Conversion is a central theme in the Bible that refers to a dramatic change in a person’s spiritual orientation and way of life. When someone converts, they turn away from sin, unbelief, and worldly pursuits, and turn towards God, faith, and righteous living. Conversion involves repentance, faith, regeneration, and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Here is a comprehensive look at what it means to be converted according to the Bible.
The words “convert” and “conversion” occur over 25 times in the Bible in various forms. The main Hebrew word translated “convert” is שׁוּב (shub), which means to turn back or return. The main Greek word is ἐπιστρέφω (epistrepho), which means to turn around or turn towards. Therefore, in the biblical sense, conversion refers to a dramatic reorientation of one’s life as they wholeheartedly turn to follow God.
Conversion is portrayed in Scripture as an inner transformation of mind, heart, and will that results in outward change in thinking, behavior, lifestyle, allegiances, and identity. It entails turning away from sin, unbelief, worldliness, false religion, and rebellion against God. Simultaneously, it entails turning towards God in repentance, submission, and wholehearted devotion to Him. Conversion reorients one’s life around the kingdom of God and pursuing His righteousness (Matthew 6:33).
Some key points on the meaning of conversion:
- It involves changing one’s spiritual allegiance and orientation from sinful idols to the one true and living God.
- It requires acknowledging one’s sinfulness and need for salvation.
- It necessitates placing one’s faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.
- It means becoming spiritually regenerated and sealed with the Holy Spirit.
- It transforms one’s conduct and character as they pursue holiness and obedience.
- It incorporates a person into the family of God and mission of His kingdom.
The rest of this post will unpack the meaning and nature of conversion more fully. We will look at:
- Old Testament background
- The role of repentance
- The role of faith
- Regeneration and the Holy Spirit
- Conversion narratives
- calls to conversion
- Evidence of genuine conversion
- Warnings about false conversion
Old Testament Background
The concept of spiritual conversion has its background in the Old Testament. God frequently called His people Israel to “return” or “turn back” to Him. This entailed turning away from their sin, complacency, and idolatry and reorienting their hearts towards God in sincere repentance, renewed obedience, and restored relationship with Him (see Isaiah 55:7, Jeremiah 3:12, Joel 2:12).
While the Old Testament expected and urged conversion on a national and corporate level, it also included language of individual conversion. Particularly, the prophets envisioned a time when God would circumcise individual hearts to love Him wholeheartedly. God promised: “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will take the heart of stone out of your flesh and give you a heart of flesh” (Ezekiel 36:26 NKJV). This inner heart change would enable sincere love for God.
Therefore, the concept of conversion in the New Testament built on this prophetic foundation of turning back to God from sin and turning towards God in renewed sincere devotion. National, corporate conversion remained important, but the New Testament spotlighted the individual dimension of conversion even more.
The Role of Repentance
Repentance is an essential part of conversion according to the Bible. To repent means to feel sorrow for sin, turn away from it, and determine to live differently. When Jesus began His ministry, He called people to “repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17). Repentance prepares the way for conversion.
In the Old Testament, the prophets repeatedly called Israel to “rend your heart and not your garments” (Joel 2:13). God wanted true inward repentance leading to outward change, not merely external show. Joel called the nation: “Return to the LORD your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love.” This call renewed in the New Testament.
Repentance means humbly recognizing one’s sinfulness and helplessness to save themselves. It entails grief and sorrow over offending God’s holy character by sin (2 Corinthians 7:10). It involves confessing one’s sins honestly to God and seeking His forgiveness (1 John 1:9). Repentance manifests in forsaking former patterns of sin and turning to God’s ways in obedience.
Repentance is turning away from trust in false saviors and turning towards hope in Christ alone. It is parting ways with sinful pleasures and ambitions to seek supremely God’s kingdom and righteousness. For conversion to be genuine, it must involve heartfelt repentance.
The Role of Faith
Genuine conversion also requires saving faith in Jesus Christ. Faith is reliance upon and commitment to Christ as the divine Savior who alone can deliver us from sin. It entails believing the truth about who Jesus is and what He accomplished on our behalf. As Acts 20:21 says, “repentance toward God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ” are essential counterparts.
In the New Testament, Jesus repeatedly called people to believe in Him for salvation (John 3:16, 6:29). Acts 16:31 says, “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved.” Saving faith recognizes Jesus as the resurrected Son of God who died to pay for sins and rose to give new life. It relies fully on His finished work rather than personal righteousness for acceptance with God. Expressing faith in Christ signifies turning away from trust in other saviors to find salvation in Him alone.
Faith also involves surrendering to Christ’s rightful lordship. Romans 10:9 says, “If you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved.” Confessing Christ’s lordship means acknowledging His authority to direct one’s life according to God’s will. Faith is not merely privatized belief but a wholesale shift in allegiance and obedience.
Therefore, converting to Christ necessitates placing sincere faith in Him as Savior and Lord. This faith serves as the channel through which God imparts new spiritual life and identity. Scripture ties faith closely to conversion as the means of obtaining Christ’s salvation.
Regeneration and the Holy Spirit
Conversion brings about an internal spiritual transformation that the Bible calls regeneration or being “born again” (John 3:3). When someone converts to Christ, God imparts new spiritual life by the Holy Spirit. Their soul transitions from spiritual death to spiritual life as the Spirit indwells and transforms them.
Whereas repentance and faith are ongoing human responses, regeneration is a sovereign work of God giving new life. 1 Peter 1:3 says God “has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.” And it is the Spirit who imparts this new life, for “unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (John 3:5).
The indwelling Holy Spirit effects inward transformation. As 2 Corinthians 5:17 says, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” Conversion inaugurates the lifelong process of sanctification as the Spirit renews the convert’s desires, thoughts, and character after the image of Christ.
Conversion also incorporates a believer into the body of Christ, the church. The Spirit baptizes converts into this new community and family of faith (1 Corinthians 12:13). Therefore, regeneration and Spirit baptism are key elements distinguishing genuine conversion from false or incomplete conversion. Any supposed conversion without supernatural life from the Spirit is not true conversion.
The book Acts contains many conversion stories that illustrate the nature of conversion. Though each account is unique, they follow a similar pattern that generally includes:
- A pre-conversion condition of religious lostness or moral rebellion
- An encounter with the gospel or Jesus Himself
- Recognizing one’s sinfulness and need for salvation
- Placing faith in Jesus as Lord and Christ
- Becoming regenerated and filled with the Holy Spirit
- Joining the church and living a transformed life
For example, Acts 9 recounts the conversion of the persecutor Saul into the apostle Paul. Jesus appears to blind Saul, and he recognizes Jesus as Lord. Saul comes to see his sin, fasts for three days, places faith in Jesus, is healed and filled with the Spirit, and proceeds to boldly preach Christ.
The conversion of Cornelius in Acts 10 similarly depicts conversion. Cornelius is directed by an angel to call for Peter. Peter preaches the gospel, and as Cornelius hears it, the Spirit falls on his household. They begin speaking in tongues, and Peter has them baptized. These accounts display prototypical elements of biblical conversion.
Calls to Conversion
The New Testament contains many appeals calling people to convert. On the day of Pentecost, Peter preached, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38). Peter later exhorted, “Repent therefore, and turn back, that your sins may be blotted out” (Acts 3:19).
Paul urged, “I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable…testifying both to Jews and to Greeks of repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 20:20-21). He later wrote, “I preached that they should repent and turn to God, performing deeds in keeping with their repentance” (Acts 26:20).
These appealing calls disclose core aspects of conversion. It requires repenting and believing in Jesus for salvation. It entails turning away from sin and turning to God in faith and obedience. Multiple New Testament passages urge unbelievers to convert as the right response to the gospel.
Evidence of Genuine Conversion
How can one know if their conversion is biblically genuine? The New Testament offers several diagnostic questions to test conversion’s authenticity:
- Has there been recognition and remorse over sin?
- Is there fledgling faith and love towards Christ?
- Is there a desire to obey and please God from the heart?
- Is there distaste for sin and attraction to holiness?
- Is there love and alignment with other believers?
- Is there the internal witness and sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit?
For example, 1 John gives various evidences that assure Christians of their true conversion: belief in orthodox doctrine (2:23), practicing righteousness (2:29), loving other believers (3:14), obeying God’s commands (5:2), and conquering sinful habits (5:4). These provide confirmation that one’s conversion is biblically genuine.
In addition to self-examination, the church also plays a role in assessing and affirming converts’ profession of faith. Local churches should observe candidates’ lives to verify the sincerity of their conversion before baptizing them into membership. While imperfect, these means can help prevent false conversion and promote credible profession.
Warnings about False Conversion
Scripture also warns about the danger of false conversion. Jesus cautioned that only true conversion characterized by “doing the will of my Father” will lead to heaven, not merely professing Christ’s name (Matthew 7:21-23). Similarly, many believed in John the Baptist’s teaching, but few were genuinely “prepared for the Lord” when Jesus came (Luke 1:16-17)
Paul says some have “a form of godliness but denying its power” (2 Timothy 3:5). This suggests empty outward religion without inward reality. Peter warns of false teachers who entice others by fleshly desires, forsake righteous living, and twist Scripture, indicating pseudo-conversion (2 Peter 2:1-3, 18-22).
Therefore, the Bible gives many warnings against false, non-saving conversion. There is danger in externally following Christianity without experiencing inward regeneration and transformation. Genuine conversion must discernibly exhibit changed attitudes, affections, and actions by the Spirit’s power.
In summary, conversion in the Bible refers to a radical reorientation of one’s life from sin towards God in faith and obedience. Key elements include repentance of sin, faith in Christ, regeneration by the Spirit, and integrated living within the church. Conversion restructures one’s ultimate allegiance, identity, and purpose around glorifying the true God through Christ. While a lifelong process, conversion decisively turns one’s life in a new direction at a point in time. Understanding and applying the Bible’s teaching on conversion is vital for salvation and the health of the church.
Key Takeaways on Conversion
- Conversion involves a dramatic life change as one turns from sin to God in repentance and faith.
- Repentance includes grief over sin, confession, and forsaking former patterns of wrongdoing.
- Saving faith relies fully on Christ’s finished work for salvation rather than personal righteousness.
- Regeneration by the Spirit imparts new spiritual life to the converted person.
- Conversion stories in Acts follow a similar pattern of hearing the gospel, repentance, faith, and new life.
- The New Testament contains appeals calling people to repent and believe.
- Evidence of true conversion includes desire to obey God, love for Christ, and the Spirit’s witness.
- Scripture warns of false conversion that lacks spiritual power and righteous living.
- Examining candidates’ lives can help affirm the credibility of their conversion.
- Understanding conversion is vital for individuals to be saved and churches to stay healthy.