Having described salvation as redemption, The Baptist Faith and Message next focuses on various aspects of salvation. Jesus accomplished redemption at the cross, but how does that redemption get applied to us? The application of redemption begins at conversion.
Regeneration, or the new birth, is a work of God’s grace whereby believers become new creatures in Christ Jesus. It is a change of heart wrought by the Holy Spirit through conviction of sin, to which the sinner responds in repentance toward God and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. Repentance and faith are inseparable experiences of grace. Repentance is a genuine turning from sin toward God. Faith is the acceptance of Jesus Christ and commitment of the entire personality to Him as Lord and Saviour. Justification is God’s gracious and full acquittal upon principles of His righteousness of all sinners who repent and believe in Christ. Justification brings the believer unto a relationship of peace and favor with God.The Baptist Faith and Message, Article IV
Conversion, then, involves the Holy Spirit’s regeneration of a person, that person’s repentance and faith, and God’s justification of the converted sinner. We may consider these things distinct from one another, but they all occur in the moment of conversion, when a person first has redemption applied to him.
Conversion as Regeneration
The application of redemption begins at conversion, the first aspect of which is regeneration, or the new birth. Jesus had a lengthy conversation with the Pharisee Nicodemus about regeneration during His earthly ministry (John 3:1-8). Jesus refers to the new birth in three ways: being born again (v. 3), being born of water and the Spirit (v. 5), and being born of the Spirit (vv. 6, 8). Jesus is not describing three different aspects of the new birth; He is describing the one new birth in three ways. Being born again and being born of water and Spirit both refer more plainly to being born of the Spirit. In these verses, Jesus is alluding to Ezekiel 36:25-27,
I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.
Ezekiel prophesied that God would cleanse people from their uncleannesses and idols by putting His Spirit in them, which is depicted by the image of Him sprinkling clean water on them. So Jesus, too, said people must be born of water and the Spirit, and He was describing the new birth. Paul spoke similarly to Jesus: “he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5).
Indeed, other than Jesus, Paul is the most significant source of biblical teaching on the new birth. He tells the Corinthians, “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation” (2 Cor 5:17). And new birth into the new creation is like original creation: “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor 4:6). The new birth of the Holy Spirit is necessary because before His work, we are “dead in the trespasses and sins” (Eph 2:1). Conversion and the application of redemption to us first involves, then, the Holy Spirit regenerating our hearts and taking us from a state of spiritual death into a state of spiritual life.
Conversion as Faith and Repentance
This regeneration has a simultaneous, immediate effect: our faith and repentance. There is no gap of time between a person’s regeneration and his repenting and believing. All of these things are vital aspects of conversion. If regeneration is a new birth, a being born again, then faith and repentance are like a newborn baby’s cry. The way you know a baby has been born is that you hear him cry. The way you know someone converts is that he repents and believes. As our statement of faith affirms, “Repentance and faith are inseparable experiences of grace.” Faith is part of God’s saving grace (Eph 2:8-9). Repentance likewise is a gift of God (2 Tim 2:25). And repenting and believing are activities that we people do. Jesus said that to enter the kingdom of God, we must “repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15). And entering the kingdom of God is another way the Bible talks about being saved (Matt 19:23-26).
When we repent, we turn to God away from sin. To repent is to turn from wickedness (Acts 3:26), specifically the wickedness of opposing Jesus Christ (Acts 3:18). And to repent is to turn back, implicitly to God (Acts 3:19). It is in that moment that our sins––paid for by Jesus on the cross––are blotted out. The redemption Jesus accomplished gets applied to us.
“Faith is the acceptance of Jesus Christ and commitment of the entire personality to Him as Lord and Saviour.” First, we must accept Jesus Christ. We must know the facts of the gospel as they occurred in history (1 Cor 15:1-4). Regeneration gives this knowledge and intellectual belief. But saving faith is more than that. It is also commitment. Faith is assurance and conviction that the God of the Bible exists and rewards those who seek him in Christ (Heb 11:1, 6). Saving faith is relying on Jesus for eternal life (John 3:16, 18). And this commitment is wholehearted. We trust in Jesus not only as Savior but also submit ourselves to Him as Lord.
In conversion, the Holy Spirit regenerates us, and we immediately repent and believe.
Justification at Conversion
Conversion has an immediate effect: justification. “All sinners who repent and believe in Christ” receive “God’s gracious and full acquittal” from the penalty of sin. The great passage on justification in Scripture is Romans 3:21-26. We unrighteous sinners receive God’s own righteousness through faith in Jesus Christ (vv. 21–23). God is just to give us His righteousness because Jesus paid the penalty for our sin on the cross (vv. 24–26).
And this justification immediately results in us having peace with God. “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom 5:1). As soon as we are justified, we are at peace with God. We are no longer God’s enemies but have been reconciled to Him (Rom 5:10). We therefore rejoice as those who have been made to be at peace with God (Rom 5:11).
The biblical teaching about conversion holds two complementary truths together in perfect harmony: we are not converted apart from the gracious work of the Holy Spirit in regenerating us in the new birth, and we are not converted apart from repenting and believing the gospel ourselves. Various Christians (even within the SBC!) put these truths together in different ways. The most important thing is that we hold together what we see in Scripture. What the Bible affirms, we affirm. And the glorious result of both of these aspects of conversion is that conversion immediately results in our justification from sin and reconciliation with God. That’s the good news we get to take to others! If they will repent and believe, they will be reconciled to God––no longer His enemy by their own choice of sin, but now His son or daughter through faith in Christ!