The Decisive Event of Conversion
by Peter Toon
Hodder and Stoughton, 1987
Unless otherwise stated Bible Quotations are taken from the New International Version.
Preface (through Chapter 6, below, this page
1 Getting Started
PART 1: NEW TESTAMENT FOUNDATIONS
2 Following Jesus
3 Turning to the Lord
4 Obeying the Gospel
PART 2: MODELS OF CONVERSION
5 The Catechumenate Model
6 The Protestant Model Chapter 6–End
7 The Puritan Model
8 The Evangelistic Model
PART 3: MAKING CONVERTS
10 Regaining the Vision
Appendix 1 Conversion in the Old Testament
2 The Context of ‘to Convert’
3 Extra Perspectives
In 1986 thousands of people have been celebrating the 1500th anniversary of the conversion of Augustine of Hippo to Christ and Christianity. Since he is one of my favourite theologians, I am very pleased that I have written this book on the occasion of this anniversary.
Augustine is claimed by Catholics as the great theologian of the Church and her sacraments: he is also claimed by the Protestants as the great theologian of the grace of God in Jesus Christ, our Lord. Bearing this in mind, I truly hope that what I have written on conversion will prove of value to both Catholics and Protestants. I wish I could say that Augustine, who is now with the Saviour in heaven, approves of what I have written! More importantly, I fervently hope that what I have said is pleasing to the exalted Saviour himself, before whom Augustine bows in worship.
I have written this book with my heart in my mind, with feeling as well as logic, in prayerfulness as well as in rationality. It is, I hope, what used to be called a contribution to practical theology and to pastoral practice. And it is intended for general readership inside and outside the churches.
My heart speaks loudest and with most passion in chapter ten where I plead for recovery of confidence in the Gospel, and in its converting power, within our churches.
I am most grateful for the support of my family, Vita and Deborah, and for the encouragement and help of David Wavre, a director of Hodder and Stoughton.
The book is dedicated to the Rev. Jack and Mrs Joan Whittaker, who are the godparents of Deborah. Jack is the Chaplain at Helen House, a hospice for children in Oxford.
Feast of the Transfiguration, 1986
The Rectory, Boxford, Nr Colchester.
1 – Getting Started
This is a book about conversion – turning to Jesus Christ. You may ask, ‘What are your credentials for writing on such a topic?’ and ‘Do you know what you are talking or writing about?’ Fair questions! I shall try to answer them.
First of all, allow me to say that I have studied what the writers of the Bible have said about the topic. Further, I have read widely in the literature concerning conversion produced by Christians over the centuries. And I have carefully pondered what they have written. So from the point of view of study and scholarship, I think I have done my homework. My textbook for American colleges, entitled Born again: a biblical and theological study (Baker Book House, 1987), reveals some of that homework.
Someone may say – and I appreciate the observation – that head knowledge is one thing, heart experience/knowledge is another. So the further question arises, ‘Do you know – that is, have you experienced – what you are writing about?’ I must now attempt to answer this important question.
I cannot present you with any dramatic story of personal conversion, such as the story my wife told in the book The Unexpected Enemy (Marshalls, 1985) – the story of how a Muslim freedom-fighter became a committed Christian evangelist to, and servant of, the poor. Ghulam Masih Naaman had a momentous and hazardous journey of faith to become a disciple of Jesus. In contrast, my own story is much less interesting. In fact it is not unlike that of J. C. Ryle, the first Bishop of Liverpool, whose partial autobiography I edited and published in 1975.
Looking back over his life, Ryle could not point to any specific moment or day on which he felt he was born into a new life of union with Jesus Christ. But he could see that over a period of months in late 1837, when he was 21, there had been a great change in his life. He wrote:
The circumstances which led to a complete change in my character were very many and various ... It was not a sudden, immediate change, but very gradual. I cannot trace it to any one person, or any one event or thing, but to a singular variety of persons and things. In all of them I believe now the Holy Ghost was working though I did not know it at the time (A Self Portrait, p. 39).
There came a time, he said, when he knew he was converted; but that time came after a process which he hardly recognised at the time as a move towards conversion. He knew that by the grace of God he was converted because not only had he come to delight in biblical teaching but also to desire to know God personally as his heavenly Father and Jesus Christ as his Master and Teacher.
I left school at the end of the fifth form when I was 16. It was in the months following my ceasing to be a schoolboy and beginning to earn my own living that I came to accept as true the biblical teaching concerning Jesus and God’s grace and salvation through him. In this period I came to desire to attend Christian worship, enjoy Christian fellowship and to seek to know God through prayer and biblical study. I find it difficult to be precise as to when this process/movement within me actually began and ended (in a sense, it has not yet ended): it was like being in a train that enters a tunnel and only being conscious that there has been a tunnel through the impact of the bright daylight streaming into the carriage at the end of it.
Like Ryle, I can point to a variety of factors and people through which/whom I believe the Holy Spirit acted to bring me to this point and to lead me on towards God through varied experiences. These include Christian teaching and example in home and Sunday school, certain books and the prayers of friends and family. Since then, over the last twenty or so years, I have been to many places, studied many subjects, and gone through a host of varied experiences: yet in all this time I have never seriously doubted that Jesus, Incarnate Son of God, is the Way, Truth and Life and that in him, and in him alone, is the only way to God, our Creator and Redeemer. I would now claim that while it is necessary to turn around to face Jesus Christ, it is also important that one walks towards him in faith, hope and love. In this sense, conversion is a continuing event throughout life, including high points of special joy and exultation.
As a minister of the Church of England, I clearly see the necessity of conversion for every person I meet, even for the kindest and sweetest. Ultimately, conversion is all about beginning to live in a right relationship with God, a life of faith, hope, love and obedience. Such a relationship is a gift of God to be accepted gratefully from him: it cannot be manufactured by religious machinery or pious activity. And I am happy that we use Service Books (the BCP and ASB) in this church which often emphasise the need for all to turn to God through Christ in repentance and faith.
I hope I have now said enough for my reader to give me the benefit of any doubt and to read on to discover what I have to say about this activity of God, producing in us that turning to him which we call conversion.
Let me now say for whom I think I am writing. Inside our churches I have in mind the busy pastor/minister/priest, those laity who are involved in the preaching and teaching of the Gospel as well as acting as counsellors, and any others who feel they want to know more about Christian doctrine and experience. Outside the active fellowship of the Christian congregation, I have in mind that growing number of people who are hungering after spiritual reality and truth; due to the failure of the Church they have tended to believe that they will hardly find that for which they long in Christianity. I hope they will look seriously at what is conversion to Jesus Christ.
Since the subject of conversion to God is most serious and thus deserving of our best efforts, I believe I can expect my readers to make a determined attempt to use every power of their minds to get to grips with the subject. I appeal to my readers to be patient with me and to follow the presentation carefully: I truly believe (I hope I do so modestly) that those who make the effort to understand will greatly benefit from their endeavours and thus be able to think more clearly for themselves about conversion to Jesus Christ.
Part 1 of the book attempts to present the teaching on conversion from the New Testament. I hope that much of this will be reasonably straightforward: however, the short studies of the Greek verb epistгephein (to. turn or to convert) may prove to make greater intellectual demands. But I think my readers will judge that, for the sake of clarity and completion, these sections in the chapters on the Gospels and Acts and Epistles are necessary. Yet it is possible to bypass them, for the general argument of the first part is not dependent upon them: it is merely strengthened by them!
In Part 2 I invite my readers to look at four different approaches to conversion from four eras of the history of the Church. I do this since I fervently believe that we can learn so much from the way in which Christians in earlier centuries have received and understood the Gospel of God concerning Jesus. I realise that looking back for guidance and direction is out of step with the general viewpoints in our culture. Our modern scientists, medical doctors, technologists and cosmologists have little if anything to learn from their predecessors of the last century. Further, we are all used to things becoming out of date or obsolete within a few years. So why should we think that we can benefit from what was believed and done in the fourth or the sixteenth century? The answer is simple. Expertise in spirituality, in knowledge of God and his ways, and holy fellowship with him, may well have been deeper and clearer in earlier centuries than in our own! We certainly look back to Jesus and even farther back to Abraham and Isaiah. We need also to look back to the Church in centuries between the time of Jesus and our own.
I personally find so much encouragement, illumination and insight in the writings of Christians from these periods: I hope my reader will feel it worth while to make the attempt to read and appreciate the examples in Part 2. This will provide a kind of short, selective journey through the history of the Church so that when it is completed we shall be in possession of both a summary of biblical teaching and important examples from the Church’s experience of how this teaching has been implemented.
In the light of all this material, I shall invite, indeed urge, my reader in Part 3 to do three things with me: (1) carefully to examine the doctrine of conversion to God which I offer; (2) sympathetically to consider the advice I give concerning the state of convertedness; and (3) passionately to share my hope that the Church in the West will recapture the desire to proclaim the Gospel and to make converts for Jesus Christ.
Finally, the book has three appendixes, two short and one long. The first deals briefly with the subject of conversion in the Old Testament. The second presents an annotated list of verbs from the New Testament which provide the context for talk of conversion. The third is my attempt to present what I find interesting and useful in studies of conversion made by those experts we call the behavioural scientists (anthropologists, psychologists and sociologists).
I truly hope that you will enjoy and benefit from the book as much as I have done in writing and rewriting it. Please read on!
The rest of this chapter sets the somewhat dismal scene in which the churches in Western nations have forgotten, neglected and even set aside their heavenly God-given message of conversion. This has been replaced by a this-worldly secular message. The result has been the decrease of the size and influence of the Church of God in the West.
Setting the scene
Let us be honest. There is little or no enthusiasm for either the concept of conversion or for the effort to win converts for Christ within most congregations of Western Europe and of North America. In fact, conversion is regarded as a taboo subject by some respectable church groups. There are various reasons for this apathy, indifference or even opposition to conversion and we shall turn to some of them below.
First of all, however, it will be helpful to clarify what is meant by such terms as nominal and committed Christian, and once-born and twice-born Christian, since these expressions are often used in such a way as to confuse rather than clarify the nature of conversion to God.
A nominal Christian is one who is called a Christian because he or she has been baptised (christened) and has some connection with the Church of God. But he is a Christian in name only: he does not regularly attend divine worship and he makes no special attempt to live as an obedient child of God. In contrast, a committed Christian is one who regularly attends Christian worship as a member of a specific congregation and who makes a serious attempt in daily living to serve the Lord Jesus. Such a person would normally be converted, that is turned towards God through the Lord Jesus Christ in faith, hope, love and obedience.
A once-born Christian is a person who professes to be a committed Christian, but who cannot identify any special moment or period when he or she actually experienced a change of heart and mind towards God. Or, he or she has not had the kind of experience that people who claim to be converted through evangelistic crusades seem to have. Those who can identify a time when they had such an experience of God’s grace as to feel that they had been born all over again are the twice-born. Of course the twice-born ought also to be the committed Christian; but this is not universally the case.
What really matters is being in a state of convertedness, truly committed to the Lord Jesus Christ: genuine conversion leads to a state of convertedness.
Now we must return to the theme of indifference to the need for conversion.
(a) Unhappy with crusades
One reason may well be that for many people conversion to God is wholly identified with evangelistic crusades, where it is said that people ‘make a decision for Christ’ or ‘take Jesus into their hearts’. They suspect that in these brisk and bright meetings with the hearty singing and moving testimonies, not to mention the sincere but slick preaching, there is far too much emotional and psychological pressure upon people to go to the front as the preacher presses them to do so. Further, they suspect that those who do claim to have been converted in such a way tend to insist that only the twice-born are real Christians: the once-born are merely nominal because they cannot pinpoint a special moment of ‘receiving Jesus’.
There is very obviously a lot of misunderstanding in this whole area and great sensitivity is surely required by those who organise crusades so that in their publicity, preaching and propaganda they do not give wrong or false impressions of how conversion to God must occur. To be fair, we must add that there are those who oppose crusades and evangelistic activity because they are actually opposed to the whole idea of serious, committed Christianity, be it of the once-born or twice-born variety.
What perhaps we need to recognise is that people go to the front in evangelistic crusades for a variety of reasons. The situation in such meetings is not like that of the apostle Paul preaching to pagans in a Roman city and having to teach not only monotheism (belief in one God) but also the basic facts about Jesus as Lord and Messiah. Most of the people attending crusades are already connected with the Church of God, and the majority of those who go to the front are also connected with the Church. Thus the going to the front can be for such people a determination to become a committed rather than remain a nominal Christian, or perhaps a fresh dedication of oneself to Christ and his cause. These are but two reasons: often people are not quite clear why they go forward except that they feel a need.
Great skill is needed by those who are called the ‘counsellors’, for unless they perceive why the person has come forward they will give the wrong advice and encourage false understanding. Much more could be said here to reveal the complicated nature of the response made by people to the apparently simple call to ‘receive Christ’ by coming forward. All, however, that needs to be stated at the moment is that genuine conversions to God-in-Christ do actually occur in these meetings: these are, however, a minority of the genuine ‘experiences’ of those who make the long walk to the front and then go into the counselling room.
(b) Lack of spiritual confidence
But, leaving aside the use of ‘conversion’ in evangelistic activity in crusades, we still have to recognise that there is hesitancy and even unwillingness to take conversion, as turning to God-in-Christ, seriously within churches. The underlying reason for this is, I believe, a lack of confidence in God as Saviour and a corresponding lack of confidence in the message of the New Testament as a living Word for today. When a congregation has within it a majority of people who surely know themselves, by God’s grace, to be his children and who know that in Christ they are accepted and forgiven, then that congregation will actually talk of the need to make converts and it will take the biblical teaching on turning to God seriously.
Those who know God’s joy, peace and love in their hearts also feel a desire to share what they have with others. They hold that, despite all the benefits and privileges that people in Western, affluent society possess, unless they have a right relationship with God in Christ, then their lives are without ultimate meaning and purpose. So they see it as their joyous duty to share what they have received and to seek to make converts. And they do so with a vivid sense that God is the living Lord, and that the message of the New Testament is timely and relevant for people today.
The lack of confidence in God, and the failure to trust in him and rely wholly upon his grace and Word, are caused by a variety of factors. Primarily among these is sin, which is found in every human heart and which needs forgiveness and cleansing. But sin affects the whole person and causes us to turn away from God to seek life, meaning, joy and commitment only in human activity, means and ends. Further, when and where there is lack of confidence in God and his Word, then the institutional churches tend to take both their agenda and way of operating from what they see as the ‘enlightened’ or ‘compassionate’ thinking and activity of the society in which they are placed. In practice, this means that what are usually good things in and of themselves are given priority over what is the best (in terms of God and his will and Word). The necessity of evangelism and the need of making converts to God-in-Christ are often not on the agenda, for it is filled with items of political and social concern or with items concerned with dialogue with Marxists and adherents of the religions of the world.
The concern to improve this world and the lot of people in it is usually undergirded with an ‘appropriate theology’. In recent times this theology has been a theology of the kingdom of God, which has been seen as God’s desire to have justice operative in this world. Such an interpretation is right as far as it goes; but what are left out are the whole dimension of the repentance and faith of the individual and the supernatural, heavenly dimension of the kingdom as that which belongs essentially to the age that will come after the Last Judgment. Let us never forget that an important ingredient in the Christian message is being saved from this world and from the present evil age!
The concern with dialogue is again a good thing in itself; but where it has replaced the intention to seek to make converts then it is being falsely encouraged. Regrettably, since the doctrine of universalism (the doctrine that all people, whatever have been their faith and life on earth, will eventually be ‘saved’ and enjoy the fullness of eternal life in the age to come) is assumed as true by many Western Christians, the ‘cutting-edge’ of evangelism is removed and dialogue becomes not an easy but a required and demanding option. There is, of course, no reason why the effort to make converts to God-in-Christ should not itself be accompanied by serious dialogue with those who genuinely want to share what they believe, and to treat others with dignity and respect.
Perhaps the point that I am making will be clearer if I offer an example. As a priest of the Church of England I have attended many deanery and diocesan synods and listened to the debates in the general synod. Further, I have received and read a lot of reports, papers and booklets produced for these synods. The overwhelming feeling I have gained is that of a national Church in retreat, showing as it retreats a genuine concern for the improvement of British society and a desire to ‘modernise’ itself, in terms of worship and doctrine. In contrast, I have attended several synods of Anglican Churches in the so-called developing or Third World: for example, in Sabah in Malaysia. There I gained a strong feeling of Churches, confident in God and his Word, intending to grow in spiritual power and numbers and to do so without failing to be concerned with the pursuit of peace and justice in this world. They planned for growth!
(c) Lack of heavenly enlightenment
I realise that there are renewed and evangelistically-minded congregations in the traditional, Western churches and I am grateful to God that such exist. But I speak in general of churches which have lost the vision of converting the people of the Western world to the Lord Jesus Christ because they have lost the important grace of heavenly-mindedness. Secularism has so efficiently invaded their theology and practice that enlightenment is seen primarily, or only, in terms of being enlightened about the world in which we live, whose needs are often presented so vividly on the TV screen. Certainly there is talk of the love of Christ and much that is done is laudable (e.g. the practical concern for famine in Ethiopia and the Sudan); but the love of Christ is meant also to send the Church out into the world to make converts and to increase the number of those who, from a renewed heart, genuinely and heartily thank God for his grace and salvation.
As I have referred to salvation, perhaps this introduction is the place to make a brief comment on it in relation to our theme of conversion. It was perhaps easier for the Church in the period before the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century to communicate the need for, and content of, God’s salvation in Christ than it is now – especially in our Western society. People then believed in the supernatural and in God and they knew that in many of the problems of life he alone could help them. Conditions in this world were often so bad that it was easy to be convinced that there is life after death and a new and superior order of existence with God. However, the felt sense of helplessness and need did not, of itself, make people the easier to be converted: this is because conversion always includes the recognition of one’s own sinfulness and self-centredness and none of us particularly likes such a revelation, even when we are in dire circumstances.
Today there is a widespread conviction that humanity can improve its lot through political, social and economic action; guilt feelings and deep personal problems can be solved by psychiatry and counselling; pain, disease and depression can be relieved or removed by drugs; and scientific and technological developments can solve – perhaps not today but certainly tomorrow – all our problems as they arise. Thus we look for help not from ‘outside’ our human position but from within it; we believe in a kind of universal salvation through human efforts. And despite much evidence that ought to make us give up this blind faith in human ingenuity, we still tend to believe in it.
Obviously in this situation the temptation presented to the Church is to join in the general way of thinking and offer salvation in the ways of the world, with terms of reference that a this-worldly society can appreciate. And this is what churches in the West have done – at least on the evidence of pronouncements from synods, conferences and councils of churches. And the World Council of Churches (WCC), which would not. exist without the financial backing of Western churches, publishes and proclaims many more words on salvation in this world than salvation from sin into the heavenly world to come. Much more is taught about sin as a wrong relationship between people, governments, companies, corporations, nations and races than between human beings and God, their Creator and judge. And much more is said about loving the neighbour (usually on socialist principles) than about loving God with heart, soul, mind and strength. In fact, a careful reading of the publications of the WCC over the last two decades would make one doubt whether, in fact, the member churches actually believed in heaven as the goal of human society, saved by the grace of God in Jesus Christ our Saviour.
Because of this state of affairs, which must trouble all those who believe that God is alive and still offers his eternal salvation freely to all who repent and believe, the Church is becoming of minimal importance in the West and Christianity is being discredited. Unless the Churches recover the vision of the holy God of love who desires that all people receive his salvation and be rescued by his grace from their sinfulness, then the marginalisation of the Church will continue. Unless the Church uncovers and lays bare the basic human predicament – the gone-wrongness of human nature – and then proclaims the salvation of God, calling for people to turn to God, to be converted, to repent and believe the good news concerning Christ, it will become totally ineffectual in a society which will increasingly need to hear a positive, heavenly word.
The truth is that the Church can live only by evangelising and by engaging in mission, to make converts, establish congregations and, as the ‘yeast’ and the ‘salt’, change society by the presence of Christ, the light of the world. This book proceeds upon this deeply-held conviction.
PART 1: New Testament Foundations
2 – Following Jesus
Jesus called upon all who heard him to believe in the Gospel of God; and from those who had not been baptised by John the Baptist, he also called for repentance. His message was: ‘The time has come. The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!’ (Mark 1:15). John’s message had been aimed at turning the Jews towards God in humble expectation of the arrival of God’s Messiah (Luke 1:16). Now, Jesus comes on to the scene to announce that the critical moment has arrived: God has begun to act in a new and decisive way to fulfill the promises he gave in centuries past to the prophets of Israel. God is doing something, and will continue to do something which radically affects human beings who are in a state of alienation from, and rebellion against, him. God’s anointed one, the Messiah, is now present among the covenant people: through him the sovereign and gracious activity of God in saving and redeeming his people has begun.
In the person of Jesus people are confronted by the gracious, saving reign of God and thus they are challenged to decision – repent and believe the good news of God (as he is present in and acts in Jesus). There are no exceptions – the call is addressed to all Jews of whatever age and rank. Repentance is based on knowledge of God and of his will and is a sincere turning-away from what is not acceptable to him. It is not self-pity and is more than a ceasing to do wrong. Often it includes a sense of shame and sorrow, together with a definite determination of will to repudiate the former life: and it naturally becomes faith in terms of the positive turning towards God for salvation.
In the style of both the prophet and the rabbi, Jesus began his ministry by surrounding himself with a circle of committed disciples. The first of the circle were Galilean fishermen whom Jesus had called to ‘follow him’ (Mark 1:16–20) by leaving nets and family and learning how to become ‘fishers of men’. After a few months Jesus chose from the men who surrounded him twelve to be his special disciples and helpers and to share his mission of proclaiming the kingdom of God (Mark 3:13–19). They actually went out on missions to preach and cast out demons. Probably most of these early disciples or apostles had been disciples of John and saw in Jesus the one of whom John spoke.
The righteous and the sinners
It is not surprising that a general call to conversion should annoy and anger some people. The Gospels provide abundant evidence that those who considered themselves ‘righteous’ (and were called so by their contemporaries) were particularly offended. In the vocabulary of the Pharisees (those rabbis and scribes who took the keeping of the Law of Moses so seriously and devoutly) the righteous man was the one who went to the synagogue at the required times and who sought to keep the Law. In contrast, the sinner was the person who did not attend the synagogue regularly and who did not keep the whole Law.
Why should the righteous repent and believe? Did they not already do what God required of them? The Pharisees would not receive the message of Jesus, for it denied much of what they regarded as of supreme importance. Further, the fact that he actually offered God’s salvation to the sinners (outcasts, tax-collectors, prostitutes and so on) made them wonder whether he was right-minded: for right-minded, righteous people did not eat or have fellowship with the sinners. No wonder that Jesus often clashed with the most religious of Jewish people!
Take, for example, the moving incident which occurred at the table during a meal at the house of Simon, a Pharisee (Luke 7:36–50). The host and guests were reclining at table, leaning on one arm and thus exposing their feet and ankles. Without any warning a woman appeared, fell down at the feet of Jesus and began to weep. Then, perhaps embarrassed because she had wet the feet of Jesus, she let down her long hair to use it as a towel to dry his feet: she also kissed them and poured upon them the expensive perfume she had brought to anoint Jesus. Obviously, she wanted to express the deep devotion and love she felt.
The host and local people knew her identity: she was a sinner, a local prostitute, and they were offended both by what she had done and also by the fact that Jesus had not rebuked her. So Jesus told the short parable of the two debtors, one who owed a vast amount and the other a small amount. Both debtors had their debts cancelled. So Jesus asked Simon which of them would love the person who cancelled the debt more? The answer was obvious and Simon said the one who had the bigger debt.
Jesus then looked at the woman, her eyes still filled with tears, and said to Simon:
Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet. Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven – for she loved much. But he who has been forgiven little loves little.
Jesus was making it clear that her love was a consequence of the fact that she had repented of her sins and received forgiveness. Thus he confirmed that forgiveness by publicly telling her, ‘Your sins are forgiven’, and followed this by telling her, ‘Your faith has saved you; go in peace.’ She was a repentant, believing and changed woman: having forsaken her sins she had recognised Jesus as God’s Messiah and felt in her heart the joy of being forgiven. Simon could not understand because he hardly felt the need for forgiveness. And Simon, regrettably, is the kind of person not uncommon in our churches.
Jesus met with some success in his ministry to the sinners. We have the records of the conversions of two tax-collectors who were so despised for their work for the Roman overlords that they were excluded from the synagogue and disqualified from being witnesses in the law-courts.
Take the story of Levi first. He was at the customs post in Capernaum in the territory of Herod Antipas: he was probably known to some of the disciples of Jesus who came from that town. Arriving at the post, Jesus addressed him forthrightly and authoritatively. In essence he said to him, ‘Follow me’ (Mark 2:14). No ordinary rabbi gained his disciples by a command such as this: Jesus’s call was comparable only to the call to service of the prophets of the Old Testament (cf. 1 Kings 19:19–21). By this call Jesus established the priority of the divine claim, the reign of God, above all other claims (of job, family and self). However, it is a gracious call for it contains the promise of forgiveness and fellowship.
The kingdom of God dawned as Levi responded to the call and joyously gave evidence of his new life by making a feast for Jesus and calling to it all his colleagues and friends in order that they too could encounter this friend of sinners. If Levi is the one we call Matthew then we know that he became an apostle. No doubt Jesus saw the fellowship at table as an acted parable of the joyous fellowship of the kingdom of God of the age to come, of which this meal in Capernaum was a foretaste. It is not surprising that such a meal caused much local interest, including that of the Pharisees. They were appalled that Jesus should become ritually impure by eating with sinners. For them, however, this friend of sinners had an ironic word: ‘I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners’ (Mark 2:17). They needed to realise that they were sinners in the sight of God and only then could they value and pay heed to his call.
Zacchaeus was no ordinary tax-collector: he employed others and then passed on to the Romans what they required. Jericho was a good place for a taxman to be and Zacchaeus had made full use of his position, even though by becoming rich he was despised by the religious leaders. No doubt he had heard stories of Jesus’s interest in sinners of the kind he was and so he determined to get a good view of him. Being a small man he climbed a tree in order to see over the heads of the crowd. To his great surprise, Jesus stopped beneath the tree and told him to come down for he intended to visit his home. Here again is the forthright and authoritative call to which Zacchaeus felt an urge to respond positively. ‘So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly’ (Luke 19:6).
We do not know what precisely Jesus said to Zacchaeus in his home, but we do know the result of his explanation of the good news concerning God and his kingdom. Zacchaeus exclaimed: ‘Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount’ (v. 8). Repentance here took a very practical turn (as it must have done also with Levi, but Mark gives no details). And Jesus summed up the situation by saying, ‘Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham’ (v. 9). The kingdom of God has dawned within the home of Zacchaeus and he was a true son of Abraham, having faith in God of the same kind as the ‘father of Israel’, Abraham, had.
Before the conversion of Zacchaeus, Jesus made various attempts to bring Pharisees to the point where they would accept him and his message. Luke 15 contains three parables told to Pharisees in order to help them understand why both sinners and righteous people needed to welcome the dawning of the kingdom of God and enter his gracious, fatherly rule. In the parables of the lost sheep and lost coin Jesus made clear that God is the Lord who seeks, who goes out of his way to rescue sinners and who, with the angelic host, rejoices when he finds one who repents of sin and turns in faith to him. The parable of the lost (prodigal) son is really the story of two sons and provides us with important insights into why both the righteous and sinners need conversion.
The behaviour of the younger son who squandered his wealth in wild living and who came to feel a great sense of need is easy to understand. The warm and compassionate welcome he received from his father when he returned to the family home illustrates the reception of returning and repenting sinners into the realm of the gracious and fatherly rule of God’s sovereign grace.
This festive reception of the prodigal made the elder brother feel bitter: had he not served his father faithfully for a long time but no feast had ever been prepared for him? ‘Look!’ he said. ‘All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders.’ Here we see the motivation of the elder brother in his doing of his father’s will. He had obeyed not so much as a loving, grateful son, but as a wage-earner. He had distanced himself from his father just as he was distancing himself from his brother. With all his doing of what he was asked to do by his father he had done it without real love in his heart: he had not loved God with all his heart and soul and, mind and strength, and he had not loved his neighbour as himself.
Sinners were like sons who had run away from their father and from his commandments: they needed to return in repentance and faith. The righteous were like the elder brother, remaining within the sphere of the Law of Moses, but not living as sons of God in a loving relationship with God: they needed to repent of their failure to love God and their neighbour and believe in Jesus, who embodied the compassion and love of God, and be forgiven. For both the sinner and the righteous a fine welcome was waiting since God, the heavenly Father, through his Messiah, seeks and saves those who are lost. But that welcome was dependent upon the individual – be he sinner or righteous – saying to heaven: ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner’ (Luke 18:13). Here sinner is not a technical term but an existential term describing the state of alienation from God. It is a prayer that every human being ought to pray!
Taking up the cross
Somewhere between the obviously righteous and sinners were many Jewish people who were, to a lesser or greater degree, pious and faithful. To these, of course, Jesus also proclaimed the good news of the kingdom and of the need to repent and believe. And from time to time he explained what being his disciple and entering the kingdom of God meant. Such an explanation is found in Mark 8:34–8 (cf. Matt. 16:24–8; Luke 9:23–7).
After calling his disciples and the crowd to him, Jesus taught them in these words:
If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul? If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.
Jesus certainly called for decision involving the whole person – feelings (heart), mind and will.
Jesus expected his disciples not merely to disown their sins but also to reject the idolatry of self-centredness. Use of the aorist imperative (aparnēsasthō – let him deny [himself]) emphasises that a definite decision has to be taken. ‘No’ to self: ‘Yes’ to God. And together with the denial of self, the disciple also has to be ready to face martyrdom – to be ready, for Jesus’s sake, to carry the crossbeam of his cross to the place of execution. For if the disciple tries to save his life by denying his master (in, for example, a court), he will thereby lose the gift of eternal life: and, conversely, if the disciple readily loses his life for the sake of Jesus (which is the same as losing it for the kingdom of God), he will gain everlasting life. Once a disciple has forfeited his inheritance of eternal life, there is nothing he can offer to buy it back – not even the whole world. (Probably Jesus had Psalm 49:7–9 in mind as he was giving this teaching, for the thought is very similar.) Further, once a disciple ceases to confess and rejoice in his relationship to Jesus because of his fear of the world, then he cannot expect to be welcomed and owned by Jesus when, as the heavenly Son of Man, he comes to judge the world at the end of the age.
This teaching on personal commitment to Jesus as Messiah was given after he had made it clear that his own path in God’s will was via suffering and death, before being vindicated by his heavenly Father (Mark 8:31–3). Therefore, the invitation to follow him was based upon his own commitment to martyrdom if that was the way that the Father ordained. In the history of the early Church the readiness to be a martyr for Jesus’s sake was certainly inspired by the example of Jesus himself. Of course, Jesus did not teach that martyrdom was a necessary outcome for all discipleship: what he did teach was the wholehearted nature of commitment to the kingdom of God. In other words, he called for a thorough conversion to God, the God of the kingdom.
Earlier in his ministry, without reference to the possibility of martyrdom, Jesus had clearly emphasised the absolute and prior claims of God upon human beings. When told that his mother and brothers were seeking him, he asked, ‘Who are my mother and my brothers?’ Then looking at the disciples who had left all to follow him he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers!’ The reason for this seemingly harsh reflection upon his relationship to his family was to make the point: ‘Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother’ (Mark 3:33–5). In the new family of the kingdom, which Jesus is calling into being, there is required that radical, decisive submission to God, which Jesus himself exemplified in his own obedience to the Father’s will. Such submission is the result of conversion – of repentance, faith and baptism.
Sharing the burden
There was an intensely personal touch to the way Jesus proclaimed the kingdom of God. He said: ‘Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light’ (Matt. 11:28–30). His hearers were familiar with the yoke that held together two oxen or asses as they performed some agricultural task.
In contrast to this personal form of address, a typical rabbi would have said something like this: ‘Take upon you the yoke of the Law; which God gave to Moses. Your way to God and his salvation is through doing what is commanded in the Law. So receive all the commandments, statutes and ordinances and seek to obey them. It will be burdensome, but you must persevere, and God will help you.’ He would have been most sincere, but the yoke he had in mind was the union of the Jew to the Law of Moses, not of the disciple to himself.
Therefore what was unique in the message of Jesus was his insistence that entry into the kingdom of God was through an intimate bond with himself as the Messiah. ‘Come to me ... Take my yoke...’ and ‘learn from me’. To those Jews whose spirits were bent low through the weight of many commandments, Jesus offered relief. He did not set before them an easier way or a less demanding life. He promised to be yoked to each disciple so that he shared the burden, the effort, the striving and the work. Being yoked to Jesus means sharing his vision, going in his way and fighting his cause – and this is the way of the Cross. Conversion is a turning in order to walk with Jesus in his walk with and to God.
The burdens of the average Westerner are certainly moral and spiritual, but they are hardly caused by the weight of the Law of Moses within the conscience. They are caused by the pressures of the secularist society, the consumer society and the technology of the silicon chip. And they are not relieved by more leisure, more alcohol or more luxurious housing. A better or better-paid job may even increase the burdens. These burdens Jesus offers to relieve when a person becomes his disciple, sharing his vision and commitment.
Begotten by God
We find in the well-known parable of the sower (Mark 4:1ff.) some reflection by Jesus upon the response to his proclamation in word, and demonstration in deed, of the kingdom of God. To appreciate this parable we must remember that sowing preceded ploughing in Palestine. This means that the sower is not careless when he scatters the seed everywhere, including the path and where thorns are. It is only in the ploughing and subsequent growth that the nature of the soil is fully revealed. Jesus emphasised the act of sowing, leading to the glorious result of harvest. The main point is not that some seed failed to reach maturity, but that some seed did reach a mature and large harvest. And, in Jewish thought, the harvest was a symbol of the fullness of the glorious kingdom of God.
The fact that not all seed reached maturity, however, allowed Jesus to reflect on the reasons why his message had produced a harvest only in some people. He pointed out that there is the active opposition of evil, spiritual power (Satan, the devil); there is the sinfulness of human hearts, and there is the powerful attraction of this-worldly activities and possessions. Genuine conversion leads to perseverance and commitment, despite all opposition, spiritual and physical.
Therefore, like the prophets before him, Jesus failed to turn the whole nation towards God in repentance, faith and hope. He was very conscious of this and told the parable of the tenants (Mark 12:1–12) who killed the servants (=prophets) and then killed the heir (Jesus, the Messiah). However, he knew that God could not be defeated and that apparent failure and tragedy would be turned to triumph in his vindication through death, resurrection and exaltation.
John, author of the fourth Gospel, reflected deeply on the rejection of Jesus and, in his masterly prologue (1:1–18), provided this explanation of what had happened:
He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognise him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God – children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God (vv. 10–13).
Jesus is the Incarnate Son of God. He came into the world which he had made and which he sustains. He took to himself the very flesh and human nature which we possess. As Creator he came in his Incarnation to what may be called his own property; further he came to be born a Jew, into the people to whom God had promised the Messiah and in whom God had made preparations to receive him. Tragically those who had been prepared by God’s tutelage over the centuries to receive the Messiah rejected him: they were blind and inhospitable. The Jews (in the action of their supreme court, the Sanhedrin) and the Gentiles (in the action of the officials of the Roman Empire) rejected Jesus, condemning him to die as one without rights – the death of a slave.
A minority did, however, receive him as the Messiah: they accepted his claims and readily trusted and obeyed him. Zacchaeus and Levi, along with other disciples, made up this minority. To these believers Jesus, as Incarnate Son, gave the authority or the right to become children of God, united to him in faith and hope and love, and calling him ‘Father, dear Father’. Conversion meant that they followed Jesus as children of the heavenly Father.
This minority of Jews became the disciples of Jesus by a definite decision to accept what he said, to turn to God in the way he required, and to follow him wherever he commanded. Each one was conscious of a change of heart, mind and will to become a disciple. This change was a free decision made in response to the authority, the compassion and the challenge of Jesus.
John, however, knew that though conversion to God-in-Christ is a personal commitment involving repentance and faith, it cannot occur without God’s direct help. The turning to God and away from sin and self-centredness had to be set in motion by an act of God in and upon the human soul/will. Therefore he added that those who received Jesus as the Messiah to become the children of God were born (better, begotten) by God. In order to become an infant one has to be begotten by a father and born from a mother. John is stating that the inward, secret, invisible action of God within the human soul which sets off the process of conversion is to be compared with the action of a father’s sperm in the creation of a baby. There is no life unless the father first begets and there is no spiritual life as a child of God unless God imparts it.
In teaching the necessity of being begotten by God, John was summarising what Jesus had told Nicodemus, a member of the Jewish Sanhedrin. Their conversation is recorded in John 3. Here are some of the things that Jesus said: ‘Unless a man is born from above [begotten from above] he cannot see the kingdom of God’; ‘Unless a man is born [begotten] of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God’; and ‘You must be born from above’. The final ‘you’ is plural for Jesus was addressing Jewry through one of its leaders. Further, if we translate the Greek literally it would read, ‘It is indispensable (dei) that you (Jews) be born again’. To enter into the kingdom of God and into the new covenant (replacing the Mosaic, old covenant) spiritual life from above was a necessity. And, as the teaching of Jesus in John 3:14ff. makes clear, God gives this new life as people hear the good news and believe on the name of the Lord Jesus. “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life’ (v. 16).
In the teaching (John 14–16) that he gave to his inner circle just before his crucifixion, Jesus had much to say about the Holy Spirit who would come from heaven as his Paraclete (stand-in, replacement) to take forward the mission of God in the world with and through the disciples. In this discourse, Jesus had this to say about the role of the Spirit in the conversion of men to God: ‘When the Holy Spirit comes, he will convict the world of guilt in regard to sin and righteousness and judgment: in regard to sin, because men do not believe in me; in regard to righteousness, because I am going to the Father where you can see me no longer; and in regard to judgment, because the prince of this world now stands condemned’ (16:8–11). Obviously this convicting role of the Spirit is thought of in relation to the proclamation of the good news and teaching concerning the death and vindication of Jesus. They must make clear that all sin is now focused on rejection of Jesus as Messiah and Son; that the only righteousness that is acceptable to God is that of the Son, who is in heaven; and that the devil (Satan) and all his ways and wiles stand condemned by the death and resurrection of Jesus.
After his resurrection but before his final parting, Jesus appeared to his disciples and said: ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I will be with you always, to the very end of the age’ (Matt. 28:19–20). As the reigning Lord in heaven and through the presence of the Holy Spirit as Paraclete, Jesus promised to be with his disciples in their proclamation of himself, making of converts, baptising them and teaching. We shall take up this theme in the next chapter.
In closing this section on the ministry of Jesus, it is perhaps necessary to point out that the message of the necessity of repentance for sin and faith in God through the Messiah does not represent the whole of what is implied in the statement, ‘the kingdom of God is near’. In many cases, as the four Gospels show, those who looked to Jesus in faith were healed of diseases and released from demonic possession. The making of people ‘whole’ was a sign that in the kingdom of God of the age to come there will be no sadness, sickness or death, but joy, wholeness and abundant life.
In the ministry of Jesus this kingdom, like an invading army of liberation, made its presence felt within the conditions of the sinful age. Turning to God in repentance and faith was the response for which Jesus looked, the only response valid before the arrival of the sovereign, gracious and saving rule of God. Likewise, in the mission of the disciples as recorded in the Acts of the Apostles, the kingdom of God was experienced in a variety of supernatural ways through the presence and power of the Holy Spirit, accompanying the proclamation and teaching of the good news of what God had done in and through Jesus, crucified, risen and exalted. In the context of miracles and signs of divine intervention, however, the central call to men remained: ‘Repent and believe: turn to God-in-Christ’.
The verb ‘to convert’
As you read the Gospels in any of the modern translations, you may be surprised to note that you never seem to meet the verb ‘to convert’. Jesus is never said to convert people and people are not said to have been converted. This omission has led some people hastily to conclude that Jesus did not call for conversion, but only for a better kind of living. In fact, we have seen that Jesus made a radical call for repentance and faith, a turning away from sin in order to serve God as a disciple of Jesus. Such a decision and commitment are surely conversion!
However, for the sake of clarity and accuracy, we need to look at the places where the verb ‘to convert’ can be used and has been used. We shall take the places in the old translation, known as the Authorised Version (King James Version), where the verb is used and place alongside them a modern translation (NIV). Then we shall offer some comments. At this point, as I warned in the Introduction, you will need to make a big effort at concentration!
1. Mark 4:11–12 (Matt. 13:15; cf. John 12:40)
(a) And he [Jesus] said unto them, Unto you it is given to know the mystery of the kingdom of God; but unto them that are without, all these things are done in parables: That seeing they may see, and not perceive; and hearing they may hear, and not understand; lest at any time they should be converted, and their sins should be forgiven them.
(b) He [Jesus] told them, ‘The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those outside everything is said in parables so that,
“they may be ever seeing but never perceiving, and ever hearing but never understanding; otherwise they might turn and be forgiven!”’
2. Matthew 18:2–3
(a) And Jesus called a little child unto him, and set him in the midst of them, and said, Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.
(b) He [Jesus] called a little child and had him stand among them. And he said: ‘I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.’
3. Luke 22:31–2
(a) And the Lord said, Simon, Simon, behold, Satan hath desired to have you, that he may sift you as wheat: But I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not: and when thou art converted, strengthen thy brethren.
(b) ‘Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.’
Certainly the translation in the NIV (b) is more accurate than that in the AV (a), which renders the active verb ‘turn’ by the interpretative passive, ‘be converted’. The translators of the AV were so conscious that God is the true cause of all genuine turning to himself that they allowed this theology to influence their translation.
Two related Greek verbs are used: epistrephein in Mark 4:12 and Luke 22:32, and strephein in Matthew 18:3. Both verbs have the basic meaning of a turning round, be it in the physical or the mental sense (change of mind) or the spiritual sense (turning from sin to God). Examples of the use of these verbs for physical turning or returning occur in Matthew 12:45 and Luke 2:39; for the mental and spiritual sense the verses quoted provide illustrations. We shall encounter further examples in the Acts and Epistles.
Normally these verbs are used intransitively (not having a direct object). However, there is an example in Luke where epistrephein is used transitively: An angel of the Lord spoke to Zechariah of the son he would have and said of him: ‘Many of the people in Israel will he bring back to the Lord, their God’ (1:16). In this case the AV translates, ‘shall he turn to the Lord, their God’. We shall encounter a further example of the transitive in James 5:19–20.
Having made general comments it is now appropriate to look at Mark 4:12, Matthew 18:3 and Luke 22:32 in more detail.
The ‘they might turn’ of Mark 4:12 refers to those Jews described in Mark 3: they will not believe in Jesus or his message; they actively oppose him and even declare that he is demonic. In this situation Jesus cites Isaiah 6:9–10 as a prophecy being fulfilled in his ministry as it was in that of Isaiah himself. Because of their unbelief, obstinacy and hatred, the Jews cannot appreciate who Jesus is and the nature of the message of the kingdom as he provides it via parables. Thus the Word of God does not enter their hearts and they have no internal conviction that they actually ought to turn to the Lord their God in repentance and faith for his forgiveness and blessing.
The ‘unless you change’ of Matthew 18:3 does not refer to a physical change from adulthood to childhood but a turning and changing of the mind so that one’s outlook on one’s attitude towards life (in particular towards greatness and pride) is altered. Those who would enter the kingdom of heaven/God and thus come under the gracious and fatherly rule of God must repent of pride and self-centredness and humbly submit to the sovereignty of God. The little child embodies the characteristics of trust and humble acceptance as he/she is held by a parent or adult.
Finally, the ‘when you have turned back’ of Luke 22:32 refers to restoration after a lapse, and of retracing his steps after going astray in order to return to the right way. Here, it is Peter who will face trials and tribulations, but because of the efficacy of the prayer of Jesus he will not lose his faith and will turn back after seemingly losing that faith. We know how Peter denied his Lord and how later, when he heard the cock crow, he wept bitterly. Later he strengthened his fellow disciples. Interestingly, the use of the verb epistrephein here is the only occasion in the NT when it is used of the return to God-in-Christ of a disciple who has backslid. Normally, as in Mark 4:12, Matthew 18:3 and other places that we shall note in the Acts and Epistles, it is used of the initial turning to God that is called conversion. Backsliders are usually exhorted to repent (e.g. Rev. 2:5, 16, 21f.; 3:3, 19).
There can surely be no doubt that Jesus preached, taught and ministered in such a way as to persuade people that the most important reality they could encounter on earth was the kingly, saving reign of God, the kingdom of heaven. To enter this kingdom as his disciple was for Jesus the supreme human decision while to receive the divine gifts of forgiveness and eternal life was to gain the greatest of all treasures.
Because he was God’s agent to bring in this kingdom and to make it permanently available to repentant souls, Jesus gladly submitted to the Father’s will. As the chosen servant, he had to become the suffering servant, who having set his face towards Jerusalem was to suffer and die there for the kingdom. But his suffering was not in vain: he suffered as the innocent for the guilty, as the sinless for the sinful. Thus, having paid the debt that sinners owe to God, their judge, Jesus was raised from the dead. Now, in and through him, the Gospel is God’s truth for the whole world, and the kingdom is open to all who receive that Gospel. And a person is therefore said to be converted when he receives and obeys the Gospel.
3 – Turning to the Lord
We have seen how Jesus proclaimed the kingdom of God as his central message. Yet in the Acts of the Apostles the phrase occurs only seven times and seems to have been displaced by proclamation concerning God’s activity in Jesus. The reason for this apparent change in emphasis is that the apostles understood the nature of the kingdom of God in the light of the great redeeming acts of God in the crucifixion, resurrection, ascension of Jesus and of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Jesus was now the exalted Messiah, crowned as Lord, and the Holy Spirit, acting in his name, was present in the Church and world. Thus instead of speaking of the kingly, sovereign, gracious reign of God, they spoke specifically of the Lord Jesus Christ, seated at the right hand of the Father, for in him the kingdom of God had its centre and substance.
If we examine the content of the early preaching, recorded in Acts 1–10, we can pick out the essentials of the message of the apostles and evangelists. These were:
1. The prophecies of the Hebrew Scriptures are fulfilled: the new age of salvation is a reality through the coming of Jesus.
2. Jesus was born of the line of King David, as the prophets had foretold.
3. Jesus died sacrificially and vicariously, as the prophets had foretold, in order to deliver us from sin and the present, evil age.
4. Jesus was buried and therefore he was truly dead.
5. Jesus rose victoriously from death on the third day, as the prophets had foretold.
6. Jesus is now exalted to the right hand of the Father as Messiah and Lord and Son, as Psalm 110 had foretold.
7. Jesus will come again to earth as the judge of the world.
8. Forgiveness and acceptance by God are offered to those who repent and believe the good news concerning the Lord Jesus Christ and are baptised.
This, of course, was the message preached to Jews and to those Gentiles or non-Jews who were attached to the Jewish synagogues or were interested in the Jewish faith. The preaching to the pagan Gentiles had to set this basic message in a context appropriate to the understanding and background of the hearers. And, let us not overlook the fact that the preachers proclaimed their message in the power of the Holy Spirit with the definite intention and hope of making converts.
The first conversions
It will be instructive to look at the description of conversion which followed the first evangelistic sermon addressed to Jews by a Spirit-filled apostle. Each year the population of Jerusalem was much expanded at the time of the festivals. At the first Feast of Pentecost (a harvest festival) following the crucifixion, resurrection and ascension of Jesus, the usual large crowds were in the city. Thus, when the waiting disciples of Jesus were marvellously filled with the Holy Spirit, a crowd soon assembled to witness the strange phenomenon of people seemingly drunk early in the day! Read Acts 2 carefully to get the details.
Peter took this golden opportunity to proclaim to the crowd that ancient prophecy was being fulfilled before their eyes because Jesus, whom the Jewish leaders had caused to be crucified, is risen from the dead and is the Messiah and Lord. In fact, as Psalm 110 had predicted, he is at the right hand of the Father in heaven, and from the Father he has poured out the Holy Spirit upon his assembled disciples.
Many in the crowd were not only convinced in their minds as to the truth of Peter’s claims but they were also convicted in their consciences. Since Jesus was the Messiah their rejection of him had been a sin bringing great guilt upon their heads. No wonder they cried out, ‘Brothers, what shall we do?’ To their surprise, the reply of Peter was one of great comfort. He did not condemn them but said, ‘Repent and be baptised, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit’ (Acts 2:38). Being convicted of sin before God, they are to repent: they are genuinely to turn away from sin and towards God through Jesus, the Messiah. Further, they are to submit to baptism in the name of this same Jesus: that is, to be baptised into his name as they confess that he is truly the Messiah. And, as John had promised, as they confessed Jesus as Messiah in baptism they would receive the gift of the (indwelling) Spirit from the exalted Messiah.
So we see that what may be called the strands or elements of conversion are here portrayed as (a) conviction of sin before God, (b) repentance for sin and turning from it towards God, (c) belief and trust in Jesus as Messiah, (d) obedience to Jesus as Lord in submission to baptism, and (e) (as verses 41-2 make clear) full participation in the life of the Christian congregation. It is important that we use words such as ‘strands’ or ‘elements’ rather than ‘stages’ for they are not to, be seen as like a series of steps up which we must walk. Repentance and. faith, for example, are different, but where there is one there is also the other: they cannot be prised apart in experience.
There were about three thousand conversions at the Feast of Pentecost. The Lord added them, as it were, to those who had been disciples of Jesus since before his crucifixion and resurrection. Regrettably we do not have the personal testimony of any single one of this large number of new believers.
What we do have in the Acts of the Apostles is a representative selection made by Luke, its author, of five conversion stories. They deal with people of different background, nationality, temperament and sex. We must now take a look at these and note what they have in common.
1. The Ethiopian (8:26–40)
Philip, the evangelist, who had been preaching in Samaria was sent by God southwards on the Jerusalem-Gaza road. He encountered a covered wagon going southwards and inside was the treasurer of the court of Ethiopia (Nubia rather than Abyssinia). This God-fearing Gentile had been to Jerusalem on a pilgrimage and he was absorbed in the reading of a passage in the prophecy of Isaiah – a part of the Servant Song (Isa. 52:13–53:12). He asked Philip to explain the identity of this servant who ‘was led like a lamb to the slaughter’. So Philip was able to explain that this servant of God was the Messiah who entered into God’s glory through suffering, death and exaltation. He proceeded to explain the good news of the kingdom of God, revealed and manifested in Jesus, the Messiah.
The Ethiopian was inwardly convinced of the teaching he received from Philip and he had an overwhelming sense of the need to be baptised, for he saw himself now as a disciple of Jesus. When they reached the Wadi e1-Hesi, northeast of Gaza, Philip baptised him. And as Philip disappeared the Ethiopian went on his way rejoicing in the salvation he had received.
It is possible that in the telling of this story Luke made use of the narratives of the experiences of Elijah (1 Kgs. 18:12; 2 Kgs. 2:16) and Ezekiel (Ezek. 3:14; 8:3) to describe the rather miraculous arrival and departure of Philip, as he is guided and empowered by the Spirit of God.
2. Saul (9:1–18; 22:1–16; 26:12–-18)
Saul of Tarsus was prominent among those who sought to stamp out the new movement we call Christianity (8:1–3). Suitably armed with a commission from the high priest, Saul left Jerusalem for Damascus, accompanied by an escort. He intended to purge the synagogues there of the disciples of Jesus. He had almost reached the walls of that ancient city when Jesus, the risen and gloried Messiah, encountered him in an unforgettable vision. About noon a light shone on and around him, forcing him to the ground and making him blind. In his ears he heard a voice speaking in his mother tongue, Aramaic (see 26:14), and saying, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’ Christ in heaven was addressing Saul concerning his ‘brothers and sisters’ on earth. Bewildered, Saul responded, ‘Who are you, Lord?’, to which he got the reply he probably expected, ‘I am Jesus whom you are persecuting.’
We do not know Saul’s thoughts as he was taken into the city where for three days he was not only blind but he took no food or drink. All we know is that he was visited by a disciple of Jesus, Ananias, who had been instructed in a vision to visit him. Ananias laid his hands upon Saul’s head, offered prayer and then witnessed not only Saul’s recovery of his sight but the evidence of his being filled with (baptised with) the Spirit of the Lord Jesus. Then he said to him: ‘The God of our fathers has chosen you to know his will and to see the Righteous One and to hear words from his mouth. You will be his witness to all men of what you have seen and heard. And now what are you waiting for? Get up, be baptised and wash your sins away, calling on his name’ (22:14–16). Saul got up, was baptised and took food. He had not only been converted: he had also been filled with the Spirit and given the commission to be an apostle to the Gentiles.
3. Cornelius (10:1–11:18)
Centurions were the backbone of the Roman army: they were non-commissioned officers in charge of a hundred men. Cornelius, a centurion, was much attracted by the monotheism, worship and ethics of Judaism and prayed daily to the God of Israel. He was given a vision in which he was instructed to send men to Joppa and bring back Simon Peter. Meanwhile, the apostle Peter himself also received a vision in which he was given a special revelation in order to persuade him, as a Jew, to consent to visit the home of a Gentile.
Taking six local believers with him, Peter left Joppa with the servants of Cornelius and went to Caesarea where Cornelius showed him excessive homage. In their conversation, to which others eagerly listened, Cornelius recounted his vision and Peter responded by explaining the good news of God’s kingdom and of Jesus, the Messiah, who was crucified and now risen. The apostle had not finished his explanatory address when the Holy Spirit fell upon the whole company. The result of this heavenly visitation was that Cornelius and members of his household spoke with tongues, just as the disciples had done in Jerusalem at the Feast of Pentecost after the ascension (Acts 2). The Jewish Christians who had accompanied Peter from Joppa were amazed and Peter recognised that those upon whom the Spirit had descended and who magnified the Lord Jesus as they spoke in tongues ought to receive baptism for the remission of their sins. So they were baptised in water after they had been baptised by the Holy Spirit.
We must surmise that the hearts of Cornelius and those with him must have been believing the message concerning Jesus Christ even as Peter was giving it to them. They became the first, uncircumcised believers to be baptised and their experience was much discussed in Jerusalem by the elders and apostles. Explaining this amazing event later, Peter actually stated that they did believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and that God had granted them repentance unto life (11:17–18). So though faith and repentance are not clearly portrayed in 10:44–8 (the first account of the conversion of Cornelius) they were present in the experience of those who turned to God-in-Christ. It was, however, the descent of the Spirit followed by such obvious signs that caused Peter, in the light of this divine fait accompli, to take the initiative and baptise them.
4. Lydia (16.11–15)
Apparently there was no synagogue in Philippi since there were so few Jewish men there. However, on the Sabbath a number of Jewish women together with a few God-fearing Gentile women met for the traditional service of prayer. Paul and his companions found their meeting-place by the bank of the river Gangites and told them about Jesus, the Messiah, and how he fulfilled the sacred Scriptures by his death, resurrection and exaltation. One lady named Lydia, who was a trader in purple dye, heartily received what Paul explained concerning Jesus and, as a new believer, she (and others of her household) were baptised. Luke comments that ‘the Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message’. Afterwards she pressed Paul and his companions to be guests in her home. This they did and thus her home became a centre of Christian faith and outreach in Philippi (16:40).
5. The jailer of Philippi (16:25–34)
Paul and Silas had been put in prison where they prayed and sang hymns. There was an earthquake which caused widespread damage in the prison, allowing the inmates to escape. When the jailer arrived he made to kill himself – such was the duty of a Roman soldier who had failed. Paul saw him and called him over to where he and Silas were lying injured. He knew who they were and why they were in prison. In the highly charged atmosphere he asked ‘Sirs, what must I do to be saved?’ Exactly what he understood at this stage about salvation we do not know, but Paul and Silas took this strange opportunity in a shattered prison to recount the good news of Jesus Christ to him and to explain that to receive God’s salvation he must believe in the Lord Jesus – trust and obey him. Further, he must share this faith and commitment with his family and household.
After Paul and Silas had explained the Gospel to his household they all expressed their desire to follow Jesus Christ and were immediately baptised – how or where we do not know. Then Paul and Silas were invited into the home for food and fellowship. And as Luke adds, ‘the whole family was filled with joy, because they had come to believe in God.’
In looking at all five conversions we can note various common features. In each case there was some form of preparation for conversion. The Ethiopian was a God-fearer who seriously read the Scriptures; Saul was highly trained in the Scriptures and had investigated Christian faith and practice; Cornelius was a God-fearer and a man of prayer; Lydia attended the Jewish meeting for prayer; and the jailer had opportunity of hearing Paul and Silas either before or after their entry into his prison.
Secondly, each heard preaching or teaching about Jesus. Philip explained the Gospel to the Ethiopian; Saul had listened to and interrogated Christians before his vision of the exalted Jesus; Cornelius had a full explanation from Peter concerning God’s visitation in Christ; Lydia heard Paul’s presentation of the Gospel; and the jailer heard from Paul and Silas the Word of the Lord.
In the third place there is enquiry. The Ethiopian wanted to know the identity of the one described in Isaiah 53; Saul asked the heavenly Jesus to reveal his identity; Cornelius asked the angel in his vision for an explanation of what was happening; and the jailer wanted to know how he could be saved. Only Lydia is not recorded as having made enquiry.
Fourthly, there is evidence of the activity of God. Philip was sent to meet the Ethiopian by direct heavenly command; Saul was given quite unexpectedly a never-to-be-forgotten vision of Jesus and then baptised with the Holy Spirit three days later; Cornelius received a vision and then experienced the descent of the Spirit and speaking in tongues; and the Lord opened the heart of Lydia. Only the jailer is not presented as being the subject of direct heavenly action – unless we see the earthquake in this light.
In the fifth place, each convert is baptised. Only on one occasion (22:16) is the meaning of baptism given: it is for the washing away of sins. It is also entry into the new community, the household of God.
Finally, conversion has immediate results. The Ethiopian and the jailer were filled with joy; Paul felt impelled to preach Christ; Cornelius spoke in tongues and praised God; and Lydia and the jailer offered hospitality.
Regrettably, neither these examples nor indeed the whole contents of the Acts enable us to say with certainty whether genuine conversion to God ought to include that baptism with the Spirit which Saul and Cornelius received. There are examples in the Acts of existing believers being filled/baptised with the Spirit – e.g. the Samaritans (8:5–19) and Ephesians (18:24–19:7). Because of the prophecy of Joel (cited by Peter, Acts 2:17–21) and of John the Baptist (recalled by Jesus, Acts 1:5, and by Peter, Acts 11:16) concerning baptism with the Spirit and the general evidence of the Acts, not. only modern Charismatics but evangelists and missionaries of earlier times (e.g. Moody, Finney and Torrey as well as the late Dr Martyn Lloyd Jones) have insisted that the internal work of the Spirit in conversion is not the same as the ‘external’ baptism with the Spirit at, or after, conversion.
The novelty of conversion
The idea of conversion in terms of forsaking one religious position in order to maintain an exclusive commitment to another was rare, even absent from the mentality of the world of the Roman Empire until the arrival of the Christian evangelists. In Evangelism in the Early Church (1970), Michael Green offers three reasons why the ancient Graeco-Roman world was not familiar with dynamic, religious conversion.
First of all, people at that time did not regard belief as necessary for participation in the cult: you were not required to believe in the deities that outwardly you worshipped. Doing what was expected by society in terms of offering sacrifices and keeping festivals was primary for it had to do with the supposed well-being of society.
In the second place, people at that time did not connect morality and ethics with religious observance. Sometimes a certain ritual purity was required for the period of specific participation in the cult, but such purity was of short duration.
And, third, people at that time were not familiar with a religion that made exclusive claims upon its devotees and members. To accept Jesus as Lord meant total allegiance with no other ‘Lord’ to be obeyed. But to devotees of the ancient Greek and Roman religions exclusive commitment was never required.
The spread of Judaism in the Empire, with its fanatical commitment to monotheism, had caused both admiration and repugnance. However, Judaism was not a missionary-minded faith, even though it attracted Gentile converts. The Christian evangelists called not only upon pagans but also upon Jews to be converted, to turn to the God who was revealed in Jesus.
On this novel situation Michael Green comments as follows:
It is at this point, that the uniqueness of Christian conversion stands out. They called on Jews as well as Gentiles to put their faith in God’s Messiah and join the company of his people. For the Gentile this would be conversion to a new faith; for the Jew it would be, in an important sense, conversion within the faith in which he had been nourished, and of which Christ was the summit and goal. But the shock would be as great for the Jew, or even greater, than for the Gentile. Both would have to be baptised into the Church of the Messiah. And whereas for the Gentile that would be much preferable to circumcision, to the Jew it was a great stumbling-block. It meant renouncing all claim to be God’s elect simply on the ground of birth and circumcision. It meant becoming like a newborn child, and washing away all impurities in the bath of baptism – and that was what they were accustomed to thinking took place when a proselyte was baptised into Israel. A more humbling renunciation of all privilege, all acquired and inherited merit and standing before God could not be imagined. The skandalon of conversion to Christianity was absolute (p. 147).
The early preachers saw themselves as witnesses and ambassadors of Christ who in proclaiming the Gospel also saw the operative power of the Word of God and the Spirit of God. Their absorbing concern was to serve Christ by telling the world of him and calling the hearers to conversion.
The verb ‘to convert’
Reading through the Acts of the Apostles, which tells of the expansion of the Church of God through the addition of thousands of first Jewish and then Gentile converts, we find once more that the verb ‘to convert’ and the noun ‘conversion’ are not very common! However, we surely agree that the concept and reality of conversion are basic and fundamental to the whole Book.
It is now necessary – again for the sake of accuracy – to do a word study to notice how epistrephein and related words are used in the Acts. Our method will be to quote the appropriate verses from the NIV and indicate in italics the word which translates epistrephein.
1. 3:19 – Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord.
The AV translates, ‘Repent ye therefore, and be converted’, but is alone in using the verb ‘to convert’. This call to repentance and turning to God occurs in a sermon delivered by Peter at the gate of the temple in Jerusalem and is addressed to ‘Men of Israel’. The turning to God is a turning to God in the sense of believing in and being committed to Jesus as the Messiah. It is a call both to all Jews and to each individual Jew. Earlier Peter had called for repentance by Jews for rejecting and crucifying God’s Messiah, Jesus (2:38). There can be no turning to the Lord without repentance.
Peter closed his address to the ‘Men of Israel’ by speaking of Jesus, who was raised from the dead and who would bless them ‘by turning each of you from your wicked ways’ (3:26). Here the verb apostrephein is used transitively, and has the meaning of ‘to turn away’.
2. 9:35 – All those who lived in Lydda and Sharon saw him [Aeneas who had been healed] and turned to the Lord.
All the translations use the verb ‘to turn’ except the Jerusalem Bible and the New American Bible for Catholics, each of which have ‘were converted to the Lord’. The reason for the turning/being converted was seeing the miracle of the curing of Aeneas, a paralytic, by Peter in the name of Jesus Christ. It is probable that ‘all those who lived’ means ‘a large number of the residents of’ Lydda (OT Lod).
3. 11:21 – The Lord’s hand was with them, and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord.
Again, only the two RC translations have ‘were converted to the Lord’. The reason for this occurrence of new believers and converts in Antioch was the testimony for the Gospel given by Christians who had left Jerusalem for Antioch during the persecution which led to Stephen’s martyrdom. From this witnessing the Church in Antioch arose.
4. 14:15 – We are bringing you good news, telling you to turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made heaven and earth and sea and everything in them.
Only the NAB uses the verb ‘to convert’ and translates: ‘We are bringing you the good news that will convert you from just such follies as these to the living God ...’ Paul and Barnabas were in Lystra where they healed a man who had been lame from birth: the local people took them to be gods appearing as men! Thus Paul appealed to them to listen to the Gospel concerning Jesus, which called upon them to turn from idolatry to the living God.
5. 15:3 – The church [in Antioch] sent them [Paul and Barnabas] on their way, and as they travelled through Phoenicia and Samaria, they told how the Gentiles had been converted.
Most of the modern versions use the word converted or conversion here. The noun, epistrophē, is actually used: therefore a literal translation of the last part of the verse would be, ‘telling the conversion of the Gentiles’. It is worthy of note that in verse 4 it is made clear that God is primarily responsible for the conversion of the Gentiles: ‘they reported everything that God had done through them’.
6. 15:19 – It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God.
Again only the NAB uses the word ‘converts’: ‘we ought not to cause God’s Gentile converts any difficulties’. This is part of James’s address at the Council of Jerusalem, where the fact of the conversion of Gentiles had been seriously discussed.
7. 26:17–18 – I am sending you [Paul] to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.
Paul is here explaining to King Agrippa how he was called to be an apostle of Jesus to the Gentile nations, and what was the nature of the task before him. In the NIV rendering it is Paul as the preacher and servant of God who turns them, whereas in the rendering of the RSV and JB he is to open their eyes by his preaching and testimony ‘that they may turn from darkness to light’. The Greek has the infinitive, ‘to turn’, and is used transitively. Behind Paul’s words are those uttered by Isaiah to describe the vocation of the servant of the Lord in 42:1ff., especially verse 6. The apostle sees himself continuing the commission of the Servant (Jesus Christ), to be ‘a covenant for the people and a light for the Gentiles, to open the eyes that are blind, to free captives from prison and to release from the dungeon those who sit in darkness’ (vv. 6–7).
8. 26:20 – I [Paul] preached that they should repent and turn to God and prove their repentance by their deeds.
This is part of the explanation made to Agrippa and describes what was his message to both Jews and Gentiles.
From these texts it is perfectly clear that a message of repentance and turning/conversion was fundamental for Peter, James and Paul in their understanding and execution of their apostleship. Further, as the origins of the Church in Antioch reveal, the ordinary Christians also saw their calling to include making converts. Turning to God-in-Christ meant forsaking sin and idolatry and positively turning towards God in commitment to Jesus Christ as Messiah and Lord.
Before concluding this brief word study it is necessary to notice that various words, not related to epistrephein, are translated as ‘convert(s)’. In 6:5 and 13:43 prosēlytos (proselyte) is translated as ‘Jewish convert’ in the NIV and other versions: in 9:36 mathētria (disciple) is translated ‘convert’ by the NAB, which also has ‘Gentile converts’ in 21:25 where the literal meaning is ‘Gentiles who have believed’.
We have noted how the verb to turn has the meaning to convert. Further, we have seen that following the proclamation of the good news concerning Jesus and the kingdom of God came the call to the hearers to respond. The response called for was to convert to God in commitment to Jesus Christ. The call was, when given in full, an urging to repentance (turning from sin and evil), to faith/trust (in God and the Lord Jesus Christ) and to baptism (for the forgiveness of sins and incorporation into the new covenant and household of faith). However, we find in the Acts that the response of the hearer is often given in shorthand or in brief.
To obey (hypakouein) functions several times as a summary of repent, believe, be baptised. For example in 5:32 the apostle Peter states that God has given the gift of the Holy Spirit ‘to those who obey him’; and, in 6:7, Luke records that ‘a large number of priests became obedient to the faith’. The apostle Paul also made use of this way of describing conversion in Romans 1:5 and 6:16, as well as in 2 Thessalonians 1:8. The obedience here described is obedience from the heart, involving emotions, mind and will.
To believe (pisteuein) is very common as a synonym for ‘to convert’. Disciples of Jesus, the Messiah, are called believers (Acts 2:44; 4:32). Not only do they believe in Jesus as God’s Messiah, but it is Jesus as the (invisible) exalted Lord. They live by faith and not by sight. Converts are those who believe in the Lord (9:42; 10:43; 11:17; 16:31) or simply those who believe (13:12; 13:48; 14:1; 17:12; 17:34; 18:8; 18:27; 21:20; 21:25). In all cases it is either stated or assumed that believers are also baptised.
Baptism can be understood at a variety of levels, through various images and as both an act of God and a confession of faith by man. Certainly, becoming a Christian always involved being baptised which was seen as the climax and summary of all that had been going on, both at the human level of repentance and faith and at the divine level of forgiveness, internal spiritual renewal and acceptance into the new covenant and family of God.
Problems of chronology (which comes first, internal rebirth/renewal or faith, and does God forgive the repentant believer before he is baptised?) appear not to have concerned the early Christians: the important point is that they make it abundantly clear that conversion and baptism, baptism and conversion, belong together as the once-and-for-all sacrament of union with Jesus, the exalted Messiah. At a period when those preaching the good news and those receiving it were conscious of the presence and power of the Holy Spirit, there was little or no danger of this sacrament becoming a mere formality or being understood in a magical way. Further, the early Christians accepted the validity and power of ritual and symbol as the very means that the Holy Spirit was pleased to use to effect his work on behalf of the exalted Christ.
4 – Obeying the Gospel
There are twenty-one Epistles of varying length in the New Testament. And there would have been no Christian communities and leaders to which to send these apostolic Letters had not the proclamation of the Gospel, conversions and baptisms occurred! When you read these Letters you have to admit that they were written by men who took the Christian faith absolutely seriously and who fully expected their readers to do the same. So the Letters take the reality of conversion to God as basic, and encourage and exhort the readers to live in such a manner as to adorn the Gospel of God which they have received. Not only are they to live as genuine Christians but also they are to make converts for Jesus.
Obviously we need to be selective in looking at the Epistles. Therefore, since Paul was the acknowledged apostle to the Gentiles, and Peter to the Jews, we shall look at the twin themes of conversion and convertedness in 1 Peter and Romans. This study will be the more rewarding and meaningful if you have before you the text of these Epistles as you read this chapter. So after opening your Bible, read on.
Any attempt to select material which relates to the event/process of conversion and distinguish it from material relating to the state of being converted runs the risk of forcing an arbitrary distinction upon the contents of an apostolic Letter. This is because the turning to God-in-Christ in faith and obedience is both a once-for-all turning and a constant turning and being turned. However, for our purposes in investigating the concept of conversion, to make use of the distinction is valid – as we shall see.
(a) The event of conversion
The following relate to the act/event/process of Christian conversion.
1. Conversion occurs because God calls people through the Gospel of Christ as it is presented in the power of the Holy Spirit. He is ‘the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ’ (5:10; see also 1:15). They who respond are called the ‘elect’ (1:1) and the ‘chosen’ (2:4).
2. In conversion God sets people aside to serve him. He does this by ‘the sanctifying work of the Spirit’ (1:2) to make for himself a special people (2:9) wholly devoted to his service.
3. God’s call is both outward through the Gospel and inward through the activity of the Spirit. The effect of the internal activity of the Spirit is likened to a new birth – an entrance into eternal life and a new relationship and communion with God. ‘In his great mercy he [God] has given us new birth into a living hope’ (1:3) so that ‘you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God’ (1:23). The internal action of the Spirit is, as it were, parallel to the outward hearing and receiving of the dynamic truth of the Gospel.
4. To be a convert means to be a believer in the Gospel of God concerning Jesus Christ whom he raised from the dead. ‘Through him [Christ] you believed in God, who raised him from the dead and glorified him, and so your faith and hope are in God’ (1:21). Christians are those who ‘believe the word’ (3:1).
5. A believer is also one who obeyed the call of the Gospel. Then ‘you have purified yourselves by obeying the truth’ (1:22) to enter into a life of obedience to Jesus Christ (1:2).
6. To believe and to obey is also to come to God-in-Christ and to taste that the Lord is truly good (2:3–4).
7. To believe, to obey and to come is to be won over to the cause of Jesus Christ (3:1). Wives with pagan husbands ought to be so pure in living that through their influence their husbands may be won over from idolatry and impurity to the Christian way (3:1ff).
8. Conversion is from a life of idolatry and unrighteousness. ‘For you have spent enough time in the past doing what pagans choose to do – living in debauchery, lust, drunkenness, orgies, carousing and detestable idolatry’ (4:3). It is also from a life characterised by darkness (2:9) and ignorance (1:14).
9. Conversion is becoming a sheep in the flock of Christ the Shepherd. ‘For you were like sheep going astray, but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls’ (2:25).
10. The climax of conversion is in baptism, which is an effective sign of what God is doing within and for the believer. ‘Baptism now saves you also – not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a good conscience towards God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ ...’ (3:21). The pledge of a good conscience probably refers to the satisfactory confession of personal faith made at the baptism, which is the symbol and sacrament of dying to sin and rising to new life in and with Christ.
Conversion is a rich concept, pointing to the total move from idolatry, through obedience to the call of God in the Gospel and trust in Jesus Christ, to baptism and membership of the community of those who are set aside for the service and worship of the living God.
The following may be said to relate to the state of being turned to the Lord.
1. Being turned towards God makes the believer a stranger in this world (1:1) because his true home is with Christ in the heavenly realm. Christians are to live their lives as strangers here in reverent fear of God.
2. Being turned towards God makes the believer a member of the people of God. ‘But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light’ (2:9). The new people of God exist to glorify God and to enjoy him for ever.
3. Within the people of God, each person is to be built, up in genuine faith, hope and love (2:4–5).
4. Being turned towards God implies and requires a life characterised by love and compassion. There is the loving of Christ himself (1:8), and the loving of the community of believers (3:8). ‘Above all love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins’ (4:8).
5. Christian life is filled with joy, even when there is suffering to endure for Christ’s sake. ‘Though you do not see him [Christ] now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the goal of your faith, the salvation of your souls’ (1:8–9). And, ‘rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory, is revealed’ (4:13).
6. Being turned towards God means glad submission to Jesus as the Master. ‘But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord’ (3:15).
7. Being turned towards God implies a readiness to witness to his grace. ‘Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect ...’ (3:15–16).
8. Being turned towards God implies a life conformed to his will and characterised by purity and reverence. ‘As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance. But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do...’ (1:14–15). And true beauty is ‘the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight’ (3:4).
9. Being turned towards God implies a desire to know more about him and enjoy a deeper communion with him. ‘Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation ...’ (2:2).
10. Being turned towards God involves a pilgrimage towards the kingdom of God of the age to come, a pilgrimage characterised by hope. ‘Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade – kept in heaven for you ...’ (1:3–4).
Convertedness is also a rich concept, highlighting life within a new community which sees itself as belonging first and foremost to Jesus Christ and thus living in faith, hope and love. This community belongs to the heavenly realm where Christ is and so it is never wholly at home in this world. Yet, while in this world, it exists to glorify God and to increase through conversions the number of those who live to praise the Lord.
Paul’s Epistle to the Romans is rich in theological concepts and is the kind of Letter that can be studied over and over again, each time bringing new insights. Therefore any brief summary offered here will of necessity only, as it were, scratch the surface.
(a) The event of conversion
1. Turning to God is a response to the call of God, made by the preacher of the Gospel and in the power of the Spirit. Paul and other apostles were ‘to call people from among all the Gentiles to the obedience that comes from faith’ (1:5); and through the human call God himself called them ‘to belong to Jesus Christ’ (1:6) and ‘to be saints’ (1:7); this call is an effectual call for ‘those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified’ (8:30).
2. At the heart of turning to God is faith – believing the Gospel. ‘I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes’ (1:16). The Gospel is the power of God unto everlasting salvation because it sets forth God’s gift of righteousness to those who believe. Thus ‘the righteous will live by faith’ (1:17).
3. What God gives in conversion is the gift of righteousness. As the sinner believes, he is placed in a right relationship with God because the guilt of his sin is cancelled and he is viewed by God as being clothed with the perfect righteousness of Christ. ‘This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe’ (3:22). And faith in Christ is faith in the living Lord who died to make atonement for sin and rose in order to bring the gift of righteousness to believers (3:22f ; 4:25).
4. Turning to God occurs as there is a turning away from godlessness and wickedness, idolatry and unrighteousness (1:18ff.). Conversion is ceasing to be a slave of sin and becoming a slave of God and of righteousness (6:22).
5. Turning to God occurs as there is a turning away from attempts to gain salvation through keeping the Law of Moses. Because of the sin within the human heart, no person can keep the Law of God perfectly and with the right motives: to the sincere person the Law becomes the means of making him aware of how sinful he is (7:7ff.). This is why salvation is by faith leading to faithfulness as a dutiful and laving slave of God.
6. At the centre of the experience of conversion is the confession, ‘Jesus is Lord’ – ‘for it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved’ (10:10). For Paul to call Jesus ‘the Lord’ was absolutely fundamental for the truth of the Christian faith. This was the title that above all titles revealed the identity and saving work of Jesus, the Son of God. The confession, ‘Jesus is Lord’ was formally made at baptism.
7. Baptism is the climax and sign of conversion. This is because baptism symbolises union with Christ, incorporation into his death and his resurrection. ‘Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him’ (6:8). And union with Christ means membership of his body, the Church (12:4ff.).
Conversion relates to the move from a life of sin in Judaism or paganism through responding to the call of God in the Gospel and through baptism to membership in the body of Christ. It is the beginning of a life of faith and of a right relationship with God. Justification by faith is being placed by God in a harmonious and right relationship with himself as one trusts in Jesus as Lord.
1. To be turned towards God is to be at peace with God. ‘Therefore since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand’ (5:1–2). Because believers are reconciled to God they can enjoy intimate spiritual communion with him.
2. To be turned towards God in Christ is to enjoy the internal presence and power of the Holy Spirit. Paul has much to say about this theme, especially in Chapter 8. The presence of the Spirit means that life can be lived not at the level of following the natural, fleshly desires and passions, but at the level of the will of God. Further, his presence means that the love of God is released in the human heart (5:5), that he brings the conviction and humble confidence that one is truly a forgiven and blessed child of God (8:15) and that he assists not only in prayer (8:23) but in all the difficulties of life (8:26).
3. To be turned towards God in Christ is to rejoice in hope of the glory of God. ‘And we rejoice in hope of the glory of God’ (5:2) and we ‘consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us’ (8:18). There is joy because God is on our side and if he is on our side who can be against us (8:31ff.)? There is fullness of life with him and for him in the glorious kingdom of the age to come.
4. To be converted means living as a slave of God and of his righteousness. There is a responsibility placed upon all Christians actively to offer their whole persons to God for his service (6:19ff.). ‘I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God – which is your spiritual worship’ (12:1).
5. To be converted means fully participating in the life of the people of God. ‘Just as each of us has one body with many members, and those members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others’ (12:4–5). And, ‘Each of us should please his neighbour for his good, to build him up’ (15:2).
6. To be converted means being concerned about the conversion to God-in-Christ of both Jews and Gentiles. Paul expressed his fervent hope for the future conversion of the whole Jewish people (11:25ff.) and asked for the help of the Roman Church in his mission to the Gentiles (15:14–33). This concern will express itself in various forms of witness, service and prayer. Paul’s last words in the Letter to Rome are his prayer that ‘all nations might believe and obey him [the eternal God]’ (16:26).
7. To be converted requires living in such a manner that you are prepared at all times to meet Christ if he should come as judge. ‘The hour has come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. The night is almost over; the day is almost here. So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armour of light ... clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the sinful nature’ (13:11–14).
Perhaps Paul’s richest teaching concerning the life of converts is in Chapter 8 where he describes and delineates what being indwelt, empowered and guided by the Holy Spirit (who is the Spirit of Christ) really means. This life stands in such contrast to the life lived only in the strength and insights of human nature (however cultured and trained that nature is). Then also Paul was insistent that those who are justified by faith are also those who ‘count themselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus’ and so do not ‘let sin reign’ in their mortal bodies (6:11–12). Baptism is the sign, seal and symbol of a radically different life of divine quality.
Whether we begin with the theology of Peter or that of Paul what is very impressive and rather overwhelming concerning conversion is (a) the cost to God himself of making conversion possible for sinful human beings, and (b) the nature of the claims made concerning the convert’s relationship with God, his Creator and judge. The whole teaching concerning conversion places it within the realm of the supernatural.
The cost to God is presented in terms of the Incarnation of the eternal Son – an Incarnation that involved not merely taking to himself a human nature and human flesh, but also in that humanity suffering as the innocent one on behalf of the guilty and bearing the wrath of God which he did not deserve. And he suffered, died and was buried for the salvation of those human beings to whom he was united through possessing that human nature they possessed.
The benefits and blessings of conversion belong more to the realm of the supernatural and eternal than to the natural and finite, although they do effectively impinge upon and into the latter. In conversion the believing sinner both enters into a new, everlasting relationship and communion of love with God, whom he now knows as ‘Abba’ (Daddy) and also is given the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit. In union with Christ he belongs to that heavenly realm where Christ is exalted as Lord and as such he is a pilgrim and sojourner on earth.
Yet the Christian community is called to live on earth in imitation of Christ, witnessing to his love and power, his holiness and compassion. For believers to be what by conversion they ought to be requires their wholehearted cooperation with God’s will and grace as well as their complete commitment and dedication as disciples of Jesus the Lord. And it is in this area that problems arise, as the individual Christian and the Christian fellowship/society fail to live up to the high calling of God in Christ Jesus. It is not surprising, bearing in mind what human nature is like, that the New Testament contains many exhortations to disciples and believers to make every effort to receive and utilise the help and grace of God, available to assist them live as they ought to live.
And now, to close this chapter, we need for the sake of accuracy and completion, to note where and how the verb epistrephein is used in the Epistles of the New Testament.
The verb ‘to convert’
Our method will again be to use the NIV and to indicate in italics the translation of epistrephein.
1. 2 Cor. 3:16 – But whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away.
Here Paul is referring to people who live under the terms of the old covenant. It is as though a veil covers their eyes and dulls their minds and they cannot see the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. This impediment is removed as they respond to the Gospel concerning the Lord Jesus. Paul has in mind the example of Moses who ‘whenever he entered the LORD’S presence to speak with him, he removed the veil until he came out’ (Exod. 34:34). He also has in mind the fact that this turning to the Lord which removes the veil of ignorance and sin is achieved through the invisible assistance of the Spirit of Christ (2 Cor. 3:17).
2. Gal. 4:9 – But now that you know God – or rather are known by God – how is it that you are turning back to those weak and miserable principles? Do you wish to be enslaved by them all over again?
Here Paul is talking about converting back to the superstitions and idolatry from which the church members in Galatia had originally turned as they converted to God-in-Christ. Indeed so worried was Paul by the possibility of their backsliding under pressure from false teachers (Judaisers) that he wrote: ‘I fear for you, that somehow I have wasted my efforts on you’ (v. 11). Though Paul had a very high sense of the faithfulness of God in keeping his children within his salvation, he did nevertheless repeatedly warn of the possibility of converting back to the old life and religion.
3. 1 Thess. 1:9–10 – ... you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven ...
Here Paul described the conversion of the Thessalonians to God. They converted from idolatry to serve the one, true deity and to live in hope of the second coming of the Lord Jesus Christ from heaven. In a society where polytheism and idolatry were an important part of the culture, the moving away from these into commitment to the one, true and living God was a major step with consequences of many kinds. And the expectancy, or the ‘watching and praying’ involved in this commitment added a definite element of hope, so that the converts both look up to the exalted Christ and look forward in time for his coming.
4. Jas. 5:19–20 – My brothers, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring him back, remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way will save him from death and cover a multitude of sins.
James sees the Church as a redemptive brotherhood through whose efforts the wandering or erring brother can be restored, being turned back to righteousness. In these verses we encounter the verb epistrephein being used in the transitive sense, recalling Luke 1:16–17 where John the Baptist is presented as he who will turn many of the sons of Israel to the Lord their God.
5. 1 Pet. 2:25 – For you were like sheep going astray, but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.
Sheep without a shepherd wander aimlessly but with their shepherd go towards suitable pasture and safety. The church members to whom Peter wrote had also been lost without a Saviour and master but having turned to God they have found their shepherd, who is their pastor. This thought of converts being like returning sheep is taken from the description of the role of the suffering servant in Isaiah 52:13–53:12.
6. 2 Pet. 2:21–2 – It would have been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than to have known it and then to turn their backs on the sacred commandment that was passed on to them. Of them the proverbs are true: ‘A dog returns to its vomit,’ and ‘A sow that is washed goes back to her wallowing in the mud.’
Peter is referring to people who have known the way of righteousness (Christianity) and escaped from the world’s defilements. He is therefore talking about apostasy, a turning from the ‘sacred commandment’ by which Peter means the oral tradition of Christian teaching. The second occurrence of ‘turn’ in the proverb has no theological meaning, just as there is no theological meaning in the ‘I turned’ of Revelation 1:12.
To these occurrences of epistrephein we may add the places where the related verb apostrephein is used. In Romans 11:26 we find the transitive sense as the Messiah is said to turn godlessness away from Jacob; in 2 Timothy 4:4 and Titus 1:14 people are said to turn from the truth and reject it, while in Hebrews 12:25 there is warning to believers not to turn away from God. The use in 2 Timothy 1:15 is physical desertion of Paul by colleagues.
The total message of all these occurrences of turning or being turned is that even as there is a definite turning to God from sin, idolatry and superstition so there is also the ever-present possibility of a returning in the direction from which the convert originally came. (The possibility of full apostasy seems to be indicated in the New Testament – see 1 Cor. 10:1–12; Heb. 3:12–18; 6:6; 10:26, 38f.; and Jude 4–6.) While the turning to God is only possible through the help of the Holy Spirit, the returning to the old life is possible through the definite rejection of the help of the Spirit and the teaching once received and known.
This teaching stands as a permanent warning to converts to Jesus Christ. Regrettably, it would be possible to write a book of examples of people who, having claimed to be Christians and showed signs of new life, later fell away and disowned the Lord Jesus.
Our study of the New Testament is now completed – except for Appendix 2, to which you may like to turn now.
Before moving on to Part 2, it will be beneficial to remind ourselves of what we have learned concerning conversion. First of all, we have seen that it cannot happen without the direct (yet invisible) action of God (a) giving power to the word of the Gospel received through ear and eye in the mind, and (b) preparing the heart, mind and will to receive the Gospel positively, and to obey it joyfully. Then, in the second place, he or she who reads/hears the Gospel is aware of his/her need of God’s grace, to repent of sin, to believe and trust in the Lord Jesus, and to submit to him as Lord in the fellowship of his Church. We have called this human response the strands or elements of conversion.
We have become aware that the action of God and response of the human being to the Gospel cannot be fitted into any specific method or timescale. Converted people are not like identical cars that come from the production line. They are more like a multitude of different paintings produced by one great artist: all have a likeness but all are different. Bearing this in mind, we prefer this definition of conversion: In response to the Gospel, a person turns to God, who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, in repentance and faith, in order to trust, love, worship and serve him as a member of his Church.
In Part 2 we shall take four examples from the long history of the Church to reveal how the event of conversion has been understood and managed by the Church in different periods and places. We could offer further examples, but these four will serve to show the variety of approach to conversion that God, in his mercy, has been pleased to use to extend the size of his Church.
PART 2: Models of Conversion
5 – The Catechumenate Model
In the first five or so centuries of the Church, people inside and outside the Roman Empire were attracted to Christ and Christianity by a variety of factors – e.g. the intellectual and moral appeal of the faith, the example of the martyrs, acts of compassion by Christians and the vitality and holiness of the congregations. Whatever were the external means that set in motion the response to the Gospel and the turning to God, each individual seeker after God-in-Christ normally had to become a catechumen. This involved receiving instruction in the faith, being examined and then being baptised and received into full membership, usually at the Easter festival. The climax and fulfillment of conversion was the sacrament of baptism, understood as God’s sign and symbol, in and through which he poured out his grace and his Spirit upon the believing, confessing sinner.
With our modern interest in the journey into faith, we today would like to read testimonies from individuals of their experience before entering the catechumenate. These would tell how the slave or patrician lady first learned of Christ, desired God’s salvation in Jesus and was prepared for persecution in forsaking idolatry to join the Church. Regrettably such testimonies are very rare because they were not written down and preserved. However, we do possess the testimony of Cyprian as to the high view of baptism as the sacrament of conversion, and the testimony of Augustine as to how he came to submit to Jesus Christ and desire baptism. We must now look at these.
Cyprian (d. 258) was a rich, cultured Latin-speaking North African, who was a pagan orator (rhetorician). In the year 246 he was converted to Jesus Christ. Writing to Donatus he explained what had happened at his baptism in these words:
I was myself so entangled and constrained by the very many errors of my former life that I could not believe it possible for me to escape from them, so much was I subservient to the faults which clung to me; and in despair of improvement I cherished these evils of mine as if they had been my dearest possessions. But when the stain of my earlier life had been washed away by the help of the water of birth, and light from above had poured down upon my heart, now cleansed and purified; when I had drunk the Spirit from heaven, and the second birth had restored me so as to make me a new man; then straightaway in a marvellous manner doubts began to be resolved, closed doors to open, dark places to grow light; what before had seemed difficult was now easy, what I had thought impossible was now capable of accomplishment; so that I could now see that what had been born after the flesh and lived at the mercy of sin belonged to the earth, while that which the Holy Spirit was enlivening had begun to belong to God.
Cyprian became the Bishop of Carthage and a distinguished Christian leader.
Augustine (354–430) was also born in North Africa and became a bishop there – at Hippo. His conversion occurred in Milan in 386. He was a professor in the city and knew of the Christian faith through his mother, Monica, as well as through the preaching of the famous Ambrose, Bishop of Milan. The decisive event occurred when he was with his companion, Alypius, in the garden of the lodging where they lived.
A strong surge of thought dredged from my secret depths and cast up all my misery in a heap before my inner eye. A mighty tempest arose bearing a great storm of tears. To shed it with befitting speech, for to be alone seemed the better state for weeping, I rose from Alypius’ side, and withdrew some distance, so that even his presence should not be an embarrassment to me. Thus I thought, and he was sensitive. I think I had earlier said something in which the sound of my voice made it clear that I was heavy with tears. I thus arose, while he stayed where we had been sitting, greatly amazed. I flung myself carelessly down under some fig tree, and let the reins of weeping go. The streams of my eyes broke forth, a sacrifice acceptable to you. I said to you, in words something like these: ‘And you, O Lord, how long, how long? Will you be angry for ever? Remember not past iniquities.’ For I felt I was in their grip and I cried out in lamentation: ‘How long, how long, tomorrow and tomorrow? Why not now? Why not an end to my vileness in this hour?’
Such were my words and I wept in the bitter contrition of my heart. And, see, I heard a voice from a neighbouring house chanting repeatedly, whether a boy’s or a girl’s voice I do not know: ‘Pick it up and read it, pick it up and read it’. My countenance changed, and with the utmost concentration I began to wonder whether there was any sort of game in which children commonly used such a chant, but I could not remember having heard one anywhere. Restraining a rush of tears, I got up, concluding that I was bidden of heaven to open the book and read the first chapter I should come upon. I had heard of Antonius that from a public reading of the gospel he had chanced upon, he had been commanded as if what was read was said especially to him: ‘Go, sell all that which you have, give it to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven, and come and follow me’, and that by such a word from God, he had been immediately converted to you. Excitedly then I went back to the place where Alypius was sitting, for there I had put down the apostle’s book when I got up. I seized it, opened it and immediately read in silence the paragraph on which my eyes first fell: ‘... not in the ways of banqueting and drunkenness, in immoral living and sensualities, passion and rivalry, but clothe yourself in the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no plans to glut the body’s lusts ...’ I did not want to read on. There was no need. Instantly at the end of this sentence, as if a light of confidence had been poured into my heart, all the darkness of my doubt fled away.
Putting my finger or some other mark in the page, I shut the book and with a calm face now I told Alypius, and he thus made known to me what had taken place in his heart unknown to me. He asked to see what I had read. I showed him. He read on, and I did not know what followed. It was this: ‘Let the weak in faith receive.’ He took it to himself and showed it to me, and by such admonition he was given strength, and to that resolution and purpose without any stormy hesitation he applied himself along with me. This was most like him, for his was a character which had long been much, much better than mine. Then we went inside to my mother, and told her to her joy. We told her the course of events. She rejoiced triumphantly, and blessed your name, ‘who are able to do above all that we ask or think.’ She saw that you had given her so much more concerning me than she had sought with her pitiful and tearful lamentations. You converted me to yourself, so that I no longer sought a wife nor any hope in this world, standing on that rule of faith in which so many years before you had shown me to her. You change her grief to joy, more richly than she had desired of you, and a joy more cherished and chaster than she sought from grandchildren of my body.
Later in the Confessions Augustine tells of his preparation for baptism and of being baptised by Ambrose, along with Alypius. He saw this event as the means used by God to forgive his sins and to bring him new, spiritual birth. Thus he states that with his friend he was baptised and ‘anxiety over our former living fled’.
By the third century, in each of the larger churches there was a catechetical class/school of those who had been accepted as candidates for holy baptism. Here they were taught not only the doctrinal content of the faith but were also instructed in morality and spirituality – e.g. how to pray. Each Sunday all the catechumens were expected to attend the Eucharist, but they only stayed for the first part, the ministry of the Word and of prayer, being excluded from the Holy Communion. The latter was seen as the sacrament only for the baptised, faithful membership.
The admission of a person into the catechumenate required that she/he have as a guarantor a member of the congregation and that her/his reasons were honourable. Slaves had to get the permission of their masters and those with certain occupations (e.g. pagan priest, astrologer, actor and charioteer in the circus) had to relinquish them. Strict rules governed sexuality and candidates with irregular relationships were required to put them right. At the actual admission each candidate was given the sign of the Cross and she/he was considered as a newly-conceived foetus growing within the womb of holy, mother Church towards birth in holy baptism. The period of instruction lasted anything from several months to three years and ended with a solemn examination, conducted by the bishop a few weeks before Easter.
Final preparations for baptism occurred in holy week and included acts of penance, renunciation of Satan, exorcism, the bishop’s teaching concerning baptism and membership of the Church, and one or more nights of prayer and fasting (certainly on the Saturday night before Easter Day). The catechumenate ended at daybreak on the Sunday when the rite of baptism began.
So much, of course, depended upon the quality of the teachers (who were either ordained or lay) and the leadership of the local bishop in terms of the preparation for baptism and understanding of union with Christ and membership of the Church. There is quite a large amount of material extant from the fourth and fifth centuries which represents the teaching given by bishops to their candidates in the week before baptism. Recently Raymond Burnish has published a study of the teaching given in Jerusalem, Antioch and Mopsuestia by the bishops, Cyril, John Chrysostom and Theodore, in his book The Meaning of Baptism. This book is worth reading if for no other reason than to see just how highly the sacrament of baptism was regarded. For example, John Chrysostom told his candidates in Antioch the following concerning the bath of regeneration into which they were soon to be plunged.
This bath does not merely cleanse the vessel but melts the whole thing down again. Even if a vessel has been wiped off and carefully cleansed, it still has the marks of what it is and still bears the traces of the stain. But when it is thrown into the smelting furnace and is renewed by the flames; it puts aside all dross and, when it comes from the furnace, it gives forth the same sheen as newly-moulded vessels. When a man takes and melts down a gold statue which has become filthy with the filth of years and smoke and dirt and rust, he returns it to us all-clean and shining. So, too, God takes this nature of ours when it is rusted with the rust of sin, when our faults have covered it with abundant soot, and when it has destroyed the beauty he put into it in the beginning, and he smelts it anew. He plunges it into the waters as into the smelting furnace and lets the grace of the Spirit fall on it instead of the flames. He then brings us forth from the furnace, renewed like newly-moulded vessels, to rival the rays of the sun with our brightness. He has broken the old man to pieces but has produced a new man who shines brighter than the old.
We must remember that this is sermonic material and is designed to make an important point for ordinary people: that in baptism, conversion to God reaches its climax and after baptism the one baptised is a new person and is to live as such.
Earlier we noted that the elements or strands of genuine conversion were conviction of sin, repentance, faith in Jesus, baptism and incorporation into the living Church. Now we may observe that, where the catechumenate was operating well, these strands had an excellent chance not only of being genuinely present but of being bound together within the experience of the catechumen, sealed as it were by the knot of baptism.
A baptismal liturgy
Though it would be possible to provide an example of the kind of baptismal service used by John Chrysostom, we do possess a text from much earlier. In the Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus from around 215 we have a service which professes to be an account of the liturgical and pastoral practices then current in the Church in the city of Rome. Here is how the final preparation for baptism and the baptism itself are described. It seems that while the majority baptised were adults there was the occasional child from a Christian home.
First of all here are the instructions for the final preparation of candidates for baptism. They include testing for genuine repentance.
1. And when they are chosen who are set apart to receive baptism let their life be examined, whether they lived piously while catechumens, whether they ‘honoured the widows’, whether they visited the sick, whether they have fulfilled every good work.
2. If those who bring them bear witness to them that they have done thus, then let them hear the gospel ...
7. Those who are to receive baptism shall fast on the Preparation [Friday] and on the Sabbath [Saturday]. And on the Sabbath the bishop shall assemble those who are to be baptized in one place, and shall bid them all to pray and bow the knee.
8. And laying his hand on them he shall exorcise every evil spirit to flee away from them and never to return to them henceforward. And when he has finished exorcising, let him breathe on their faces and seal their foreheads and ears and noses and then let him raise them up.
9. And they shall spend all the night in vigil, reading the scriptures to them and instructing them.
It will be noticed just how seriously the early Church took the biblical teaching concerning the power and influence of Satan in the world and upon people. He had to be exorcised in the name of Jesus.
Secondly, here are the instructions for the actual baptism. They include testing for genuine repentance and true faith.
1. And at the hour when the cock crows they shall first [of all] pray over the water.
2. When they come to the water, let the water be pure and flowing.
3. And they shall put off their clothes.
4. And they shall baptize the little children first. And if they can answer for themselves, let them answer. But if they cannot, let their parents answer or someone from their family.
5. And next they shall baptize the grown men; and last the women, who shall have loosed their hair and laid aside their gold ornaments. Let no one go down to the water having any alien object with them.
6. And at the time determined for baptizing, the bishop shall give thanks over the oil and put it into a vessel and it is called the Oil of Thanksgiving ...
9. And when the presbyter takes hold of each one of those who are to be baptized, let him bid him renounce saying:
I renounce thee, Satan, and all thy service and all thy works.
10. And when he has said this let him anoint with the Oil of Exorcism, saying:
Let all evil spirits depart far from thee.
11. Then after these things let him give over to the presbyter who stands at the water. And let them stand in the water naked. And let a deacon likewise go down with him into the water.
12. And he goes down to the water, let him who baptizes lay hand on him saying thus:
Dost thou believe in God the Father Almighty?
13. And he who is being baptized shall say:
14. Let him forthwith baptize him once, having his hand laid upon his head.
15. And after [this] let him say:
Dost thou believe in Christ Jesus, the Son of God
Who was born of Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary,
Who was crucified in the days of Pontius Pilate,
And rose the third day living from the dead
And ascended into the heavens,
And sat down at the right hand of the Father,
And will come to judge the living and the dead?
16. And when he says: I believe, let him baptize him the second time.
17. And again let him say:
Dost thou believe in the Holy Spirit in the Holy Church, And the resurrection of the flesh?
18. And he who is being baptized shall say: I believe. And so let him baptize him the third time.
19. And afterwards when he comes up he shall be anointed with the Oil of Thanksgiving saying:
I anoint thee with holy oil in the Name of Jesus Christ.
20. And so each one drying himself they shall now put on their clothes, and after this let them be together in the assembly.
Finally, there is the laying on of hands and anointing with oil symbolising the descent and infilling of the Spirit.
1. And the bishop shall lay his hand upon them invoking and saying:
O Lord God, who didst count these worthy of deserving the forgiveness of sins by the laver of regeneration, make them worthy to be filled with thy Holy Spirit and send upon them thy grace, that they may serve thee according to thy will; to thee is the glory, to the Father and to the Son with the Holy Ghost in the holy Church, both now and ever and world without end. Amen.
2. After this pouring the consecrated oil and laying his hand on his head, he shall say:
I anoint thee with holy oil in God the Father Almighty and Christ Jesus and the Holy Ghost.
3. And sealing him on the forehead, he shall give him the kiss of peace and say:
The Lord be with you.
And he who has been sealed shall say:
And with thy spirit.
4. And so shall he do to each one severally.
5. Thenceforward they shall pray together with all the people. But they shall not previously pray with the faithful before they have undergone these things.
6. And after the prayers, let them give the kiss of peace.
Then followed the Eucharist and first partaking of Holy Communion. (The translation is taken from the edition published by Gregory Dix, The Apostolic Tradition, ed. G. Dix, 1937.)
Since the work of God in regenerating the soul is secret and invisible, it is impossible to claim that in each and every case God’s grace filled the heart at the same time as the baptism in water and anointing with oil occurred. What is clear is that baptism was such a tremendous experience that it was not easily forgotten – and so highly was it thought of that not a few theologians in the early Church had great difficulty in thinking how there could be further forgiveness of sins on earth after the ‘washing’ and ‘purification’ of baptism.
According to modern, popular evangelical teaching and understanding, many (perhaps all) who were sponsored to enter the catechumenate in the early centuries were actually ‘converted’. That is, they had made a decision to follow Jesus Christ, or, at least, to make the most serious and solemn enquiries concerning him and his way.
Yet, as we have seen, the leadership of the Church in the early centuries did not see it this way. It looked for evidence of genuine repentance and faith over a period of time: it sought to develop and nurture the interest and commitment of the catechumens before bringing their turning to God through Christ to a climax in the administration of the Lord’s sacrament of holy baptism. When we recall the interpretation of the parable of the sower provided by Jesus (Mark 4:10ff.), we can appreciate the need for care. Not all who receive the Gospel continue to live by it as disciples of Jesus – they are like the seed falling on the hard path, in rocky places and among thorns. Further, the need for care was intensified by the real belief in the power of Satan over people. In the catechumenate the hold of Satan over disciples had to be broken through exorcism in the name of Jesus.
So the idea of conversion as being a turning around to walk with Christ to God and having its fulfillment and climax in baptism makes good sense. So much so, that at the reforming Council of the RC Church (Vatican II) the assembled bishops made the decision to revive the catechumenate for all who wished to enter the Church as adult believers. Here is an extract from the Decree on the Church’s Missionary Activity (1965). It repays careful reading.
Those who have received from God the gift of faith in Christ, through the Church, should be admitted with liturgical rites to the catechumenate which is not a mere exposition of dogmatic truths and norms of morality, but a period of formation in the whole Christian life, an apprenticeship of sufficient duration, during which the disciples will be joined to Christ their teacher. The catechumens should be properly initiated into the mystery of salvation and the practice of the evangelical virtues, and they should be introduced into the life of faith, liturgy and charity of the People of God by successive sacred rites.
Then, having been delivered from the powers of darkness through the sacraments of Christian initiation (cf. Col. 1:13), and having died, been buried, and risen with Christ (cf. Rom. 6:4–11; Col. 2:12–13; 1 Pet. 3:21–22; Mk. 16:16), they receive the Spirit of adoption of children (cf. 1 Th. 3:5–7; Acts 8:14–17) and celebrate with the whole people of God the memorial of the Lord’s death and resurrection.
It is desirable that the liturgy of Lent and Paschal time should be restored in such a way that it will serve to prepare the hearts of the catechumens for the celebration of the Paschal Mystery, at whose solemn ceremonies they are reborn to Christ in baptism.
This Christian initiation, which takes place during the catechumenate, should not be left entirely to the priests and catechists, but should be the concern of the whole Christian community, especially of the sponsors, so that from the beginning the catechumens will feel that they belong to the people of God. Since the life of the Church is apostolic, the catechumens must learn to cooperate actively in the building up of the Church and in its work of evangelization, both by the example of their lives and the profession of their faith (Vatican Council II, ed. Austin Flannery O.P., p. 828).
In the context of the rediscovery of the Bible by Catholics, this revival of the catechumenate is proving of great evangelistic benefit both in the developed and developing countries.
Not only Roman Catholics but Lutherans and Anglicans are also making moves to revive the adult catechumenate. Often this is happening because, having first revived the special services of Easter Eve and Easter Day, parishes are recognising that Lent is an excellent time both to prepare candidates for baptism and, for those baptised as infants, to renew their baptismal vows.
Personally I believe that the revival of the catechumenate is an excellent move. Where it is well managed with good discipline and sound teaching, it will be a great boon. My only fear is that it will become a playground for those who love ceremonial and liturgy more than they love evangelism and teaching. It is no good reviving ancient liturgies, rites, ceremonies and customs unless with them comes the commitment and power that accompanied them when they were first created.
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