One of the most stimulating discussions I have had over the years in classes and at churches when I am leading a discussion about conversion or about the Jesus Creed ”emerge” from this question:
What about you, when do you think Peter was converted?
Let’s look briefly at the evidence.
In John 1 Peter’s brother, Andrew, has heard from John Baptist about Jesus. He fetches Peter and tells him to come meet Jesus who is the Messiah. John tells us that Jesus told Peter right then and there that he was to be called Cephas. He gets a “church vocation.”
In Luke 5:1-11, Peter fishes all night only to be met by Jesus to tell him that he’s been fishing on the wrong side of the boat; then he does what Jesus says; he catches gobs of fish; Peter then runs to Jesus and says, “I am a sinful man!”
In Mark 8:27–9:1, Peter confronts the cross for the first time and rebuffs Jesus and his (silly) idea of dying on a cross. But, here Peter has called Jesus “Messiah” and he has received his commission (actually, that bit is in Matthew’s account).
In Mark 14:66-72, Peter denies any connection to Jesus (which if we weren’t so committed to certain doctrines we’d have to say Peter was edging over the cliff of aposasy). The memory evoked by the rooster leads Peter to weep for his denials.
In John 21:15-20 Peter is “re-commissioned” by Jesus: Do you love me, do you love me, do you love me? (Incidentally, I side with the majority today who see no difference in this text between agape and phileo; God bless CS Lewis anyway.) Peter says, “Yes, yes, yes.” And the denials are undone and Peter is on his way again.
In Acts 2 Peter is, along with the others, overwhelmed by the Holy Spirit and he preaches with boldness (something he didn’t have just 52 days or so earlier).
In Acts 10–11 Peter realizes the gospel is for all people, including unclean Gentiles.
Now, you tell me, when was Peter converted?
Was it when he first saw the Messiah? When he confessed his sin? When he confessed Jesus as Messiah? When he embraced Jesus in love after the resurrection? When he got the Holy Spirit in power? When he embraced the fullness of the gospel? Would it surprise you that those with particular theological persuasions start to stand in line behind certain texts?
First, I believe that question, which is innocent in itself, assumes what I will call at this point a judicial sense of conversion. That is, there is a point in time when God says “OK, you’re trust is genuine, you can be brought across the line, and the verdict is ‘forgiven’.” Such a judicial sense of salvation is thoroughly Pauline and jumps right at us from the Reformation on. There are some today who want to say that justification is corporate and about “who is the people of God,” and I do “own shares” in that New Perspective, but I can’t accept anything less than a fully individual perception that includes a coroporate dimension. Apart from the New Perspective issue, I do think too often we do frame conversion questions exclusively in terms of justification and the judicial sense. It is a dimension of the issue.
Second, conversion is just as prominently and perhaps even more so a relational issue. In fact, I’m willing to say that the relational is primary: it is about God’s embrace of us and our embracing God back.
Third, which means we have to convert the question: I like to think of it this way. Peter began a relationship with Jesus in John 1 (actually, it was outside Jerusalem and probably down by the Jordan) and that relationship grew. Peter’s “conversion” is an ongoing growth in his relationship of loving Jesus, and at each stage when he learned something new he was challenged (as we see in John 6) to continue and deepen that relationship or abandon and go back. So, when was Peter converted means “when did Peter begin a relationship with Jesus?” I’d say probably at John 1 but perhaps not until Luke 5. The issue is that he continued to love Jesus and it was that love that was jeopardized in Mark 14 and which needed to be rectified in John 21.
If I’m forced into the “judicial” sense and am asked exactly when Peter crossed the line into God’s favor, I would have to say that I don’t know and I don’t think it matters all that much. (Well, it matters but not in what I am discussing.) And it should be said that an over-emphasis on the judicial dimension retards the relationship (turning into status) and creates the need to make perserverance an additional doctrine rather than one inherent to the status.
It will do us some real good to begin thinking of conversion the way we think of love. We don’t “fall” in love with someone and then say, “Well, now I’ve got the love thing accomplished.” We know that love is something that begins (it kind of unfolds) and then continues or it is not love at all.