Understand the Conversion Experience
“Man is heaven-born”—so states a Chinese proverb. This bit of oriental philosophy harmonizes with the biblical teaching of man’s creation. “Heaven,” explained a Chinese, “represents the Supreme Being.”
Moses wrote that God, the Supreme Being, “created human beings, making them be like himself. He created them male and female” (Genesis 1:27). The Lord God created mankind in His image to worship Him, serve Him, and enjoying Him forever. Man, however, disobeyed and fell into sin. This brought separation from God, or spiritual death, and marred his image. But God had planned and provided a unique method of restoration.
The Chinese proverb can be adapted to illustrate this restoration through rebirth. Sinful man has to be made alive again spiritually. By being “born spiritually” (John 3:6), a person enters into a new life in Christ. We call this being “born again” or “born from above.” We trust that this lesson will help you to understand more fully the conversion experience, and to be effective in explaining it to others.
Your study so far has included the use of the words conversion, converted to Christ, or converts. As a further explanation of these terms you will be studying in this lesson what conversion is, what conversion is not, and some of the results of conversion.
WHAT CONVERSION IS
Objective 1. Recognize how spiritual birth is similar to natural birth.
A Spiritual Rebirth
At the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, He visited Jerusalem during the Passover Festival. Here He performed miracles among the crowds, resulting in many believing in Him. The apostle John records an interview Jesus had with one of the important Jewish leaders (John 3:1-2). This is how I picture this event.
Jesus had been busy all day ministering to people and now He was tired and about to go to sleep. Suddenly, there was a knock at His door. It was Nicodemus, a teacher in Israel, a Pharisee, and a member of the Jewish ruling council.
“Rabbi,” the visitor said, “may I speak to you alone?”
“Very well,” replied Jesus, “suppose we go up to the flat rooftop and talk there. The night is pleasant.”
In the still night, the two men talked together in private. It could be that Nicodemus came then because he wanted an opportunity to talk without the usual interruptions of the day.
“Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher sent by God. No one could perform the miracles that you do unless God were with him.”
Face-to-face the two men studied each other—Jesus, a young teacher only 30 years old, and Nicodemus, a senior professor of the Jewish faith. Although Nicodemus was a man of high standards, Jesus did not return a compliment. Instead, He used a shock approach to evangelizing. He respectfully startled Nicodemus by saying in essence, “Believe me, Sir, that though you are an upright man, you need to start all over again. You must be born again.”
“What do you mean by a rebirth? How can a grown man such as I will be born the second time?” he asked curiously.
Jesus challenged his intellect, “This may surprise you, Nicodemus, but no one can enter heaven unless he is born of the Holy Spirit.”
The old professor questioned Jesus further. “How can this take place? I don’t quite understand.”
Jesus went on to explain carefully that a spiritual change as mysterious as birth itself had to take place in a man’s life. He told Nicodemus that God sent His Son to be the means of eternal life. Just as Moses had at one time lifted a bronze snake on a pole in the desert that the dying, snake-bitten Israelites might look and live, so Jesus would one day be lifted as the symbol of God’s love and mercy. Because Nicodemus knew the story (Numbers 21:9), he could relate to it.
The old man nodded his head in wonder. He had heard marvelous truths, things that he would never forget. The hour grew late. He finally had to leave. Jesus did not seem to press him for a positive decision. The time was not yet ripe. . . .
Almost three years went by. Roman soldiers crucified Jesus by nailing Him to a rough cross which was lifted where all could see Him. There He bled and died for the sins of the world.
Who would take care of the body? Nicodemus, until then a secret follower of Jesus, came boldly forward, ready to identify himself with the Son of Man. Together with Joseph of Arimathea, he prepared the body of Jesus for burial in a new tomb (John 19:38-42).
From the story of Nicodemus, we learn that even the best of people must experience a spiritual rebirth. Good family background, education, or even a high standard of morality are not enough to merit salvation. Neither will religious zeal save a soul. Jesus said, “You must all be born again” (John 3:7).
A Wholehearted Turning to Christ
Objective 2. State the relationship between turning and conversion.
Conversion may also be described as a “turning.” It is the act of turning away from “wicked ways” (Acts 3:26) in repentance and turning to the Lord (Acts 9:35; 11:21). You might say that it is a “roundabout turn,” a “180-degree turn,” a “U-turn,” or “about-face.” In other words, it is a wholehearted turning to Christ. Peter preached, “Repent, then, and turn to God, so that he will forgive your sins” (Acts 3:19). This turning involves a change of the heart, the motives, and the attitudes, and a resulting change in actions.
The experience of conversion has both negative and positive aspects. We shall list these. Please be sure that you look up the references in your New Testament.
Conversion, therefore, is a positive turning to Christ In repentance and faith.
Repentance may be thought of as the act of turning away from sin. Faith is the act of turning to God. Both repentance and faith are needed to effect a conversion.
Conversion is, of course, an individual matter. Yet as the Holy Spirit moves upon many hearts, it is possible for more than one conversion to take place at the same time. Simultaneous conversions occur when perhaps two or more persons in a family or circle of friends turn to the Lord. They are saved individually, yet jointly as a group, each encouraging the others.
The apostle Peter went to a place called Lydda where he visited a group of believers. There he met a man named Aeneas who was paralyzed and had been in bed for eight years.
“Aeneas,” Peter said to him, “Jesus Christ makes you well. Get up and make your bed.” At once Aeneas got up. All the people living in Lydda and Sharon saw him, and they turned to the Lord (Acts 9:34-35).
Through a remarkable healing, many turned to God. Their conversions were simultaneous.
Objective 3. Relate the concept of regeneration to the conversion experience.
A clear understanding of conversion helps the soul-winner in his task of leading people to Christ. You have learned that conversion is a spiritual rebirth and a wholehearted turning to Christ in repentance and faith. The third meaning of conversion is regeneration.
By regeneration, we mean a spiritual renewal through the work of the precious Holy Spirit. Paul wrote to Titus, a young pastor on the island of Crete, that it was “because of his mercy that he saved us, through the Holy Spirit, who gives us a new birth and new life by washing us” (Titus 3:5).
Regeneration, then, is our “new life” in Christ. As you read your Bible you will discover quite a few “new” features in regeneration. As a person is “joined to Christ” he becomes “a new being,” or “a new creation” (2 Corinthians 5:17). God said to Israel, “I will give you a new heart and a new mind. I will take away your stubborn heart of stone and give you an obedient heart. I will put my spirit in you” (Ezekiel 36:26-27).
Dr. Christian Barnard, a South African surgeon, became world-famous when he and his team of doctors successfully replaced the heart of a very ill man with a heart taken from an accident victim. The operation was considered a miracle in medical circles. A greater miracle than this occurs in our lives when God takes out the old “stubborn heart of stone” and replaces it with “an obedient heart.” This is the miracle of regeneration!
WHAT CONVERSION IS NOT
Objective 4. Describe three false approaches to conversion.
In personal evangelism, you will meet those who have false ideas regarding conversion. Some think that conversion is reforming oneself, building up merit, being religious, or perhaps belonging to a church. Let us examine these ideas.
Self-reform is simply trying to improve by removing faults and doing good. In itself, this may be commendable, but it does not solve the basic problem of sin and fallen nature.
Despite our best intentions, self-effort falls far short of divine standards for righteousness and holiness. The Bible says, “All of us have been sinful; even our best actions are filthy through and through. Because of our sins we are like leaves that wither and are blown away by the wind” (Isaiah 64:6).
Reforming oneself is like tying a small green orange to an orange tree and expecting it to mature and ripen. Of course, we know that only as an orange draws life from a tree can it ripen to full size and sweetness. It is not reformation, but regeneration, that we need.
Building up Merit
A lady in the Far East, devout in her religious belief, had made a lifelong vegetarian vow to abstain from eating any meat. She was hoping to build up merit by an accumulation of good works and escape punishment for her sins.
Then four of her children accepted Christ. She became very angry when they could no longer perform the rites which she thought would take care of her in the place after death. Try as she did, she couldn’t make them give up their new faith. Instead, they loved her and treated her better than before.
Eventually, the mother turned to the Lord and experienced the forgiveness and peace of heart that comes only through knowing Jesus. She realized that it was not because of any good deeds that she had done, but because of Christ’s mercy that He saved her and gave her assurance of heaven (Titus 3:5-6).
Trying to build up merit, or spiritual credit, for one’s salvation through making religious vows, observing holy days, going on pilgrimages, repeating prayers, or even donating money for worthy causes, leaves the heart still dissatisfied. Salvation in Christ is unmerited—that is, it cannot be earned. Because Jesus paid for it, He offers it to us freely. We have only to accept it as a gift.
Being religious is a natural tendency easily misdirected. It has led some people into deep superstition and others into the worship of images or idols. Still, others show their devotion in worship in a mosque. The apostle Paul stood as an example of those whose religious fervor leads them away from the truth. But, like Paul, they can experience salvation through faith in Jesus Christ (Acts 22:1-14).
Being religious cannot in itself bring about spiritual rebirth; it must be the work of God’s Spirit alone. We must pray and trust the Holy Spirit to help people realize this as we teach them the way of salvation as God’s Word shows us. Giving our testimony may help a person at this point.
Belonging to a Church
If a person says that he goes to church or is a member of a church when you are talking to him about salvation, you should commend him for it. Don’t ever downgrade any church. Point out to the person as graciously as you can that he must be “born from above.” He must place his trust in the Lord Jesus Christ, and not in a church or a religious leader such as a priest, father, pastor, or rabbi.
RESULTS OF CONVERSION
Objective 5. List three pieces of evidence of conversion.
We have studied what conversion is not, and now we will look at some of the evidence of conversion-the results of what conversion is. It is being “born of the Spirit” (John 3:8), an entrance into a new life.
A Change Takes Place
A clock radio suddenly snapped on a program. A voice spoke, “Friend of mine, where do you expect to spend eternity?” This question irked James who quickly switched off the radio.
James was rising rapidly in the entertainment world as a talented young dancing school instructor. He did not want his ambitions thwarted. But it was easier to switch off the radio than to forget the disturbing question, “Where do you expect to spend eternity?” Again and again, James seemed to hear the voice. He could not escape it.
At last in sheer desperation, the young man called on the Lord to save him. Surrendering fully to Christ, he experienced a revolutionary change in his life. Old values weren’t the same anymore. New values replaced them. No longer did a successful worldly career control him. Instead, he found joy and fulfillment in serving Christ. Today James is a soul-winning pastor who heads a program of training lay believers to evangelize.
Once Jesus called a child to come and stand in front of his disciples. Then He said, “I assure you that unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the Kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3).
When a person turns to Christ, a great change does take place! Jesus, Himself becomes the center of the believer’s life. The old lifestyle is replaced with a new lifestyle that reveals the presence of the Holy Spirit in that person’s heart and life. “When anyone is joined to Christ, he is a new being; the old is gone, the new has come” (2 Corinthians 5:17).
A Cleansing Is Affected
We referred earlier to Titus 3:5 which tells us that God saves us “through the Holy Spirit, who gives us a new birth and new life by washing us.” Salvation involves a cleansing! This is not a reference to water baptism; here it is a picture of conversion as a baptism. “All of us,” Paul wrote, “have been baptized into the one body by the same Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:13). This is the great experience of being born again and born into the family of God!
A Chinese believer, after turning to Christ in repentance and faith, exclaimed with joy, “I feel so clean inside!” He had experienced this washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit.
New Family Ties Are Formed
When we are born again we are born into the family of God. Fellow believers are our brothers and sisters in Christ. Though you may not have received a new name at the time of your conversion, you are recognized as a Christian, a follower, or a disciple of Christ.