Conversion: Not Coercion but Transformation

Conversion isn’t usually thought of today as a good word.

Instead it’s seems to convey a negative image or a moment of forced decision, as if someone were coercing you or holding a gun to your head and requiring you to make a decision or else. I submit that this notion is largely an unfair view of this word. 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 culture’s 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 lingered in the mind of man ever since giving us a sort of 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.

The Transformation of Conversion

When we open the Scripture we find that 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 word shows up in the New Testament it is translated as ‘transformation.’ In regards to the transformation of conversion two passages set this before us.

a) 2 Corinthians 3:18 says, “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.”

The context into which this verse comes to us is 2 Cor. 3:12-18 where Paul is comparing the glory of the Old and New Covenants. To illustrate this comparison he speaks of Moses, who had to put a veil over his face so that the Israelites (who had hardened hearts, 3:14) wouldn’t be terrorized by the glory of God (3:13). Paul says even in his day when the Law is read there is still a veil over the hearts of the Israelites (3:15). “But when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed” (3:16). More so, Paul interrupts his argument with a statement about the freedom that comes into the heart when the Holy Spirit reigns. Paul makes this intrusion into this argument 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 (3:17). Then, in what has to be one of the most famous passages of Scripture, Paul summarizes by detailing this Spirit produced transformation saying that now in the New Covenant when we behold the glory of the Lord, we are transformed into another kind of person, and that glory continually changes us from one degree of glory to another. If there is any doubt in the reader as to who is responsible for this unveiling, transforming, metamorphosing work, Paul makes it clear in 3:18, “This 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. Notice that this transformation occurs more than once. We are transformed at the moment of conversion when we behold the glory of God, and throughout our lives God the Spirit continues to transform us to greater degrees by allowing us to see more and more of God’s glory. Notice the end of 3:18 again, “For this comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.” This is why Paul is able to call the Christian’s he’s writing to letters written by the Spirit in 3:3 and 3:6. What more evidence do we need that our conversion and sanctification is the result of the Spirit’s transformative work?

b) 2 Corinthians 5:17 says, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.”

The context into which this verse comes to us is 2 Cor. 5:14-19 where Paul is laying out the ministry of reconciliation all believers have received from God. It is the love of Christ that compels us. 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 (5:14-15). Because Christ died that we would live for His glory Paul says he no longer regards those who believe in Christ according to flesh (5:16). How then does Paul regard believers? 5:17 tells us, he regards us as we truly are – new creations of God. The old has passed, the new has come. How did this happen? 5:18-19 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 what 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 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, making us new creations.

So we see gloriously that the transformative work of the Spirit is the means by which God converts His people and the means by which God grows His people. This is nothing less than a complete transformation. When God the Spirit transforms us, awakens us, illumines us, or regenerates us, two things then bring about our conversion: repentance and faith.

a) Repentance: turning away from sin.

b) Faith: turning toward Christ (not notitia or assensus, but fiducia).

Before you get the wrong idea that the 2 Cor. 3:18 and 5:17 works are God’s works while the works of repentance and faith are our works, hear me loud and clear, repentance and faith are both God’s works as well. 2 Tim. 2:25-26 states that God is the One who grants repentance and Eph. 2:8-9 states that God gives the gift of faith. Just as the work of unveiling our hearts to behold the glory of God is both a one time work of the Spirit in conversion and a continual work of the Spirit in sanctification, so too is repentance and faith. The Christian life begins by God doing in us what we can’t do for ourselves (remember 2 Cor. 3:18 and 5:17). This inner work then shows itself outwardly in the works of repentance and faith. Therefore repentance and faith is the way one becomes a Christian and the way one lives the entire Christian life. When we grow in Christ we will grow deeper in the knowledge of our sin and more aware of how dire our need for the gospel truly is. This leads us to a cycle of thankful repentance and trusting faith throughout the whole of our Christian experience.

So What is Conversion?

a) Generally speaking it is the whole salvation experience.

b) Specifically speaking it is the Spirit’s transformative work within us, which enables us to behold the glory of God, repent and believe, and become new creations in Christ, continually growing from one degree of glory to the next. Conversion is the beginning of the application of redemption.

All of this is from the Lord, who is the Spirit.

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