From Religion to Conversion

Mike Mazzalongo

Matthew 16:24-25
24Then Jesus said to His disciples, "If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me. 25For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it.
- Matthew 16:24-25

I'd like for you to participate in a little experiment with me. I want you to think back if you can, and try to remember when you began to walk or to live as a disciple of Jesus Christ. In other words, try to go back and think when was the time, what was the moment where you said to yourself, "I'm going to live like a disciple." You may have grown up in the church, you may have been baptized when you were young, but somewhere along the line there may have been a change where you said, "You know what, I'm going to take this Bible seriously. I'm really going to make an effort to live as a disciple of Jesus Christ." Think back to that time. I know that many think that their baptism- they see that as the key point in time, and it is of course, but do you remember when you actually began searching for the Lord in earnest? And when you found Him?

The first time I heard the words of Matthew 16:24-25, they were quoted to me by a Catholic priest in answer to my question. I remember I was a teenager back in those days, my dad had just recently passed away. I grew up in a Catholic household and this priest was kind of like a youth minister. He concentrated or focused a lot of his energies on the young people that were in the church at that time, and we were talking about life and everything and so I asked him, "How do I get to know this Jesus?" And I'll always be grateful that this priest, his name was Alan Cox, he quoted this Scripture to me instead of some pre-packaged answer from the Catholic catechism. He gave me this answer to think about, to chew on, in answer to my question, "You're talking to me about this Jesus, how do I find this Jesus? How do I begin to know Him?" I was so grateful to Alan Cox that our son William's middle name is Alan, and it's Alan in remembrance of this man here. He passed away a couple of years ago. His quotation of that passage of Scripture, it sent me on a long journey to find and to follow Jesus.

I'd like to share with you a few stops that I made along the journey from religion, I had that, to conversion, what I was really looking for.

1. Conversion

And so the first stop along the way was actual conversion. The first step in following Jesus was my conversion. I had religion, I had information about Jesus Christ, I had all of that. I knew the stories, I knew the history from the teachings that I received in Catholic school and I was in monastery for a time, in the summertime. I could recite the prayers and the doctrine and the feasts and the rules and the leaders and their positions because I had been trained diligently in school through the catechism to learn all these things. I knew about religion, I knew about the Catholic religion. I had religion but I had not yet been converted. There's a difference. So when I began to seek and follow Jesus, I began to experience my conversion. I began to experience my regeneration.

The death of my father, that I mentioned, when I was young was the first jolt that drew me to God, but I think it took another 10 plus years before I consciously looked to find Jesus, and another five years after that to know that I had indeed found what I was looking for. It was a long journey. Many times we tell people, here's how you're converted: you believe, you confess, you repent, you're baptized, you live faithfully, that's it. Let's do that. And we think that people are going to do all of that in a day or a weekend; ohh, let's have a second Bible study to really hammer home that stuff. But understanding and getting into repentance takes a long time. Understanding and being ready to confess, not just say the words, "I believe in Jesus," but I mean to confess that as the basis of your life, it takes time, it takes months, it takes years for some. Certainly it took that for me. As I say, the death of my father was like the first jolt of my conversion experience.

Death is the birthpang of faith.
- Karl Barth
German theologian

I believe that this was a correct observation by Mr. Barth. As I review my conversion I see that it was accomplished through the experienced death in three areas.

Conversion: Three Areas of Death

Death of Illusion

The first area was death of illusion. Death of illusion. This is where you realize that death is real, that this world goes on without you. That temporariness is all that we actually have as human beings. And believe it or not, this lesson, this idea: the death of illusion, it hit me when I was watching "I Love Lucy". Some of you may not know about "I Love Lucy" but older guys you know, it was a comedy show. And Lucy, if you don't know, she's the one on the right there (view recording 7:10). She was a mad-cat girl. Always getting into trouble, always messing things up and the humor followed after that.

Well, it had been a couple of months after my dad died and I remember sitting on the couch at home after school and my mother was working, of course, and I was watching "I Love Lucy" and there was Lucy- I think it was the episode where she was baking pies or she was fixing cakes or something like on a conveyor belt. And she would put a few cherries and then another cake would come by and she'd put this on and put a few cherries and then all of a sudden the conveyor belt started going faster and faster, and I mean, by the end of the bit she had baking powder all over herself and chocolate- the slapstick comedy was funny. But I sat there and I realized all of a sudden, my dad just died, my whole world just fell apart, but Lucy keeps right on going. She doesn't know about my situation. The world doesn't really know or care about what's happened in my family. Life is just moving on like a stream, it just keeps going, with or without me. And so the death of the illusion that everything is okay is the first step to conversion.

The death of the illusion that everything is okay- everything is not okay! Somewhere along the line you are forced to admit that death consumes everything. There is no conversion without the death of illusion. To seek a life beyond this life, one must concede that this life undeniably ends in death and yet, so many people are walking around thinking, boy I've got plenty of time, it'll never happen to me, I'm not going to die, everything's fine. No conversion takes place without the death of illusion.

Death of Lust

The second death that needs to take place is death of lust. Another part of the conversion experience necessary to complete the process of regeneration is the death of lust through repentance. The death of lust does not take place when we cease to be subject to temptation. I mean, this will only take place when we're in heaven. You know that song the band used to do, "No Tears in Heaven", that song by Eric Clapton. Why are there no tears in heaven? Well, because there's no death in heaven. There's no sin in heaven. And so the death of lust takes place when our attitude towards sin becomes such that we hate the sin that we often do. I mean we always sin, the difference is that before conversion we love it. And after conversion we hate it. The death of lust means that sin no longer has the power to control or condemn us when we begin hating it, for this demonstrates the power of God's Spirit at work in us.

How do I know the power of the Spirit is working in me? How do I know it? I hate sin. That's how I know it. My flesh loves sin. To this day, my flesh loves sin. But my Spirit hates it. That's how I know God is working in me. And so sin no longer has the power to control or condemn us when we begin hating it. For this, as I say, demonstrates the power of God's spirit working within us. The flesh loves sin, the Spirit hates it. When you hate sin, it's a sign that the Spirit is working despite the presence of sin in our lives. The death of lust is the sign that the death of illusion has taken place. I hate sin because I now see it as the cause of my death, as Paul says in Romans 6:23,

For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
- Romans 6:23

The point I want to make, the wage of sin is death, we know that.

Death of Self

And then the third death that needs to take place is the death of self. The final step that completed my own conversion or any conversion, was the death of self, experienced initially in the waters of baptism. Once I understood that my death was a sure thing, I began to search for a solution in earnest. The Gospel becomes crystal clear to one who accepts death as inescapable and final.

When you get to the point that you accept that, that that is the absolute truth, that is the end, you begin searching. Why? Because God has wired us to want to live, that's why. When Jesus says in two very familiar passages, in Mark 16,

He who has believed and has been baptized shall be saved, but he who has disbelieved shall be condemned.
- Mark 16:16
For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.
- John 3:16

When Jesus says these things, He is offering life to those who understand that they're going to die.

Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death.
- Romans 6:3

In this passage Paul explains the idea that my death, which I know through experience is inevitable, my death and my resurrection, which I know through faith is inevitable, are previewed in this expression of faith and obedience called baptism. Baptism is a preview, it's an image of what is happening to us and what will happen to us.

Conversion is made complete in baptism, as the death of illusion sparks the death of lust and the resulting repentance leads to the death of self and the regeneration of the soul which is marked at baptism.

All right, so the first step on the road to following Jesus is conversion, brought about by the death of illusion, the death of lust and the death of self.

2. Call

The second step is the call. Another step on the road to following Jesus is the call. This is the time when the Spirit directs you or prepares you or calls you into ministry of some kind within the church. In I Corinthians 12:4-11 we'll note what Paul says about ministry within the church.

4Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit. 5And there are varieties of ministries, and the same Lord. 6There are varieties of effects, but the same God who works all things in all persons. 7But to each one is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.
- I Corinthians 12:4-7

And so Paul says there are a variety of ministries within the church and each person has a particular gift and function given to them by God through the Holy Spirit.

8For to one is given the word of wisdom through the Spirit and to another the word of knowledge according to the same Spirit; 9To another faith by the same Spirit, and to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, 10and to another the effecting of miracles, and to another prophecy, and to another the distinguishing of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, and to another the interpretation of tongues. 11But one and the same Spirit works all these things, distributing to each one individually just as He wills.
- I Corinthians 12:8-11

Paul is saying here, some gifts are supernaturally received and practiced and he names some: miraculous healings, the performing of miracles, the speaking in tongues or other languages. These of course are no longer received in this way, neither are they practiced today. However, others are naturally received and practiced. The idea of wisdom as a gift or knowledge or prophecy. The ability to preach. These things, including the distinguishing of spirits, which is the gift of discernment, if you wish. These gifts are given by the Spirit, developed through human experience and they're manifested in a natural way.

In the first century, someone who had the gift was able to speak God's word and explain it and apply it and show how the Old Testament was connected to what Jesus said and did, and did that how? He had the gift of prophecy, the gift of preaching. Well today, men stand up and they preach in the same way, except now the content of their preaching is not given to them miraculously, but it's given through study and experience and observation. The constancy in both groups however, meaning the gifts received and practiced supernaturally, and the gifts that are given and received and practiced naturally, the constancy in both these groups is that all of these gifts and the call to using them come from the Holy Spirit, then and now.

Our mistake is thinking that coming to church or attending services is our ministry. We even call it services, we're coming to services. We think, many think, this is our ministry to God, our service to God. But going to church is a witness of our faith, it's an exercise to provide us with teaching and with fellowship and encouragement and the opportunity to praise God, it's not our service to God.

If someone says to you, "So what's your ministry area?" "Oh, I go to church." "Really?" "Yeah. And I'm heavily involved in ministry." "Really, how?" "Well, I go Sunday morning and Sunday night." "Oh, I see."

Yeah, no. Our service to God starts when we perceive what our gifts are and we begin exercising them in the service of the church through the power of the Holy Spirit. Now there are many gifts, many measures of gifts and application of these gifts within the kingdom. These are explained in Romans chapter 12. Paul says the following in relationship to gifts. He says,

6Since we have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, each of us is to exercise them accordingly: if prophecy, according to the proportion of his faith; 7if service, in his serving; or he who teaches, in his teaching; 8or he who exhorts, in his exhortation; he who gives, with liberality; he who leads, with diligence; he who shows mercy, with cheerfulness.
- Romans 12:6-8

So he names many gifts here. These are gifts in the same way that healings and speaking in tongues, those things were gifts. These are gifts: Prophecy, the ability to preach and teach the word; Service, of every imaginable kind, from cleaning the building to counting the collection, from cutting the grass to comforting the sick. All service in the name of Christ is powered by the Holy Spirit; Teaching, whether it's a class or prayer or singing, managing, leading, benevolence, works of mercy and kindness; Giving, time, money, ability, resources. All these things, they are gifts. Understand that it isn't how well you do these things that determines whether or not they are legitimate gifts from the Spirit. It's if you are doing these things in the name of Christ that makes them genuine spiritual gifts.

We think sometimes that if someone, for example, is a dynamic speaker, that that person has a spiritual gift and if this other man over here is perhaps a little more dry of a speaker, a little more boring, for example, well that guy, he doesn't have a gift. But the fact that both persons feel the need to speak in the name of Christ, this is a witness to the presence of the Holy Spirit in both of them. The quality of their communication skills is merely a detail of experience and ability and training, not a witness of the Holy Spirit. You don't have to speak loud, jump up and down and wave your arms to prove that the Spirit of God is within you.

Many respond to the call of Jesus to be converted, to be saved, and then they stop listening to the call by simply finding a comfort zone in the church. They find their comfortable pew, they find their comfortable spiritual routine, their comfortable ears to hear by, in other words, interpreting everything taught and preached to affect as little change in our lives as possible. In doing this, they do not and are not able to hear the call to ministry that each one receives from the Holy Spirit. The Bible says that everybody is called by the Spirit to serve in one way or another.

I don't know to what or how the Spirit calls you, but I know the process which drew me to preaching. After I was converted, it slowly dawned on me that not only I but everyone was absolutely lost without faith in Jesus Christ. That wasn't just a point of doctrine, that was a very harsh and difficult realization for me to grasp. I mentioned one passage here that supports that idea but there are many of course. Peter says,

And there is salvation in no one else;
- Acts 4:12a

I mean, can we interpret this in some other way to make it mean that there is salvation in someone else? Well no, of course not. He says, "And there is salvation in no one else." Then he repeats it. He says,

For there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved.
- Acts 4:12b

I mean, that's a pretty powerful verse. And when I understood the concept behind that, that Christianity is an exclusive religion, that Peter here is saying, only through Christ we come to the Father, there's no other way. It doesn't matter how many millions of people show up for a feast or something in some other religion, it doesn't matter. I had never thought of using my skills in public speaking and teaching until I realized that every person who is not a Christian will be lost forever without exception.

So I had three choices, I remember. I was juggling a couple of choices here, because this reality was a heavy weight on my heart, so I had three choices: Number one, denial. I could deny this fact and I could abandon Christianity because it was so absolute and final on this particular point, and many people do.

I remember Lise and I visiting a friend of Julia's one night, they had invited us for supper, our girls kind of played together. They were young children in those days and their daughter and our daughter played together. So they invited us over, they were neighbors, they lived up the street and we were talking, it was very nice, very polite. We had supper and then of course the inevitable question comes, "So Mike, what do you do?" I said, "Oh, I'm a minister." I could almost hear the music (imitates music). There goes the evening. And he said, "Oh, well I've got questions." And we had questions back and forth, I think they were Methodists or something like that, Lutherans. And he says to me, "So, do you believe," this very thing, Acts 4:12, "do you believe that Jesus is the only way?" I said, "Oh, yes I do. I think that that's what the Bible is teaching." And then he said, "Are you telling me that the millions and millions of Hindus in the world, that this applies to them?" And I said, "Yes, I do." Oh boy, that was the end of the evening right there. There was no, "Would you like more coffee?" I mean, it literally ended the evening.

The pressure at the beginning was, It would be easier just to deny that I'm even a Christian, instead of having another conversation like that. Christians are persecuted not because of high moral standards. Christians are persecuted, back in the first century and to this day, because they dare say, "Jesus is the only way." That's why we're hated.

So my first choice was denial, my other choice was change. I could change the Gospel to accommodate those who never heard it or didn't obey it properly. I could do that. Why don't I just change the Gospel and I'll make room for these couple of million people. I'm not crazy about the idea of what Acts 4:12 says, but I don't think I have a right to change it.

And then the other option was of course to leave everything behind and to go out myself and reach as many people as I could with the message of salvation. That was the third option, and so I chose the third option.

This was the substance of my call and how I responded to it. Not every call is to the same ministry. But all calls, all of them, emanate from the Spirit of God. You're called. You look at the bulletin, it says we need somebody to take over the nursery. You think, wow, those little kids, that's a lot of work, and you pray about it and say, "Okay, I'm going to do it, I'm going for it." Then you call up and ask if the position is still available. It is and you say, "I will take it. You can task me with that, I will do it, just show me what to do."

That's a call from the Holy Spirit. Just like the call that Paul got on the road to Damascus. That was more spectacular, of course. But the same Spirit who called him, also called Sister whoever, who decided to respond to the need for somebody to take care of the nursery or somebody to paint the room or somebody to teach a class. It's the Spirit of God who calls us. All calls, every call is Christ-centered. No matter what we do here, we are serving Christ, that's what we do.

And all the calls serve to manifest the Spirit of Christ for the good of all. To manifest the Spirit of Christ, to reach out to the lost, to manifest the Spirit of Christ to encourage the faithful. They're all from the Spirit, they all serve the Christ, all of them. We should not denigrate more mundane tasks, if you will. The same Spirit who reached out to me through this argument that I've just given you is the same Spirit who calls you to pass the trays, if you wish, for communion, it's the same Spirit.

Okay, the third stop along the way: conversion, the call, the commitment.

3. Commitment

The final step I wish to share in my Christian walk is that of commitment. It is the place I am now at. Not the final place, but the one that I am now experiencing.

I noticed that some people when baptizing ask the penitent believer if they're ready to commit themselves to Christ. I've heard people say that, "Are you ready to commit yourself to Jesus Christ? To make Him the Lord of your life?" This is an unbiblical question to ask. The only confession is one of faith, not commitment. No one can commit or even understand commitment until they have tasted suffering. We can believe despite the suffering we see others have because of faith, but we rarely understand commitment until we ourselves go into the trial of fire.

I once thought that so long as you had and responded to your call to ministry, the vision of heaven would stay clearly before me all the way to the end. And I've learned since then that the practice of ministry is based upon need and opportunity, but the everyday substance of Christian life revolves around commitment.

What is the Christian life about? It's about commitment. If you're wondering what muscle has to be exercised- like, in order to stay alive, you've got to breathe. Breathing takes care of all the other stuff- your heart pumping. What keeps the heart pumping in Christianity, in a faith walk? Commitment. The commitment to believe even when doubts arise. The commitment to ministering even when tired or frustrated, abused and discouraged. The commitment to hoping in the resurrection even when the evidence points to death and only death all around. We believe in the resurrection, yes, and we look around us our whole life, everybody dies. And yet we continue to believe in resurrection. Commitment to loving even when there is no reason to love, and no one returns our love. Commitment to repentance, even when our failures and weaknesses seem insurmountable.

Conversion and call to ministry are exciting, exhilarating things, but they are validated only through a lifelong commitment to perseverance until the end. Paul the Apostle experienced his conversion and his great call in blinding light and speed. A miraculous healing, all of this happened in three days. It took me eight years to hit those three milestones. It took him three days. Of course, the rest of his Christian life was spent committing his life and committing his ministry and committing his soul into the hands of God, one day at a time.

I know one of the questions that I've asked myself many times in the 40 plus years that I've been a Christian, is this the day that I quit? Is this the day? Is this the event that makes me just say, "Enough! Life is hard enough without this." Is this the day that I stop my commitment to living a life that's pure? Is this the day?

Our lives are very different in many aspects but our journey in Christ follows the same path no matter who we are, and we all stop at the same three places. A conversion from lost to saved must take place in the waters of baptism for the journey to actually begin. A call to ministry must be answered in order for the kingdom within us to begin growing. And an ongoing commitment to Christ must be made if we are to survive the trials and temptations of this world and move on into the next world.

And what about the next stops along the way? What am I looking forward to? Well, I'm looking forward to resurrection.

For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet of God and the dead in Christ will rise first.
- I Thessalonians 4:16

I'm looking forward to that. I'm also looking forward to glorification, where I will be outfitted with the spiritual body and the powers of a glorified body.

42So also is the resurrection of the dead. It is sown in a perishable body, it is raised an imperishable body; 43it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; 44it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body.
- I Corinthians 15:42-44

And so resurrection, glorification, and the third step that I look forward to is exaltation,

And raised us up with Him, and seated us with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus.
- Ephesians 2:6

What will happen when I have the glorified body? Why do I even get a glorified body? I receive a glorified body because it is necessary to be in the presence of God. And where in the presence of God? At the right hand. Why? Because Jesus is at the right hand and I am with Him at the right hand.

The journey ends in heaven, not bowing down before God, that's what the angels are doing and will do, but rather reigning with God at the right hand of power. That's why Jesus couldn't give that place to James and John when they asked for it. That place belongs to you and me, when Jesus returns.

For now however, we remain here and the invitation in Matthew 16 is ever before us,

"If anyone wishes to follow Me," Jesus says, "let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me."
- Matthew 16:24

And so all of us here, we need to decide for the first time or recommit ourselves to following Jesus. Be converted, repent and be baptized if you haven't. Answer the call to ministry, in other words, respond to the Spirit and begin serving where He is leading you, because He is leading everyone here, regardless of age or gender or experience. And finally, recommit your life if you've fallen back. If you have answered, "I quit," in your heart. If you've said that, then recommit yourself. To what? To hearing, to listening, for the call of the Spirit.

Don't be discouraged, please brothers and sisters, don't be discouraged as you follow the Lord. The end will be much better than the beginning and we're only at the beginning. When the end comes, no one will regret having followed Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior.

And so if you need to make some response to the invitation tonight in whatever way is necessary for you, then we encourage you to do that now, as we stand and as we sing the song of encouragement.

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