Very few people understand the Biblical doctrine of conversion today. We have claims that half of Kisumu town was converted during a Crusade of 1988; that more than 9 million have recently been converted to Christ in Nigeria. How many of these are now baptized and active members in a local church? How many of these are the salt of the earth and the light of the world? Sadly, probably very few. This is because the Biblical marks of conversion are not required. So often what is called conversion is just an emotional response to an emotional appeal done in a large meeting; or an intellectual response to a gospel presentation; or (even worse) a coming to Jesus for some felt need to be dealt with, such as sickness or poverty. What makes up true conversion?
Conversion is not started by the sinner, but by the Holy Spirit. This was the humbling lesson that Nicodemus had to learn after all the religious efforts he had made (John 3:1-10). In telling him he had to be born again, Jesus was saying that he had to start his spiritual life again from the beginning. So far he had done nothing. Three reasons why it is God who starts conversion:
- Sovereignty of the Spirit. To what does Jesus liken being born of the Spirit (v.8)?
The wind (note that “wind” and “Spirit” are the same word in Greek). What determines the direction the wind blows? God. How does the language of ‘birth’ also teach us that the Spirit is sovereign in this work of conversion? The child has no role to play in its birth – the parents are responsible (think: who alone is responsible for the birth of a child?).
- Inability of the sinner. What is the “flesh” (= man’s natural power without the Spirit) able to produce? Only flesh (v.6). What is necessary for anyone to produce “spirit” (= spiritual fruit such as faith and repentance)? The Spirit. What is it impossible for a sinner like Nicodemus to do unless born again (vv.3, 5) see/enter the Kingdom of God.
- The new birth is the source of all spiritual life. How did believers become children of God (John 1:12-13)? Believed in Christ, born of God. Again, what do those who believe Jesus is the Christ show has happened to them (1 John 5:1)? They have been born of God. What did God promise would be the result of the indwelling of the Spirit (Ezekiel 36:27)? Walk in His statutes/ carefully obey Him.
What is the result of “the washing of regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5, and for the answer see v.7)? Being justified by His grace.
False teachings. Tell the sinner to ‘open your heart,’ which is impossible without the Spirit (Acts 16:14). Tell a person they will be born again if they believe, when it is the other way round (again see Lydia’s conversion). We are totally dependent on the Lord in this work of conversion, which is why we must make prayer a priority.
There is no experience of true conversion unless there is a response of repentance and faith to the message of the gospel. Christ preached this (Mark 1:15); so did the apostle Paul (Acts 20:21). The first thing a newly born again person does is to repent and believe. There is much ignorance about what repentance and faith really are, and there are many counterfeits.
11 Biblical examples of false repentance. Judas “repented” confessing his sin (Matthew 27:3-4), but he had no faith that God could forgive him. Simon was urged to repent and he prayed not to perish (Acts 8:20-24), but there was no repentance of his sin. There is a sorrow for sin that is “worldly” but it does not lead to salvation (2 Corinthians 7:9-11), because it does not produce a change of life.
12 True repentance. Psalm 51 is David’s prayer of repentance. He trusted in God’s mercy and steadfast love (verse 1). He wanted to be washed from his sin (verse 2). He could not forget his sin (verse 3). Although he had wronged Uriah and Bathsheba he knew it was against God he had sinned (verse 4a). He acknowledged he deserved whatever judgment God would bring to him (verse 4b). He did not excuse his sin but knew he was born in sin (verse 5). In the rest of the Psalm he promises to live a godly life (see also Luke 3:8,10-14).
13 Problems today. Very often the demand for repentance is not even made, only faith unto forgiveness, yet repentance is often tied to forgiveness (Luke 24:47, Acts 2:38, 3:19, 8:22). Repentance is more than confession of sin and wanting to avoid punishment; true repentance must include admitting that judgment in hell is deserved and a purpose to turn away from all sin.
21 Biblical examples of false faith. ‘Faith’ is used of many who did not have true saving faith. The demons have a sort of faith (James 2:19), but faith without work is dead (verse 20). Many only had a temporary faith, but because of evil one or persecutions they give up (Matthew 13:20-21). Others believed only because of the signs Jesus performed (John 2:23-25), for example, Nicodemus, but Jesus did not treat them as true believers. The Scripture records that Simon believed (Acts 8:13) but it is later shown to be false (8:21-23).
22 True faith. Faith is much more than agreeing that the doctrines of the Bible are true; the demons are forced to admit this. A faith that cannot withstand difficulties is not true, because faith is trust in God who is faithful to do what He has promised, and powerful to do whatever He wants (Romans 4:20-21). A faith that depends on signs will wither when he seems powerless; how many joined in the cry, “Crucify him!” when he was arrested. Faith is trusting Christ; one who knows he is a sinner and that Christ is the Saviour will come to Him as the leper and say, “If you are willing you are able to save me.” Faith is trusting Christ with your whole soul: so it is to call on the name of the Lord (Romans 10:13); to come to Him (John 6:37); to eat His flesh and Drink His blood (John 6:53). Faith knows what it needs and will not give up (Mark 10:48).
23 Problems today. Saving faith is much more than raising a hand, coming to the front in a meeting and being prayed for, or agreeing in a fact such as ‘Christ died for me.’ Faith is a glad and unreserved submission to Christ as Saviour and Lord. It is impossible to be a disciple of Christ without loving Him first above all others (Matthew 10:37); without being willing to take His cross and follow Him = to suffer for Him (10:38-39). This is why so many make a profession of faith for a while, and either give up, or produce no fruit.
This is one of the great blessings God gives to those who have faith in Christ (Galatians 2:16).
In justification, God declares the sinner to be righteous, only because of the righteousness of Christ imputed to him (Romans 4:6, 2 Corinthians 5:21, Philippians 3:9). Justification is much more than forgiveness; we are counted as righteous as Christ Himself is righteous.
Write TRUE or FALSE for each of the following statements:
_______A sinner cannot believe in Christ unless he is first born again.
_______Without full submission to Christ there is no true saving faith.
_______ If I confess that Jesus died for me it is sure that I have saving faith.
_______Tears of sorrow for sin are genuine only if followed by a turning from sin.
_______God cannot justify sinners because He is righteous.
The following three books are recommended:
- Paul Helm, The Beginnings Word & Spirit in Conversion;
- Tom Wells, Faith the Gift of God;
- C. H. Spurgeon, All of Grace.