And yet, strange as it may seem, there are few subjects concerning which those interested are more in the dark. Stranger still, often those who preach and talk most about it, who are loudest in proclaiming its necessity, know least about it. Ask them as to its meaning, its nature, its elements. Ask them who needs it, how it is brought about, and what are the evidences of its existence; and they give at best very confused and unscriptural answers. We therefore propose to examine it in the light of the Word of God, and may He, the Spirit of truth, enable us to know and believe its divine teachings!
What then is conversion? The original and simple meaning of the word convert is to turn -- to turn about. This is also the meaning of the Latin word from which the English comes. The Greek word, which in the New Testament is translated "convert" or "conversion," also refers to the act of turning. It is so translated quite frequently. Thus the same Greek word that is in some places translated convert, is in other places translated turned, e.g., as in Mark v.30: "Jesus ... turned him about in the press." Acts xvi.18: "But Paul ... turned and said." Matt. xii.44: "I will return into my house." Acts xxvi.18: "To turn them from darkness to light." And so in many other places. It is plain, then, that the meaning of the word is a turning or facing about -- a returning, or a changing of direction -- as if a traveler, on finding himself going the wrong way, turns, returns, changes his course, comes back, he converts himself.
Applying this word now to a moral or religious use, it means a turning from sin to righteousness, from Satan to God. The transgressor who had been walking in the way of disobedience and enmity against God, and towards eternal death, is turned about into the way of righteousness, towards eternal life. This is a change of direction, but it is also something more. It is a change of state -- from a state of sin to a state of Grace. It is still more. It is a change of nature -- from a sinner unto a saint. It is finally a change of relation -- from an outcast and stranger unto a child and heir. Thus there is an outward and an inward turning, a complete change.
That this is the scriptural meaning of conversion is very clear from Acts xxvi.18. The Lord is about to send Paul to the Gentiles for the purpose of converting them. He describes the work of conversion thus: "To open their eyes and to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan unto God; that they may receive forgiveness of sins, and inheritance among them which are sanctified by faith that is in me."
As already remarked, the word here translated to "turn" is the same that is elsewhere translated to "convert."
If we now inquire more particularly into the nature, or process of this change which is called "conversion," we find in it two constituent elements. The one is penitence or contrition, the other is faith. Taken together, they make up conversion. In passing, we may briefly notice that sometimes the Scriptures use the word "repentance" as embracing both penitence and faith, thus making it synonymous with conversion.
Penitence or contrition, as the first part of conversion, is sorrow for sin. It is a realizing sense of the nature and guilt of sin; of its heinousness and damnable character. True penitence is indeed a painful experience. A penitent heart is, therefore, called "a broken and a contrite heart." It takes from the sinner his self-satisfaction and false peace. It makes him restless, dissatisfied and troubled. Instead of loving and delighting in sin, it makes him hate sin and turn from it with aversion. It brings the sinner low in the dust. He cries out, "I am vile;" "I loathe myself;" "God be merciful to me a sinner."
This is the penitence insisted on by the prophets, breathed forth in the penitential psalms, preached by John the Baptist, by Christ and all His apostles. It is not necessary to quote passages in proof of this. Every Bible reader knows that the Word is full of exhortations to such sorrow and repenting for sin.
But penitence must not stop with hating and bemoaning sin, and longing for deliverance. The penitent sinner must resolutely turn from sin towards Jesus Christ the Saviour. He must believe that he took upon Himself the punishment due to his sins, and by His death atoned for them; that he satisfied a violated law, and an offended Law-giver; that thus he has become his Substitute and Redeemer, and has taken away all his sins. This the penitent must believe. Thus must he cast himself upon Christ, and trust in Him with a childlike confidence, knowing that there is now, therefore, no condemnation. Having this faith, he is justified, and "being justified by faith, he has peace with God."
True penitence always grows into faith, and true faith always presupposes penitence. Where one is, there the other is, and where both are, there is conversion. Penitence, therefore, is not something that goes before conversion, and faith something that follows after, and conversion an indefinable something sandwiched in between, as some seem to imagine; but penitence and faith are the constituent elements that make up conversion.
In the next place we would inquire: Who need this change? We answer, first, all who are not in a state of loving obedience to God; that is, all who are not turned away from and against sin and Satan, and turned toward holiness and God. On the other hand, all who really hate sin, mourn over it, strive against it, trust in and cling to Christ as their personal Redeemer, need no conversion. No matter whether they can tell where and when and how they were converted or not. All who know by blessed experience that they now have in their hearts the elements of penitence and faith, are in a state of conversion, and if they earnestly ask God, may have the assurance that their sins are forgiven and they are accepted in the Beloved. True, this assurance may sometimes be dimmed by doubt or under the strain of strong temptation, but as long as there is real hatred of sin and an earnest desire to rest in Christ alone, there is Grace and acceptance with Christ.
To the class of those who are in a converted state belong those baptized children of the Church who have kept their baptismal covenant. Given to Christ in holy baptism, the seeds of the new life implanted through that divine ordinance, reared and trained by Christian parents or guardians, they have belonged to Christ from their childhood. From their earliest years they have hated sin, repented of it, trusted in Christ, and loved Him. They are "turned from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God." They need only that daily dying to sin, and daily turning to Christ, which all Christians need on account of the sins and infirmities of the flesh which still cleave to them. Such were Joseph, and Samuel, and Daniel, and Jeremiah, and John the Baptist, and Timothy, and others of whom we read in the Scriptures. They were children of the covenant, and therefore children of God. Of this class we have written in former chapters. We need not enlarge on them here. They need no conversion, because they are in a converted state. Yet there are well-meaning people, who have more zeal than knowledge, who would violently exhort even such to be converted, or they cannot be saved! Thus would they confuse them, distract them, unsettle their faith in Christ, quench the Spirit, and, perhaps, drive them to unbelief and despair. From all such teachers, we pray: "Good Lord, deliver us."