If I had a pound coin every time I heard a Christian say they wished for a conversion experience like the Apostle Paul’s I would be a rich guy! So dramatic! Stark! Sudden! Unmistakable! Meeting Jesus face to face! Acts 9 does indeed record a spectacular account of a life-changing grace encounter. However, Acts 9 is not a generic template, nor is it desirable that it should be the universal experience of every converted sinner. Quite simply – it isn’t!
The mystery of conversion
It is not only wrong, but a limitation of the Spirit’s ministry to think that conversion must be a dramatic and instantaneous experience. As it is an opposite error to think that a gradual coming to faith in Christ is not genuinely radical! Do we not all grow old and change without perceiving that we have?
The mystery of conversion embraces both an immediate work and a more gradual one. It may catch a person by surprise, or be so gradual that many Christians cannot recall when they were converted; especially those growing up in Christian homes. Timothy knew Scripture from a child (2 Tim. 3:15). When was he converted? John the Baptist leapt in his mother’s womb on hearing of Jesus’ birth (Luke 1:45). Was he converted then? It is one of the beautiful mysteries of the Holy Spirit’s work in salvation (John 3:8), taking nothing away from its genuineness, that some are initially unaware that they have been converted! Read Acts 19:2.
Conversion does not have to be dramatic. However, it is profoundly radical for it flows from a person’s change in status before God, accomplished by Christ’s atoning work in reconciling the sinner to God. It rightly warrants the language of a ‘new birth’ (John 3:3); ‘a new creation’ (2 Corinthians 5:17); ‘a taking off and putting on’ (Eph. 4:21-24); ‘a turning from darkness to light and from power of Satan to God’ (Col. 1:13; Acts 26:18). It is a revolutionary turning, which is first inward and spiritual, leading to the commencement of a comprehensive change in the life of an individual.
If conversion is radical, is it to be understood as a life crisis? Yes – if we are referring to the real crisis of the sinner being under the wrath of God (John 3:36; Rom. 1:18), no matter how little or much they realize it! No – if by crisis we mean a psychological or emotional breakdown. Admittedly, this can be an individual’s experience, but it does not have to be. There is a psychological element in conversion but it cannot be understood solely as a psychological phenomenon. In The AntiChrist, Nietzsche tried to dismiss Christian conversion as being for people who are sick. He alleged that ‘… one is not ‘converted’ to Christianity … one must be sufficiently sick for it.’
Conversion is not a remedy for those too weak to live life, who need the crutch of Christianity to support them. No! It is rather one being put in their right mind (Mark 5:15), strengthened to live as they were meant to, through being reconciled to God through Christ, for as Louis Berkhof says, conversion is ‘born of godly sorrow and issues in a life of devotion’ (cf 2 Cor. 7:10).
Christians rightly speak of ‘my conversion’ when becoming followers of Jesus. Conversion even has its own hashtag – #Jesuschangedmylifestory! It elucidates where the rubber of salvation hits the road of their conscious awareness. It is where God’s gift of faith comes to life in them, as they turn from sin to God in Christ.
‘My conversion’ must not be mistaken as meaning my own initiative. My decision? Yes! My initiative? No! Conversion is first and foremost a supernatural work of God’s Spirit. It is always ‘as many as the Lord ordained to eternal life believed’ (Acts 14:48) for ‘salvation is of the Lord’ (Jonah 2:9). There can be no saving faith in Christ without the work of the Holy Spirit, who is the source, sustainer and finisher in applying Christ’s salvation in his people.
A new believer rightly sees their conversion as a new beginning. And it is in their self-awareness, as all things become new and their thinking, attitudes and lifestyle change. However, mature understanding leads one to realise that it has been preceded by the Spirit’s work of regeneration (John 3:3, 6), conviction of sin and calling. Conversion, then, is not the beginning for that began with the Spirit.
Equally it is detrimental to healthy Christian living to think of conversion as an end product. Rather it is a step along the life-long road of redemption in Christ that commences sanctification and leads to glorification. What would we think of an athlete who sits down on the starting line as they hear the starting gun? They are not fit to run the race! We must persevere, conversion is neither the beginning nor the end of salvation, but its reality gives us new life in the Spirit.
Turning from sin in repentance to God and trusting in Christ through conversion is a principle that overflows into daily Christian living. Although it is an act never repeated, it’s also an on-going work of daily necessity. Hence, Luke uses the same word when Jesus speaks of Peter’s return after his relapse and when describing Peter’s call at Pentecost for people to repent (Luke 22:32; Acts 3:19). Jesus is referring to Peter’s return after his failure to stand up for him, while Peter is calling people to repent and believe in Jesus. After their conversion the Christian is one, who being conscious of their forgiveness, seeks a fresh cleansing every day (1 John 1:8-10).
It is perhaps at this point that many Christians struggle with assurance. Space does not allow us to discuss more fully the relationship between conversion and justification in salvation. Suffice to say that conversion is possible as a conscious experience without one being aware of one’s justification. But conversion as a reality is impossible without one being first justified before God by faith in Christ alone. This seeming anomaly is because justification is a judicial declaration of God concerning the sinner, whereas conversion is an experiential act within the ordo salutis (order of salvation).
Conversion into a community
Conversion is a uniquely individual experience but a converted person is one who never stands alone. John Stott writes, ‘Conversion to Christ means also conversion to the community of Christ, as people turn from themselves to him and from this corrupt generation to the alternative society he is gathering round himself.’ In turning to God, a Christian convert is one who joins the many as they become part of the body of Christ.
The hope of evangelism
Because conversion is a change wrought by God’s Spirit, it is possible for all! How potent are Paul’s words to those Corinthian Christians, ‘such were some of you.’ Their lives had been so morally dissolute but they had been washed, sanctified and converted to Christ (1 Cor. 6:9-11).
Conversely, the Christian message becomes powerless if we believe that anyone is beyond conversion. That is a tragic denial that the gospel is still the ‘power of God for salvation.’ The conversion of the thief on the cross reminds us that we must never lose sight of the fact that no matter how late, or obdurate one’s life may be, conversion is possible for all. No! Conversion is essential for all. For who can ignore the eternal value of a soul?