Thus far in our first Sunday of the month series through the 9marks of a healthy church we’ve covered expositional preaching, biblical doctrine, and the gospel. Today we turn to the 4th mark of a healthy church, a biblical understanding of conversion.
In his book Turning to God: Reclaiming Christian Conversion as Unique, Necessary, and Supernatural David Wells says, “Conversions of all kinds are commonplace in our world today. An alcoholic turns from drink to sobriety. Westerners afflicted with boredom renounce their way of life and seek meaning from Eastern gurus. One person joins a cult and closes the door on his or her prior way of life; another looks for the power hidden within and turns away from institutional religion. Although these ‘conversions’ may be triggered by dramatic crises and result in changed behaviors, they are not conversions in any Christian sense. If they do not have Christ as their cause and object and His service as their result…If they do not involve turning from sin to God, on the basis of Christ’s atoning blood and by means of the Holy Spirit’s work, they cannot be called Christian.”
Perhaps you feel even here in the introduction of this topic, the disdain our culture thinks of it? Conversion in our day conveys a negative image or a moment of forced decision, as if someone were strong-arming you into making a decision you don’t want to make. But I submit that this notion is largely an unfair view of conversion. For example if we were to look in a thesaurus we would find the following synonyms for the word conversion: change, adaptation, alteration, renovation, transfiguration, exchange, and even transformation. Interesting isn’t it? That our cultures view of the word conversion is so negative while the synonyms bring nothing but positive pictures into view. I suppose the negative idea of conversion has crept in from Church history; specifically those moments on both the Roman Catholic and Protestant side of the aisle when conversion was done by coercion. When it was forced either by trial, by inquisition, or by war. These are stains on the history of Christianity and are evidence that the Church is full of fallen men and women. Events like these have long lingered in the mind of man giving us our modern distaste for the idea of conversion.
When we come to the Bible we see an entirely refreshing and positive view of conversion. Rather than being seen as coercion we see it as the great work of the Holy Spirit in beginning the Christian life by raising us from spiritual death to spiritual life. It is the moment of transformation, when we become, by the work of the Spirit, something we never thought we would ever be. Conversion in the Christian sense of the word, in the biblical sense of the word is nothing less than a complete renovation of the soul.
Throughout the Scriptures there is one word rises to the top when we discuss conversion. This word in Greek is metamorphuo, which as you can probably guess is where we get the English word metamorphosis. When this Greek word shows up in the New Testament it is usually translated into English as ‘transformation.’ In regards to the transformation of conversion two passages drive this home to us.
An Unveiling Glory – 2 Corinthians 3:12-18
“Since we have such a hope, we are very bold, not like Moses, who would put a veil over his face so that the Israelites might not gaze at the outcome of what was being brought to an end. But their minds were hardened. For to this day, when they read the old covenant, that same veil remains unlifted, because only through Christ is it taken away. Yes, to this day whenever Moses is read a veil lies over their hearts. But when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.”
Here Paul is comparing the glory of the Old and New Covenants. To illustrate this comparison he speaks firstly of Moses, who had to put a veil over his face so that the Israelites wouldn’t be terrorized by the glory of God. Paul says even in his day when the Law is read there is still a veil over the hearts of the Israelites. “But when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed” (3:16). More so, Paul seems to interrupt his argument with a statement about the freedom that comes into the heart when the Holy Spirit removes the veils and takes up residence within us. But upon further examination Paul isn’t interrupting anything. Paul makes this statement about the Spirit in v17 in order to tell us that the One who does the work of removing this veil over our hearts is the Holy Spirit Himself, and because the Spirit does this, we now have freedom. Freedom from what? Freedom from the Law, freedom from the veil over our eyes, freedom from the veil over our hearts. Freedom from the shadowy nature of the old covenant. Freedom in the crystal clear nature of the new covenant. Freedom to see the glory of God with nothing hindering our sight. Freedom to finally draw near to God without sheer and utter terror.
Then, in what has to be one of the most famous passages of Scripture, Paul summarizes by detailing this Spirit produced metamorphosis and transformation saying that in the New Covenant all those who come to Christ by faith, now, with an unveiled face, behold the glory of the Lord. And from beholding God’s glory we are literally transformed by that glory into another kind of person. Initially this is the moment of conversion, or resurrection, of the new birth. But notice that once God transforms us, that transformation doesn’t end, it continues on progressively from one degree of glory to another. This progressive work of transformation is called sanctification, where God, by exposing us to more of His glory, makes us into His holy image. So the initial moment of transformation in view here is a one time act of God’s free grace on us, and the progressive transformation in view here is the continual work of God’s free grace in us. If there is any doubt in the reader as to who is responsible for this unveiling, transforming, metamorphosing work, Paul makes it clear in v18, “This (all of this grace!) comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.”
So from this first passage we learn that conversion is a transformative moment, where the Holy Spirit does the work of removing the veil over our hearts so that we can truly behold the glory of God. And from beholding the glory of God, what happens? We are transformed…initially and marvelously and throughout our lives God the Spirit continues to transform us to greater and greater degrees. Notice the end of v18 again, “For this comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.” This is why Paul is able to call believers letters written not with ink but by the Spirit of the living God in 3:3.
Creating A New Creation – 2 Corinthians 5:14-19
“…we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised. From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation.”
Here Paul is laying out the ministry of reconciliation all believers have received from God. He died so that those who live would no longer selfishly live for themselves but for the glory of Christ who died and was raised for them in v14-15. Because Christ died that we would live for His glory Paul says he no longer regards those who believe in Christ according to flesh in v16. How then does Paul regard believers? v17 tells us, he regards us as what we truly are – new creations of God. The old has passed, the new has come. How did this happen? v18-19 tell us. All of this is from God, who sent His Son to reconcile us to Himself and then give us the ministry of reconciliation after His resurrection.
This is all good and well but where does the Holy Spirit come into this? Through the theme of creation. Back in Genesis 1 who was hovering over the waters? The Spirit. What then did God do to create all we see today? He spoke His Word by the power of His Spirit into the darkness and created all things. Paul uses this exact argument one chapter earlier to describe how God made new creations out of us at conversion. In 2 Cor. 4:6 he says, “For God, who said ‘Let light shine out darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” Therefore, the meaning of 3:18 and 5:17 is that just as God accomplished creation through His Word and Spirit, so too, God accomplished our conversion by His Word and Spirit too, transforming us and making us new creations.
Let’s end our time on this 4th mark of a healthy church by asking and answering five simple questions about conversion:
1) Is Change Needed?
While the world tells us all day long that we’re just fine, that we’re ok, and that nothing about us needs to change in order to live a successful life – the Bible gives us a different picture. The Bible describes us as being “in debt, bankrupt, enslaved, and even dead.” The Bible tells us that we’re not born ok, and that from birth we are hostile to God, unwilling to submit to God, and only want to do what displeases God. This isn’t good, and because we’re all born this way we need to change in order to become acceptable to God. In fact, we must change if we’re to come into God’s Kingdom. So, is change needed? Yes, change is needed.
2) Is Change Really Possible?
I’ve once heard it said, “Past performance predicts future behavior.” Do you believe that? I don’t. You know why? Because while many skeptically see true and lasting change as impossible and implausible, the Bible teaches us that anyone who turns away from sin and trusts in Christ for salvation will truly be changed. The gospel makes us new men and new women. The prophet Ezekiel speaks of this change God would one day do through the gospel when he says “I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleanness, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. 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.” So, is change really possible? Not only is it possible, it is promised for all who turn from sin and embrace the gospel.
3) What Change do we Need?
Many people recognize that they are not the kind of people they would like to be. Perhaps they’re too rude, perhaps they’re too timid, or perhaps they’re too selfish. Most people try and build habits into their lives so that over time they become the people they would like to be. The gospel isn’t like that. The gospel isn’t a way to become a better you, it’s a way to become a new you. It’s not about making a few changes here and there, it’s about completely renovating the house, foundation and all. You may be surprised to hear that the Bible teaches that you do not just decide to follow Jesus in order to come into God’s Kingdom. No, you must be converted, you must be born again to see God’s Kingdom. So, what change do we need? We need to be resurrected.
4) What Will this Change Involve?
Three things: a) first, we must know the facts of the gospel. We must know it was God who made the good world we live in. We must know it was our sin that turned it bad. We must know God, who was under no obligation to do so, sent His own to seek and save the lost, and we must know what it is to respond to this message with repentance and faith. b) second, we must not only know these facts, we must believe them these facts are true. It’s one thing to know that water is wet, it’s an entirely other thing to walk outside in the rain with no umbrella. We must know the facts of the gospel, and believe they are true. c) thirdly and lastly, we must trust in the facts of the gospel. In other words, we must believe them to be so true that we turn from trusting in ourselves and what we think we can do to trusting in Christ and what He can actually do. So, what does this change involve? Knowing, believing, and trusting so deeply that we love the God we once hated, and hate the sin we once so dearly loved.
5) How Does this Great Change Happen?
Listen to how Peter answers this in 1 Peter 1:23, “…you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and enduring Word of God…” Think about this. In every local church it’s a temptation to think that if we run the right programs, have the right kind of youth ministry, sing the right kind songs, or employ the right kinds of methods that we’ll become a larger and healthier church full of people eager for the message of the gospel. But if we shift to using manmade methods to grow a church the eventual outcome is clear and sad: the living and enduring Word of God will be “reduced in order to get people into church, and eventually our entire message will have to remain reduced in order to convince those people to stay in the church.”
Since we know the power of God for salvation is in the Word, since we know the power to transform our dead and cold hearts is in the Word, and since we know the power to make us new creations is in the Word, everything we do as a church must be centered on and lashed to the Word. Because sinners like you and me are born again through the living and enduring Word of God we must seek to become creatures of the Word.
Yes, change is needed. Yes, change is possible. Yes, we must become new, not just better. Yes, we must know the gospel, believe the gospel, and bank on the gospel. And yes, all of these things, all of this great work of God inside the soul of man that we call conversion, is brought about by living and enduring Word of God.
So when it comes to the health of a local church, of our church, of any church, a biblical understanding of conversion is necessary because it will keep the Word of God, ever before the people of God.
 David Wells, Turning to God: Reclaiming Christian Conversion as Unique, Necessary, and Supernatural, page 13, italics mark my own changes in wording.
 These five questions come from Mark Dever, Nine Marks of a Healthy Church, page 104.
 Ibid, page 108.
 These three things are, theologically speaking, notitia, assensus, and fiducia.
 Pastor Tom Buck posted this on his twitter this past week.