The idea of conversion is well known in our present day culture. Kids play with toy transformers where trucks or planes are changed into bionic men and vice versa. We have all kinds of mechanical converters, for example, you can buy a box to convert your old TV into the new digital mode. A jeweller might convert a ring into a necklace. Conversion is changing one thing into another. In the Bible its basic meaning is to “turn to something” or to “turn away from something”. Jesus had his own unique terminology for being converted. To one person he says, "Truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God." (John 3:3) To others he says, “New wine poured into new wine skins”. (Matthew 9:17) To a woman he said that by asking Him, He would give her living water so that she would never thirst again. (John 4:10) We will address a few interesting questions concerning this subject. Is conversion active or passive, meaning, is it something we do or is it something done to us, or both? Is conversion an instant, one time act, or is it a process happening over time, or both? Why are some people not converted? Why do people need to be converted? How does a person become converted?
All through the Bible, God is trying to persuade people to turn to Him. Why? Here are some of God’s reasons:
(1) God wants people to turn to Him because all people need what God has to offer. God is the true and ultimate source of all that is good and right and beautiful and peaceful and loving. There is no life apart from Him. God alone is the source of our complete well being. (John 10:10) In Paul Copan’s book, “Loving Wisdom” (pg.16), he makes an interesting observation. I quote: “Arctic terns annually travel 11,000 miles from the Arctic to the Antarctic regions and back again – often to the very same nests. Monarch butterflies follow their homing devices, migrating each year to their nesting grounds in California or Mexico. Whether we realize it or not, we humans have a homing device for God. Though people may not care about God but instead fill their lives with secular substitutes, this doesn’t mean that God’s presence isn’t their proper home, that His family isn’t their true family.” God wants to provide us with what we really need, and restore us to our true home.
(2) God wants people to turn to Him because evil is real and is destroying us. Due to evil in our personal lives and in the world around us, we human beings often find ourselves experiencing heartache and destruction. Evil never goes away but is ever causing, or threatening, damaged or ruined relationships. All persons are slaves to evil within them (John 8:34), are guilty of wrongs, are facing God’s judgement, and are sentenced to be separated forever from the life of God. (John 3:36; 5:24) God wants us to be free from evil’s power and inevitable death. (John 8:31-36; 14:6; Romans 6:23)
(3) God wants people to turn to Him because people fail us. A secure personal life and world does not come by trusting in failed human abilities or promises, but in God whose abilities and promises never fail. We all need the hope of a world with no more evil, but with righteousness, peace, and joy. Only God promises such a world. (2 Peter 3:13; Romans 14:17) Jesus instructed His followers to pray, “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done”. (Matthew 6:19)
(4) God wants people to turn to Him because no person is fit to live the kind of life required in God’s perfect and righteous kingdom. (Romans 3:23) Without the change that the gift of God can bring to us, we easily fall into patterns that hurt ourselves and others around us. People need to become new creatures fit for life in the eternal kingdom of God. (Ezekiel 36:25-27; 2 Corinthians 5:17) Otherwise, we would spoil the new world just as we spoil this one.
Jesus made a clear and astounding statement when He said, “Unless you are converted…you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18:3) It is easy for people to believe they will be in heaven when they die, but Jesus put a stipulation on it. By this statement, Jesus has in mind people who think they are converted and going to heaven, but in reality are not. Jesus told a story about a man who goes to a wedding party. He is recognized as being improperly clothed and is out of character with what is going on. He apparently thought he was good enough the way he was. But he does not truly belong and so is cast out. (Matthew 22:11-13) Also, entering the kingdom is not only a future thing, but is a present reality to be entered into.
God knows all. He knows what is not good about us and our world. He loves and cares. Therefore, God tries to persuade people to turn to Him. God has created a visual illustration for us of the dramatic kind of change He is talking about. Our change needs to be as dramatic as an earthbound caterpillar entering a cocoon and being changed into a heaven bound butterfly. The change is real and necessary if we are to be made into whole persons and reach our God-ordained potential. This cannot happen unless we are converted.
What makes people begin to think about being converted to God or Christ Jesus? It may be that our life is falling apart and we need something to help us get it together. It may be a word someone said that sticks with us and bothers us until we must act on it. It may be a concerned parent or Christian friend saying, “You need God in your life”, or a book we read, or a crisis that happens, or an illness, or a fear of not being with loved ones in heaven, or a financial reversal, or relationship problems, or a fear of God’s judgement. Even though these, or other things, may be the initial reasons we come to God, God’s reasons become our reasons as we continue in relationship with Him.
People think conversion is their choice, and it is, but it is also God’s miracle, without which we could not be converted. It is easy to think that becoming converted solely involves deciding to turn our lives around by trying something different, for example, trying a different religion, or a different lifestyle. Conversion in Christianity is not just a decision to try Christianity. Simply making a decision to change does not make one a Christian. Yes, conversion is a decision on our part to want to see a change happen in our lives; but, it is also a supernatural action by God to change us. We need a conversion that actually changes us, not just something we can choose to try for awhile. Someone once said in a prayer to God, “Convert me that I may be converted.” Conversion relies on miracle. God must be allowed to do His work in us. You may have heard the saying, “People do not need to turn over a new leaf; they need a new life.” God can give us that.
How does a person become converted? The Biblical story of Cornelius provides a model. (Read Acts 10) When we see examples of people in the Bible who are converted, it gives us hope that the same can become true of us. Before Christian conversion takes place, there is normally an event or problem that gets a person thinking about a need for change. This is followed by a period of hearing about God or Christ Jesus and what He is requiring from us. We can conjecture that Cornelius, being a Roman and possibly a worshipper of many gods, must have become dissatisfied about something in his life that made him seek for an answer not available through his religion or his own reasoning. Something in the Jewish religion appealed to him and he converted to Judaism and to the God of the Jewish Scriptures. But his conversion to God was not yet complete. Acts 10 reports that Cornelius was a good man who did many wonderful deeds to benefit the people he now “hung around” with. People tend to think bad people need converting and good people don’t. This account of Cornelius shows us that even very good people need to be converted. Being a good man was not enough for Cornelius to enter God’s kingdom.
God arranged, by a series of circumstances, to have him be able to hear and receive what he needed in order to be truly converted. God sent the apostle Peter to Cornelius’ home to share the message of Christ, which is the good news of God’s forgiveness and glorious kingdom. Cornelius believed the message and the Holy Spirit came into him enabling true conversion. Circumstances surrounding conversion may differ from person to person, but the way we are converted is the same for everyone. God opens our eyes to see our need. We learn about the Christian answer. We hear God’s message. And when we trust and obey the message, God’s Spirit provides the miracle of creating and transforming us into new creatures. (Ephesians 1:13-14) Old things pass away and new things come. (2 Cor.5:17)
How does God change us? We are changed by God‘s Spirit when we repent and believe. (Mark 1:15) The Bible refers to this as “the baptism of the Spirit”. (Acts 2:38; 1 Corinthians 12:13) His divine person and energy flows into us and we are empowered to be changed. It is a mystery. But this Spirit baptism does not suddenly turn us into perfect people. What the baptism of the Spirit does do is to change our hearts toward God in such ways that we want to learn, love, serve, and do His will. (Acts 2:42-47) This new heart is what is described in Ezekiel 36:26-27 and in Deuteronomy 30:6. Without God’s miracle we would not be converted and would not be able to enter God’s Kingdom. (John 3:3-6)
Conversion involves a critical point in time when we decide to turn to God, but it also involves a process. A word used in the Bible to indicate the process aspect is “transformation”. (Romans 12:2) The Greek word is metamorphosis, which we use to describe a caterpillar changing into a butterfly. True conversion begins with a Spirit-led decision and then leads to a day-by-day divine transformation of our lives. (2 Corinthians 4:16) The initial and primary conversion involves changing our heart so that we are committed to loving God and His ways. Once our heart is changed by the work of God’s Spirit, there can then follow many continuing aspects of conversion along our journey. For example, people may be converted from bad habits to good habits, from misunderstandings to “now I get it”, from lies to truth, from not knowing oneself to knowing oneself better, from selfishness to giving of oneself, from unhappiness with circumstances to contentment, from loneliness to belonging, from aloneness to community, and so forth. It is possible for people to make some of these kinds of changes apart from a Christian perspective and experience, but ultimate kinds of changes cannot happen apart from Christianity. Such conversions require changing from loving and serving self to loving and pleasing God, from existing guilt and the judgement of God to forgiveness and peace with God, and from physical and spiritual death to eternal life in God’s kingdom.
God is interested in rebuilding us so that we are, once again, fully created in His image. This process will not be completed until we emerge from our cocoons and come out as butterflies, meaning that we will emerge from our graves and come out with new bodies, no longer tainted with evil and death. (1 Corinthians 15:42) These bodies will be like Jesus’ transfigured and resurrected body (Philippians 3:20-21) and we will live in a newly created heaven and earth. This is our ultimate conversion and destiny. Remember Jesus’ words, “Unless you are converted… you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.” For now, believers are still in the cocoon called conversion where they are being transformed day by day. Conversion generates new thinking and behaviours and new lifestyle develops. (Luke 3:7-14 and Acts 26:20) By being involved in joint acts of human decision with God’s Spirit, we become an ongoing work of God. (Philippians 1:6)
Many people choose Christianity as their religion, but have not had a true conversion. These persons are thinking that they are Christ-followers when, in fact, they are Christian in name only. They are fooled by initial heightened spiritual experiences or decisions. (Hebrews 6:4-6) Their incomplete conversion will eventually show itself. The danger for them is that at some point they might abort the faith, or fall away from the church, showing that their assumed conversion may not have been genuine. (Luke 8:11-15; 1Timothy 1:19; 2 John 9) Even those who have been professing for many years that they are believers could reverse and go the other way, thus demonstrating that the conversion process which they became involved in, by remaining shallow, or not genuine, may prove them to be not Christ-followers after all. Or, if they are Christians, there is no reason to be assured that they are, or to believe their profession, since they have left the visible body of Christ and no longer demonstrate that they are a part of His body.
It is instructive to see examples of people who turn away from the Christian faith. Doing so may help a person avoid some of the pitfalls that could lead to their downfall. Charles Darwin was one person who went away from Christianity. At one time he was a believer with a conviction that the Bible was the true word of God. A series of events in his life caused him to move away from the faith. Here is a quote from Darwin’s own writings, “Disbelief crept over me at a very slow rate, but at last was complete. The rate was so slow that I felt no distress, and have never since doubted even for a single second that my conclusion was correct.” (From Darwin’s granddaughter’s autobiography of his life, p.87) Here are some of the things that happened in Darwin’s life to turn him away from the faith. He was laughed at for believing the Bible as God’s literal truth. He came to believe that the stories in the Old Testament, such as the tower of Babel and the flood in Noah’s day, were not real historical events. The more he studied nature and the fixed laws of the universe, the more he came to believe that miracles could not happen. He believed that God created the universe and left it, never intervening in His created world, so he rejected the idea that the Bible was a revelation from God. The writers of the New Testament gospels differed in many important details which caused him to believe that their writings were not accurate. His daughter, whom he loved very much, died at a young age and this drove him further away from God. His wife tried to get him to read John chapters 13-17 in an effort to help him be converted so that they could be in heaven together, but he declined to listen to her. Here are Darwin’s own words according to one of his personal letters, # 12851: “I am sorry to have to inform you that I do not believe in the Bible as a divine revelation, and therefore not in Jesus Christ as the Son of God.” Charles Darwin was a gentleman who cared about his family and never spoke against anyone’s religion, but for all we know, he never was converted due to these events and thoughts and beliefs which he acquired throughout his life. We offer no final judgements on his life, only God knows anyone’s final outcome.
People are at different places in their life journeys. Some never choose to be converted; others are not yet ready to take that step. It may be that they are not willing to give up something in order to follow Christ. Maybe they have the idea it will make them weird, or result in no more fun. Maybe they have a false idea of Christianity from Christians who are not yet what God is making them into, or from a church which has disappointed them, or from wrong assumptions about Christianity that need correcting. Whatever the reason, God loves us and wishes for no one to perish. (Ezekiel 18:27-28, 32) Conversion, which involves receiving God’s miracle of new birth, is something available for everyone. God gives an open invitation. He promises to grant conversion to sincerely interested people who “seek, knock, and ask”. (Luke 11:9-13) But, unfortunately for many, there is a point of no return. (Proverbs 29:1)
Here are a few Bible references concerning conversion which those interested may read. (Acts 14:15; 26:17-18; John 5:24; John 14:6 and Acts 4:12; Colossians 1:13-14; 1 Corinthians 6:9-11; James 1:21; Ephesians 1:13-14; 1 Peter 2:25; Acts 2:37-39; 17:30-31) If you are not converted, are you ready to open your heart and ask Jesus to save you? He will.