How Does One Become A Christian?

I remember reading about a town in West Virginia that had been covered with posters asking, “Have you been converted yet?” It spoke about a radical and important change which would deeply affect their way of life, and warned of dangers it they had not converted. They were also promised of the lasting difference it would make in their lives. Ever since, they have cooked by natural gas rather than the old fashioned sort of gas which was made from coal.

As it happens, the gas industry had been using the word ‘conversion’ correctly, and when Christians use the word in its spiritual sense, the process is almost identical. Conversion (to natural gas or to Christ) leaves the exterior as it was—the same cooker, the same fires; the same nose, hair and so on. But in both cases there is a new inside. Something is taken away and discarded, and there is a radical replacement —something essential is changed. And in both cases there is subsequently a new power. Natural gas burns with a greater heat than manufactured gas, and in the spiritual realm there is little doubt that conversion leads to an altogether ‘warmer’ kind of religion.

But what exactly is conversion—religious conversion that is? Its common usage is to describe a person who changes from one religion to another (Muslim to Christian, for instance) or even from one denomination to another (particularly Roman Catholic to Protestant, or vice versa). So one might be tempted to think that if one remained in one denomination all one’s life there was no need at all for conversion.

But according to the words of Jesus, conversion is absolutely vital for everybody. ‘Unless you are born again …you will not see the Kingdom of heaven.’ So obviously it is an important process to understand. We shall be considering it from two angles or perspectives, the divine —what God does, and the human—what man does.

The divine aspect of conversion

Martin Luther tried desperately to convert himself, submitting his body to awful indignities, denying himself even food and rest in a sincere and determined attempt to satisfy God’s standards. He failed miserably. What he, and many others down the centuries, eventually found was that it was not a new start in life they needed, but a new life to start with. After all, it takes a Creator to make new life. And that is the miracle which Jesus described very vividly as being ‘born all over again’. It is God’s answer to the kind of prayer King David prayed after he had sinned and failed God so badly: ‘Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew aright spirit within me.’ There is the double aspect of conversion: a new ‘inside’ in an old ‘outside’… and a new source of power.

And without that change, without conversion, according to the words of Jesus, we shall never see the Kingdom of God. We need to be converted, he said, ‘and become like little children’. We need, in other words, to start life all over again, but this time with a new power and a new principle within us. It was this that Nicodemus had to learn. This gifted Jewish leader came to Jesus secretly, by night, to enquire about his teaching, and was told, quite abruptly, ‘You must be born again’. It would never be enough for the respectable and devout Nicodemus simply to follow a new code of doctrine or ethics. He, like all the rest of us, needed a new nature. He needed to be converted.

The human aspect of conversion

So how does conversion come about? If it is a divine act, do we simply wait for it to strike, like lighting from heaven? Or is it, as some people suggest, just a matter of temperament? Are some of us by temperament ‘once born’ people, and some ‘twice born’? Is there a human element in the process? Indeed there is. In fact, in one respect it is not true to say that ‘only God; can convert someone. The New Testament talks of men ‘converting’ sinners from the error of their ways. It even talks of sinners converting themselves. Jesus told Peter that when he had converted himself (that is the literal translation) he should strengthen his brethren. Surprisingly, not once is the Lord the subject of the verb ‘convert”! The human side of conversion is rather more complex than one might imagine. There are at least five elements in it.

1. Repentance of sin
This aspect of conversion I dealt with in earlier teachings, so perhaps here all one need to say is that turning to God (which is what conversion is) assumes a turning from sin. We turn away from the old life, with all that involves, and turn to the new life that Christ gives.

There is no-half-way in this process. It involves a willingness to be rid of everything evil thing, however dear it is to us, and even some neutral things (like certain relationships, hobbies or pursuits) which while harmless in themselves have got between us and God. In this latter area there are no hard and fast rules, beyond this simple test: is this thing so integrally a part of my life that I cannot keep it and still turn completely to God? Repentance is simply the willingness to turn, without condition.

2. Faith towards Jesus
This, as I talked about earlier is a total trust in Christ’s competence to do what he has promised. In his life, death and resurrection, he has totally mastered evil. ‘Faith’ means believing that he can repeat that mastery in me create in me a clean heart and renew a right spirit within me.

3. Baptism in water
Baptism is a part of the process of conversion, although it is often, but wrongly, regarded as separate from it. It is not something extra, added later, but part of the single process of Christian initiation. It baptism and conversion are two separate and distinct things, there are a number of statements in the New Testament that become inexplicable: Mark 16:14, John 3:5, Acts 2:38, Acts 22:16, Ephesians 6:25, Titus 3:4 and 1 Peter 3:21.

These are strong statements and they make high claims for baptism. Indeed, taken literally they seem to imply almost a magical power to this rite, as though to baptize someone is to make him a Christian. However, there is no need to take so obviously extreme and misleading a view. All of the ‘difficulties’ in these verses disappear when baptism is seem as one element of conversion.

Once we get rid of the ideal that we are first converted and then baptized, we can see how the two words can correctly be used to describe the same event. Baptism is part (indeed, the most obvious and visible part) of conversion, and is therefore part of Christian initiation. In passing, if someone is converted but not baptized, we may correctly see the process of conversion as incomplete.

Baptism, in that case, completes the conversion. Basically, baptism is two things, a burial and a bath. It is the disposal of the old life, ‘buried with Christ in baptism’, and the starting clean with the new one, coming up out of the water into the new, risen life. Nothing could possibly represent more vividly that that what conversion is all about.

4. Filling with Holy Spirit
Now we turn to the element of power in conversion. The principle involved here is rather similar to that in baptism, and most common error about it is the same one —that conversion and ‘being filled with the Spirit’ are two entirely separate things. Indeed, like many young Christians, I believed for many years that to be filled with Spirit was a remote target set for the believer, only to be achieved—if at all—after years of emptying my life of self and sin. It came as quite a shock to discover that the Bible taught a rather different view: being filled with Spirit, like baptism, is meant to be part of the process of conversion.

If we take references to being filled with the Holy Spirit in the Acts of the Apostles, we shall find a consistent pattern emerges. In Acts 2 on the day of Pentecost, it was not only the apostles who were filled with the Spirit. But on that same day Peter, being himself now filled with the Spirit, promised precisely the same experience to all those who heard his words, believed them and were baptized. ‘The promise is to you, and your children, and to as many as the Lord your God shall call…’ The Holy Spirit’s power was offered as part of conversion, not a target to be reached at some remote, later date.

Read Acts 8; 9; 10 and 19. However her in Acts 19 we have the remarkable case of the disciples at Ephesus. Of the five elements of conversion that I suggested earlier, these disciples had experienced only one —repentance through the ministry of John the Baptist. They had not fully believed Jesus, they had not had Christian baptism, they had not been fill with the Spirit and they had not become members of the Body of Christ in fellowship. Paul led them to belief in the One to whom John the Baptist pointed, he baptized them and then he laid hands on them and they received the Holy Spirit.

There is the full spectrum of conversion of conversion, and until these elements are present no one can be described as truly converted. Certainly receiving power through the gift of Holy Spirit is a vital part of being converted to Christ. He baptizes in Spirit, he fills with Spirit, he pours out Spirit. The neglect of this element in conversion may account for the presence of so many ineffective Christians in churches. They have not received ‘power’.

5. Understanding the Church
God aim from the beginning was to make one Body (Church, Called out Believers, Those set apart)—not many bodies—to glorify him forever, and individualism (which is a form of self-centeredness) into a community. This ‘body’ is not simply a concept. It expresses itself on earth in local churches (not buildings) groups of people (the church) coming together for teaching fellowship, to the breaking of bread, exhortation of gifts, and the prayers. We are baptized into one body not many. We have minimized our responsibility of being the church to going to church. We have lost the understanding being the church is a life style of holiness, and adopted the trick of going to church that leads to an hour or two of holiness. We have reduced the King of kings to the pimp of prostitutes, where churches are using gifts intended for holiness in an unworthy manner for financial gain in competition for the tithes of the saints.

And the lord commended the unjust steward, because he had done wisely: for the children of this world are in their generation wiser than the children of light. Luke 16:8

As many Christians act without skill or finesse when it comes to financial matters compared to their secular counterparts. Many downplay budget, investing, and business principles as though they are unspiritual issues for the church (the Body).

McDonald’s success stems from the very principles of God as uniting many members into one body. You will never find two McDonald completing against each other, however strategically positioning them to reach as many people as possible. Working together for the end results of the corporation.

Why can’t Christians take action strategically and seize opportunities with discernment?

Become the Disciple, Follower, Saint, Christian, Member of the Church (Body not the building) God has ordained to you to be!

Posted on July 5, 2009, in Christianity Series (The Conversion). Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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