Conversion is the commencement of a journey – the christian journey. It is the start of a new life. ‘Once I was blind, but now I see’, described John Newton. Old things have passed away, all have become new. If conversion is such an important event, it is important that we clearly understand what it involves.
First, a definition. Waynes Grudem, a Baptist pastor and scholar defines it thus:
‘Conversion is our willing response to the gospel call, in which we sincerely repent of our sins and place our trust in Christ for salvation.’ (Bible Doctrine, p. 307)
Louis Berkhof, an American theologian, distinguished between active and passive conversion. Active conversion is God’s work whereby ‘He causes the regenerated sinner, in his conscious life, to turn to Him in repentance and faith.’ Passive conversion is the result of this process begun by God. It is
‘the resulting conscious act of the regenerated sinner whereby he, through the grace of God turns to God in repentance and faith.’ (Systematic Theology, p. 483)
So conversion is a spiritual change consisting of both repentance and faith. Repentance involves turning away from one’s sins, while faith is a wholehearted trust in Jesus as one’s Saviour. John Murray writes, ‘Repentance consists essentially in change of heart and mind and will. The change of heart and mind and will principally respects four things: it is a change of mind respecting God, respecting ourselves , respecting sin, and respecting righteousness. Apart from regeneration our thought of God, of ourselves, of sin, and of righteousness is radically perverted. Regeneration changes our hearts and minds; it radically renews them. Hence there is a radical change in our thinking and feeling. ‘ (Redemption Accomplished and Applied, p.114)
Conversion goes beyond ‘being moral’. Many are moral and decent, relate well with their neighbours, and yet have no spark of love for God. They have no real knowledge of God nor do they desire to please Him. Such are not converted.
True conversion produces a change in one’s life and behaviour (Eph.2: 2-3; Phil.3:20). It leads to a change in the entire person – the mind, will, and emotions.
After the fall of mankind into sin (recorded in Genesis 3), we have become blind to spiritual things. Paul spoke of this when he referred to unconverted gentiles as ‘darkened in their understanding’ (Eph. 4:18). Man has never ceased being religious. All ancient civilizations and cultures – Egyptian, Babylonian, Greek, Roman – were drenched in religion. But often the knowledge of God in the various religions was greatly distorted. Besides, in none of these religions was the idea of a relationship with a Personal, moral and rational God conceived. A true knowledge of God and of ourselves was also lacking. For we cannot truly understand ourselves unless we see it in the reflection of God’s majesty and holiness. True knowledge of God is given in the scriptures and it is only when one is converted that one gets to clearly perceive this truth. With conversion, God ceases to be merely the Ruler of heaven and earth and becomes our Father. Jesus might have been revered as a wise teacher, now he is a loving Saviour and we gladly come to him. Formerly, we knew no man is perfect and that we all do wrong things, but now we are deeply conscious of our personal guilt before God. In other words, we have known the truth about God and ourselves.
Conversion affects our will. The purpose of man before conversion is to seek his own pleasure. Of course, we perform good deeds from time to time – we care for the sick, we share our resources with the needy, etc. These are all commendable. However, all of this proceeds from a heart that does not love God nor delights in holiness. In doing the good, we do not seek to please God. As the Puritan preacher Joseph Alleine notes, ‘the converted one has new ends and designs. He now intends God above all, and desires and designs nothing in all the world, so much as that Christ may be magnified in him.’ The converted person now seeks to please God. And he does this willingly (Psalm 119: 173). Also see Psalm 119: 14, 16 ; 1 John 5: 3.
A true conversion produces godly feelings. It stirs up sorrow over one’s guilt before God. A new delight springs up toward God and toward Christ. Once we were terrified of God because we saw him as the holy Judge who will punish us for our sins. Now, however, we love Him for he is our Father. And, oh, how the soul rejoices in him! Once, God was a distant King in whom we had no real interest. But now he is our Saviour, and we know nothing can ever separate us from his love!
In every sound convert the judgment is brought to approve of the laws and ways of Christ, and subscribe to them as most righteous and reasonable; the desire of the heart is to know the whole mind of Christ; the free and resolved choice of the heart is determined for the ways of Christ, before all the pleasures of sin, and prosperities of the world; it is the daily care of his life to walk with God.
– Joseph Alleine
This is always the way in which the reality of Christian conversion evidences itself. It makes the selfish man charitable: the churlish, liberal; and implants in the soul, which hitherto has cared only for the things belonging to himself, a disposition to seek also the things of others.
– William Adams
Every man or woman who turns to Christ must bear in mind that they are breaking with their old master, and enlisting under a new leader. Conversion is a revolutionary process.
– Theodore L. Cuyler
A man to be converted has to give up his will, his ways, and his thoughts.
– Dwight L. Moody
Conversion is not, as some suppose, a violent opening of the heart by grace, in which will, reason, and judgment are all ignored or crushed. The reason is not blinded, but enlightened; and the whole man is made to act with a glorious liberty which it never knew till it fell under the restraints of grace.
– Charles Spurgeon