by Louis Berkhof

A. The Scriptural Terms for Conversion. The Bible uses several terms to denote conversion.

1. IN THE OLD TESTAMENT. The Old Testament employs two words, each one of which indicates a specific element of conversion. The one (nicham) means to repent with a repentance which is often accompanied with a change of plan and of action. And the other (shubh) signifies to turn about, and especially to return after a departure. In the prophets it usually refers to Israel's return to the Lord, after it has departed from Him. This is a very important aspect of conversion.

2. IN THE NEW TESTAMENT. The New Testament contains three important words for conversion. The word that occurs most frequently (metanoeo, metanoia) denotes primarily a change of mind. However, this change is not to be conceived exclusively as an intellectual, but also as a moral change. Both the mind and the conscience are defiled, Tit. 1:15, and when a person's mind is changed, he not only receives new knowledge, but the direction of his conscious life, its moral quality is also changed. The word that is next in importance (epistrepho, epistrophe) means to turn about, or to turn back. It really stresses the fact that the active life is made to move in another direction, and thus indicates the final act in conversion. While the first word stresses the element of repentance, though not always to the exclusion of the element of faith, the second always contains both elements. The third word (metamelomai) occurs only five times, and literally means to become a care to one afterwards. It stresses the element of repentance; but that this is not always true repentance is evident from the fact that it is also used of the repentance of Judas, Matt. 27:3. The emotional element is uppermost in this word.

B. The Biblical Idea for Conversion. The Scriptural doctrine of conversion is based not merely on the passages in which the terms referred to are found, but also on many others in which conversion is described or concretely represented in living examples. The Bible does not always speak of conversion in the same sense.

1. NATIONAL CONVERSION. It makes mention repeatedly of national conversions, as, for instance, of Israel in the days of the judges, of Judah in the time of the kings, and of the Ninevites, Jonah 3:10.

2. TEMPORARY CONVERSION. It also speaks of conversions that represent no change of heart, and are of only passing significance, Matt. 13:20, 21; Acts 8:9 ff.; 1 Tim. 1:19, 20; 2 Tim. 2:18; 4:10; Heb. 6:4, 5. These may for a time have all the appearance of true conversion.

3. TRUE CONVERSION. The Bible contains several examples of true conversion, such as Naaman, 2 Kings 5:15; Manasseh, 2 Chron. 33:12, 13; Zaccheus, Luke 19:8, 9; the man born blind, John 9:38; the Samaritan woman, John 4:29, 39; the eunuch, Acts 8:30 ff.; Cornelius, Acts 10:44 ff., Paul Acts 9:5 ff.; Lydia, Acts 16:14, etc. This conversion is but the outward expression of the work of regeneration, or the accompanying change wrought in the conscious life of the sinner. There are two sides to this conversion, the one active and the other passive. In the former conversion is contemplated as the change wrought by God in which He changes the conscious course of man's life. And in the latter it is regarded as the result of this divine action as seen in man's changing his course of life and turning to God. From the former point of view it may be defined as that act of God whereby He causes the regenerated, in their conscious life, to turn to Him for faith and repentance.

4. REPEATED CONVERSION. Regeneration as the implanting of the new life cannot possibly be repeated. Neither can conversion in the strict sense of the word, for this is but the initial outward manifestation, in the conscious life of man, of the change wrought in regeneration. At the same time it is possible to speak of a repeated conversion. The activity of the new life may suffer eclipse through worldliness, carelessness, and indifference, and then may be called forth and renewed again and again. Scripture refers to such repeated conversion in Luke 22:32; Rev. 2:5, 16, 21, 22; 3:3, 19.

C. The Elements of Conversion. From the preceding it already appears that conversion comprises two elements, namely, repentance and faith. Of these the former has reference to the past, and the latter to the future, the former is directly connected with sanctification, and the latter more particularly, though not exclusively, with justification. In view of the fact that faith will be discussed in a separate chapter, we limit ourselves to repentance here.

1. THE ELEMENTS OF REPENTANCE. Repentance includes three elements: (a) An intellectual element, namely, a change of view in which the past life is recognized as a life of sin, involving personal guilt, defilement, and helplessness. This is the knowledge of sin of which the Bible speaks, Rom. 3:20. (b) An emotional element, which is really a change of feeling, a sense of sorrow for sin as committed against a holy and just God. If this issues in a real change of life, it is called a godly sorrow, 2 Cor. 7:9, 10. (c) A volitional element, which consists in a change of purpose, an inward turning from sin, and a disposition to seek pardon and cleansing, Acts 2:38; Rom. 2:4. This is the crowning element of repentance.

2. THE ROMAN CATHOLIC CONCEPTION OF REPENTANCE. The Church of Rome has externalized the idea of repentance entirely in its sacrament of penance. This contains especially three elements (a) Contrition, that is, real sorrow for sin, not for inborn sin, but for personal transgressions. In lieu of this, however, attrition, may also suffice. This is really nothing more than fear for the punishment of sin. (b) Confession, which in the sacrament of penance is confession to the priest who, on a satisfactory confession, not merely declares that God forgives the sin of the penitent, but actually pardons it himself, (c) Satisfaction, consisting in the sinner's doing penance, that is, enduring something painful, or performing some difficult or distasteful task.

3. THE SCRIPTURAL VIEW OF REPENTANCE. The Scriptural view of repentance is quite different from the external view of the Roman Catholics. It views repentance wholly as an inward act, an act of contrition or sorrow on account of sin. It does not confound this with the change of life in which it results, but regards confession of sin and reparation of wrongs as fruits of repentance. Moreover, it conceives of real repentance as always accompanied with true faith. The two go hand in hand, and are but different aspects of the same change in man.

D. The Characteristics of Conversion. The following characteristics should be noted:

1. Conversion is not a legal act of God like justification, but a moral or re-creative act like regeneration. It does not alter the state but the condition of man.

2. Conversion does not, like regeneration, take place in the subconscious, but in the conscious life of man. It may be said to begin in regeneration, and therefore in the region below consciousness, but as a completed act it certainly falls within the range of the conscious life.

3. It includes in principle not only the putting away of the old man, but also the putting on of the new man. The sinner consciously forsakes the old sinful life and turns to a life in communion with and devoted to God.

4. If we take the word 'conversion' in its specific sense, it denotes a momentary change and not a process like sanctification. It is a change that takes place but once and cannot be repeated. In a slightly different sense, however, it is possible to speak of repeated conversion.

E. The Author of Conversion. God only can be called the author of conversion. This is the clear teaching of Scripture, Acts 11:18; 2 Tim. 2:25. There is an immediate action of the Holy Spirit in conversion. The new life of the regenerate man does not issue in conscious action by its own inherent power, but only through the illuminating and fructifying influence of the Holy Spirit, John 6:44; Phil. 2:13. There is also a mediate operation through the Word of God, however. In general it may be said that God works repentance by means of the law, Ps. 19:7; Rom. 3:20, and faith by means of the gospel, Rom. 10:17; 2 Cor. 5:11. But while God works alone in regeneration and man is entirely passive, man co-operates with God in conversion. That man is active in conversion is quite evident from such passages as Isa. 55:7; Jer. 18:11; Ezek. 18:23, 32; 33:11; Acts 2:38; 17:30, and others. But this activity of man always results from a previous work of God in man. Man works only with the power which God imparts to him.

F. The Necessity of Conversion. Scripture speaks in the most absolute terms of the necessity of regeneration, John 3:3, 5. No such absolute expression can be found respecting conversion. This may be due to the fact that in the case of children which die in infancy we cannot speak of conversion, but only of regeneration. The Bible does teach the necessity of conversion in the case of adults in such passages as Ezek. 33:11; Matt. 18:3, though it is true that these statements are not absolute but refer to specific groups. It may be said that in the case of all adults conversion is necessary. This does not mean, however, that conversion must appear in the life of each one as a strongly marked crisis. This can be expected, as a rule, only in the case of those who are regenerated after they have come to years of discretion. In them the life of conscious enmity to God is at once transformed into a life of friendship with God. It can hardly be expected as such, however, in the life of those who, like Jeremiah and John the Baptist, were regenerated from early youth. Yet the elements of conversion, that is, real repentance and true faith, must be present in the lives of all.

Questions for Review:
What do the Old Testament words for conversion mean? What is the meaning of the New Testament words? In how many different senses does the Bible speak of conversion? What is temporary conversion? What is true conversion? What is repeated conversion, and where does Scripture speak of it? What elements are included in conversion? How do they differ? What elements are included in repentance? What elements are included in the Roman Catholic sacrament of penance? What is the Scriptural view of repentance? What are the characteristics of conversion? Who is the author of conversion? How can it be proved from Scripture that man is also active in conversion? Is conversion necessary in all cases? In what sense is it necessary?

References for Further Study:
Berkhof, Reformed Dogmatics, II, pp. 72–84; McPherson, Christian Dogmatics, pp. 393–397; Candlish, The Work of the Holy Spirit, pp. 67–84; Walden, The Great Meaning of Metanoia.


From Manual for Christian Doctrine by Louis Berkhof

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