The Conversion Experience

Lesson 1998
Tags: Ministry; Acts; Christianity; Conversion
Excerpted from Ministry Themes in the Book of Acts
Related Resources: Sin, Grace, and Works: An Exposition of Ephesians 2:1-10

The lives of the first-century believers were changed radically when they accepted the gospel message described in Part 1. The transformation they experienced is often referred to as “conversion.” Since the word conversion occurs only one time in Acts (15.3), it is fitting to ask if the conversion experience is really one of the book’s significant themes. The answer to this question is an unhesitant “yes.” First, the noun rendered conversion in Acts 15.3 (epistrophe, a turning away) is related to a verb (epistrepho, to turn back, return, revert) that is used to refer to conversion eight times in the book of Acts (3.19; 9.35; 11.21; 14.15; 15.19; 26.18, 20; 28.27). Second, even though the specific terms are not used profusely, accounts of conversion experiences may be found throughout the book.

The early church made an impact in its generation through conversions to Christ. If the success of first-century Christianity is duplicated in the twenty-first-century, it will be through conversions as well. Thus it is fitting to learn as much as possible about the conversion experience. It is the purpose of Part 2 to draw some conclusions about the nature of conversion on the basis of various accounts in Acts.

Unique or Uniform?

One of the first questions that must be asked about conversion is whether or not it always follows some precise pattern. In other words, is conversion a uniform experience, or do different people tum to Christ in different ways? This question admits no simple answer. The book of Acts portrays conversion as balancing elements of uniqueness and uniformity.

On the side of uniformity, conversion is depicted in Acts as the product of faith in a divine message explained by a human witness. The conversion of the Ethiopian eunuch illustrates this pattern well: God gave the Old Testament message, Philip explained its meaning, and the eunuch believed (8.30-39). The account of Paul’s ministry in Berea includes the same elements: Paul preached, the people verified that his message agreed with the Old Testament, and many believed after hearing (17.11-12). This same chain of events may be seen with varying degrees of clarity throughout the book of Acts (e.g., 11.13-14; 17.22-34).

Divine Message + Human Witness + Faith = Conversion

However, conversions in Acts are nearly as diverse as they are alike. The circumstances of conversion—excepting the communication of the gospel—are different from situation to situation. In fact, the book seems to convey the implicit message that diversity of Christian experience is a norm to be expected. Saul had a miraculously real conversion (9.1-9; cf. 22.1-11; 26.9-20), yet it would be foolish to expect that every convert would be led to Christ by a bright light and a voice from heaven. The Ethiopian eunuch was saved through God’s providential intervention in the person of Philip (8.26-38). The Philippian jailer was converted in a prison following an earthquake (16.26-34). Multitudes trusted in Christ at the Jewish religious festival of Pentecost (2.41). Each conversion experience took place in a somewhat unique way, yet the core of conversion remained the same: People were confronted with the gospel of Jesus Christ and chose to enter into a personal relationship with him.

Repentance or Faith?

Another point of discussion in conversion is the apparent tension between repentance and faith. While some texts stress the role of repentance in salvation (e.g., 2.38; 3.19; 17.30), others portray faith as the catalyst of conversion (e.g., 2.44; 4.4; 8.12; 10.43; 13.39; 13.48; 14.1; 16.31). It should be noted that the distinction between repentance and faith is somewhat nebulous. Though the two terms convey different emphases they are obviously closely related (cf. 11.17-18; 20.21). Conversion is said to be the natural consequence of both repentance (26.20) and faith (11.21).

Richardson observes that “[t]o awaken to repentance is part and parcel of the awakening to faith; repentance means turning from sin just as faith involves turning to God. Repentance thus means much more than being sorry for one’s misdeeds; it involves the active acceptance of God’s gift of faith” (191-92). Therefore, repentance and faith are two sides of the same coin. While repentance is essentially negative (rejecting sin) and faith is basically positive (embracing God), neither is independent of the other. As Kromminga has stated, repentance refers to “that inward change of mind, affections, convictions, and commitment rooted in the fear of God and sorrow for offenses committed against him, which, when accompanied by faith in Jesus Christ, results in an outward turning from sin to God and his service in all of life” (936). In sum, genuine conversion can only occur where repentance and faith are both present. Thus, while accounts of conversion (such as those recorded in Acts) may emphasize one element to the apparent exclusion of the other, one may be certain that neither was truly lacking.

Choice or Destiny?

Probably the most controversial issue in the matter of conversion is that of the role of God’s will in drawing specific people to salvation. Some biblical texts, such as Ephesians 1.3-14 and Romans 8.28-30, appear to indicate that God has sovereignly chosen some to salvation while declining to offer grace to others (Klooster 348-349). Other biblical texts, such as 1 Timothy 2.3-4 and 2 Peter 3.9, state that it is God’s will that all men be saved. It is obvious, however, from experience and from Scripture, that this intent has not been realized at any time in the age of grace. Furthermore, there is both psychological and biblical evidence to support the claim that mankind enjoys the privilege of free will (Geisler 430).

The book of Acts can be interpreted to favor either of the two positions described above. The account of the conversion of Gentiles in Antioch-Pisidia emphasizes the divine election of the saved (13.48). The record of Paul’s vision in Corinth indicates that the Lord knew beforehand those who would be saved through Paul’s ministry in the city (18.9-10). Simeon’s declaration during the Jerusalem Council implies that God has intimate foreknowledge of those who will be saved (15.14, 17-18). Texts such as these lend support to a “high” view of divine sovereignty in salvation. However, Luke also portrays the hearers of the apostles’ preaching as being capable of choosing freely to accept or reject the Christian message (e.g., 13.46; 17.32-34; 28.23-24). And sometimes the invitation to conversion emphasized both human responsibility and divine election (2.38-39).

How can these apparent discrepancies be resolved? The tension between free will and determinism is truly a watershed issue in the theology of conversion. Twenty centuries of theological discussion have failed to produce a general consensus on the subject. The author concurs with Geisler in affirming “that some form of self-determinism is the most compatible with the biblical view of God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility” (430). Self-determinism advocates that mankind’s creation in the image of God endows each person with the capacity of free choice (430). In the view of the author, determinism is fraught with several theological problems: It appears to make God the Creator of evil. It portrays the human illusion of free will as little more than a cruel dream. It makes all men accountable to believe though it is presumably impossible for some of them to do so.

The preponderance of the biblical data seem to assert the reality of man’s free will. Contrary to what might be inferred from a reading of some English Bible versions, references to conversion in the Greek text occur in the active voice, denoting a volitional action (“turning to”) rather than a passive event (“be converted”). Of course, a view of conversion that is true to the Scriptures cannot deny the reality of election and predestination. However, they are to be understood in the light of divine foreknowledge (cf. 1 Pet 1.2).

It is possible to resolve the tension between sovereignty and human freedom. Just as God allows us to impact the course of history through prayer (Lewis), so we may choose our destiny (of which he is fully aware beforehand) by appropriating the gift of faith offered to all men. It should be recognized that the sovereignty of God cannot be easily understood; indeed, his decrees defy human comprehension. Reid makes this point while defending the righteousness of God’s condemnation of the wicked: “If any then fail to come to the enjoyment of this blessedness, it will not be because by the [predestination] of God they have been assigned another fate, but because they have turned their face away from the determined means of salvation proffered in Jesus Christ. That it should be possible for this to occur within the determination of all things by God is as finally mysterious as the existence of evil” (68).

Is God an active party in conversion? According to the book of Acts, he is undoubtedly so (11.18; 16.14; 18.27). Nevertheless, the reality of election and predestination must not be allowed to supersede the reality of human freedom and responsibility. The gospel message may be freely accepted by all who hear it.

Personal or Corporate?

The book of Acts indicates that in the early years of the church’s expansion it was not uncommon for entire families to be converted to Christ as a group. Such was the case of several New Testament households, including those of Cornelius (11.14), Lydia (16.14-15), the Philippian jailer (16.31-34), and Crispus (18.8). The same was probably true of Stephanas’ family members, all of whom were baptized by Paul (1 Cor 1.16). What appears to have been “corporate” conversion in each of these instances is representative of a family solidarity that is unfamiliar—and perhaps even offensive—to Western Christians (Kelly 534). The question must be posed: How are biblical accounts of household conversion to be reconciled with Western Christianity’s emphasis on individual salvation?

Grunlan and Mayers provide this explanation: “[W]e find that in developing a theology of conversion, our Western culture with its emphasis on individualism has tended to emphasize the individual nature of the conversion experience, drawing on Scripture that supports that position (e.g., Acts 8:26-40). However, those who are from a culture where group and communal decision making are emphasized will tend to emphasize the corporate nature of conversion, drawing on Scripture that reports communal conversions (e.g., Acts 10:44-48; 16:33; 1 Cor. 1:16)” (27-28).

The Lausanne Committee’s Willowbank Report approaches a reconciliation between the two extremes with the following statement: “Conversion should not be conceived as being invariably and only an individual experience, although that has been the pattern of western expectation for many years. On the contrary, the covenant theme of the Old Testament and the household baptisms of the New should lead us to desire, work for, and expect both family and group conversions. . . . It is evident that people receive the gospel most readily when it is presented to them in a manner which is appropriate—and not alien—to their culture, and when they can respond to it with and among their own people. . . . We recognize the validity of the corporate dimension of conversion as part of the total process, as well as the necessity for each member of the group ultimately to share in it personally” (22).

In the light of the biblical, sociological, and historical evidence, it seems appropriate to conclude that group conversion is a spiritually acceptable phenomenon. However, sound theology demands that the validity of a group’s decision for Christ be judged on the basis of the personal faith of each group member. Where feasible, it is desirable to lead social groups to salvation corporately, for group unity will facilitate Christian discipleship. Of course, the Scriptures do not require corporate conversion; they simply approve of it. Thus the Western emphasis on individual salvation is not harmful unless it rejects the validity or desirability of group conversion.

Several sources make further reference to household conversion. For a practical, sermonic treatment of Acts 16.31, see Linton. For a refutation of infant baptism in the context of household conversion and baptism, see Mauro. For an extensive missiological approach to group conversion, see McGavran.