An Important Mark of a Healthy Church A Biblical Understanding of Conversion

By Mark Dever

(Originally published as chapter 8 of What Is a Healthy Church?)

At my church's first meeting back in 1878, the church adopted a statement of faith. It was a strengthened version of the 1833 New Hampshire Confession of Faith. The old language may be a bit tough, but try to press through it. Article VIII of this statement reads,

We believe that Repentance and Faith are sacred duties, and also inseparable graces, wrought in our souls by the regenerating Spirit of God; whereby being deeply convinced of our guilt, danger, and helplessness, and of the way of salvation by Christ, we turn to God with unfeigned contrition, confession, and supplication for mercy; at the same time heartily receiving the Lord Jesus Christ as our Prophet, Priest, and King, and relying on him alone as the only and all-sufficient Saviour.

Not many people speak or write like this anymore. Yet the biblical truths here haven't changed. A healthy church is marked by a biblical understanding of conversion.

Our Work

The statement begins with the biblical call to repentance and faith. As Jesus commanded at the beginning of his ministry, "Repent and believe the good news!" (Mark 1:15 NIV). In the simplest terms, conversion equals repentance and faith.

As the confession continues, it provides a further description of what repentance and faith look like. It says we "turn" to God from our sin, we "receive" Christ, and we "rely" on him alone as the all-sufficient Savior. The New Testament is filled with pictures of sinners leaving their sin, receiving Christ, and relying upon him. Think of Levi the tax collector leaving his trade to follow Christ. Or the woman at the well. Or the Roman centurion. Or Peter, James, and John. Or Saul, the persecutor of Christians, turned Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles. The list is long. Each of them turns, trusts, and follows. That's conversion.

It's not reciting a creed. It's not saying a prayer. It's not a conversation. It's not becoming a Westerner. It's not reaching a certain age, attending a class, or passing through some other rite of adulthood. It's not a journey, everyone strewn along the path at different points. Rather, conversion is turning with our whole lives from self-justification to Christ's justification, from self-rule to God's rule, from idol worship to God worship.

Conversion Is God's Work in Us

Yet notice what this statement also says about our conversion. We turn because we are "deeply convinced of our guilt, danger and helplessness, and of the way of salvation by Christ." How does this happen? Who convinces us? It is "wrought in our souls by the regenerating Spirit of God." The statement cites two Scriptures to support this idea:

When they heard this, they had no further objections and praised God, saying, "So then, even to Gentiles God has granted repentance that leads to life." (Acts 11:18 NIV)

It is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God. (Eph. 2:8 NIV)

If we understand our conversion as something we have done, apart from what God first does in us, then we misunderstand it. Conversion certainly includes our action, as we've discussed. Yet conversion is much more than that. Scripture teaches that we must have our hearts replaced, our minds transformed, and our spirits given life. We can't do any of this. The change every human needs is so radical, so much at our very root, that only God can do it. He created us the first time. So he must make us new creations. He was responsible for our natural birth. So he must give us a new birth. We need God to convert us.

The nineteenth-century preacher Roland Hill once told a story of how a drunken man came up to him and said, "I am one of your converts, Mr. Hill." "I daresay you are," replied that shrewd and sensible preacher; "but you are none of the Lord's, or you would not be drunk."

Week 1 Do We Need to Change?

Getting Started

I like to think that I'm open to criticism, but when my wife actually offers some constructive feedback I get defensive and touchy. What's going on here?

1. It seems that many people get offended if someone even suggests that they need to change. What are some reasons why people get offended at this?

2. Do you get upset when someone suggests you need to change? If so, why? What does that show about your heart?

Digging In

Regardless of the fact that many people would oppose this idea, the Bible teaches that all human beings are in need of fundamental change.

Consider what Paul says about humanity in Romans chapter 1:

18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. 19 For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20 For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. 21 For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools, 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.

24 Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, 25 because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.

26 For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; 27 and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error.

28 And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. 29 They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, 30 slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, 31 foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. 32 Though they know God's righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them. (1:18-32)

1. Who is Paul talking about in these verses?

2. What are all the things that Paul says people do in this passage? List them all below. Does anything Paul says strike you, surprise you, or raise questions for you?

3. What is God's attitude toward humanity as described in this passage?