Conversion, Acts 15:1-3

1-3 January 8, 2023

The“Conversion”

Acts 15: Rev. Dr. Robert S. Rayburn

Text Comment

I don’t intend to pay attention to the history reported in the text I am about to read, except in one particular. But a few comments are in order.

v.1       You may be aware that there has been something of a tempest in a teapot in recent years among professional students of the New Testament, and, in particular, those who concentrate on the study of the letters of the Apostle Paul. Some of them, led in more evangelical circles by the English Anglican scholar, N.T. Wright, began to argue that the dispute between Paul and the so-called “judaizers,” which surfaces especially in Galatians, Romans, and 2 Corinthians, was not about how a person was saved, so much as it was a dispute about the social consequences of salvation, and, in particular, the implication that the gospel, when rightly understood, had dissolved the barrier between Jew and Gentile and made them one, not only in principle, but in practice. The dispute was not about how sinners are saved, but, rather, about the full assimilation of Gentiles into the church, without the necessity of their observing particularly Jewish customs such as circumcision and the food laws. This movement in scholarship, which came to be called “The New Perspective,” got a great deal of attention and still exercises some influence, though not as much as it did at the beginning.

            I say all of this only to draw attention to Luke’s description of the controversy in v. 1. For this is, and very clearly, the same controversy that is addressed in Galatians and Romans. And it was, Luke says explicitly, about how a person, any person, is saved. The judaizers were arguing that Gentiles had to become Jews, at least in certain important respects, in order to become Christians. It is striking to me that this verse did not immediately put an end to the opinions of evangelical adherents to the New Perspective, not least since Luke, if he was anything, was a disciple of and advocate for the teaching of the Apostle Paul.

v.2       The remainder of the chapter reports the meeting of Paul and Barnabas with the apostles and elders in Jerusalem and the outcome of that meeting.

v.3       Now we come to the point of this evening’s sermon: the word Luke uses to describe what has happened through the ministry of Paul and others. It was nothing less than the conversion of the Gentiles. This is, in fact, the only place in the New Testament, where the noun, “conversion,” is found. Gentiles were being converted in great numbers and this was a cause of rejoicing for all.

Now, what is “conversion”? Well, the English word means simply “change.” And that is what the Greek word means as well. Only in the Bible’s use of the word it means The Change. The change of all changes, or, as Thomas Goodwin, the Puritan, put it, conversion is “the total change of man’s chief end.” The word, both the noun and the verb – and the verb occurs a number of times in this sense – means literally and originally “to turn.” There are important synonyms, both in Hebrew and Greek, that also mean to turn, to turn around, or to change in this fundamental, radical way. In fact, that idea of “turning” or “changing directions” is found throughout the Bible. As Alexander Whyte tartly put it, “conversion is just conversion. It is just to turn around. It is just having hitherto gone on the wrong road and henceforth to go on the right road. It is just to stop going away any further from God, and from Jesus Christ, and from eternal life, and to say, ‘I will arise and go to my Father.’” [James Fraser of Brea, 21.]

When David, in Psalm 51:13, promised the Lord that if Yahweh would forgive his sins and restore his relationship with him, “Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you,” the Greek translators of that verse used the verbal form of the same word found here in Acts 15:3. When Peter and John speak to the crowd gathered in the temple, after the healing of the lame beggar in Acts 3, they say, “Repent therefore, and turn again, that your sins may be blotted out.” There the same verb is found in the imperative mood, in the form of a command.

Taking all its uses together and those of its various synonyms, we can say that “conversion” is the conscious experience of salvation in its beginning and outworking. It is the phenomena in the outward life of any person who has been reborn by the Spirit of God. As with other dimensions of salvation, this too is spoken of in the Bible both as the act of God and the act of the person. God must summon the person to himself; the person must come. God must convince the person of his or her sin and need of salvation; the person must believe and repent. God must demand from a person a new life; the person must begin to live it. Conversion is the great change in a person’s life that flows from the work of the Holy Spirit in that person’s heart.

True enough, many people may change their opinions or may alter their life’s direction in various ways. But biblical and Christian conversion goes deeper, far deeper than that. It goes down to the very nature of a person, which is why the Bible speaks of a new birth or a new creation having taken place. It is a change from pride to humility, from self-confidence to dependence upon God, from self-conceit to self-condemnation, from the mind of a Pharisee to that of the publican in the Lord’s parable, who says, “God be merciful to me a sinner.” 

As you are no doubt aware, or will be as soon as you think about it, this experience is more often shown in the Bible, or illustrated than it is explained. It is in this way that we come best to understand what conversion is. And the illustrations are varied and are described with many different terms and in many different ways. For example, think of the many different ways we are told what the very first thing a converted person does, that is, how or by what means his or her new life begins. He or she believes in Jesus, as the Philippian jailer did. They hear the gospel message, and they believe it, and their life changes dramatically and from the inside out. Or we are told that they receive Jesus Christ,and the same thing happens. That is the way John describes conversion in the first chapter of his Gospel: Jesus comes, and they receive him, welcome him, accept him for who and what he is. Or they follow Jesus, as did Bartimaeus, the blind beggar whom Jesus healed in Luke 18. Or they repent as did the multitude that heard Peter on the Day of Pentecost. “Repent” is another word that describes this turning, this fundamental, radical, transformative turn of mind and life. Or, as Luke describes the large number of Jews in Jerusalem in those early days after Pentecost, “they became obedient to the faith.” They heard the summons to believe and follow and they obeyed it. All of that is what we mean by conversion. We can describe it in many ways, we can enumerate its various terms, but they all amount to this. One’s life is going in one direction, motivated by a set of habits of thought, of loves and desires and convictions, and then everything changes: the thoughts, convictions, loves, desires, and direction. A reversal, a turning, a change that goes down to the very root of one’s life.

Now what is remarkable and has often proved confusing, even controversial, about conversion is that it happens in such different ways.

For some, the change is sudden, utterly unexpected, and dramatic. The Bible is full of examples of such conversions. Think of Naaman, the Syrian general, or Manasseh, the King of Judah, from the Old Testament. In both cases the entire drift of a man’s life was suddenly and radically changed by an encounter with God and by his resulting faith and repentance.

Or think of the Samaritan woman, Zacchaeus, or the man born blind from the Gospels; think of the three thousand folk on the Day of Pentecost listening to Peter’s sermon, Cornelius the centurion, the Ethiopian eunuch, Lydia or the jailer in Philippi, Dionysius and Damaris in Athens, all from the Book of Acts. And, of course, before all of them, think of the Apostle Paul, the New Testament’s paradigmatic conversion. Sudden, unexpected, against the entire run of the man’s life, a violent reordering of this man’s understanding, his commitments, his loves and hatreds, and his calling.

And, of course, there have been many such conversions ever since.

Think of Augustine in that Milanese garden in August of 386. Or think of John Calvin, whose only autobiographical reference to the beginning of his Christian life is found in the preface to his commentary on the Psalms. Speaking of his plans as a young man to study law, he wrote, “but God, by the secret guidance of his providence, at length gave me a different direction to my course… [By] a sudden conversion subdued and brought my mind to a teachable frame…[and I] thus received some taste and knowledge of true godliness…” [Vol. 1, xl] Or think of John Bunyan and his burden, or Blaise Pascal and his “Night of Fire,” or Charles Spurgeon or Louis Zamperini (of the book and the film Unbroken fame), or Charles Colson whose conversion was famously described in his book Born Again, or multitudes of others who were unbelievers one day and joyful and ardent followers of Jesus Christ the next; whose entire understanding of life and its meaning were turned upside down. And, of course, there are many wonderful accounts of such dramatic conversions, transformations against the entire drift of a person’s former life, from the now burgeoning churches around the world. God’s grace has always worked this way, no matter the race, language, nationality, or culture of the people to whom his gospel comes.

But then, I don’t have to prove that to some of you! There are some of you in this sanctuary tonight whose experience was fundamentally the same. You woke up one day a certain man or woman, you went to bed that night someone else. Oh, the same person, to be sure, with the same outward appearance, the same personal history; but utterly new in every way that matters both for time and eternity. You had no expectation that you were on the cusp of such a transformative experience and no understanding of what such an experience would entail or in how many ways it would change your life. In some cases, you may have been thinking about your life and what it meant. You may have been talking to Christians who were encouraging you to follow Jesus. But a few of you, I know, hadn’t even that much preparation.

I read the new biography of the late R.C. Sproul a few weeks ago. As a freshman college student in Pennsylvania, generally indifferent to the great questions posed by the gospel of Jesus Christ, one weekend evening he and his roommate were heading to a bar in nearby Youngstown, Ohio. Just before driving away from campus, they realized that they were out of cigarettes. They went back into the lobby of their dorm where there was a vending machine. Nearby were two fellows sitting at a table, one of them one of the college’s football stars. They motioned R.C. and his friend to join them. The two upperclassmen were studying the Bible together. For more than an hour the two older students talked with them about God and Christ and the Bible. R.C. and his roommate never made it to town that night and R.C. stepped into a new world as a new man. He woke up that morning, one sort of man; he went to bed that night, another.

“…as I went to my bedroom that night and got on my knees, my experience was one of transcendent forgiveness. And I was overwhelmed by the tender mercy of God…and the awakening He gave me for my life.”

[Nichols, R.C. Sproul: A Life, 38-40] And that was the experience of some of you.

Sudden, dramatic conversions of that more spectacular type show us in living color what conversion is, what it amounts to, what it means, just as Paul’s conversion – reported in some detail four times in the New Testament – was meant to do. They reveal the hidden hand of God behind every such transformation, every such turn or change. The aforementioned Thomas Goodwin, the 17th century Puritan and member of the Westminster Assembly, referred to such sudden and dramatic conversions as “election-conversions” because they make visible the invisible: the election of God, the work of the Holy Spirit, and the new birth. That is, every Christian’s conversion is the same at bottom. In conversion a person is always changed from sinner to saint. But we can see the change so much more clearly when conversion is sudden, dramatic, and its effects so immediate and profound, as, for example, in the case of the Apostle Paul.

But such dramatic conversions are not the norm. Most Christians have never had such an experience. Vast multitudes of Christian believers – devout, serious, biblically-minded, loyal to Christ and his Word – were not converted in this way. Indeed, I suspect that of the total number of the saved, only a small minority will have come to Christ in a sudden rush of illumination and new conviction that led to this about face. Of course, millions and hundreds of millions were born into Christian homes and grew up in the faith of their parents which they embraced for themselves step by step and year by year. The entire Bible bears its witness to this fact, as most of its heroes were the products of believing homes and are not said to have become followers of God in a sudden and radical experience. Even in the New Testament, which features many such sudden conversions, there is ample evidence that not all believers in the apostolic age became Christians in that sudden and immediate way. Think of Timothy, whose faith, Paul says, lived first in his mother Eunice and his grandmother Lois. Nor do we have evidence that Peter, James, and John were unbelievers who became believers suddenly, perhaps under the ministry of John the Baptist. The evidence seems rather to suggest that their parents and then they themselves were among the faithful Jews of that time – like Joseph and Mary, Elizabeth and Zechariah, Anna and Simeon – believers all their lives, who were waiting for the consolation of Israel. Of course, they were born again at some specific moment, perhaps as John the Baptist was, when he was still in his mother’s womb, or very early in their lives. But the outward expression of that new birth – which is what we mean by conversion – follows on gradually as the children grow up, gain understanding, and begin to follow Jesus themselves.

But even many who were converted, who became followers of Christ as teenagers or in their young adulthood or even later adulthood, even those who came from decidedly unchristian backgrounds, were converted, if we may say so, more gradually. That is, there was not a single, profound, momentary experience of sudden change. In their case, as in the case of children born into Christian homes, their spiritual history was more like the dawn in northern latitudes when it is difficult to determine at what exact point the night becomes day, when precisely the crossing from death to life took place. Think of C.S. Lewis who only realized after the fact that he had become a follower of Jesus Christ by looking back on the way his thinking had changed. The Holy Spirit enters the hearts of some with a pin and of others with a sword! It is precisely this fact, for fact it is, that has led so many Christians to wonder precisely when it was that they became Christians, and so many of them then to wonder whether the fact that they don’t know when they were converted might mean that they never were. Such doubts afflicted even John Wesley who was a serious Christian and Christian minister and who had embraced the gospel he would always preach well before his famous Aldersgate experience when, in the meeting of a Moravian society, listening to the reading of Luther’s Preface to Romans, his “heart was strangely warmed…and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins…” [Tomkins, John Wesley: A Biography, 48-61] Assurance of salvation isn’t necessarily the same thing as salvation itself.

So, as Alexander Whyte summarized the history of conversions in the Bible and in the church ever since, “…just as there are fierce and fiery and thunderbolt conversions that burn a hole in the very earth at the spot where they took place, so, on the other hand, there are easy and sweet and quite unconscious conversions that leave no mark of time or of place upon the converted man. No mark but only upon his after walk and [way of life].” [28-29]

Now, let’s think together about conversion and what it should mean to all of us that there is such a thing as the conversion of sinners or that the apostles and elders should have rejoiced greatly to hear that the Gentiles were being converted. Let’s apply that truth to our lives at this moment.

First, we should face the fact that it is precisely the necessity of conversion, of this great and fundamental change of conviction and direction in life, that is the true scandal of our Christian faith. I was listening in the car the other day to Michael Medved. He was interviewing the leader of an organization that sues local governments who have Christmas creches on their property. His organization doesn’t require them to take down the nativity scene, only that they allow them to put beside it their display of the founding fathers standing before and admiring the bill of rights. In other words, if the city wants a Christian symbol, it must also be willing to display a secular one. But when Medved asked him what he found offensive about the nativity scenes he said, so far as I can remember his words, “There are many of us who don’t believe that we are so sinful, that we need a Savior to die for us on the cross, that we have to be born again.” I was struck by his answer because we don’t usually hear it put so honestly, plainly, and emphatically. But that is precisely why your neighbors and workmates aren’t Christians. They don’t think they need to be changed. The very idea of conversion offends them, as it offended the Greco-Roman world long ago. They would hotly deny that who and what they are now isn’t good enough for God. It offends them that we say they must be remade from the inside out and commit themselves to a completely new life defined by God’s law and made possible only by God’s grace. It strikes them as outrageous that they must give up the life they have, even the person they are, and commit themselves to being something entirely different in order to be right with God. They have no interest in such radical change and don’t see why they should need it.

But we know, from the explicit teaching of the Word of God, from the logic of sin and salvation, and from our own experience and that of vast multitudes of other Christians that conversion is precisely what is necessary. And so conversion, when it occurs, should make anyone rejoice greatly. If all conversions were sudden, powerful experiences, dramatic in the startling changes immediately introduced into a person’s life; if every Christian were changed in this way, turned so radically away from their former life and began to live a far different and better life, it would be easy to argue simply from that frequent and public phenomenon that the gospel is true, is a power in the world, and that it brings the new life that it promises. Conversion would be perhaps the best proof of God and the Bible.

But most conversions are not like that. They have rarely been like that. Most Christians, most serious Christians have never been able to look back to a particular moment of sudden and tremendous transformation. Most Christians cannot remember the very day, the very hour at which the change took place; most cannot remember what they felt and thought at that moment; the words that were said to them or the words they said, or the thoughts they thought at the moment their life changed and Christ came in. We must live by faith and not by sight.

Indeed, is it not remarkable, something to ponder, that the most stupendous and, far and away, the most important thing that ever happens in this world – and it happens frequently – the conversion of sinners to God, happens without the largest part of the world even noticing. Another human being now on his or her way to heaven, and hardly anyone the wiser. How true it is that we must live by faith and not by sight!

Second, it is precisely the reality of conversion that helps us to know, no matter how salvation came to us, or when, that we have indeed been saved. For conversion is precisely the beginning of salvation, and that salvation has a certain character, it is marked by definite features. In fact, a point too often forgotten by some Christians, when teaching us how to be sure that we are saved, the Bible never asks us to remember the experience we had when first we began to follow Christ. It does not ask us to recall how our lives were suddenly and radically changed. It always, instead, asks us to test ourselves to see if the marks of true faith and of new life in Christ are present.

Do you believe in Jesus Christ as your savior from sin and death? Do you know you are a sinner, and that Christ alone can save you from the judgment you deserve? Do you know that when he hung on that cross he was suffering and dying to save sinners like yourself? Do you know that he rose from the dead on the third day to give you eternal life? Do you desire to obey and serve the Lord Jesus because you love him? Are you thankful to him for all he has done for you; all that he did that you did not in any way, to any degree deserve? Do you love to sing his praise; do you love to join his people in his worship? Do you want to live your life among other believers in Jesus? Questions like those are the questions converted people can answer with a resounding “Yes!”

Of course, we are not what we should be; we know that. We don’t love or obey as we ought to; indeed, as we want to? The great change leaves much change still to be done, we know that. But does the Lord know that we know that we caused the pain he suffered on the cross; that some of those scars on his crucified and risen body we put there, you and I; that it was for our sins that he died and rose again? Does he, who knows our hearts, know that nothing would satisfy us so completely as to be able to demonstrate perfectly and always our love for and gratitude to him? Can you say “Yes; yes; a thousand times Yes,” in answer to those questions? A converted man or woman can and will. And so it is possible for us to know that we have been converted. The change, if it were once secret, does not remain a secret. It can be seen!

And there is this one thing more. We are now in a time, at least in the western world, when conversions are fewer and further between. Indeed, we may be entering a time when conversions become rare. There is no disguising the fact that real Christians have often suffered such times, sad times, discouraging times. I don’t say that there will not be conversions. I believe there will always be some public, even dramatic and sudden turnings that gain the attention not only of Christians but of the world. Even in our part of the world; even in our day there will be some like that. The Lord never leaves himself without a witness. And, of course, there will be the church’s children, who will continue to supply the church with new believers, new workers, new worshippers. And, of course, if conversions are rarer now in the western world, they are not rare in the rest of it. Conversions by the millions and hundreds of millions in Africa, Asia, and South America will continue to be news for years to come.

But, if in our day, in our part of the world, conversion becomes a rarer thing, as has happened in many places and in many times, surely that is reason for you and for me to ponder what grace, what compassion, what mercy God has shown to us. In our part of the world where few people are becoming Christians, nevertheless here we are, the few among the many, followers of Jesus Christ, intending, come wind, come weather, to follow him faithfully to the end of our lives. Among the many, many millions who are not Christians, here we are, you and I. Why us? We might so easily not have been converted; but we were. With his irresistible summons, he called us, and we came. He told us to turn, and we turned. Left to ourselves we would never have turned, but he didn’t leave us to ourselves.

When the Lord Christ said to us that he had no pleasure in our death but wished us to be saved; when he told us “Turn, turn; for why will you die?” we turned. And we will never turn back. We will follow him to the end of our days; follow him right through the gates of death to the gates of heaven heaven, where some day all converted people will find themselves together and greatly rejoicing.

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