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 have a Christian society. This would be the case if conversion entailed perfection, but the newly converted Christian is far from perfect. Indeed, because sin persists within the Christian even unto his death, he needs to be disciplined and restrained by law just as the non-Christian. A significant difference is that the genuinely converted believer recognizes his frailty and deficiency and therefore is able to resist the temptation to idolatry. It must also be said that the Christian is able to bring the spirit of Agape love into the political arena and can therefore be much more sensitive than the nonbeliever to the dire needs of humanity. The temptation of those who stand in the tradition of evangelicalism is to claim too much for conversion. But the peril in the circles of neoliberalism and neo-orthodoxy is to fail to recognize that conversion entails an ontological change, that the converted man is now a “new creation” (2 Cor. 5:17).

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We cannot subscribe to the belief rampant among the devotees of the older Lutheran orthodoxy that the Christian lives in two separate spheres, the spiritual and the secular. The truth in this position is that the spiritual and the secular do signify two different dimensions, but they must not be separated. When Jesus said that we should give unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s (Matt. 22:21), he was not implying that life is divided between Caesar’s rule and God’s but that all of life belongs to God; the little that belongs to Caesar by God’s permission can be returned to Caesar. In the view of Jesus, even Pilate derives his authority and power from God (John 19:11). The secular state is not a kingdom that can demand absolute allegiance but rather a political society brought into being for the purpose of maintaining law and order. Moreover, it is in such a society that we are called to work out our vocation to Christian sainthood.

The Bible does, however, speak of an invisible spiritual kingdom that is opposed to the rule of God and has entered into the world corrupting the loyalties of men and nations. It is this kingdom, the kingdom of darkness, that we are called to battle in the name of Christ. But this battle takes place on every level of man’s life, the political and economic spheres as well as the spiritual. When the state becomes enslaved to the powers of darkness, when it demands for itself unconditional loyalty, then the Christian must protest, and he must make this protest known in every area of life. When the state pretends to be a kingdom that encompasses all of life, a self-sustaining political order, a power unto itself, then the Christian must be prepared to obey God rather than men (Acts 5:29).

The converted sinner will be primarily concerned about the spiritual lostness of man, but he will also agonize over the injustices that the lost condition of man engenders. The Church as a Church should generally beware of getting involved in partisan politics because its mission is fundamentally spiritual. It is called to herald a Gospel concerning a kingdom that is not of this world. It is commissioned to prepare men for membership in a heavenly, not a secular, city. At the same time, when political issues become moral issues, then the Church must speak to the political situation. When the life and work of our fellow men are placed in jeopardy, the Church dare not remain silent. But what it speaks must be the Word of God and not a political or sociological opinion.

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We must be careful not to identify the Gospel with a social crusade or a program for social reform. This does not mean that we as Christians should not take part in movements that seek to bring about social reform, such as the civil-rights movement. On the contrary, wherever men are seeking a just social order we should lend them our earnest support. Indeed, Christians should be in the vanguard of those who seek to correct the inequities and injustices within society. Yet we must always remember that social reform does not of itself prepare the way for the kingdom of God. Nor is a relatively just society in this world ever to be equated with the holy city of the saints prophesied in the New Testament (cf. Heb. 11:10, 16; 13:14; Rev. 21:2, 10). We must also bear in mind that evangelizing is not the same thing as humanizing or civilizing, as Bishop Robinson has contended. (On Being the Church in the World, p. 19.) Nor is evangelism to be equated with social action, as in the writing of Harvey Cox and Colin Williams.

It is becoming commonplace to affirm that Christianity has destroyed the demarcation between sacred and secular. The danger of this is that it leads one to view the mission of the Church solely as social service and conversion as a purely psychological change that facilitates integration with one’s social environment. But conversion signifies in the first instance not a new social attitude nor a richer personal life nor a new self-understanding but rather a spiritual rebirth, a new existence, which is a gift of the Spirit of God. This new birth will have repercussions in every area of man’s life and may very well lead to social concern and psychological integration. But the trouble today is that we are putting the cart before the horse and seeking to change the environment without changing the man. Kierkegaard had some wise words for us on this point: “Oh, let us never forget this, let us not reduce the spiritual to the worldly. Even though we may earnestly think of the spiritual and the worldly together, let us forever distinguish them” (Purity of Heart, p. 181).

The truth in the position of those who uphold a secular theology is that man needs bread as well as the Bread of Life. He has need of freedom and equality of opportunity as well as the freedom of the Spirit. He rightly yearns for freedom from oppression and slavery as well as for freedom from sin. Yet we must forever hold on to the biblical truth that man does not live by bread alone (Luke 4:4). The one thing needful is the hearing of the Word of God (Luke 10:42). That which is indispensable for the abundant life that Christ came to give us is conversion by the power of his spirit.

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God’s grace must be appropriated by man if it is to be effectual for his salvation. The salvation procured by Jesus Christ must become a concrete reality in the lives of men. And this means that repentance or conversion is also decisive for man’s salvation. Calvin acknowledges that Christ “exposed himself to death, that he might redeem us from the sentence of death … but it is not enough for us unless we now receive him, that thus the efficacy and fruit of his death may reach us” (Tracts and Treatises on the Doctrine and Worship of the Church, II, 89). The victory that overcomes the world is not only the cross of Christ but also the faith of the believer (1 John 5:4).

In the older Reformed theology, regeneration signifies the work of God in the heart of man, whereas conversion or repentance represents man’s role in the drama of salvation. What is important to understand is that these two realities are not parallel processes but rather two ways of explaining the paradox of salvation. To affirm, as some revivalists have done, that we must give our hearts to Christ and then his Spirit will regenerate us, is to fall into a kind of semi-Pelagianism or synergism. The very fact that we do surrender our lives to Christ is a sign that regeneration by his Spirit is already taking place.

Conversion has been rightly associated with regeneration, since it entails not only a turning towards God but also an inward cleansing. It is well to bear in mind that sins are taken away in repentance and faith as well as forgiven. Christ saves us not only from the guilt and penalty of sin but also from its power. We are saved by Christ working within us through his Spirit as well as by Christ dying for us on the cross of Calvary.

Yet it is important to recognize that our regeneration, although beginning in a particular time, has still to be completed. This indeed is the position of the Protestant Reformers, Calvin and Luther. The work of renewal and purification is not accomplished all at once, but it must continue throughout the life of the Christian. Our carnal nature is crucified in baptism and faith but not yet eradicated. The new birth means that our life-orientation has been changed, not that our hearts have been completely purified. The Christian is still a sinner, even though he is no longer in sin because he is now united with Christ at the very core of his being. Yet vestiges of sin remain within him even though he is now rooted in the holiness of Christ. This is why our Reformed fathers spoke of the justification of the ungodly, which means that believers despite their sin are justified. At the same time we need also to speak of the justification of the converted, since it is only those who believe that are declared to be righteous in Christ.

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Regeneration like conversion can be regarded as both an event and a process in that the Holy Spirit seeks to consummate what he has begun. We err both by viewing the initiatory stage of regeneration as the climax of the Spirit’s work and by treating regeneration as a general life process that entails no decisive break with the past. Regeneration in the broad sense involves the whole work of cleansing and renovation, but in a narrower sense it can be regarded as the act or acts by which one is received into communion with Christ. Even in this more limited sense, regeneration can be held to occur in a series of stages beginning with the seeking for Christ by the prompting of his spirit and ending in commitment to Christ in the power of his Spirit.

Regeneration is closely associated with sanctification and may be said even to include it. Both terms refer to different aspects of the same process, but it is possible to make a formal distinction between them. Regeneration can be understood as participation in Christ, being engrafted into Christ, while sanctification connotes obedience and conformity to Christ in life and work. Whereas regeneration means entering upon a new existence, sanctification is concerned with the development of a holy personality. Regeneration signifies the washing away of sin and inward spiritual renewal; sanctification means being set apart from the world for consecrated service (cf. Eph. 5:26, 27). We must not only receive the Spirit in faith but also be directed by the Spirit in love to follow the path of our Master. Our participation in the revivifying power of Jesus Christ begins in the crisis of repentance and faith; we are turned in an altogether new direction, but we are not yet made whole. The cleansing and renewing work of the Spirit must continue until we are wholly conformed to his image. Consequently we are not fully regenerate until we are entirely sanctified. It can be said that sanctification has its commencement in regeneration and that regeneration finds its fulfillment in sanctification.

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Justification is our acceptance by God and is indeed the ground of our regeneration and sanctification. Justification occurs simultaneously with regeneration in that we receive God’s grace only by participation in Christ through faith. Yet in contradistinction to both the dominant strand of Roman Catholic theology and Schleiermacher, we affirm that the cause of justification is not our inner renewal but rather the free grace or mercy of God.

Milton D. Hunnex is professor and head of the department of philosophy at Willamette University, Salem, Oregon. He received the B.A. and M.A. degrees from the University of Redlands and the Ph.D. in the Inter-collegiate Program in Graduate Studies, Claremont, California. He is author of “Philosophies and Philosophers.”

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