Conversion: What Is It?

Cecil Willis
Marion, Indiana

All of the articles that follow are on the subject of "Conversion." Thus it seems appropriate that these articles be prefaced by consideration of what conversion is and what it means. The importance of our present subject is indicated by Jesus' statement recorded in Matt. 18:3, "Except ye be converted and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven." (KJV) This passage plainly teaches that conversion is necessary to go to heaven. Conversion stands between the sinner and salvation. Since one cannot obey "from the heart" (Rom. 6:17) that which he does not understand, it becomes imperative that one understand what conversion means. To assist you to that understanding is the intent of this article.


The Bible in many places speaks of the subject of conversion. In Acts 15:3 Luke tells of Paul and Barnabas going to Jerusalem. He says, "They therefore, being brought on their way by the church, passed through both Phoenicia and Samaria, declaring the conversion of the Gentiles: and they caused great joy unto all the brethren." Incidentally, this passage contains the only usage of the noun form of the word "convert" in the Bible.

James speaks of converting ones erring brother. "My brethren, if any among you err from the truth, and one convert him; let him know, that he who converteth a sinner from the error of his way shall save a soul from death, and shall cover a multitude of sins" (Jas 5:19, 20). The Psalmist said that when his heart was cleansed, "Then will I teach transgressors thy ways; And sinners, shall be converted unto thee" (Ps. 51:13).

Those who heard Peter preach in Jerusalem were told, "Repent ye, therefore, and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out, when the times of refreshing shall come from the presence of the Lord" (Acts 3:10 KJV). Jesus spoke of the blindness of the people of his day in these words. "For this peoples heart is waxed gross, and their ears are dull of hearing, and their eyes they have closed, lest at any time they should see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and should understand with their heart, and should be converted, and I should heal them" (Matt. 13:15). This statement is repeated in Acts 28:27.

An article of this type does not afford the space to quote all the passages pertaining to conversion. The original word which is translated "convert" (EPITREPHEIN) occurs 39 times in the New Testament, according to the INTERNATIONAL STANDARD BIBLE ENCYCLOI'EDIA.

Misunderstanding of Conversion

There are few terms that the sectarian world uses more frequently than the word "conversion." However, though many people Speak often of "conversion," very few people really understand the word. Some would equate conversion with some mystical, inexplicable experience. Others think that con version means to "get religion." Some think that conversion is marching down an aisle at a big meeting, or having someone to pray for them, or to lay their hands on them. Modernists explain conversion as a mere psychological change.

The INTERNATIONAL STANDARD BIBLE ESCYCLOPEDIA (ISBE) says, "There is a good deal of vagueness in the modern use of the term" (p. 707). Among those who would explain conversion psychologically is E. D. Starbuck who said that conversion is used in "a very general way to stand for the whole series of manifestations just preceding, accompanying, and immediately following the apparent sudden changes of character involved" (THE PSYCHOLOGY OF RELIGION, p. 21). William James said, "'To be converted' to be regenerated,' 'to receive grace' to experience religion, ''to gain an assurance," are so many phrases which denote 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 hold upon religious realities. This at least is what conversion signifies in general terms" (The VARIETIES OF RELIGIOUS EXPERIENCE, p. 189).

Definition of Conversion

A proper understanding of the word 'convert" is essential to understanding what one must do to go to heaven. Though other passages explicitly state the commandments to be obeyed, yet the word "convert" embodies comprehensively what one must do. "Convert" is simply a Latinized rendering of the word "convertere." (See Vincent, WORD STUDIES IN THE NEW TESTAMENT, Vol. I, p. 423).

Donald G. Bloesch, in an article in CHRISTIANITY TODAY (May 24, 1968), defined conversion thusly: "The English word 'conversion' is associated with the Hebrew word shuv, which means to turn back or return, and the Greek words epistrepho and metanoeo, both of which indicate to turn towards .... John Wesley was certainly true to the basic witness of scripture when he defined conversion in his dictionary as "thorough change of heart and life from sin to holiness, a turning."

Young's ANALYTICAL CONCORDANCE says that the word used in Acts 15:3 which is translated ''conversion'' means "a turning upon." Young defines the Hebrew word used in Ps. 19.7 ("The law of the Lord is perfect, converting the soul') as "to bring back..." EPISTREPHO which occurs in Jas. 5:19,20 he defines as "to turn about or upon." The word used in Matt. 18:3 (STREPHO) he defines simply as "to turn."

Marvin R. Vincent. in his WORD STUDIES TN THE NEW TESTARIENT (Vol. I. p. 79), in commenting on Matt. 1.1:15, says that "be converted" means "to or toward, to turn;" "with the idea of their turning from their evil toward God." On Matt. 18:3, Vincent observes, "The picture is that of turning round in a road and facing the other way" (Vol. I, p. 103). Vincent said that the word "EPISTREPHEIN'' was not sufficiently translated when the Latinized word "convert" was used. He said. 'The word converted has acquired a conventional religious sense which is fundamentally truthful, but the essential quality of which will be more apparent if we render literally except ye turn."

From these definitions it should be obvious that the basic idea of "convert'' is to change or to turn. One writer said, "Primarily, the word 'convert' (when used in an active sense means to transform; to change or to turn from one form, kind, thing, state, etc., to another. For example: wood is converted into paper, ore into iron." The word "convert" itself does not identify from what one turns. He may turn from idols, indifference. self, material things, false religion, or from sensuality.

But in Biblical usage, "convert" implied a turn from sinful things unto or toward God. Vincent said it embraces the idea of their "turning front evil toward God." Comprehensively the ISBE says conversion "denotes the human volition and act by which man in obedience to the Divine summons determines to change the course of his life and turns to God." More correctly. J. B. Briney said, 'Conversion' in its broad sense is a synonym for the whole gospel plan of salvation." Such is the usage in Acts 15:3.

When one is converted he is changed from a servant of sin into a servant of righteousness (Rom. 6:17,18); from one lost to one who has been saved, from a sinner- into a saint: from a servant of Satan into a servant of God (Acts 26:16-18), from a child of the Devil (John 8:44) into a child of God (Rom. 8:16,17); from one who before was "no people" into one of the "people of God'' (1 Pet. 2:9,10). In conversion, one is turned from darkness unto light (Acts 26:18); he is delivered out of darkness and translated into the kingdom of God's dear Son (Col. 1:13). With this understanding of what conversion is, it should be obvious why Jesus said, "Except ye be converted .ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven" (Matt. 18:3).

Passive or Active?

Here we have space to explore but one other aspect of conversion. This pertains to how conversion is effected in one's life. The King James Version says, "Except ye be converted ..." (Matt. 18:3) and "Repent ye therefore, and be converted ...': (Acts 3:19). These passages in this translation seem to imply that man is inactive in his conversion and that conversion is wholly a work of God. 'The King James Version often translates EPISTREPHO in the Middle Voice or intransitive (passive) usage, but the American Standard Version more correctly translates "turn again," showing that conversion involves an act of man.

At the time that the King James Translation was made (1611), Calvinism affected most theologians. Calvinism has been called a "theological nightmare" which dominated religious thought from Augustine for 1500 years. (Calvinism taught that man was born totally depraved, and therefore could do nothing toward his own salvation. According to Calvinism, God had elected before the worlds were formed those whom He would save, and at His own good time, those elected He called. This call, in which man was wholly passive, Calvinism called "conversion." Unfortunately, when the King James Translator's scholarship and their theology conflicted, their theology seems to have triumphed. Thus they translated "be converted."

Vincent, in commenting on Acts 3:19, says "be converted'' is ''not a good rendering because the verb is in the active voice' (WORD STUDIES, Vol. I, p. 462). That man must be active in his own conversion is manifested by Matt. 13:15. "For this people's heart is waxed gross, And their ears are dull of hearing, And their eyes they have closed; Lest haply they should PERCEIVE with their eyes, and HEAR with their ears, and UNDERSTAND with their heart, And I should heal them"." In this passage we have a cluster of four active verbs, "perceive," "hear," "understand," and ''turn again." These all entail action on the part of man.

However, there is one thing that man call not do for himself, though he can and must "perceive," "hear,'' "understand," and "turn again." Man cannot "heal" or save himself. But when man does what God tells him to do, he will be "healed" of his sins. It is in harmony with Matt. 13:15 that Peter on Pentecost, after having told those sinful Jews what to do (Acts 2:38), exhorted them, ''Save yourselves from this crooked generation" (Acts 2:40).


Conversion is essential to salvation. Man cannot do what God commanded him to do unless he understands what God's will is. Thus you should be vitally interested in the various phases of the subject of conversion which will be discussed in the articles that follow. It is the prayer of the writers of these articles that these studies might be instrumental in enlightening you as to what is implied in "conversion.'' and that these writings might be effectual in persuading you to "save yourselves from this crooked generation."

October 1968