What Happens at Conversion?

We are aware of events that bring huge changes into a person’s life. When a couple get married, a new relationship begins for each of them. Or a person may get promotion in his work, and he finds himself in an important office. Sometimes the events can bring happiness, at other times they bring disappointments. Or the new circumstances may change what one expected of the future, and make it more inviting or more challenging. The individual may have been working towards the change or it may have come as a complete surprise. But the one thing that can be said about the change is that it is obvious to everyone who knows the person.

What difference does becoming a Christian make to that individual? We can answer that question from different angles. It is true that when a person is converted, a new lifestyle begins that other people can see and which makes them wonder what has happened to that person who used to behave in a very different way. So we could say that conversion leads that person to be kind, to be honest, to be upright, to be reliable, to be diligent. When we view the change from that perspective, we could conclude that the individual is a new person, which is how the Bible describes all true Christians.

They have become new creatures, a reminder that the Creator has been at work in their lives. Indeed, the Bible says that they are being remade in God’s image, a description that points to restoration to the likeness of God in character and role, although the restoration is a process, and part of the restoration takes place after this life is over and indeed will not be complete until glorification occurs at the resurrection when Jesus returns.

The reality is that the Bible uses several terms to explain what happens when a person is converted. In this sermon, I want briefly to focus on four of them and see what they tell us about how we should regard one another. Each of the four terms point to the person’s relationship with God and to how believers should regard one another. With regard to each role, I have pointed to three features that help us understand it.

A Christian is a servant
Humans were created by God to serve him. We see this in the relationship Adam and Eve had at the beginning and in a sense this is what the covenant of works, made between God and Adam in the Garden of Eden, is all about. Humans were to regard God as their Master and Lawgiver and obey his instructions. Sadly, and disastrously, Adam and Eve failed to obey God and ceased to serve him as innocent creatures, and since Adam was our representative we too have become sinners. Many people don’t like that explanation of why every person does what is wrong, but even from the point of view of what is the best explanation there is not another one that can explain why everyone is born with the inclination to do what is wrong.

What are the three features of becoming a servant? First, in the gospel, God offers his remedy for that desire to practice sin. He calls us to repent and believe in Jesus, knowing that Jesus has fulfilled the law on our behalf as well as having paid the penalty for our sins when he was crucified. When we do that, we discover that God has justified us by imputing to us the righteousness of the perfect Servant and we are now regarded as having kept the law of God as far as our acceptance with God is concerned. We can say that justification deals with our failure to be righteous servants.

Second, when a person is converted, one change that takes place is that love to the law of God is rewritten by the Holy Spirit in the mind and heart of the new believer. He or she now knows how to obey God, now loves to obey God, and now possesses the power to obey God. A Christian fulfils the requirements of the sovereign God’s law, even if in this life the obedience is imperfect. But in the world to come, the obedience of each believer will be perfect.

Third, each converted person serves God in a particular way. The point we have just made about loving the law describes a Christian’s general obedience. In addition, each believer serves God according to the gifts he or she has received from Christ. They don’t all have the same gifts, but all of them have gifts and each of them expresses their servanthood by using those gifts for the glory of God. Sometimes we assume that those gifts are our natural talents, but I don’t think that is what the Bible says they are. It is true that we should use our talents to serve God. Yet a person who is a good public speaker may also have the gift of speaking one to one with a person needing encouragement, and if he or she has been given that gift God expects them to serve him by using it. Paul lists such gifts several times in his letters. How do we know what gift we have been given? If we are in a right relationship with Christ, we will find ourselves wanting to exercise it.

A Christian is a saint
The term ‘saint’ is one of the Bible words that is misused in common speech. In reality, a saint is a person who has been separated, set apart, by God as his. The idea is linked to the concept of holiness. What three features can we mention about saints?

First, they have the Holy Spirit dwelling within them. He is there to sanctify them, to make them into holy people. His presence with them is the power they have to live for God, which means that they should live for God. The Spirit never leaves them, even when they sin, although such wrongs grieve him and lead to a breaking of communion. Nevertheless, he works in them to restore them in a spiritual sense.

Second, since they are saints they can worship God together or individually. The Old Testament ritual points this out when it states that only set-apart persons, such as priests or worshippers with a sacrifice, could enter into God’s worship at the temple.  They were set apart to God by the blood of the sacrifice. In a far higher way, believers have been set apart by the blood of Jesus and have access to God’s real presence where they can offer the sacrifice of praise.

Third, as saints they develop by the Spirit his fruit in their characters and become beautiful to look at because they are increasing in Christlikeness. Because they are becoming more and more like God they grow in the beauty that is peculiar to holiness. This is a constant change that is blessed to experience and wonderful to see in the lives of those who previously spent their time in the paths of sin.

A Christian is a soldier
It used to be the case that young men, when they reached a certain age, received their call-up papers for service in the armed forces. This was a reminder that they were to be trained for war in case it should arise. After a couple of years, many of them went back to their civilian lives and thought no more about their time in the armed forces. They were living in a time when their contribution was not needed. Christians also get called up at conversion for a different war, but one in which their contribution is always needed.

First, what foe is every Christian called up to fight against? Paul informed the Ephesians that they waged war against the devil and his hosts. The weapon usually employed by the enemy comes in the form of temptations, and they can vary widely. However, the devil is a crafty opponent and can work out which kind of temptation is most likely to succeed at a given time.

Second, in this war they have to use the weapons and armour that God has provided for them in order to have his protection. It would be silly for an army today to use the weapons of long ago because they would be defeated very easily. In contrast to that development, the Christian soldier has to wear the same armour and use the same weapons as his successful predecessors did if he wishes to have the same success as they did. Paul tells us what these weapons are in that passage in Ephesians 6 and we can see that they include truth, righteousness, peace, faith, right thinking and prayer.

Third, there is only one Christian army and there is only one Commander of the army – Jesus. Every soldier receives direct help from the Commander as long as the soldier remains in close contact with him through the means that he has provided. One of the saddest features of the Christian army is that it has wasted time fighting among themselves, a sign often that they have been out-manouvered by the enemy.

A Christian is a son
When a sinner is converted, he becomes a member of the family of God. He moves into this family and discovers that membership includes a whole range of privileges, including being a joint-heir with Jesus. As we think briefly about this important relationship, what three features can be mentioned?

First, as sons of God we have a loving heavenly Father who is working all things together for the good of his children. Sometimes, he has to chastise them for their sins, but usually he is sending spiritual blessings, such as love and peace, to them from his heavenly storehouse (as Paul often indicates in the greetings found at the commencement of his letters).

Second, every member of the family has an incredible inheritance, one that will last forever. The inheritance is so amazing that people will think we are crazy when we mention it. I suppose if we met an heir to a fortune and he looked like everyone else we would be surprised to discover what his inheritance was. Our inheritance is the new heavens and new earth, which we will share with the true Heir, Jesus himself.

Third, each believer, because he is a member of God’s family, experiences the Holy Spirit working in his or her heart in a special way, which is providing experiences as the Spirit of adoption. Connected to that is his role as the One who gives to them foretastes of the inheritance such as peace and joy. He does this to remind them that they are never forgotten. Believers are to realize this huge change – the triune God thinks constantly about the members of the divine family.

Four implications
Because believers are the servants of God, they should not have any other masters in a spiritual sense. He has revealed his will in his word and that is what they should live by as long as they are in this life.

Because believers are saints, they should not engage in anything that is ugly in a spiritual sense. Holiness is a way of describing the perfect beauty of God and they are to live holy lives and become beautiful to look at as they reveal the fruit of the Spirit.

Because believers are soldiers of the King, they are to fight against his enemies. They should remember that while they may lose a battle, they cannot lose the war. Instead they will be more than conquerors.

Because believers are the children of God, they do not have to be jealous of what another person has because they are joint-heirs with Jesus of a wonderful inheritance.

What happens at conversion? Changes for the better, we can say.

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