1. What words in Scripture are used for the concept of conversion?

The first and most important word is μετάνοια. The verb that belongs with it is μετανοεῖν. Both words are composed of the preposition μετά and the noun νοῦς. Metanoia, therefore, is a change, an alteration of nous [mind]. Now we need only to specify what is meant by nous. Nous is related to γιγνώσκειν, Latin noscere, English “to know.” This already points us to conscious life. Conversion is a change of what occurs in our consciousness. However, one would take the concept of nous far too narrowly if one were to limit it to intellectual, theoretical consciousness. It is much wider. Nous is synonymous with συνείδησις, “conscience,” moral consciousness: “both their mind and their conscience are defiled” (Titus 1:15); “one person regards one day above the others, but another regards all days alike. Let each one be fully convinced in his own mind [νοῦς]” (Rom 14:5). When one changes his nous, this means more than receiving new knowledge, new concepts, and a new conscious content. The direction, the quality of his conscious life is changed. While previously all his thinking and endeavoring moved apart from God and something else stood in the center, now it is so reversed that it moves around God and for God, and He comes to stand in the center. The word metanoia, however, does not put the emphasis so much on the point of departure and the point of arrival as on the change and reversal.

The change expressed by this word has reference further:

    a)      To intellectual life, thus theoretical consciousness: “with meekness instructing those that oppose, if God may someday grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth” (2 Tim 2:25). The unconverted consciousness finds itself entangled in a world of erroneous concepts. For that person, God’s truth is not the highest reality. His train of thought does not revolve around God. Through conversion, that becomes different. The consciousness, insofar as it involves thinking, loses its worldly sinful independence and submits to the wisdom of God. In this respect, conversion thus coincides with the faith of the regenerate. Above it has already been pointed out that what the regenerate knew and believed previously in a solely historical way he now also knows and believes in an essentially different way. His faith, which has now become spiritual, is directed entirely to the testimony of God. Thereafter, the knowledge of saving faith and all that accompanies it must also be brought to bear. The doctrine of sin and grace in the consciousness of the converted sinner receives the weight due it. The knowledge of spiritual faith in the wider sense belongs essentially to the manifestation of conversion. Faith is a part of conversion.
    b)      By no means, however, does metanoia remain limited to the consciousness of the intellect. The consciousness of the life of the will likewise shares in it. In the conscious willing of the unconverted there is an impulse that is active against God and self-seeking. In the conscious volition of the converted there is an impulse that is active toward God and away from himself. The will was first turned away from God and is now converted to God. On this point, too, faith coheres most closely with conversion. In all believing, there is a letting go of ourselves and a resting in another. In conversion, faith—of which the seed was given in regeneration—turns to God to rest in His testimony. The will, insofar as it is involved in believing, now turns to God (Acts 8:22, “Therefore repent of this your wickedness; Heb 6:1, “Not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works”).
    c)      Conversion also extends to the life of the emotions. While for the unconverted the spiritual things of God are an arid desert, for the converted they become a source of lively delight. While formerly the reality of the relationship to which he stood toward God left him cold and indifferent, his heart now reacts immediately to it.
    d)      In all three respects, however, metanoia includes a conscious opposition to the former condition. This is an essential element in the concept, and one should therefore attend to it very carefully. Being converted does not mean simply going from one direction of consciousness to another so far as the intellect, will, and emotions are concerned. It means, in doing this, that at the same time there is present in the new direction of intellect, will, and emotions a conscious aversion to the former direction. In other words, metanoia has a positive side, but it also has a negative side. A new knowledge arises in the one converted, but at the same time he is conscious that his old knowledge was foolishness and ignorance. A new volition impels the one converted, but at the same time he becomes conscious of a deep aversion toward his old volition that worked against God. A new emotion controls the one converted, but in it he similarly has a consciousness of a deep sorrow over his former condition.

Conversion, therefore, looks back as well as forward. In their functioning, the new capacities that are now turned toward God look back in a conscious fashion on their former activity that was turned away from God. This is the element of repentance in conversion along with the element of faith. All the activities mentioned under (a), (b), and (c) go back to faith, insofar as it has its seat in the intellect and will, and at the same time is accompanied by the emotions. What is meant here is repentance—that is, a true, deep-seated knowledge of and a strong aversion, an active abhorrence, toward the earlier relationship toward God. “Now I rejoice, not because you were grieved but because you were grieved leading to repentance [εἰς μετάνοιαν]. For godly sorrow produces repentance without regret that leads to salvation, but the sorrow of the world produces death” (2 Cor 7:9–10). “And if he sins against you seven times in a day, and returns to you seven times in a day saying, ‘I repent’ [μετανοέω], you must forgive him” (Luke 17:4).

2. What is another word used in Scripture for “conversion”?

The word ἐπιστροφή, which occurs only once in the New Testament, in Acts 15:3. On the other hand, the verb ἐπιστρέφειν is used much more. It has a somewhat wider scope than μετανοεῖν. It not only puts the emphasis on the change of direction in the conscious life, but it also expresses that a new relationship comes about by this change. Hence it can be used with μετανοεῖν; for example, “Repent [μετανοεῖν], therefore, and turn back [ἐπιστρέφειν]” (Acts 3:19). While μετανοεῖν is sometimes used exclusively for repentance, in ἐπιστρέφειν faith is necessarily included. Repentance (μετάνοια) and faith can be mentioned together, but not conversion (ἐπιστροφή) and faith: “repentance toward God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 20:21)—here one finds μετάνοια. Where these two words [ἐπιστροφή and μετάνοια] are distinguished, the former lets the focus fall more on the positive direction of faith, the latter more on the retrospective attitude of repentance.

3. What word does the Hebrew use for conversion?

The noun שׁוּבָה and the verb שׁוב. In the Septuagint this is nearly always translated by ἐπιστρέφειν (1 Sam 7:3; 1 Kgs 8:33).

4. Is there still another word that is used by the New Testament?

The word μεταμέλεσθαι. This literally means “to be concerned about something afterwards”: “and afterward he repented and went”; “and even when you saw it, afterward you did not repent in order to believe” (Matt 21:29, 32). Thus the emphasis here is on the element of repentance. However, from the texts just cited above, it appears that it is incorrect to understand the difference between this word and μετανοεῖν as if the former merely indicates a sensation of emotion by which the will is not yet changed—thus superficial sorrow, worldly sadness, that is a result of the common grace of the Holy Spirit but that faith need not follow—while the latter always indicates heartfelt conversion that presupposes regeneration. Metanoia can occur a few times for regret. For example, “And if he is sorrowful, forgive him” (Luke 17:3). The difference lies only in this: that μεταμέλεσθαι points exclusively to the negative, retrospective side of repentance. Metanoia is richer in content. Included in it is the element of will; it consists of a firm intention, of an active change of the will; there is action. Hence, μετανοεῖν appears in the imperative mood: “be converted.” But, in contrast, μεταμέλεσθαι, “be sorrowful,” never does, for emotion as such cannot be commanded.

5. What is distinctive of most of these words?

They are almost always active terms, something by which they are distinguished in use from the words for regeneration. There it was “to be regenerated” (ἀναγεννᾶσθαι). Here it is “to convert oneself”—a proof that after regeneration, as soon as it penetrates into the conscious life, the gracious activity of God makes the subject itself active. Here, man is no longer purely passive; he is not only acted on but impelled to action.

6. What is conversion called in Latin?

In Latin three words are used:

    a)      Poenitentia, “having remorse,” connected with poena, “punishment.” In it the element of “penitence,” “contrition,” comes to the fore. One may compare this with the English word “repentance” (from repoenitere). In the Roman Catholic church, however, poenitentia more and more received an external sense. “Penance” was placed as an independent sacrament alongside the others. It has reference to a Christian who has fallen into mortal sin, and so does not have initial conversion in view. It consists of three parts:
      1.      Contritio, sincere remorse, to be distinguished from attritio. The latter abhors and hates sin because of its terrible consequences; contritio, on the other hand, for its own sake. If, however, attritio is concerned with the eternal consequences of sin and not merely its temporal consequences, it is also sufficient.
      2.      Confessio, or “confession,” acknowledgement of sin before an ecclesiastical judge.
      3.      Satisfactio, “satisfaction” of temporal punishment, likewise prescribed by an ecclesiastical judge. Through this wholly external understanding, the word poenitentia acquired a bad sound, so that some preferred not to use it any longer.
    b)      Another Latin word is conversio. This is essentially the same in meaning as epistrophē. It comes from convertere, “to turn around,” and therefore points to the about-face and the changed direction that comes into the life of the sinner at conversion.
    c)      A third term is the much-used resipiscentia, literally, “becoming wise again,” from resipiscere, “to return to one’s senses.” It agrees to a great extent with metanoia. The difference is only that the prefix “re-” calls to mind the abnormality of the former state of the consciousness. What supervenes in becoming wise again is not something new but just what should have been present originally—what is normal.

7. How do you best describe conversion according to what we have found?

It is active: that act of God by which He turns the regenerate man in his consciousness to Himself by faith and repentance.
It is passive: that conscious act of the regenerate man in which by God’s grace he turns to God in repentance and faith.

8. Does conversion take place in the judicial sphere, or in the sphere of dispositional re-creating grace?

Properly speaking, conversion lies in the sphere of re-creating grace. It does not change the state but the condition of man. However, in conversion, an awareness that the sinner is worthy of damnation is awakened in him, and in connection with that, faith is given, which in its turn leads to justification. Conversion, therefore, is also connected with what occurs in the judicial sphere.

9. Is conversion an act of grace that takes place below the consciousness or in the consciousness?

As we saw from the name metanoia, conversion does not take place below the consciousness but in the consciousness. There is, of course, a transition of the activity of life from the new principle of life into the consciousness. The first dawning of conversion must thus start from below the consciousness. But, as the whole work of God, it is itself reflected in the light of man’s consciousness.

10. Does conversion have in view the removal of the old man or the enlivening of the new man?

Actually, already in regeneration the old is replaced at the core of our being by a new principle of life. And, conversely, conversion flows from the outworking and penetration of this new life into the consciousness. Thus, to this extent one cannot say that conversion removes the old; rather, it is a continuation and extension of the activity of the new.
Still, with that, not everything is said. When a new principle of life has been introduced at the core of a man’s being, then his entire existence is still not yet reversed by it. In his consciousness, particularly, he still holds on to the old, lives in the old, and turns away from God. The center of the circle of his life may lie in God, while he does not see or seek that center in God but elsewhere. This, then, is what is changed in conversion. In his consciousness, in his own awareness, the sinner learns to see the lostness and untenability of his former position and his former condition, and the result of this is that he is also loosed from the old in his conscious life. And conversely, he learns to understand and appropriate with a clear consciousness the permanency and safety of his new position and his new condition. He adopts the standpoint of someone who lives for God. Thus we find that, for the consciousness, conversion in fact has the same two sides that we encounter in regeneration, but nevertheless for both the second, positive side of regeneration is the basis.

11. Is conversion something that occurs at once in a crisis or does it consist of a slowly continuing process?

Different answers must be given to this question. For regeneration, it was impossible to speak of a continuation or repetition. By the nature of the case, someone can only be born once. On the other hand, the consciousness of man goes up and down—is now darker, then clearer, subject to fluctuations and changes. It lies on the surface, on the outside of life, and consequently can be seized by the still-continually-impure nature, so that in a certain sense it again turns away from God. Thus, the possibility exists for a continuing and repeated conversion. The Christian needs to die daily in repentance and made alive in faith. The old man must be crucified anew again and again so that the new man can arise with all the more power.
Still, it remains true that in its specific sense, conversion is something that occurs once and can only occur once, and that consequently it stands out as a crisis in the life of sinners. Thus, the old theologians had every right to bring conversion into the closest connection with regeneration and to regard conversion as the reverse side of the latter. Only where the consciousness is wholly fallen and turned away from God can it experience this great reversal, to which some give the designation of “first conversion.” Afterward, the contrast between the old and the new can no longer appear with the sharpness that it has in the first days of the activity of the new life. And at a later point it is tempered by the consciousness of justification that can never be entirely lost where it has once occurred. Although one must thus agree that the distance between first conversion and continuing conversion is not the same as the absolute difference between regeneration and the development of life, there still remains sufficient place for a distinction.

12. Is conversion exclusively a work of God, or is man also active in it?

In it, man is worked on by God’s grace such that he converts himself—that is, consciously turns from sin and turns to God. The subject that is active here is, however, the regenerated man, not the old, natural man.

13. What is the connection of conversion to effectual calling?

The closest connection. Conversion is the direct consequence of this calling. It is not as if the sinner converted himself to God by his own hand. Rather, conversion is always accompanied by a lively awareness that it is God who calls us to Himself. In the concept of calling, precisely that is expressed as clearly as possible. The difference between true conversion and a superficial moral improvement lies precisely in this point. The moral reformation of which the unregenerate speaks is a work that he himself performs and by which he places himself against the Lord. It is something, moreover, by which he continually relies on himself and exclusively considers himself and his own interests. It is a sorrow of a sinner according to himself.
In genuine conversion, man feels that he is under the working God. It may be that under the crushing and the death of repentance, he does not draw from conversion the comfort that he should be able to draw from it. But with that, he already senses that he is still placed in a direct relationship with God, to be approved by Him. And no less does the converted person reckon with and think of God, and is primarily concerned for His holy rights. In discussing calling above, it was pointed out how the man in whom the consciousness of the new life awakens for the first time is under the impression that God effectually draws him to Himself and omnipotently calls forth life from him. He says, “Convert me, so I shall be converted!” Precisely by that it comes about that, for his consciousness, regeneration and calling nearly fuse.

14. What is the connection of conversion to faith?

Conversion consists of repentance and faith. So faith is a part of conversion. Still, to arrive at clarity one needs to make a twofold distinction: There is a faith in the wider and in the narrower sense.
In the wider sense, we understand faith to be an acceptance as true of all that God declares; in the narrower sense, it is an acceptance as true of the declaration of God that in Christ He will forgive sin. By the former is not meant ordinary historical faith that can also be present in a sinner apart from regeneration and conversion. With conversion, a new faith awakens in the sinner with respect also to what he formerly believed in a merely historical fashion. An unconverted and unregenerate sinner can know that he is a sinner and deserving of condemnation in Adam. He knows this by historical faith. When conversion comes, however, he now begins to believe this in a much deeper sense, so that it becomes a reality for him with which he reckons and that is effective in his life. This is not saving faith in the narrower sense of the word, but it is still something entirely different than historical faith. Here, for the consciousness of the sinner by the action of the Holy Spirit, the content of historical faith is made into living, active truth, to which he must react. He knows it differently and agrees to it differently than was the case previously. Now, that truth is directly addressed by God to his consciousness and the power of the presence of God speaks from it. Also, it is now regarded as a truth that has a special, personal application to the sinner himself, while previously it was regarded as a general, collectively applicable truth. It is indifferent what name one gives to all this, whether one calls it conviction, repentance, or awareness of sin, provided one only recognizes that it falls under the general concept of the illuminating and enlightened knowledge that is only encountered in the regenerate in conversion and by which they learn to take into account the relationship in which they stand to God.
In this wider sense, one will have to say that faith accompanies conversion from its inception. Conversion is never a blind impulse by which man, without knowing why, would be driven to God. Knowledge is an essential element that never can be completely missing. It is a calling that draws and impels man, not a mystical something that has nothing to do with the truth.
It is another question how far saving faith in the narrower sense belongs to conversion. If someone is under conviction of sin and the reality of his situation is placed before his eyes by the faith just described, that does not yet actually include that he also exercises a faith that surrenders. Awareness of sin and of deserving damnation is logically a different concept than trusting in the Mediator. It is not only a different concept, but also a concept that must precede the latter. Without the conviction of sin, the act—the exercise—of faith is unthinkable. Also, believing in Christ is something reasonable that occurs in the light of truth, not a blind, mystical urge. Thus it is not subject to any doubt that, in order, repentance and the knowledge of sin precede surrendering faith. However, one should keep the following in view:

    a)      That this can only apply to the act of faith and not to its disposition. The latter is given in regeneration and so, in order, also precedes repentance. It underlies faith in the wider sense as well as in the narrower sense. Only by this disposition does it become possible for the sinner to see the reality of his relationship with God. It is the basis of both the activity of the intellect of the converted person, by which he sees the things of God correctly, and the inclination of his will, by which he agrees with God’s declaration. Indeed, when God declares that the sinner is lost and deserving damnation, then there belongs to believing this witness not only an enlightened intellect but also a will bent to His. And the disposition that is the root of both of these can only precede repentance if it is to be the true repentance of conversion.
    b)      The distinction made here is a logical one and not a chronological one or a distinction in time. It is not as if the sinner is first brought to the knowledge of himself, of his lost condition and of his relationship as a sinner toward God, and then, after having spent considerable time in this situation, suddenly comes to the knowledge of Christ and His righteousness. Without doubt such cases do occur. There have been those converted who have wrestled before God for days and weeks almost without hope as lost, without the glimmer of faith occurring in their consciousness. But we may not make the presence or absence of such a condition a distinguishing mark of true conversion. One can even assume that this experience does not occur in the majority of those converted. Still, it is so that a historical knowledge of Christ is present from the outset in all those converted who come to repentance. God’s way of proceeding is such that He only works conversion where one lives under the ministry of the Word, and so where a certain degree of knowledge of the truths of salvation is found. Where the notion of the Mediator is already in the consciousness, then from the first moment of conversion on it will generate a lesser or greater activity of the faith that accompanies repentance. In this way the activity of repentance and faith can coincide chronologically, and the one can affect the other. The knowledge of Christ and His righteousness do not remain without influence on the sinner’s consciousness of guilt, but shape it. And in many cases it will be impossible to indicate precisely what first entered the consciousness clearly: repentance, or faith.
    c)      Conversion also includes the source of sanctification. Now, the rule is firm that there cannot be genuine Christian sanctification that does not grow on the root of justification. And justification, in turn, is only given to saving faith. At the same time, this includes that conversion as a source of sanctification presupposes the activity of faith. It is also entirely impossible that the sinner would try to do something good for God and devote himself to God as a pleasing sacrifice as long as he feels that he lies under the curse and does not have the consciousness, at least in principle, to be cleansed by the merits of Christ and to be accepted by God. The entire positive side of conversion—actively turning toward God—is inseparable from justifying faith. We see here again how the various saving acts of God, however much they can and must be distinguished logically, nevertheless may not be separated from one another as if they did not affect each other. Rather, they involve each other at every point and are interwoven with each other. We found that regeneration is included in effectual calling. We now find, in approximately the same sense, that justification is surrounded by the various activities of conversion.

15. Who is the author of conversion?

God, as we are taught in Acts 11:18: “So then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance unto life.” Here, it is called a gift of God. “Whether God may at some time grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth” (2 Tim 2:25).

16. In conversion, does God work solely through means, or is there in addition also an immediate working?

In conversion there is a twofold working of God:

    a)      Mediate working through the Word of God. Both through the law as well as through the gospel, God affects the consciousness of sinners in order to bring about conversion in them. Through the law, repentance is generated, for by the law is the knowledge of sin [Rom 3:20]. Through the gospel, faith is generated, for faith is by hearing [Rom 10:17]. Still, one must not separate these two too sharply. In the law there is already an adumbration of the gospel, and in the gospel there is an eloquent testimony to, a crushing proclamation of, the law. The cross of the Mediator not only proclaims that satisfaction is accomplished and pardon may be obtained, but at the same time points to what the sinner had deserved for himself and what would happen with him if God were to deal with him in justice. Hence, Scripture describes the crisis of repentance, in which man abandons himself and learns to distance himself from all self-righteousness, as a “being crucified with Christ,” a “mortifying of the old man.” “For through the law I died to the law”—something that is further clarified by the words, “I have been crucified with Christ” (Gal 2:19–20). “Knowing this, that our old man was crucified with Him, so that the body of sin might be abolished, so that we no longer serve sin” (Rom 6:6). In baptism there is a picturing of this repentance as death: “Therefore we were buried with him by baptism into death” (Rom 6:4).
    b)      Besides this mediate working of God, in conversion there is also a direct, immediate working—a working linked with the new principle of life already infused into the soul but that then directly, without the intervention of any means, implements this principle. Also, this new principle does not possess in itself the capacity to flow outwardly and lay hold of the consciousness of the sinner. It is Lutheran and Remonstrant to think that God gives powers in the regenerate man over which he can now dispose freely, which he can use or can leave unused or, if need be, can discard and lose. Conversion is as little an uncertain work as regeneration. God works in His children to will and to work for His good pleasure. Even the best seed does not germinate and grow without the fructifying and nourishing working of the Spirit. In this working of the Spirit, there is an immediate working (Phil 2:13). Not only the disposition of faith but also the act of believing is sustained by the working of God’s grace. The old theologians distinguish these two acts of conversion, or of the converting God, as moral and physical, ethical and material action. The word “physical” is used here in the same sense as in regeneration.

17. Is the word “conversion” always used in the same sense in Scripture?

No, it occurs with more than one meaning, and one must take the greatest care not to confuse these with each other or to apply to the one what is meant by another.

    a)      Conversion is used for a change in the outlook of a nation—thus, in an external religious sense. So, for example, it occurs of the Ninevites, who were converted by Jonah’s preaching (Jonah 3:10; Matt 12:41; cf. Isa 19:22).
    b)      A godless person can convert in his outward life to a virtuous one without being regenerated (Psa 7:12; Jer 18:11).
    c)      After being caught in a condition of lifelessness and barrenness, a believer can convert from it to a new faith (Rev 2:5; Jas 5:19–20).
    d)      A regenerate person can come for the first time to exercise repentance and faith. This is conversion as discussed here.

18. Is conversion absolutely necessary?

Everyone who is saved must come to a true knowledge of his sins and to a believing appreciation of the merits of the Mediator. If he is regenerated in adult life, he has lived in a conscious estrangement from God. It can therefore not be otherwise than that the about-face of this consciousness must be registered very sharply in his life, and in such a case, one beholds the crisis that is called conversion.
The possibility exists, however, that children are regenerated before they come to exercise discernment. To what extent that takes place cannot be decided. The Bible provides us with only two instances: namely, those of the Prophet Jeremiah and John the Baptist. However, where such a case occurs, the possibility also exists that the child does not first need to be brought over from a conscious condition of estrangement from God into that of conversion to God, but that of its own accord, in growing up, it already lives in the latter condition. There are young people who cannot point to a particular time for their conversion, and who can recall that, as far back as their consciousness reaches, they have always been active for God with a repentant and believing heart. There, the course is not marked by crisis, but is more protracted. Still, there too the essential elements of conversion are present. But they are more diffused.

Vos, G. (2012–2016). Reformed Dogmatics. (R. B. Gaffin, Ed., A. Godbehere, R. van Ijken, D. van der Kraan, H. Boonstra, J. Pater, A. Janssen, … K. Batteau, Trans.) (Vol. 4, pp. 58–71). Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.

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