Last week James Dobson claimed that Donald Trump had recently had an evangelical or “born-again” conversion experience.” Since Dobson is a well-known leader within evangelicalism there are many Christians who believe his claim. Others are skeptical.
I have no idea if Donald Trump had a legitimate conversion experience. I am certainly skeptical, especially since this supposed conversion happened in the midst of a presidential campaign and, more specifically, at a time when some evangelical leaders are trying to make Trump palatable to their followers. But as a Christian who still describes himself as an “evangelical” I would rejoice to learn that Donald Trump has committed his life to the teachings of Jesus Christ.
I am not a minister or what the great student of the Puritans J.I. Packer called a “physician of the soul,” but I am a historian who can provide some context.
Back in the 1740s, during the height of the evangelical revival known as the “First Great Awakening,” large numbers of people in the English-speaking world claimed to have had encounters with God that led to a conversion experience–the embrace of what itinerant preacher George Whitefield described as “the New Birth.”
Many Christian ministers–the intellectuals of the age–were skeptical about all of these conversions. These revivals were often associated with strange behavioral manifestations and excessive emotionalism. The revival bred divisiveness in congregations as those who claimed to be truly “saved” questioned the Christian commitments of those who did not have a conversion experience. It got ugly.
Northampton, Massachusetts clergymen Jonathan Edwards, who defended the Great Awakening as a true work of God, was concerned about these disorders. He understood the views of the revival’s critics and agreed with some of them. In 1741, he put his pen to paper and wrote The Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God, Applied to that Uncommon Operation that has Lately Appeared on the Minds of the People of New England With a Particular Consideration of the Extraordinary Circumstances with which this Work is Attended. Edwards’s long title speaks for itself. He wrote to distinguish a true born-again conversion experience from a false one. I reread Distinguishing Marks this morning in light of this whole Trump-conversion controversy. I encourage you to do the same.
Edwards introduces Distringuishing Marks with a quote from 1 John 4:1: “Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God; because many false prophets are gone out into the world.”
He then writes:
In the apostolic age, there was the greatest outpouring of the Spirit of God that ever was; both as to his extraordinary influences and gifts, and his ordinary operations, in convincing, converting, enlightening, and sanctifying the souls of men. But as the influences of the true Spirit abounded, so counterfeits did also abound: the devil was abundant in mimicking, both the ordinary and extraordinary influences of the Spirit of God, as is manifest by innumerable passages of the apostles’ writings. This made it very necessary that the church of Christ should be furnished with some certain rules, distinguishing and clear marks, by which she might proceed safely in judging of the true from the false without danger of being imposed upon….
Here are the so-called “Distinguishing Marks”:
- A conversion experience will “raise their esteem of that Jesus” among the converted. True converts will believe that Jesus Christ “came in the flesh–and that he is the Son of God, and was sent of God to save sinners; that he is the only Saviour, and that they stand in great need of him. They will have “higher and more honourable thoughts of him than they used to have” and will “incline their affections more to him…”
- True converts will work against the “interests of Satan’s kingdom, which lies in encouraging and establishing sin, and cherish[ing] men’s worldly lusts.” A true conversion experience will “lessen men’s esteem of the pleasures, profits, and honours of the world, and to take off their hearts from an eager pursuit after these things.”
- A true convert will have a “greater regard to the Holy Scriptures.”
- A true convert will have a new appreciation of spiritual truth.
- A true convert will reflect “a spirit of love to God and man.” Edwards writes: “Love and humility are two things the most contrary to the spirit of the devil, of any thing in the world, for the character of that evil spirit, above all things, consists in pride and malice.”