A few weeks ago we began looking at the distinguishing marks of a healthy church. People typically determine the “success” of a church by numbers, programs, or budget. However, we must ask ourselves if the Bible focuses on such qualities. In 9 Marks of a Healthy Church, Mark Dever looks at nine marks that are seldom emphasized today. So far, we’ve looked at expositional preaching, biblical theology, and the Gospel, and today we will continue our series by looking at the church’s need for a biblical understanding of conversion.
It seems that many today are confused as to what conversion truly is. Some see it simply as a mental acceptance of the ideas of Christianity, others see it as a resolve to act morally. Some see conversion simply as “walking an aisle” or “saying a prayer.” While conversion certainly involves some of these aspects, none of them give a complete picture of what true conversion looks like. In Scripture, we see that conversion is a fundamental change that is brought about by God.
Conversion is a Fundamental Change
Conversion is not a slight change brought about in a person who is decently moral but just needs a little bit of help. Rather, it is a fundamental change in a sinner who is given a completely new heart. This change affects the mind, the heart, and the will…every part of the person. That’s why Scripture calls such a change a “new birth” or refers to believers as a “new creation.”
Before conversion, we are enemies of God. We are born in sin and “hate the light” (John 3:19-20), therefore we are “dead in our sins and transgressions” (Eph. 2:1). We remain in our hopeless state until God opens our eyes and we repent and believe the Gospel. In conversion, we go from being children of Satan to children of God (John 8:44, John 1:12-13). What happens at conversion isn’t just a slight schedule change on Sunday mornings, it is a fundamental life change. Spurgeon states it this way:
Beware, I pray thee, of presuming that thou art saved. If with thy heart thou dost trust in Jesus, then thou are saved; but if thou merely sayest, ‘I trust Jesus,’ it doth not save thee. If thy heart be renewed, if thou shalt hate the things that thou didst once love, and love the things that thou didst once hate; if thou hast really repented; if there be a thorough change of mind in thee; if thou be born again, then hast thou reason to rejoice: but if there be no vital change, no inward godliness; if there be no love to God, no prayer, no work of the Holy Spirit, then thy saying, ‘I am saved,’ is but thine own assertion, and it may delude, but it will not deliver thee. Our prayer ought to be, ‘Oh that thou wouldst bless me indeed, with real faith, with real salvation, with the trust in Jesus that is the essential of faith; not with the conceit that begets credulity. God preserve us from imaginary blessings!’
Conversion is Brought About by God
Such a fundamental change seems too impossible; for man, it absolutely is impossible! We cannot muster up enough faith nor do we have the capabilities to make such a decision on our own. First Corinthians 2:14 says “the natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand…” So, according to Scripture, when we are in our natural state as unbelievers, we will not accept the things of God and we are not able to understand them! Romans 8:8 states that while we are still in the flesh (unbeliever) we cannot please God.
So, we are in an impossible situation. We are enemies of God and we love our sin. Christ has made a way of salvation through the cross, but our own sin hinders us from accepting the things of God. What hope do any of us have?
Our only hope is for God to do a work in us. He promises in Ezekiel 11:19 that he would provide his people with a new heart. God draws us to himself (John 6:44). His Spirit opens our eyes so we can see our sinfulness, and we fall under such conviction and cry out to God in repentance and faith. Joel 2:32 states, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved; for on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there will be deliverance, as the Lord has said, among the survivors whom the Lord calls.” Who is saved? Those who call on the Lord. Who calls on the Lord? Those whom the Lord calls (109).
The work of conversion isn’t the work of the preacher or the one sharing the gospel. We certainly have our responsibility to proclaim the good news and God typically uses human agents (Acts 10), but ultimately God is the one who has to work in the heart of a person so they can see and believe. We are the dry bones in Ezekiel 37. We are absolutely helpless. However, God uses the proclamation of his word and the power of his Holy Spirit to awaken us and give us life. Praise be to his name! I’m so grateful for God’s work in my life taking me from darkness to light!
Dever summarizes why such a biblical understanding of conversion is important:
If our conversion, our turning, is basically understood to be something we do ourselves instead of being something God does in us, then we misunderstand it. Conversion certainly includes our own actions. We must make a sincere commitment. We must make a self-conscious decision. Even so, conversion– real conversion– is more than that. Scripture is clear in teaching that we are not all journeying toward God– some having found him, others still seeking. Instead, Scripture presents us as needing to have our hearts replaced, our minds transformed, our spirits given life. We can do none of this for ourselves. The change each human needs, regardless of how we may outwardly appear, is so radical, so near our roots, that only God can bring it about. We need God to convert us (113).
9 Marks of a Healthy Church by Mark Dever