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Theology > Salvation > Work of Salvation > Conversion


Unless you are converted
and become as little children,
you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.
Matt. 18:3

Conversion is the expression of regeneration, or, perhaps, it is consistent with regeneration, with both being two different aspects of the same event or experience. Man’s mind is made alive and given new affections, therefore, it turns to God and away from sin and self. If conversion and regeneration are not opposite sides of the same coin, then conversion is the immediate manifestation of regeneration. Because of spiritual regeneration there is a conversion of the life in all of its dimensions.

Conversion is initially God’s act and then it is man’s act; grace explains the initial act of God, and grace explains the reciprocating act of man. Both of these are the blessings of grace bestowed upon the individual by the determination of God. Conversion is man’s response to the enabling of God in the life of the sinner. In Scripture the word is used in both senses:

God’s act

O Lord, hear me, that this people may know . . . that You have turned their hearts back to You again (I Ki. 18:37);

Restore us, O God (Ps. 80:3; “restore” is “turn us again”);

Restore us, O God of our salvation (Ps. 85:4);

Restore me (Jer. 31:18);

Turn us back to You, O Lord (Lam. 5:21);

God has also granted to the Gentiles repentance to life (Acts 11:18).

Man’s act

When you turn to the Lord your God (Deut. 4:30);

Turn at My rebuke (Prov. 1:23);

Let him return to the Lord (Isa. 55:7; see: Jer. 18:11; Ezek. 18:23, 32; 33:11);

So you, by the help of your God, return (Hos. 12:6);

Rend your heart, and not your garments (Joel 2:13);

Repent (Acts 2:38);

Many believed and turned to the Lord (Acts 11:21; see: 17:30).

What is true of repentance, the combination of the Divine and the human, is true of conversion: man secondarily responds to the initial act of God.

It is once again the same paradox as everywhere appears where faith is the theme: the new life is effected on the one hand only through the repentance of man, and on the other hand only though the act and speech or the speech and act of God. Both are true: we must repent, and it is God alone who creates the new life (E. Brunner, The Christian Doctrine of the Church, Faith, and the Consummation, 282-284).

The people are told by Moses to “circumcise therefore the foreskins of your heart, and be no longer stubborn” (Deut. 10:16); and later Moses affirms that “the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live” (Deut. 30:6).

Conversion is the turning from sin and self to the Savior who becomes the center of life, and with this transformation the believer begins the ongoing experience of sanctification. The word appears only once in the New Testament, in Acts 15:3, but the concept is conveyed by other words: such as the “new birth,” or being “born again” (see: Jo. 3:3-8); additional words would include: “turn,” “turn back,” “repent,” “return,” and “restore.”

Conversion speaks of a change, a turning away from the wrong and a turning to the right; the basic idea is “to turn,” to change a direction. The result is a new relationship with God. In turning to God there is faith, and in turning from sin there is repentance.

A legitimate consideration is whether conversion should be viewed as instant and singular or continual and in a sense unfinished prior to glorification. In other words, the believer is being consistently converted, so that conversion is both an initial event and an ongoing process. In actual living the believer is converted to Christ, but in the struggle of sanctification he needs to constantly confess and repent (I Jo. 1:8-10). So it would seem that conversion is sudden and awesome, as well as gradual and almost unknown except for its visible results displayed in conduct.

There is no exegetical reason for not ascribing a process to regeneration: the sinner is initially awakened, beginning to hunger and search for the Truth, without even realizing what is transpiring; knowledge of the Truth increases bringing a conviction of sin and the need for the Savior; perhaps the individual attempts self-reformation or works of piety; finally the awakened sinner finds rest in the sufficiency of Christ. Thus, the individual is said to be converted.

If there is an ongoing aspect to conversion it is seen in the continual repentance of the believer, as well as the constant renewing of belief on the part of the believer. It is verbalized in the statement: “Lord, I believe, help my unbelief” (Mk. 9:24).

Component aspects of conversion are repentance and faith; in repentance the sinner turns from sin, while in faith the sinner turns to the Savior.

Just as faith is the fruit of regeneration on the side of the mind, so repentance is the expression of the new life on the side of the will (H. Bavinck, Our Reasonable Faith, 433).

Note: some descriptions of conversion: Acts 3:26; 9:35; 26:18; I Thess. 1:9; Jer. 31:18.

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