What is Conversion? 

 

“When thou art converted, strengthen thy brethren” (Lk. 22:32), the Lord told Peter. Yet Peter was converted already! The Lord had spoken of conversion as really seeing, really hearing, really understanding, and commented that the disciples (including Peter) had reached this point (Mt. 13:15,16). But he also told them that they needed to be converted and become as children, knowing they knew nothing as they ought to know (Mt. 18:3). Quite simply, there are different levels of conversion. Baptism isn’t conversion: it’s a beginning, not an end. Our ‘conversion’ of people doesn’t just mean that we teach them true doctrine and see them baptized; the priests were to ‘turn’ [s.w. ‘convert’] believers away from the life of sin and behind the way of God (Mal. 2:6 LXX, applied to all of us in James 5:19). 

The mark of Peter’s higher level of conversion was that he would strengthen his brethren. A deep seated care for the spiritual welfare of others, as opposed to simply worrying about our own salvation and the passing problems of daily life, is a sign of true spiritual growth. I would suggest that Peter reached this point of conversion, and began on the work of strengthening his brethren,  in the Lord’s interview with him in Jn. 21. Three times Jesus asks him: ‘do you love me?’, and three times he invites Peter to care for the lambs and sheep- to strengthen his brethren. He even asks him whether he really loves Him more than his brethren, as he had once claimed (Mt. 26:33). The triple denial and the triple re-instatement and triple confession of love both occurred by a fire, just to heighten the evident connection (Jn. 21:9). Peter’s conversion can therefore be equated with his response to the denials- the repentance, the realisation of his own frailty, and desperate acceptance of the Lord’s gracious pardon. Yet Peter invites his fellow elders: “feed the flock of God”, repeating the Lord’s commission to him, as if he saw in himself a pattern for each man who would take any pastoral role in Christ’s ecclesia. The implication is that each man must go through a like conversion. And Peter points out that we are “a royal priesthood”, as if he saw each believer as a priest / pastor. We all deny our Lord, camouflage it and justify it as we may. We all stand in Peter’s uncomfortable shoes. And thus his conversion becomes a pattern for each of us. 

To The Cross

So knowing his condemnation, where did Peter go? What was conversion for him? Probably he could quite easily have also gone and hung himself- for he was of that personality type. But instead he went to the cross- he was a witness of the sufferings of Christ (1 Pet. 5:1), and his words and writing consistently reflect the language of Golgotha’s awful scene. There, in that personal, hidden observation of the cross, probably disguised in the crowd, not daring to stand with John and the women, his real conversion began. Then his love for his Lord became the more focused. Now he could do nothing- and his thinking had been so full of doing until that point. All he could do was to watch that death and know his own desperation, and somehow believe in grace. “Who his own self bare our sins in his body up on to the tree” (2:24 RVmg.) suggests the watching Peter reflecting, as the Lord’s body was lifted up vertical, that his sins of denial and pride were somehow with his Lord, being lifted up by Him. “For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God” (1 Pet. 3:18) could well have been written by Peter with a glance back at the way that after his denials, he the unjust went to the crucifixion scene and reflected just this.  And then there was that graciously unrecorded appearing of the risen Lord to Peter (1 Cor. 15:5; Lk. 24:34). These passages suggest that the Lord simply appeared to Him, without words. It was simply the assurance that was there in the look on the face of the Lord. And now,  finally, this interview with the Lord, where specific questions were asked.  

There are times between parents and children, brothers, sisters (in the ecclesia and in the flesh), boyfriend and girlfriend, newly marrieds, old married couples wedded for a lifetime…when there is a slip by one party. An unusually hard and hurtful word, a sentence quite inappropriately said in public that betrays, that denies. And then a private meeting. The hung head on the one hand, and the soft, sincere, seeking question from the offended party: Do you love me? And the hung head or awkward glance mouths something to the effect that yes, you know that I love you, more now than ever before. All these so human scenes are but dim reflections of the Lord’s meeting with Peter. Here was the Son of God, with eyes as a blazing fire, the One who truly knew and discerned all things, and before Him was the Peter who had undoubtedly denied Him, with oath and curses. Surely as he answered the questions, he did so with tears, with a lump in the throat that would have made his voice sound so distorted and childlike. Do you love me? That was the question. Do you love me more than the others? You once thought you did. And finally he has to say from the heart: You (of all men) know all things. You really and truly do. Now Peter knew the truth of the fact that Jesus knows all things and thereby knows what is in men (Jn. 2:25). Some days before, Peter had exclaimed: ‘Now I understand that You know all things!’ (Jn. 16:30). But now, he saw that this was but a rung up a ladder. Now he really did know that Jesus knew his heart. And with that new level of knowledge he could reason: ‘…And you know, therefore, that I love you. I can’t say to what degree, you can judge that. Now I realise I’m not stronger than my brethren, and I didn’t love you as much as I thought. But then, you know all things. And you know that, all the same, I truly love you’. Years later John alludes to this incident, encouraging us that each of us too can take comfort from the fact that God knows all things, and if our heart doesn’t condemn us, then we can come to Peter’s same freedom of conscience with the Lord (1 Jn. 3:20). Peter links conversion with repentance (Acts 3:19; see too Mk. 4:12; James 5:19,20). Although it is graciously unrecorded, it is left unspoken that Peter repented of his denials; and of his self-assurance, and of his feeling better than his brethren, and of so much else…

What Is Conversion?

And this was conversion. There are levels up the ladder, and Peter came to the higher conversion which we must all come to. As he stood with bowed head, converted to a child, knowing his own frailty, knowing the Lord’s grace and his love of all the Lord was and is, he was converted. The Lord then could tell him to go on following Him, and to feed His sheep. Now Peter was converted, he could strengthen his brethren. Surely Peter had found the Lord’s words strange when he first heard them: “When thou art converted, strengthen thy brethren”. He thought he was already converted; he was sure of it. And you and me thought likewise when we rose from the water of baptism. It concerns me, it worries me no end, that in our preaching of the Gospel we can merely be teaching propositional  truth- one God, no trinity, baptism by immersion, resurrection, no immortal soul…all of which is quite true and necessary to a true understanding of the Gospel. And our interviewing of candidates ensures that their understanding is in harmony with the statements in the Statement of Faith…and so they are baptized, and go off as many of us did to debate with the likes of JWs and Adventists the truths which they have learnt. But this is not the full message of the Gospel. The full message is life with Christ, with His life as your life, with your heart and soul given over to fellowship with Him in every sense, to the glorification of Yahweh’s Name. It means knowing your desperation, bowing with an unpretended shame before His righteousness, coming to a real on-your-knees repentance, and meekly rising up in service to the brotherhood. This was conversion for Peter, and it must be for each of us; and this is the Gospel of power and conviction and repentance we should be preaching. This is what we should seek to elicit from the process of baptismal instruction and interview- not just a checking that someone believes certain propositions which we do. There will be some who in the last day will really think they have misheard: “I never knew you”. Never. They knew the right propositions, they fought for the preservation of those doctrines, they can say that they “kept” the talent given them (the same word is used about ‘keeping’ the faith in the pastorals); but they never knew their Lord. And therefore He never knew them. For all their knowledge, they never knew Him (cp. Prov. 4:7). They never bowed before Him. They never muttered to Him in all the awkwardness of a true self-contrition: You know that I love you. Have you said those words, and felt them? Have you wept for your wretched inadequacy? I hope, earnestly, that each reader has, and does. And if we have, we know what is conversion.  

And like Peter we will stand up and quite naturally witness to all “the words of this life”, full of God’s word (12 out of the 22 verses devoted to Peter’s speech in Acts 2 are simply him quoting Scripture), pouring it out to men in the earnest hope that they will share our path of conversion. His preaching and strengthening of his often weak brethren were thus done from a motive of recognising his own failure and experience of grace. When he warns his brethren to not be like they who “even deny the Lord that bought them” (2 Pet. 2:1), committing the worst imaginable sin, he was full of reference to his own denying of the Lord. Any tendency to pride in our witness to the world or warning of our brethren will be squashed if our motives are rooted in our own experience of grace. It takes a converted man to convert one; he stood up only a few hundred metres from the spot where he denied his Lord, and appealed to men to repent and be converted (Acts 3:19)- just as he had done a month or so ago in the same locality. Of course, all Jerusalem would have heard the story of his denials (with some embellishments, we can be sure). No wonder his witness was so credible that his hearers were baptized on the spot. David likewise turned men to God after he himself had turned back to Him in repentance about Bathsheba (Ps. 51:13). And we will only be powerful preachers if we preach likewise. 

Peter’s conversion was fuelled by his tearful, self-loathing reflection upon the cross. The doctrine of the atonement and the weekly breaking of bread, whether done alone in isolation or in a Christian gathering, is quite rightly at the centre of the Christian faith. The Hebrew and Greek words translated ‘convert’ mean to turn back or turn to; after each turning away from God in weakness, however apparently petty, we are converted again. Those who fear Him will live a life of turning back behind Him (Ps. 119:79). Regular, sustained reflection on the cross will play a central role in this. As a result of the Lord being lifted up on the stake, “all the ends of the world shall…turn unto [s.w. ‘convert’] the Lord” (Ps. 22:27). Jn. 12:38-41 draws a parallel between being converted, and understanding the prophecies of the glory of the crucified Christ. To know Him in His time of dying, to see the arm of Yahweh revealed in Him there, is to be converted.  

But I must ask: do we really repent? Do we even give enough emphasis to it in instruction and interview of candidates for baptism? Do we ourselves allow the power of God’s word, the height of His holiness, to convict us to repentance for failure, great or small, public or private? Or do we just have a vague sense of regret for that snap at your wife, that gross exaggeration, that hiding of your light from the world, that decision to store up for yourself rather than give to the Lord’s cause…and hurry on with the more external affairs of a religious life? We can confuse a desire for change, a fleeting twinge of conscience, with real repentance. “They return, but not to the most High” (Hos. 7:16); “If thou wilt return, O Israel, saith the Lord, return unto me” (Jer. 4:1)- they had the sense that they must turn away from the way they were in, but this wasn’t necessarily the same as turning back behind the Lord. The Lord taught, in His demanding way: “If any man will come after me [s.w. ‘be converted’, turn again after me], let him take up the cross and follow [s.w. ‘come after’] me” (Mt. 16:24). He clearly understood that we can follow Him, turn behind Him, be converted to Him, but on a surface level only. If we will really follow, it is a matter of taking up the cross, daily. Many readers of these words will have been baptized a relatively short time. Don’t rest where you are, and don’t think you will be left by the Lord where you are, either. Before you lies the life of conversion, of the Truth meaning more and more; all of us have many a level to rise up yet.  

Job’s Conversion

Job began a converted man: just and upright, in God’s own estimation. But he is converted through the slander and betrayal of his friends, through his illness, through deep spiritual depression, and thereby led to an altogether higher level. A feature of Job’s conversion was that he was convicted of his own sinfulness, and then he makes some brief statement to Yahweh (uttered surely in the same spirit as Peter’s), and like Peter manifests all this in ‘strengthening his brethren’ by praying for them. In his brief, staccato statements at the end, he basically repeats facts that he has already earlier stated in the book- but this time, he speaks them with a full understanding of their real import. The links are masked in the translations, but use of the concordance shows that he is using the same Hebrew words that he has uttered some hours or days ago in the speeches:

“I am vile” = 3:1; 7:6; 9:25.

“What shall I answer thee?” = 31:14; 11:10; 23:13

 “I know that thou canst do everything” = very commonly stated by Job. Elihu, speaking on God’s behalf, pointed out that Job lacked real understanding that “God is greater than men” (23:12). Yet Job had so often stated this! Elihu’s speeches and God’s display of power convicted Job of a true understanding of God’s highness and his lowness.

 “Things too wonderful for me” to understand = 9:10; 10:16

“I have heard of thee by the hearing of the ear” = 13:1;

 “And repent in dust and ashes” = 7:5; 16:15; 30:19. What he did at the beginning, sitting in dust and ashes in sorrow for himself (2:80, he now did in willing self-abnegation on realising his moral frailty and God’s holiness. 

There are some further examples of where Job at the end re-states his basic principles, even though there were times in the book where he had contradicted them. But now, in final conversion, he recognised that the principles he had once known, and yet doubted at times, were the ones firmly etched in his consciousness. In deep reality he accepted ‘the truth’ in his innermost being. One example. Job said at the end: “Therefore have I uttered that I understood not”. But he said this in  his earlier words ( 9:11; 23:8; 26:14); and yet at that same time he also sometimes says that he spoke what he did understand (13:1; 23:5). He came at the end to recognise in a brutal, self-crushing finality that actually, he spoke what he didn’t understand- and he meant those words. The truth of them was engraved upon his heart. Other examples include:

“I will proceed no further” = 20:9. But he did: 27:1; 29:1

I know that…no thought can be withholden from thee” = 10:13; 13:23 but Job also felt God didn’t know all (22:13; 31:6).

“But now mine eye seeth thee” = 13:1; but he said he didn’t see God (9:11; 23:9)

“I abhor myself” = 7:5,16; 9:21 (s.w.); but he objected to being abhorred (10:3; 19:18). 

One aspect of conversion, therefore, is that the basic doctrine and precepts which we learnt before baptism takes on an altogether more powerful compulsion as we ‘convert’ over the years (which is why we must teach them thoroughly before baptism). If you are in isolation or without the opportunity for doctrinal discussion with others, make it your business to re-read a statement of basic doctrine on a regular basis…and reflect on what these basic principles mean in daily living.

Humbled Preachers

Like Elijah and like Peter, Job’s conversion included a deep recognition that he was not better than his weaker brethren. And on that basis he was able to pray for them, preach to them, strengthen them and somehow win them salvation. He prayed for God to forgive them of words they shouldn’t have said. But first of all, he recognised that what they had done, he had also done. Elihu, on God’s behalf, says that Job has spoken wrongly (33:6-12; 35:2). Job is commended for speaking that which was ‘prepared’ (this is the usual translation of the Hebrew in 42:7); his few brief words of repentance were wrung from the heart, they were a prepared statement, in response to God’s request that Job make a ‘declaration’ (42:4). And because of this, he was able to pray for God to forgive the others who had not repented with such a prepared and heartfelt declaration “as my servant Job hath”. So like Peter, like Paul, like David, he interceded for others from a motivation deep rooted in his own experience of forgiveness. Job’s confession of repentance, like Peter’s, is studded with recognition that he was no better than his weaker brethren. “I will lay mine hand upon my mouth”, he says, which is exactly what the friends did (21:5; 29:9). He realized he too had spoken inappropriately, but because of this recognition he was asked to pray for forgiveness for them for their words. Confessing his own failure in speaking unwisely was the basis for his prayer for others to be forgiven for the same sin. “Once have I spoken”, but I will speak no more (40:5), Job mutters from the heart: just as the friends likewise ceased speaking (32:16). He had considered them vile (18:3)- but now he realized how he was (40:4). He had said he knew the friends’ thoughts and devices (21:27)- now he recognised that God knows his (42:2 s.w.). He had accused them of uttering what they didn’t understand (26:4)- now he admits he had done the same (42:3). May we, in our witness to the world and in our efforts to stimulate our weaker brethren, recognise from the heart as Elijah did: that we of ourselves are no better than our fathers, or the men we preach to and plead with. We have been called to know the grace that saves, and in that knowledge we go forth with a humbled but insistent, compelling and converting witness.

Conversion Is Radical

Peter and Job came to crisis points at which they made major paradigm shifts, and were ‘converted’. Our experience may not be so intense, it may take a longer period of time, but nevertheless, the change in outlook is no less drastic. And there is a logic to wholehearted, unreserved conversion. Now, we must turn unto [s.w. ‘convert to’] God, “for in that day every man shall cast away [turn back, ‘convert’] his idols of silver and  his idols of gold” (Is. 31:6,7). In the day of final judgment, the rejected will go through the conversion scenario- of throwing away the things of this world, the pomp and the power and the pride of this petty life, and turning unto the things of God. But then, in the finest and acutest tragedy of the whole human experience, it will be all too late. We must all go through the conversion process: either now, or in the rejection experience of the judgment. Please, think this one through. Feel and know the logic of devotion and conversion. The ecclesia in the wilderness were ‘types of us’. They were rejected from entry into the Kingdom; and when that finally sunk in, they “returned [s.w. convert, turn back] and wept before the Lord; but the Lord would not hearken to your voice” (Dt. 1:45). The rejected will “return [s.w. convert] at evening: they make a noise like a dog [whining for acceptance], and go round about the city [cp. the foolish virgins knocking on the closed door]” (Ps. 59:6,14). “Return [s.w. ‘convert’] unto me…saith the Lord of Hosts. But ye said, Wherein shall we return?…in that day [of judgment] when I make up my jewels…then shall ye return [‘convert’], and discern between the righteous and the wicked, between him that serveth God and him that serveth him not” (Mal. 3:7,18). I suggest this last verse is talking to the same group of people (“ye”) as the earlier verse- i.e., the rejected. Then they will go through the sensation of conversion, realising with crystal clarity the separation between the ways of the flesh and spirit which they ought to have grasped in their day of opportunity. Then they will “discern”, just as Christ will “appear” [s.w. ‘discern’] at the judgment; they will then see things through His eyes, from the perspective which He will have at the judgment (Mal. 3:2). Malachi begins by saying that at the day of judgment, Edom’s eyes “shall see [s.w. ‘discern’], and ye shall say, the Lord will be magnified” (Mal. 1:5)- although they refused to make this recognition now. Then the rejected will liken the Kingdom unto ten virgins…(Mt. 25:1). This crucial understanding, this eagerness for conversion, must be gone through by all the responsible. Brethren, sisters: go through it now, for your Lord’s sake, for the sake of Yahweh’s Name, and quite simply, on the lowest level: for your own sake.