Conversion

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).

Conclusion

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!

The Bible’s Holy Authority

God’s authorship of Scripture implies not only the absolute truthfulness of Scripture but also the authority of Scripture. Scripture is authoritative over all areas of our lives. Friendship’s statement of faith confesses of Scripture: “It reveals the principles by which God judges us, and therefore is, and will remain to the end of the world, the true center of Christian union, and the supreme standard by which all human conduct, creeds, and religious opinions should be tried.” These statements mean that Scripture is the authoritative standard for how God will judge us. It also is the standard by which we are united to fellow believers in a local church, and it should be the standard by which we evaluate all truth claims that we encounter.

Scripture: The Standard for God’s Judgment

Scripture reveals God’s righteousness. God judges people according to the standard of his perfect righteousness. One Bible passage that teaches this is Psalm 98:7-9,

Let the sea roar, and all that fills it;
the world and those who dwell in it!
Let the rivers clap their hands;
let the hills sing for joy together,
before the Lord, for he comes
to judge the earth.
He will judge the world with righteousness,
and the peoples with equity.

Scripture reveals God’s righteousness. It teaches us that God will judge with righteousness, as in Psalm 98 (cf. also Pss 9:8; 72:2; 96:13). As Paul reminds us in the New Testament, “God shows no partiality” (Rom 2:11). God will judge all people perfectly fairly, and Scripture shows us the perfect righteousness of God by which he will judge the world.

Scripture also presents God’s commands for us, according to which we will be judged. In Romans 2:6-8, Paul teaches, “He will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury.” The New Testament repeatedly instructs us that God will judge all people according to their works (2 Tim 4:14; 1 Pet 1:17; Rev 2:23; 20:12, 13). Scripture is the standard for righteousness. God’s law is in Scripture. Scripture is the standard, then, for God’s judgment.

Scripture: The Standard of Christian Unity

Scripture is also the standard for Christians’ unity within a local church. For Christians to have fellowship with one another in a local church as fellow church members, they must have a common understanding of how Scripture defines the church. Friendship Baptist Church gladly confesses with our fellow Southern Baptists that Scripture has clear standards for church membership and church governance, which our church strives to maintain.

Scripture puts two basic requirements on people for church membership: repentant faith in the Lord Jesus Christ (Gal 3:10; 1 Tim 3:15) and baptism as a public profession of that faith (Acts 8:12; 16:14-15, 30-34, 40; 18:8).

The New Testament also teaches that each local church is autonomous under the Lordship of Jesus Christ (2 Cor 8:1-5; Rev 2-3). Each church democratically determines its doctrine (Rev 2:6, 14-15, 20), membership (1 Cor 5:1-2, 4-5, 7, 12-13), and leadership (1 Tim 5:19-20).

(Future blog posts on Article VI of Friendship’s statement of faith will defend the above biblical definitions of church membership and governance.)

Scripture: The Standard of Our Judgments

If John 3:16 was the most widely-known Bible verse in 20th century America, then Matthew 7:1 may be the most widely-known Bible verse in 21st century America: “Judge not, that you be not judged.” People devoted to religious pluralism latch onto that verse more than any other in the Bible, often in order to combat a Christian’s obedience to the Bible (e.g., in evangelism or confrontation of sin). But as Friendship’s statement of faith affirms from the outset, Matthew 7:1 does not forbid all human judgments. Rather, our human judgments should be based on Scripture, which is the “supreme standard by which all human conduct, creeds, and religious opinions should be tried.”

The subsequent context of Matthew 7:1 is vital for not misapplying that verse. Multiple Christian thinkers rightly remind us: “a text without a context is a pretext for a proof text.” And the context of Matthew 7:1 shows that Jesus was not prohibiting all judgments but a particular kind of judgment. Matthew 7:1 was but the introductory sentence of a full paragraph that runs through Matthew 7:5.

“Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.

Jesus was warning his disciples not to be too severe (v. 2) or hypocritical (vv. 3-5) in their judgments of others. Certainly Jesus’ statement did not mean that Christians should expose sin. Rather, Jesus’ statement was telling Christians to expose sin in a certain way: lovingly, and only after they have examined their own hearts for the very same sin. In fact, the commitment of Article I to judge everything according to the standard of Scripture is obedient to Jesus’ command, “Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment” (John 7:24).

As Friendship’s statement of faith reminds us, we should judge “all human conduct” by the standards of Scripture. We should evaluate behaviors by Scripture’s teachings. We should apply timeless Scripture to time-bound cultural practices of 21st century America.

We should also judge “all human … creeds” according to Scripture. We should evaluate everything we believe about God, salvation, humanity, the world, etc., according to Scripture. Whenever we find a contradiction between our beliefs and Scripture’s clear teaching, we must submit to Scripture. Creeds and doctrinal statements are good, but they (even the Baptist Faith and Message!) must be measured against the ultimate standard of Scripture.

Finally, we should judge “all human … religious opinions” according to Scripture. Certainly, if we evaluate Christian beliefs against Scripture, we should certainly critically appraise non-Christian religious beliefs against Scripture! When another religious system confronts us and seeks to entice us, we must reject its claims on the basis of God’s holy word, the Bible. We should seek to share the true gospel with the other religion’s adherent with whom we are speaking.

The Bible’s authority is the ultimate standard, not only of God’s judgment of us, but also our unity as a church and our own judgments of all things in life. Based on truly biblical principles, the Baptist Faith and Message helpfully articulates our belief as Southern Baptists that we ought to conform every aspect of our life to the standards of Scripture.