What Is Conversion?

By Luke Cawley

Dan had grown up in a Christian family. He had first prayed the sinner’s prayer when he was five years old. His life wasn’t exactly transformed – he wasn’t a particularly naughty child in the first place. He didn’t understand basic aspects of Christianity until he was 11 and went to summer camp. It was there that he first heard about sin and the cross in a way he could understand. He went to a private place and asked God to take his sin away. He felt forgiven. But his life wasn’t all that different from others in his school. Later, at 18, he went on a summer mission trip and it was like his relationship with God caught fire in a whole new way. When he got home afterward, he began to really live it out for the first time. Dan was confused. Had he just been converted? Or had he already been converted at five… or 11?

Sarah is a leader in her InterVarsity Chapter. She has been excited to see many seeking students come along to outreach events she has helped organize. Over a hundred of these students have prayed a prayer of commitment over the past two years, but only seven or eight of them seem to now be living as Christians. Sarah is beginning to wonder whether or not Christian conversion is a genuine reality: Why, she asks herself, does it seem to be such a temporary experience for most people who make decisions at their outreach events?

The Trickiness of Conversion

Conversion is a tricky subject.

It can be a painful topic for those who, like Dan, grew up in a Christian family. They find it hard to define exactly when they were converted. They hear dramatic stories of God’s work in the lives of others, and their own experience seems a little bland by comparison.

Conversion is also difficult for those of us who, like Sarah, are evangelists. How often have you known somebody who prayed to receive Christ and yet, afterward, seemed to display no real change in his or her life?

Two Common Ways Conversion is Misunderstood

Perhaps Dan and Sarah’s struggles stem from the same two basic misunderstandings of conversion. They, like many Christians, fell into the twin traps of:

1. Believing that conversion is always an instantaneous event.

Here’s an interesting exercise: Read the gospels and figure out when Peter was converted. Was it when he started following Jesus? When he realized Jesus was the Messiah? When he was sent out to preach and heal? When Jesus forgave him for denying him? It’s just not that clear-cut.

Even Billy Graham, who was famed for calling people forward after he preached so that they could make “a decision for Christ,” never labeled these important spiritual moments as “conversions.” This probably stemmed from his life experience. John Stackhouse has pointed out that “according to [Billy Graham’s] several biographers and his own memoirs, Billy Graham has experienced what amount to three, and perhaps four, major spiritual turning points in his life. More than one of them some might call conversion experiences.”

Some people do seem to have near-instantaneous conversions. You probably know some of them. But such experiences are by no means universal.

2. Confusing justification with conversion.

Conversion is not simply a shift in status before God. One certainly cannot be converted without experiencing justification, but conversion is a much larger reality in which our restored relationship with God begins to touch and change every area of our lives.

Justification is not something visible. It is purely a work that God does through Jesus’ cross and resurrection and is not marked by any human action other than what Scot McKnight calls “a gentle nod of the soul” toward him, acknowledging our need. As the old hymn says, “The vilest offender who truly believes, that moment from Jesus a pardon receives”.

Defining Conversion

If conversion is neither a single event nor a synonym for justification, then what is it?

Gordon Smith, in his excellent book Beginning Well, has described conversion as the “response” people make “to the invitation, love, and work of God in Christ.” It might be a very quick response, or it might occur over a longer period of time, but it is all about how people respond to Jesus.

According to Smith, a full experience of conversion includes “a cluster of seven distinct elements.” These seven elements don’t necessarily occur in the same order. Neither, Smith says, are they to be conceived of as hoops to jump through. But an ideal Christian conversion will include them all.

The first four elements of conversion are primarily internal.

They include:

  1. Belief. A person needs to understand and agree with some basic facts about Jesus. For someone without a Christian upbringing, these may be things they previously didn’t know. A person raised in a Christian family, on the other hand, might know and believe these things from infancy.
  2. Repentance. Conversion involves more than simple agreement with facts about Jesus. It means a change of mind and of direction. Repentance is not the same as sorrow or remorse. It is, in Gordon Smith’s words, “a radical and unequivocal rejection of the way of sin and the pattern of life that leads to sin.”
  3. Trust and Assurance of Forgiveness. Responding to Jesus also touches our affections. A converted person will begin to grasp on an emotional level that God loves them and has forgiven them. This complements the more cerebral experience of “belief.”
  4. Commitment, Allegiance, and Devotion. As we encounter and get to know Jesus, we develop a determination to live for him in the world. Following him becomes more important than any other call on our lives.

The other three elements of Christian conversion are more outward.

They are:

  • Baptism. This is the “wedding ring” of the Christian – it doesn’t place us in relationship with God, but it is the formal outward symbol of the union that has taken place.
  • The Gift of the Spirit. Our relationship with God ceases to be a relationship purely with an external reality. Instead, the Holy Spirit comes and takes up residence inside us. It is common for this to occur very early in the conversion process, but that is not always the case.
  • Incorporation into the Christian Community. Most people first encounter Christ through the witness of another Christian or group of believers. It is essential that they eventually become fully participating members of the Christian community – insiders rather than outsiders.

My friend Beau Crosetto, Los Angeles Director of Greek Ministry, thinks that Smith’s seven elements of conversion are a helpful but incomplete list. He says that he would add an eighth element of “missional lifestyle.” To be fully converted, Beau argues, has to result in a lifestyle that follows Jesus out into his mission of touching a broken world. In fact, in the case of some of Jesus’ first disciples, their conversion actually began with the missional call to become “fishers of men.”

How Understanding Conversion Affects Evangelism

This understanding of conversion is enormously helpful to Dan and Sarah, whom we met earlier:

It frees Dan to look back at his life and celebrate the work of God in his life over the years. His inability to indentify a single dramatic moment of conversion is no longer a cause for worry. And the long-running nature of his conversion can now be read as an indication of God’s faithfulness to him over many years, rather than a sign that he may not have really been converted.

Understanding the multifaceted nature of conversion is also helpful to Sarah. She should be encouraged that people seem to experience profound moments of decision at the outreach events she organizes. Perhaps they are genuinely coming to believe that the gospel is true, or are being affected emotionally by an encounter with Jesus. These are important elements of conversion.

But if conversion is – as Gordon Smith says - this cluster of several experiences that occur in response to Jesus, then Sarah cannot expect them all to happen in a single evening. Part of the evangelist’s role is to create ongoing opportunities for people to make these responses. So, if Sarah’s InterVarsity chapter can convince people of the truth of Christianity, then that is great. But they also need to encourage people to repent at some point. Likewise, if they help a person become an integrated member of the Christian community, but that person never becomes convinced of the truth of the gospel, then that also falls short of the ideal. All seven (or eight) aspects of conversion matter.

Understanding biblical conversion frees us to better appreciate our own stories and to help walk others through their spiritual journeys. Maybe take a few minutes to reflect on your own experience to consider where you see the various aspects of conversion in your life. Then, think about the evangelism efforts of your InterVarsity chapter and see if you can think of ways it can encourage a comprehensive experience of conversion in those it is seeking to reach.

What do you think of this explanation of conversion? How have you seen the seven (or eight) elements of conversion lived out? In a comment below, share from your own testimony or from your evangelism experiences with others.