What is true conversion and how do we understand it? This change from an unbeliever to a believer. The change from someone who once was separated from Christ on account of their sin to someone who becomes His beloved child, adopted into His forever family. The change from being on the broad road to hell to having the full assurance that one will spend an eternity in heaven. How does such a change come about? And what are the characteristics that can be expected of those who have underwent this kind of change? Does this change take place by raising a hand, praying a prayer, or walking down an aisle in response to an evangelistic message? Or does none of those things have anything to do with a real conversion to Christ from idolatry and sin? It is quite possible that there are many today who think that they have been converted who have yet to be. Or others who are but fail to recognize the significance of what has happened to them. My goal in this article is to look with you at what Scripture tells us about true and real conversion to clear up any of the misunderstandings and misconceptions regarding it.
True Conversion Results From Being Born Again. Before anyone can be converted, they first must be born again by God's Spirit. Jesus told Nicodemus that "unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God" (John 3:3). He of course was not talking about a physical birth as it is impossible for someone to climb back into their mother's womb and go through the entire birthing process all over again as Nicodemus himself realized (v. 4). Instead, this refers to a spiritual rebirth. "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. That which has been born of flesh is flesh, and that which has been born of the Spirit is spirit" (vv. 5-6).What Jesus speaks of here is a radical heart change. The prophet Ezekiel described it as God removing the stubborn rebellious heart of stone from those chosen to be His people and giving them a heart of flesh desiring to be obedient to Him in its place (Ezekiel 36:26). In order for someone to turn away from their sinfulness and embrace Christ for their salvation, their desires need to change. Sin must become bitter to them for Christ to be seen as sweet. An example I like to use is with different flavors of ice cream. If you would put before me a bowl of strawberry ice cream and a bowl of chocolate ice cream and asked me to choose between the two of them, I will always choose the strawberry over the chocolate. Why is that? Simply because I do not like chocolate ice cream at all and strawberry is my absolute favorite. And the only way you could get me to turn from choosing strawberry ice cream to choosing chocolate would be to change my tastes for them. Chocolate ice cream is going to have to taste a lot better to me and strawberry not be as appealing. Such an inner change of taste or desire is what happens in the new birth which leads to someone no longer desiring the sin like they once did but now having a desire for Jesus which wasn't there before. And that leads them to leave the one and pursue the other. The only way one can be converted outwardly to make a decision for Christ is for him or her to be converted inwardly with a change of heart and nature brought about by the Holy Spirit.
True Conversion Involves Repentance. Repentance is a turning away from sin and whatever someone may have been trusting in for their salvation. It has been described as being like an “about face” in the military. When soldiers are heading one direction and their commanding officer yells that phrase, they halt and turn around to face the opposite direction. In repentance, one turns around and faces the opposite direction of sin and idolatry. While one is not saved or converted BY their repentance, no one is saved or converted WITHOUT repentance either. It is a grace that the new birth results in. In fact, twice it is said to be a gift that God grants (Acts 11:18; 2 Timothy 2:25). Everything regarding our conversion is God's work and not ours. It is His Spirit who causes us to be born again and also enables us to repent and believe. No one would ever be converted without Him.
True Conversion Involves Faith. The flip side of repentance is faith. We can only receive Christ in faith with empty hands. Repentance is the emptying of our hands of trusting in anything or anyone else for our salvation so that we can trust in Christ alone for it. And this faith is not simply a mere belief in the facts of the gospel and Jesus but an appropriation to make it your own. It is not believing that Jesus actually died in place of sinners for their sins but that He died in YOUR place for YOUR specific sins. It is such a firm confident trust in Jesus as doing all that is necessary to accomplish your salvation through His sinless life, substitutionary death, and victorious resurrection that you will base your whole life on it and act on it. We know that Peter truly believed that Jesus was both able to make him walk on the water as He was doing and that Jesus would do so because he got out of the boat (Matthew 14:28-29). Had Peter not really believed that Jesus both could and would do that, he never would have even dipped one toe on the water but would have remained in the boat. And you may have heard me before use the illustration of Charles Blondin, the Frenchman who became famous back in 1859 for walking across a tightrope 160 feet above Niagara Falls several times between Canada and the United States. He did this once on stilts, another time on a bicycle, once in a sack, and one time he even carried a stove across and cooked an omelet. One day he came across on the tightrope pushing a wheelbarrow blindfolded. He asked the crowd if they believed that he could carry a person across in the wheelbarrow while blindfolded. The entire crowd enthusiastically shouted "yes." However, when he asked for a volunteer to get in the wheelbarrow for him to do so, not one of them did, revealing that none of them had the confidence that Blondin could actually do it for them. They really did not believe it. Faith and repentance are the first breaths of the new birth which the believer continues to inhale and exhale throughout the rest of his or her life. Both are essential components and characteristics of conversion.
True Conversion Results In a Difference. True conversion to Christ from sin and idolatry is not something that people should have to guess at. It will not be a private matter. In fact, it cannot be. The change brought about within will work its way out into the living of one's life. It will be seen in a changed and transformed life. It will be evident to everyone who knows him or her that the believer is not the same person he or she was. They are different. A new creation in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17). To tweak the popular children's ditty, "If you are converted and God knows it, your life will surely show it." This can be seen with Zaccheus, who very uncharacteristic of a man known to be a cheat and extortioner, chooses to give half of his possessions to the poor and to pay back four times as much to those whom he had wrongfully taken from (Luke 19:8). Or perhaps with the most dramatic conversion in history ever recorded, the apostle Paul, who after Jesus met him on the road to Damascus, went from being a fervent persecutor of God's people to the most ardent missionary the church has ever known. Neither one of these men were the same men they were before. There was no question that some sort of change had taken place within them. No one could deny such. They had been converted by God's Spirit.
This is true conversion. Not raising a hand, praying a prayer, or walking an aisle but being born again by God’s Spirit and evidenced by a life of repentance, faith, and change by that same Spirit. I hope that that is a description of what has happened to you. If not, I pray that the Spirit of God works in you to become born again and that you would repent of your sins and place your faith in the Lord Jesus Christ alone for your salvation. And that such will be made evident in your life. Let's celebrate the conversion that God sovereignly brings about in the lives of His people.
Love in Christ,