Christian Conversion

Dr. Brian Allison

I once knew an arrogant and proud young man. He was a man of doubtful behaviour and questionable character. On one occasion, he was caught attempting to steal jewelry. On another occasion, the police went to his home and hauled him off to the police station for breaking and entering. He was the inside man. Often this young man would play poker for money on weekends, but hardly won; but he did win at the race track. On different occasions, he was found pathetically drunk. While at university, he was once seen crawling up to his place of residence because he was too drunk to stand. This young man did drugs for a number of years; he took joy in 'turning on' other people as well. I remember that when he was in high school, he used to beat up on other students. He was a bully. In fact, when he left home, while still attending high school, his so-called 'good-byes' to his stepfather were a violent brawl in the hallway which ran from the living room to the kitchen. This young man was an undesirable fellow.

Now, the amazing thing is this, when this young man was in his last year of university, at age 21, he came under the preaching of the Gospel, and he was soundly converted. Six months later, he enrolled in seminary; and today he is a pastor, serving the Lord. He is no longer a young man. The years have begun to take their toll. The hair has greyed a little, and he has become more sparse on top. In reaching middle age, I now look back, with gratitude, that God saved me from this life of profligacy to a life of productivity in Christ. Some of you reading this message could share a similar personal testimony. God, in His grace, came to you at His appointed time, and soundly converted you. Such was the case of the Thessalonian believers. 1 Thessalonians 1:9 reads, "For they themselves report about us what kind of a reception we had with you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve a living and true God."

Conversion is a radical change

Perhaps this verse is the clearest defining statement of the nature of repentance and conversion. The report of the adopted new lifestyle of these Thessalonian believers had spread abroad. Their new-found faith was clearly known. Their radical change of life had become the talk, not simply of the city, or of the country, but of that part of the world. God had done an astounding work of grace in the lives of these people. We read, "For the word of the Lord has sounded forth from you, not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but also in every place your faith toward God has gone forth, so that we have no need to say anything" (1 Th. 1:8). Now, the following verse of this passage (which is our text of concern) is simply an elaboration of this verse. Having declared that the faith of these Thessalonians had gone worldwide, the apostle asserts, "For they themselves report about us what kind of a reception we had with you." Paul, in effect, says, "Word is continually coming back to us, informing us of the kind of impact we made on you." As we read further in our text, we see the actual content of that which was reported, namely, "how you turned to God from idols to serve a living and true God."

And so the Gospel was preached and lives were transformed, and this fact simply underscores again the power of the Gospel. Thus, the previous verses read, "For our gospel did not come to you in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction; just as you know what kind of men we proved to be among you for your sake. You also became imitators of us and of the Lord, having received the word in much tribulation with the joy of the Holy Spirit" (1:5,6). And so, the actual demonstration and proof of the acceptance of, and belief in, the Gospel is a radical change of lifestyle, that is, conversion – a turning from idols to God.

Conversion is simply defined as turning from something and turning to something else. For instance, Jean Charest converted from being a member of the Progressive Conservative Party to being a member of the Liberal Party. He abandoned one party and gave full allegiance to another. Similarly, Christian conversion is rejecting and disowning idols and devoting oneself to, and cleaving to, God. It is a break from your past life of unrighteousness and uncleanness, coupled with a commitment to a new life of righteousness and purity. Salvation entails and necessitates conversion.

So, conversion is a radical change. It is a radical change from a selfish, sinful attitude to a loving, holy one. It is a radical change from foul, profane language to wholesome, kind speech. It is a radical change from an angry, hateful disposition to a compassionate, merciful one. It is a radical change from shameful, immoral behaviour to honourable and holy conduct. Biblical conversion is not defined in terms of personal self-development, or superficial self-improvement – 'pulling one's self up by the boot straps', trying to 'get one's act together', saying, for instance, "Oh yes, I blew it this past week, but I will really try harder now. I will really try to be a good person now. I will now try to watch my P's and Q's." Rather, conversion is a spiritual transformation. The Spirit must give you a new heart and disposition; and with that new heart and disposition, you will express new desires and new inclinations; you will entertain new intentions, new attitudes, and new perspectives. Conversion is a change from the inside, out. Many can seek to reform themselves, appearing very prim and proper on the outside, and thus deceive others into believing that they are good Christian people; but when God does a saving work, He begins on the inside. There is heart change resulting in behaviour change. You can take a pig out of the muck and mire and clean it on the outside; but according to its nature, if it is given the opportunity, it will return to the muck and mire. A radical change in behaviour requires a radical change in nature.

My friend, you can clean yourself on the outside as often as you like, as much as you like, but unless there is a real change on the inside, you will return to the 'muck and mire'. Again, conversion is a spiritual transformation; and that is exactly what happened to these people at Thessalonica. That is what happened to the apostle Paul. What a marvelous conversion the apostle Paul underwent. He was a murderer, a blasphemer, and a hateful person; and yet God met him on the road to Damascus. Jesus Christ savingly revealed Himself to Paul, and Paul was changed. He went from being an arrogant and proud individual to a gentle and meek one. So, when God does a work of grace in your heart, you are changed. You move from that old life of sinful patterns and selfish habits to that new life of holy conduct and godly ways (as proper teaching is received). You are a new creature in Christ.

Conversion means abandoning idols

The believers at Thessalonica turned away from their idols. Now you may say, "Well, I do not have any idols." If you are a non-Christian, you do have idols. Now, you may not bow before statues, you may not revere physical objects, but whatever captures your primary affections, your chief desires, that thing has become your idol. Maybe your idol is sports; you live for sports, you cannot watch enough sports. Maybe your idol is money, especially as you are getting older; or it may be cars, it may be fame; it may be power. What has captured your primary affections and your chief desires? That which you are willing to give your primary devotion and allegiance to becomes your idol, that becomes your god. Worship does not require the Judeo-Christian God. Different things can become an object of worship.

What monopolized your time and your energy this past week, this past month, this past year? Maybe it has been a person, maybe it has been an experience, maybe it has been your job, maybe it has been sex. I think of a young man who used to collect baseball and hockey cards. He was obsessed with collecting them, that was his god, that became his idol. Just because we pride ourselves on being sophisticated people, living at the end of the 20th century in the West, it does not mean that we do not have idols. The idols are a just a bit more subtle. What I am saying is this: According to this text, if you have been converted, if you have really become a Christian, then God is your first love and your chief desire, not your job, not your family, not your friends, not your possessions, not your career. God must have first place in your life. So, do you have any idols – some person, some thing, some relationship, some situation? Maybe it is a position, maybe it is some musician. When I first became a Christian, I still had the idols of knowledge and degrees. I was obsessed with these things, and the Lord had to wean me of these misplaced affections and desires. I had false gods. And here is the wonder of it all, when the Lord ripped those idols from my life so that I would acknowledge that He alone is God, worthy of uncompromising worship, He was pleased to open doors for knowledge and the attainment of degrees. But now the motivation was different, it was not for me, it was for Him; it was not for self-exaltation, but rather was an expression of obedience. Do you have any idols, my friend? True conversion is revealed in turning away from idols and turning to God with the whole heart.

Conversion results in serving God

You may ask, "How do I know if I have experienced true conversion, as opposed to a bogus one?" On that day when we all stand before the King of kings and Lord of lords, many will experience a rude awakening; and they will discover that they experienced a false conversion, rather than a true one; and there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. So, how can one know if he or she has experienced true conversion? Again, we read, "How you turned to God from idols to serve a living and true God." The substance and fruit of conversion is to humbly acknowledge, in service, God as Creator, as Lord, and as Master. Accordingly, in seeing God as Creator, you recognize that you are the creature and that you owe submission to Him. In seeing God as Lord, you recognize that you are the subject and that you owe loyalty to Him. In seeing God as Master, you recognize that you are the servant and that you owe obedience to Him. The Thessalonian believers turned to God from idols, not simply to be delivered from hell, to have some stake in salvation. No, they turned to God in service. And if there is no service, then there has been no conversion. There is nothing complex here. The point is quite simple. The necessary evidence and fruit of true conversion is serving the living and true God. True conversion is revealed in sacred action. Before I came into the evangelical faith, I was a Seventh Day Adventist; my Sabbath was Saturday. I prepared my meals in advance of Friday night in order to observe the Sabbath faithfully. When I was converted to evangelicalism, there was a clear change in my practice, confirming that conversion. There must be a correlative change in action which supports and indicates true conversion. No change in behaviour, no redirection of action, indicates that you have not been converted. Are you serving God?

Conversion does not leave you indifferent or complacent, not if such has been a work of the Spirit. You have a new life, which means that you have a new purpose, a new direction, a new meaning in life; and you realize that you owe your life to God. You are willing to give your life to God. You thus realize that what justifies your existence is to serve God, understanding that He is the only true God Who is worthy of worship.

Notice the terms that are used to describe the God Whom we are to serve. He is the living God, contrasted with lifeless gods, the gods of this world. Our God is eternally active, the Creator and Sustainer of all of life – "In Him we live and move and exist" (Acts 17: 28). When you are converted, God sends light into your soul, and you recognize that He is the only living God and that you owe exclusive allegiance to Him. Moreover, you realize that He is also the true God; true in the sense of being real, as opposed to being unreal. The gods of this world are figments of human imagination. People create their own gods because they will not worship the true God. They pride themselves on their morality and ethics, on their philosophy and cleverness. But when you come to know Christ as your Saviour and Lord, you recognize that every other so-called god is false; and thus you bow before God in humble adoration, and hence evidence willing service. If you are not serving the true God, you are not converted. You may have a nice warm feeling when you think of God, you may believe that this God answers your prayers, you may think that you are on your way to heaven; but if you are not serving this God, then you are not converted. Are you serving God? What does your life reveal? There must be the clear demonstration that God is both the centre and the circumference of your existence. He is to be the primary focus. He is to be the Alpha and the Omega.

To serve God does not mean that you do nothing except to engage in formal religious exercises and practices. Serving God may entail such things, but it involves much more. When Scripture talks about serving God, it means that all that you do, everything that you say, and even everything that you think is done in reference to the living and true God. Your behaviour, your conduct, your actions are performed in light of the fact that God is the Creator and you are the creature, that He is the Lord, and you are the subject, that He is the Master and you are the servant. And not only do you perform everything in reference to Him, but also the primary concern and the primary motivation of your heart are to do everything for His praise and glory. You do not have to be a pastor to serve God; pastoring is official service. You do not have to be a missionary to serve God; doing missionary work is an official service; but you must live your life as in the presence of God, with the consciousness that you are answerable to Him, and that everything that you do is to be done to His praise and His glory. Every bona fide Christian must serve God. Are you serving God? Are you converted?

Almost a Christian

Now, it is a sad thing that many people hear the Gospel week after week, they know what salvation means, they know how to be saved, they have heard of this man Jesus Christ and His redeeming work, they have heard of the need to repent and believe in Jesus Christ as Saviour and Lord, and yet they are still not converted. They remain in their sins. They may hear something in a sermon and become excited, saying, "Well this week I am going to try to put that point into practice;" and they try to bring about external change without there being a complementary and basic inner change. I recently read an open letter from Charles Templeton, the well-known Canadian author and T.V. personality. In that letter, he reveals that he is suffering from Alzheimer's Disease. He wrote that what he dreaded most has come upon him – the potential lose of his intellect and reason. Templeton used to preach the Gospel. Thousands used to come to hear him week after week. He taught and understood the Gospel; and yet, to this day, he is an unconverted man. The bitter irony is that Templeton claims that he rejected the Christian faith when he began to think intelligently. His power of reason is fading, and his soul will soon perish. What a tragic story.

Many have rejected the Gospel to their own destruction. The Bible gives different illustrations. For instance, the apostle Paul gave his defence of the faith before King Agrippa and the governor Festus. We read, "And while Paul was saying this in his defence, Festus said in a loud voice, 'Paul, you are out of your mind! Your great learning is driving you mad'" (Acts 26:24). Paul then appealed to King Agrippa who had some understanding of the Jewish faith, seeking confirmation from him that what he was saying is true – "But Paul said, 'I am not out of my mind, most excellent Festus, but I utter words of sober truth. For the king knows about these matters, and I speak to him also with confidence, since I am persuaded that none of these things escape his notice; for this has not been done in a corner. King Agrippa, do you believe the Prophets? I know that you do. [The prophets predicted of the coming of the Christ through whom we would be saved]." Do you remember the response of King Agrippa? – "And Agrippa replied to Paul, 'Almost you persuade me to be a Christian'" (KJV). Are there any more heart-wrenching words than these? Listen to them again, my friend. "Almost you persuade me to be a Christian." A little ditty reads:

How painful to almost get a good situation, but to miss it.

How vexing almost to catch a plane, but to be left at the terminal.

How sad almost to escape drowning, but to be engulfed in the water.

But Oh, how above all things terrible to be almost a Christian, and yet be in the lake of fire for eternity.

It has been said that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Let it not be said also that it will be trodden by millions of 'almost Christians'.

Be warned, then, against being an almost Christian for to be almost saved is to be certainly and eternally lost.

After reading this message, will you say, "Almost you persuade me to be a Christian?"