Conversion is Repentance toward God and Faith toward Christ by Martyn Lloyd Jones
All the passages below are taken from Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ book “God the Holy Spirit.” The sermon was preached at Westminister Chapel, London, from 1952 to 1955 and first published in 1997 and this edition in 2002.
We come now to a kind of turning point in our consideration of the work of the Holy Spirit in the application of redemption. So far we have been looking at His work as He does various things to us, in the depths and recesses of our being. All that we have considered so far in terms of the effectual call and regeneration and our union with Christ can be described in that way. It is something that the Spirit does and of which, at the time, one may not be actively conscious, or at least our consciousness is not essential to the work being done.
Now we come to what we may describe as the manifestations and the results of that work. But though I put it like that, we must again be very careful in the use of chronological sequence. So many of these things really cannot be divided up in terms of time like this. We must keep them clear in our minds, we must keep them clear as ideas, but so many seem to happen at almost exactly the same moment. It has been argued by some of the greatest teachers of the Church that a person may be regenerate for a number of years without its manifesting itself. I find it very difficult to subscribe to that, but I hesitate to pit my opinion against such great authorities. Again, I say that simply to show the kind of distinction that I am drawing.
So we must now consider the manifestations of all that we have considered together and here, too, the question of the order of these doctrines is most interesting. Once more, people disagree as to which doctrine should be put next, but for myself, the next is the biblical doctrine concerning conversion. Here is the regenerate person, the regenerate soul. Now that person is going to do something, and that action marks the moment of conversion.
What do we mean by conversion? It is the first exercise of the new nature in ceasing from old forms of life and starting a new life. It is the first action of the regenerate soul in moving from something to something else. The very term suggests that: conversion means turning from one thing to another. The term is not used very frequently in the Scriptures but the truth which the word connotes and represents appears constantly.
You will find that in the Scriptures the term itself is sometime used in a more general way for any turning. For instance, it is sometimes used even of a believer. Our Lord rebuked Peter on one occasion and said, `When thou art converted, strengthen thy brethren’ (Luke 22:32). He meant: When you come back again, when you have turned back. Here the word does not refer to Peter original coming into the Christian life, he was already in it, but he was going to backslide, he was going to go astray and then come back. That is described as conversion, but in the consideration of biblical doctrines, it is well to confine the word `conversion‘ to the sense which is normally given to it when we talk together about these things, that is, it is the initial step in the conscious history of the soul in its relationship to God, it is the first exercise, the first manifestation, of the new life that has been received in regeneration.
This, of course, is something which is essential and there at many statements to that effect. It is stated specifically in Matthew, 18:3: `Verily I say unto you,’ says our Lord, `Except ye be converted and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.’ But all the texts which we have already considered in dealing with the doctrine of regeneration are equally applicable here, texts such as, `The natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God’ (1 Corinthians 2:14), and, `the carnal mind is enmity against God’ (Romans 8:7). Men and women must come from that before they can be Christians; they must turn from that to this other condition. So conversion is essential. Nobody is born a Christian. We were born in sin, ‘shapen in iniquity’ (Psalm 51:5); we were all `the children of wrath, even as others’ (Ephesians 2:3), we are all subjects of original sin and original guilt, so we must all undergo conversion; and the Bible is quite explicit about this.
The next question, therefore, to ask is: How does it take place? What is the agency in conversion? And here the answer is quite simple. It is first of all and primarily the work of the Holy Spirit and the Holy Spirit does it through the effectual call. We have considered that doctrine and that is how this process of conversion takes place. The call becomes effectual and it is that which leads to the next step—what you and I do. You notice that we are mentioning this for the first time, but in any definition of conversion you must bring in the human as well as the divine activity. The call comes effectually and because it comes effectually we do something about it. That is conversion: the two sides, the call—the response. We have seen how all this becomes possible, but in dealing with conversion, of necessity we must give equal emphasis to the activity of human beings. Now in regeneration and in the union, we are absolutely passive; we play no part at all; it is entirely the work of the Spirit of God in the heart. But in conversion we act, we move, we are called and we do it.
We come, then, to consider the characteristics of conversion and this, I sometimes think, is one of the most important topics that Christian people can consider together. Why is that? Well, it is vital that we should consider the biblical teaching about conversion because there is such a thing as a `temporary conversion’. Have you noticed how often that is dealt with by our Lord Himself in His own teaching, how at times He almost seems to discourage people from going after Him? There was a man who said, `I will follow thee whithersoever thou goest,’ and our Lord, instead of saying, `Marvellous!’ said, Wait a minute. `The foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man hath not where to lay his head’ (Matthew 8:19-20). `Do you realise what you’re doing?’ he said in effect. `It’s a very foolish man who goes to war without making sure of his resources. It’s an equally foolish man who starts building a tower without making certain that he’s got sufficient material to finish it.’
Our Lord, because He knew the danger of a `temporary something’ happening, was constantly dealing with it, and seemed to be repelling people. Indeed, they charged Him with making discipleship impossible. Take that great sixth chapter of John where the people were running after Him and hanging on to His words because of the miracle of the feeding of the 5000, and our Lord seemed to be trying deliberately to repel them. So a large number, who thought they were disciples, went back, we are told, and walked no longer with Him. It is quite clear that our Lord was giving that teaching quite deliberately because He was drawing a distinction between the spirit and the flesh. He knew that they were carnal and He was anxious to stress the vital importance of grasping the spiritual.
Take also the parable in Matthew 13—the parable of the sower—and our Lord’s own exposition of it. Notice particularly verses 20 and 21: ‘But he that received the seed into stony places, the same is he that heareth the word, and anon with joy receiveth it; yet hath he not root in himself, but dureth for a while: for when tribulation or persecution ariseth because of the word, by and by he is offended.’ But notice what our Lord says about this same man: he, `anon with joy receiveth it [the word]’. That is what I mean by a temporary conversion. He seems to have received the word, he is full of joy but he has no root in him and that is why he ends up with nothing at all. Now that is our Lord’s own teaching; there is the possibility of this very joyful conversion and yet there is nothing there in a vital, living sense, and it proves temporary.
There is also further teaching in the Scriptures about this same thing. Take Simon the sorcerer in Acts 8. We are told in verse 13, ‘Simon himself believed also: and … was baptised.’ And yet look at the end of that man’s story. He was `in the gall of bitterness’ (v. 23), and Peter simply said to him that he had better ask God to have mercy and grant him repentance.He seemed to be a true believer, but was he?
Then Paul speaks, in 1 Timothy 1:19-20, of `Holding faith, and a good conscience; which some having put away concerning faith have made shipwreck.’ Now that is very serious teaching and he says the same thing in 2 Timothy 2. Here Paul is writing to Timothy about certain people who seemed to have been believers but were now denying the resurrection, as a result of which some frightened Christians thought that the whole Church was collapsing. It is all right, says Paul: `Nevertheless the foundation of God standeth sure, having this seal, The Lord knoweth them that are his’ (v. 19). God knows; He is not deceived or deluded. There is such a thing as temporary conversions, temporary believers, but they are not true believers. That is why it is so vital that we should know the biblical teaching as to what conversion really is.
What about the case of Demas, I wonder? There are many who would say that Demas was never a believer at all. I would not like to go so far. He may have been backsliding: ‘Demas hath forsaken me, having loved this present world’ (2 Tim. 4:10). But at any rate he is a doubtful case. And then you come to that great classic passage in this connection in Hebrews 6, with a similar passage in the tenth chapter of that epistle. `It is impossible for those who were once enlightened . . . if they shall fall away, to renew them again unto repentance’ (Hebrew 6:4,6).
Therefore I deliberately use this heading of `temporary conversion’. There is obviously something wrong with these people, so we must ask questions. We must consider, we must have definitions, because `All that glisters is not gold.‘ All that appears to be conversion is most certainly not conversion according to our Lord’s own teaching and the teaching of the inspired apostles. So I know nothing that is so dangerous, reprehensible and unscriptural as to say, `But you mustn’t ask these questions.’ No, no, let them come. Always ask: Does the Scripture entitle us to say that? If we are to be true teachers of the word, and helpers of others, and concerned about the glory of God, we must realise that there is such a thing as a temporary conversion which is based upon misunderstanding.
My second reason for being concerned about precise definitions is that there are not only temporary conversions but even counterfeit conversions. Now I draw a distinction, you will notice, between the two and the difference is that in the case of a temporary conversion, conversion is something that has happened as the result of the presentation of the biblical truth. In the case of a counterfeit conversion, it is a phenomenon which, though closely resembling and simulating Christian conversion, has been produced by some other agency that is not the truth. So we must draw the distinction.
This was never more necessary than today, because there are so many people who seem to think that as long as there is a great change in the person’s life, it must be a true conversion. If a man gives up sins and lives a good life and does good, that, they say, is Christian. But it may not be. It is possible for a man to undergo a great, profound, climactic change in his life and way of living and experience which has nothing to do with Christianity. People may even come out of the world and join a church, and their whole life from the outside may apparently be different, but it may be a counterfeit conversion. It is a conversion in the sense that they have left one thing and have come to another, have given up sins and are now doing good but it is counterfeit because they lack the necessary essential relationship to truth. If you are only interested in phenomena, if you are only interested in someone who can get up and say, `My whole life is absolutely changed,’ then you need only go to books on psychology. Psychology has been very popular now for many years, and it makes a most powerful attack upon the Christian faith—that is why I am so concerned about it. I heard a man say that if his Christian faith were attacked, it would not worry him. He would simply reply, `I don’t care what you people say; I don’t care what science says, I know because of what’s happening to me.’
Now my response to that was, `Yes, and every psychologist in your audience would smile. They would say, “We agree that you have had a psychological change and experience. But, of course, many things can do that.” And they would continue to dismiss the whole of Christianity.’
No, the defence of the Christian faith must never rely simply upon some experience that you and I have had. The defence of the Christian faith is objective truth. So unless we are careful at this point in defining conversion the danger is that we shall have nothing to say to those who have undergone one of these counterfeit experiences.
Then there is one other thing—and here we leave the counterfeit and the temporary and come to something which is more immediately practical. There are variable elements in connection with conversion, and because of these we must be very careful that we know what the essential elements are. Let me illustrate what I mean. Take the time element, the time factor in conversion. Must it be sudden? Is it impossible for it to be gradual? Well, I would say that the Scripture does not teach that it must of necessity be sudden. The great thing is that it has happened, whether sudden or gradual. The time element is not one of the absolute essentials; it may have its importance, but it is not vital.
Secondly, must one’s conversion of necessity be dramatic? We all tend to emphasise these, do we not? They have human interest, we say, and we must be interesting. But must conversion be dramatic? Now if you read just one chapter in the Scriptures—Acts 16—you will see that you have no right to say that. Of course, if you only read the story of the Philippian jailer, then you will say conversion must be full of drama. But I am equally interested in the story of Lydia and there is nothing to suggest that about her conversion. Not at all! It may have been quite quiet, but it was equally a conversion. So here we have another variable element. Dramatic quality may be there, but it may not be. It is not essential.
Then there is the old vexed question of the place of feelings. Of course, they must be there, but there are feelings and feelings. They may be very intense, or they may not be, but they are still feelings. We all differ by nature and temperament, and in this matter of feelings we differ very much indeed. The most demonstrative person is not always the one who feels most.
To me the meanest flower that blows can give
Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.
So it is not the one who is weeping the most copiously who is of necessity the most intensely feeling. Another person may be feeling so deeply that his feelings are down beyond the very possibility of tears, as it were. Feelings are variable and express themselves variously in different people. They must be present, but God forbid that we should insist upon a particular intensity or display of feelings.
And then there is the whole question of age. Some have said that unless you are converted when you are an adolescent, you will never be converted at all, because the requisite psychological factors can never be there again. What utter rubbish! How unscriptural! I have never seen a more striking conversion than I once saw in a man aged seventy-seven: thank God for that! No, there is no age limit; age does not make the slightest difference. We are talking about something the Holy Spirit produces. There is as much hope for the man who is shivering on the brink of the grave and of hell as for the adolescent—if you are interested in true conversion, that is. If you are interested in psychological experiences, then I agree, adolescence is the right time for it. Everything is very explosive at that point; you merely strike a match and there it is. But we are not interested in psychological changes; we are talking about true, Christian, spiritual conversion. And there age, thank God, is a complete irrelevance.
Now we have considered these things because there is always a tendency to standardise the variable aspect of conversion. Sometimes it works out in the evangelist, in his desiring everybody to become a Christian in the same way, and he is doubtful of the converts unless they are all the same. But it may happen in us, too, we all desire to be the same. That is always one of the dangerous things about reading of somebody else’s experiences; consciously or unconsciously we tend to reproduce them. It is a part of our makeup and of our nature, we are imitators, and if we like a thing that we see in someone else, then we wish that to be true of us, too.
Then we also tend to concentrate on particular manifestations of conversion. The feelings, for instance, are only one aspect, yet we put all our emphasis on them. This can be extremely dangerous because feelings, as I have indicated, are one of a number of variables, and this way may lead to tragedy. Some people are always insisting upon the presence of a variable quality, which is not essential. Thinking it was essential, and not having experienced it, they say that they have never been converted. And this can lead to untold and unnecessary unhappiness. In a way, the great instance of that is John Wesley who thought, immediately after his experience in Aldersgate Street, that that was his conversion, that he had never been a Christian until that moment. Years later he said that he had been quite wrong about that and that he was a Christian already but was `more like a servant than a son’. All that happened to him there, he said, was that he realised his faith.
Well, Wesley may have been right or not; we do not know. But all I am indicating is that if we postulate something that is variable, and insist upon it, we may do ourselves or somebody else great harm. We may tell other people that they are not converted because they do not conform to our particular standard. So we must be very careful that we do not go beyond Scripture and say things which the Bible does not say. Therefore, how vital, how essential it is, that we should have clear definitions in our mind.
What, then, are the permanent and essential elements in conversion? Now these are made quite plain in Scripture, but not only there. We know that what we shall now be considering must be true because of the previous doctrines. This is something that really thrills me! There is such a consistency in the scriptural teaching. These doctrines are all consistent with one another, and if we allow ourselves to be led by the Bible, we shall not be denying at one point what we have said at another. And the doctrines we have already considered make the truth of these permanent and essential elements in conversion inevitable and clear.
Another argument—and I do want to emphasise this—is that what the Scriptures tell us about the permanent and essential elements in conversion has always been repeated in all great revivals in the long history of the Christian Church.That is most important. If you start saying that, because this is the late twentieth century, we can expect something different or that things need not be the same, you are being unscriptural. If this is the work of God, I do not care what century it happens in, it will have the same marks upon it, the same stamp. Read the history of revivals and you will find that they have always reproduced similar characteristics. It has often been said that every revival is nothing but a return to the book of Acts. Every true sign of religion is first-century religion coming up again. Always! There is a standard pattern, and all the histories show that the revivals conform to these great essential elements.
It is not only true in the history of revival. It is equally true in the history of persons, individuals, the saints who have been converted. Men and women of God are always the same. I do not care where they are, from what country, what century, or what time—it makes no difference. The fact is that they are men and women of God, and it is their relationship to God that determines what they must be. And that does not change throughout the centuries because God does not change. There is no special type of man or woman of God for the twentieth century, and do not believe it if anybody tells you there is. They must be the same, they always have been. You can read of them in the early centuries, in the Middle Ages, at the time of the Reformation, in the period of the Puritans, the evangelicals of the eighteenth century—they are always the same. And each one reminds you of the others.
What, then, are these permanent elements? There are two essential elements in conversion, and these are emphasised everywhere in the Scripture, in the Gospels, in the book of Acts and in the epistles. Paul, fortunately, has put it all in a phrase for us, in Acts 20:21, on that moving occasion when he said farewell to the elders of the church at Ephesus. I have sometimes thought that if there was one scene in history more than any other at which I should like to have been present, it was just that. `I’m going,’ Paul says, in effect, to the elders, `you’ll never see me again, and I want you to hold on to the things I’ve told you, and to remember what I did when I was with you.’ What was this? `Testifying both to the Jews, and also to the Greeks, repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ.‘ That is conversion. Those are the essential and the only essential elements in conversion. Repentance and faith. Sudden or gradual, it does not matter. Repentance must be there; faith must be there. If one is missing it is not conversion. Both are essential.
At this point, let me ask a question. In which order do they come? Which comes first, repentance or faith? Now that is a fascinating question. There is a sense in which faith is bound to come before repentance, and yet I shall not put it like that, and for this reason: when I am talking about faith, I mean it in the sense that the apostle Paul used it—faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, not faith in general. There must be faith in general before you can repent, because if you do not believe certain things about God, you do not act upon it and there is no repentance. But I am referring to faith in the special sense of faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. In that case, repentance comes before faith and Paul puts them in that order: `Testifying both to the Jews, and also to the Greeks, repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ.’
Why must repentance come first? Well, you will find that it always comes first in Scripture. Who was the first preacher in the New Testament? The answer is John the Baptist. What did he preach? The `baptism of repentance for the remission of sins’ (Mark 1:4). This was the message of the forerunner and the forerunner always comes first. Then the second preacher was the Lord Jesus Christ and if you turn to the Gospels and observe the first thing He ever said you will find that He again exhorted the people to repent and to believe the gospel (Mark 1:15). So, exactly like John the Baptist, the first thing He taught was repentance.
Then what did Peter preach? Take the great sermon on the day of Pentecost in Acts 2. Peter preached and the people cried out saying, `Men and brethren, what shall we do?’ This was the reply: `Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost’ (Acts 2:37-38). Repent. And, as I have already quoted to you, repentance was the message of the apostle Paul. He started with repentance. He did it in Athens: God ‘. . . . commandeth all men every where to repent’ (Acts 17:30).
Repentance is of necessity the first message, and it surely must be. It is scriptural, yes, but Scripture also enables us to reason. Let me put it to you like this: Why should men and women believe on the Lord Jesus Christ? It is no use just asking them to believe in Christ. They are entitled to ask, `Why should I believe in Him?’ That is a perfectly fair question. And people do not see any need or necessity for believing in the Lord Jesus Christ if they do not know what repentance is. Of course you may be inviting them to Christ as a helper, or as a friend, or as a healer of the body, but that is not Christian conversion. No, no, people must know why they must believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. The law is our schoolmaster (Galatians 3:24) to bring us there and the law works repentance.
In other words, the primary point about conversion, the primary thing in the whole of Christian salvation, is to bring us into the right relationship with God. Why did Christ come? Why did He die? The answer is that He did it all to bring us to God. And if we think about these things in any way except in terms of being reconciled to God, our view is entirely false. I say it hesitatingly because I know the danger of being misunderstood, but there is far too much Christianity today, it seems to me, that stops at the Lord Jesus Christ and does not realise that He came and did everything in order to reconcile us to God. Indeed, it was God who was `in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself’ (2 Corinthians 5:19). I think the greatest weakness in evangelical Christianity today is that it forgets God. We are interested in experiences, we are interested in happiness, we are interested in subjective states. But the first need of every soul, as we shall see, is to be right with God. Nothing matters but that. The gospel starts with God, because what is wrong with everybody is that they are in a wrong relationship to Him.
So we must put repentance first; it is the original trouble, the main consequence of the fall and original sin. God is orderly in His working, and He starts with the big thing, the first thing. Therefore, in the next lecture, we shall go on to deal with repentance. (120-130)