What is Conversion?: This is the next in our series of posts of notes from our teaching series on the 9 Marks of a Healthy Church. I can’t think of a better way to introduce this topic than by sharing a story from Thabiti Anyabwile.
“My Friend Curtis possesses a contagious Christian joy. He loves the Lord and is zealous to do evangelism. Curtis’s zeal is marked by a refreshing willingness to “do whatever it takes’ to have someone ‘profess faith in Christ.’
One day Curtis, with his usual joy, told me of a mutual friend, Kenny, who ‘got born again.’ I was struck by Curtis’s choice of words. Pressing past his excitement, I asked, ‘How do you know he was “born again”?’
Curtis withdrew slightly, head tilting with the curiosity puppies sometimes display at odd human behavior, ‘What do you mean?’
‘Well, how can you be so confident that spiritual rebirth occurred?’
Relief washed over Curtis’s face and shoulders. ‘Oh. That’s easy. He came down front after the service and prayed to receive Christ—the way lots of people get saved.’
About a year after my conversation with Curtis, he telephoned, quite concerned. A problem that periodically troubled him was again causing him discomfort—only this time it was our friend Kenny. Curtis told me Kenny began the Christian race well, attending public services, praying fervently, going out with evangelistic teams, and sometimes showing great emotion during public services. ‘The first year was great,’ Curtis reported. But then,’ his voice quieting, ‘Kenny just faded away. It’s like he just petered out…and now he’s having marital problems and considering leaving the faith.’
Silence occupied the phone line for a moment. Then Curtis asked, ‘Do you think Kenny was ever really saved? How can you tell if someone is born again?” Thabiti Anyabwile, What is a Healthy Church Member?, p. 47-48.
Conversion is often thought about in a very superficial way in the church today. Let me try to direct our thinking in a better way. True Christian conversion is a fundamental change that God does in the human heart through the ministry of his Word which produces real and lasting fruit. Let’s consider each of these ideas in turn.
I. Fundamental Change of Heart/Nature/Mind.
- Fact or Fantasy? Do people really change? Is real change possible? “Our secular mindset does not allow for any such hope of change…” Dever, p. 101.
- The Bible says a truly profound change happens in conversion. It is more than taking up a new spiritual hobby or deciding to think and act differently. The kind of change that happens in conversion is described with different terms: Regeneration (Titus 3:5), New Birth (John 3; 1 Pet. 1:3-9), New Creation (2 Cor. 5:17)
- II. Cause of Change – How does the great change happen?
- So how are we involved in this great change? Do we do nothing? Do we do everything? Do we do part and God does part? Actually, none of these.
- God works this spiritual life and saving faith in us without our help (monergistic regeneration). We are passive in the work of regeneration but we are active in the working out of the faith God gives us. In other words, God does everything in relation to saving us. We, on the other hand, by God’s grace fully live out the work of God’s grace within us.
- Jer. 13:23; Ezek. 37:1-10; Acts 9; Titus 3:5-6; Acts 16:14; 11:18; Eph. 2:1-10; Phil. 1:29; 2:12-13
It “is called a ‘creation’ (2 Cor. 5:17) and a ‘resurrection (Col. 2:12), which can admit of no cooperation (synergeian) anymore than they who are created and raised can cooperate in their own creation and resurrection.”
“But wherever the Holy Spirit puts forth his power for regeneration, it removes all obstacles, overcomes all oppositions, and infallibly produces the effect intended.”
III. Instrument of Change.
- The Word of God is the instrument (“means”) that God uses to regenerate his elect, bringing them from spiritual death to spiritual life.
- John 6:63; Rom. 10:17; 1 Thess. 2:13; James 1:18, 21; 1 Pet. 1:23; John 15:3; Acts 19:20; 20:32;
“It is a matter of supreme importance to maintain that the Word of God is the one and only indispensable means by which the Holy Spirit works faith in the hearts of men. Although this does not mean that the Word always operates in isolation from every other conceivable factor, another factor never serves as a substitute for the Word. At most it is only auxiliary and subsidiary to the Word.”
- IV. Fruit of Change.
- What is the result of God giving a person a new heart? Is it merely mental acceptance (“Sure, I believe that.”) or moral resolve (“I am really determined to be different now.”)?
- A New Heart – The new heart that God gives is characterized by repentance and faith (Mark 1:15; Luke 3:14). New heart has a new disposition with new loves and new loyalties.
- How do I know if my heart has been changed?
- Am I trusting in the finished work of Christ alone for salvation (John 3:16)?
- Do I walk in the light (1 John 1:6-7)?
- Do I love God the Father (1 John 2:15)?
- Do I love the other Christians in our church (1 John 3:14-15; 18-19; 5:1)?
- Do I have the testimony of the Spirit that I am a child of God (Rom. 8:15-16; Gal. 4:6; 1 John 3:24b)?
- Am I persevering in faith (1 John 5:4-5)?
“The truly changed, truly converted, truly Christian heart can say with John Newton, ‘I am not what I ought to be. I am not what I wish to be. I am not what I hope to be. Yet I can truly say, I am not what I once was. By the grace of God, I am what I am.’” Mark Dever, 9 Marks of a Healthy Church, p. 104.
 Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, II. 15. XI. (p. 545).
 John Owen, “The Nature, Cause, and Means of Regeneration” The Holy Spirit: His Gifts and Power, p. 184
 R. B. Kuiper, God-Centered Evangelism, p. 141.