The word “conversion” only appears once in the New Testament at Acts 15:3. There, Paul and Barnabas were describing the conversion of the Gentiles, or non-Jews, who had become Christians. Even though the actual word only appears once, it is clear, however, that conversion is a central theme in the New Testament.
It might be a good idea to define the word itself before exploring the New Testament further. Dictionary.com defines conversion as “a change of attitude, emotion, or viewpoint from one of indifference, disbelief, or antagonism to one of acceptance, faith, or enthusiastic support, especially such a change in a person’s religion.” This definition lines up with the New Testament’s theology of soteriology, or salvation.
It might be also be appropriate to start off by asking the question, “What did Jesus have to say about conversion and the process of salvation?” Jesus’ first sermon, according to Mark, was “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” (Mark 1:15) The word “repent” seems to fit nicely with the concept of conversion. “Repent” is defined as “to feel such sorrow for sin or fault as to be disposed to change ones life for the better; be penitent.” John the Baptist also preached a message of repentance before Jesus started his public ministry.
Repentance seems to be an integral part of the conversion process. The first step involves sorrow or remorse for one’s sins. The second step involves the person being willing to change their behavior and even change the course of their life. Jesus understood that before a person could accept his lordship over their life, they had to be willing to change directions. A ship can only have one captain and a person’s life can only have one master.
Another idea that was present in Jesus’ message was that of believing the gospel. The word “gospel” comes from the Greek word “evangelion.” The word is often translated as “good news.” It was actually a common Greek word that the Christian writers adopted. The good news that was often being referred to was “a message of victory or other political or personal news that caused joy.” This would be the kind of news that an emperor might pass on to their subjects. If the king’s wife gave birth to a son, for example, the good news would be that there was now an heir to the throne. When Jesus said “believe in the gospel,” he was, in essence, saying that there was a new king in the world who asked his followers for wholehearted obedience.
The Gospels also portray another important part of the conversion process. That was the idea of following Jesus or becoming a disciple. Jesus called a number of people to follow him during his earthly ministry. Jesus designated twelve of these men as apostles. There were many other followers as well. Luke 10:1-3 describes Jesus sending out seventy-two of his followers in pairs to preach his message and heal the sick.
By way of contrast, there were others that Jesus called who refused to follow him. One example is found in Mark 10:17-22. The story is often called the story of “The Rich Young Ruler.” This man approached Jesus asking what he had to do to get eternal life. They then had a discussion about obeying the Ten Commandments. The young man insisted that he had always kept the commands. Even though the man’s question centered on eternal life, Jesus made it clear that he was more concerned with the man becoming a disciple.
Jesus understood that the man’s problem had to do with idolatry. His money was his god. Jesus told him, “You lack only one thing,” he told him. “Go and sell all you have and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
Clearly, Jesus put his finger on what was keeping the man from being converted. At Jesus’ statement, the man’s face fell and he went away very sad. He could not bear to part with his many possessions. This story illustrates the principle that God will not allow us to have other gods in our lives, whether they be actual idols or our wealth.
The Gospel of John’s theme throughout the entire book is that of belief versus unbelief. In every encounter that Jesus had with people in John, the goal was to lead them to faith. John unabashedly said that this was the reason that he wrote his book: “Jesus’ disciples saw him do many other miraculous signs besides the ones recorded in this book. But these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing in him you will have life.” (John 20:30-31)
John saw faith as an integral part of the conversion process. In perhaps the most famous verse in the Bible, John 3:16, John makes clear that it is those who believe, or have faith, in Jesus that will experience eternal life. The Greek word for believe, “pisteuo,” means “to have faith in something or someone.” Believing in Jesus is not just intellectual consent. It is putting ones trust in him.
John further illustrates this idea of having faith in or believing in Jesus by showing people respond in this way after seeing Jesus perform a miracle. John 11:45, for example, states that many people believed in Jesus after seeing him raise Lazarus from the dead. The signs or miracles that Jesus performed led many people to have faith in him.
Moving from the gospels to Paul’s letters, the reader will find a more defined theology of conversion. Paul is usually considered the first great theologian of the early Church. His letters to the Galatians and the Romans specifically discuss conversion, even though Paul uses other terms to describe that concept.
For example, in Romans 5:1-2, Paul says that because of a person’s faith, they are now brought into a relationship of peace with God. Paul describes this as being “made right in God’s sight.” Other translations use the word “justified.” Theologians often describe justification as the trigger that leads to a person’s conversion.
Paul also draws heavily from the Hebrew Scriptures as he writes about justification and conversion. In both Galatians and Romans, the patriarch Abraham is held up as an example of someone whose faith led to their conversion or salvation experience with God. In Galatians 3:6, for example, Paul quotes from Genesis where it said, “Abraham believed God, so God declared him righteous because of his faith.”
Abraham is often referred to as “The Father of Faith.” His life was a life of faith. There was a moment, though, in which Abraham accepted, believed, and internalized the promises that God had made to him. At that moment, Abraham was made right with God.
In conclusion, conversion in the New Testament seems to involve several components. Repentance, accepting the message of the gospel, discipleship, faith, and a willingness to surrender one’s will to God’s will are all part of the conversion process. Thankfully, God has made a way through Christ that one can be converted and changed by his Holy Spirit.
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