Our Faith by Emil Brunner
Emil Brunner is one of the great systematic theologians of the early twentieth century. Our Faith was translated by John W. Rilling, and published by Charles Scribner’s Sons, NY, 1954. This book prepared for Religion Online by Paul Mobley.
Chapter 22: Conversion
There are reasons for our dislike of the word Conversion; it has done and still does much mischief. We all know of particularly devout persons who pounce upon their amazed fellow men at work, on the street, in the street-car with the sudden question, Tell me, are you converted? This is not the manner and method of the New Testament. Jesus went through the villages
and towns of Galilee, and cried, "Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand." That the Christian life must be a daily repentance or conversion, was the first of Luther's Ninety-five Theses, with which the Reformation began. A man who does not know what repentance is, does not know the meaning of faith, forgiveness, or Jesus Christ. What, then, is repentance?
A right about face -- something as astonishing as though the water of the Rhine River should suddenly start .flowing upstream instead of downstream. The natural "inclination" of our heart and will is to seek ourselves. Like the rapacious spider that sits in the center of his web, we sit in the midst of our world in a spirit of acquisitiveness. We want men and what men have, their happiness, their possessions, their honor, their power. All this is our booty. But we want also from men their love, their respect, their time, and their sympathy. Our Ego sits like a king enthroned and demands that the world serve it. My wife, my children, my school, and -- yes, even my dear God, are all to serve "me." I am the Lord my God. Some maintain this primacy of the ego with delicacy, others coarsely; but all maintain it. So is the natural man, the unconverted man, the godless, loveless man. If any believes that I have made too harsh a judgment let him speak for himself. I confess in any case that I am such a man, -- and those I know are such people.
Something can happen in this sphere, however, that never happens in nature. The water of a stream never flows uphill, a goose never becomes a fox, or a fox a goose. But it can, moreover it
does happen, that this natural "inclination" of the human heart to say "I, I" can be reversed so that it says instead "Thou, Thou." That is the great miracle, the miracle that we designate with the word Love. Love is simply this, that one no longer sits, like the spider, in the midst of its web, or like the King Ego upon his throne, demanding service, but that one instead of living for himself, lives for others, instead of ruling, serves. There was one who could say of himself, "I am not come to be ministered unto but to minister." That was the decisive event in all human history: Jesus Christ who gave his life a ransom for many and his blood for the forgiveness of sin. Hence we know and the world knows because he came, what Love is.
Through him it is possible for the first time that this so new and totally different spirit becomes effective in the lives of others, for through Christ, God becomes the center about which everything revolves. He who is the sole legitimate king of our life, now becomes King in reality. He ascends the throne previously occupied by the pretender king. Ego, a truly violent revolution. And this revolution, (Umwalzung), is called in the Bible, repentance, return, conversion. When God becomes King, it happens that instead of "I, I" one says "Thou, Thou." This "thou" is addressed in the first place and primarily to God. "Thou God art my Lord." But who- ever comes to God experiences something noteworthy. At His door one hears the words, Go forth yonder where "thy neighbor" lives. God directs you with your love to your neighbor. You are to serve him. That is your reasonable worship. You are to show by your love to your neighbor whether you really love God.
This, then, is conversion: that we seek first the King- dom of God; that God's desire, namely, service to our neighbor, becomes our chief concern. But you cannot convert yourself; God alone can do it. He does it by addressing you both as your Judge and as your Redeemer, as He who "forgiveth all thine iniquities and healeth all thy diseases." And this conversion takes place within you whenever you permit God to say to you what He wants to say to you.
This reception of God's earnest voice happens, in- deed, for a first time; and in that sense one may speak of "my conversion." But it is more deeply true that one must be converted anew each day. Perhaps you bear in memory the time when it first happened; but there are many who cannot be definite about the "first time" who nevertheless know that it has happened, and happens every day. But there is another possibility, perhaps it has never happened to you! In that event that seemingly arrogant question, "Are you converted?" is, in- deed, not so improper after all. But the man who is really converted, that is, in whom conversion is a daily happening, and not an isolated moment, will not arrogantly parade his conversion. But he will long for every neighbor of his, that the other may share the life that he has received.