Often our thoughts about the new birth are too subjective, by which I mean, not too personal (that could hardly be), but too turned in, with all our interest focused on the individual who believes rather than on the Christ who saves. This is bad thinking and it produces two bad results.
The first is that our minds get possessed by a standard expectation of emotional experience in conversion (so much sorrow for sin, so much agony of search, so much excess of joy). We deduce this expectation from conversion stories known to us, probably starting with those of Paul, Augustine, Luther, Bunyan, Wesley, and our own, and then we use it as a yardstick for judging whether or not our contemporaries are converted. This is sad and silly. Conversion experiences, even those that are sudden and debatable (and perhaps only a minority of them are), vary too much to fit any standard expectations, and the effect of using this yardstick is that we often found dismissing as unconverted many who show abundant signs of present convertedness, while continuing to treat as converted folk who look as if the standard experience to which they once testified has now completely worn off. The truth is, as the Puritans and Jonathan Edwards knew, that no emotional state or sequence as such, no isolated experience considered on its own, can be an unambiguous index of new birth, and we shall make endless errors if we think and judge otherwise. Only a life of present convertedness can justify confidence that a person was converted at some point in his or her past.
The second bad result is that in our evangelistic presentations Christ appears not as the center of attention and himself the key to life’s meaning, but as a figure – sometimes a very smudgy figure – brought in as the answer to some preset egocentric questions of our own (How may I find peace of conscience? peace of heart and mind when under pressure? happiness? joy? power for living?). The necessity of faithful discipleship to Jesus, and the demands of it, are not stressed (some even think that as a matter of principle they should not be), and so the cost of following Jesus is not counted. In consequence, our evangelism reaps large crops of still unconverted folk who think they can cast Jesus for the role of P.G. Woodhouse’s Jeeves, calling him in and making use of him as Savior and Helper, while declining to have him as Lord. Also, it brings in great numbers who, misled by the growing one-sidedness of our message, have assumed that Christ can be relied on to shield those who are his from all major trouble. The first group become dead wood in our churches, if they do not drift away entirely. The second group experience traumatic upsets – traumatic, because they expected the opposite.
J. I. Packer, Keep in Step with the Spirit, 59-60.