The Conversion of St. Paul on the Way to Damascus by Caravaggio
Popular dictionaries list many different definitions for conversion, two of which fit our purposes:
spiritual change from sinfulness to righteousness
a change of attitude, emotion, or viewpoint from one of indifference, disbelief, or antagonism to one of acceptance, faith, or enthusiastic support, especially such a change in a person’s religion
In all the popular definitions, the word change is continually used to convey the meaning, regardless of the context (monetary, scientific, medical, religious, etc.)
Conversion to Christianity can be understood on three levels—the broad sense, the strict sense, and the discipleship sense. Knowing what these are has implications for living the Christian life.
The first way to think about conversion is in the very broad sense—conversion refers to the general timeframe when someone becomes a Christian. It includes all the events that lead up to and through the moment when someone comes to salvation. It has as its pivotal, crucial point that one moment in time when someone actually receives salvation, when he crosses over from being lost to being saved. The grouping of faith, repentance, confession and baptism are often the markers of the conversion experience in the broad sense.
And therefore, when someone shares his conversion story in the broad sense, he usually tells the highlights of how he was introduced to Jesus, who helped him come to faith, how he made certain decisions to become a Christian, and what teaching he followed from the Bible to receive salvation. Conversion in the broad sense refers to the period of time in general when someone comes to faith.
You can see Scripture paint conversion in the broad sense all throughout the book of Acts. Acts recounts many people’s conversion stories and gives different details of each. Acts even tells three different accounts of the Apostle Paul’s conversion experience, each a little different from the others (Acts 9:1-19; 22:1-16; 26:1-18).
The second way to think about conversion is in the strict sense—conversion refers specifically to that exact moment in time when a person crosses over from being lost to being saved. The sole interest in thinking about conversion in the strict sense has to do with understanding what is actually happening in the exact moment of salvation.
For example, if you want to understand conversion in the strict sense, you will ask questions such as: What is happening on the level of the person’s spirit in the moment of salvation? How is someone spiritually “born again”? How is the Holy Spirit specifically working in this moment? What does God specifically do in changing someone from being lost to being saved? What does it mean that there is an exact moment when there is a death of the old self and a rebirth of the new self? These questions and more are the special, directed interest of understanding conversion in the strict sense.
You can see Scripture paint conversion in the strict sense in passages such as Eph. 4:20-24, Col. 2:9-14, John 3:1-8, Titus 3:5-7, Eph. 1:13-14, and Col. 1:13, to name a few.
Both the broad and strict senses link Christian conversion with receiving salvation. In fact, it is hard to even consider that conversion to Christianity could possibly mean something in addition to receiving salvation. The third way does just this.
In this third sense—the discipleship sense—conversion refers to entering into a discipleship relationship with Jesus Christ as the Lord and Master of one’s life. It is concerned with the ins and outs of what it means not only to be called into a discipleship relationship with Jesus, but what that looks like, what Jesus expects, and the decision to make it and actually become one of his followers.
This third way of understanding conversion is the focus of much of what I write on this blog. In fact, what I call “the discipleship deficiency” has everything to do with the focus of conversion being so much on the salvation aspect that entering into discipleship to Jesus becomes optional at best, and at worst, not ever mentioned in the process.
You can see Scripture paint conversion in the discipleship sense in passages that recount Jesus calling people to discipleship to him: the rich ruler (Luke 18:18-25); the crowds (Luke 14:25-33); the inquirers (Luke 9:57-62); anyone in earshot of his voice (Matt. 11:28-30). In all these, his goal was to move them into the true commitment of discipleship to him—in other words, he was trying to convert them into following him and learning everything he has to teach. His message was not just to teach people to receive salvation without caring whether they followed him as his disciple. He wanted every single person to become his disciple (Matt. 11:28-30 & 28:19).
Understanding conversion in these three ways is vital to how we live out our Christianity. Receiving salvation and entering into discipleship to Jesus are two sides of the conversion coin. They both are necessary components in a biblical conversion. When we only understand conversion in the first two senses (broad and strict) that relate to receiving salvation, we may miss out on Jesus’ life-changing call to come after him as his disciple, to follow him, learn from him, and become like him. We may miss that he not only wants us to be saved, but to be transformed in the here and now through our discipleship relationship with him and the power of the Holy Spirit.
There’s a reason why God doesn’t just take us to heaven once we receive salvation. He wants to transform us into the image of his son. It is a life-long call. This happens when conversion includes both receiving salvation and entering into discipleship to Jesus.
And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit. (2 Cor. 3:18)