly drinking. He gets involved in fights with civilians and is disrespectful to his parents (who happen to be Christians and, while proud of their son's achievements, are becoming frightened of him).
All of this leads to an amazing experience. To placate his parents, Chad agrees to attend a church revival meeting. He listens carefully to the Scripture-based sermon, and becomes convicted of his sin:
"Right there, in my seat, for the first time in my life, I was finally getting what the gospel was about. I realized that all the sin in my life was just like Naaman's leprosy, and the reckless lifestyle I had been living was decaying me."
Chad, while exhilarated by being born again, finds he cannot be comfortable any longer as a SEAL. He wants to become a street evangelist! He eventually will do exactly that, but first he must complete his contract with the U.S. Navy. He dutifully fulfills his obligations, which include a dangerous combat assignment in Iraq. Chad maintains a strong soldier's patriotism, and in that sense his worldview does not change. He finds, however, that his sense of camaraderie with his hard-drinking buddies is altered. (It appears that SEALs do not do anything in moderation.)
After his contract is up, Chad leaves the SEALs and describes with excitement his early work in evangelism:
"In this new role, I have been able to take teenagers out on the streets and guide them in sharing their faith. Our first night out, I helped one of our students lead two people to Christ. That night, nine people were saved through our evangelism team. Nine souls secured their eternity by choosing heaven over hell. What an awesome way for an outreach to begin!"
The enthusiasm is there-and surely it can only be there because of the Holy Spirit.
Our two conversion stories have involved two very different men, rooted in different cultures and with different understandings of the world. Both eventually become aware of a personal need for Jesus Christ. Both become very different people afterwards, and no doubt both are still growing richer in Christian knowledge and experience.
Praise God for his almighty wisdom-and may his servants Peter Hitchens and Chad Williams continue to be blessed and to be a blessing, in the name of Jesus.
In faith and fellowship,
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