True Conversion

Lawson (2)Article “What is True Conversion?” by Dr. Steve Lawson (original source here)

Jesus said, “Unless you are converted and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 18:3). Jesus is clear that if a person of this world is to be accepted into this other kingdom—the kingdom of heaven—he must be converted. Put very simply, to be converted is absolutely necessary to enter the kingdom of God.

What does the word conversion mean? In the biblical sense, conversion means a turning—a spiritual turning away from sin in repentance and to Christ in faith. It is a dramatic turning away from one path in order to pursue an entirely new one. It involves turning one’s back to the system of the world and its anti-God values. It involves a turning away from dead religion and self-righteousness. It involves a complete pivot, an about-face, in order to enter through the narrow gate that leads to life.

Conversion also involves the idea of changing direction. A true spiritual conversion radically alters the direction of one’s life. It is not a partial change wherein one is able to straddle the fence between two worlds. It is not a superficial turning, a mere rearranging of the outward facade of a person’s life. Conversion is not a gradual change that occurs over a period of time, like sanctification. Instead, a genuine conversion occurs much deeper within the soul of a person. It is a decisive break with old patterns of sin and the world and the embracing of new life in Christ by faith.

This spiritual conversion is so profound that it involves many changes in a person. It involves a change of mind, which is an intellectual change; and a change of view, a new recognition of God, self, sin, and Christ. It involves a change of affections, which is an emotional change, a change of feeling, a sorrow for sin committed against a holy and just God. It involves a change of will, which is a volitional change, an intentional turning away from sin and a turning to God through Christ to seek forgiveness. The entire person—mind, affections, and will—is radically, completely, and fully changed in conversion.

Theologically speaking, regeneration and conversion are two sides of the same coin. Regeneration is God’s sovereign activity by the Holy Spirit in the soul of one who is spiritually dead in sin. Regeneration is the implantation of new life in the soul. Regeneration gives the gifts of repentance and faith. On the other side of the coin, conversion is the response of the one who is regenerated. Esteemed British pastor D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones said: “Conversion is the first exercise of the new nature in ceasing from old forms of life and starting a new life. It is the first action of the regenerate soul in moving from something to something.” Regeneration precedes and produces conversion. There is a cause-and-effect relationship between these two. Regeneration is the cause, and conversion is the effect. Put another way, regeneration is the root and conversion is the fruit.

To affirm true conversion implies that there is also false conversion. Put simply, there is such a thing as non-saving faith. Not everyone who says, “Lord, Lord” has entered the narrow gate (Matt. 7:21). People may know the truth and may have felt grief regarding their sin, but it is a selfish sorrow over what their sin has caused them to suffer, not how it has offended a holy God. The most stark example of a false conversion we have in Scripture is that of Judas Iscariot. In a counterfeit conversion, there is no death to self, no submission to the lordship of Christ, no taking up a cross, no obedience in following Christ, no fruit of repentance–only empty words, shallow feelings, and barren religious activities. On the contrary, with a true conversion sin is abhorred, the world renounced, pride crushed, self surrendered, faith exercised, Christ seen as precious, and the cross embraced as one’s only saving hope.

The whole purpose of conversion is to bring men and women into a right relationship with God. This is why Christ came, and it is the reason for which He died. It was God who was “in Christ, reconciling the world unto Himself ” (2 Cor. 5:19). Conversion is the crying need of the soul. Until one’s life is turned from sin to Christ, nothing else matters.

If I Had An Hour with a New Convert

Today I had the great privilege of once again guest hosting on Dr. James White’s Dividing Line program. Imagine the scenario. You’ve had an amazing conversation with someone which has led to his conversion to Christ. You have just an hour with him. After that, you may never see him again. What are the most important things you would wish him to know? What follows is my answer to that question.

Multiple Conversions?

I am not sure I would identify Dr. R. C. Sproul’s experience as “a second conversion” but I do understand the point being made. May God increase our capacity to understand and know God as He really is. David Murray with God-given insight into the person of Christ (Matt. 16:17), Jesus told him that some time in the future he would be converted which would result in him being a strengthener of other believers (Luke 22:32).

R C Sproul is another example. Again, although born again, dramatically converted, and thoroughly changed in his desires and life, Sproul underwent a further subsequent conversion which was no less dramatic. In chapter 1 of The Holiness of God, he explains how in his early Christian life, “I knew who Jesus was, but God the Father was shrouded in mystery. He was hidden, an enigma to my mind and a stranger to my soul.”

While listening to a boring philosophy lecture in college, the teacher started explaining Augustine’s views on the creation of the world. The next several pages contain the most beautiful writing on God’s creation that I have ever read. Here’s a sample:

The first sound uttered in the universe was the voice of God commanding, “Let there be!”

The command created its own molecules to carry the sound waves of God’s voice farther and farther into space.

As soon as the words left the Creator’s mouth, things began to happen. Where his voice reverberated, stars appeared, glowing in unspeakable brilliance in temp with the song of angels. The force of divine energy splattered against the sky like a kaleidoscope of color hurled from the palette of a powerful artist. Comets crisscrossed the sky with flashing tails like Fourth of July skyrockets.

The Supreme architect gazed at His complex blueprint and shouted commands for the boundaries of the world to be set.

Then God stooped to earth and carefully fashioned a piece of clay. He lifted it gently to His lips and breathed into it. The clay began to move. It began to think. It began to feel. It began to worship. It was alive and stamped with the image of its Creator.

Sproul says he had always known that God created everything out of nothing; but it was when he realized how he did it that his whole view of God changed. He went from being a functional Unitarian to being a worshipping Trinitarian. He describes it as being converted not merely to God the Son, but to God the Father.

Suddenly I had a passion to know God the Father. I wanted to know Him in His majesty, to know Him in His power, to know Him in His august holiness.

It’s beautiful isn’t it! But what can we learn from Sproul’s second conversion? Here are five lessons.

1. Don’t rule out multiple conversions
We have so much to change in our lives, especially in our view of God, that we should not be surprised at subsequent “conversion-like” experiences where God enables us to take a quantum leap in our knowledge and understanding of God. We should be thankful for every such conversion.

2. Don’t seek multiple conversions
God normally works gradually not dramatically. We shouldn’t be worried if we’ve never had such a dramatic experience. The norm for most Christians is a slow gradual process of ongoing conversion in our God-view, self-view, and world-view. Seeking out the sensational or the dramatic is only going to disappoint and discourage.

3. Don’t make Sproul’s experience the norm
R C Sproul is a unique man with a unique ministry. Looking back, we now know that God had earmarked him to carry a radical message about the holiness of God to this generation of evangelicals who, like Sproul, were (and are) also guilty of a practical Unitarianism, or a Christo-monism. With that special ministry in view, God gave Him an overwhelming experience of His holiness that would flavor everything he would subsequently do, say, and write.

4. Use Sproul’s experience to challenge your faith
Although we shouldn’t make Sproul’s experience the norm, we should ask ourselves if we too have been guilty of practical unitarianism. Maybe we have focused almost exclusively upon Christ, with no real knowledge of or acquaintance with the Holy Father. If so, then Sproul’s experience should encourage us to ask God to show us His holiness, to reveal Himself to us through His Word. Who knows what might happen. Maybe the next R C Sproul is out there and about to be readied for a worldwide ministry.

5. True conversion will make us desire God
There are many spurious spiritual experiences that are nothing but sheer emotionalism, lasting only for a few minutes with no permanent spiritual fruit. But true spiritual experience results in a hunger for God and a passion to know Him, especially in His holiness.

Friday Round Up

(1) David Phelps probably has the best male voice I have ever heard. Here he sings “O Night Divine.”

(2) I believe that every Preacher and Christian would benefit from watching these three short videos by Paul Washer:

Examining the Sinner’s Prayer:

The Alternative to the Sinner’s Prayer:

Don’t Expect a Perfect Repentance

(3) There’s a variety of resources in this week’s Friday Ligonier $5 sale worth considering.

How Can We Tell If Our Repentance Is Deep Enough?

Phil Johnson has written an he said his sense of contrition feels as if it has diminished somewhat. When he sins, he isn’t always moved by the same profound sense of sorrow he felt at the first. He wonders if he has taken the promise of forgiveness too much for granted. Could it be that he was never truly saved? Questions such as those were keeping him awake nights, and he asked for my candid opinion.

This was my response:

It’s impossible to judge the depth of someone’s conviction or the genuineness of a believer’s penitence based on the potency of an emotional reaction alone. I personally think how a person responds emotionally is of very little value in evaluating repentance. Judas wept bitterly; Esau shed many tears. Neither of them truly repented. By contrast, the thief on the cross seemed almost stoically resigned to his fate. But there was enough genuine repentance in his dying plea that Jesus assured him of salvation on the spot.

It’s faith, not tears, that proves the reality of repentance. David, a man after God’s own heart, did sometimes weep over his sin, but not always. In that notorious instance when he sinned with Bath-Sheba, he tried for nearly a year to cover his sin without any evidence of remorse. What marked David as a man after God’s own heart was his faith, not the quality or depth of emotion associated with his repentance; not even the speed of his repentance.

Few people are genuinely and perpetually sodden with the sorrow of remorse all the time. And that is a good thing. As Christians we are commanded to be joyful and always rejoicing. The very thing David prayed for at the end of that year-long rebellion was that God would restore to him the joy of his salvation. There is a legitimate joy in salvation that in the usual circumstances of life overwhelms and overshadows the sorrow of repentance. That joy is a better gauge of your spiritual health than the feelings you get when you ponder how sinful you are.

As believers, we confess that in and of ourselves we are utterly wretched, so it is fitting that we should have sorrow (James 4:9). In fact, we will never be completely finished grieving over our sin and its destructive consequences until God Himself wipes away our tears in heaven. There certainly is “a time to weep . . . a time to mourn” (Ecclesiastes 3:4).

But that same text says there is “a time to laugh” and “a time to dance” as well. We don’t have to wallow perpetually in the shame of self-reproach in order to prove our repentance is real. “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (Matthew 5:4). After all, God’s “anger is but for a moment, and his favor is for a lifetime. Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning” (Psalm 30:5).

If you hate sin and love Christ and confess before Him that you are indeed a helpless sinner, then I wouldn’t be over-analytical about the emotions you feel when you confess your sins. That kind of introspection will make you a fruitless Christian. Did you ever notice that qualities like regret and misery are missing from the characteristics of the fruit of the Spirit?

“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law” (Gal 2:22-23).

Scripture says, “Examine yourself to see whether you are in the faith” —not, “Dissect how you express your repentance to see if you have been piteous enough.”

My advice to you is to cultivate faith, not an emotional response. Emotions by definition rise and fall. They are neither the instrumental cause nor the evidence, much less the ground, of our justification. Faith is the instrument of justification, and the work of Christ is the ground of it. Focus on that, and your faith will grow, your joy will increase, and your emotions will take care of themselves.

No Kicking and Screaming Involved

“The doctrine of ‘irresistible grace’… is simply the belief that when God chooses to move in the lives of His elect and bring them from spiritual death to spiritual life, no power in heaven or on earth can stop Him from so doing… It is simply the confession that when God chooses to raise His people to spiritual life, He does so without the fulfillment of any conditions on the part of the sinner. Just as Christ had the power and authority to raise Lazarus to life without obtaining his ‘permission’ to do so, He is able to raise His elect to spiritual life with just as certain a result.

God ordains the ends and the means. The ends is the salvation of God’s elect. His decree renders their salvation a certainty… Just as God’s grace is irresistible, so the result of that grace (regeneration, the imparting of a heart of flesh after taking out the heart of stone, etc.,) is just as certain. God changes the heart so that my act of faith toward Jesus Christ is the natural result of my changed nature.

I am a new creature, not because the old rebel decided to become something other, but because of the resurrection power of God by the Spirit. The very idea of someone kicking and screaming seems a bit ironic, in light of the Reformed insistence upon the deadness of man in sin. Surely the heart of stone contains no desire to be changed, but ignoring the impartation of resurrection life as the means by which a radical change in the will of the elect is effected again presents a fundamentally distorted view of the (Reformed) position…” – Dr. James White

The doctrines of grace are intricately related one to the other. It is easy to see in this case how “irresistible grace” relates also to the “perseverance of the saints.” This is because the One who starts the work, finishes it. To quote John Newton’s hymn Amazing Grace, “Twas grace that caused my heart to fear… and grace will lead me home.”

“As grace led me to faith in the first place, so grace will keep me believing to the end. Faith, both in its origin and continuance, is a gift of grace.” – J.I. Packer

The New Birth

The new birth is very, the leaving off of bad habits and the substituting of good ones. It is something different from the mere cherishing and practising of noble ideals. It goes infinitely deeper than coming forward to take some popular evangelist by the hand, signing a pledge-card, or “joining the church.” The new birth is no mere turning over a new leaf but is the inception and reception of a new life. It is no mere reformation but a complete transformation. In short, the new birth is a miracle, the result of the supernatural operation of God. It is radical, revolutionary, lasting.

Here then is the first thing, in time, which God does in His own elect. He lays hold of those who are spiritually dead and quickens them into newness of life. He takes up one who was shapen in iniquity and conceived in sin, and conforms him to the image of His Son. He seizes a captive of the Devil and makes him a member of the household of faith. He picks up a beggar and makes him joint-heir with Christ. He comes to one who is full of enmity against Him and gives him a new heart that is full of love for Him. He stoops to one who by nature is a rebel and works in him both to will and to do of His own good pleasure. By His irresistible power He transforms a sinner into a saint, an enemy into a friend, a slave of the Devil into a child of God. – A. W. Pink, The Sovereignty of God.