What Is Conversion?

By James E. Cooper

These is much misunderstanding about the subject of conversion in the religious world. However, when one approaches the New Testament without preconceived notions, what it says on the subject is relatively simple. The misunderstandings on the subject have arisen because of human theological opinions.


What is conversion? Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary (2nd ed.) defines the word as used in regard to religion: “1. Act of converting, or state of being converted. 2. A spiritual and moral change attending a change of belief with conviction; specif., the experience associated with and involving a definite and decisive adoption of religion, esp., a Christian religion.” A fundamental idea in the word “conversion” is change. Even in everyday usage “conversion” indicates change: pulp wood rags are “converted” into paper; a dwelling house is sometimes “converted” into an office building, etc.

New Testament Usage

According to the Word Study Concordance (Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Wheaton, IL 60187), the noun “conversion” occurs only one time in the New Testament – in Acts 15:3. Paul and Barnabas had completed their first missionary journey. On their way up from Antioch of Syria to Jerusalem they were “passing through Phoenicia and Samaria, declaring the conversion of the Gentiles.” By that statement, we understand immediately that Gentiles had heard, believed and responded to the gospel. They had turned to the Lord.

The same Concordance cites nine other passages in the New Testament in which the word “convert” or “converted” appears (Matt. 13:15; Mk. 4:12; Lk. 22:32; Jn. 12:40; Acts 3:19; Acts 28:26; Jas. 5:19, 20 and Matt. 18:3). Of course, this only applies to the King James Version (AV); the American Standard Version (ASV) has the word only in two verses: James 5:19, 20.

In the above Scriptures, the first eight are translated from the Greek Word epistrepho and the last one is from strepho. According to the Concordance, strepho occurs 18 times in the New Testament and epistrepho occurs 39 times. In all the other references the words are translated “turn, turned, turn again, or returned.” This should give us an idea about what the words mean when they are translated “convert” or “converted.” Read the following passages as illustrations of this point: strepho, Matthew 5:39; Luke 7:9, 44; 22:61; Acts 13:46; epistrepho, Mathew 9:22; 12:44; Luke 2:20; John 21:20; Acts 16:18; 1 Thessalonians 1:9; 2 Peter 2:22).

Hence, when the Lord said, “Except ye be converted and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 18:3), He was actually saying that if men did not turn away from sin and turn unto the Lord, they could not go to heaven. In the ASV the words “be converted” are translated “turn. ” Again, whereas the AV reads, “Repent ye therefore, and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out. . .” (Acts 3:19), the ASV reads, “Repent ye therefore, and turn again . . . .” According to these two passages, the sinner must repent and “turn” in order to have his sins blotted out (Acts 3:19), and in order to go to heaven (Matt: 18:3).

Conversion Is Not Pardon

Sometimes people confuse conversion and pardon. They rely on their feelings as evidence of salvation. Some have been known to say, “I feel in my heart that I am saved,” and trust their feelings rather than the Word of God. We must remember that conversion takes place in man, but pardon takes place in the mind of God. Isaiah said, “Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; and let him return unto Jehovah, and he will have mercy upon him; and to our God, and he will abundantly pardon” (Isa. 55:7). When the wicked man forsakes his sinful ideas and practices and turns to the Lord, God promises to pardon him. Man turns; God pardons. God promises the man who turns to him: “I will be merciful to their iniquities, and their sins will I remember no more” (Heb. 8:12).

In the list of passages in which “convert” or “converted” are found, Matthew 13:15; Mark 4:12; John 12:40 and Acts 28:26 are all N.T. applications of God’s statement to Isaiah in Isaiah 6:9-10. As Isaiah had preached to a rebellious people in his own time, Jesus met with opposition to His preaching. He said, “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 should turn again (be converted, AV), and I should heal them.” Again, notice that the turning is done by man; pardon is the act of God. God pardons those who are converted… who turn unto him. One may “feel” saved, but until God pardons him he is still lost, yet in his sins, without spiritual life, and without a valid hope of going to heaven.

In Luke 22:32, Jesus is predicting Peter’s denial of his Lord. He says, “when thou art converted, strengthen thy brethren.” The ASV reads: “when once thou hast turned again . . . .” Here Jesus predicts a sin by an apostle, and his subsequent turning again from sin unto the Lord.

James 5:19-20 refers to one “converting” a brother from “the error of his way.” The emphasis is upon the effort of a fellow Christian to persuade his brother to turn from error unto the truth. This will result in “saving a soul from death, and shall hide a multitude of sins.”

The Sinner Must Be Active

Many people believe that the sinner is wholly passive in the process of conversion. Perhaps the AV rendering has helped to perpetuate this mistaken idea. The only real explanation for the AV rendering is that the translators were influenced by the doctrine of hereditary total depravity, which holds that the sinner is so depraved that he can do absolutely nothing toward his salvation (not even believe in Jesus as the Son of God) until the Holy Spirit operates directly upon his heart to enable him to believe and come to God. However, the ASV corrects this misunderstanding. The word used in the original Greek is active, not passive, and indicates that the sinner is active in his conversion.

An illustration of this point can be seen in 1 Thessalonians 1:9-10. Paul refers to what others said about his preaching in Thessalonica: “For they themselves report concerning us what manner of entering in we had unto you; and how ye turned unto God from idols, to serve a living and true God. ” Paul had been commissioned an apostle and sent to the Gentiles “to open their eyes, that they might turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan unto God, that they may receive remission of sins and an inheritance among them that are sanctified by faith in [Jesus]” (Acts 26:18). As a result of hearing the gospel preached by Paul, the Thessalonians turned away from idols, and turned unto God. They were active, not passive, in their conversion.

The gospel of Christ is “the power of God unto salvation” (Rom. 1:16). The Holy Spirit affects the conversion of sinners through the Word, not in some direct, mysterious “conversion experience.” Jesus said, “No man can come to me except the Father that sent me draw him” (Jn. 6:44). How does God draw men unto him? Read the next verse: “It is written in the prophets, And they shall all be taught of God. Every one that hath heard from the Father, and hath learned, cometh unto me” (Jn. 6:45). Sinners are taught of God by hearing the gospel. Those who learn, come. They are drawn, but they actively respond. Those who refuse to come do so, not because they cannot, but because they will not come to Christ (Jn. 5:40).

What Is Conversion?

Conversion involves a complete change in a person’s attitude, life and relationship. Everything about him that is separated from God because of sin must be changed. There are three distinct changes involved in the process of conversion: a change of heart, a change in life, and a change in relationship.

The heart of the sinner is the workshop where all evil thoughts and deeds originate (Matt. 15:19). It is “deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked” (Jer. 17:9). Hence, the heart must be changed. Describing the conversion of the Gentiles, Peter said that God “put no difference between us and them, purifying their hearts by faith” (Acts 15:9). Writing to the Romans, Paul said, “If thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved. For with the heart man believeth unto righteousnss; and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation” (10:9-10). Faith “comes by hearing the Word of God” (Rom. 10:17), and produces a change of affections – a change that destroys the love of sin and establishes the love of God in the heart. But a change of heart alone is not the whole of conversion.

Second, the sinner’s life is apart from God. He is alienated by “wicked works” (Col. 1:21). His life must be changed. Repentance is worked by “godly sorrow” (2 Cor. 7:10). Repentance is not reformation; it is the change of will (cf. Matt. 21:28-29) which results in a reformation of conduct (cf. Mat. 3:8). But a change of conduct alone is still not the whole of conversion.

Whereas the sinner is a child of the devil, “dead in sin” (Eph. 2:1) and “separate from Christ” (Eph. 2:12, ASV), his relationship needs to be changed. He needs to become a child of God, “delivered out of the kingdom of darkness” and “translated into the kingdom of God’s dear Son” (Col. 1:13-14). What brings about this change in relationship? When does it occur? The Bible teaches that the change occurs at baptism. Paul states that we are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus, for as many of us as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ (Gal. 3:26-27). “For” at the beginning of verse 27 is translated from the Greek Word gar; it introduces a reason. We are children of God by faith in Christ Jesus because we have been baptized into Christ. We get into Christ when we are baptized into Him (see also Rom. 6:3-4). When one is “in Christ,” he is a “new creature” (2 Cor. 5:17), who has “all spiritual blessings” (Eph. 1:3).

Baptism does not change the heart or the manner of conduct. But at baptism a properly qualified candidate is delivered from the power of darkness; he has his sins remitted (Acts 2:38; 3:29) or washed away (Acts 22:16). He is also “added to the church” (Acts 2:47), and thereby “translated into the kingdom of God’s Son” (Col. 1:13).

For an illustration, think about the changes that take place in the relationship of a young man and woman. They meet and begin dating; their hearts are changed from indifference to love for each other, but they are not married yet. They become engaged, choosing not to date others. Their lives are changed, but they are not married yet. Finally, they exchange their vows and become husband and wife. The wedding ceremony did not make them love one another any more, nor did it make them any more faithful to each other. But it did change their relationship. Before the ceremony they were unmarried; after the ceremony they were married. Similarly, baptism does not make one’s affection for God greater, nor does it make his life any purer, but it does change his relationship from being a sinner to being a child of God.


Conversion, then, is simply a change in a person’s life in which he turns from sin and unto God. Before conversion he is a child of the devil, but after conversion he is a child of God. The process of conversion involves a change of heart, a change of life and a change in relationship. Without all of these changes, one has not completely been converted. He has not completely turned unto God. Have you been converted? God has provided you a Savior, and Christ has offered himself as a sacrifice for sin. But you must turn unto God if you want to be saved. Do it today.

Guardian of Truth XXVII: 9, pp. 257, 275-276
May 5, 1983