The Operation of the Holy Spirit in Conversion

By Joe Corley

The subject of the operation of the Holy Spirit has been confusing and mysterious to some due primarily to false teaching. Satan has “blinded the minds” of those whose religious beliefs are based upon the creeds of men rather than the word of God.

Does the Holy Spirit operate today? If so, how? What does he do in regards to the conversion of sinners, if anything? As we address these questions, let us first define some terms: By “operate” we mean what he does, how he influences, or in what way he works. We believe he does operate in ever case of conversion today even as he has always done. It is not a question of whether he works, but how. Does he operate directly or indirectly; personally or through some agent? It is not a question of power. It is not a matter of what he is able to do, but rather what he chooses to do and in what way he chooses to do it. We can find our answer in the Bible. By “conversion’ we mean the process of turning from sin to salvation, of changing from an alien sinner to a child of God.

How The Spirit Does Not Operate In Conversion

The belief of man is that the sinner must receive a direct operation of the Spirit before he can be converted, and to enable him to be converted. By “direct operation” is meant an operation separate from the word of God – a special mystical and personal influence which changes the heart and makes it susceptible to the word. This doctrine, which we believe to be false, is based upon still another false doctrine – that of inherent sin or total depravity as taught by John Calvin. It is thus taught that all were born in sin and are totally unable to believe and respond to the gospel without a direct operation of the Spirit. Note the following:

By this sin (eating the forbidden fruit) they (our first parents) fell from their original righteousness and communion with God, and so became dead in sin, and wholly defiled in all the faculties and parts of soul and body. They being the root of all mankind, the guilt of this sin was imputed and the same death in sin and corrupted nature conveyed to all their posterity descending from them by ordinary generation. From this original corruption, whereby we are utterly in disposed, disabled, and made opposite to all good, and wholly inclined to all evil, do proceed all actual transgressions (Presbyterian Confession of Faith).

Man, by his fall into sin, hath wholly lost all ability of will to any spiritual good accompanying salvation . . . is not able, by his own strength, to convert himself or to prepare himself thereunto (Presbyterian Confession of Faith).

We believe . . . that regeneration consists in giving a holy disposition to the mind, that is effected in a manner above our comprehension by the Holy Spirit (Standard Manual for Baptist Churches, by Hiscox).

The Bible nowhere teaches that we inherit a corrupt nature or that we are born guilty of Adam’s sin, or that we are born totally depraved. There is certainly nothing in man’s fleshly nature inherently corrupt. If so, what? Christ was born with the same fleshly nature that we have (Heb. 2:14-18). Was his flesh corrupt? Neither are we born corrupt in our spirit. Man’s spirit is not inherited from our parents or forefathers. Zechariah 12:1 tells us that God “formeth the spirit of man within him.” Our spirit comes from God. Does God create in man a corrupt spirit? God gave to Adam and Eve the nature they had. He pronounced his creation of them “good” (Gen. 1:21). Yet, they sinned! Whatever caused them to commit sin is what causes man to sin today, for we all have the same basic nature. Sin does not happen because of an inherited, depraved nature. This teaching, therefore, that man comes into this world wholly depraved is false, and so is the “direct operation” theory which is based upon it. When the one falls, so does the other.

Moreover, there are certain logical consequences of the “direct operation” theory which bring it into direct conflict with Bible teaching. Consider the following: One is a lost sinner. According to the above theory he inherited a depraved heart that makes it impossible for him to accept the gospel. He can do nothing for himself. He is in a hopeless state unless God chooses to send the Spirit upon him to change that heart. But he, like millions of others never receives a “direct operation of the Spirit” to enable him to believe. He dies and spends eternity in hell. Who is to blame? Certainly not the sinner! He had no choice and no will in the matter. This theory destroys free will and makes God responsible for his lost condition. Why would God command all men to repent (Acts 17:30), and require all to obey the gospel or else suffer eternal damnation (2 Thess. 1:7-9), and then refuse to give them all a direct operation of the Spirit to enable them to obey? Such reflects upon God’s justice and makes him a respecter of persons, which the Bible says he is not (Acts 10:34,35). Such teaching is contrary to the whole system of salvation which reveals God as one who is “not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance” (1 Pet. 3:9). Who can believe such a doctrine! The Bible teaches that the sinner can choose for himself to accept or reject the gospel, and without some mysterious better-felt-than-told direct operation by the Spirit that gives “a holy disposition to the mind.” Peter told the Jews on Pentecost, “Save yourselves from this untoward generation” (Acts 2:40). In Revelation 22:17 the invitation is extended to all: “Whosoever will, let him take the water of life freely.”

How Does The Holy Spirit Operate In Conversion?

The Spirit operates today in conversion in the same way he has always operated. It is true that in Bible times the Spirit often directly guided certain men of God and communicated to them God’s will (2 Pet. 1:20, 21). But in the conversion of sinners the Spirit did not so operate. Rather, the Spirit operated indirectly through the inspired word, and still does. The Spirit does the following things in conversion:

1. He bears witness of Christ. “And it is the Spirit that beareth witness, because the Spirit is truth” (1 Jn. 5:6). How does he do this? Does he do so by speaking directly and personally to the sinner’s heart? Where is the passage that teaches it? To the contrary! He bears witness by revealing Christ through inspired men. In New Testament times the apostles and prophets preached Christ “as the Spirit gave them utterance” (Acts 2:4). Today, the only inspired men are those same apostles and prophets in the Bible. The Spirit has left us their message. He bears witness through their word. John said, “But these things are written that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God” (Jn. 20:31).

2. The Holy Spirit also reproves or convicts sinners. “And when he is come, he will reprove the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment” (Jn. 16:7, 8). Yet he does so through the word of God which is the Spirit’s sword (Eph. 6:17), and with it he pricks the heart (Acts 2:37), and pierces “even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit” (Heb. 4:12).

3. Likewise, the Spirit begets sinners. Thus it is said that we must be “born of the Spirit” (Jn. 3:3-5). But this happens when the word of God gets into the heart. “Being born (begotten) again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, by the word of God, which liveth and abideth forever” (1 Pet. 1:23).

4. The Holy Spirit renews sinners. “Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Ghost” (Tit. 3:5). This he does by washing, sanctifying, and justifying the sinner. “And such were some of you: but ye are washed, but ye are sanctified, but ye are justified in the name of the Lord Jesus, and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Cor. 6:11). Yet each of these is accomplished through the agency of the word. Jesus said, “Now ye are clean through the word which I have spoken unto you” (Jn. 15:3). Likewise, sanctification comes through obedience to the word. “Sanctify them through thy truth. Thy word is truth” (Jn. 17:17). We are justified only when we are forgiven and we are forgiven only when we accept and obey God’s conditions set forth in “the engrafted word which is able to save your souls” (Jas. 1:21), or the “gospel of Christ” which “is the power of God unto salvation” (Rom. 1:16).

Conversions In Acts

The various cases of conversion recorded in the book of Acts show how the Holy Spirit operated through the word. When the Jews on Pentecost heard the preaching of Peter and the other Spirit filled apostles, they were “pricked in their heart” (Acts 2:37). They were told, to “repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost” (Acts 2:38). When they obeyed the Spirit’s instruction they did, in fact, receive the Holy Spirit’s gift of salvation or remission of sins. The Ethiopian was reading the word when Philip “began at the same scripture, and preached unto him Jesus.” He responded to the requirements of the gospel “and went on his way rejoicing” (Acts 8:2939). Who would deny that it was the Spirit’s testimony that brought about his conversion? But there was no direct, personal operation of the Spirit involved. Lydia’s heart was opened by Paul’s message so that she responded to the preaching (Acts 16:14). There is no miracle or mystery in the opening of Lydia’s heart. She simply heard; she was convinced; she accepted the teaching. Yet, the Spirit most assuredly brought this about through the preaching of Paul.

What About Cornelius?

There is no example in scripture of the Spirit operating upon the sinner separate and apart from the word for the purpose of enabling him to accept the gospel. Someone may inquire about the case of Cornelius (Acts 10) since he received the Spirit directly before his conversion. However, it must be pointed’out that this case is exceptional. Moreover, the Spirit did not come upon him to enable him to hear. He was already both able and willing to hear the gospel and, in fact, had sent for Peter to come preach to him. Neither was the Spirit sent upon him to save him separate from the word, for the angel had instructed Cornelius to send for Peter “who shall tell thee words, whereby thou and all thy house shall be saved” (Acts 11:14). Cornelius was the first Gentile convert. Up until this time the gospel had not been preached among the Gentiles. It had been preached to and received by Jews only. But God had promised the gospel to the whole world (including both Jews and Gentiles), and this miracle signaled the fulfilling of that promise. The Spirit came upon Cornelius to assure the Gentiles and convince the Jews that the Gentiles could receive the gospel. The Spirit’s direct operation in this special case, therefore, was not to bring about the conversion of this man but rather to confirm his right and the right of all Gentiles to the gospel. Later, when Peter rehearsed these events to the apostles and brethren in Jerusalem, they concluded, “Then hath God also to the Gentiles granted repentance unto life” (Acts 11:1-18).


In conclusion, we direct your attention to what Jesus said in John 6:44,45. “No man can come unto me, except the Father which hath sent me draw him; and I will raise him up at the last day. As it is written in the prophets, And they shall all be taught of God. Every man therefore that hath heard, and hath learned of the Father, cometh unto me.” Therefore, it is the message of truth, as taught by those in Bible times who were directly guided by the Holy Spirit, which serves as the agent through which the Spirit draws all men to Christ. As the Jews of old often came to “resist the Spirit” by rejecting the message of God (Acts 7:51), so do sinners now.

Guardian of Truth XXXV: 8, pp. 233-234
April 18, 1991