Paul’s words to the Galatian saints are among the most solemn that he ever wrote: “I am afraid of you, lest indeed I have laboured in vain as to you” (Gal. 4: 11). No evangelist likes to have doubts about the reality of his converts, but Paul had good reason to be concerned. One wonders what he would have made of our modern world with its elastic definition of ‘Christian’, and the accompanying vagueness as to what makes up true conversion.
The apostle’s first epistle to the Thessalonian saints is a much more positive work, and he rejoiced over their “work of faith, and labour of love, and enduring constancy of hope” (1 Thess. 1: 3). In contrast to his fears over the Galatians, Paul had no doubts whatsoever that the Thessalonians were genuine saints. They displayed clear evidence. Indeed if we travel just a few verses down the page we find a most exquisite description of authentic conversion: “… and how ye turned to God from idols to serve a living and true God, and to await his Son from the heavens, whom he raised from among the dead, Jesus, our deliverer from the coming wrath” (1 Thess. 1: 9, 10). This passage will repay our study.
The first thing to notice is that these men and women had “turned”. They had turned their backs on what had previously occupied them, and were now engaged with something different. In simple terms this is what real conversion is––a complete turning around. Indeed, if you look up the Greek words that the AV translates as conversion you will find that they are merely the everyday words then in use to describe any kind of turning around. As used here, however, the word clearly has a deeper meaning, and it is not difficult to see that conversion in its spiritual sense must involve a radical change. Thus if our ‘conversion’ has not in some way turned our lives upside down, then there must be serious doubts as to whether it is really conversion at all.
When we examine the matter further, it is noticeable that what the Thessalonian saints had turned to is put before what they had turned from. You or I might have put it the other way round, but Scripture says that they “turned to God from idols”. So why is it put in that order? Simply because it was only as turning to God that they turned from idols––the turning from idols was only an effect of the turning to God. Some seem to think that Christianity consists merely in giving up some of the more blatantly immoral aspects of this world and embracing the teaching of the Sermon on the Mount––but there is no true Christianity without a turning to God. I cannot become a Christian by outward reformation. It is only when I have turned to God that I can even begin to set foot on the Christian pathway.
These days we often hear the expression ‘coming to faith’. No doubt the words are often used in a well–meaning way, but as a phrase it is decidedly ambiguous. What sort of faith are we coming to? What do we mean by faith? As we have seen, Scripture describes conversion as a turning to God. It is the introduction to a definitive and personal relationship with God. It is not enough to say that I have found the meaning and purpose of life––I must know Him. Not just as some vague higher ‘being’, but as the “living and true God”. Nor must salvation be thought of as some abstract concept that brings comfort to the soul, but primarily as a deliverance “from the coming wrath”. A conversion that does not deal with sin and judgment is not a conversion at all.
Now what is this turning from idols that marks a saving relationship with the true God? To the Western mind idolatry may seem of little relevance, the ‘progress’ of our civilisation having long ago done away with any dependence on images of wood and stone. This is a misplaced confidence. The Scriptural definition of idolatry is nowhere near as narrow as this, and, in contrast to the popular perception, Western society is actually thoroughly idolatrous. Man everywhere is a worshipping creature, and if God is not worshipped, then idolatry will surely follow. Paul gives one definition of idolatry in Colossians 3: 5: “Put to death therefore your members which [are] upon the earth, fornication, uncleanness, vile passions, evil lust, and unbridled desire, which is idolatry”. Thus in the apostle’s eyes idolatry has a wide enough meaning to include straightforward covetousness! But how is this “unbridled desire” idolatry? Look around. No right–thinking person would deny that our modern world is characterised by an insatiable desire for more. Men will do almost anything to add to what they have––the desire consumes and controls them. What is this if not blatant idolatry? Yet when we turn to God in conversion things here lose their attractiveness. Our desires are now focused, not on idols, but on “the true God” (1 John 5: 20).
Paul also mentions idolatry in 1 Cor. 10: “Neither be ye idolaters, as some of them; as it is written, The people sat down to eat and to drink, and rose up to play … all these things happened to them [as] types, and have been written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the ages are come” (vs 7, 11). What is remarkable about this episode is the use that the apostle makes of it. Certainly the golden calf was an idol, but Paul links the idolatry here not with the calf as such, but with the fact that the people “sat down to eat and to drink, and rose up to play”. So what is he getting at? Moses had gone up the mountain, and the people said “we do not know what is become of him!” (Exod. 32: 1). It was in those circumstances that they ate and drank, and rose up to play. Now like Moses, Christ has gone on high and is absent from this scene. Thus idolatry is enjoying myself and satisfying myself in His absence. As a point of fact, my god is myself. Who can doubt that this form of idolatry is widespread, even, sadly, among Christians! How well the apostle sets out the true pathway for God’s people: “For for me to live [is] Christ, and to die gain” (Phil. 1: 21).
True conversion results in lasting change. Thus the Thessalonians not only turned to God from idols, but proved the reality of the change by what followed: “to serve a living and true God”. In some parts of the world it is relatively easy (even fashionable) to speak of being a Christian. The authenticity of the profession, however, can be ascertained by the way we lead our lives. Of course it is good when people make professions of faith, but they must also understand that such professions, if real, are professions to serve Christ in a world that hates Him. Every true Christian will know the joy of being glorified with Him in a day to come, but there is also the certainty of suffering with Him now (see Rom. 8: 17). There is a cost in serving Christ and it must be counted (see Luke 14: 28). If the first question Paul asked on being converted was “Who art thou, Lord?” (Acts 22: 8), the second was “What shall I do, Lord?” (v10). The modern idea that one can have Christ as Saviour but not as Lord is a false doctrine. We are left here to serve Him, and if we are not serving Him, then people are entitled to wonder about the reality of our conversion. We are not our own, having been bought with a price (see 1 Cor. 6: 20), and been made “bondmen of Christ, doing the will of God” (Eph. 6: 6).
Finally, there is the waiting for God’s Son. Conversion is not simply the acceptance of Christian teaching, and attendance at church. No, for it brings me into a personal and living relationship with Christ. Thus if we truly know Him and love Him, we shall feel His absence here, and shall be looking for Him to return. This hope will colour our lives. We shall be very anxious to be ready to meet Him, for “every one that has this hope in him purifies himself, even as he is pure” (1 John 3: 3). When people live as they please and live for themselves, we may rightly wonder whether such have really been converted at all. If I am true to my calling, my eye will not be on getting on in the world, but on the heavens from which my Lord shall surely come. This was what marked the Thessalonian saints, and is what should mark every true child of God.
These then are the marks of a true convert. In a day in which all kinds of things are brought forward as proof of the possession of genuine Christianity, it is refreshing to turn back to the simplicity of Holy Scripture. The Thessalonians had been the Lord’s only a matter of weeks, but they displayed their reality by the fact that they had “turned to God from idols to serve a living and true God, and to await his Son from the heavens”. May you and I display the same blessed characteristics!
What a change God is capable of making in His rebellious and ruined creature! Consider the insolent, overbearing Saul of Tarsus, that proud, self–righteous, Christ–hating Pharisee. Getting his first taste of blood at the martyrdom of Stephen, he commences a career of merciless and unceasing savagery against the people of God. Can any stop him, can any calm his rage? Yes! “I am Jesus, whom thou persecutest” (Acts 9: 5)! Before this power Paul is powerless: his fury is silenced, and his murderous hand is stayed. There is none like Christ, and there is nothing like the conversion of a soul on the road to hell. What a change is affected in Paul! What meekness, what gentleness, what patience, and what tenderness we now see. What ceaseless concern for the salvation of the lost! What tireless care for the flock of Christ! What devotedness to that holy Name once so hated and despised!
What of the reader? Have you too come under the changing influence of the unchanging One? ‘Born again’ is easily and lightly said, but you cannot be truly ‘born again’ and not have your life turned upside down. Some glibly speak of being ‘saved’, but you cannot meet the Saviour without giving up and getting out. Make no mistake: you cannot be a Christian without undergoing a mighty, radical and permanent change. Thus from the throat which was once an open sepulchre is now exhaled the perfume of life. That mouth, once so full of cursing and bitterness, is now an organ of blessing. That tongue, long accustomed to deceit, now spreads abroad the Word of Truth. Those lips, which once concealed the deadly poison of asps, are now pregnant with life–imparting grace. Those hands, so used to acts of wickedness and fleshly indulgence, are now tireless in the blessing of others. Those feet, once so swift to shed blood or to run into all kinds of filthy avenues, are now shod with the preparation of the glad tidings of peace, and run joyfully in the pathways of mercy. That heart, once so cold and hard, is now filled to overflowing with the love of God. This, my friend, is Christianity!
The last two verses of 1 Thess. 1 deserve our very special attention: “They themselves relate concerning us what entering we had to you, and how ye turned to God from idols to serve a living and true God, and to await his Son from the heavens”. They provide us with a remarkable statement of the real nature of conversion,. They show very clearly the absolute reality of the work of God’s Spirit in those Thessalonian converts. There was no mistaking it. It carried its own credentials with it. It was no uncertain work. It did not call for a careful examination before it could be accredited. It was an unmistakable work of God, the fruits of which were apparent to all.
Here then we have the divine definition of conversion—brief, but comprehensive (The Greek word here used for “turned” is the same as that elsewhere translated “converted”). It is a turning from, and a turning to: “how ye turned to God”. They had turned to the best robe in the Father’s house, to the fatted calf of the Father’s providing, and to the Father’s welcome, His bosom, and His table! And the proof of the reality of their turning to God? The answer is surely in the fact that they were serving Him, and awaiting His Son from the heavens.
But before we proceed any further dear reader, will you permit us to put to you a plain and pointed question? Are you converted? Do you profess to be so? Do you take the ground of being a Christian? If so, have you turned from idols? Have you really broken with the world, and with your former self? Has the living word of God entered you heart and led you to judge the whole of your past life, whether it has been a life of amusement and thoughtless folly, a life of busy money–making, a life of abominable vice and wickedness, or a life of mere religious routine—Christless, faithless, worthless religion?
Say, how is it? Be thoroughly in earnest. Be assured there is an urgent demand for out–and–out earnestness in this matter. We cannot hide from you the fact that we are painfully conscious of the sad lack of thorough decision amongst us. We have not, with sufficient emphasis or distinctness, “turned from idols”. Old habits are retained; former lusts and objects rule the heart. The temper, style, spirit and deportment do not suggest conversion. We are sadly too like our former selves—too like the openly and confessedly worldly people around us.
All this is really terrible. We fear it is a sad hindrance to the progress of the Gospel and the salvation of souls. The testimony falls powerless on the ears of those to whom we speak, because we do not seem as though we ourselves really believe what we are talking about. The apostle could not say to us, as he said to his dear Thessalonian converts: “From you sounded out the word of the Lord … so that we need not to speak anything”. There is a want of depth, power and markedness in our conversion, for the change is not sufficiently apparent. Are YOU converted? If not, what then? If you are, does your life declare it?
What is Conversion?
Three Greek words are translated “conversion”, (or convey that meaning), in the New Testament (NT): epistrephw, (to turn about or upon), its derivative epistrofhn, and strephw , (to turn). That “to turn” is the simple, basic meaning of Scriptural conversion is evidenced by the use of these words in every–day, natural situations. For example, Matt. 9: 22 “But Jesus turning”, (epistrephw), and Luke 23: 28 “And Jesus turning round to them” (strephw). Thus the English word “conversion” as popularly understood amongst Christians has no exact Greek equivalent: the Greek simply uses an everyday word to convey a spiritual meaning.
Of the many times strephw is used in the Bible, only once is it used in any kind of spiritual sense, (The rest refer to the use of the word “turned” in every–day situations as shown above). This single instance is Matt. 18: 3 “Verily I say to you, Unless ye are converted and become as little children, ye will not at all enter into the kingdom of the heavens” (my emphasis). The disciples had been seeking prominent position: “Who then is greatest in the kingdom of the heavens”, (v1), and this is the Lord's response. Unless they turned from that fleshly spirit and became as little children, then they would not even enter that cherished kingdom.
To understand conversion in the sense of turning to God for salvation however, we must look at epistrephw, and perhaps the clearest example is given in 1 Thess. 1: 9, where the Thessalonian converts had “turned to God from idols to serve a living and true God”. There was the positive aspect of their conversion where they had “turned to God”, and the negative side by which they had “turned from idols”. Conversion is thus both a turning to one set of things and a turning from another. Other Scriptures will bear this out: “preaching to you to turn from these vanities to the living God”, (Acts 14: 15); “those who from the nations turn to God”. (Acts 15: 19); “to whom I send thee, to open their eyes, that they may turn from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive remission of sins and inheritance among them that are sanctified by faith in me”, (Acts 26: 17, 18).
This radical turn–about in a person's life must involve change, hence we read that he “who before was a blasphemer and persecutor, and an insolent overbearing [man]”, (1 Tim. 1: 13), was able after his conversion to say with all honesty “For for me to live [is] Christ”, (Phil. 1: 21). Quite simply, if there has been no change there has been no conversion. With the Thessalonians, proof of their conversion was very evident, for not only were they awaiting God's Son from heaven, (1 Thess. 1: 10), but also “the word of the Lord sounded out from you, not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but in every place your faith which [is] towards God has gone abroad, so that we have no need to say anything”, (v8). It was a real conversion, and the only worthwhile conversions are real.
Another important Scripture is Is. 6: 10, quoted no less than four times in the N.T. (Matt. 13: 15, Mark 4: 12, John 12: 40 and Acts 28: 27). Matthew renders it “for the heart of this people has grown fat, and they have heard heavily with their ears, and they have closed their eyes as asleep, lest they should see with the eyes, and hear with the ears, and understand with the heart, and should be converted, and I should heal them.” To be blind and deaf spiritually, and to have a heart that has “grown fat”, (that is with little functional muscle, unresponsive), is clearly synonymous with being unconverted. To be converted is to have these states reversed and is plainly the same as being healed spiritually. (The use of two words, or phrases to describe the same event is a common characteristic of the Old Testament). This equation of conversion with spiritual healing is a clear indicator that conversion is but an aspect of that event popularly known as “being saved”. Conversion and “being saved” are the same event. Other Scriptures will back this up: “lest it may be, they should be converted and they should be forgiven,” (Mark 4: 12); “Repent therefore and be converted, for the blotting out of your sins,” (Acts 3: 19); “And [the] Lord’s hand was with them, and a great number believed and turned to the Lord”, (Acts 11: 21); “to whom I send thee, to open their eyes, that they may turn from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive remission of sins”, (Acts 26: 18); “announced that they should repent and turn to God, doing works worthy of repentance”, (Acts 26: 20)!
Scripture knows nothing of so–called “conversions” subsequent to the initial event. The tense of the word “turned” as it is found in the Greek NT is in the aorist, which means they turned once for all. Hence we read, “And all who inhabited Lydda and the Saron saw him, who turned to the Lord”, (Acts 9: 35); “And [the] Lord's hand was with them, and a great number believed and turned to the Lord”. (Acts 11: 21). These were single, definite and final acts. To talk of subsequent “conversions” is to imply that either the initial conversion was not conversion at all, or to suggest the ridiculous notion that one can return to the condition of soul prior to conversion!
What about Peter? Was he not a saved man when the Lord told him “But I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not: and when thou art converted, strengthen thy brethren.”, (AV: Luke 22: 32). We believe that the Gospels prove beyond doubt that Peter was converted already at this point, but we do not believe that this verse shows a subsequent need for conversion. The Greek word here is epistrephw, which as we have already seen, does not necessarily refer to soul–conversion. The meaning of the word here is restoration—restoration to communion with God. (See also James 5: 19, 20 where the same word is translated “bring back”) The communion was to be broken, (see v34), but it was also to be restored, and this humbling experience Peter was to use for the spiritual benefit of his brethren, (see v32). It is no more conversion than Jesus being converted by “turning” round to the woman with the flux of blood, (Matt. 9: 22).
Having answered the question “What is conversion?”, you must ask yourself another, namely, “Am I converted?” May your answer be “Yes”!