Charles Colson was an American attorney and political advisor who served as special counsel to President Nixon from 1969 to 1970. Implicated in the Watergate Scandal, he served seven months in prison. As he faced arrest, a friend gave him a copy of C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity, which led to his conversion.
Before his conversion, Colson was particularly ruthless to anyone or anything that opposed him. Known as Nixon’s hatchet man, he once claimed that he would have walked over his own grandmother to get what he needed. His conversion to Christianity was initially met with scepticism, but it was not long before people saw the fruit of genuine conversion in his life. He later described the Christian life as “the long, unremitting, and courageous effort that conversion begins.” The New Testament recognises this truth.
We sometimes think of religion in negative terms. Religion is about smells and bells. It’s about adding all sorts of extrabiblical practices to church life and Christian practice. The New Testament certainly takes a dim view of extrabiblical practices but also commends “true religion” (James 2:26). True religion is practising faith. It is a long, unremitting, and courageous effort. It is useless to profess faith, even orthodox faith, if that faith produces no change in your life.
Jesus once told a parable with the same basic point. In the parable of the two sons, a father told each of his sons to work his vineyard. The first refused but later changed his mind. The second agreed but ultimately ignored his father’s wish. It was obvious which of the two had ultimately done his father’s will. Jesus applied the parable to the religious leaders and the tax collectors.
The religious leaders boldly professed obedience to God. They talked big. Their doctrine was orthodox, their theology sound. But when God called them to obey the demands of the kingdom they refused. They were like the first son.
The tax collectors and sinners were like the second son. For too long, they had cast off God’s authority. They did not have the orthodox theology of the religious leaders. But when John the Baptist, and later Jesus, preached the kingdom, they humbly obeyed by confessing their sin.
Of the two groups, the tax collectors were the ones who ultimately did the will of God. As Jesus pointed out elsewhere, it was those who did God’s will who were citizens of the kingdom (Matthew 7:21).
Ours is a church that rightly prizes orthodox theology. This is good and right. The New Testament places a high value on sound doctrine. We are called to work hard to rightly divide the word of truth (2 Timothy 2:15). But all the sound doctrine in the world is useless if that doctrine does not change the way we relate to God and others. Conversion, for each of us, must begin a long, remitting, and courageous effort.
As you reflect on the parable of the two sons this morning, examine yourself to see whether your life matches your profession. Are you like the first son who says all the right things but displays no deliberate intent to obey God? Or are you like the second son who, despite initial rejection, ultimately labours to obey the will of your Father? Are you committed to the long, unremitting, and courageous effort that conversion begins?