Vol. 24 New Series December, 1962 No. 6
CONVERSION

Dredging the muddy depths of the publications issued by the more influential churches often brings up some oddities. One such recently appeared in the correspondence columns of the "Church Times" of London. The subject under discussion was how often should new or relatively new members of the church attend Communion, that is, the Lord's Supper. The writer of the letter produced the following remarkable assertion:

Of its kind this is a gem, illustrating as it does the hopeless mental and spiritual confusion of its writer.

How can one who is only "on the road to conversion," even if he be "well on the road," be a Christian at all, let alone a mature one? We can only wonder whether this writer means by "conversion." and even if it means anything to him.

Nevertheless, we would do well to ask ourselves what we mean by it and, moreover, whether the word has any Scriptural meaning? The C.V. never finds it necessary to use the words conversion and convert in the sense they are usually employed in evangelism—and rightly, I believe. King James' Version uses the former once (Acts 15:3), where the C.V. has turning about, ePistroPhE. The verb epistrephO (C.V. turn back, turn about, according to context) is rendered convert several times in the A.V. or King James' Version: Matt. 13:15; Mark 4:12; Luke 22:32; Acts 3:19; 28:27; James 5:19, 20. All but the last two speak of being converted, that is to say, as if they were Passives; whereas in the Greek the whole lot are in the Active Voice.

However, in the Greek there are five in the Passive Voice, according to the C.V. Concordance. These are Matt. 9:22; 10:13; Mark 5:30; 8:33; John 21:20. Not even a single one of these can appropriately be rendered by converted in any form.

We reach the inescapable conclusion, then, that the Greek Scriptures have nothing whatever to say about "being converted." Very different is the situation in the churches, particularly among those who call themselves "evangelical," among whom the words "convert," "be converted" and "conversion" are frequently to be heard. By itself this practise shows how far they have slipped away from the truths set out in the Scriptures. Yet it cannot be denied that despite this error there is a considerable measure of truth in what is said by them about "conversion." What is it that they are trying to say, even though in so faulty a manner?

The answer is to be found in the usages of the Greek verb pisteuO, believe. If, instead of exhorting people to be converted, instead of trying to convert them, Christians were to try to persuade them to believe, particularly to believe God, much confusion and misplaced effort would be avoided. Let the reader take his concordance and go through every occurrence of this verb in the Greek Scriptures. He will see that this is so; and he will end his task with faith confirmed and strengthened beyond measure.

Return to the quotation at the start of this paper, and repeat it with believing substituted for conversion. Its folly will become even more manifest.

The Christian is one who believes on the Lord Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, and therefore on the written Word He has given. If a person is, in truth, on the road to believing, then he needs all the help and encouragement we can give; but nothing, nothing at all, can hinder him worse on his road than putting up the silly pretence, and evil as well as silly, that he is as yet a Christian at all, let alone a mature Christian.

At this point someone will surely ask: "But why dispute about words? If some person says he has experienced conversion, why not accept this as fact and take his word for it?"

Yet how can we accept as fact, in this context, an alleged experience about which Scripture knows nothing at all? Let us be quite clear. We must not dispute the fact that this person has had an experience which he has been led to call "conversion." The point is—and it is a vital point—is it correct to call his experience by this name? In fact, why not say plainly that in a moment in his lifetime he became aware that he believed God as Abraham did? For if his "conversion" did not mean just this, it was no conversion at all in any Christian sense.

But does it matter? It does, indeed; for the persistent practise of describing the first act of believing God as "conversion" tends to make people expect some great and startling experience. Some have even gone so far as to declare that unless a person has had such an experience, he is not truly converted.

This is a noteworthy example of what is called "arguing in a circle"; the scheme here being: (1) the Christian life must begin with conversion. (2) Conversion must be an experience. (3) Experience is the only way one can know one is truly a Christian. So the circle is completed.

This sort of argument is in principle the same as that most ancient of all swindles, "The Three-card Trick," because it dodges between two meanings of the "conversion." If by it we mean "believing God," then (1) is certainly true but (2) is certainly untrue, because believing God is not necessarily an experience, even if it be an experience at all. If by "conversion" we mean a decisive change in our whole outlook and manner of life, then (2) is certainly true but (1) is not, because believing God is not at first such a change, though it necessarily leads eventually to that change. Even (3) is not unequivocally true as it stands, because that depends on what one means by "experience." If it means cumulative experience over a period of time, then (3) is true; but if it means an experience at one moment, one great illumination, so to speak; it may easily be a delusion. Many have had the experience of "conversion" in this sense and subsequently turned away, because what they did was having an experience instead of believing God.

That some do have an experience of conversion and discover that they have come to believe God and that this faith has changed their lives, is undeniable. Yet it is false to say that such an experience is the only way, for it cannot be supported either by Scripture or by every individual record.

We ought to distrust such words as "conversion" because they are ideas added to Scripture and thereby denying the full sufficiency of Scripture. People like the man quoted above can speak of "conversion"; but we do not hear of them speaking of "believing God" or "believing Scripture" except in terms of derision.

R.B.W. Last updated 19.1.2006