By Mike Ivey
In most instances, a Bible student’s understanding of conversion falls into one of two categories. Some believe conversion relates exclusively to the new birth; that in all cases conversion is an immediate and exclusive effect of regeneration. Others believe it has a number of facets or principles including conversion in the new birth, gospel conversion, and conversion as a function of growing in the grace and knowledge of Christ Jesus. I believe this latter view is better supported and more consistent with how the various forms of the word convert are presented in the New Testament.
The different forms and verb tenses of the word convert found in the New Testament are each translated from the Greek word ἐπιστροφή (epi)strophe) which means to turn about, turn again or turn toward. In the broadest sense of its use in scripture epistrophe denotes some fundamental, positive shift in attitude and behavior.
Understanding which of the facets or principles of conversion applies to a given scripture is discerned by how conversion, convert, and converted are contextually used. Answering three questions pertaining to the text helps provide contextual guidance as to which principle may apply. They are: 1. Who is converted? 2. Under what circumstance does conversion occur? 3. How does the conversion occur? With regard to regeneration conversion the following answers apply: 1.Who: It occurs only to those who are born again. 2. What circumstance: It occurs as an immediate consequence of the new birth when a person is born again. 3. How: It occurs as an effect of the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit.
Conversion occurs by regeneration as the consequence of one’s change from death to life, to a new identity as child of God, by removal of sin nature in the persons spirit/soul and the resulting purged conscience, and by ongoing joint witnessing by the Spirit of God and the new creature/identity spirit as to the truth that God exists and man is subject to His moral authority (See 2 Cor 5:7, 1 John 3:9, Romans 8:16-17, 2:13-15).
Initially, and apart from any gospel insight, new birth conversion may manifest simply as personal guilt or conviction in the conscience and mind in which one is deeply offended by their own transgressions; which is accompanied by sorrow and earnest desire and effort to avoid sinning (Romans 7:21-24). The new creature nature together with the joint witnessing with the Holy Spirit to one’s conscience and mind also enables those who are born again to believe by faith the truth of the gospel (Hebrews 9:14). However, while God enables a born again person to believe the gospel He does not compel a person to believe.
The thief on the cross who at first railed against the Savior, then later pleaded for consideration, is a telling example of the change in attitude and behavior that occurs in regeneration (See Mark 15:32, Luke 23:39-43). The Apostle Paul supplies another example of regeneration conversion.
Conversion to gospel truth occurs when a person who is previously quickened hears and believes the gospel and submissively becomes a disciple of Jesus Christ. The Ethiopian Eunuch, those Paul baptized who previously knew only John’s baptism, Lydia and Cornelius are examples of people who were already born again who later experienced gospel conversion and obeyed the gospel call to discipleship (Acts ch. 8, ch.10, 16:13-15, 19:17). Peter’s sermon in which he called for those who ignorantly rejected Christ to “repent and be converted” is an example of a call to gospel conversion.
Peter’s statement “repent and be converted” indicates conversion is part of a touchstone relationship with repentance. The whole of the relationship includes godly sorrow; “For godly sorrow worketh repentance to salvation not to be repented of.” (2 Corinthians 7:10) The relationship then, includes: godly sorrow, repentance and conversion. The touchstone nature of the relationship is: Godly sorrow works repentance and repentance works conversion. Therefore, those who sorrow with godly sorrow (because they have in some way offended God) are brought to repentance and their repenting produces a converted behavior in which they turn away from engaging in the sins that caused their sorrow and turn towards faithful obedience to God. Thus, the state of being converted occurs as a consequence of repentance which is itself is a consequence of godly sorrow.
However, it is important we understand while true repentance inevitably produces conversion it is also possible to experience conversion apart from repentance as a product of growing in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ. Examples of conversion in which godly sorrow and repentance are not indicated include Cornelius’ conversion and the conversions of Apollos and those he had baptized who where later baptized by Paul. In these instances acceptance of gospel instruction appears to have produced willing and even joyful conversion.
Ongoing experiences of conversion also can occur in those who are born again and already disciples of Jesus Christ as they grow in the grace and knowledge of Christ as they turn evermore toward Jesus while turning away from fear, residual pride and prejudice. Jesus alluded to this ongoing discipleship conversion in one who is already a believer when he told the apostle Peter, “when thou art converted strengthen by brethren” (Matthew 16:16, 16:23, Luke 22:32). James also taught that disciples may experience conversion from error and thereby be saved from the immediate consequences of sinning. “Brethren, if any of you do err from the truth, and one convert him; Let him know, that he which converteth the sinner from the error of his way shall save a soul from death, and shall hide a multitude of sins.” James 5:19-20.
Originally published February 2019