The Holy Spirit in Conversion

James P. Needham
Louisville, Kentucky


Every Bible believer knows the necessity of conversion, and is convinced that it is effected through the work of the Holy Spirit. Sometimes Christians (members of the church of Christ) are accused of not believing in the work of the Holy Spirit in conversion, but such is either a misunderstanding or a misrepresentation. It is our purpose in this article to present what the Bible teaches on this important subject that all may be enlightened concerning it.

I. The Fact of It:

The Bible plainly affirms that the Holy Spirit has a major role in bringing about the conversion of the sinner. Let us notice: (1) one must be "born of the Spirit" (Jn. 3:5). (2) One must be quickened (made alive JPN) by the Spirit (Jn. 6:63). (3) The Spirit came to "convict the world of sin" (Jn. 16:8). (4) The Spirit makes free from the law of sin and death (Rom. 8:2). (5) One must be sanctified by the Spirit (2 Thess. 2:13; 1 Cor. 6:11). (6) One is justified by the Spirit (1 Cor. 6:11). (7) One must be washed by the Spirit (1 Cor. 6:11). (8) One must be called by the Spirit (Rev. 2:17). All of these acts have to do with conversion. To deny that the Spirit is active in conversion is to deny the plain word of God.

II. The How of It:

It should be easy for all to see, however, that establishing the Spirit's instrumentality in conversion tells us absolutely nothing about HOW He accomplishes His work. This has been a point of contention for centuries. Due to the influence of Calvinian theology, the major Protestant denominations teach that the Spirit operates upon the sinner in conversion in some mysterious or miraculous wav separate and apart from the written or spoken word of God. Few will even attempt to explain how it is accomplished, but they affirm that it does happen. It is often said to be "better felt than told."

This doctrine was a necessary outgrowth of the dogma of total depravity. Once men took the position that the human heart is so depraved that it cannot think a good thought, they rendered it incapable of turning to God without some arbitrary miraculous change being wrought upon it. Thus, when men invent one false doctrine, others become necessary to prop up the first.

The major difference between protestant theology and the Bible on this point is not WHETHER the Spirit operates in conversion, but HOW does he accomplish his work. Is with or without agency? The Bible teaches that the Spirit operates on the heart of the sinner with agency, the word of God being that agency. Calvinian or modern Protestant theology affirms the Spirit's operation on the heart of the sinner to be without agency separate and apart from the written or spoken word. That this is erroneous will become very clear as this study progresses.

The matter can be clearly and concisely stated in this proposition: There is not one thing that the spirit does for the sinner in conversion that is not done through the agency of the word. Or, to state it another way: Everything the Bible does for the sinner, it says the WORD does the same thing. This does not mean that these things can be accomplished through TWO mediums, but that they are accomplished by the Spirit through the agency of the word. Let us notice that all the things the sinner is said to need in section one (I) above, are accomplished through the word of God:

(1) One must be "born of the spirit" (Jn. 3:5), but one is "born of the word of God" (1 Pet. 1:23). (2) One must be quickened by the Spirit (Jn. 6:63), but tile word of God quickens (Psa. 119:50). (3) The Spirit convicts the world of sin (Jn. 16:8), but gainsayers are convicted by the preaching of sound doctrine, the word (Tit. 1:9). (4) One must be made free by the Spirit (Rom.8: 3) but the Spirit makes one free through His Law, which is the gospel. (5) One must be justified by the Spirit (2 Thess. 2:13; 1 Cor. 6:11), but the word sanctifies (Jn. 17: 17). (6) One must be justified by the Spirit (1 Cor. 6:11), but faith justifies (Rom. 5:1), and it comes by hearing God's word (Rom. 10:17). (7) One must be washed by the Spirit (1 Cor. 6:11), but one is cleansed "by the washing of water by the word" (Eph. 5:26). (8) One must be called by the Spirit (Rev. 22:17), but one is called by the gospel (2 Thess. 2:14), which was given by the Spirit (1 Pet. 1:12). To extend this list further would be useless. The unbiased reader can clearly see the truth of the proposition stated above. The Spirit does His work through the Spirit's law (Rom. 8:2): The Spirit's law is the word, which was revealed by the Spirit (1Cor. 2:13).

It can be said that God brings physical children into our families, but that says nothing about how He does it. We all know that He does it by natural law. To say that the Spirit converts the sinner, says nothing about HOW he does it. That is another consideration altogether. Paul says, "For the LAW OF THE SPIRIT of life in Christ Jesus hath made me free from the law, of sin and death" (Rom. 8:3). The Spirit works through the agency of His law, the word of the gospel, which He revealed through the apostles (1 Pet. 1:12).

The truthfulness of our proposition is further corroborated by the many passages, which affirm the sufficiency of the word. (1) Paul said the gospel (not the direct operation of the Holy Spirit) is the "power of God unto salvation to everyone that believeth" (Rom. 1:16). He said the Corinthians were saved by the gospel (1 Cor. 15:2), not by the direct operation of the Holy Spirit. (2) He said, "The law of the Spirit makes free" (Rom. 8:2), not the direct operation of the Holy Spirit. (3) We are told that the word has: (a) The power of food to fill those who "hunger and thirst after righteousness" (Jn. 2:15,16; Mt. 4:4; 1 Pet. 2:2; Mt.5: 6); (b) the power of medicine to heal the sin-sick (Mt. 9:12; Psa.107: 20; Mt. 13:15); (c) The power of light to lead those in spiritual darkness (Eph. 5:13; Psa. 119: 105, 130); (d) The power of fire to consume spiritual impurities (Lk. 7:29; Mal.3: 2; Jer. 23:29; 20:9); (e) The power of a hammer to crush out the work of the devil (Psa. 74:h; Jer. 23:29); (f) The power of seed to beget spiritual life (Lk. 8:11; Col. 1:5-7); g) The power of the sword to mortify our embers which are upon the earth (Col. 3:5). (4) Paul said, "The word (not the direct operation of the Holy Spirit) is able to give you an inheritance among all them which are sanctified'' (Acts 20:32).

Those who contend that a direct operation of the Holy Spirit is essential to conversion need to tell us what the Spirit does for the sinner that the word cannot do. If they contend that the Spirit speaks to the sinner, they need to tell us what He says that the word does not say. If He says the same thing the word says, why does He need to say it! Why can we not just read it in the Word? If they contend that the words spoken to the sinner are not in the Bible, they need to consider Gal. 1:8 which says, "Though we or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed."

III. Consequences of the Theory of the Direct Operation of the Holy Spirit

(1) Places all of damnation upon God. One of the most serious features of the theory under consideration is the position in which it places God. It is obvious that no mall can administer the Holy Spirit. If the sinner must receive the Spirit separate and apart from the word of God, then we must agree that God decides when and upon whom He will allow the Spirit to operate. This means, then, that all of the lost are such because God has not decided to send them the direct operation of the Spirit. This places the responsibility of their damnation upon God. One cannot place all of salvation upon God, without at the same time placing all responsibility for damnation upon Him. Any doctrine that thus reflects upon the love of God is necessarily false.

(2) It mitigates the necessity of preaching the gospel. The Bible emphasizes the necessity of preaching the gospel to all men (Mt. 28:19,20; Mk. 16:15,16). But if the salvation of the sinner is dependent upon God's deciding to send him something separate and apart from the gospel, then it would be foolish and useless to preach the gospel to a sinner. What possible good could it do him?

IV. Conclusion

The very obvious conclusion is that the Holy Spirit is operative in the conviction and conversion of the sinner, but His operation is performed through the agency of the word of God or the gospel. The surgeon operates upon the physical heart of man, but he does it through the agency of certain instruments. The word of God or the gospel is the Spirit's instrument in Operating upon the spiritual heart of man. Or looking at it from another point of view, the Spirit operates in the conversion of the sinner by revealing the law of conversion; the law of the Spirit (Rom. 8:2). In this same chapter Paul says, "The Spirit Himself beareth witness with our spirit, that me are the children of God" (Rom. 8:16). This can be illustrated by the following







1. Hear the gospel John 6:44-46

2. Believe the gospel Mark 16:15, 16; Rom.10:9, 10.

3. Repent of your sins Luke 13:3; Acts 2:38; 17:30.

4. Confess the name of Christ before men Mt. 10:32; Rom. 10:9, 10.

5. Be baptized for the remission of sins Acts 2:38: 22:16.


1. "I have heard the gospel"

2. "I have believed the gospel.''

3."I have repented of my sins"

4. "I have confessed the name of Christ before men."

5. "I have been baptized for the remission of sins."


When the witnesses agree, conversion is consummated. If they do not agree, conversion is incomplete. This proves, therefore, that conversion does not depend upon some mysterious, miraculous operation of the Holy Spirit, but upon the testimony of my own spirit that I have complied with the Spirit's law. Notice what John says in this connection, "And hereby we do know that we know him, if we keep his commandments. He that saith, I know him and keepeth not his commandments, is a liar, and the truth is no in him. But whose\o keepeth his word, in him verily is the love of God perfected: hereby know we that we are in him" (1 Jn.2:5). If you have not complied with the Spirits law of conversion as listed at the tot, of the chart, you have not been converted. You need to be converted that your sins may be blotted out when times of refreshing shall come from the presence of the Lord (Acts 3:19).

October 1968