THERE are degrees of spiritual, or religious, experience, as we all recognize. The Laodicean message suggests a wide range of degrees. temperature-wise: from cold, to lukewarm, to hot.
A recourse to geometry gives us another kind of degree that will help us to see some aspects of the spiritual life:
In our illustration, let us take 0 degree as representing the condition of one who has grieved away the Holy Spirit, such as Pharaoh, Esau, Saul, and Judas. The condition of such is hopeless.
The 180-degree mark to the extreme right is used to represent the situation of a person who is fully committed to God. It is not to be understood as bearing any relationship to moral perfection as such; at this point this is not under discussion. It represents only the attitude of commitment toward God that prompts us to be totally for Him, and totally to place ourselves, and our all, in His hands. It is fundamentally important that this concept be kept in mind as this and following chapters are studied.
Spiritually speaking, there are people to be found throughout the 180-degree range. In other words, there are people in the church ranging all the way from cold to hot in their commitment attitude, reverting for a moment to the Laodicean picture.
In any case, it seems clear that not all who are Seventh-day Adventists are totally committed to Christ. Ellen G. White writes that "many have accepted the theory of the truth who have had no true conversion" (Testimonies) vol. 5, p. 218). She makes an even stronger statement:
The new birth is a rare experience in this age of the world. This is the reason why there are so many perplexities in the churches. Many, so many, who assume the name of Christ are un sanctified and unholy. They have been baptized, but they were buried alive. Self did not die, and therefore they did not rise to newness of life in Christ. -The SDA Bible Commentary, Ellen G. White Comments, on Rom. 6:1-4, p. 1075.
The term "rare" is a strong one. When we think of rare coins, or rare stamps, we recognize that there are not many of that particular type around.
It is true that the words we have just quoted were written many years ago. But can we say the church is in a significantly better spiritual condition today than then? 27
A Man Named John
Let us now use a hypothetical church member to illustrate the point we wish to make by our diagram. Let us call this imaginary person John.
When we find John he is at a rather low ebb, spiritually. Arbitrarily, for purposes of illustration, we might put him at 45 degrees on our diagram.
John is a church member "in good and regular standing," but in private is not living up to church standards. For example, he does not pay a faithful tithe. He watches very questionable TV programs, not infrequently on Sabbath. He listens to some pretty far-out music. He practically never studies his Bible, and never opens a Spirit of Prophecy book. These describe only a part of his outward life. Much more could be added to describe the inward.
Then something happens. In some way the Holy Spirit begins to get through to John. Perhaps he had a close call with death in a car accident. Possibly his pastor preached a sermon that brought home to him God's great love for him personally, and the anxiety God has that he be saved. In any case, John moves along in his attitude of commitment to, let us say, 90 degrees.
John now begins to read his Bible. He quits watching the questionable TV programs. He pays a full tithe, and so on.
The Holy Spirit continues to work with him. And John responds to this wooing in his heart and life until he gets to, shall we say, 170 degrees of commitment.
Right here, let us consider a question: The Holy Spirit has been clearly working in John's life, and he has been responding to His love and pleading. But has he been born again if, according to our illustration, he must get to the 180-degree mark of commitment for that experience? The answer is, of course, No. As we described in our heart illustration in the previous chapter, he has been putting a lot of things out of his life that should not be there, and adding a lot of things that should be there. But he has not yet been born again.
Like the rich young ruler (Matt. 19), he has turned in a large degree to Christ. But also, like the rich young ruler, something is still wrong. In the case of the ruler the problem was self-love. "Only one thing he lacked, but that was a vital principle .... That he might receive the love of God, his supreme love of self must be surrendered." -The Desire of Ages, p. 519.
Another question: Can we say that John has been having a conversion experience?
Before we respond to that question we may wish to consider one or two more ideas.
What is the meaning of the term conversion? The comparison of a Bible text -Mark 4: 12- as rendered by two Bible versions, will help us to discover the answer to this question.
The meaning of conversion, then, is simply "a turning."
Two Definitions of Conversion
The Bible shows that in conversion both God and man are involved; in some cases God is described as doing the turning, in others, man. "Turn thou me, and I shall be turned" (Jer. 31:18); "Turn thou us unto thee, 0 Lord, and we shall be turned" (Lam. 5: 21); "turn yourselves, and live ye" (Eze. 18:32); "turn ye, turn ye from your evil ways; for why will ye die, 0 house of Israel?" (chap. 33: 11).
If man has a part in his converting, or turning, it is possible to understand that he might turn only partly toward God, and not fully.
Ellen White seems to use the term conversion in two ways. One of these uses indicates the possibility of a partial conversion. She refers to those who have "the hope of salvation ... without a radical change of heart or reformation of life. Thus superficial conversions abound" (The Great Controversy, p. 468). She writes of "half-converted" people (Testimonies, vol. 5, p. 114). She describes the need for a "thorough conversion" without which one "may despair of heaven" (ibid., vol. I, p. 158).
In this context consider some other questions. Is it possible to experience a "superficial" new birth? Can one be half born again? Can the new birth be anything less than thorough and still be a new birth?
Is it possible to answer anything but No to these questions? The new birth is deep, complete.
Jesus in the Central Place
This does not mean that when a person is born again he has a complete experience in the sense that he is totally free of every pull of temptation and sin, that he is free of every propensity to sin. It does not mean instant perfection. This goes without saying. It does mean, as we saw in chapter three, that he becomes "a new creature" with "a new heart" and "a new spirit." It does mean that Jesus has been given the central place in the heart, and that love for the Master reigns in the soul.
To apply our diagram, to have a 45-degree, or 90-degree, or even 179-degree attitude of commitment to God, is not the new birth. These are degrees of conversion, of turning, but not the new birth. According to the illustration we are using, the new birth can only be at 180 degrees.
At this juncture we are reminded of a Spirit of Prophecy statement that has a solemn application to the point we are making:
There are some who are seeking, always seeking, for the goodly pearl. But they do not make an entire surrender of their wrong habits. They do not die to self that Christ may live in them. Therefore they do not find the precious pearl. They have not overcome unholy ambition and their love for worldly attractions. They do not lift the cross, and follow Christ in the path of self-denial and self-sacrifice .... Without entire surrender there is no rest, no joy. Almost Christians, yet not fully Christians, they seem near the kingdom of heaven, but they do not enter therein. Almost but not wholly saved means to be not almost but wholly lost.-Selected Messages, book I, pp. 399,400. (Italics supplied.)
In addition to using the term conversion in the way we have just seen, Ellen White also uses it in its commonly understood sense, as referring to the new birth:
is not struggling for recognition .... If his motives, words, or actions are misunderstood or misrepresented, he takes no offense, but pursues the even tenor of his way. He is kind and thoughtful, humble in his opinion of himself, yet full of hope, always trusting in the mercy and love of God. -Christ's Object Lessons, p. 102.