Underrating the New Birth, or, How to Talk About Your Conversion

If you are repenting of sin and truly trusting in Jesus, I do not doubt your salvation. But I may just doubt your salvation story. To be clear, I don’t want to tell people how to share the story of how they came to Christ. Each believer’s testimony is a unique and marvelous story of the Shepherd going in search of one lost sheep. However, there should be a general consistency in the testimonies of all of Christ’s followers. While many variables change from convert to convert, some things remain consistent. As Christians, when we speak of God’s converting work in our lives, we want to be sure that we are confessing God’s truth regarding salvation. To confess means to “say the same thing.” When we share our testimony, are we saying the same thing about the new birth that God does?

If you are a Christian, sharing your conversion story is a great opportunity to speak the truth and magnify Christ. However, I have heard many “conversion” stories that are not consistent with the speaker’s (correct) theology. What I mean is this: someone says they believe in biblical regeneration, but they share their testimony as if regeneration might not result in a changed person. Someone says they believe in the supernatural work of the Holy Spirit in the soul of a sinner, but their story makes it seem like such a work can be lame. Doctrinally sound Christians believe that regeneration is a supernatural work of God that results in a transformed person, but they sometimes speak as if a man can be born again and yet not experience a radical change in his life.

A couple years ago I read one author from a very well known ministry explain his “conversion.” He shared the “conversion story” of many: “converted” at a young age, but yet no real sanctification (i.e. fruit) until (presumably) later. He noted that he “turned from [his] sin and trusted in Christ” at a young age, but yet remained “proud and judgmental, pretty much convinced that everything and everyone else was idiotic.” He “was a jerk” who would not heed advice. As he grew older—months and years during which a genuine Christian would be growing in holiness, humility, obedience, and love for God’s people—he found less and less interest in Christ’s bride and instead expressed his “anger” in the “punk rock music” scene.

I’ve heard this type of story more than once. I don’t want to burst anyone’s bubble, but this is not what it means to become a Christian. Yes, salvation is by faith alone, but that faith is never alone. True salvation, true conversion, leads to immediate changes. It’s not that we are to expect perfect maturity from Day 1, but we are to expect immediate change and, more importantly, growth.

The way this author described his conversion does not sound like the conversion of a sinner that is described in the Bible: a change of heart that results in humility and a tender conscience and a growing love for Christ’s bride (Jeremiah 31:33; John 14:15; 1 John 3:14). What is concerning is that in this man’s book, the conversion story never comes. The experience he had as a young person is never explained as a false conversion. A later, genuine coming to Christ is not mentioned. The reader is left to assume that conversion is about some “religious” experience that occurs in the spiritual realm, but is not experienced in day-to-day life, it does not necessarily result in holy living. He says he “turned from [his] sin,” but what “sin” did he turn from? Apparently not the sins that still characterized him for years before he ostensibly started loving Christ’s bride. This view of conversion separates salvation from daily living. It is demonstrative of a general aversion to application of doctrine and biblical principles to life. It promotes a disconnect between salvation and daily living. It presents conversion in an insipid, shallow manner.

Can a man be converted to Christ and yet experience no radical change in his life? Can a woman be born again and yet not have a new nature that loves the things that God loves and hates the things that God hates? Can a young boy be given a new heart and yet still be characterized by the works of the flesh? Can a young girl turn to Christ and yet not bear fruit in keeping with repentance? The thoughtful student of Scripture cannot answer these questions in the affirmative.

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The word translated as convert in our English Bibles means to turn around. In several instances, it is used to describe the physical act of turning (Matthew 9:22; 24:18). In Acts 15:3, however, it is used when Paul and Barnabas are “describing in detail the conversion of the Gentiles.” The root word which is often translated converted appears in several other places as well:

John 12:40 (quoting Isaiah 6:10): “He has blinded their eyes and hardened their heart, lest they see with their eyes, and understand with their heart, and turn (convert), and I would heal them.”

Acts 3:19: “Repent therefore, and turn again (be converted), that your sins may be blotted out.”

Acts 9:35: “And all the residents of Lydda and Sharon saw him, and they turned (converted) to the Lord.”

Acts 11:21: “And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number who believed turned (converted) to the Lord.”

When understood in the context of turning to the Lord, conversion is a turning from sin (transgression of God’s Law) to holiness (conformity to God’s Law). D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones said: “Conversion is the first exercise of the new nature in ceasing from old forms of life and starting a new life. It is the first action of the regenerate soul in moving from something to something.” Charles Spurgeon put it like this: “Regeneration and conversion—the one the secret cause, and the other the first overt effect, produce a great change in the character.” In other words, regeneration is what God does in changing our heart; conversion is the consequence of that change. In Reformed theology, we say, “Regeneration precedes faith.” However, they are instantaneous from our vantage point. The moment we are born again, we cry out in faith to Christ. We could also say, “Regeneration precedes conversion.” Therefore, it is impossible for a person to be born again without being simultaneously converted from following Satan to following Christ. It is impossible for a person to be regenerated and not actually turn from sin to holiness.

False teaching in this regard has been around for centuries. One erroneous teaching is that there are three distinct classes of Christians.

It is well known that Romish writers often maintain that the Church is divided into three classes—sinners, penitents, and saints. The modern teachers of this day who tell us that professing Christians are of three sorts—the unconverted, the converted, and the partakers of the “higher life” of complete consecration—appear to me to occupy very much the same ground! (J.C. Ryle)

It is most assuredly true that when someone is saved they do not become completely holy in practice. It is equally true that no believer, no matter how mature, will be completely free from sin until glory (1 John 1:8). That a believer will grow in grace and holiness is undeniable (2 Peter 3:18). That a new believer will have more blind spots than a mature believer, I do not question. But to claim that regeneration can result in an unconverted man, I deny. To assert that a new believer can consistently live in a manner contrary to God’s clear directives, I find no teaching in Scripture. On the contrary, we read in 1 John 2:29: “If you know that he is righteous, you may be sure that everyone who practices righteousness has been born of him.” And 1 John 3:3: “And everyone who thus hopes in hum purifies himself as he is pure.”

When I hear a “conversion” story along the lines of the author’s mentioned above, I usually wonder (and will often ask), “Don’t you think that the point when you started to ‘take Christ seriously’ is more likely the general time period when God converted you?” If your “conversion” didn’t result in obedience to Christ, was it really a conversion? J.C. Ryle was concerned with the same thing in the 19th century. What some people today refer to as “taking Christ more seriously,” was referred to as “consecration” in Ryle’s day.  

Sudden, instantaneous leaps from conversion to consecration I fail to see in the Bible. I doubt, indeed, whether we have any warrant for saying that a man can possibly be converted without being consecrated to God! More consecrated he doubtless can be, and will be as his grace increases; but if he was not consecrated to God in the very day that he was converted and born again, I do not know what conversion means. Are not men in danger of undervaluing and underrating the immense blessedness of conversion? Are they not, when they urge on believers the “higher life” as a second conversion, underrating the length, and breadth, and depth, and height, of that great first change which Scripture calls the new birth, the new creation, the spiritual resurrection? I may be mistaken. But I have sometimes thought, while reading the strong language used by many about “consecration,” in the last few years, that those who use it must have had previously a singularly low and inadequate view of “conversion,” if indeed they knew anything about conversion at all. In short, I have almost suspected that when they were consecrated, they were in reality converted for the first time! (Ryle)

For many years I too have thought, while hearing (and reading) the language used by many about how they came to take Christ seriously years after their “conversion,” that those who speak in such a way must have had previously a singularly low and inadequate view of “conversion,” if indeed they knew anything about conversion at all. I, too, have often suspected that when these folks actually started taking Christ seriously, they were in reality converted for the first time!

As disciples of Christ and students of the Word, we must seek to talk about salvation and conversion correctly. If we teach people that conversion is a supernatural work of the spirit (John 6:63) and that it results in a new, radically transformed life (1 Corinthians 5:17), then we cannot betray that truth with how we talk about conversion in real life. It dishonors the Lord of conversion to present his work in such a way that would cause someone to think, “I guess you can be converted and not only continue to be a proud, judgmental, angry jerk who things everything is idiotic, but also grow further and further away from Christ’s bride as your grow up.” 

It’s all right if you you do not know the exact moment of your spiritual birth. The key to knowing you are saved is not by looking backwards, but by looking to Christ now. Are you trusting in Christ today? Nevertheless, all genuine Christians were converted at one point. It is thus proper to speak of our conversion with others. But please do not speak about your conversion as if it were something that did not result in the radical transformation of your life. Please don’t represent “coming to faith in Christ” as a mere mental affirmation that “punches your ticket to heaven,” but does not include your conversion from sin and darkness, to obedience and truth. And if you do not have any conversion of this to speak of, if you no nothing of a growing hatred for sin and desire to walk in God’s Law, then you need to be converted. Repent and trust in Christ, and then start sharing your story.

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