As Christians who are seeking to be faithful to Scripture, what do we mean by conversion? What is it, and what does it look like? At the International Mission Board, we define conversion as follows:
Conversion is the divinely enabled personal response of individuals to the gospel in which they turn from their sin and themselves (repent) and trust in Jesus as Savior and Lord (believe).
Let’s break this definition down and look at each part.
First, conversion is a divinely enabled response to the gospel. Our responsibility as biblical Christians is to proclaim the good news and urge people to repent and believe. God, and God alone, actually saves people, and he saves people who are described by the Bible as dead, blind slaves to sin and are in the act of running away from him. This reality should encourage us to expect fruit even among those who are seemingly the most resistant to the gospel.
God has both the power and the willingness to raise the spiritually dead. This knowledge also should purify our methods and keep us faithful to the message. People are not saved by our packaging or marketing of the gospel. No one is genuinely converted by a watered-down message or a manipulative method. The Spirit of God takes the unvarnished message of the gospel of Jesus and makes dead people alive. This reality should keep us on our knees in prayer for the lost. If only God can save a lost person, we need to be faithful and urgent in prayer for him to do what only he can do in the lives of those we are evangelizing.
Second, conversion is a divinely enabled response of repentance and faith. These two things must be kept together. Repentance and faith are two sides of the same coin. When Jesus calls someone to salvation, he calls that person to die to sin. Cheap grace is unbiblical and saves no one. Saving faith is repenting faith, and we must call people to turn from their rebellion against God as they are turning to Jesus in faith.
Third, conversion is a divinely enabled response to the gospel. The message matters. No one can be saved without receiving, understanding, and trusting the content of the biblical gospel. There is no “Plan B.” Those who have never been reached with the gospel are lost, not because they have never heard but because they are guilty of sin before a holy God.
We have to get the gospel to those who have never heard it for them to have any hope of salvation. Furthermore, we have to get the message right no matter how unpopular parts of it may be in any given cultural setting. Because conversion is a divinely enabled response to the gospel, we have no liberty to smooth over the offensive edges of the message.
We have to get the gospel to those who have never heard it for them to have any hope of salvation.
Fourth, conversion is radical. Scripture uses strong language to describe what happens to a person who is converted to Christ. According to the Bible, that person has died to the old life of rebellion against God. They are now new creations in Christ. They have been born all over again by the Holy Spirit. They no longer belong to themselves and no longer live for themselves. They have embarked on a lifelong journey of denying themselves, taking up their cross daily, and following Jesus. We have to present the gospel message in a way that a life of radical discipleship seems like the natural consequence of salvation and not an option, a surprising twist, or an unexpected bit of fine print.
Fifth, conversion is noticeable. Death to sin and rebirth in the Holy Spirit leave visible evidence. People who have been converted live differently, and those differences grow over time. By the Spirit they are putting sin to death, and they display the fruit of the Spirit in growing measure. In short, they are being conformed to the image of Christ, and they resemble him more and more. If change can’t be seen, it is safest to conclude that a conversion never happened.
Sixth, conversion is permanent. Those whom God saves, he saves permanently, and it shows. There is tremendous comfort in this. Real believers can take refuge in the fact that nothing can separate them from the love of God, and no one can snatch them out of his hand.
On the other hand, there also is a word of warning here. Temporary commitment is not a genuine conversion. We must make it clear when we share the gospel that this is a commitment for life and for eternity. We must exhort believers to persevere in their walk with Christ, whatever the circumstances and whatever the cost. Where there is no perseverance in faith, there are no biblical grounds for thinking that person was ever saved at all. We must withdraw assurance of salvation from those whose lives give no evidence of conversion, through the exercise of church discipline.
Zane Pratt is the vice president of training at IMB.