A Biblical Understanding of Conversion

Nine Marks of a Healthy Church by Mark Dever

Repentance and Faith

At our church’s first meeting, back in 1878, we adopted a statement of faith. It was a strengthened version of the 1833 New Hampshire Confession of Faith. This confession became the basis for the Baptist Faith and Message, adopted by the Southern Baptist Convention in 1925 and again, in a revised and weakened version, in 1963. In our statement of faith, Article VIII reads:

We believe that Repentance and Faith are sacred duties, and also inseparable graces, wrought in our souls by the regenerating Spirit of God; whereby being deeply convinced of our guilt, danger and helplessness, and of the way of salvation by Christ, we turn to God with unfeigned contrition, confession, and supplication for mercy; at the same time heartily receiving the Lord Jesus Christ as our Prophet, Priest and King, and relying on Him alone as the only and all sufficient Saviour.

Notice what this statement says about our conversion, our turning. We turn because we are “deeply convinced of our guilt, danger and helplessness, and of the way of salvation by Christ.” And how does that turning–which is composed of repentance and faith–happen? It is “wrought in our souls by the regenerating Spirit of God.” The Statement then cites two Scriptures to support this idea: Acts 11:18, “When they heard this, they had no further objections and praised God, saying, ‘So then, God has even granted the Gentiles repentance unto life'” and Ephesians 2:8, “It is by grace you have been saved, through faith–and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God.”

If our conversion is basically understood to be something we do ourselves instead of something God does in us, then we misunderstand it. Conversion certainly includes our action–we must make a sincere commitment, a selfconscious decision. Even so, conversion is much more than that. Scripture is clear in teaching that we are not all journeying to God, some having found the way, while others are still looking. Instead, it presents us as needing to have our hearts replaced, our minds transformed, our spirits given life. None of this we can do. We can make a commitment, but we must be saved. The change each human needs, regardless of how we may outwardly appear, is so radical, so near the root of us, that only God can do it. We need God to convert us.

You’re Not One of the Lord’s!

I’m reminded of Spurgeon’s story of how he was walking in London when a drunken man came up to him, leaned on the lamp-post near him and said, “Hey, Mr. Spurgeon, I’m one of your converts!” To which Spurgeon responded, “You must be one of mine–you’re certainly not one of the Lord’s!”

Reverse Witnessof the Church

One result of misunderstanding the Bible’s teaching of conversion may well be that evangelical churches are full of people who have made sincere commitments at one point in their lives, but who evidently have not experienced the radical change which the Bible presents as conversion. According to one recent study by the Southern Baptist Convention, Southern Baptists (my own denomination) have a divorce rate actually above the national average in America. The cause of such a “reverse witness” among the reputed followers of Christ must be, at least in part, unbiblical preaching about conversion.

Conversion Evidenced by its Fruits

Certainly conversion need not be an emotionally heated experience, but it must evidence itself by its fruit if it is to be what the Bible regards as true conversion. Understanding the Bible’s presentation of conversion is one of the marks of a healthy church.

Questions for Reflection

  1. Read Acts 11:18. What does this passage teach aboutthe ultimate origin of repentance? Is repentance ultimately a result of man’s unilateral decision to turn to God, or is it a result of God’s regenerating work on the human heart?
  2. Read Genesis 6:5 and Romans 8:7. Describe thestate of the human heart under sin. How does the Bible represent man’s ability to please God or to decide on his own to turn to him?
  3. Read Ephesians 2:1-10. God effects a great changein our hearts upon conversion. How does this passage represent that change? Is this something that man could, by great effort, produce in himself?
  4. Recent polls report that professing evangelicalChristians in America today have a divorce rate that is higher than the national average. What could be one reason for this? What does the Bible teach are some of the evidences, or “fruits,” of a regenerating work of the Spirit of God in a person’s life?
  5. In previous centuries, believers were baptized morenormally as they began adulthood (e.g., ages 17-20). What might account for the drop of that age among baptistic Christians in this last century? Why would that be significant?