Friday, December 25, 2009

What Is Real Conversion? (Part Four)

Sometimes we are so caught up in our day-to-day activities, including overcoming our individual sins, that we forget the goal of the conversion process, the product into which we are to be transformed. Perhaps we do not really forget it, but we often lose sight of it in the rush of our lives. Like ants, we are always busy doing something, and we forget to remind ourselves about what we are converting to. Where do we want to end up when our lives are complete? Answering this question helps us to evaluate how converted we are.

God set down the goal of human life at the very beginning, when He created mankind in the Garden of Eden. Genesis 1:26 states plainly, "Then God said, ‘Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness.'" Many commentators opine that these words, "image" and "likeness," are essentially synonymous in Hebrew—meaning that human beings generally look like God—but doing so limits God's creativity to the merely physical. The gospel declares that God's plan for every person is far grander and quite spiritual in nature. Though the difference between these two words is admittedly difficult to define, they suggest that man's physical creation is only the first step in His two-part creative work.

Two New Testament verses illustrate how we can understand the difference between "likeness" and "image." The apostle Paul writes in Philippians 2:7 that Christ came "in the likeness of men," or in other words, in human form. Thus, likeness conveys the sense of mankind looking like God; humans are essentially God-like in bodily shape. God, therefore, used Himself as a model for His creation of Adam.

In contrast, Hebrews 1:3 tells us that Christ is "the express image of [the Father's] person." The Greek word underlying "image" is charaktér, and while it literally describes an impress on a coin, its figurative usage suggests an exact representation of another's nature. "Image," then, speaks to God's non-physical qualities, such as His mind, personality, and character. Thus, though we are born in the bodily likeness of God, He calls us to be converted into His spiritual image.

In terms of God's carrying out a dual creative process, Paul writes in Galatians 6:15, "For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision avails anything, but a new creation." In Christ, God continues to create. While God's physical creation of mankind ended on sunset of the sixth day (Genesis 1:31), His spiritual creation is ongoing, and it will continue as long as there are human beings to transform into His image. Each Christian is a "new creation."

What He is creating is the "new man." Paul instructs us to "put off, concerning your former conduct, the old man which grows corrupt according to the deceitful lusts, and be renewed in the spirit of your mind, and that you put on the new man which was created according to God, in righteousness and true holiness" (Ephesians 4:22-24).

First, he says to put off the "old man"—our sinful nature that has kept us separated from God and that does not live as Christ lives—and put on the "new man," an entirely different nature that reflects the very character and way of life of God. This new man is a creation of God and has everything to do with righteousness and holiness.

In Ephesians 4:25, 28, he provides a few examples of how this process works: "Therefore, putting away lying, each one speak truth with his neighbor, for we are members of one another. . . . Let him who stole steal no longer, but rather let him labor, working with his hands what is good, that he may have something to give him who has need." Notice that in these examples we have a behavior to put off and a different behavior to put on: The apostle advises us to quit lying and to replace it with speaking the truth, as well as to stop stealing and to start working so that we can give to others. This is the process of conversion: with God's help through His Spirit, forsaking our sinful nature and all its destructive behaviors and then taking on the godly nature and its constructive behaviors. This is how God is creating His image within us.

In Colossians 3:1-4, 9-11, Paul approaches this subject slightly differently:

If then you were raised with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ is, sitting at the right hand of God. Set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth. For you died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with Him in glory. . . . Do not lie to one another, since you have put off the old man with his deeds, and have put on the new man who is renewed in knowledge according to the image of Him who created him.Where there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcised nor uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave nor free, but Christ is all and in all.

The apostle sets matters in their proper perspective. Christians have been called to a wonderful destiny, but it is not without sacrifice. We were called to die to our old lives—the old man—and to seek and embrace an entirely new way of life, the life of God. If we successfully work through this process of salvation, during which we are converted or transformed into the image of our Creator, then we will be resurrected in glory at Christ's return.

What Paul does in this passage is to orient our lives in their ultimate direction—toward Christ. We are "raised with Christ." We are to seek heavenly things "where Christ is." Our lives are "hidden with Christ." "Christ . . . is our life." We are being made new according to Christ our Creator's image, just as Genesis 1:26 said. To us, "Christ is all and in all." Thus, God is converting Christians, followers of Christ, into "the express image" of our Lord and Savior, to echo Christ's own description in Hebrews 1:3.

There is the goal. Jesus Christ is everything to us. He is the One—the new Man—we are all trying to put on. This is what II Corinthians 3:18 proclaims: "But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord." Through the Holy Spirit working in us, we are being converted from the glory of man to the glory of God. How awesome!

The apostle John writes in I John 3:2-3: "Beloved, now we are children of God; and it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is. And everyone who has this hope in Him purifies himself, just as He is pure." The two apostles agree perfectly. We are in the process of transforming into the image of Jesus Christ, and this conversion requires us to purify ourselves, to refine our lives, to the righteousness and holiness of Christ. Certainly, a tall order, but one that God promises to assist us in fulfilling by His Spirit.

Next time, we will walk the battlefield on which the bulk of the conversion process takes place: the mind.

Friday, December 18, 2009

What Is Real Conversion? (Part Three)

The first two parts of this series considered the questions of who is truly converted and whether conversion is an event or a process. Perhaps an even more basic question on this subject is "What role does sin play in conversion?" There would be no need for conversion without the existence of sin and its destructive effects on humanity. Sin and the anti-God world it has spawned are what Christians must turn from so that they can truly follow God's way of life.

God gives a concise description of conversion in Ezekiel 18:30-31: "Repent, and turn from all your transgressions, so that iniquity will not be your ruin. Cast away from you all the transgressions which you have committed, and get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit." However, if a person is converted, and he subsequently sins, does he automatically become unconverted? Certainly not. Since conversion is a process in which one turns to righteousness and holiness over time, it also takes time and a great deal of habitual sin for one to revert completely to an unconverted state.

The apostle John helps us to understand the Christian's battle against sin in I John 1:5–2:2:

This is the message which we have heard from Him and declare to you, that God is light and in Him is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with Him, and walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and His word is not in us. My little children, these things I write to you, that you may not sin. And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous, and He Himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world.

In this passage, John is responding specifically to certain claims, voiced by Gnostics who had already begun to infiltrate the church, regarding sin and a Christian's ability to sin. They claimed three false beliefs:

  1. In verse 6, that their conduct had no bearing on their relationship with God. As John repeats their statement, they believed that they could sin—"walk in darkness"—and continue fellowshipping with God with no adverse effects. John calls this a lie.
  2. In verse 8, that they had no sin—in effect, that they were perfectly pure already. John calls this self-deception.
  3. In verse 10, that they were beyond sin—in other words, that they could not sin. The apostle says this belief calls God a liar.
This passage reveals how little the Gnostics understood, though they claimed to know it all, which is what the Greek word gnosis means, "to know." A Gnostic is "one who knows," or pejoratively, a "know-it-all." Gnostics were proud of their knowledge, believing that they knew more than others did. Worse, they felt that their knowledge gave them superiority over others who had not studied the "mysteries" of spirituality as deeply as they had. However, John exposes that they actually knew nothing. As he writes, the truth was not in them; they did not understand even the most basic elements of Christianity.

He answers their false claims quite simply. First, he argues that, by definition, a Christian is one who follows the example of Christ, so it is sheer nonsense to say that our manner of life has nothing to do with our relationship with God. Only if we do as Jesus did will we stay in fellowship with God and please Him (John 8:29). If we are constantly trying to follow the example of Christ, His blood will be available to cleanse us of our sins, and He will gladly do so along the way.

Second, he counters that we only show our hypocrisy and self-deception if we claim not to sin, because we are obviously full of sin. Paul instructs us that God's law defines what sin is (Romans 7:7), and even a cursory comparison between God's righteous standards and our imperfect lives reveals that a great deal of sin remains in us after baptism—sinful ways that we must turn from. If we fail to see any sin in ourselves, we are clearly deceiving ourselves.

Third, regarding a Christian being incapable of sin, John contends that such a statement calls God a liar. Since the whole plan of God is based on redemption from sin, if we are already so spiritual that we cannot sin, why is God putting us through this farce of conversion? The truth is that all men are sinful (Romans 3:23). Jesus teaches that, just as God is perfect, we are to become perfect (Matthew 5:48), and Paul echoes that our job is to "go on to perfection" (Hebrews 6:1).

In his answer, John admits that, even though the whole thrust of Christianity is to turn from sin and live sinlessly, we still have sinful human nature in us—or as Jeremiah 17:9 says, a heart that is "deceitful" and "desperately wicked"—and we do sin. Yet if we sin, admit it, repent of it, and seek forgiveness for it, Christ's blood covers the sin, and we go on striving not to sin. The desired result is that we have overcome the sin, learned a lesson, and grown in character. This is how conversion works: step by step, one transformation to the image of Christ at a time.

This should tell us a few things about conversion. For starters, it is not something we can do alone. It is God who works to convert us by His Spirit, as we work in cooperation with Him (Philippians 2:12-13). Conversion is His spiritual, creative process at work, transforming us into what He has purposed and designed us to become. As Paul says, the process of conversion is God's workmanship in us (Ephesians 2:10). He conducts us through the entire process.

In addition, we realize that, no matter how long we live, the process of conversion will never be complete. We can never achieve perfection in this life, for we will always fall short of the righteousness of Christ. With its inherent self-centeredness, human flesh can never be entirely converted to God's way of outgoing love. The apostle Paul, certainly a righteous man, lamented many years after his initial conversion, "I am carnal, sold under sin" (Romans 7:14) and "I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) nothing good dwells" (verse 18). Only by the resurrection of the dead at Christ's second coming will we be truly "incorruptible" (I Corinthians 15:52).

Yes, sin is involved in the conversion process, but we are endeavoring to overcome it. Even with the indwelling of God's Spirit, from time to time we will sin. Thus, a converted person is not perfect, but he is constantly working in that direction under God's guiding hand.

Next time, in Part Four, we will consider more deeply the goal of the conversion process.

Friday, December 11, 2009

What Is Real Conversion? (Part Two)

In Part One, we learned that a great deal of confusion exists—even among professing Christians—about true conversion. Contrary to many who teach it, confessing the name of Jesus is not how the Bible defines a converted person. Scripture shows that a person must repent, be baptized, and receive the Holy Spirit; keep God's commandments; work to overcome his sins; and bear the fruits of God's Spirit. Such a person has converted—changed or transformed—from his old life to a completely new one in Christ.

We also saw that the Bible calls a person "converted" when he repents and accepts Jesus Christ as his personal Savior, and is baptized and receives the Holy Spirit by the laying on of hands. Acts 11:19-21 provides an example on this initial conversion:

Now those who were scattered after the persecution that arose over Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch, preaching the word to no one but the Jews only. But some of them were men from Cyprus and Cyrene, who, when they had come to Antioch, spoke to the Hellenists, preaching the Lord Jesus. And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number believed and turned to the Lord.

Luke writes "a great number . . . turned to the Lord." The Greek word that is here translated "turned" is the same word that is elsewhere rendered as "converted." There is a point where God considers a person to be converted. In this case, these people in Antioch believed the preaching of these persecuted Christians, and they not only agreed with their teaching but also "changed" or "transformed" their lives. Once this change of heart takes place, when a person repents and receives God's Spirit, he is converted.

Notice, however, how this scene continues:

Then news of these things came to the ears of the church in Jerusalem, and they sent out Barnabas to go as far as Antioch. When he came and had seen the grace of God, he was glad, and encouraged them all that with purpose of heart they should continue with the Lord. (Acts 11:22-23)

Though the church was young at this point, its leaders had already learned that people can, after the excitement of their "first love" of the truth wanes, fall back into their old, sinful way of life. They can revert to carnality. Some fall away altogether. Their problem is that they do not "continue with the Lord." In other words, they do not persist in being converted more completely, or as the writer of Hebrews puts it, they do not "go on to perfection" (Hebrews 6:1). This teaches us that conversion is not a one-time event but a process that begins with a single event.

Like conversion, salvation is also a process. In one sense, it happens all at once when we are justified, as God considers us to be saved at that point. However, justification is only the initial part of a much greater process that will take the rest of our lives to complete. In fact, the Bible says we have been saved (Ephesians 2:5, 8; II Timothy 1:9; Titus 3:5; etc.), we are being saved (I Corinthians 1:18; II Corinthians 2:15; Philippians 2:12; etc.), and we will be saved (Romans 5:9; 13:11; Hebrews 9:28; I Peter 1:5, 9; etc.)—clearly illustrating a process with past, present, and future aspects, which are respectively justification, sanctification, and glorification.

Conversion is similar. God converts us upon the receipt of the Holy Spirit, but we still have the remainder of our lives to live according to God's instructions and to imitate the holy, righteous character of Jesus Christ (Romans 8:29; II Corinthians 3:18; Ephesians 5:1; Colossians 3:9-10; I Thessalonians 1:6; etc.). Our initial conversion is merely the first touch of God's mind upon us. We have so much further to go. Truly, we will not be completely converted to God and His way of life until we are changed to spirit in the resurrection from the dead (see I Corinthians 15:50-53).

Thus, those who have only recently been baptized and received God's Spirit are newborns (I Peter 2:2) in the lifelong process of transformation to reflect the righteous character of God (Romans 12:2). The writer of Hebrews points out, "For everyone who partakes only of milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, for he is a babe. But solid food belongs to those who are of full age" (Hebrews 5:13-14).

In a similar vein, the apostle Paul writes in I Corinthians 3:1-3: "And I, brethren, could not speak to you as to spiritual people but as to carnal, as to babes in Christ. I fed you with milk and not with solid food; for until now you were not able to receive it, and even now you are still not able; for you are still carnal." In Ephesians 4:11-14, he explains this concept in terms of the work of the ministry:

And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ, till we all come to the unity of the faith and the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ; that we should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine. . . .

He describes conversion in terms of growth from childhood to maturity. As babies grow into adolescents, and then into teens, young adults, middle-agers, and senior citizens, so are Christians to develop spiritually. The apostle continues his thought in verse 15, saying that the goal is to "grow up in all things into Him who is the head—Christ." Conversion, then, is a process of spiritual development from carnal immaturity to Christ-like maturity—or in its ultimate sense, divine perfection.

As Christians, we are to go through the process of conversion—spiritual transformation of character—to the point that God considers us ready to fulfill the destiny and the office that He has prepared for us. If God were to change us right now into spirit beings, how many of us would be converted enough to fulfill the responsibilities He would give us? Beyond the fact that God would not do this until the time is right, it is likely that few, if any, of us would have the sterling character required.

That conversion is a process only makes sense. It is just like the natural, human process of growth of a child. What would one think of a "baby" that was born already mature, six feet tall and 190 pounds? Woe to the mother of that kid! Nevertheless, it would be abnormal, a freak, an anomaly. God did not design nature to work that way; living organisms must experience a process of growth, even if it is brief. So, like a baby, a newly regenerated Christian (Titus 3:5) must grow and mature through the process of conversion from a state of carnality to spirituality, from flesh to Spirit (Romans 8:5).

Next time, we will look into the impact of sin on conversion.

Friday, December 4, 2009

What Is Real Conversion? (Part One)

The world contains over a billion professing Christians—of Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox creeds, not to mention the hundreds of denominations such as Episcopalian, Lutheran, Methodist, Baptist, Pentecostal, Coptic, Adventist, Messianic, and so forth. Beyond these, a significant percentage of these billion-plus souls is "non-denominational," all of whom consider themselves to be Christian nonetheless. Despite ecumenical efforts, the number of differing Christian groups is only increasing around the globe.

This plethora of Christian "faith traditions" exposes the open secret that Christendom is sharply divided along lines of both doctrine and practice. Not only do the denominations argue over the nature of God, law and works, abortion, and the afterlife, but they also squabble over church government, the ordination of women and homosexuals, liturgy, communion, and a host of other issues, big and small. Hardly any point or observance has not come under fire.

In fact, the bickering between rival faiths can be downright petty, as is illustrated in the silly rivalries among Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, Coptic, Syrian Orthodox, and Ethiopian monks over who controls various areas of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. Even today, a Muslim family holds the keys to the church's main entrance because the Christians do not trust each other. In the summer of 2002, eleven monks needed medical attention after a fracas that began when a Coptic monk moved his chair from its approved place to get out of the blistering sun!

Are these the actions of converted Christians? How does a converted person act? What determines whether a person is converted or not? And can just anyone be converted?

Perhaps the most basic question we can ask is, "Who can be converted?" If a person professes to be a Christian, saying that he has accepted Christ as his personal Savior, is he converted? Is that all it takes? If so, does it mean that all "Christians" are converted?

The Bible, specifically Romans 8:6-9, 13-16, answers all of these questions about who can be converted:

For to be carnally minded is death, but to be spiritually minded is life and peace. Because the carnal mind is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, nor indeed can be. So then, those who are in the flesh cannot please God. But you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you. Now if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he is not His. . . .

For if you live according to the flesh you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of bondage again to fear, but you received the Spirit of adoption by whom we cry out, "Abba, Father." The Spirit [it]self bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God.

This passage lists four points about who is a true Christian—and thus, converted—and who is not. First, Paul says that a person who is still carnally minded—who has not submitted to God's spiritual way of life—is not subject to God's law, nor can be. Conversely, and more positively, a true Christian is subject to God's law. So if an individual claims to be converted but does not and will not keep God's law, then he is not converted.

Second, the apostle tells us that God considers a person His—that is, one of His children—if he has the Holy Spirit in him. When the Holy Spirit resides in someone, he is said to be "in the Spirit," and he will do or want to do all of the things that God desires of him.

Third, a person "in the Spirit" is trying to eradicate the ungodly deeds of the body. In other words, he is making great efforts to overcome sin. Human nature, goaded by the wicked influence of Satan the Devil (Ephesians 2:2), is essentially selfish or self-interested and in opposition to the way of God, which is based on love for others or outgoing concern. The converted Christian strives to change from sinfully self-centered to righteously God-centered, which means he has to deny himself the evil desires of his carnal nature.

Fourth, Paul writes in verse 16 that God's Spirit in the converted person bears witness that he is one of God's children. Put another way, the Holy Spirit produces testimony, proof, or fruit, that an individual is indeed a son or daughter of God. In effect, the true Christian exhibits the fruit of God's Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23), removing all doubt about his conversion.

If someone claims to be converted yet does not fit these four attributes, he is not truly converted.

We need to grade ourselves on these points. Have we been baptized and received God's Spirit by the laying on of hands? Are we keeping God's law? Are we are overcoming the sins that so easily trip us up? Are we growing in God's righteousness and producing fruit? How far has the conversion process gone in us?

Two passages in Acts provide an additional point to consider, one that tends to cause confusion on the subject of conversion. Acts 2 records the details of the Pentecost after Christ's resurrection, when Peter speaks to the assembled multitude, telling the Jews that they had killed their Savior on Passover:

Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, "Men and brethren, what shall we do?" Then Peter said to them, "Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is to you and to your children, and to all who are afar off, as many as the Lord our God will call. (Acts 2:37-39)

Shortly thereafter, in Acts 3:19, Peter preaches at Solomon's Porch and says something similar: "Repent therefore and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out, so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord." Peter shows conversion to take place at a definite time and all at once. He says, "Repent and be baptized," and "Repent and be converted." It is like snapping your fingers. Just like that. So when we repent and accept Jesus Christ as our personal Savior, and are baptized and receive the Holy Spirit, we are considered to be "converted." We have forsaken our old way of life and embraced God's.

However, as mentioned briefly above, conversion is also a process, which Part Two will explain.