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Only when Christian conversion is treated in a purely descriptive or statistical manner do the facts of psychology assume the place of central importance in the discussion. The present essay attempts to deal with Christian conversion from the normative or imperative (rather than the descriptive) standpoint, and for this reason reliance is placed, first and foremost, on the Christian Scriptures; the data of modern psychology are viewed as contributor to, but in no sense final for, the determination of norms in Christian experience. [1]

At the outset, the term "conversion" shall be defined simply on the basis of its etymology. This will provide a useful working definition which will not at the same time prejudice the discussion by introducing unwarranted preconceptions. In brief, the word "conversion" derives from two Latin words, verto (versus), meaning "turn", and con (cum) which here has an intensive or strengthening function, and is perhaps best translated "completely/thoroughly/altogether". "Conversion", then, has the etymological meaning of "a thorough turning", or (which is the same thing) "a turning completely around".[2]

The present study will be organized in terms of four key questions, the answers to which should considerably clarify the general topic set forth in the title of this paper. The four questions are as follows, and will be discussed in the order listed: (1) Is conversion necessary in the Christian life? (2) Is conversion properly a once-for-all act in the Christian life? (3) What are the characteristics of true Christian conversion? (4) What are the practical consequences of the preceding discussion for the work of the church?


Is Conversion Necessary in the Christian Life?

That the phenomenon of religious conversion is not limited to the Christian faith is too well known to require documentation. Moreover, conversions of a purely "moral" character are not uncommon (e.g., in the case of Alcoholics Anonymous), and interesting cases of conversion from (rather than to) Christianity have been recorded in the fields of psychology, biography, and belles-lettres. A comparison of non-Christian conversions with conversions to the Christian faith reveals to the unprejudiced observer remarkable similarities; so much so, in fact, that one is hard pressed to distinguish Christian from non-Christian conversion on the basis of any purely empirical criterion.[3]

If this is the case, are we to conclude that conversion is a general religious phenomenon which does not have necessary relevance to the Christian faith? Such a conclusion does not logically follow from the premise, even though the latter be true. Christianity is a religion operating within the natural world of human affairs; thus it is not impossible for Christianity to employ devices of techniques which are common in other spheres of human life. Indeed, Christianity frequently does the latter (note, e.g., the similarity between the Christian eucharist and the sacrificial meals in the Hellenistic mystery religions). However, whether the Christian faith does in fact require conversion of its adherents is to be determined solely by the testimony of the Christian Scriptures.

Two New Testament passages make clear beyond doubt that a Christian "conversion" is necessary not only for non-Christian but also for those who are already in a disciple- (mathetes-) relationship to Jesus Christ. In Mt. 18:3 Jesus says to his disciples: "amen lego humin, eah me straphete [root strepho] kai genesthe hos ta paidia, ou me eiselthete eis ten basileian ton ouranon". In Acts 3:19, Peter thus preaches to unbelieving Jews: "metanoesate oun kai epistrepsate [root epistrepho] pros to exaleiphthenai humon tas humartias". (With this latter passage, cf. Acts 15:3, where "conversion" epistrophe is used synonymously with "becoming a Christian".) It is noteworthy that the Bible requires a conversion in the Christian life even though it recognizes that conversion as such can also occur in a non-Christian direction. In Acts 7:39, for example, strepho is used in the sense of backsliding.[4]

How can Scripture require conversion of the Christian, and at the same time admit that conversion may take place from Christianity to some other Weltanschauung? Scripture does not attempt to set forth any psychological distinction between conversion to and conversion from the living God, but it does distinguish the two on the basis of motivating agent. Conversion to God is integrally bound up with the work of the Holy Spirit, while conversion from God is never so motivated. Ps. 51:10-13 makes abundantly clear that the presence of the Holy Spirit is essential for the conversion (Hb. shoov) of sinners to the true God. Since the Holy Spirit, like the wind (pneumaa = wind/spirit) "hopou thelei pnei kai ten phonen avtou ukoveis, all= ouk oidas pothen erchetai kai pou hupagei" (Jn. 3:8), one should not expect Christian conversion to be psychologically different from non-Christian conversion; yet spiritually (sub specie aeternitatis) a difference of the most fundamental kind exists.[5]

Is Conversion Properly a Once-for-all Act in the Christian Life?

Having established on the ground of revelation the necessity for conversion in the life of a Christian, we shall now attempt to determine whether this conversion is normally a single event, or whether it should occur on more than one occasion, in the life experience of the believer.

Biblical passages such as James 5:19-20 (epistrepho [twice]) and Luke 22:32 (epistrepho) [6] show decisively that conversion is not normally a once-for-all act in the life of the Christian. This should not seem strange, since Christian conversion (as we have already seen) is a work of the Holy Spirit, and the Spirit is not irresistible (Acts 7:51). Confusion arises only when conversion is equated with baptism, which, though also a work of the Holy Spirit, is not to be repeated (Eph. 4:5, and the complete absence of instances of Christian anabaptism in the NT). Baptism and regeneration are correlative concepts, as John 3 shows; but regeneration is not identified with conversion in the Bible.

A connection does of course exist between conversion and regeneration, but this connection is not one of identity. We have already seen that conversion is sometimes used in Scripture as the equivalent of "becoming a Christian" (Acts 3:19, 15:3). In the case of an unbeliever who does not resist the Holy Spirit, conversion normally occurs when baptism takes place; however, the reborn individual, though he need never be rebaptized or "regenerated", is not thereby exempted from later conversion experiences. Because of the constant presence of the "old man" in the Christian life, Luther considered conversion (a turning back to the God of baptism) as a proper daily activity on the part of the believer.[7]

The seventeenth century dogmaticians were correct, therefore, in distinguishing between conversion in the case of the unregenerate person on the one hand, and conversion in the case of the regenerate but lapsed individual on the other. Hutter, for example, asserts that in the conversion of infidels, a change occurs "from unregenerate to regenerate, from unbelievers to believers. But the condition of the lapsed in the Church is such that, although seduced by the devil, they have become subject to divine wrath and eternal damnation, nevertheless they have not yet altogether fallen from the covenant itself and from the right of adoption of the sons of God, so far as God is concerned; nor do they absolutely fall away from that, unless they persevere to the end in sin."[8]

What are the Characteristics of Christian Conversion?

If it be granted that conversion is necessary in the life of a Christian, and that conversion is not a once-for-all act like baptism, it becomes important to discover precisely what elements go to make up a valid Christian conversion.

According to the Biblical revelation, Christian conversion is produced by the Holy Spirit (Ps. 51:10-13), working in a twofold way. The first is through the law (Ps. 19:7; Hb. shoov); the second is through the gospel (the kerygmatic message connected with Acts 3:19, and with all apostolic preaching). [9] The fact that the law and the gospel are involved in conversion makes evident the basic character of the Christian "turning-completely-around". God's law reveals to the individual that he is not measuring up to God's standards that he cannot face a holy God because of his sin. The law thus shows a man his sin; relates this sin to the wrath of God against sin; and leaves a man decimated because of the perfect standards required by the law. At this point, however, the gospel enters the picture, and turns the sinner in the right direction completely around facing God. The gospel can do this, because it reveals the great love whereby God gave Himself to break the power of the world, the flesh, the devil, and the law over men's hearts. If the sinner will but receive the grace offered to him, he will be converted will be turned form sin to the God who takes away all sin.[10] Since the Christian is always simul iustus et peccator (Rom. 7), we can now better understand why this conversion process cannot be restricted to a single act in the Christian life. It is only reasonable that daily sinners should be daily converted.

Nowhere in Scripture is a particular psychological experience set up as normative in conversion. Conversions are indeed described in Scripture, but these differ widely in their empirical character. A simple comparison of the conversions of Saul (Acts 9) and the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8) makes this very evident. Conversion occurs where the Holy Spirit works through law and gospel; the psychological manifestations of conversion in the subject can vary as widely as there are individuals who will allow the Spirit to work in their hearts.

What are the Practical Consequences of the Preceding

Discussion for the Work of the Church?

At least four practical suggestions can be offered in conclusion. These will simply be listed, for they should be self-evident to readers who have reached this point in the essay.

(1) One of the pastor's chief aims should be to encourage daily conversion in the lives of the individuals in his congregation.

(2) Confirmation, with its emphasis on confirming the baptismal now, provides an especially opportune time to explain and to stress the importance of daily conversion and remembering of one's baptism.

(3) The preaching of conversion should never give the impression that a single act of conversion places the individual in a relationship to God which sin or unbelief cannot destroy. Conversion, in other words must not be confused with baptismal regeneration, but should always refer back to such regeneration when baptism has already taken place in the individual's life.

(4) The evangelistic work of the church should aim toward bringing the unchurched into a baptized and consciously converted relationship to Jesus Christ. Increase in the number of names on the membership rolls is never an adequate substitute for this goal.

(5)Conversions are most effectively accomplished through regenerate, converted, Holy-Spirit-led believers (Ps. 51:10-13) who maintain a proper distinction between the law and the gospel in their evangelistic testimony. Though the efficacy of the Word and the Sacraments derives solely from God's unmerited grace and is in no sense dependent upon the human agents administering them, and though the Holy Spirit of God regularly uses the weak things of this world to confound the wise, yet there is disquieting paradoxical truth in Dwight Moody's remark that Ano man leads another closer to Christ than he is himself.


[1] "From the point of view of the descriptive sciences, all evaluation is nonscientific" (E.S. Brightman, A Philosophy of Religion, New York: Prentice-Hall, 1940, p. 12).

[2] It is of more than routine interest that the Biblical words for conversion have similar etymological significance. The Hebrew verb shoov means "turn back/return", and the Greek verb strepho and its compounds (epistrepho; epistrophe) have the root meaning of turn.


[3] Cf. Samuel Butler=s semi-autobiographical novel, The Way of All Flesh, chs. 65 and 68, where the stormy conversion of the leading character from Christianity to freethought is paralleled with being saved by grace through faith, and with giving up father and mother for Christ's sake.

[4] Cf. Didache, 11:2: "ean de avtos ho didaskon strapheis [root strepho] didaske allen didachen eis to katalvsai, me avtou akovsete". shoov is used in the sense of "turn back from God/Apostatize" in a number of OT passages (e.g., Num. 14:43, 32:15; I Sam. 15:11; I Kings 9:6; Jer. 3:19, 8:4; Ps. 78:41).

[5] "Faith itself, because it is divinely produced, remains a completely intangible reality, psychic in its nature, imperceptible to the senses, incomprehensible to mere reason, a miracle of creation that has come out of eternity" (Köberle, Quest for Holiness, tr. Mattes, New York: Harper, 1936, p. 77).

[6] A. B. Bruce comments on this Lukan passage: "hina me eklipe he p.s., That thy faith may not (utterly) fail or die (xvi. 9), though it prove weak or inadequate for the moment. . . Peter never ceased to love Jesus, but he was overpowered by fear and the instinct of self-preservation" (Expositor=s Greek Testament, ed. Nicoll).

[7] "Let everyone esteem his baptism as a daily dress in which he is to walk constantly, that he may ever be found in the faith and its fruits, that he suppress the old man and grow up in the new. . . If any one fall away from it, let him again come into it. . . . If therefore we have once in baptism obtained forgiveness of sin, it will remain every day, as long as we live, that is, as long as we carry the old man about our neck" (Large Catechism).

[8] Loci communes, p. 281. Quoted in Schmid, Doctrinal Theology (tr. Hay and Jacobs, 5th ed. Philadelphia: United Luth. Pub. House, 1899, p. 473).

[9] See C. H. Dodd, The Apostolic Preaching and Its Developments (1936).

[10] With the preceding remarks, cf. Luther's Sermon on the Distinction between the Law and the Gospel.

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John Warwick Montgomery
Ph.D. (Chicago), Th.D. (Strasbourg), LL.D. (Cardiff)
Of the Middle Temple and Lincoln’s Inn, Barrister-At-Law;
Member of the CA, WA,VA, DC and US Supreme Court Bars;
Inscrit au Barreau de Paris;
Emeritus Professor of Law & Humanities,
University of Bedfordshire, England/U.K.;
Distinguished Research Professor of Philosophy and Christian Thought,
Patrick Henry College, Virginia, U.S.A.