Reality of Conversion
of the prominent features of the last two Presidential races in the
United States of America was the issue of faith, especially that of
President George W Bush and the contenders in the 2008 election. A
spate of television programs featured Bush’s conversion from a
life of alcohol addiction and business failure to that of an
evangelical believer committed to practicing his faith in the White
House. News organisations and commentators claimed that the Bush
administration was humming to the sound of evangelical Christian
agendas, prayer meetings were taking place day and night; it was not
uncommon to see White House functionaries hurrying down corridors
carrying Bibles. Evangelical leaders had access to the President and
influence over his agenda that were unprecedented in modern times.
The content of Bush’s pronouncements on issues such as
international terrorism and his support of evangelically inspired
reform caused some to complain that the President seemed to be
getting his cues from God, not Congress. The conversion of Bush was
featured strongly in a movie released in 2009 entitled, simply, “W”.
and partisanship aside, it was clear from Bush’s profile that
something fundamental had happened in his life and that it had to do
with God. One day his life was headed in a particular direction, a
failure in terms of his marriage, personal identity and aspirations;
the next day he was reading the Bible, attending Christian study
groups and speaking openly and unashamedly about his commitment to
following Christ. When that happens in the lives of the wealthy and
powerful, cynics often assume it is fraudulent. When it persists,
serious questions emerge. When asked in a debate who had influenced
him most in life he responded, “Christ. He changed my heart”.
Evangelicals knew exactly what he was talking about and came to
believe he was genuine.
the 2008 Presidential race, the question of religion was important
because of Barak Obama’s name (opponents disingenuously linked
his name to that of Osama Bin Laden, which sounded remotely similar,
inferring that this indicated he was really a Muslim); the fact that
his Kenyan-born father had been a Muslim, and that Barak claimed
(including in his 2004 book The
Audacity of Hope) that he
became a Christian as a young man. Was it a genuine conversion, they
asked? Would he permit Christianity to be expressed as strongly in
the White House and public policy as Bush had done?
do we mean by “conversion”?
most common theological term for what happened to George W Bush is
“conversion”. The word literally means “to turn
around”, or “to change direction”. Engineers speak
of conversion; so do advertisers, computer programmers and
mathematicians. In Christian terms, conversion is what happens when
someone gives their heart and life to Christ (prayerfully
acknowledges His existence, sovereignty and work and embraces his
authority in their life, in terms described in the Bible) and
experiences radical change on the inside that alters the way they
think and behave. It is possible to grow up in church, hear
hundreds, or even thousands, of sermons from the world’s best
expositors, sing hymns and choruses with enthusiasm and serve on
church committees, without being converted, in effect without being a
Biblical Christian. I have met such people.
is not always visible as a sudden event; nevertheless, when a person
is converted they start to have different values, practices and
lifestyles to what was previously the case. Some people become
Christians as children, so the change is not climactic, not as
visible, but they always know in their hearts that Christ is living
there and they are functioning from relationship with him. I became
a Christian as a small child, though my parent’s influence,
even though I do not recall the moment.
is the work of the Holy Spirit. No one “converts”
themselves. Human agency is about choice, making the right decision,
as an act of the will and faith. But the inner change that makes a
person a Christian much more. While it involves choice, is a
spiritual work, a supernatural event; conversion is the work of God.
It is not just a change of mind, a revised level of mental assent,
although the mind is involved. The Greek word “metanoia”,
often translated “repentance", implies a change of mind.
God does not treat us as mindless entities. I have come to believe
that most people who experience God in their lives do so one step
ahead of understanding intellectually what is going on.
is a miracle. That is why it often surprises people (and those
around them) when it occurs. Relationship with God comes as a result
of revelation. Church attendance or adherence to creeds alone will
not work. It is possible to be physically close to people who know
God and still not “get it”. Faith and relationship with
God operate on a different level, in a different realm. When faith
kicks in, there is a sense that God is real, a new certainty and hope
emerge, a new beginning is evident, with both power and a reason to
be different. There is a sense that a new life has started.
people come to Christ in times of spiritual, mental, emotional,
physical or relationship crises. Others do so quietly, as they
calmly consider the claims of Christ and their spiritual condition,
without reference to external frameworks or events. Suddenly
everything makes sense, the Bible is a re-discovered book, and the
presence of the Holy Spirit is tangible. Conversion is associated
with an awareness of God, a desire to change, repentance from a life
lived apart from Him, change and evidence of new “fruit”
(behaviour and characteristics) in a person’s life (Luke 3:8a).
through the ages
Bible is replete with instances of people who were converted, whose
circumstances were far removed from modern times and practices but
whose underlying conditions were not very different. In the
twenty-first century we have rapid communications and travel and
exploding knowledge, but the underlying needs faced by every
generation are the same. The needs and issues faced by men and women
thousands of years ago are still with us.
the Old Testament, we read about a spoiled young man named Moses,
living in a king’s palace, who came to a point in his life
where he realised that a life of sin had unquestionable momentary
pleasures, but did not ultimately satisfy. He turned his back on the
luxury of Egypt and chose God’s way (Hebrews 1124-27). Ruth,
on the other hand, was a young Moabite widow, devastated by the early
death of her husband and facing an uncertain future. In her
emptiness, she adopted the faith of her mother-in-law, declaring,
“Your God will be my God”, moved to a new country and a
completely new faith and eventually became part of the line that
produced kings in Israel and Christ himself (Ruth 1:16).
was an evil king, one of the worst produced by the nation of Judah.
He sacrificed his children to a god called Molloch, tore down worship
of the One True God, introduced some of the most foul practices in
the country’s history and was ultimately judged and taken as a
prisoner to Babylon.
at the nadir of his life, he came to himself and turned back to God.
Given a second chance, he returned to Jerusalem and cleansed the land
of evil. The entire nation returned to faith in God (2 Chronicles
33). Few national leaders have had such an impact.
people who met Christ were converted. Sworn enemies such as the
stooge tax collector Matthew and Simon the Zealot, a member of an
underground movement dedicated to hunting down and assassinating
those who worked with the Roman overlords (particularly quisling tax
collectors) became close friends and disciples of Jesus and worked
alongside one another, presenting an alternative to corruption and
there is the Samaritan woman who met Jesus at the well of Sychar
(John 4:1-42). Initially reliant on compliance with external
religious forms and asserted ethnic superiority to put her right with
God she discovered that Jesus was the Messiah and proclaimed him to
her entire village.
tells us of Zacchaeus, who climbed a tree out of curiosity, to see
who Jesus was, and went home so changed in his attitudes toward
people, power and possessions (Luke 19:1-10) that his friends and
neighbours barely recognised him. Another example is the thief who
was crucified beside Jesus. Hanging on a cross, paying the ultimate
penalty for a life of crime, he called on Christ to save him and was
assured of a place in Paradise (Luke 23:40-43). A “death-bed
conversion” to be sure, but no less a work of God for the
circumstances in which it occurred. Conversion is still a decision.
The other thief chose to reject Christ.
New Testament Book of Acts tells the story of three thousand people
converted to Christ on the Day of Pentecost. As the disciples
prayed, the Holy Spirit came down, thousands of lives were changed
and the first church was born (Acts 2:41). Filled with the Holy
Spirit Peter played a key role in the conversion of a Roman centurion
named Cornelius, together with his entire household (Acts 10).
writer of Acts records the part played by Philip, an Evangelist, in
the conversions of an occult practitioner named Simon in Samaria
(Acts 8:9-24) and an official in the royal court of Queen Candace of
Ethiopia (Acts 8:26-39), whose faith inspired the birth of a church
that has survived in Ethiopia for nearly two thousand years. An old
Ethiopian priest I met in Jerusalem glowed with excitement as he
insisted that his church had been planted by the same official.
Imagine, a whole community touched as a result of a single
New Testament is full of miraculous stories of conversion. The
stand-out example is the religious bigot Saul, who persecuted
Christians, violently tracking them down and jailing and torturing
them as heretics. I once visited a monument to Paul in a grotto at
the rear of a monastery in Damascus (for the full account read Acts
9:1-31; 22:1-16; 26:12-18). The young Syrian priest assured me that
this was “the
place” where Saul met Jesus. Who knows? A few kilometres
away, near Bab Touma, or Thomas Gate, just off the Madhat Basha
(otherwise known as Strait Street, because it is very long and quite
straight), another grotto celebrated the meeting of the young
Christian Saul and a brave man named Ananias, who started the work of
priest who showed me around guaranteed that this was “the very
house of Ananias”. Who could be sure? There were no other
contenders. A short walk away, overlooking one of the main
thoroughfares of the city, was a gate, with a tower built into it.
The person in charge explained to me that this was the place where
Saul was lowered from the city wall in a basket, in order to escape
his persecutors. A nearby statue commemorates the event. Whether or
not the sites are reliable, the contribution made by this remarkable
man to the history of Christianity is unmistakable. The account of
the conversion of Saul, who thereafter in Scripture is known by his
Greek name Paul, is one of the most compelling in the Bible.
you visit the city of Tarsus today, you will be shown a gate where
Cleopatra and Mark Anthony met in 41 BC. However, Tarsus is better
remembered as the Cilician home town of Paul and the commercial
centre where he grew up with a notion that the world was a big place,
a paradigm that inspired him to take the Christian message outside of
the confines of Judaism and proclaim Christ to the entire empire.
Religion did not save Paul; Christ did. Not pious observance of
ritual, but the dynamics of a relationship with God himself.
Conversion was the trigger. The Holy Spirit was the principal actor.
power of Christ to change people became the centre-point of Paul’s
ministry, as he and his companions embarked on one missionary journey
after another. The writer of Acts records his involvement in the
conversion of a Philippian businesswoman Lydia (the first Christian
convert in Europe) and her friends (Acts 16:11-15); a jailer and his
family (Acts 1629-32), influential people in cities such as Corinth,
Ephesus, Athens and all over the then-known world. The message of
the fledgling Christian faith was predicated not on new ideas (cf
Acts 17:19-21) but the power of God to transform lives.
of the most beautiful stories of conversion in the New Testament is
the account of the privileged but immature son of a businessman, who
rebelled in his youth against the constraints of family life and
societal expectations, engaged in moral depravity that ruined him
financially (and nearly physically) and ultimately returned,
bankrupt, to his forgiving father (Luke 15:11-32). Like many young
people, he reached a point in his life where he thought he had all
the answers. He didn’t like life down on the farm. The lure
of city life and the promise of more sophisticated friends dominated
his thinking. At the first opportunity, he struck out on his own.
a while life was good. He had experiences and feelings he had never
previously imagined possible. He had enough money to do what he
liked. Independence was a great feeling. Then the money ran out and
he became jaded. Friends vanished, one by one, and he discovered
that “a man’s life does not consist of the abundance of
the things he possesses” (Luke 12:15). Instead of complacency
and independence, he was gnawed by feelings of loneliness and
failure. Forced to earn a little money as a day labourer in a pig
sty (pigs were regarded as unclean to Jews and contact with them a
thing of disgust) the Bible says “he came to himself”.
The penny dropped. Suddenly he realised what was going on, and he
didn’t like what he saw. As far as he was concerned, he had
“blown it” for life. Fortunately, his father had a more
redemptive perspective and welcomed him back home.
and Rembrandt both painted the return of the prodigal son, but the
messages are different. In Ruben’s work, the wayward son
appears still to be negotiating the way home. Rembrandt’s work
is more accurate, depicting for us the tenderness of the father
toward the young man, whose conversion from a life of sin is
unmistakable. Conversion is not about terms, it is about surrender to
importance of personal decision
essential part of conversion is recognising that we do not have what
it takes to change, but that we can play a pivotal role and make the
decision to do so. The rest is up to God. “Therefore if
anyone is in Christ he is a new creation. The old has gone. The new
has come” (2 Corinthians 5:17). The Christian is actually a
brand new person, not the old personality drawing on its resources
and trying hard to be different. (Self-help in such matters is
usually doomed to disappointment; peel away the layer and you will
see that the same corrupt person inhabits the old skin.) God says,
“I make all things new”. Conversion is a sine
qua non, an indispensable
requirement, of the Christian life. To the religious paragons of his
day Jesus said, “Unless you are converted, and become like
little children, you cannot enter the Kingdom of Heaven (Matthew
conversion is the work of Christ and the grace of God, instead of the
result of our efforts, there is an underlying certainty that is
bigger than our human capacities. A new hope is engendered. There
is a new sense that things in life hang together, that they fit into
an eternal purpose. We used to sing a chorus, “Things are
different now. Something happened to me, since I gave my heart to
Jesus”. He gives us power to live and act differently, to
relate to other people in a new way. Only Christ makes this
is no life that God cannot change, no habit that he can’t
break. Nothing is impossible to Him. Our faith is boosted every
time we see people set free from guilt and hang-ups, difficult
relationships improved, forgiveness extended for past hurts, people
about whom it is said that they are “hopeless cases” made
essential part of being relevant Christians in today’s world is
to proclaim the endless power of a changeless God to revolutionise
men and women with the power and promise of an abundant life.