Conversion, what is it?

What is conversion? John Stott, in his classic book, Christian Mission in the Modern World (IVP Classics) , examines the word “conversion” in his final chapter. He has so far examined mission, evangelism, dialogue, and salvation. So today, we look at the meaning of “conversion”.

Stott, a true-blue Anglican, begins by poking at snobs who think conversion is for the lower classes who can be ministered to by the Salvation Army or it can be assigned to those who are prone toward “enthusiasm.” One person calls conversion a “spasm of the ganglions.” Yet others are put off by conversion because for them it means imperialism. And then he finds a third group: the universalists and syncretists. In short, if you think no religion is final or that all are saved, there is no need for anyone to be converted.

For Stott it comes down to two features: those are saved are “in Christ” and those who are “in Christ” are reconciled to God. Therefore, conversion is about getting “in Christ.” Those who aren’t are perishing.

First, conversion and regeneration: regeneration is God’s act; conversion is what humans do. Regeneration is unconscious; conversion is conscious. Regeneration is a complete act of God and instantaneous while conversion is a process.

Second, he examines the implications of conversion:

1. Conversion and repentance. Repentance must be a part of evangelism as the call to the Lordship of Christ.

2. Conversion and church. God’s mission in this world has always been through a people: Israel, the church.

3. Conversion and society. The truly converted become socially active out of neighbor-love.

4. Conversion and culture. The truly converted enculturate the gospel in their culture.

5. Conversion and the Holy Spirit. Too much talk of mission, evangelism, dialogue, and salvation — even conversion — are man-shaped. This is all about the work of the Holy Spirit. Note how often the Spirit emerges in the pages of Acts. But this does not mean lack of preparation, or anti-intellectualism, or irrelevance, or the suppression of our personality.

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  • Thanks for making this so clear, Scot – great stuff! Being IN CHRIST makes all the difference in the world (and thereafter)!

  • John W Frye

    We hear little these days about the definition and purpose of repentance. I am glad Stott keeps a spotlight on this experience. Do you think we need recapture the “robust” nature of repentance? It seems repentance has been reduced to an individualistic awareness of sin and an intent to turn from sin (and certainly repentance includes this). N. T. Wright and other scholars have expanded repentance to a community-wide act, that is, whole groups turning from ways of *we think* the kingdom will come–Pharisees = law/rule-keeping; Sadducees/Herodians = compromise; Essenes = escape; zealots = violence, etc. What are “ways” the USAmerican church *thinks* it magnetizes the presence of God that are far from the truth?

  • MD

    @john #2 – your question prompted my thinking: if stott’s #5 were moved up to #2 in scot’s list, then would followers of jesus as the church in society and expressing a culture – prompted by the Spirit – become the way of the community, and not just of the individual?

  • Re #5 I have been struck recently that conversion is not only performed by God, but for God. The ultimate goal of conversion is more than benefit to me; it is the glory of God.

  • SkipR

    Conversion. Regeneration. The New Birth. As a Southern Baptist for over 40 years, it’s not surprising that I believe they’re essential. However, for at least the past 20 years, I’ve been totally perplexed as to what these really look like for people who grow up as in Christian homes and are raised in the church. Whether it’s infant baptism followed by confirmation, or waiting for the “age of accountability,” and being “led to the Lord” as an older child or teenager, it all ends up seeming contrived and more of a social initiation than conversion. What does “conversion” mean when we’re talking about children?