The Nature of Conversion
In Biblical terms, conversion (from the Latin convertere = ‘to turn’) means to turn from sin to God; conversion is the act of turning. Both the Hebrew words sub and niham and the Greek words epistrepho and metanoeo bear this meaning. When translated into English, they indicate returning or turning back to God through a change of mind involving regret for one’s former sinful way of life. The intensity of this regret varies with each individual. But the turning itself is definite and permanent.
Five Points regarding Conversion
Five things need to be kept in mind when we think of conversion.
1. First, no two conversions are exactly alike, either in the order of experience or in their circumstances. Yet every conversion produces the same results: receiving Christ, forsaking sin, pursuing holiness and expecting heaven. Some experience painful and protracted periods of deep conviction for sin before their conversion. Others are quickly overwhelmed by the love and mercy of God in sending Christ to die for them. There is a great variety in God’s dealings with his elect.
2. Second, no one can give a full and precise account of the way the Spirit brought him to trust in Christ alone for salvation and repent of his sin. We cannot trace the Spirit’s sovereign working, and God has not told us how he operates. Paul, and Lydia, and Luther, and Calvin, and Goodwin, and Whitefield, and Spurgeon could tell us something of their circumstances and experiences, but none of them could plumb the depths of the Spirit in his mysterious act of regenerating them.
3. Third, we need to be both humble and cautious in speaking of anyone’s conversion, including our own. People are so apt to take one case as a model for themselves and others. One hearer of my acquaintance asked me how she could have the same experience as Paul on the road to Damascus! If we speak of our own conversion, we should be constantly aware of rising pride, and consciously attribute it all to God. Self loves to rob him of his incommunicable glory, even in the first days of our newly-given freedom. Furthermore, none of us should lay down anything as essential to conversion, unless the Word of God makes it so.
4. Fourth, when our conversion is of the Lord, and not man, then he keeps us from fatal delusions. Even when we are misled early on in our spiritual life, sooner or later he corrects our deviations and restores us to his way. One young convert I know agreed to ‘become perfectly holy’ by the laying on of hands. Thankfully, after only five days the Lord showed him how unholy he was!
5. Fifth, it is not essential to know the exact time of our conversion. The change of heart and life, not the time of its occurrence, is what matters. In time, all who have passed from death to life will begin to bear the fruit of the Spirit and abandon the works of the flesh. The only infallible proof of true conversion is a godly life.
Two Examples of Conversion
Having offered these preliminary thoughts, we will now recall the conversion of two people, one male, the other female. They both prove that nothing is too hard for the Lord.
1] In 1673 a ship from Virginia entered Dartmouth. Its surgeon, a ‘lusty young man of 23 . . . fell into a deep melancholy’ and tried to commit suicide. At the instigation of Satan he slit his own throat and stabbed himself in the stomach early on the Lord’s Day. Following his brother’s cry for help, a physician and surgeon arrived; but even after stitching up his throat wound they both thought he would soon die.
Before long, John Flavel, a nearby Puritan minister, was at his bedside, and sought to prepare the young man for eternity. When asked about his spiritual condition, the man replied that he hoped in God for eternal life. But Flavel told him that he feared his hopes were ill grounded, because ‘no murderer has eternal life abiding in him,’ and suicide is self-murder. Soon the young man’s stout conscience began to fail, his heart melted, and he broke into tears, bewailing his sin and misery. Having asked Flavel if there might still be hope for him, he was told that there might, but that he was a stranger to faith and repentance. Accordingly Flavel explained them to him. ‘The poor man sucked in this doctrine greedily, prayed with great vehemence to God that he would work them on his soul.’ He then begged Flavel to pray with and for him, that, however late he was in seeking them, he might become a ‘sincere Gospel penitent and sound believer.’ During Flavel’s prayer, God was pleased to further melt his heart. Flavel then left to perform other duties, never expecting to see him alive again. But contrary to all expectations, the young man survived, and began to ‘pant earnestly after the Lord Jesus,’ loving nothing better than to hear of him and faith.
In this frame of mind Flavel found him in the evening. Full of joy at the minister’s return, he begged him to continue speaking on these subjects, and told him: ‘Sir, the Lord hath given me repentance for this and for all my other sins; I see the evil of them now, so as I never saw them before! O I loathe myself! I do also believe; Lord, help my unbelief! I am heartily willing to take Christ upon his own terms. But one thing troubles me: I doubt this bloody sin will not be pardoned. Will Jesus Christ apply his blood to one who has shed his own blood?’ Flavel replied that the Lord Jesus shed his blood for those who with wicked hands had shed his own blood, which was a greater sin than the young man shedding his; to which he replied: ‘I will cast myself upon Christ, let him do what he will.’ In this state Flavel left him that night.
The next morning the surgeon decided to open the man’s wounds, stating his opinion that he would immediately expire. Flavel was again sent for, and he found the patient in a very serious frame of mind. He then prayed with him. When the stomach wound was opened, a ventricle was so swollen that it came out of the orifice. It had been lacerated in the suicide attempt, and ‘lay like a livid discoloured tripe upon his body.’ Everyone thought it impossible for him to live. However, the surgeon opened the wound further, fomented it, and pushed the ventricle back into his body. Stitching up the wound, he ‘left his patient to the disposal of providence.’
It pleased the Lord to cure both his physical wounds, and the man gave good ground for others to believe that his soul wounds too had been cured. Flavel spent many hours with him during his convalescence, and after his complete recovery, Samuel Hardy, the ‘worthy minister’ of Poole, where the sailor lived, thanked Flavel for the great pains he had taken with the young man, assuring him, ‘that if ever a great and thorough work was wrought, it was upon that man.’
2] Our second case comes from the Scottish Highlands. Muckle Kate was a notorious sinner of Lochcarron during the ministry of Lachlan Mackenzie. She had spent over eighty years in the service of Satan, and had openly broken every commandment except the sixth (‘Thou shalt not kill’). Her minister described her as ‘ugly . . . without beauty in the sight of God or men.’ She never crossed the threshold of a place of worship, but spent much of her time attending ceilidhs, listening to others recite Ossianic compositions and the poems of ancient Gaelic bards.
Knowing her fondness for such gatherings, Mr. Mackenzie composed a Gaelic poem in which he lashed her sins as sharply as he could. He then had the words set to music, and got some young men to sing it at a gathering where Kate was present. The words shot into her heart like arrows, till the nearby rocks echoed the cries of her wailing. From then on she spent her days in lonely places, weeping over her sins until she became totally blind. To all appearances, eternal despair was to be her portion. But at long last deliverance came, and ‘Mr. Lachlan’ wished to see her at the Lord’s Table. The very thought of doing such a thing staggered her. ‘Should I,’ she questioned, ‘whose hands have been up to the shoulders in my Saviour’s blood, dare to do such a thing?’
When an open air Communion Sabbath came round, and the table services were over, on returning to the preaching tent ‘Mr. Lachlan’ heard a piercing cry. He went over to the distressed woman, took her hand, and led her to the table. There this poor, blind, aged sinner partook of the symbols of her Saviour’s broken body and shed blood. The eyes of the whole congregation, who knew her past life, were on her; and there, alone, before them all, she bore testimony to the wondrous grace of God.
The almighty power of God in the conversion of a sinner is the most mysterious of all the works of God. – Thomas Hooker
In conversion, the finger of God enters the heart and writes on it two words: JESUS CHRIST. – Donald Macfarlane, Dingwall
It is a sign of true conversion when a man’s heart is melted to love God’s eternal law and when his will is bent to obey it. – Richard Alderson
Conversion is not the smooth, easy-going process some men seem to think it; otherwise man’s heart would never have been compared to fallow ground and God’s Word to a plough. – John Bunyan
Conversion is a deep work, a heart work. It goes throughout the man . . . the mind . . . the members . . . the entire life. – Joseph Alleine
Conversion is no repairing of the old building, but it takes all down and erects a new structure. – Joseph Alleine
If no conversion, no salvation. – Matthew Henry
Reprinted with permission from Peace and Truth 2010:3.
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