by Louis Berkhof
From the discussion of regeneration and effectual calling there is a natural transition to that of conversion. By a special operation of the Holy Spirit the former issues in the latter. Conversion may be a sharply marked crisis in the life of the individual, but may also come in the form of a gradual process. In the psychology of religion the two are generally identified. All this points to the close relation between the two.
A. THE SCRIPTURAL TERMS FOR CONVERSION.
1. THE OLD TESTAMENT WORDS. The Old Testament employs especially two words for conversion, namely:
a. Nacham, which serves to express a deep feeling, either of sorrow (niphal) or of relief (piel). In niphal it means to repent, and this repentance is often accompanied with a change of plan and of action, while in piel it signifies to comfort or to comfort one’s self. As a designation of repentance—and this is the meaning with which we are concerned here—it is used not only of man but also of God, Gen. 6:6,7; Ex. 32:14; Judg. 2:18; I Sam. 15:11.
b. Shubh, which is the most common word for conversion, means to turn, to turn about, and to return. It is often used in a literal sense of both God and man, but soon acquired a religious and ethical signification. This meaning is most prominent in the prophets, where it refers to Israel’s return to the Lord, after it has departed from Him. The word clearly shows that, what the Old Testament calls conversion, is a return to Him from whom sin has separated man. This is a very important element in conversion. It finds expression in the words of the prodigal son, “I will return, and go to my father.”
2. THE NEW TESTAMENT WORDS. There are especially three words that come into consideration here:
a. Metanoia (verbal form, metanoeo). This is the most common word for conversion in the New Testament, and is also the most fundamental of the terms employed. The word is composed of meta and nous, which is again connected with the verb ginosko (Lat. noscere; Eng., to know), all of which refers to the conscious life of man. In the English Bible the word is translated “repentance,” but this rendering hardly does justice to the original, since it gives undue prominence to the emotional element. Trench points out that in the classics the word means: (1) to know after, after-knowledge; (2) to change the mind as the result of this after-knowledge; (3) in consequence of this change of mind, to regret the course pursued; and (4) a change of conduct for the future, springing from all the preceding. It might indicate a change for the worse as well as for the better, however, and did not necessarily include a resipiscentia — a becoming wise again. In the New Testament, however, its meaning is deepened, and it denotes primarily a change of mind, taking a wiser view of the past, including regret for the ill then done, and leading to a change of life for the better. Here the element of resipiscentia is present. Walden in his work on The Great Meaning of Metanoia comes to the conclusion that it conveys the idea of “a general change of mind, which becomes in its fullest development an intellectual and moral regeneration.”[p. 107.] While maintaining that the word denotes primarily a change of mind, we should not lose sight of the fact that its meaning is not limited to the intellectual, theoretical consciousness, but also includes the moral consciousness, the conscience. Both the mind and the conscience are defiled, Tit. 1:15, and when a person’s nous is changed, he not only receives new knowledge, but the direction of his conscious life, its moral quality, is also changed. To become more particular, the change indicated by his word has reference, (1) to the intellectual life, II Tim. 2:25, to a better knowledge of God and His truth, and a saving acceptance of it (identical with the action of faith); (2) to the conscious volitional life, Acts 8:22, to a turning from self to God (thus again including an action of faith); and (3) to the emotional life, in so far as this change is accompanied with godly sorrow, II Cor. 7:10, and opens new fields of enjoyment for the sinner. In all these respects metanoia includes a conscious opposition to the former condition. This is an essential element in it, and therefore deserves careful attention. To be converted, is not merely to pass from one conscious direction to another, but to do it with a clearly perceived aversion to the former direction. In other words metanoia has not only a positive but also a negative side; it looks backward as well as forward. The converted person becomes conscious of his ignorance and error, his wilfulness and folly. His conversion includes both faith and repentance. Sad to say, the Church gradually lost sight of the original meaning of metanoia. In Latin theology Lactantius rendered it “resipiscentia,” a becoming-wise-again, as if the word were derived from meta and anoia, and denoted a return from madness or folly. The majority of Latin writers, however, preferred to render it “poenitentia,” a word that denotes the sorrow and regret which follows when one has made a mistake or has committed an error of any kind. This word passed into the Vulgate as the rendering of metanoia, and, under the influence of the Vulgate, the English translators rendered the Greek word by “repentance,” thus stressing the emotional element and making metanoia equivalent to metameleia. In some cases the deterioration went even farther. The Roman Catholic Church externalized the idea of repentance in its sacrament of penance so that the metanoeite of the Greek Testament (Matt. 3:2) became poenitentiam agite, — “do penance,” in the Latin Version.
b. Epistrophe (verbal form, epistrepho). This word is next in importance to metanoia. While in the Septuagint metanoia is one of the renderings of nacham, the words epistrophe and epistrepho serve to render the Hebrew words teshubhah and shubh. They are constantly used in the sense of turning again, or turning back. The Greek words must be read in the light of the Hebrew, in order to bring out the important point that the turning indicated is in reality a re-turning. In the New Testament the noun epistrophe is used but once, Acts 15:3, while the verb occurs several times. It has a somewhat wider signification than metanoeo, and really indicates the final act of conversion. It denotes not merely a change of the nous or mind, but stresses the fact that a new relation is established, that the active life is made to move in another direction. This must be borne in mind in the interpretation of Acts 3:19, where the two are used alongside of each other. Sometimes metanoeo contains the idea of repentance only, while epistrepho always includes the element of faith. Metanoeo and pisteuein can be used alongside of each other; not so epistrepho and pisteuein.
c. Metameleia (verbal form, metamelomai). Only the verbal form is used in the New Testament, and literally means to become a care to one afterwards. It is one of the renderings of the Hebrew nicham in the Septuagint. In the New Testament it is found only five times, namely, in Matt. 21:29,32; 27:3; II Cor. 7:10; Heb. 7:21. It is evident from these passages that the word stresses the element of repentance, though this is not necessarily true repentance. In it the negative, retrospective and emotional element is uppermost, while metanoeo also includes a volitional element and denotes an energetic turn-about of the will. While metanoeo is sometimes used in the imperative, this is never the case with metamelomai. The feelings do not permit themselves to be commanded. This word corresponds more nearly to the Latin poenitentia than does metanoeo.
B. THE BIBLICAL IDEA OF CONVERSION. DEFINITION.
The doctrine of conversion is, of course, like all other doctrines, based on Scripture and should be accepted on that ground. Since conversion is a conscious experience in the lives of many, the testimony of experience can be added to that of the Word of God, but this testimony, however valuable it may be, does not add to the certainty of the doctrine taught in the Word of God. We may be grateful that in recent years the Psychology of Religion paid considerable attention to the fact of conversion, but should always bear in mind that, while it has brought some interesting facts to our attention, it did little or nothing to explain conversion as a religious phenomenon. The Scriptural doctrine of conversion is based not merely on the passages containing one or more of the terms mentioned in the preceding, but also on many others in which the phenomenon of conversion is described or represented concretely in living examples. The Bible does not always speak of conversion in the same sense. We may distinguish the following:
1. NATIONAL CONVERSIONS. In the days of Moses, Joshua, and the Judges, the people of Israel repeatedly turned their backs upon Jehovah, and after experiencing the displeasure of God, repented of their sin and returned unto the Lord; there was a national conversion in the kingdom of Judah in the days of Hezekiah and again in the days of Josiah. Upon the preaching of Jonah the Ninevites repented of their sins and were spared by the Lord, Jonah 3:10. These national conversions were merely of the nature of moral reformations. They may have been accompanied with some real religious conversions of individuals, but fell far short of the true conversion of all those that belonged to the nation. As a rule they were very superficial. They made their appearance under the leadership of pious rulers, and when these were succceeded by wicked men, the people at once fell back into their old habits.
2. TEMPORARY CONVERSIONS. The Bible also refers to conversions of individuals that represent no change of the heart, and are therefore of only passing significance. In the parable of the sower Jesus speaks of such as hear the word and at once receive it with joy, but have no root in themselves, and therefore endure but for a while. When tribulations and trials and persecutions come, they are speedily offended and fall away. Matt. 13:20,21. Paul makes mention of Hymenaeus and Alexander, who “made shipwreck concerning the faith,” I Tim. 1:19,20. Cf. also II Tim. 2:17,18. And in II Tim. 4:10 he refers to Demas who left him, because the love of the present world gained the upper hand. And the writer of Hebrews speaks of some as falling away “who were once enlightened and tasted of the heavenly gift, and were made partakers of the Holy Spirit, and tasted the good word of God, and the powers of the age to come,” Heb. 6.4-6. Finally, John says of some who had turned their backs upon the faithful: “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us,” I John 2:19. Such temporary conversions may for a time have the appearance of true conversions.
3. TRUE CONVERSION (CONVERSIS ACTUALIS PRIMA). True conversion is born of godly sorrow, and issues in a life of devotion to God, II Cor. 7:10. It is a change that is rooted in the work of regeneration, and that is effected in the conscious life of the sinner by the Spirit of God; a change of thoughts and opinions, of desires and volitions, which involves the conviction that the former direction of life was unwise and wrong and alters the entire course of life. There are two sides to this conversion, the one active and the other passive; the former being the act of God, by which He changes the conscious course of man’s life, and the latter, the result of this action as seen in man’s changing his course of life and turning to God. Consequently, a twofold definition must be given of conversion: (a) Active conversion is that act of God whereby He causes the regenerated sinner, in His conscious life, to turn to Him in repentance and faith. (b) Passive conversion is the resulting conscious act of the regenerated sinner whereby he, through the grace of God, turns to God in repentance and faith. This true conversion is the conversion with which we are primarily concerned in theology. The Word of God contains several striking examples of it, as, for instance, the conversions of Naaman, II Kings 5:15; Manasseh, II 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. and others.
4. REPEATED CONVERSION. The Bible also speaks of a repeated conversion, in which a converted person, after a temporary lapse into the ways of sin, turns back to God. Strong prefers not to use the word “conversion” for this change, but to employ such words and phrases as “breaking off, forsaking, returning from, neglects or transgressions,” and “coming back to Christ, trusting Him anew.” But Scripture itself uses the word “conversion” for such cases, Luke 22:32; Rev. 2:5,16,21,22; 3:3,19. It should be understood, however, that conversion in the strictly soteriological sense of the word is never repeated. They who have experienced a true conversion may temporarily fall under the spell of evil and fall into sin; they may at times even wander far from home; but the new life is bound to re-assert itself and will eventually cause them to return to God with penitent hearts.
C. THE CHARACTERISTICS OF CONVERSION.
Conversion is simply one part of the saving process. But because it is a part of an organic process, it is naturally closely connected with every other part. Sometimes a tendency becomes apparent, especially in our country, to identify it with some of the other parts of the process or to glorify it as if it were by far the most important part of the process. It is a well known fact that some, in speaking of their redemption, never get beyond the story of their conversion and forget to tell about their spiritual growth in later years. This is undoubtedly due to the fact that in their experience conversion stands out as a sharply marked crisis, and a crisis which called for action on their part. In view of the present day tendency to lose sight of the lines of demarcation in the saving process, it is well to remind ourselves of the truth of the old Latin adage, “Qui bene distinguet, bene docet.” We should note the following characteristics of conversion:
1. Conversion belongs to the re-creative rather than to the judicial acts of God. It does not alter the state but the condition of man. At the same time it is closely connected with the divine operations in the judicial sphere. In conversion man becomes conscious of the fact that he is worthy of condemnation and is also brought to a recognition of that fact. While this already presupposes faith, it also leads to a greater manifestation of faith in Jesus Christ, a confident trusting in Him for salvation. And this faith, in turn, by appropriating the righteousness of Jesus Christ, is instrumental in the sinner’s justification. In conversion man awakens to the joyous assurance that all his sins are pardoned on the basis of the merits of Jesus Christ.
2. As the word metanoia clearly indicates, conversion takes place, not in the subconscious, but in the conscious life of the sinner. This does not mean that it is not rooted in the subconscious life. Being a direct effect of regeneration, it naturally includes a transition in the operations of the new life from the subconscious to the conscious life. In view of this it may be said that conversion begins below consciousness, but that, as a completed act, it certainly falls within the range of the conscious life. This brings out the close connection between regeneration and conversion. A conversion that is not rooted in regeneration is no true conversion.
3. Conversion marks the conscious beginning, not only of the putting away of the old man, a fleeing from sin, but also of the putting on of the new man, a striving for holiness of life. In regeneration the sinful principle of the old life is already replaced by the holy principle of the new life. But it is only in conversion that this transition penetrates into the conscious life, turning it into a new and Godward direction. The sinner consciously forsakes the old sinful life and turns to a life in communion with and devoted to God. This does not mean, however, that the struggle between the old and the new is at once ended; it will continue as long as man lives.
4. If we take the word “conversion” in its most specific sense, it denotes a momentary change and not a process like sanctification. It is a change that takes place once and that cannot be repeated, though, as stated above, the Bible also speaks of the Christian’s return to God, after he has fallen into sin, as conversion. It is the believer’s turning to God and holiness again, after he has temporarily lost sight of these. In connection with regeneration we cannot possibly speak of repetition; but in the conscious life of the Christian there are ups and downs, seasons of close communion with God and seasons of estrangement from Him.
5. Over against those who think of conversion only as a definite crisis in life, it should be noted that, while conversion may be such a sharply marked crisis, it may also be a very gradual change. Older theology has always distinguished between sudden and gradual conversions (as in the cases of Jeremiah, John the Baptist, and Timothy); and in our day the psychology of conversion stresses the same distinction. Crisis conversions are most frequent in days of religious declension, and in the lives of those who have not enjoyed the privileges of a real religious education, and who have wandered far from the path of truth, of righteousness, and of holiness.
6. Finally, in our day, in which many psychologists show an inclination to reduce conversion to a general and natural phenomenon of the adolescent period of life, it becomes necessary to point out that, when we speak of conversion, we have in mind a supernatural work of God, resulting in a religious change. The psychologists sometimes intimate that conversion is but a natural phenomenon by calling attention to the fact that sudden changes also occur in the intellectual and moral life of man. Some of them hold that the emergence of the idea of sex plays an important part in conversion. Over against this rationalistic and naturalistic tendency the specific character of religious conversion must be maintained.
D. THE DIFFERENT ELEMENTS IN CONVERSION.
It already appears from the preceding that conversion comprises two elements, namely, repentance and faith. Of these the former is retrospective, and the latter prospective. Repentance is directly connected with sanctification, while faith is closely, though not exclusively, related to justification. In view of the fact that faith will be discussed in a separate chapter, we limit ourselves to repentance here, and define it as that change wrought in the conscious life of the sinner, by which he turns away from sin.
1. THE ELEMENTS OF REPENTANCE. We distinguish three elements in repentance:
a. An intellectual element. There is a change of view, a recognition of sin as involving personal guilt, defilement, and helplessness. It is designated in Scripture as epignosis hamartias (knowledge of sin), Rom. 3:20, cf. 1:32. If this is not accompanied by the following elements, it may manifest itself as fear of punishment, while there is as yet no hatred of sin.
b. An emotional element. There is a change of feeling, manifesting itself in sorrow for sin committed against a holy and just God, Ps. 51:2,10,14. This element of repentance is indicated by the word metamelomai. If it is accompanied by the following element, it is a lupe kata theou (godly sorrow), but if it is not so accompanied, it is a lupe tou kosmou (sorrow of the world), manifesting itself in remorse and despair, II Cor. 7:9,10; Matt. 27:3; Luke 18:23.
c. A volitional element. There is also a volitional element, consisting in a change of purpose, an inward turning away from sin, and a disposition to seek pardon and cleansing, Ps. 51:5,7,10; Jer. 25:5. This includes the two other elements, and is therefore the most important aspect of repentance. It is indicated in Scripture by the word metanoia, Acts 2:38; Rom. 2:4.
2. THE SACRAMENT OF PENANCE IN THE CHURCH OF ROME. The Church of Rome has externalized the idea of repentance entirely. The most important elements in its sacrament of penance are contrition, confession, satisfaction, and absolution. Of these four contrition is the only one that properly belongs to repentance, and even from this the Romanist excludes all sorrow for inborn sin, and retains only that for personal transgressions. And because only few experience real contrition, he is also satisfied with attrition. This is “the mental conviction that sin deserves punishment, but does not include trust in God and a purpose to turn away from sin. It is the fear of hell.”[Schaff, Our Fathers’ Faith and Ours, p. 358.] Confession in the Roman Catholic Church is confession to the priest, who absolves, not declaratively, but judicially. Moreover, satisfaction consists in the sinner’s doing penance, that is, enduring something painful, or performing some difficult or distasteful task. The central thought is that such outward performances really constitute a satisfaction for sin.
3. THE SCRIPTURAL VIEW OF REPENTANCE. Over against this external view of repentance the Scriptural idea should be maintained. According to Scripture repentance is wholly an inward act, and should not be confounded with the change of life that proceeds from it. Confession of sin and reparation of wrongs are fruits of repentance. Repentance is only a negative condition, and not a positive means of salvation. While it is the sinner’s present duty, it does not offset the claims of the law on account of past transgressions. Moreover, true repentance never exists except in conjunction with faith, while, on the other hand, wherever there is true faith, there is also real repentance. The two are but different aspects of the same turning, — a turning away from sin in the direction of God. Luther sometimes spoke of a repentance preceding faith, but seems nevertheless to have agreed with Calvin in regarding true repentance as one of the fruits of faith. Lutherans are wont to stress the fact that repentance is wrought by the law and faith by the gospel. It should be borne in mind, however, that the two cannot be separated; they are simply complementary parts of the same process.
E. THE PSYCHOLOGY OF CONVERSION.
During recent years psychologists have made a special study of the phenomena of conversion.
1. THE NATURE OF THIS STUDY. The nature of this study can best be learned from such works as those of Coe, The Spiritual Life; Starbuck, The Psychology of Religion; James, Varieties of Religious Experience; Ames, The Psychology of Religious Experience; Pratt, The Religious Consciousness; Clark, The Psychology of Religious Awakening; Hughes, The New Psychology and Religious Experience; and Horton, The Psychological Approach to Theology. For a long time Psychology neglected the facts of the religious life altogether, but for more than a quarter of a century now it has taken notice of them. At first the attention was focussed primarily — not to say exclusively — on what must have appeared to be the great central fact of religious experience, the fact of conversion. Psychologists have studied many cases of conversion inductively and have attempted to classify the various forces at work in conversion, to distinguish the different types of religious experience, to determine the period of life in which conversion is most apt to occur, and to discover the laws that control the phenomena of conversion. While they presented their study as a purely inductive investigation into the phenomena of religion as shown in individual experience, and in some cases expressed the laudable desire and intention to keep their own philosophical and religious convictions in the background, they nevertheless in several instances clearly revealed a tendency to look upon conversion as a purely natural process, just as amenable to the ordinary laws of psychology as any other psychical fact; and to overlook, if not to deny explicitly, its supernatural aspect. The more careful scholars among them ignore, but do not deny, the supernatural in conversion. They explain their silence respecting the deeper aspects of this central fact in religious experience by calling attention to their limitations as psychologists. They can only deal with observed facts and the psychical laws which evidently control them, but have no right to probe into the possible or probable spiritual background, in which these facts find their explanation. They have pointed out that conversion is not a specifically Christian phenomenon, but is also found in other religions; and that it is not necessarily a religious phenomenon, but also occurs in non-religious spheres. In fact, it is but one of the many changes that occur in the period of adolescence, “a sudden readjustment to a larger spiritual environment,” a surrender of the old self to a truer one. “At its best,” says Starbuck, “it is the individual will coming into harmony with what it feels to be the divine will.”[The Psychology of Religion, p. 162.] As Pratt understands it, “the essential thing about conversion is just the unification of character, the achievement of a new self.”[The Religious Consciousness, p. 123.] As to the question, whether there is anything supernatural about conversion, there is a difference of opinion among the psychologists. Coe puts the question: “Shall we therefore conclude that conversion is practically an automatic performance?” And he answers: “Not unless we first define conversion so as to ignore its profound relation to God and to the principle of a good life.... The substance of religious experiences as far transcends their emotional forms as a man transcends the clothes he wears.”[The Spiritual Life, p. 140.] James feels that an orthodox Christian might ask him, whether his reference of the phenomena of conversion to the subliminal self does not exclude the notion of the direct presence of the Deity in it altogether; and he replies in these words: “I have to say frankly that as a psychologist I do not see why it necessarily should.”[The Varieties of Religious Experience, p. 242.] He finds that, “if there are higher powers able to impress us, they may gain access only through the subliminal door.”[p. 243.] The representatives of the New Psychology, that is, of the Behaviourist School and of the School of Psychoanalysis, frankly take the position that conversion may come about in a perfectly natural way, without any supernatural influence. James and others hold that the real secret of the sudden change in conversion lies in some activity of the subliminal self, which may or may not be subject to some divine influence. Students of Psychology are rather generally agreed that there are three distinct steps in conversion, which Ames describes as follows: “First, a sense of perplexity and uneasiness; second, a climax and turning point; and third, a relaxation marked by rest and joy.”[The Psychology of Religious Experience, p. 258.] It is quite generally agreed that there are at least two outstanding types of conversion, which are designated in various ways. Speaking of these two kinds of conversion, Starbuck says that the one is accompanied with a violent sense of sin, and the other, with a feeling of incompleteness, a struggle after a larger life, and a desire for spiritual illumination. A distinction is made between childhood and adult conversion, between gradual and sudden (violent) conversions, and between intellectual and emotional conversions. These are but different names for the two recognized types of conversion. While conversion in general may be regarded as a rather normal experience, it is sometimes found to take on an abnormal aspect, especially during revivals, and then becomes a pathological phenomenon. As far as the time of conversion is concerned, it is pointed out that conversion does not occur with the same frequency at all periods of life, but belongs almost exclusively to the years between 10 and 25, and is extremely rare after 30. This means that it is peculiarly characteristic of the period of adolescence. Environment, education, and religious training, all affect the nature and the frequency of its occurrence.
2. EVALUATION OF THESE STUDIES. The value of these psychological studies of conversion need not be denied. It would be folly to brush them aside as of little or no significance, or to ignore them just because they do not take due account of the supernatural in conversion. They shed a welcome light on some of the laws that apply in the psychical life of man, on some of the phenomena that accompany the spiritual crisis in the conscious life of man, and on the various types of conversion and the factors that determine these. They deepen our insight into the different types of conversion, which have always been recognized in Reformed theology, confirm our conviction respecting the three elements that are found in conversion, and are quite in agreement with the theological conviction that conversion is rooted in the subconscious life; though they do not explicitly affirm, and in some cases even deny that it finds its explanation in a divine work of the Holy Spirit below the threshold of consciousness, — the work of regeneration. At the same time we should not overrate these studies. Some of them, as, for instance, the work of James is decidedly one-sided, since it is based entirely on the study of extraordinary conversions, which he found most interesting. Moreover, they have not escaped the danger of carrying the idea of the operation of psychical law in conversion too far, and of overlooking the divine and supernatural side of the important process of conversion. James deals with it all as a moral change and defines it in a general way as “the process, gradual or sudden, by which a self hitherto divided, and consciously wrong, inferior and unhappy, becomes unified and consciously right, superior, and happy, in consequence of its firmer hold upon religious realities.”[Op. cit., p. 189.] Others reduce it to a purely natural phenomenon, and even explain it materialistically, as controlled by physical laws. They do not, and even from the nature of the case cannot, go down to the root of the matter, do not and cannot penetrate to the hidden depths from which conversion springs. There is an obvious tendency to challenge the old, orthodox idea of conversion, regarding it as unscientific to teach that the religious nature of man is miraculously implanted. They do not accept the light of the Word of God, and therefore have no standard by which to judge the deeper things of life. Snowden says: “As some psychologists have tried to work out a psychology of the soul without any soul, so some of them have endeavored to construct a psychology of religion without religion. Under their treatment of it religion has evaporated into a mere subjective feeling or delusion without any objective reality, and such a psychology of religion is baseless and worthless both as psychology and as religion.”[The Psychology of Religion, p. 20.]
F. THE AUTHOR OF CONVERSION.
1. GOD THE AUTHOR OF CONVERSION. God only can be called the author of conversion. This is the clear teaching of Scripture. In Ps. 85:4 the poet prays, “Turn us, O God of our salvation,” and in Jer. 31:18 Ephraim prays, “Turn thou me, and I shall be turned.” A similar prayer is found in Lam. 5:21. In Acts 11:18 Peter calls attention to the fact that God has granted unto the Gentiles repentance unto life. A similar statement is found in II Tim. 2:25. There is a twofold operation of God in the conversion of sinners, the one moral and the other hyper-physical. In general it may be said that He works repentance by means of the law, Ps. 19:7; Rom. 3:20, and faith by means of the gospel, Rom. 10:17. Yet we cannot separate these two, for the law also contains a presentation of the gospel, and the gospel confirms the law and threatens with its terrors, II Cor. 5:11. But God also works in an immediate, hyperphysical manner in conversion. The new principle of life that is implanted in the regenerate man, does not issue into conscious action by its own inherent power, but only through the illuminating and fructifying influence of the Holy Spirit. Cf. John 6:44; Phil. 2:13. To teach otherwise would be Lutheran and Arminian.
2. MAN CO-OPERATES IN CONVERSION. But though God only is the author of conversion, it is of great importance to stress the fact, over against a false passivity, that there is also a certain co-operation of man in conversion. Dr. Kuyper calls attention to the fact that in the Old Testament shubh is used 74 times of conversion as a deed of man, and only 15 times, of conversion as a gracious act of God; and that the New Testament represents conversion as a deed of man 26 times, and speaks of it only 2 or 3 times as an act of God.[Dict. Dogm., De Salute, p. 94.] It should be borne in mind, however, that this activity of man always results from a previous work of God in man, Lam. 5:21; Phil. 2:13. 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.
G. THE NECESSITY OF CONVERSION.
The Bible speaks in absolute terms of the necessity of regeneration; not so of the necessity of conversion. It tells us plainly that, “Except a man be born again (anew, or, from above), he cannot see the kingdom of God,” John 3:3, but does not speak of the need of conversion in the same general way, which allows of no exceptions. Naturally, they who identify the two cannot admit this distinction. Undoubtedly there are passages of Scripture which contain a call to conversion, in order to enjoy the blessings of God, such as Ezek. 33:11; Isa. 55:7, and these imply the necessity of conversion in the case of those addressed or mentioned there. The passage that comes nearest to an absolute declaration is found in Matt. 18:3, “Verily, I say unto you, Except ye turn and become as little children, ye shall in no wise enter into the kingdom of heaven.” But even in this case one might insist that this refers only to the persons addressed. The expressed or implied exhortations to turn about, found in Scripture, come only to those to whom they are addressed and do not necessarily mean that every one must pass through a conscious conversion, in order to be saved. The question as to the necessity of conversion should be answered with discrimination. Those who die in infancy must be regenerated, in order to be saved, but cannot very well experience conversion, a conscious turning from sin unto God. In the case of adults, however, conversion is absolutely essential, but it need not appear in each one’s life as a strongly marked crisis. Such a definite crisis can, as a rule, be expected only in the lives of those who, after a life of sin and shame, are arrested in their evil course by the regenerating power of the Holy Spirit and by the effectual call to conversion. In them the life of conscious enmity is at once transformed into a life of friendship with God. It can hardly be looked for, however, in the lives of those who, like John the Baptist and Timothy, served the Lord from early youth. At the same time, conversion is necessary in the case of all adults in the sense that its elements, namely, repentance and faith must be present in their lives. This means that they must in some form experience the essence of conversion.
H. RELATION OF CONVERSION TO OTHER STAGES OF THE SAVING PROCESS.
1. TO REGENERATION. This has already been indicated to some extent. The two words “regeneration” and “conversion” are used synonymously by some. Yet in present day theology they generally refer to different, though closely related matters. The principle of the new life implanted in regeneration comes into active expression in the conscious life of the sinner when he is converted. The change that is effected in the subconscious life in regeneration passes into the conscious life in conversion. Logically, conversion follows regeneration. In the case of those who are regenerated in infancy, there is necessarily a temporal separation of the two, but in the case of those who are regenerated after they have come to years of discretion, the two generally coincide. In regeneration the sinner is entirely passive, but in conversion he is both passive and active. The former can never be repeated, but the latter can to a certain extent, though the conversio actualis prima occurs but once.
2. TO EFFECTUAL CALLING. Conversion is the direct result of internal calling. As an effect in man, internal calling and the beginning of conversion really coincide. The situation is not such that God calls the sinner, and that then the sinner in his own strength turns to God. It is exactly in the internal calling that man becomes conscious of the fact that God is working conversion in him. The truly converted man will feel all along that his conversion is the work of God. This distinguishes him from the man who aims at superficial moral improvement. The latter works in his own strength.
3. TO FAITH. As already indicated, conversion consists in repentance and faith, so that faith is really a part of conversion. Yet we should distinguish here. There are two kinds of true faith, each having a distinct object, namely, (a) a recognition of the truth of God’s revelation of redemption, not merely in a detached, historical sense, but in such a way that it is recognized as a reality that cannot be ignored with impunity, because it affects life in a vital way; and (b) a recognition and acceptance of the salvation offered in Jesus Christ, which is saving faith in the proper sense of the word. Now there is no doubt that faith in the former sense is present at once in conversion. The Holy Spirit causes the sinner to see the truth as it applies to his own life, so that he comes under “conviction,” and thus becomes conscious of his sin. But he may remain in this stage for some time, so that it is hard to say in how far saving faith, that is, trust in Christ unto salvation, is at once included in conversion. There is no doubt that, logically, repentance and the knowledge of sin precedes the faith that yields to Christ in trusting love.
QUESTIONS FOR FURTHER STUDY: Why did Beza prefer to call conversion resipiscentia rather than poenitentia? Why is the term ‘repentance’ inadequate to express the idea of conversion? How did Luther’s conception of repentance differ from that of Calvin? Is conversion always preceded by ‘conviction of sin’? Can we speak of prevenient grace relative to conversion? Is conversion an instantaneous act or is it a process? What is meant by the term ‘daily conversion’? What is the proper view of the necessity of conversion? Does covenant preaching have a tendency to silence the call to conversion? What is the Methodist conception of conversion? Are the methods of the revival meetings commendable? What about the lasting character of the conversions of which they boast? Do the statistics of the Psychology of conversion give us any information on this point?
LITERATURE: Bavinck, Geref. Dogm. IV, pp. 127-181; Kuyper, Dict. Dogm., De Salute, pp. 93-97; ibid., Het Werk van den Heiligen Geest II, pp. 197-203; A. A. Hodge, Outlines of Theology, pp. 487-495; Strong, Syst. Theol., pp. 829-849; McPherson, Chr. Dogm., pp. 393-397; Shedd, Dogm. Theol. II, pp. 529-537; Alexander, Syst. of Bib. Theol. II, pp. 38-384; Litton, Introd. to Dogm. Theol., pp. 249-258; Vos, Geref. Dogm. IV, pp. 66-81; Pope, Chr. Dogm. II, pp. 367-376; Schmid, Doct. Theol. of the Ev. Luth. Church, pp. 465, 466, 470-484; Drummond, Studies in Chr. Doct., pp. 488-491; Macintosh, Theol. as an Empirical Science, pp. 134-136; Mastricht, Godgeleerdheit, IV, 4; Walden, The Great Meaning of Metanoia; Jackson, The Fact of Conversion; Coe, The Spiritual Life; Starbuck, The Psychology of Religion; James, The Varieties of Religious Experience, pp. 189-258; Ames, The Psychology of Religious Experience, pp. 257-276; Clark, The Psychology of Religious Awakening; Pratt, The Religious Consciousness, pp. 122-164; Steven, The Psychology of the Christian Soul, pp. 142-298; Hughes, The New Psychology and Religious Experience, pp. 213-241; Snowden, The Psychology of Religion, pp. 143-199.
From Systematic Theology