Conversion: Turning to God
Topic: Topical Sermons Passage: 1 Thessalonians 1:2–1:10, John 12:37–12:40, Isaiah 55:6–55:11, Matthew 18:1–18:4
Words have long fascinated me. Whenever I am reading a book and I come across a word that is new to me, one that at times is the key to understanding a sentence or a paragraph, I will hit the “pause button” and look it up. To be more precise, I will “Google” it or just ask “Siri” what it means.
Even as a child listening in on adult conversations, unfamiliar words were curious to me. Most of the time I would ask my parents what a word meant, but quickly learned that could get you in trouble, depending upon what kind of word you wanted them to define. Maybe that’s why they gave me a dictionary for Christmas one year!
Regardless of our age, words of which we do not know their meaning can create either curiosity or confusion. That is certainly true of theological terms that are sometimes tossed about in our discussions and conversations at church. That is particularly true as we work our way through the Ordo Salutis, or the logical order of salvation. Over these past several weeks we have looked at such terms as “election,” “effectual call,” and “regeneration,” and this morning we come to the next on our list: “conversion.”
Although the term “conversion” is common in theological and religious discussion, it is one that is rarely used in the Bible. Both in the Old and New Testaments, the Hebrew (“shub”) and Greek (“επιστρεφω”) terms that are employed refer to a “turning” or a “turning back.”
I grew up in a church where “conversion” was spoken of frequently. I can still remember an older gentleman pulling me after an evening service and asking, “Son, have you been converted?” I was too afraid to say “No,” so I said “Yes, sir,” even though I had no idea what he was talking about. The only two places I had ever heard the word was in sermons that our pastor preached and from the television ad urging us to buy “Uncle Ben’s ‘converted’ rice.” Somehow I couldn’t quite make the connection.
Hopefully, by the time we have finished today we will have been able to eliminate some of the confusion that you may have with regard to the biblical meaning of “conversion.”
We’ll begin with...
A definition of “conversion.”
Often during this series I have referred you to Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology. For those of you who may be interested in a one-volume, clearly-written, practical introduction to biblical doctrine, it is the one that I would recommend to you. With regard to our subject this morning, Grudem writes, “Conversion is our willing response to the gospel call, in which we sincerely repent of sins and place our trust in Christ for salvation.”
As already mentioned, the word “conversion” refers to a “turning,” and within the biblical context it represents a “spiritual turning” from sin and to the Lord. There are, therefore, two components that will be discernable in the life that has been “converted. The “turning from sin” is called “repentance,” and the turning to the Lord is called “faith.” Both occur simultaneously—meaning that in genuine “conversion, there cannot be one without the other. Furthermore, “repentance” and “faith” are gifts granted to those whom God has called and chosen as the fruit of regeneration (cf. Ephesians 2:8 and 2 Timothy 2:25).
That transaction will inevitably result in transformation. In other words, there will a change—perhaps slight at first, but over time evolving—in the manner of life of the one who has been “converted.” It may be helpful to see “regeneration,” which we looked at last week, as referring to the change that takes place from God’s perspective, while “conversion” views that change from the human perspective.
Nowhere is that “change” more clearly demonstrated than in the opening chapter of Paul’s first Thessalonians letter. Following his greeting, we begin reading in verse 2:
“We give thanks to God always for all of you, constantly mentioning you in our prayers, remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. For we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you, because our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction. You know what kind of men we proved to be among you for your sake. And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you received the word in much affliction, with the joy of the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia. For not only has the word of the Lord sounded forth from you in Macedonia and Achaia, but your faith in God has gone forth everywhere, so that we need not say anything. For they themselves report concerning us the kind of reception we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come.” (1 Thessalonians 1:2-10).
1 Thessalonians was one of the apostle’s earliest letters, written shortly after having been to that city and helping to plant the church there. These new believers were near and dear to his heart, and he wanted to assure them that their salvation in Christ was real. Thus when he notes in verse 9 how they “turned to God from idols to serve the true and living God,” their “conversion” was shown to be genuine.
We must be clear about this. Conversion always involves repentance—that is a turning from sin and unbelief—as well as faith—trusting in Christ alone for salvation. We probably need to say a little more about what it means to “repent,” because it has been badly caricatured by many. Simply put, it involves a change of mind and purpose with respect to sin, self, and God. It is more than just regret or even remorse over our sinful deeds. Nor does it mean “doing penance” to “make up” for wrong-doing. Repentance is a decisive break with the old manner of life which was lived for selfish pleasure and—accompanied by faith—the adopting of a new way of life that submits to the authoritative Word of God.
Through the use of a simple word-picture John Piper explains that repentance and faith are “really two sides of the same coin. One side is tails—(we are) to ‘turn tail’ on the fruits of unbelief. The other side is heads—‘head’ straight for Jesus and rest in His promises. You cannot have the one without the other any more than you can be facing two ways at once or serving two masters.”
True “conversion,” therefore, means that there will always be a profound change of heart. It goes to the very meaning of the term itself.
But how does that “change” occur? To answer that question, we must look at...
The Designer of “conversion.”
Just as we noted last Sunday, no one can give life to the dead but God, so it is that no one can bring about the change in a person’s life that we have been describing apart from God’s direct intervention. It is a change that is brought about by a sovereign act of God and not by a mere desire to “clean up one’s act.” For someone to be truly converted, the Lord is the One who must bring about the change and its effects.
In the 12th chapter of John’s Gospel, as Jesus’ impending death drew near, we find Him withdrawing from the crowds to whom He spoke because they refused to accept His testimony concerning Himself. John describes it this way, beginning in verse 37:
“Though he had done so many signs before them, they still did not believe in him, so that the word spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:
‘Lord, who has believed what he heard from us,
and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?’
“Therefore they could not believe. For again Isaiah said,
‘He has blinded their eyes
and hardened their heart,
lest they see with their eyes,
and understand with their heart, and turn,
and I would heal them.’” (John 12:37-40).
Although Jesus spoke words of life to the multitudes and affirmed their authenticity through the works He performed, we are told “they still did not believe in him.” All of this, it is said, was in fulfillment of ancient prophecy spoken seven hundred years earlier. Specifically, Jesus quotes from Isaiah 53:1 and Isaiah 6:10.
In between those two quoted texts, John adds, “They could not believe.” Why not? Because, in the words of the prophet that we just read, “He (that is, God) has blinded their eyes and hardened their heart, lest they see with their eyes, and understand with their heart, and (now, get this) turn” and be healed. The clear implication is that “conversion” rests in the sovereign hands of Almighty God.
Despite Calvin’s classic statement that viewed “conversion” as a “forcible seizure, a rape of the surprised will,” most of the later Puritans saw it as a “process” that is better described as taking place in stages in the life of the believer. A late 19th-century theologian described that “process” this way:
“The sinner is at first totally indifferent. The Word produces on him no effect. Then (1) there is an evident willingness to give serious attention to the truth of God. God has opened the heart... (2). There is conviction of sin, sense of its vileness, and of its dangerous effects. (3) The soul, oppressed by these, strives to do something by which to attain salvation, but finds all in vain. (And 4) At last accepting the truth of God’s Word it rests in trust of a personal Savior.”
If you have been “converted” by God through the Word of truth and the blood of His Son, then you may or may not have recognized this “process” as having taken place in your experience. And even though we do not all “come to Christ” in the same way, I believe I can say with some assurance that something on this order did occur. Practically speaking, you may not have even been aware that this “process” was playing itself out until a given point in time when you were made aware that you had been transformed by the Spirit of God and were led to confess Him as “Lord” (cf. Romans 10:9 and 1 Corinthians 12:3).
From the Divine perspective, you were a “passive participant” in this process. I realize that sounds like an oxymoron. Nevertheless, it describes from God’s point of view what takes place when a sinner is “converted.” That is because your “conversion”—just like your election, your calling, and your regeneration, as we have seen in recent weeks—is the work of God from start to finish. It is He who prepares the regenerated heart to turn to God, and that heart thus actually turns.
That being said, the Scriptures do not advocate that we simply sit around and wait for God to move us to the point of “conversion.” Human responsibility and accountability is not eliminated. From his sermon on Mars Hill in Acts 17:30, Paul reminds us all that “God... now commands all men everywhere to repent.” Therefore, there we cannot overlook...
The duty of “conversion.”
I would like to call your attention to two passages—one from the Old Testament and one from the New that speak of our obligation to respond to God. The first comes from Isaiah 55, verses 6-11 where in extending an invitation to “Come” to the Lord (cf. verse 1), the prophet adds,
“Seek the LORD while he may be found;
call upon him while he is near;
let the wicked forsake his way,
and the unrighteous man his thoughts;
let him return to the LORD, that he may have compassion on him,
and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.
For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
Neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
So are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.
For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven
And do not return there but water the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose.
and it shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.” (Isaiah 55:6-11)
From a strictly human perspective, the onus of responsibility for salvation falls squarely upon us. In other words, we think that we must “decide for Christ” or be willing to “accept Jesus as Savior.” I haven’t met many unbelievers who honestly feel that their failure to trust Christ is the result of never having been “called” or “chosen” by God. Most of them say that they have to “make up their own mind” in that regard.
You will notice in this passage from Isaiah the surplus of commands issued by the Lord to “seek” Him and “call upon him,” to “forsake his (wicked) way,” as well as to “return to the LORD.” The Hebrew word for “convert” is found in that last phrase. There is, therefore, a “duty” on our part to hear and respond to the Word of the Lord in repentance and faith. Knowledge of these things is not enough. Whatever we are presently trusting must be replaced by a sincere trust in the finished work of Jesus Christ on our behalf. And while this may appear to us to take place at a moment in time, we need to counterbalance that perspective with what we have already observed, and that is that the “conversion” of any given sinner is a preordained work of God since before creation.
It is of equal importance to note that the faith that was born in us when we recognized God’s work in our lives should be increasing more and more as we learn to forsake sin and walk in obedience to Christ. Let us be reminded again that it is totally contrary to Scripture to speak of the possibility of having true saving faith without there being a corresponding turning away from sin. Not only is this true at the beginning of the Christian life, but it is an attitude that must continue throughout the Christian life. To state it bluntly, apart from perpetual faith and repentance, there can be no ongoing assurance that biblical “conversion” has occurred. In his first thesis, Martin Luther stated,
“When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said ‘Repent,’ he intended that the entire life of believers should be repentance.”
The other passage that I want you to see comes out of a discussion that Jesus was having one day with His frequently misguided disciples. We find it in Matthew 18, where I’ll read just the first four verses:
“At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, ‘Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?’ And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them and said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18:1-4).
Notice again the reference to “conversion,” described in this passage as “turning.” “Unless you turn,” Jesus said, “and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” No “conversion,” no kingdom. And here, our Lord explains what “conversion” looks like. In a word, it is “humility.”
When a person has truly turned to Christ, personal pride will be dealt a death blow. That is because there is no room for boasting. All of our lives we have been told to “work hard,” “strive,” and “never surrender”—all good qualities in most things. But when it comes to “conversion” our sole “duty” is to humble ourselves and submit to Him. Never in a million years would any of us be able to “convert” ourselves. Only the Lord is able to transform a life through the miracle of “conversion.” Peter, James, John, and the others would have to learn this...and so must everyone whose lives would be changed forever through the death and resurrection of the Son of God.
Before we conclude this morning, I would like to like to say something about the...
The difficulties of “conversion.”
I want to approach this part of our conversation from two angles. The first is what we might call the “hindrances to conversion,” or those things that get in the way of people experiencing the saving grace of God. In compiling this list, I turn to the Puritan writers who paid careful attention to these impediments with regard to receiving the gift of “conversion.” I will enumerate them, and comment only briefly on each:
- First, there is neglecting the Christ of Scripture. In other words, people at times will construct a Jesus of their own design and fail to acknowledge Him as He is revealed in the Bible.
- Second, there is the possibility of a false conversion. There are those who think they have already come to Christ, but in reality theirs is a superficial conversion, not a genuine conversion of the heart.
- Third, there is despair over one’s own sinfulness. Some people believe that they are “too great a sinner” for Christ to be able to save them.
- Fourth, there is spiritual complacency. In other words, some people are simply not motivated by the things of the Lord. Many think there is no hurry to do today what can be put off until a later time.
- Fifth, there is despair due to backsliding. These are those who have “tried” Christ in the past but keep returning to their habitual sin. Some may think they have “lost their salvation,” and have perhaps even committed “the unpardonable sin.”
- Sixth, there is ignorance of God’s call. These are the ones who have never heard the command to turn from sin and trust Christ, and they are willing to “wait Him out.”
- Seventh and finally, there is just plain unbelief. Ultimately, it is the sin of unbelief that will drag to hell all those who refuse to come to Christ.
These are clear and ever present “dangers” that, from a human perspective, stand in the way of sinners being “converted,” saved and brought into the family of God. Do you see yourself in that list? Everyone of these “difficulties” can be overcome by the one willing to turn to Christ.
But there is another pervasive “difficulty” that is held by many in the church today, and I need to remark on it before we conclude. It is the erroneous notion that one can receive Jesus as “Savior, but not necessarily receive Him as “Lord.” A number of well-known preachers have advocated this teaching, and I am convinced that it is one of the reasons so many professing believers remain anemic in their faith and witness long after having made a “profession of faith.” It is the dangerous doctrine that, I believe, gives false assurance to so many who have “walked a church aisle” or “prayed the sinner’s prayer” when there is so little evidence that one has been truly “converted.”
Before examining that belief system, let me just say that it is not enough simply to believe in Jesus and accept the offer of grace for salvation apart from there being a real alteration of the inner person. As we have already seen before in our series, the Scriptures teach that “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Corinthians 5:17). Just to be clear, what has “passed away” in the truly “converted” is not just the penalty of sin, but the old way of life.
We have noted earlier that repentance and faith will inherently follow throughout the lives of those who have experienced true “conversion.” When we turn to Christ for salvation from our sins, we are simultaneously turning away from the sins that we are asking Christ to save us from. To be truly “converted” means to be truly changed. It is inconceivable to imagine that God would send His only begotten Son into the world to save sinners who would go on living like they did before being saved. And it is inconsistent for a soul that has encountered the grace of God in a saving way to not experience a radical transformation.
But not everyone agrees. The controversy over so-called “Lordship salvation” reached its zenith in the mid-to-late ‘80s and became so heated that John MacArthur wrote an entire book entitled The Gospel According to Jesus, in which he insisted that Christ’s repeated call to “Follow me” (cf. Matthew 4:19, 8:22, 9:9, 19:21) was a call to surrender to His Lordship. As MacArthur demonstrates, a correct understanding of the Bible’s teaching on this subject gets to the very heart of saving faith.
So many contemporary Gospel presentations entreat sinners with words like “accept Jesus as personal Savior,” “invite Christ into your heart,” or “make a decision for Christ.” Nowhere in the Bible do we find such language. Instead, the Gospel that is proclaimed in the Scriptures is a call to radical discipleship—a call to follow Jesus in humble submission—not just a plea to “make a decision” or to “pray a prayer.” It is a call that is narrow, one that urges us to examine ourselves and discover that we are in want of what Jesus alone offers... eternal life then, but transformed life now.
The Bible does not recognize “conversion” that lacks a “change of direction” in a person’s life. Grace does not change a person’s standing before God while leaving his character untouched.
A.W. Tozer wrote that “The Lord will not save those whom He cannot command...You cannot believe on a half-Christ. We take Him for what He is—the anointed Savior and Lord who is King of kings and Lord of all lords!”
Or, as others have expressed it, “If Jesus isn’t Lord of all, He isn’t Lord at all.”
True “conversion” that has been wrought by God will not fail to produce the good works that are its fruit. Rather than being a terminal point in our relationship with Christ, “conversion” marks the beginning of a brand new life...a “changed” life that will be lived for the rest of one’s life for the glory of God. Claiming Jesus as Savior without acknowledging Him as Lord is a danger that must be shunned. As Romans 10:9 declares, “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”
As we close out our look at the miracle of “conversion” today, let me leave you with a few thoughts to consider:
Have you come to that place where you are trusting Christ in a personal way, or are you wavering between two opinions like the people of Elijah’s day (cf. 1 Kings 18:21). As Joshua challenged those under his care, so the Lord challeges each one of us to “choose this day whom you will serve” Joshua 24:15). If you are not trusting Jesus as Savior and Lord, what is preventing you from doing so? Whatever it is, it simply isn’t worth holding onto.
For those who are professing Christ, do you feel the same sorrow for sin that you did when you first believed? Are you promptly acknowledging every act of disobedience, quickly turning from it through confession and repentance, and seeking to have fellowship with the Lord restored? The faithful life is the life of obedience and assurance. The Bible doesn’t teach “once saved, always saved,” but it does teach that saints will persevere in their faith toward Christ and in obedience to His Word to the end.
Be reminded that the salvation of everyone who has or ever will embrace the Gospel has been etched in stone by God from before the foundation of the world. That being said, it comes to us progressively and is awakened in us at a moment in time. For us, it is but the beginning of a life that is lived for Jesus Christ, who is both our Savior and our Lord.
The late British pastor, Alan Redpath, put it this way: “The conversion of a soul is the miracle of a moment, but the making of a saint is the task of a lifetime.”