By the Grace of God (Gradually)
I didn’t grow up in the church. In high school I believed Christianity was a religion for people who wouldn’t think for themselves – who were misinformed about the age of the earth or used a carrot-and-stick notion of eternal life and other shortcuts of moral reasoning. Of course, I hadn’t heard many actual sermons or spoken to many actual believers – I just glibly assumed Christianity was a religion for sheep.
So I was quite surprised – and a bit chagrined – when, 10 years later, at age 27, I found myself standing in front of the congregation of First Presbyterian Church of New Haven, awaiting baptism, hoping to hide the healthy dose of fear and trembling I was feeling. “Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Lord and Savior, trusting in his grace and love?” the minister asked, and despite years of puzzling over what belief in Christ could possibly mean, I managed to say, “I do.” The minister doused me with three generous handfuls of water, and with that I was sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever.
Fits and Starts
How did it happen, this turn from critic to Christian? There was no single, desperate night alone on my knees in a hotel room with a Gideon Bible open before me. My path was much more faltering, and it took a whole lot longer.
The summer before my college senior year, I took a research trip to France and became obsessed with the stained-glass windows of Gothic cathedrals – first for their beauty, then for the stories they told: a comic-book version of Scripture, laid out panel by panel, scene by scene, in tiny glowing red and blue mosaic jewels of glass.
When I started reading the Bible in order to decode the windows, I found Scripture itself to be a window onto something larger: a scene of highly imperfect human beings trying to love and make sense of the powerful and sometimes inscrutable Creator who was attempting to relate to these fallen creatures made in God’s image. I had assumed the Bible was like the Boy Scout Handbook, stories of good people doing a good turn daily, lists of moral maxims to live by. What I read now was nothing like that. It was dark, complex, relatable. I was hooked.
Yet it took me years to realize something more was fueling my Bible fascination: a sense of both faith and vocation. I would visit churches just to see what other people made of this strange and wonderful text. But I was there to watch, not to worship. I felt like an outsider. I didn’t fit the evangelical mold of a single moment of conversion, and that was a real stumbling block to me. Without that sudden bolt of transformation, how could I know I had come to faith? And how would I then pick the right church? I figured I’d have to study the doctrinal differences among all the denominations, then decide – sort of research my way into a match.
Church-Shopping and After
But it didn’t work, this effort to think my way into the church. What worked was actually going to church, entering the life of a church. I was a firstsemester Yale Law student at the time. A classmate, a Lutheran pastor’s kid, invited me to go church-shopping with her, and we landed at First Presbyterian – we just liked the preaching and the people. After a few months I sought to join, and, with only a week’s notice, they baptized me. This felt sudden – not enough time to let my doubts deter me. With the water streaming down my forehead, I opened my eyes and saw the congregation beaming, heard them cheering – not for me but for what God had done. It was a moment of belonging and of welcome.
Opening the Institutes
Some time later, I was discerning a call to ministry and pursuing a joint degree with the Divinity School. I enrolled in a reading course on John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion with a leading Calvin scholar who happened to go to my church. Calvin wrote the Institutes to prepare candidates for ministry, and that’s how my classmates and I encountered it. We confronted the hard questions – double predestination, for example – but we also delighted in the prose, the legal training that brought order to Calvin’s writing and the humanist training that made it beautiful. And I felt a sense of personal recognition. To borrow a favorite metaphor of Calvin’s, his work became like a mirror to me, in which I saw reflected my own conversion.
For Calvin, faith is not something that “flits about in the top of the brain” but “takes root in the depth of the heart.”1 He argues “it will not be enough for the mind to be illumined by the Spirit of God unless the heart is also strengthened and supported by (the Spirit’s) power. …”2 I found in Calvin a model for the kind of conversion I was experiencing: Faith happened not in an instant but over time, by degrees. My heart mattered as much as my mind. I couldn’t think my way into faith, but instead trusted that the Spirit of God was working through the Scriptures and the church to reach me. I may not have taken the Damascus Road, but the Spirit managed to lead me home nonetheless.
As a new Christian, I had questions. What’s the relationship between the Bible and the church? Why does worship happen the way it does? How can the church, despite its corruptions, carry a message of redemption? I was comforted to learn that the Reformed tradition I’d embraced had gone through a spiritual adolescence of its own – wrestled with questions and conundrums of church life, authenticity, and authority, and was committed to keep doing so. It was a church reformed, always reforming.
I now pastor a small Presbyterian church in northwest Ohio. Like many mainline congregations, we worry about aging population, declining membership, lack of interest from the younger generation. But my own experience of conversion tells me the Reformed tradition has a great deal to say in this challenging environment. To a population of doubters, Calvin offers a vision of conversion that’s both Spirit-led and gradual. To a population of the unchurched, Calvin provides a model of church that’s both realistic and hopeful, accounting for our propensity for corruption and yet affirming that we’ve been trusted as bearers of Word and Sacrament nonetheless. And to a population of beautiful, fragile, fallen human beings, Calvin opens Scripture not just as a text for study but as a source of life, finding a God who knows us intimately, loves us in spite of ourselves, and redeems us in mercy and grace.
Thanks be to God for that.
The Rev. Margaret Fox ’05 B.A., ’15 J.D., ’15 M.Div. is pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Perrysburg, Ohio.
- John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Volume 1, edited by John T. McNeill, translated by Ford Lewis Battles (Westminster John Knox Press, 1960), p. 583.
- Calvin, p. 581.