7 Questions about Conversion
This article is part of the Questions and Answers series.
Q: What does it mean to be converted?
A: The word for “conversion” appears only once in the New Testament (Acts 15:3), and several different words are used for “convert(s).” But the idea is straightforward. Change is at the heart of conversion. That’s true if we’re converting US dollars to euros, the motion of a wind turbine into electricity, or a non-Christian into a Christian. To be converted as a Christian is to have changed your thinking and your believing about Jesus Christ and to be changed into a person who is no longer an enemy of God but a beloved child of God.
But having said that, quite a few ideas are involved in the accomplishment of true conversion. It means turning away from the things you used to give your love and loyalty to, what the Bible calls idols, and turning toward God to serve and trust him. Scripture calls this repentance. Trusting him means depending on his promises of forgiveness and reconciliation through the gospel of Jesus Christ. Scripture calls this faith. So, someone who has converted is someone who has repented of their sins and put their faith in Christ alone.
But there’s even more to it than that. Someone who’s converted is someone who has been born again by the Holy Spirit and given a new nature that loves God and wants to please him. A convert is a new creature in Christ, alive with his resurrection life. Scripture calls this regeneration. A convert is also someone whose change of allegiance and newness of heart means a change of citizenship from the kingdom of Satan to the kingdom of God. To be converted is to be born into God’s family, no longer a slave to sin but a child of God. Scripture calls this adoption.
Put all this together, and what it means to be converted is to be someone who’s been changed inside by God and who declares and demonstrates that change outside through a life committed to following Jesus. A convert is a disciple, and disciples follow because they’ve been converted.
Q: Who’s responsible for conversion, God or the individual?
A: The short answer is, yes. God is responsible for conversion and the individual is responsible to convert. But though God and the individual both play a role, conversion is first God’s work and then our work.
The reason God has to work first is that the Bible says we are dead in our sins, by nature under God’s wrath, slaves of sin, enemies of God, excluded from God’s people, and without hope in the world. We’re not exactly starting from a position of neutrality, much less strength and ability. Unless God works first to make us new, any change on our part is impossible.
But once God works, there is still work for us to do. We must repent and we must believe. God doesn’t repent for us and God doesn’t believe for us. Our repentance means a change of mind and belief, of love and loyalty. It’s a complete reorientation of our worship. Our faith is a profound and personal trust in God to keep his promises in Christ. It’s the expression of dependence upon something and someone outside of ourselves. God’s prior work of regeneration enables our secondary work of repentance and faith. He gives us the gift of faith (Eph. 2:8) by making us alive as new creatures in Christ whose nature is to turn toward God rather than away from him and whose predisposition is to trust God rather than doubt him.
This book explains the relationship between what we believe about how people are saved and our approach to sharing the gospel in the context of the local church.
Q: Can someone who’s converted lose their salvation?
A: If conversion is first God’s work to make us new, and only then our work to respond in the repentance and faith that is natural to the new creature, then the person who is truly converted cannot lose their salvation. She can no more make herself an old creature now that she’s new than she could have made herself a new creature when she was dead in her sins.
But this isn’t just a logical conclusion. Jesus said, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who have given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. I and the Father are one” (John 10:27-30). Jesus makes two promises and they relate to the two aspects of conversion: our work and God’s work.
On the one hand, Jesus promises that his sheep will hear his voice and will follow him. The nature of saving faith is that it keeps believing. If it didn’t, then it wasn’t true faith after all. But it does, because Jesus promises that it will. Persevering faith isn’t the result of gritting your teeth and trying harder. Persevering faith is the result of Jesus’s faithfulness to his promise.
On the other hand, Jesus assures us that he is holding on to us and no one is strong enough to pry us loose. What’s more, the Father is holding on to us, and no one is strong enough to pry us loose from him either. We also need not worry that either the Father or the Son will change his mind. They are united in their commitment to give eternal life to all who hear Christ’s voice and follow.
We can’t see inside a person to evaluate their heart, to see if they really are a new creation in Christ. All we can go on is what we see and hear. That means that sometimes, people who gave every appearance of being converted will walk away from the faith, deny their Lord, and return to a life of sin and unbelief. But such apostasy does not demonstrate that salvation can be lost. It proves them, rather, to never have been converted at all.
Q: Is conversion the goal of evangelism?
A: Yes and no. We share the good news of the gospel, in part, because we want to see people converted, and we know that apart from faith in Christ, no one is saved. So yes, in one sense our goal in evangelism is conversion.
But when we understand conversion biblically, we understand that at the end of the day, we cannot convert anyone. It’s just way above our pay grade. God must act; and unless God acts, nothing happens.
So how does God act to convert rebels and sinners into servants and saints? He does it by the power of the Holy Spirit through the preaching of the gospel. The Holy Spirit is not under our control, but the preaching of the gospel is. And so our goal—the thing we’re responsible for—isn’t conversion, but bold, courageous, faithful delivery of the message of salvation.
This has huge implications. If my goal is to be faithful rather than successful, then I’ll be less tempted to resort to deceptive or manipulative practices just to get a response. If my goal is faithfulness, I’ll be concerned for truthfulness and accuracy, not just relevance. If my goal is faithfulness, while I’ll seek to be persuasive, I won’t be discouraged when I’m not, nor prideful when I am. When faithfulness is the goal, I’m set free to be a less than perfect evangelist, which is far better than no evangelist at all.
Q: How should the church respond to someone who says they’re converted but doesn’t live like they’re converted?
A: The mark of a Christian is someone who not only repented and believed in the past, but who continues to repent and believe. It’s their nature as a new creature in Christ. One of the purposes of the church is to be a display of the truth and power of the gospel. One Christ-like person is easy for the world to write off as an exception. An entire community of Christ-like disciples is much harder to ignore. When someone joins a church, the church is saying to the world, If you want to know what a Christian is, look at this guy. We’re joining our reputations as Christ-followers to his, because we think he’s the real deal.
A convert is a disciple, and disciples follow because they’ve been converted.
But when someone who says they’re converted stops living like they’re converted, that throws the entire project of mutual assurance and corporate witness into jeopardy. Persistent, unrepentant sin by a professed believer says that Christ doesn’t really change people. It suggests that the fruit of the Spirit isn’t necessary for assurance of salvation. It confuses believers inside the church and unbelievers outside the church about what it means to follow Jesus, or whether the gospel is even true.
Jesus and the apostles took this seriously, and they instructed the church to lovingly, patiently pursue repentance (Matt. 18; 1 Cor. 5). But if repentance doesn’t come, then the church is to lovingly, hopefully put the unrepentant outside the church and treat him as an unbeliever. This doesn’t mean that the church is sending them to hell. That’s not our call. What it means is that the church can no longer publicly affirm an individual’s profession of faith and hold them up as a model of following Jesus. The goal is their repentance, clarity for the world, and sober warning for the church. The gospel declares that Jesus not only forgives, he changes people—sometimes slowly, but always certainly. If someone who professes faith isn’t changing, it’s not because the gospel doesn’t work, but because God is not yet truly at work in their life.
Q: Can people who’ve never heard about Jesus be in a right relationship with God without converting?
A: There will be many in heaven who did not hear the name Jesus in their lifetime, who were never baptized in his name, who never converted to Christianity. People like Abraham, Joseph, David, and Ezekiel. But there will not be anyone in heaven who lived on earth who was not regenerated by the power of the Holy Spirit through faith in the revealed promises of God, promises that found their fulfillment in and through Jesus Christ.
Everyone descended from Adam (and that’s everyone) is born in sin and under God’s curse. To be in right relationship with God, we must be made new. And now that Christ has come, the way we are made new is through the message of the gospel. As Peter boldly declared, “there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).
So, just as we are set free to be faithful in evangelism, we are propelled into global mission. God is reconciling the world to himself, and he’s doing it through the gospel of his Son. Far from lessening our motivation, God’s powerful, sovereign work of making people new through the preaching of the gospel makes us bold to go, give generously to send, and constant in prayer.
Q: What if I’m not sure that I’m converted?
A: Many have been told that assurance of salvation is grounded in the sincerity of their prayer. Others have been taught that assurance is found through spiritual experience, or the achievement of some standard of holiness. The irony, of course, is that looking for assurance in any of these things will only increase your anxiety. How do you know if your prayer of repentance was sincere enough? Who’s to say how holy is holy enough? What happens if my spiritual experience fades or changes, and how do I know it’s not counterfeit?
There’s only one place to look for assurance; there’s only one thing to do if you’re not sure you’re converted. Look to Christ in repentance and faith. This isn’t just the start of the Christian life, it’s the whole of the Christian life. Christ makes spiritually dead people alive. And life always makes itself known. Sometimes we’re so caught up in the weeds of our own indwelling sin that it’s hard to see the evidence of God’s life-giving grace in us. That’s where a local gospel-preaching church is so helpful. Ask them what they see in you and tell them what you see in them. Together, you’re like a mutual assurance co-op, encouraging each other with the evidence of God’s converting grace as it displays itself in lives of repentance and persevering faith.
Michael Lawrence is the author of Conversion: How God Creates a People.
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