This is an excerpt from the essay “What is Conversion?” which was published in the April 2007 issue of Brethren in Christ History and Life, edited by E. Morris Sider (Vol. 30, No. 1, p. 63–84). It was also read in November 2006, along with three other articles, at the conference on conversion sponsored by the Sider Institute at Messiah College (Grantham, Pa.).
If you were to ask today’s evangelical Christian to explain what the Bible means by salvation, you would most likely get some vague response about justification by faith. I have a growing conviction that we have a weak doctrine of conversion because we have a defective view of sin. Too much of contemporary evangelism only offers forgiveness from our personal record of sins; it fails to address the more comprehensive condition of sin. Frequently, converts are taught that forgiveness has put the ticket to heaven into their hands. It is all God requires for a seat at the table in His kingdom. Discipleship and kingdom living are at best optional. But a sinner needs redemption, deliverance, restoration, reconciliation, and healing if the problem of sin is to be fully addressed. There is no room for a halfway covenant if we want to be full disciples of Christ. Conversion means more than forgiveness: It means a whole new life in Christ.
Gordon T. Smith echoes this point in his book Beginning Well: Christian Conversion and Authentic Transformation, contending that conversion is a beginning of the Christian life, but not its final goal. Smith demonstrates that conversion is not just a single event from the past, nor can it be reduced to merely forensic understandings of justification by faith. Rather, when God pardons our past, He also puts us on a new course of life that is a pursuit of holiness. As children begotten by the Father’s love, we are to live as those who seek to please Him.
Drawing upon these ideas, I have identified five ingredients which I would describe as foundational to gaining a holistic understanding of conversion.
Conversion is a comprehensive action. Conversion itself is one biblical word for salvation. It means to turn around and go in the opposite direction. It sums up the many strands of grace that bring pardon, deliverance, new birth, and new life. It assumes the work of conviction, repentance, and faith that opens the door to the overwhelming and divine power which changes one’s life. Here is full acceptance with God that includes transformation, discipleship, ethics, and the miraculous presence of the Holy Spirit. Conversion takes sin seriously while also exalting in the super-abounding grace of salvation.
Conversion is a word that includes process as well as event. Many Christians can recount a date and a place where they met the Lord in a life-changing encounter. Others can point to a time when they were not Christians, and then to another time when they definitely knew they were. Still others cannot remember a time when they did not love the Lord. God regarded their many small steps of faith as constituting true saving faith. These “before,” “during,” and “after” segments of conversion cannot be disconnected; they flow together.
In our anxiety to know that people are saved, we try to fashion a template with which to judge all salvation claims. But how are we to judge with certainty? In actuality, the subsequent fruit of the Spirit is the only external evidence that we can assess. The inner state of the heart is known to God alone. What we can do is take their testimony at face value, accept converts into the family of faith, and systematically teach them to obey everything that Jesus taught. If they have truly changed at heart, it will be confirmed by a changed pattern of life.
Conversion is the miraculous work of the Holy Spirit. None of us can, on our own, become a child of God. The Spirit both wills and produces our birth into God’s family. On the other hand, the Spirit’s role in conversion moves us beyond mere declarative righteousness. The Spirit transforms us from children of darkness to members of God’s family and citizens in the kingdom of God. Conversion through the Spirit produces regeneration as well as justification.
Conversion is the role of the Church as God’s saving community. Christians in the West have largely lost the doctrine of the Church. They often express that Christ is necessary for salvation, but the Church is not.
The Church is God’s saved and saving community. It exists to proclaim the Gospel by word and deed. It is the Church that administers baptism as people cross the boundary line from sin into grace. It is the Church that teaches discipleship, which defines what a follower of Jesus is to be and to do. Discipleship involves careful, comprehensive instruction in “all the things that I have commanded you” to do (Matt. 28:19). It also involves providing models of discipleship that can say, “Imitate me as I follow Christ” (1 Cor. 4:16; 1 Th. 1:6; 1 Th. 2:14; Heb. 6:12; Heb. 13:7).
The Church acts as a saving community when it confronts those who are not obedient to Christ’s commands. The contemporary Church is weak on the task of discipline, but there is no way to make disciples without it. Jesus often had to rebuke and correct His disciples when they were not learning their lessons. The same is true today.
Conversion, then, is not just the work of the Spirit. It is also the task of the Church as God’s saving community. These agents of God work collaboratively. It was no mere accident that at Pentecost the Spirit filled both the disciples and the Church. The Spirit joins believers with their risen Lord and with His body, the Church. If we diminish the role of the Church in salvation, we have something less than the biblical version of conversion.
Conversion is the human response to the Gospel. Repentance goes further than simple acknowledgement of guilt by expressing sorrow and anguish over what one has done. Repentance is the inward change of heart that is reflected in the outward change of conversion. Many popular Evangelicals today fear leading people into bondage to legalism and “works righteousness.” Thus, they avoid preaching about discipleship and talk only of grace and faith. But this abandons people to a more deadly servitude: habitual sin, from which they see no deliverance until the second coming of Christ.
Christ invites people to be yoked to Him. It is there that they will find rest and peace, for the yoke of Christ’s teaching is easy to bear. But being yoked together with Jesus means going where He goes and doing what He does. Discipleship, going with Christ, is a profoundly saving experience. Discipleship’s obligations are light in comparison to the crushing weight of sin. Obedience to Christ brings peace in contrast to the turmoil and terror of sin. Discipleship is neither gracelessness nor is it “dead works.” Rather, it is full of grace and productive of the works that glorify God.
Our most urgent need
The choice that we, as hearers of the Gospel, must make is whether we will trust in Christ or continue in our sins. And that requires us to engage in a profound exercise of repentance. If we refuse to do this, baptism will be meaningless, and we certainly will not be given the promised gift of the Holy Spirit. God knows human hearts. Just as He withheld the gift of the Holy Spirit from Simon Magus because his heart was not right with God, so He will not give the Spirit to those who have not repented.
And so, perhaps our most urgent need is to be reconverted to the Gospel. We need to be attentive to what God wants to do in our churches. We are the patients; He is the physician. He might give us a clean bill of health and say, “Carry on as you are.” Or he might discover problems that require different degrees of treatment. In either event, we must be healthy disciples ourselves if we are to disciple the world’s peoples. We do not want to be people of a “halfway covenant;” we want to be full disciples of Jesus Christ.
Author’s Note: Much of this article is a blend of my own ideas with those presented by Gordon T. Smith in his book Beginning Well: Christian Conversion and Authentic Transformation (InterVarsity Press, 2001). In places, his book has provided key concepts that I then developed in my own way. At other times, the key concern is mine, although he provided a framework with which to describe it. And then, there are times we think so nearly alike that one might think I am merely paraphrasing, when I am actually setting forth my own views. I therefore provide this general note to inform the reader that I am substantially indebted to Gordon Smith throughout this article.