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Holman Bible Dictionary


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A person's turning to God. Conversion is the experience of an individual who encounters God's reality or purpose and responds to that encounter in personal faith and commitment.

The Old Testament frequently uses the term both in a noun and verb form. The psalmist said that, “The law of the Lord is perfect, converting the soul” (Psalm 19:7 ). He affirmed that “sinners shall be converted unto thee” (Psalm 51:13 ). God declared to Isaiah that “Zion shall be redeemed with judgment, and her converts with righteousness” (Isaiah 1:27 ). Isaiah was told that Israel's heart would be hardened lest the people would “understand with their heart, and convert, and be healed” (Isaiah 6:10 ). The prayer of Lamentations 5:21 is for conversion, “Turn thou us unto thee, O Lord, and we shall be turned.” (See also Psalm 85:4 , “Turn us, O God of our salvation.”)

The New Testament uses the noun form only once in referring to “the conversion of the Gentiles” (Acts 15:3 ) but uses the term repeatedly in other forms. Three of the Gospels make reference to Isaiah 6:10 ( Matthew 13:15; Mark 4:12 , John 12:40 ). Jesus admonished His disciples, “Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3 ). He told Simon Peter, “When thou art converted, strengthen thy brethren” (Luke 22:32 ). The Book of Acts refers repeatedly to the importance of conversion, beginning with Peter's words, “Repent ye therefore, and be converted” (Luke 3:19 ). Acts uses the term most frequently in describing a person turning to God (Acts 15:19 , Acts 26:20 ) or turning “from darkness to light” (Acts 26:18 ), or from “these vanities unto the living God” (Acts 14:15 ). Other New Testament references speak of turning from idols to serve the living God (1 Thessalonians 1:9 ) and turning so that “the veil shall be taken away” (2 Corinthians 3:16 ). James encourages us with the words “that he which converteth the sinner from the error of his way shall save a soul from death” (James 5:20 ).

Biblical Examples of Conversion The Old Testament records experiences of several men who in the most basic sense turned to God (they were converted). Of course, they did not have the benefit of later revelation or the understanding that comes from the gospel; but they were confronted by God in a way that made them conscious of sin. As a result, they turned to God in self-surrender. Jacob's experience with God at Bethel was a kind of conversion (Genesis 32:1 ). Moses, at the burning bush, was surely given a call to mission, and some would call it a conversion (Exodus 3:1 ). Isaiah had an experience with God that undoubtedly changed his life (Isaiah 6:1 ). One of the most notable conversions in the Old Testament would have to be that of the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar, who through a series of unusual circumstances turned to “the King of heaven, all whose works are truth, and his ways judgment: and those that walk in pride he is able to abase” (Daniel 4:37 ).

In the New Testament the list of conversions is much more lengthy. In a very real sense all of the apostles were converted to the messiahship of Jesus and forsook everything to follow Him. The Gospels recount numerous encounters that Jesus had with individuals that resulted in their acknowledging Him as the Christ. They then experienced a radical change in their lives: Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1 ), the woman at the well at Sychar (John 4:1 ), the sinful woman in the house of Simon (Luke 7:1 ), and Nicodemus (John 3:1 ). The Book of Acts records a number of individual conversions, the most notable of which are the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:1 ), Saul of Tarsus (Acts 9:1 ), and Cornelius (Acts 10:1 ). In addition, several references to large numbers of conversions appear (Acts 2:41; Acts 9:35; Acts 11:21 ).

The biblical evidence, both within the Old and New Testaments, emphasizes the importance of conversion. Persons need to be converted. They are commanded to be converted and can be converted. Conversion is necessary because of sin. Conversion is made possible by the goodness and grace of God.

The Character of Conversion Christian conversion is the experience of an individual in which one turns from sin and trusts in Jesus Christ for salvation. It is personal and inward in nature, but is results in a public and outward change. Each individual's conversion is unique; yet the requirements of conversion are the same for everyone. An individual's conversion will be influenced by temperament, knowledge, and people; but each conversion is the result of the same gospel and the same Spirit.

The characteristics of conversion are summarized in 2 Corinthians 5:17 , “If any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new.” A change of the mind, emotions, and will is the result of conversion. The mind is changed in that it seeks to know the truth and accept the truth, whereas before conversion the mind resisted the truth. The emotions are changed in that evil is hated and righteousness is loved, whereas before conversion evil was loved and righteousness was hated. In conversion the will is changed so that it turns away from sin in humble submission to the will of God.

Conversion does not result in Christian maturity, but it does begin the process that leads to maturity. Conversion does not cause perfection, but it radically redirects the personality. Conversion does not produce instant sainthood, but it does change the goals, the values, and the priorities of life.

The Causes of Conversion The cause of conversion is the sovereign grace and mercy of God. “God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8 ). The finished work of Christ on the cross is the basis and foundation of individual conversion. That finished work is the result of God's grace. Whatever means and methods God uses to influence individuals—the preaching and teaching of truth, the prayers of the church, the circumstances of life—are the result of God's grace. In conversion God takes the initiative; God causes understanding; God creates desire; God enables response.

The cause of conversion is a confrontation and encounter with God. In genuine conversion one is confronted with the living Christ and faced with decision. It is a personal event, concentrated and focused. Surely every person's conversion will not be as dramatic as someone else's may be, but every person must personally come face to face with Jesus Christ to claim a conversion. Confrontation is not just acceptance of ideas or intellectual assent to plan of salvation. It is not just agreeing to some facts. It involves acceptance of a Person and acknowledging that acceptance to Him. Confrontation is saying to Jesus Christ, “I accept You as my Lord. I trust You for my salvation.” Confrontation is hearing His “knock on the door of my life” and “opening the door for Him to come in.” Confrontation is a personal transaction between me and Jesus Christ.

The cause of conversion is conviction that is the result of the Holy Spirit's witness to the Word of God (John 16:7-11 ). Christian conversion must be preceded by a basic understanding of the gospel story, some cognitive grasp of truth, a minimal acquaintance with God's redemptive work in Christ. “Faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God” (Romans 10:17 ). The truth of the gospel causes concern and leads people to ask the question asked of Simon Peter after his Pentecost sermon, “Men and brethren, what shall we do?” (Acts 2:37 ). The clear presentation of God's requirements, man's failures, and God's provision for sinful man in Jesus Christ creates the opportunity for conversion as well as the opportunity for rejection.

The Conditions of Conversion If conversion is the result of grace on God's part, it is the result of repentance and faith on a person's part. Repentance is turning from sin and self-centeredness to God and His will. It is a redirection of life, a change of mind, a radical break with the past. A classic biblical example of conversion is the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:1 ). He felt genuine sorrow for his sinfulness. He made a deliberate decision to leave his old way of life. He turned from his waywardness and sought the mercy of his father. Such is repentance.

Faith is essentially trust. Faith is trust in Christ and His redemptive sacrifice. It is believing in Him alone for salvation. Faith is receiving the grace God revealed through the Person and work of His Son. The numerous admonitions of Scripture are to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ for salvation (John 3:16; Acts 16:31; 1 John 5:13 ). Belief is more than acceptance of the historical Jesus. It is a personal trust in the living Christ who lived, died, and rose again. It is trust to the point of commitment and surrender to the will of Christ. See Regeneration; Repentance .

Daniel Vestal

Copyright Statement
These dictionary topics are from the Holman Bible Dictionary, published by Broadman & Holman, 1991. All rights reserved. Used by permission of Broadman & Holman.

Bibliography Information
Butler, Trent C. Editor. Entry for 'Conversion'. Holman Bible Dictionary. 1991.

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