The power of conversion comes from nothing less than the Holy Spirit working through the "foolish" message of the gospel of Jesus Christ. It helps, then, to remember this inscrutable power by reflecting on some unlikely and unusual conversions. Here are just three of my favorite anecdotes touching on the surprising power of grace.
Elias Keach of Pennepack Baptist Church, Converted in the Pulpit
Here is the story of a pastoral fraud one Sunday morning going through the motions of preaching when the message he was declaring with no personal belief suddenly affected him. Morgan Edwards writes:
He was son of the famous Benjamin Keach of London. Arrived in this country a very wild spark about the year 1686. On his landing he dressed in black and wore a band in order to pass for a minister. The project succeeded to his wishes, and many people resorted to hear the young London divine. He performed well enough till he had advanced pretty far in the sermon. Then, stopping short, looked like a man astonished. The audience concluded he had been seized with a sudden disorder; but, on asking what the matter was, received from him a confession of the imposture with tears in his eyes and much trembling. Great was his distress though it ended happily; for from this time dated he his conversion. (Edwards, Materials Towards a History of the Baptists in Pennsylvania Both British and German, Distinguished into FirstDay Baptists Keithian Baptists SeventhDay Baptists Tuncker Baptists Mennonist Baptists, Volume 1)
From the Pennepack Baptist Church's own historical page:
What did young Elias preach on? We’re not sure. Perhaps he had some of his fathers’ written sermons that he would read from. Or maybe he could recall from memory what dad had said and imitate whatever arm motions his father might have employed. What was his theme? Was it love, grace, sin, repentance? Did he listen carefully to what he himself was preaching, even if it was just a performance?
What was Elias saying when his heart began to flutter and speed its beating as his conscience sounded the loudest alarm he’d ever heard? What was the last word to leave his lips before he fell to the ground weeping under the weight of Holy Spirit-sponsored conviction and dread? We do not know. What we do know is that when his surprised group of hearers rushed over to him, out of concern that he might be gravely ill, with shame he informed them of the true nature of what they had witnessed. He was an ‘imposter’ who was now fearful for his soul and desirous of the mercy of God.
Elias Keach got saved in the pulpit while preaching the very message he previously did not himself believe.
Charles Spurgeon and the Amateurish Fill-in Preacher
The story of the Prince of Preachers' awakening to grace is well-told at this point, but still a gem worth revisiting, if only to remind us that while many might preach the gospel better than others, nobody can preach a better gospel. Banner of Truth's Geoff Thomas begins the tale:
It was on a wintry Sunday, January 6 1850, his school being temporarily closed because of an outbreak of fever, that the 15 year-old Spurgeon found himself in Colchester and on his way to the local Congregational Chapel. But the snow and sleet intensified so that he turned down a side lane called Artillery Street and came to the Primitive Methodist Church. He was thus able incidentally to continue in his determination to visit every congregation in Colchester to find someone who would tell him where he might find relief from the condemnation of the law. His mother had also talked with him positively about this congregation. It is any port in a storm, and so the teenager entered this building for the first time to attend the morning service. There were no more than a dozen or fifteen people present: even the minister had failed to arrive because of the weather. It was the wrong church, the wrong congregation, the wrong weather and the wrong preacher. Into the pulpit climbed a thin-looking man, a shoemaker or tailor, Spurgeon was never to know anything about him. He announced his text as Isaiah 45:22, ‘Look unto me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth: for I am God and there is none else.’
Spurgeon tells the rest in his Autobiography:
The preacher began thus: "This is a very simple text indeed. It says ‘Look.’ Now lookin’ don’t take a deal of pain. It aint liftin’ your foot or your finger; it is just ‘Look.’ Well, a man needn’t go to College to learn to look. You may be the biggest fool, and yet you can look. A man needn’t be worth a thousand a year to look. Anyone can look; even a child can look.
"But then the text says, ‘Look unto Me.’ Ay!" he said in broad Essex, "many on ye are lookin’ to yourselves, but it’s no use lookin’ there. You’ll never find any comfort in yourselves. Some say look to God the Father. No, look to Him by-and-by. Jesus Christ says, ‘Look unto Me.’ Some on ye say ‘We must wait for the Spirit’s workin.’ You have no business with that just now. Look to Christ. The text says, ‘Look unto Me.’ "
Then the good man followed up his text in this way: "Look unto Me; I am sweatin’ great drops of blood. Look unto Me; I am hangin’ on the cross. Look unto Me, I am dead and buried. Look unto Me; I rise again. Look unto Me; I ascend to Heaven. Look unto Me; I am sitting at the Father’s right hand. O poor sinner, look unto Me! look unto Me!"
When he had . . . . managed to spin out about ten minutes or so, he was at the end of his tether. Then he looked at me under the gallery, and I daresay with so few present, he knew me to be a stranger.
Just fixing his eyes on me, as if he knew all my heart, he said, "Young man, you look very miserable." Well, I did, but I had not been accustomed to have remarks made from the pulpit on my personal appearance before. However, it was a good blow, struck right home. He continued, "And you will always be miserable—miserable in life and miserable in death—if you don’t obey my text; but if you obey now, this moment, you will be saved." Then lifting up his hands, he shouted, as only a Primitive Methodist could do, "Young man, look to Jesus Christ. Look! Look! Look! You have nothing to do but look and live!"
I saw at once the way of salvation. I know not what else he said—I did not take much notice of it—I was so possessed with that one thought . . . . I had been waiting to do fifty things, but when I heard that word, "Look!" what a charming word it seemed to me. Oh! I looked until I could almost have looked my eyes away.
Country Boy Billy Graham's Bloody Gospel Invades Cambridge
In 1955, Billy Graham went to Cambridge to preach a series of sermons at the university.* Before his arrival, the English media had a field day in the papers expressing their disdain and skepticism about Graham’s visit. One editorial asked, “What in the world is this backwoods American fundamentalist doing coming to talk to our best and brightest?”
Graham was intimidated by the advance criticism. He was extremely nervous preparing his messages for the Cambridge crowd, comprised of university professors and doctors, theologians, and numerous other intellectual elites from the community. He mined books and papers for cultural and philosophical illustrations, adding quotes from Kierkegaard and Nietzsche and Sartre to his planned talks.
Graham was afraid of looking like a rube before the discriminating audience.
The first four nights, Graham bombed. The halls were packed but the response was tepid. His preaching did not elicit any significant response.
So on the last night, Graham decided to ditch the highbrow quotes and intellectual spice. He decided he was just going to preach on the blood. He decided that instead of trying to boast in his intellectual prowess, he was going to forget everything else and simply boast in the cross.
Anglican pastor and founder of The Proclamation Trust, Dick Lucas, later recounted:
I’ll never forget that night. I was in a totally packed chancel sitting on the floor with the Regius Professor of Divinity sitting on one leg, the chaplain of a college who was a future bishop on the other. Now, both of these were good men in many ways but they were completely against the idea that you needed salvation from sin by the blood of Christ. And that night dear Billy got up and started at Genesis and went right through the whole Bible and he talked about every single blood sacrifice you can imagine. The blood was just flowing all through Great St. Mary’s everywhere for three-quarters of an hour. And both my neighbors were terribly embarrassed by this crude proclamation of the blood of Christ. It was everything they disliked and dreaded. But at the end of the sermon, to everybody’s shock, about four hundred young men and women stayed to commit their lives to Christ.
Lucas later met a young curate and Cambridge grad at the Birmingham cathedral. Over tea he asked the man, “Where did Christian things begin for you?”
“Oh,” the curate said. “Cambridge, 1955.”
“The last night.”
“How did it happen?”
He said, “All I remember as I walked out of Great St. Mary’s was for the first time in my life thinking, Christ really died for me.”
The blood is offensive. But there is power in it.
* I am indebted to Tim Keller for his April 5, 2017 message at The Gospel Coalition National Conference; “Boasting in Nothing Except the Cross” (a sermon on Galatians 6) featured this concluding anecdote. Keller himself credited the story to (and quotes) Dick Lucas. I have largely paraphrased Keller’s version of events but recreated his dialogue as accurately as I was able.