Conversion needs to be defined; even Christians are not agreed as to what is meant by it. The significance attached to the term varies in the different schools of religious thought. With some, conversion is a comprehensive term which stands for the whole process of the soul's return to God. To be converted with them means to be saved; an experience that includes Repentance, Forgiveness, Regeneration, Assurance, and all the blessings of the state of grace. To others, conversion is the process of recovering from a condition of life in which the regenerating grace of Baptism has been neglected or lost. In this case conversion is the recognition of all that is implied in baptism, and a yielding to its operating power. In the one case, man needs to be converted that he may enter the kingdom; in the other, he is in the kingdom, but needs to be converted if he has been a wanderer from the flock. To the Christian who seeks to bring his religion into harmony with the peculiarities of modern thought, and to state it in the terms of modern science, conversion is somewhat of a difficulty. Like the doctrine of the Fall, it does not fit in easily with the general scheme of evolution. He seeks a salvation which is an orderly unfolding of man, and the doctrine of salvation by education has no place for anything so revolutionary as conversion. With the first, conversion is everything, necessary for all, and essential to all experience of the grace of God. With the second, it is almost incidental, and necessary only to those who have despised the grace received in baptism. To the third, conversion is a term which should be substituted by development, education, and the culture of the soul. The use of the one term in so many varying shades of meaning, and differences of content and value, is apt to lead to misunderstanding.
The word itself means simply to turn about from anything to its opposite. This is its ordinary meaning in common life. When a politician changes sides he is said to have been converted. He leaves the party with which he has been identified, crosses the floor of the House, and allies himself with the party he has hitherto opposed. Its meaning is exactly the same when applied to religion. The Revised Version in nearly every instance renders the word 'turn'; the word 'convert' has therefore almost entirely disappeared from the Scriptures. Conversion means nothing more than the act of turning to God; the crisis in which man turns from a course of godlessness and begins to seek the Lord.
The broader interpretation, however, which makes the term cover the whole process of the soul's restoration to God, is not without warrant. The Scriptures associate conversion with both repentance and faith. In Jer. xxxi. 19 conversion precedes repentance: 'Surely after that I was turned, I repented'; while in Acts iii. 19 it is the result of repentance: 'Repent ye therefore, and turn again, that your sins may be blotted out'; and in Acts xi. 21 it is said to be the effect of faith: 'And a great number that believed turned to the Lord.' Strictly speaking, conversion stands between repentance and the faith which brings salvation; but it is so closely allied to both, and so vital to all that follows, that it has acquired in popular speech the larger use, in which is comprehended the whole initial process of Christian experience. In our definition of the term, however, we adhere to its scriptural use, and in its proper sense conversion is the crisis of the soul in which it turns to God.
Whatever the forces and causes that lie behind the act, the act is the man's. God appeals to man to be converted, and unless a man wills to turn, God Himself is powerless to turn him. The Scriptures everywhere appeal to man as free to make his own choice, and man is conscious of his freedom. There is no power in earth, hell, or heaven to coerce a man into allegiance with God. The law may threaten, conscience prompt, and grace constrain, but there is no power man cannot resist. Having made man a moral agent, and not a machine, God has placed a limit to His own power. Omnipotence waits for man's consent. Grace can only save when man yields. God is love, Christianity is love, and love above all things is beyond compulsion. Neither God nor men can compel love. It is always a freewill offering. So the appeal is to the will. Personality finds expression in the will, for the will is personality in action. The choice reveals the man. A perverted personality will express itself in a perverted will; a rectified personality will ally itself with that which is right. Man is responsible for his choice. It is not by achievements we shall be judged, but by the motive, intention, purpose, and will. The root of sin is in the will. It is not the act of transgression, but the lawlessness within the man that is the essence of sin. Therefore the appeal is to the will. God sets before men life and death, blessing and cursing, and pleads with men to choose life and blessing. 'As I live, saith the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked; but that the wicked turn from his way and live: turn ye, turn ye from your evil ways, for why will ye die, O house of Israel' (Ezek. xxxiii. 11).
Even Jesus Christ was not able to compel conversion. He stood helpless in the presence of stubborn resistance: 'Ye will not come unto Me, that ye might have life,' is His mournful lament (John v. 40). With tears He looked upon Jerusalem and cried, 'O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou which killeth the prophets, and stoneth them that are sent unto her, how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not' (Matt, xxiii. 37). God calls, entreats with outstretched hands to the people, but it is with them to respond or reject.
And yet man prays to God to turn him, and conversion is said to be the work of God: 'Turn Thou me, and I shall be turned' (Jer. xxxi. 18); 'Turn Thou us unto Thee, O Lord, and we shall be turned' (Lam. v. 21); 'No man can come unto Me, except the Father which sent Me, draw him' (John vi. 44); 'Repent ye. . . . Unto you first God, having raised up His servant, sent Him to bless you, in turning away every one of you from your iniquities' (Acts iii. 19, 26).
Man turns, but it is the power of God. Hence the Christian both prays and works for the conversion of men. He prays as if the whole work depended upon God, and he preaches and urges as if it were entirely the work of the man to whom he appeals. Man must turn, but God's grace is needed for the turning.
The Act Of Turning is the result of: (1) A mental change; (2) A choice of the will; (3) A moral force.
Conversion is therefore: (1) Intellectual; (2) Emotional; (3) Ethical.
The mental change implies such an examination of the facts, principles, and issues of life as has led to conviction, and complete reversal of judgment. It was after he was instructed the prophet turned. The Apostle Paul declares his commission to be to open men's eyes, that they might turn from darkness to light. The Psalmist describes his conversion in the words, 'I thought on my ways, and turned my feet unto Thy testimonies' (Ps. cxix. 59). Christianity's first challenge is to man's reason. Instead of suppressing inquiry it calls men to think. Its lament is that people will not consider; they close their eyes lest they should see, shut their ears that they may not hear, and harden their hearts lest they should understand and be converted. It is thoughtlessness, not thinking, that keeps men from God. In our fathers' days persons who were showing signs of conversion were spoken of as beginning to be serious. They were beginning to face realities. When a distinguished scholar was asked what led to his conversion to Christianity, he said, 'I sat down with my head in both hands to think seriously about my life, its relation to the great verities of the universe, and its issues in time and eternity, and in less than ten minutes I was on my knees.' Conversion is the practical issue of a reversed judgment after thorough examination of the foundations on which we have been resting. If only we could get men to think, to think earnestly, to think seriously, and to think hard, there would be many feet turned into the way of life and light.
Knowledge is not enough. It is not truth endorsed but truth applied that saves. The trouble with most men is not that they do not know the right, but that while they know the right, they choose the wrong. The conviction of the mind needs to be embraced by the affections and put into practice by the will. The choice must be a choice of the heart. To simply choose the right from motives of self-interest leaves the man at bottom unchanged. If a man is honest because it is the best policy, he will cease to be honest if he is persuaded that roguery will pay. Right must be chosen for love of right. Love is the sum of the Christian religion. It is the sum of the divine character, for 'God is love'; and it is the sum of man's duty, for the whole law is fulfilled in love. But love is emotion, and emotion in religion is considered an objection. Men do not object to it anywhere else. We scorn the man who proposes a loveless marriage as either a fool or a knave. What woman would marry a man who in cold blood told her he had no feelings of reverence, no sense of worship, no consciousness of affection? Enthusiasm is welcomed in politics, business, and sport; why should it be despised in religion? Feeling kindled at the fires of meditation is the dynamic of all great deeds. To turn from sin to God is a great event, a crisis in the life, a supreme effort of the soul; and for it man needs the kindled impulse of emotion. The feet follow the heart, and if the heart be turned, the feet will turn.
No man can turn himself. He may break off habits and reform his ways, but he cannot cleanse his inner self and change his evil heart. Most men have discovered the fruitlessness of good resolutions. In the white light of truth and integrity, who can stand? Christianity brings not only light but life, not only knowledge but power. It is claimed for Jesus Christ that He saves people from their sins, and that His gospel is the power of God unto salvation. A great multitude that no man can number have witnessed to His power to save; and their witness is true. Conversion is wrought in the power of His Spirit. It is in His strength men turn and live. The instrument of His power is truth, and the agent He uses is a witness who has received the truth and proved His power.
When a drunkard of long standing was converted in Paisley he had to turn to God against tremendous odds. He had been a sportsman in good social position, then a gambler, the leader of a degraded set, and finally was running a low down-town place of amusement. On the Monday morning after his open confession of Christ he went to clear out of the business, though it looked like having to starve. As he went down the street, workless, almost friendless and penniless, a publican bade him good-morning, and invited him to drink.
'No,' said the convert, 'I've stopped drinking.'
'What do you mean?' asked the publican.
'I've signed the pledge' (which he produced).
'Oh, you'll not keep that long; come and drink.'
'I think I shall,' replied the man, 'I've got converted.'
'Converted! converted, have you? Well, that does make a difference. I'll bid you good-day!'
Even the unconverted know that conversion makes a difference. It means a changed attitude, a new relationship, and an alliance with new forces. A difference; the difference between rebellion and reconciliation; between an enemy and a son; between antagonism and allegiance. It lifts life to a new centre and adjusts all things to a new purpose. The things he was against, he is now for; and the things he was for, he is now against. Before, he was for the devil, and now he is against him; before, he was against God, and now God and he are on the same side. Out of that central change come many others. Iniquities are forsaken, evil associations are abandoned, and old idols destroyed. New ties are formed and new associations made. Old things are passed away and all things are become new. Repentance has changed his mind, conversion changes his relationships, regeneration changes his nature. The man is a new creation by the act of turning from sin to God.
If conversion is a turning from sin to God, do all men need to be converted? Are there not people whose dawn of spiritual consciousness is lost among the forgotten memories of childhood, and who all their days have walked in the way of life? The command to return to God can have no message to them; for they have never strayed from Him. What sins are there to turn from? They have not to turn to Him, for they have never turned from Him. The prayers offered for them in baptism have been answered, and from their birth they have been sanctified unto God. Happily there are many such. What is the meaning of conversion for them? Do they need to be converted?
Much confusion has arisen from confounding two things that differ. The popular use of the word conversion has confounded it with regeneration. The two things are not the same. Conversion is man's act of turning, regeneration is God's act of renewal. In our own birth we have neither labour nor consciousness. No man can regenerate himself, neither can any man regenerate his neighbour. In the proper sense of conversion as turning, the need is not universal, but in the popular and larger sense all need conversion. Listen to what the Master says in Matt, xviii. 3: 'Except ye turn, and become as little children, ye shall in no wise enter into the kingdom of heaven.' The object of turning is that we may 'become as little children,' but the children have not to turn to become children, they are children already, and 'of such is the kingdom of heaven.' The New Birth is a universal necessity, because 'that which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the spirit is spirit.' Man turns to God that he may be born again of the Spirit, and conversion in its essence is essential to regeneration.
What is the essential quality of conversion? It cannot be in the distance to be brought back, but in that for which the soul returns, and it returns to surrender to the will of God. Stripped of all incidentals and accessories, conversion is in the thing turned to, and not in the things turned from.
Some years ago several ministers were discussing the subject of child-conversion, and after some time, a lady who had been an interested listener volunteered her experience. She had been brought up in a godly home, and consecrated to God from her mother's womb. She never knew the time when God was not the centre of her life, and Jesus supreme in her thoughts. 'But,' she said, 'there came a day in which I consciously believed, and realized the love of God in my heart.' In that act of faith the life was surrendered, definitely and consciously, to God; and after all, that is the essential element in conversion.
The experience of conversion varies in different people. If some do not need to be converted in the proper sense of the term, there are others who need to be converted more than once. When Christ warned Peter of his coming temptation and fall He added, 'But I made supplication for thee, that thy faith fail not: and do thou, when once thou hast turned again, stablish the brethren.' He had been converted once, and needed to be reconverted after his fall. It is not unlikely there are many converted people who need to be turned again! The types are as varied as human temperament. With some it is sudden, convulsive, and exciting; with others it is gradual, gentle, and almost imperceptible. In the Acts of the Apostles the most startling contrasts are placed side by side that we may be preserved from the tyranny of any one type. Saul of Tarsus, with the supernatural accompaniments of light, visions, and healing, is balanced by the Ethiopian eunuch, who was converted as he rode home reading his Bible. The conversion of Lydia, whose heart the Lord opened, is placed alongside that of the Philippian gaoler, with its earthquake terror and tragedy. There are twelve gates into the city, and they all lead to the one throne. It is the throne that matters. They come from all points of the compass and in every variety of way, but the one thing common to them all is that they come to God, and surrender to His will.
That is the essential quality; that every man turn away from iniquity, from idols, and from his own way, to serve the living God. Whether he turn with tears or with dry eyes does not matter, if he turn. It has been my joy to see thousands converted. Some have come startled by the terrors of the law, others have been led by a little child; some have writhed in agony for hours praying unto the Lord with strong crying and tears, while others have silently yielded and entered into rest. Some have leaped, shouted, and sung, whereas others have been stilled with a deep sense of peace. Convulsion is no necessary part of conversion, but consent to the will of God is as its very soul.
There is in one of the American cities an honoured citizen who was for many years a notorious gambler. One Sabbath morning he stepped out of the hotel, leaving his companions stripped of everything that could be staked upon the play. His pockets were full of money and I.O.U.'s. As he walked down the street in the calm and sunshine of the morning, he suddenly loathed himself and the life he lived. He said half-aloud, 'I'll quit.' No one had cared for his soul except a young girl in her teens, and he went to the girl's home to tell her he would be at church that evening. Her father rebuked him, and charged him with having been playing poker all night. '1 have,' he said, 'I am on my way home now, and this is my night's winnings, but I've quit. All this money I will return, and come to service this evening.' He went to service, and sat by the child who had prayed for his soul. At the close of the sermon he rose and said, 'I wish to say that in God's name, I've quit.' From that day he has been a God-fearing man. Never mind your feelings, Quit!
It Is Sometimes Objected That Conversion Is Largely Confined To Young People. Conversions have been counted, analyzed, and classified; and it is found that they take place in greatest numbers from sixteen to twenty-five. There are fewer in the thirties, fewer still in the forties; they are rare in the fifties, and after that only a few exceptional cases occur, as persons born out of due time. That is true, and as admonitory as it is true, but it is not a reasonable ground of objection. Are not all the great life-choices made in youth? What can be more important than marriage? What demands more wisdom than the choice of a wife? And yet, the rule is for the choice to be made before twenty-five; and it is proverbial that in this also, wisdom is justified of her children. The life-calling or profession of a man is settled before he attains to the years of mature wisdom, and those who choose late seldom succeed. Much might be said of the reflex effects of habit, the deadening influence of the world, and the hardening of the heart, as the explanation of the decreasing proportion of conversions as years increase; but I forbear, and content myself with classing conversion among the great life choices of this world; and happy is he whose life, as well as his soul, is redeemed from destruction.
The conversion which takes place at the centre, sends out its influence to every part of man's life and interest. Its result upon the man himself is indicated in the contrasts by which it is described. It is a turning 'from darkness to light, from the power of Satan to God, from death to life, from bondage to liberty.' From darkness to light, that is the intellectual illumination; from the power of Satan to God, that is the moral deliverance; from death to life, that is the spiritual consciousness; from bondage to liberty, that is the social emancipation. It makes possible all the gifts of grace, and all the grace of holiness, righteousness, and truth.
The experience of conversion is of great evidential value to the man converted. Personal consciousness may not count for much with other people, but it is of great price to the man who has it. By turning to God the word of God is tested and the gospel proved, and the verification of experience brings assurance in matters of supreme moment. The method is thoroughly scientific. In the sphere of physical science we arrive at the laws and principles of things by putting our theories of them to the test of 'experiment. Faith is the putting to proof things not seen; and turning from sin to God is the experiment of faith. It acts upon evidence and finds the certainties of experience. Faith proves, and by proving brings assurance. Every man finds faith's saving power when he puts it into practice. Then it brings him into living touch with God, and the witness of conscious salvation. Such a witness is an unanswerable argument for the hope that is in him. Moses may have made mistakes, and Balaam's ass may not have spoken. The parties concerned are dead, and dead men don't argue; but I am alive, and 'one thing I know, whereas I was blind, now I see.'
As an ethical and social power conversion is supreme. It is the sanest of all philosophies, for it begins with the subject at its source. Other systems correct conditions, this begins with the man, the central fact of the problem. They know not of what they speak who say that conversion is not ethical. It is at the root of all ethical reform. It turns men from iniquities to serve the living God, and that is a change that includes all ethical problems. It is the surest way to social salvation. It regenerates the individual, and through him redeems the world. Environment is in the last analysis but the shadow of character, and the groaning of the world is for the deliverance that can only come by the restoration of men to God. I was asked one day, What is the economic value of conversion? Much every way. It makes a man a better workman; sober, steady, industrious, reliable. It makes him a better customer in the world's market, in turning him from wasting his money on follies to spending it on useful commodities. It lifts the unfit out of the ranks of the loafer and puts a new spirit into him. It brings to masters a new sense of responsibility. The only employer of labour ever converted in my services at once raised the wages of all his men.
What wonders I have seen wrought by the conversion of souls to God! What harmonies have followed the restoration of life to its true relationship with the eternal I The sense of inward unity and peace has been followed by a cleansing, correcting, and restoring in external conditions that were amazing. Conversion adds no new faculty, but it wonderfully quickens and strengthens every power the man has got. He has the same eyes but new sight, the same brains but new thoughts, the same tongue but a new speech. All his members are withdrawn from the service of self and sin, and yielded to God to do His will in the service of love. Conversion is central, vital, essential. It is the test by which every Church must ultimately stand or fall. Without it, man cannot enter the kingdom of heaven. By it, there shall yet come the new heaven and the new earth wherein dwelleth righteousness. It is the one thing that matters for this life and the next. Are you converted? Are you living with your back to God and your face seeking the pleasures of sin and the gains of the world? If you are, turn, return, and live. 'Seek ye the Lord while He may be found; call ye upon Him while He is near: let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts: and let him return unto the Lord, and He will have mercy upon him; and to our God, for He will abundantly pardon.'
Samuel Chadwick, What is Christianity?: A series of lectures delivered in the Central Hall, Manchester, Vol. 2, (London: Charles H. Kelly, 1905), pp. 27-44.