The Holy Spirit in Conversion

By Jeff Asher

But I tell you the truth it is to your advantage that I go away; for if I do not go away, the Helper shall not come to you, but if I go, I will send him to you. And He, when He comes, will convict the world concerning sin, and righteousness, and judgment; concerning sin, because they do not believe in me; and concerning righteousness, because I go to the Father, and you no longer behold me; and concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world has been judged (Jn. 16:7-11, NASB).

In this text Jesus tells his disciples that it is to their advantage that he go away. Now, this was true for two reasons. The first being, Christ could not complete his redemptive work for us on this earth. He could only do this in his role as our High Priest in heaven. Zechariah tells us the Christ is to be a High Priest on his throne, “Behold, the man whose name is the Branch: and he shall grow up out of his place; and he shall build the temple of Jehovah; even he shall build the temple of Jehovah; and he shall bear the glory, and shall sit and rule upon his throne; and he shall be a priest upon this throne, and the counsel of peace shall be between them both” (6:12,13). And the second reason, the Holy Spirit was to have a part in the redemptive plan. He could execute his part only if Christ went away to the Father and sent him to speak the things received of the Christ. The Holy Spirit was to have a part in man’s conversion. It is this aspect of the Holy Spirit’s work we propose to discuss. Jesus said the Holy Spirt would convict the world of sin, righteousness, and judgment. It would appear that verse 7 plainly teachers the Holy Spirit’s activity in the conversion of sinners. Fortunately, this is not a matter for division among religious people. Everyone accepts this teaching of the Bible. However, there is division among believers over the manner in which the Holy Spirit changes men into saints. Let us, therefore, endeavor throughout the discussion to keep the question clear in our minds.

Two Concepts, Only One True

How then does the Holy Spirit operate in the conversion of the sinner? Does he do so by working directly upon the sinner’s heart or does he operate by the means of an instrument in his employ? Let me use these questions to introduce two differing concepts of the Spirit’s role in conversion. First there is the doctrine of the direct operation of the Holy Spirit in converting the sinner. This doctrine teaches that the Holy Spirit in some mysterious, unknown way has contact with the sinner’s heart and opens it to the reception of the Word of God. Ben Bogard, champion of this doctrine among the Missionary Baptists in the first half of this century, said in his debate with N.B. Hardeman, “What I shall affirm is that the Holy Spirit is actually present and uses his personal presence in influencing sinners to be saved.” The foundation for this doctrine is the assumption of inherited total depravity, or simply, that all men are born wholly and completely inclined to do evil, incapable of any good, even faith, without the so-called “enabling power” of the Holy Spirit. The second concept teaches the Holy Spirit performs his work in conversion through the instrumentality of the Scriptures which he revealed and confirmed. This is the concept in harmony with Bible principles.

Through the Word, Not Apart From

The operation of the Holy Spirit in the conversion of sinners through the instrumentality of the Word is substantiated by the fact that whatever works are said to be accomplished by the Holy Spirit in conversion are also attributed to the word. It might help to think in terms of a man chopping down a tree. We could correctly attribute the work to the man or to the axe, but not to the man apart from the axe. Likewise, it is incorrect to attribute conversion to the Holy Spirit apart from the word. The following Scriptures should prove the point. We all accept that for one to be converted he must undergo the “new birth.” In John 3:5 we read, “Verily, verily I say unto thee, except one be born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.” There must be experienced by the believer a birth of the Spirit. The Apostle Peter when addressing the “elect of the Dispersion” said, “Seeing ye have purified your souls in your obedience to the truth unto unfeigned love of the brethren, love one another from the heart fervently, having been begotten again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, through the word of God, which liveth and abideth for ever” (1 Pet. 1:22-23). The NIV assists our understanding in this passage as we read, “For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God.” Luke helps us more when he identifies the seed of the Parable of the Soils sown in good and honest hearts as “the word of God” (Lk. 8:11). Therefore, the “new birth” is attributed to the Holy Spirit by John, but to the word of God by Peter.

All of us recognize that when one is converted he is saved. Now, Paul wrote Titus the following, “. . . according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Spirit” (3:5). Here Paul attributes salvation to that renewing wrought by the Holy Spirit. Yet, James instructs us to “receive with meekness the engrafted word, which is able to save your soul.” The word which here is spoken of as planted is the gospel. The same gospel preached by Paul in Philippi, Galatia, and Corinth; the gospel which he said he planted and Apollos watered and to which God had given the increase (1 Cor. 3:6). Here again, we have the same action which results in conversion attributed to both the Holy Spirit and the Word of God.

Finally, consider sanctification. Sanctification simply means “setting apart or consecrating for use.” This setting apart is said to be accomplished by the Holy Spirit. Paul in writing about those who would not enter the kingdom said of the Corinthians, “and such were some of you: but ye are washed, but ye are sanctified, but ye are justified in the name of our Lord Jesus, and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Cor. 6:11). Our setting apart for useful service unto God is accomplished by the Holy Spirit. However, Jesus prayed that the disciples and those that believed on them through their word be set apart, “sanctify them through thy truth: thy word is truth. As thou hast sent me into the world, even so didst I send them into the world. And for their sakes I sanctify myself, that they also may be sanctified through the truth” (Jn. 17:17-18). Jesus said we are sanctified by the truth which is the word of God. Yet, Paul says we are sanctified by the Spirit of God. How do we reconcile this? Either the new birth, salvation, and sanctification are accomplished for some by the Holy Spirit and for others by the word, or they are accomplished for all in the same way, namely by the Spirit acting through the word as his instrument.

The Cases of Conversion Agree

The Holy Spirit’s activity in conversion is found in the cases of conversion as they are recorded in Acts. Let us quickly examine some of these. On the day of Pentecost those present in the audience said, “we do hear them speak in our tongues the wonderful works of God” (2:11). Peter then stood and lifted up his voice. Following the sermon (2:37) the record states, “When they heard this they were pricked in their heart.” The conviction in heart of those Jews was not accomplished until they received the preaching. Their hearts were not pricked by the personal presence of the Holy Spirit on that occasion; they were pricked by the word heard.

Another example is that of Saul on the road to Damascus in Acts 9. We see that Jesus refused to tell Saul what to do aside from, “Go into the city and it shall be told thee what to do.” In no way and at no time does the conversion of Saul differ from any other. He prayed for three days and finally Jesus sent Ananias to tell him what to do, “Arise, and be baptized, and wash away thy sins, calling on the name of the Lord” (22:16). Saul did not undergo any experience in prayer, or receive forgiveness on the road to Damascus. Saul was saved when he washed away his sins in baptism, not before.

Finally, the conversion of Cornelius must be considered. He also prayed, but was told to send for Peter in Joppa in order that he might hear words whereby he and all of his house could be saved (10:6; 11:14). Peter came and preached (10:34-43). The Holy Spirit then fell on all them that heard the word (v. 44). An examination of the sermon reveals Peter had preached belief in Christ and remission of sins through him. Now, the coming of the Holy Spirit upon Cornelius and his house served a purpose which is expressed in Peter’s question, “Can any man forbid water, that these should be baptized, which have received the Holy Ghost as well as we” (v. 47). This reception of the Holy Spirit served to convince those present that the uncircumcised Gentile could enter the Kingdom without first becoming a Jew and reassured Peter in the next action he would logically take, being the command of baptism in the name of the Lord Jesus (cf. Acts 15:7-9).


There are no conversions which do not come about without the Holy Spirit being involved. However, bear in mind that he does his work through his instrument, God’s Word, by which we are indicted as sinners and taught what we must do to be saved. If you are aware of what you must do I urge you to obey it.

Guardian of Truth XXXIV: 16, pp. 483-484
August 16, 1990