A Protestant theologian writes on “conversion,” a major theme facing the World Council of Churches’ Uppsala Assembly in July

Conversion is again becoming a live issue in theology. The new interest in the Christian life and the sacraments has focused attention upon the meaning of the decision of faith. The growing ecumenical dialogue has also served to awaken interest in the doctrine of conversion, inasmuch as soteriology has been the principal area of conflict between Catholicism and Protestantism in the past.

The English word “conversion” is associated with the Hebrew word shuv, which means to turn back or return, and the Greek words epistrepho and metanoeo, both of which indicate to turn towards God. The key term in the New Testament is the latter, together with its noun form metanoia. This term signifies not simply a change of mind (as in classical Greek) but a change of heart. Metanoia can also be translated as “repentance.” John Wesley was certainly true to the basic witness of Scripture when he defined conversion in his dictionary as “a thorough change of heart and life from sin to holiness, a turning.” Although conversion is basically a change in one’s relationship to God, this spiritual change entails a transformation in social attitudes as well. Conversion is primarily a spiritual event, but it has profound implications in the secular or public sphere of man’s life. It points man toward a spiritual goal, but he is called to pursue this spiritual goal in the midst of the grime and agony of this world.

This is not to imply that social righteousness is an automatic consequence of individual regeneration. It is simply not true, as popular piety sometimes expresses it, that when everyone becomes a Christian, we shall then ...

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