I. The Words "Conversion," "Convert," in Biblical Usage.
1. In the English Bible:
The noun "conversion" (epistrophe) occurs in only one passage in the Bible, "They passed through both Phoenicia and Samaria, declaring the conversion of the Gentiles" (Acts 15:3). Derived forms of the verb "convert" are used in the Revised Version (British and American) in Jas 5:19, "convert," "converteth" (5:20), "converted" (Ps 51:13, margin "return"), "converts" (Isa 1:27, margin "they that return"). In other instances where the King James Version uses forms of the verb "convert" the Revised Version (British and American) employs "turn again" (Isa 6:10; Lk 22:32; Acts 3:19), or "turn" (Isa 60:5; Mt 13:15; 18:3; Mk 4:12; Jn 12:40; Acts 28:27). In Ps 19:7 the reading of the King James Version, "The law of the Lord is perfect, converting the soul," has been changed by the revisers into "restoring the soul." The words commonly used in the English Bible as equivalent with the Hebrew and Greek terms are "turn," "return," "turn back," "turn again" (compare Dt 4:30; Isa 55:7; Jer 3:12 ff; 25:5; 35:15; Ezek 18:21-23; 33:11; Mal 3:7). Thus "convert" is synonymous with "turn," and "conversion" with "turning."
2. In the Old Testament:
The principal Hebrew word is :shubh; other words are panah, haphakh, cabhabh, in Hiphil. They are used (1) in the literal sense, for instance, Gen 14:7; Dt 17:16; Ps 56:9; Isa 38:8. (2) In the later prophetical writings the verb shubh refers, both in the Qal and Hiphil forms, to the return from the captivity (Isa 1:27; Jer 29:14; 30:3; Ezek 16:53; Zeph 2:7). (3) In the figurative, ethical or religious sense (a) from God (Nu 14:43; 1 Sam 15:11; 1 Ki 9:6); (b) more frequently to turn back to God (1 Sam 7:3; 1 Ki 8:33; Isa 19:22; Joel 2:12; Am 4:6 ff; Hos 6:11; 7:10).
3. In the New Testament:
The words used in the Septuagint and New Testament are strephein, and its compounds, apostr., anastr., epanastr., hupostr., and especially epistrephein. The latter word occurs 39 times in the New Testament. It is used (1) in the literal sense in Mt 9:22; 10:13; 24:18; Acts 9:40; 15:36, etc.; (2) in the figurative sense, in transitive form. (Lk 1:16 f; Jas 5:19 f). In Gal 4:9 and 2 Pet 2:21 it denotes to turn from the right way to the wrong. The opposite meaning, to turn from the wrong way to the right, we find in Lk 22:32; Acts 9:35; 11:21; 14:15; 15:19; 26:18; 2 Cor 3:16; 1 Thess 1:9; 1 Pet 2:25. In connection with metanoein, "repent," it is used in Acts 3:19; 26:20. The root word strephein is used in the figurative sense in Mt 18:3; Jn 12:40. Septuagint and Textus Receptus of the New Testament have here epistrephein.
II. The Doctrine.
While the words "conversion" and "convert" do not occur frequently in our English Bible the teaching contained therein is fundamental in Christian doctrine. From the words themselves it is not possible to derive a clearly defined doctrine of conversion; the materials for the construction of the doctrine must be gathered from the tenor of Biblical teaching.
1. Vague Use of the Word:
There is a good deal of vagueness in the modern use of the term. By some writers it is used in "a very general way to stand for the whole series of manifestations just preceding, accompanying, and immediately following the apparent sudden changes of character involved" (E.D. Starbuck, The Psychology of Religion, 21). " `To be converted,' `to be regenerated,' `to receive grace,' `to experience religion,' `to gain an assurance,' are so many phrases which denote the process, gradual or sudden, by which a self, hitherto divided and consciously wrong, inferior and unhappy, becomes unified and consciously right, superior and happy in consequence of its hold upon religious realities. This at least is what conversion signifies in general terms" (William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience, 189). In this general, vague way the term is used not only by psychologists, but also by theological writers and in common religious parlance. A converted man is a Christian, a believer, a man who has religion, who has experienced regeneration.
2. Specific Meaning:
In its more restricted meaning the word denotes the action of man in the initial process of salvation as distinguished from the action of God. Justification and regeneration are purely Divine acts, repentance, faith, conversion are human acts although under the influence and by the power of the Divine agency. Thus, conversion denotes the human volition and act by which man in obedience to the Divine summons determines to change the course of his life and turns to God. Arrested by God's call man stops to think, turns about and heads the opposite way. This presupposes that the previous course was not directed toward God but away from Him. The instances of conversion related in the Bible show that the objective point toward which man's life was directed may be either the service of idols (1 Thess 1:9) or a life of religious indifference, a self-centered life where material things engross the attention and deaden the sense of things spiritual (rich young ruler, Lk 18:22), or a life of sensuality, of open sin and shame (prodigal son, Lk 15:13) or even a mistaken way of serving God (Saul, Acts 26:9). Accordingly in conversion either the religious or the ethical element may predominate. The moral man who turns from self to God or, as Saul did, from an erroneous notion concerning God's will to a clear conception of his relation to God is more conscious of the religious factor. Conversion brings him into vital, conscious fellowship with God through Jesus Christ. The immoral man who is awakened to a realization of the holiness of God, of the demands of His law, and of his own sin and guilt is more conscious of the outward change in his manner of life. The ethical change is the more outstanding fact in his experience, although it can never be separated from the religious experience of the changed relation to God.
The mode of conversion Varies greatly according to the former course of life. It may be a sudden crisis in the moral and intellectual life. This is very frequently the case in the experience of heathen who turn from the worship of idols to faith in Jesus Christ. A sudden crisis is frequently witnessed in the case of persons who, having lived a life of flagrant sin, renounce their former life. Conversion to them means a complete revolution in their thoughts, feelings and outward manner of life. In other instances conversion appears to be the climax of prolonged conflict for supremacy of divergent motives; and, again, it may be the goal of a gradual growth, the consummation of a process of discerning ever more clearly and yielding ever more definitely and thus experiencing ever more vitally truths which have been implanted and nurtured by Christian training. This process results in the conscious acceptance of Jesus Christ as the personal Saviour and in the consecration of life to His service. Thus conversion may be an instantaneous act, or a process which is more or less prolonged. The latter is more frequently seen in the case of children and young people who have grown up in Christian families and have received the benefit of Christian training. No conversions of this kind are recorded in the New Testament. This may be explained by the fact that most of our New Testament writings are addressed to the first generation of Christians, to men and women who were raised in Jewish legalism or heathen idolatry, and who turned to Christ after they had passed the age of adolescence. The religious life of their children as distinguished in its mode and manifestations from that of the adults does not appear to have been a matter of discussion or a source of perplexity so as to call forth specific instruction.
4. Conversion and Psychology:
Conversion comprises the characteristics both of repentance and of faith. Repentance is conversion viewed from its starting-point, the turning from the former life; faith indicates the objective point of conversion, the turning to God.
Of late the psychology of conversion has been carefully studied and elaborately treated by psychologists. Much valuable material has been gathered. It is shown that certain periods of adolescent life are particularly susceptible to religious influences (compare G. Stanley Hall, Adolescence, II, chapter xiv; E.D. Starbuck, Psychology of Religion, etc.). Yet conversion cannot be explained as a natural process, conditioned by physiological changes in the adolescent, especially by approaching puberty. The laws of psychology are certainly God's laws as much as all other laws of Nature, and His Spirit works in harmony with His own laws. But in genuine conversion there is always at work in a direct and immediate manner the Spirit of God to which man, be he adolescent or adult, consciously responds. Any attempt to explain conversion by eliminating the direct working of the Divine Spirit falls short of the mark.
See REGENERATION; REPENTANCE.
J. L. Nuelsen