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.
Christian spiritual formation is the lifelong process of being conformed into the image of Jesus Christ for the sake of the world. What does the “image of Jesus Christ” refer to? To understand this, we must think back to the creation account in Genesis, where it says that God created Adam and Eve in His image (Genesis 1:26-28). John Wesley wrote about the image of God both before and after the Fall, saying the image of God can be thought of in three parts.
The first part is called the natural image. As people made in God’s image, Adam and Eve were immortal—they wouldn’t die; had perfect reason or understanding—they understood things completely; had free will and judgment—their choices were made just like we make choices, but with perfect judgment; and perfectly ordered emotions or affections—they didn’t get angry over the silly little things, they were patient, etc.
After the Fall, this natural image was marred. They were still able to make decisions, but they didn’t always turn to God when making them. They definitely weren’t immortal anymore; death had entered the Garden. And their emotions were swayed easily over little things. It didn’t take much for them to become depressed or saddened.
The second part is the political image. This refers to our ability to rule over earth and engage in interpersonal relationships. Adam and Eve ruled over creation, naming the animals and living peacefully in the Garden of Eden. They didn’t have to worry about famine or drought, as the earth had not yet been cursed. They also got along with one another. No miscommunication, no hurting each other’s feelings, no secrets or betrayal.
After the Fall, the political image was also marred. Adam and Eve were kicked out of the Garden, rule over the earth became much more difficult as a result of the curse, and they did not rule the earth as God intended. Neither did they relate to one another perfectly: the first sin recorded after humanity’s booting from the Garden was Cain killing Abel.
The third part is the moral image. This refers to our immediate personal knowledge of God. Adam and Eve knew God intimately. God wasn’t just a part of theirs lives; He was there with them. He cared for them, and they spoke with Him like we do one another. They loved God with all their hearts. And because of this, they understood that people were special to God.
After the Fall, the moral image was completely destroyed. Not just marred, but destroyed. Adam and Eve didn’t know God intimately as before. God no longer walked in the cool of the day with them. Their sin separated them from God. And there was nothing they could do to restore the relationship. Sin was alive, and as a result, they would have to rely on God to make Himself known to them and to make it possible for them to know Him once again.
And here is the kicker: The New Testament intentionally speaks of Jesus Christ as the second Adam!
- Romans 5:14, 18: Nevertheless, death reigned from the time of Adam to the time of Moses, even over those who did not sin by breaking a command, as did Adam, who is a pattern of the one to come…. Consequently, just as one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all.
- 1 Corinthians 15:21-22: For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a human being. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.
Jesus Christ is the second Adam, the one who is both fully human and fully God who lived a life faithful to God unlike Adam. When given the choice to sin, Jesus did not. He perfectly reflected the image of God to humanity by His faithful obedience, showing us exactly who God is. Hebrews 1:1-3 says, “In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven.”
And so, when we are being conformed into the image of Christ, what God is doing is making us like the Son of God, capable of representing God to the world in faithful obedience. We go from having a marred natural and political image and a fully broken moral image, incapable of even knowing God, to a partially-restored natural and political image. When we are born, we have some ability to reason, to understand the world around us, to relate to those around us, etc. But our moral image is still fully broken. Those who accept Christ receive His grace and begin on the road to receiving more grace, which enables them to cooperate with God and to find full restoration of the moral image in this life. God enables us to be conformed into the image of Christ.