Conversion, God, and the Whole Self
From Genesis to Revelation, Scripture is clear that conversion is absolutely necessary for individuals to experience salvation and know God. Unless we turn from our sin and turn to God, unless we know experientially what the Bible describes as a spiritual, supernatural circumcision of the heart (Deut. 30:6; Rom. 2:25-29), we will not know God savingly and will stand under his judgment and wrath (Eph. 2:1-3).
As Tom Schreiner has demonstrated in his two articles in this 9Marks Journal, the necessity of conversion is taught throughout Scripture. It may not be the central theme of Scripture, but it is certainly foundational to the entire story of redemption, especially in terms of how redemption is applied to God’s people. Apart from conversion, we cannot not know God in a saving way. We cannot experience the forgiveness of sins. We cannot enter God’s kingdom and saving reign.
But, it may still be asked, why is conversion necessary?
POPULAR VS. BIBLICAL UNDERSTANDING OF CONVERSION
Before answering that question, it’s worth clarifying that we’re not talking about “conversion” in the popular sense of the word but in the biblical sense. What is the difference?
If you do a Google search on “spiritual conversion,” the predominant entries will look something like this: conversion is the “adoption of a new religion” or the “internalization of a new belief system.” These definitions view “conversion” as a change in someone’s thinking or perspective which, for the most part, leaves the person fundamentally the same. This is not Christian conversion.
Instead, Christian conversion depends on the sovereign and supernatural work of the triune God in people’s lives. In conversion, God brings people from spiritual death to life. This enables them to abhor what they once loved—their sin and rebellion against God—and to turn and trust in Christ.
THREE TRUTHS WHICH UNDERGIRD THE NECESSITY OF CONVERSION
Why is this understanding of conversion absolutely necessary? Three foundational truths underlie the Bible’s teaching on conversion, and help us to see why conversion is so important in Scripture, theology, and gospel proclamation.
Let me also stress that these three truths are completely interrelated. One cannot correctly understand what the Bible teaches about conversion apart from getting these other truths right, which is simply a reminder that our theological beliefs are mutually dependent on one another. To get one area of our theology wrong will greatly affect other areas, and this is certainly true in our understanding of conversion.
The Human Problem
The first foundational truth which grounds and makes sense of the Bible’s teaching on conversion is the Bible’s view of the human problem. Even though human beings are created as God’s image-bearers and thus possess incredible value and significance, in Adam we rebelled against our Creator and thus became sinners who are subject to God’s wrath (Gen. 3; Rom. 5:12-21).
When the Bible speaks of sin and humans as sinners, it does not view this as a minor problem. It is not something that can be remedied by self-help, more education, or even personal resolve to become a better person. Such perennially present solutions greatly underestimate the nature of the human problem that Scripture powerfully and graphically describes.
Viewed biblically, sin is not only a universal problem which no person escapes due to our solidarity in Adam as our covenant representative (Rom. 3:9-12, 23; 5:12-21; 1 Cor. 15:22); it also constitutes us as sinners by nature and by action (Eph. 2:1-3). In Adam and by our own choices, we have become moral rebels against God, born into this world as fallen creatures. This is a condition we cannot change by our own initiative and action. And it is a condition, sadly, that we do not want to change, apart from God’s sovereign grace. In our fallenness, we not only delight in our sin and willingly stand in opposition to God’s rightful rule over us, but that very willingness is evidence that we are unable to save and change ourselves (Rom. 8:7). As a result, we stand under God’s judgment and wrath (Rom. 8:1; Eph. 2:1-3) whether we acknowledge it or not. In our sin, our state before the Judge of the universe is one of condemnation and guilt (Ezek. 18:20; Rom. 5:12, 15-19; 8:1). Scripture describes this state as death, both spiritual and, ultimately, physical (Gen. 2:16-17; Eph. 2:1; Rom. 6:23).
Salvation, the biblical remedy to this problem, reverses this dire situation. And the decisive point in this reversal is conversion.
What we need first is a savior who can pay for our sin before God and satisfy God’s righteous requirements and judgment against us. Our Lord Jesus Christ, God the Son incarnate, does just this in his cross-work for us. He meets God’s own demands; our sin is paid for in full (Rom. 3:21-26; Gal. 3:13-14; Col. 2:13-15; Heb. 2:5-18).
In addition, we not only need our sin paid for, we also need to be brought from spiritual death to life, which results in a transformation of our entire nature (Rom. 6:1-23; Eph. 1:18-23, 2:4-10). We need the triune God to call us from death to life and, by the agency of the Spirit of God, to give us new birth (Eph. 1:3-14; Jn. 3:1-8). We need a resurrection from the dead parallel to our covenant head’s own resurrection in order to enable us to turn from our sin willingly, to put aside our opposition to God and his rule, and to respond in repentance and faith to the gospel (John 3:5; 6:44; 1 Cor. 2:14).
In sum, conversion is necessary because it is part of the solution to the serious nature of the human problem as described by Scripture.
The Doctrine of God
The second foundational truth that grounds and makes sense of the Bible’s teaching on the necessity of conversion is the Bible’s teaching about the nature and character God.
As noted above, these first two truths explain each other. The human problem is what it is because of who the God of the Bible is. Our problem can only be seen in its true colors in light of God’s own personal, righteous, and holy character.
Conversion is necessary because we as sinful and rebellious creatures cannot dwell in God’s holy presence. Sin has not only contravened God’s character, which is the moral law of the universe, it has also separated us from God’s covenantal presence (Gen. 3:21-24; Eph. 2:11-18; Heb. 9). We who were made to know God and to live before him as his vice-regents, ruling as little kings and queens over creation for God’s glory, now stand under God’s wrath and condemnation.
Therefore, without God’s holy character being satisfied in God’s own sacrificial provision of himself in his Son, we cannot savingly know God (Rom. 6; Eph. 4:20-24; Col. 3:1-14). Further, it is not enough for a legal transaction to take place, as important as that is in the verdict of our justification before God. Salvation also involves the inner removal of sin and the transformation of our entire fallen nature. This begins when we are united to Christ by the regenerative work of the Spirit, which enables us to willingly turn from sin and rest in the finished work of Christ our Lord.
In other words, conversion is absolutely necessary because God demands that his creatures be holy as he is holy. Therefore, in order to dwell before him we must be clothed with the righteousness of Christ, transformed by the power of the Spirit, and made new creations in Christ Jesus (2 Cor. 5:17-21). There is no way for image-bearers to be brought back to the purpose of their creation and to enjoy all the benefits of the new creation without having their sin paid for in full, being born anew by the Spirit, and being united to Christ by faith.
If we fail to grasp something of God’s blazing holiness, his perfect righteousness, and his demand that his creatures act like obedient sons and image-bearers, we will never grasp why conversion is so important in Scripture.
In addition, if we do not grasp that our conversion only takes place due to the sovereign initiative of the triune God of grace, then we will never fully appreciate the depth and breadth of God’s love for us, his people.
Conversion Involves Repentance and Faith—Our Whole Selves Turning to God
The third foundational truth that helps us understand the Bible’s teaching on conversion is that conversion affects the whole person, and it affects the person as a whole. That is, in Scripture, conversion involves both turning from sin (repentance) and turning to Christ (faith). Both are necessary for conversion. And so repentance and faith are rightly viewed as two sides of the same coin.
In other words, biblical conversion is never merely a change of intellectual perspective that results in no change in the individual’s life. Unfortunately, in many of our churches, we find people who profess to have been converted, but they exhibit merely an intellectual assent to the gospel apart from any evidence of real change in their life.
Scripture clearly regards this kind of mere mental assent as false conversion (Matt. 7:21-23). God demands a whole-person response to him as his covenant creatures: our sin is a whole-person rebellion against God, and Christian salvation is a whole-person transformation, literally a new creation. Conversion involves turning from sin and turning to Christ, which involves the whole person—their intellect, will, and emotions (Acts 2:37-38; 2 Cor. 7:10; Heb. 6:1).
IT IS NOT ENOUGH TO TIP OUR HAT TO JESUS
Conversion is not optional; it is absolutely necessary. We cannot understand salvation and the gospel apart from a robust view of it.
Nominal Christianity, which is rampant in our churches, is not biblical Christianity. It is not enough to tip our hat to Jesus; we must experience God’s sovereign and gracious work in our lives, giving us new life and enabling us, by the work of the Spirit of God, to repent and believe the gospel.
Our faulty understandings of conversion are often due to our faulty theologies. The remedy to this situation is to return to the Scriptures on our knees, asking that our great God would again revive his church so that in our proclamation of the gospel, men and women and boys and girls would repent of their sins and believe in Christ Jesus our Lord.