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“Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved.” (Acts 16:31) Not everybody is saved from God’s wrath just because Christ died for sinners. There is a condition we must meet in order to be saved.8 I want to try to show that the condition, summed up here as repentance and faith, is conversion and that conversion is nothing less than the creation of a Christian Hedonist.
WHAT IS CONVERSION?
Conversion 9 is used in the Bible only once, in Acts 15:3. Paul and Barnabas “passed through both Phoenicia and Samaria, describing in detail the conversion of the Gentiles, and brought great joy to all the brothers.” This conversion involved repentance and faith, as the other reports in Acts show.
8. In using the word condition for what we must do, I do not in any way want to minimize the truth that Jesus fulfilled the divine demand for our righteousness as the ground of our justification. What is required of us is not that we in any way improve on Christ’s righteousness as the ground of our right standing with God. Rather, what is required of us is a “condition” in a different sense: We must receive as a treasure what Christ has done for us and all the promises and joyful fellowship with God that He purchased.
9. The verb form of conversion (convert) is used in the Authorized Version of the New Testament in Matthew 13:15 (= Mark 4:12 = John 12:40 = Acts 28:27); 18:3; Luke 22:32; Acts 3:19; and James 5:19–20.
For example, in Acts 11:18 the apostles respond to Peter’s testimony about Gentile conversions like this: “Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life.” And in Acts 14:27, Paul and Barnabas report the conversion of the Gentiles by saying that “God…had opened a door of faith to the Gentiles.” Conversion, then, is repentance (turning from sin and unbelief) and faith (trusting in Christ alone for salvation).10 They are really two sides of the same coin. One side is tails—turn tail on the fruits of unbelief. The other side is heads—head straight for Jesus and trust His promises. You can’t have the one without the other any more than you can face two ways at once or serve two masters.
This means that saving faith in Christ always involves a profound change of heart. It is not merely agreement with the truth of a doctrine. Satan agrees with true doctrine (James 2:19). Saving faith is far deeper and more pervasive than that.
CONVERSION IS GIFT GODA OF We get an inkling of something awesome behind repentance and faith when we see hints in the book of Acts that conversion is the gift of God. “God has granted repentance that leads to life” (11:18). “God exalted [Christ] at his right hand…to give repentance to Israel” (5:31). God “opened a door of faith to the Gentiles” (14:27). “The Lord opened [Lydia’s] heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul” (16:14).
We will never fully appreciate what a deep and awesome thing conversion is until we own up to the fact that it is a miracle. It is a gift of God. Recall again the point that we not only sin, but we also are sinful—blind, hard, dead, unable to submit to the law of God. And so when we hear the gospel, we will never respond positively unless God performs the miracle of regeneration.11
10. For further elaboration, see Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1994), 709–21.
11. Regeneration is a big word for the new birth. It occurs in Greek (palingenesia) only once in the New Testament in reference to the new birth of a person (Titus 3:5) (also once in reference to the rebirth of the creation in the age to come, Matthew 19:28). For more on regeneration, see Grudem, Systematic Theology, 699–708.
CO N V E R S I O N
FAITH IS OUR ACT, BUT IS POSSIBLEBECAUSE OF GOD’S ACT Repentance and faith are our work. But we will not repent and believe unless God does His work to overcome our hard and rebellious hearts. This divine work is called regeneration. Our work is called conversion.12 Conversion does indeed include an act of will by which we renounce sin and submit ourselves to the authority of Christ and put our hope and trust in Him. We are responsible to do this and will be condemned if we don’t. But just as clearly, the Bible teaches that, owing to our hard heart and willful blindness and spiritual insensitivity, we cannot do this.13 We must first experience the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit. The Scriptures promised long ago that God would devote Himself to this work in
order to create for Himself a faithful people:
“And the LORD your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live.” (Deuteronomy 30:6) “I will give them a heart to know that I am the LORD, and they shall be my people and I will be their God, for they shall return to me with their whole heart.” (Jeremiah 24:7) 12. “In conversion man is active, and it wholly consists in his act; but in regeneration the Spirit of God is the only active cause.” Samuel Hopkins, “Regeneration and Conversion,” in Introduction to Puritan Theology, ed. Edward Hindson (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 1976), 180. I recommend this entire essay as an excellent statement on the relationship between regeneration (new birth) and conversion (repentance and faith).
13. This is a great stumbling block for many people—to assert that we are responsible to do what we are morally unable to do. The primary reason for asserting it is not that it springs obviously from our normal use of reason, but that the Bible so plainly teaches it. It may help, however, to consider that the inability we speak of is not owing to a physical handicap, but to moral corruption. Our inability to believe is not the result of a physically damaged brain, but of a morally perverted will. Physical inability would remove accountability. Moral inability does not. We cannot come to the light, because our corrupt and arrogant nature hates the light. So when someone does come to the light, “it is clearly seen that his deeds have been wrought by God” (John 3:21). The best treatment of this difficult subject I know of is Jonathan Edwards’s Freedom of the Will (Morgan, Penn.: Soli Deo Gloria, 1998, original 1754); also found in The Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. 1. For an excellent summary of Edwards’s argument, see C. Samuel Storms, “Jonathan Edwards on the Freedom of the Will,” Trinity Journal 3 (Fall 1982): 131–69.
“And I will give them one heart, and a new spirit I will put within them. I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh, that they may walk in my statutes and keep my rules and obey them.
And they shall be my people, and I will be their God.” (Ezekiel 11:19–20) “And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you.
And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.” (Ezekiel 36:26–27) These great promises from the Old Testament describe a work of God that changes a heart of stone into a heart of flesh and causes people to “know” and “love” and “obey” God. Without this spiritual heart transplant, people will not know and love and obey God. This prior work of God is what we mean by regeneration.
WE ARE “CALLED” THE WAY JESUS CALLED
LAZARUS: DEATH TO LIFEIn the New Testament, God is clearly active, creating a people for Himself by calling14 them out of darkness and enabling them to believe the gospel and walk in the light. John teaches most clearly that regeneration precedes and enables faith.
Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God. (1 John 5:1)
14. The Bible requires that we speak of God’s “call” in at least two distinct senses. One call is the general or external call that goes out in the preaching of the gospel. Everyone who hears a gospel message or reads the Bible is called in this sense. But God calls in another sense to some who hear the gospel. This is God’s internal or effectual call. It changes a person’s heart so that faith is secured. It is like the call “Let there be light!” or “Lazarus, come forth!” It creates what it demands. The key passage that demands this distinction is 1 Corinthians 1:23–24: “We preach Christ crucified [general call], a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called [effectual call], both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” Among the “generally called,” there is a group who are “called” in such a way that they are enabled to esteem the gospel as wisdom and power. The change caused by the effectual call is none other than the change of regeneration. For more on effectual calling, see Grudem, Systematic Theology, 692–721.
CO N V E R S I O N
The verb tenses make John’s intention unmistakable: “Everyone who goes on believing [pisteu on, present, continuous action] that Jesus is the Christ has been born [gennesanta, perfect, completed action with abiding effects] of God.” Faith is the evidence of new birth, not the cause of it. This is consistent with John’s whole book (cf. 1 John 2:29; 3:9; 4:2–3; 4:7).
Since faith and repentance are possible only because of the regenerating
work of God, both are called the gift of God:
Even when we were dead in our trespasses, [God] made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved.… By grace you have been saved through faith. And this15 is not your own doing; it is the gift of God. (Ephesians 2:5, 8) The Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will. (2 Timothy 2:24–26)
CONVERSION IS A CONDITION OF SALVATION
AND A MIRACLE OF GODThis meditation on the nature and origin of conversion clarifies two things.
One is the sense in which conversion is a condition for salvation. Continuous confusion is caused at this point by failing to define salvation precisely.
If salvation refers to new birth, conversion is not a condition of it. New birth comes first and enables the repentance and faith of conversion. Before new birth we are dead, and dead men don’t meet conditions. Regeneration is totally The words for grace (chariti) and faith (pisteos) are feminine in the original Greek. The word for this (touto) is neuter. Some have used this lack of agreement to say that the gift here is not faith. But this ignores the implication of verse 5: “Even when we were dead.” Grace is grace because it saved us even when we were dead. But it saves “through faith.” How does it save the dead through faith? By awakening the dead into the life of faith. That is why faith is a gift in Ephesians 2:5–8. This refers to the whole event of salvation by grace through faith and therefore does include faith as a gift. (Cf. Acts 18:27: “When he arrived, he greatly helped those who through grace had believed.”)
unconditional. It is owing solely to the free grace of God. “It depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy” (Romans 9:16).16 We get no credit. He gets all the glory.
But if salvation refers to justification, there is one clear condition we must meet: faith in Jesus Christ (Romans 3:28; 4:4–5; 5:1). And if salvation refers to our future deliverance from the wrath of God at the judgment and our entrance into eternal life, then not only does the New Testament say we must “believe,” but also that this faith must be so real that it produces the fruit of obedience.
There must be faith and the fruit of faith. “Faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (James 2:17; cf. v. 26). “In Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love” (Galatians 5:6). “Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:14).
When we cry, “What must I do to be saved?” the answer depends on what we are asking: how to be born again, how to be justified, or how to be finally welcomed into heaven. When we say that the answer is “Become a Christian Hedonist,” we mean God’s work in new birth, our faith in Christ, and the work of God in our lives by faith to help us obey Christ. This is the fullest meaning of conversion.
Which brings us to the second thing that has become clear from our discussion. Conversion, understood as the coming into being of a new nature (a Christian Hedonist) that will obey Christ, is no mere human decision. It is a human decision—but, oh, so much more! Repentant faith (or believing repentance) is based on an awesome miracle performed by the sovereign God. It is the breath of a new creature in Christ.
Saving faith has in it various elements. The nature of these elements makes
16. Some have tried to argue that Romans 9 has nothing to do with individuals and their eternal destiny. But I have tried, in turn, to show that this is precisely what Paul has in mind because the problem he is wrestling with in this chapter is how individual Jews within God’s chosen people, Israel, can be accursed and God’s Word still stand (see Romans 9:3–6). I wrote an entire book to demonstrate this interpretation: The Justification of God: An Exegetical and Theological Study of Romans 9:1–23, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 1993). See also Thomas R. Schreiner, “Does Romans 9 Teach Individual Election unto Salvation?” in Still Sovereign: Contemporary Perspectives on Election, Foreknowledge, and Grace, ed. Thomas R. Schreiner and Bruce A. Ware (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 2000), 89–106.
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