Conversion is what makes the difference between someone who is simply seeking God and someone who has entered into a saving relationship with God. In a former post, we talked about this briefly. Conversion makes a difference, and it is a necessary step in one’s Christian spiritual formation–hear me say that I believe we need to call people to real conversion experiences. Conversion, however, is not the end of the road, as we all know from experience. I’m reminded of Scot McKnight’s King Jesus Gospel, where he writes that we’ve become soterians (calling for salvation) rather than evangelicals (preaching the gospel), equating giving people an opportunity to “pray the prayer” with preaching the gospel. But I digress.
The way we call people will impact the way they understand their future life in Christ. It is imperative that we not only make available chances for people to come to Christ in a conversion experience, but also that we adequately explain just what is happening in them.
Conversion is a combination of God’s work and our work. It is, from God’s perspective, all by grace. It is a gift we receive. From our perspective, God’s grace makes possible also the gift of faith. In repentance, we turn from sin and turn to God in faith. According to Wesley,
Saving faith is not belief in the truths of the Bible. Satan believes this and is Satan still.
Saving faith means putting your confidence in the grace of God.
Saving faith means assurance that Jesus is the Son of God who died and rose again for me.
Saving faith means we rely on this Christ. We no longer rely on ourselves but on Him.
Saving faith means obedience. Wesley said this is obedience to all the commands of God, internal and external; obedience of the heart and of the life; in every temper and all manner of life.
This definition of saving faith is active and alive. It does not see salvation as an act of the past. We might ask, “I’m glad you were saved, but are you saved today?” Perhaps we ought to remember the Greek perfect tense verb as our example: salvation/conversion is something God accomplishes in us in the present that has impact in the future.
Conversion accomplishes four things in us:
Justification: What God does for us by pardoning our sins (Harper, The Way to Heaven, p. 55). Romans 3:21-24 says, “But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.” Notice how in these verses, Paul talks about the righteousness–being made right with God–has been made possible through faith in Jesus Christ. Everyone sinned, but everyone was also justified–pardoned from their sin–by his grace. We would do well to emphasize verse 24 in our preaching just as much as verse 23.
New Birth/Regeneration: “Renewing our fallen nature” (Harper, p. 56). This is renewal of the moral image of God, making us new creations in Christ empowered to live above sin. It is a change in heart, mind, will and action. The natural image and the political image are now also able to begin their renewal. Romans 6:1-4 says, “What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.” Paul continues in Romans, now talking about how we have died with Christ to sin. Our baptism symbolizes our deadness to sin and the new life that Christ brings. This is not just a new life as someone who now identifies himself or herself as a Christian, as if the newness were solely in self-identity. It is newness in the heart.
1 John 3:8-9 says, “The one who does what is sinful is of the devil, because the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work. Those who are born of God will not continue to sin, because God’s seed remains in them; they cannot go on sinning, because they have been born of God.” God’s seed in this verse refers to Jesus Christ. They cannot go on willfully sinning. This verse is not saying we will never sin again, but our new birth in Christ enables us to live above the power of sin and to actually choose God over sin every time.
Reconciliation/Adoption: The relationship that was broken by sin, between God and us, is restored (Harper, p. 58). We are adopted as sons and daughters of God. 2 Corinthians 5:17-21 says, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Through Jesus Christ, God restored a broken relationship with us (and now calls us to tell the world about it!).
Colossians 1:21-22 says, “Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior. But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation.” Note how Paul says we were once “alienated” from God and were enemies. Enemies in our own minds, that we thought of God as an enemy because of our evil behavior. How is this possible? Perhaps we assumed that God would want nothing to do with us and we wanted nothing to do with him too.
Initial Sanctification: Inward and outward holiness begins. God not only calls us righteous but makes us righteous with the righteousness of Christ. In real purity, our hearts are made places where the Spirit can dwell. Romans 6:19b-22 says, “Just as you used to offer yourselves as slaves to impurity and to ever-increasing wickedness, so now offer yourselves as slaves to righteousness leading to holiness. When you were slaves to sin, you were free from the control of righteousness. What benefit did you reap at that time from the things you are now ashamed of? Those things result in death! But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life.”
If conversion accomplishes these four things–justification, the new birth, adoption and reconciliation, and the initial work of sanctification, that’s a lot to pack into a sermon. Most of you haven’t even made it through this whole post it’s so long. My point is, can we reimagine better ways to communicate the necessity and benefits of conversion than a quick call to salvation using the Romans Road? I believe we can, and we must. It will have to involve relationships, and it will probably have to take place outside of our worship services. Does God honor commitments made in those 5 minutes? Certainly. I just think we can improve on it.
In our continuing conversation about what Christian spiritual formation is, we come to the phrase “of being conformed.” Christian spiritual formation is the lifelong process of being conformed into the image of Jesus Christ for the sake of the world.
Notice that this is phrased in a passive tense–being conformed. This means we are not the ones who do the work to ourselves, but God does the work to and in us. Again, this does not mean we have no role, but God is the primary player.
It also means that who we are now is not who are to become. God called Adam and Eve “very good,” but not perfect. Even they had character formation necessary.
Conforming may as well be a four-letter word today. It sounds rigid and constricting to our western ears. In all of our efforts to be God’s people, we even want to control what kind of a person we are becoming in Christ, as if that were possible. Christ calls us to lay down our expectations of who we’re becoming. It’s not about being true to my heart, as if authenticity were all that mattered. Authenticity is better than living out a facade. Authenticity is certainly a good step, but it stops short. If we are to participate with God in our spiritual formation, we must move from seeking authenticity alone to seeking authenticity with surrender of control.
Let’s look at some Scripture.
- 1 Peter 1:14-16: As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance. But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: “Be holy, because I am holy.”
- Romans 8:28-30: And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.
- 2 Corinthians 3:18: And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.
- Romans 12:1-2: Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is true worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.
- Colossians 3:9-10: Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator.