Conversion is the change of life that accompanies regeneration. In the New Testament the word conversion indicates ‘turning back’, ‘returning’ or ‘changing director’ (cf. John 21:20).
The New Testament uses the word ‘conversion’ to denote a decisive, God-ward reorientation: ‘you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus, who rescues us from the coming wrath’ (1 Thessalonians 1:9).
Regeneration (which we considered last month) is a once-for-all inward event wrought upon the person by the Holy Spirit and may or may not be immediately apparent. Conversion, on the other hand, is a conscious turning to God and away from sin.
Reformed theologians normally define conversion as a post-regeneration process – something that only a regenerate person can experience. For example, L. Berkhof in his Systematic Theology writes: ‘Active conversion is that act of God whereby he causes the regenerate sinner in his conscious life to turn to him in repentance and faith. Passive conversion is the resulting conscious act of the regenerated sinner whereby he, through the grace of God, turns to God in repentance and faith’.
However, some include in the process of conversion those changes of outlook and behaviour that, under the Holy Spirit’s influence, often precede regeneration. The difference is more a question of definition than a theological dispute. Either way, true conversion cannot take place without regeneration.
We must be careful, therefore, in calling sinners to repentance that we do not give the impression that some kind of external act of conversion is all that is required. Getting someone to ‘pray the prayer’ or calling a person to raise a hand may give the false impression that such an act will lead to spiritual birth. I hope I made it clear last month that this is not the case.
Unlike regeneration, conversion (and the seeking that precedes it) seldom occurs all at once. A person who hears the gospel may turn to Christ in a once-for-all conspicuous event, but this is not inevitable. The change may happen over a period of time.
It is clear from the testimonies of Hindus who have come to Christ that this can take a considerable time. It is not uncommon for a polytheist to become a monotheist before he understands the gospel.
We might be visiting a deeply religious man and exposing him to the person of Jesus in the Gospels. He moves slowly – from complete ignorance to accepting that Jesus is ‘one of the gods’; to recognising his superiority; and finally to acknowledging his uniqueness and trusting him entirely for salvation.
We must not, therefore, rebuke the seeker for his lack of progress but recognise that the Holy Spirit is at work even in the first steps towards the truth. We must pray and encourage him to press on in his pilgrimage.
If we follow Berkhof’s definition of conversion, the Holy Spirit regenerates the seeker at some point and makes him a child of God. Only then can the work of conversion begin.
However, the movement from seeking to regeneration to conversion may be experienced as an undivided process, perhaps punctuated with specific spiritual crises or moments of enlightenment. Thus it is difficult for many believers to pinpoint the time that they were born again.
Not social change
When Hindus or Muslims come to Christ they are almost always pressured by the ‘Christian community’ (which may or may not include spiritual people) to sever all ties with the community of their birth. So conversion is usually understood in social terms, that is, a change of allegiance from one community to another.
But true conversion is primarily spiritual and moral, not social and cultural. In the OT the prophets would call on the people of Israel to turn back to God. This conversion had three facets: obedience to the will of God; trust in God in rejecting all human help and all false gods; and turning aside from all ungodly actions.
The NT expresses the full OT nuance of conversion in the command to ‘repent’ (Mark 1:15). This is more than confession of sin – it is a radical change of heart.
The new believer in Christ is now confronted with the need to change patterns of behaviour that were part of his way of life. But what exactly needs to change? It is confusing and unhelpful to say that ‘everything needs to change’, as I have sometimes heard from the pulpit.
The Bible is the yardstick or plumb-line by which we measure our lives (Amos 7:7-8). But if we impose ethical behaviour by appealing to some other standard it can be dangerous – leaving the believer confused as to how ethical decisions should be made. Growth is stunted and the disciple does not grow as he should.
Secondly, we may impose a millstone of false guilt on the sensitive conscience. The believer’s joy in Christ is yanked from under him, leaving him floundering in unnecessary and unresolved guilt feelings.
Thirdly, duplicity may result – practices that are taboo may go ‘underground’ rather than being dealt with in the open. And if harmless things are allowed to go on in secret, perhaps other practices, which are contrary to God’s moral directives in the Bible, can also be acceptable.
The light of Scripture, properly interpreted, has to be brought to bear if we are to give appropriate advice. When an insignificant social custom is proscribed merely on the basis that it is ‘something Christians don’t do’, it can have serious and unwelcome consequences.
For sure that will result in changed behaviour but it should not lead to converts rejecting their parents and family and the wider community into which they were born. If the church sees itself primarily as a social group (which, sadly, is how many perceive it) then it is the church that needs reforming – not the new believer who is trying to figure out how he can have fellowship with other believers while remaining as ‘salt and light’ in his own community.
NT conversion is not a change from one social group to another. Paul instructs the Corinthians: ‘each one should retain the place in life that the Lord assigned to him and to which God has called him’ (1 Corinthians 7:17). And to make sure no one says, ‘Well that was just for the Corinthians’, the apostle adds, ‘This is the rule I lay down in all the churches’.
More biblical approach
Conversion, then, in the biblical sense, cannot mean social change. But sadly that is the way it is usually understood in South Asia. Even if the new believer does not say that he has changed his religion or community, his actions will speak louder than words if he rejects wholesale the traditions of his parents or marries outside the customary boundaries.
It is the latter action, more than any other perhaps, that demonstrates to the wider society that the new believer has indeed rejected his birth-community.
I plead, therefore, for a more thoroughly biblical approach to this most basic and fundamental issue.
The stakes are high. Men are women are approaching the great white throne. Will we continue to send them there with a false sense of security? Are we prepared to pay the price to reform our evangelism?