What’s the difference between ‘conversion’ and ‘conversionism’?
Conversion is a biblical teaching wherein we learn that we’re not active in our regeneration. However, activated by God’s grace, we repent and believe. Repentance and belief are gifts, but we are the ones repenting and believing – this is conversion. “Conversionism” (the conversionism in the evangelical church, with which we’re all familiar) is reductionistic in two ways. First, it reduces the field of conversion to those who have no connection with the church. When we treat conversion as always something radical and distinct from the ordinary means of grace in the covenantal nurture of Christian families and churches, we make void the promise “for you and your children,” (Acts 2:39). Half of our missionfield—those covenant children already entrusted to our care—is cut off. They are not Christians; they must become Christians outside the ordinary operations of the church’s ministry, in an event specially crafted to produce conversions. Second, it reduces the time of conversion to a moment in the past. In the New Testament, though, conversion is a lifelong process. The question is not whether I repented and believed once upon a time. My older brother isn’t walking with the Lord. Nevertheless, whenever I have raised the question, he assures me that he is “saved” because he responded to an altar call and invited Jesus into his heart when he was 7. There is no valid profession of faith today, but he was taught early on that none of this really matters. Conversion—the daily call to die to self (repentance/ mortification) and live to Christ (faith/vivification)—is ongoing. It is a life of conversion, however imperfect and incomplete, not a moment of conversion, that believers embrace by God’s grace.
You write about the Arminian “order of salvation” that makes faith logically prior to regeneration – most Christians would agree that one must believe in Christ’s work as sufficient for their salvation before they’re ‘regenerated’ (i.e., ‘born again’). Where’s the tension?
Years ago, Billy Graham wrote a best-seller titled How To Be Born Again. The idea is that the new birth is something that we can bring about by following the right formula. The Spirit persuades, woos, invites, and pleads, but the decision is ours as to whether we will be brought from death to life. However, Scripture clearly teaches in many places that we are spiritually dead, enemies of God, in bondage to sin and unbelief, willfully suppressing the truth in unrighteousness. There is nothing in between being dead and alive. If you’re dead in relation to God and righteousness, then you are actively embracing bondage to sin and death. If you are alive in Christ, then you are dead to sin as the controlling power over your life and destiny. This new birth is not just an offer; it is a gift. To receive it, one must be raised spiritually by God’s grace. In our fallen condition, we may seek idols: spirituality, various religious systems, moral improvement programs, and philosophies of life. However, “There is no one who seeks God” (Rom 3:11). No one would embrace Christ in a condition of spiritual death (Jn 3:5; 6:44; Eph 2:1, 5, etc.).
Although they allow that the offer of faith—even the provision for faith—is a gift, careful Arminian theologians recognize that they cannot, strictly speaking, call faith itself a gift of God. They recognize that this would mean that God grants faith to some and not others—making the new birth dependent on God’s gracious decision rather than our own free will. However, Scripture repeatedly speaks of faith as a gift of God’s grace. “So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy (Rom 9:16). “While you were dead he made you alive together with Christ—by grace you are saved” (Eph 2:5). Everything, including faith, “is the gift of God…” (Eph 2:9).
Repeatedly throughout the New Testament we read that faith is given by the Spirit through the preaching of the gospel (Mt 4:23; Mk 13:10; Ac 14:7; Rom 1:16; 10:8, 17; 1 Cor 1:18; 9:16, 23; 2 Cor 4:3; 8:18; 10:16; Eph 1:13; 3:6; Col 1:5, 23; 1 Thes 2:4; 1 Pet 1:23, 25; 4:6; Rev 14:6). Those who accept Christ have no one to thank but God; those who reject Christ have no one to blame but themselves.
This is a wonderful truth for many reasons. First, it means that the new birth is God’s gracious initiative. Nothing I did brought it about and therefore nothing I do (or don’t do) can keep it from realizing its goal (Phil 1:6). I choose Christ because he first chose me (Jn 15:16). Second, it means that the Triune God not only makes salvation possible and then offers it to sinners, but that he actually saves sinners by electing, redeeming, calling and keeping them to the end. In Arminianism, God makes salvation possible for everybody, but does he actually save anyone? Given the human condition, making salvation possible for those who are “dead in sin” is simply not enough for anyone to be saved. This is a game-changing doctrine.
What books have you found particularly helpful in developing your understanding of conversion and regeneration?
Second only to Scripture in this regard are the Reformed confessions and catechisms. I’d recommend especially the relevant sections of the Heidelberg Catechism and Canons of the Synod of Dort as well as the Westminster Confession and Shorter Catechism. In addition, I’d recommend John Murray’s Redemption: Accomplished and Applied and R. C. Sproul’s Chosen By God. I explore this doctrine in Putting Amazing Back Into Grace (chapter 8), For Calvinism (chapter 5), and The Christian Faith (chapter 17).