In elementary school I was an atheist. My Sunday School teachers were nice people, but terribly uneducated in science. Over the years in spite of them, I learned enough science to gradually accept that miracles were possible and that the existence of God was probable. My change of mind was gradual and I wavered back and forth for a while, so I have no specific date to point to when I converted. Finally, by junior high school I came to think of myself as “saved” because I believed God existed. I had no idea there was anything more to Christianity than that. This was the first stage.
For a long time, religion remained purely an academic exercise. I didn’t see how it related to my everyday life. It was only after I graduated high school that I became interested in actively seeking out God’s will. I believed I finally understood what God wants from us. This was the second stage.
Even then, I was seeking out God’s will as a means to an end. I was using him as a tool to get my needs met. I assumed that was all he wanted from me. Only in my late twenties did I form the attachment such that I knew I could never be satisfied without him. This was the third stage.
Even then, I still believed that there were other things I could never be satisfied without in addition to God – certain unfulfilled dreams and unmet needs I had. Over the next two years, I let go of these things and discovered that God alone is sufficient. I even let go of being myself. This was the fourth stage.
I’m still learning just how to apply my knowledge in novel circumstances, but I haven’t reached a fifth stage yet, assuming one even exists. In looking back over my growth, I can see now that there has always been a guiding drive present that I have come to associate with the idea of God living inside me. This force existed in me even when I was an atheist, pushing me to learn more truth. There is no specific event in which God came to live in me after I had chosen him. He was already there. Because of this, I have trouble separating people into “believers” and “unbelievers.” We are all partial believers at different stages along our common walk. Having so recently been at lower stages myself, I understand that those still at these lower stages are unaware that there is more to learn. I want to guide them, not judge them.
Since having faith is central to every religion, having a proper understanding of the definition of faith should also be important to define “when” one joins a new religion. When I first accepted Jesus, I still thought of faith as nothing more than a belief driven by the evidence and easily lost by new evidence or clever arguments. Was I not yet a Christian? Others accepted me as such. Later, I understood faith to be a choice to trust and not falter in belief every time some new challenge arose, but to stay the course unless it became clear I had been wrong. Was I a Christian then? Even then, I still tried to measure my faith to ensure it was growing. Now I understand that faith grows on its own anyway and cannot be hurried. Since tiny amounts of faith will eventually grow into mountains worth, all levels of faith are equal in their final outcomes. Measuring faith is meaningless.
Sin, too, has stages of knowledge. The Jews believed that one had to keep the Mosaic Law to keep on God’s good side. As 21st century gentiles, we know this isn’t true, but many of us still try to follow the dictates of our respective denominations. Even those that understand it isn’t the role of our clergy to make rules for us still try to live up to the standards of our culture and feel bad when we fail. In my case, I rejected being ruled by anyone but myself – but I failed even at following my own rules! Even when “by faith alone” is the only standard, we all fall short of perfection even in faith! It was only recently that I understood what Jesus meant when he said he came to fulfill the law. Don’t worry about messing up; you (or God) can always fix things later! I wonder just how much God plans ahead and how much he makes it up as he goes. Of course, this is assuming linear time; there might not be a difference in reality. If it is true that God makes a lot up as he goes, it is misguided to try to seek out God’s will for our lives. We’ll find out soon enough. All we need to know is that he loves us and is working to make things better. If there is no plan, it cannot be a sin to violate the plan!
Even the way I eliminated other religions was gradual, and in a sense I never fully eliminated all of them. My belief is based more on my personal experience and reason rather than ancient text I can never be absolutely sure the source of. Christianity is mostly just the “language” I use to explain it to others, since it is the religion I am most familiar with. I have every reason to think that God can reach anybody through whatever belief system they happen to have, and when this happens their beliefs change. None of us know everything, and all the major world religions have some wisdom in them. I’m not saying all religions are true – quite the opposite. I’m saying all religions (including Christianity) are incomplete without a connection to God, but we all have this connection already – and God is working in everyone to strengthen this connection without myself even having to do anything to convert all these people!
In conclusion, I suppose maybe I was “saved” even before I was conceived.