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 Holy Spirit and Scripture

The Baptist Faith and Message first confesses of the Holy Spirit: “The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of God, fully divine. He inspired holy men of old to write the Scriptures. Through illumination He enables men to understand truth. He exalts Christ. He convicts men of sin, of righteousness, and of judgment. He calls men to the Saviour, and effects regeneration. At the moment of regeneration He baptizes every believer into the Body of Christ.” This paragraph of Friendship’s statement of faith focuses on the Holy Spirit’s relationship to Scripture. The Holy Spirit inspired the writing of Scripture in the past. He presently illuminates the meaning of Scripture to Christians and applies it to non-Christians in conversion to regenerate them and make them Christians.

The Holy Spirit’s Inspiration and Illumination of Scripture

The first article of The Baptist Faith and Message described the Holy Spirit’s inspiration of Scripture. That topic is also the subject of the first blog post in this series.

The Holy Spirit illuminates the meaning of Scripture so that people can understand it in the present. As Paul told the Corinthians, “we have received … the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God” (1 Cor 2:12). The Spirit makes it so that Scripture takes root in a Christian’s heart (1 Cor 2:13). Non-Christians cannot comprehend Scripture or its message of salvation on their own, apart from the illumination of Scripture (1 Cor 2:14-15). We Christians can understand and apply Scripture to our lives only by God’s grace through the power of his Holy Spirit at work in us (1 Cor 2:16).

The Holy Spirit especially illuminates us Christians to understand how Scripture exalts Christ, and he teaches us through Scripture how we are to exalt Christ in our everyday lives, by our thoughts, words, and actions. Such was one of the key themes of Jesus’ Upper Room Discourse following the Last Supper. Jesus promised that the Holy Spirit would bear witness about him to the disciples (John 15:26). Twice Jesus later told his disciples that the Holy Spirit “will take what is mine and declare it to you” (John 16:14, 15). The apostle Peter also taught that the Holy Spirit exalts Christ through the Old Testament prophets: “Concerning this salvation, the prophets who prophesied about the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired carefully, inquiring what person or time the Spirit of Christ in them was indicating when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories” (1 Pet 1:10-11).

The Holy Spirit’s Application of Scripture in Conversion

In addition to illuminating Christians’ minds to understand the Bible, the Holy Spirit also uses God’s word to convert people. The Holy Spirit takes people who are dead in their trespasses and sin and makes them alive in Christ (Eph 2:1-10). The Baptist Faith and Message summarizes Jesus’ teaching about the Holy Spirit in John 16:8-11 by saying, “He convicts men of sin, of righteousness, and of judgment.” James Hamilton explains these verses: “The world stands condemned by the righteousness manifested in God’s judgment of sin at the cross because it has not believed in Jesus” (God’s Indwelling Presence, p. 90). Jesus had previously taught his disciples, “‘Now is the judgment of this world; now will the ruler of this world be cast out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.’ He said this to show by what kind of death he was going to die” (John 12:31-33). Jesus taught that after his death and resurrection, he would send the Holy Spirit to convict people of the judgment that God rendered at the cross. Jesus defeated Satan at the cross. At the cross, Jesus paid the sin debt of anyone and everyone who would ever trust in him for salvation. The Holy Spirit applies the redemption that Jesus accomplished at the cross. He is the one who convicts sinners to feel the weight of their sin and the just condemnation it has earned them.

Connected to his work of conviction, the Holy Spirit “calls men to the Saviour.” The Holy Spirit does the work both of the gospel call and the effectual call. The Holy Spirit calls all people everywhere to repent as they encounter God’s word, the Bible, either by reading it for themselves or by hearing it read or preached. People are responsible to respond to the call of the Holy Spirit in the gospel, but on their own they resist him (Acts 7:51). In sin, a person’s natural response to the gospel is to reject it. Those who reject the gospel are not rejecting the preacher of the gospel but the God of the gospel (1 Thess 4:8). However, the Holy Spirit also effectually calls people to Christ, as Paul writes: “those whom he called, he also justified” (Rom 8:30). The Holy Spirit by his grace and power makes people to feel the weight of their sin, he calls them to the Savior, and by his power they respond in faith.

Those who are effectually called by the Holy Spirit in this way respond in faith because the Holy Spirit regenerates them. As The Baptist Faith and Message says, the Holy Spirit “effects regeneration.” Jesus told Nicodemus clearly, for a person to be saved, he or she must be born again, born from above, born of the Spirit (John 3:1-8). Jesus chides Nicodemus for his inability to understand Jesus’ teaching about regeneration, since God had promised to regenerate his people in the Old Testament (Ezek 36:25-27). One of the blessings of the new covenant would be that God would give people new hearts and put his Spirit within them so that they would be able to obey him from the heart (Jer 31:31-34).

The New Testament closely relates regeneration and baptism. Paul writes that God “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). In the earliest church, people were baptized the same day that they were reborn by the Holy Spirit. Baptism is an outward sign of the inward reality of regeneration. The Baptist Faith and Message explains why that is the case: “At the moment of regeneration He baptizes every believer into the Body of Christ.” There is no biblical evidence for a second baptism of the Holy Spirit that is normative for Christians throughout time and across diverse cultures. The baptism of the Holy Spirit is just another way of talking about regeneration (1 Cor 12:13). The baptism of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost was a special event to fulfill John the Baptist’s prophecy that Jesus would baptize people “in the Holy Spirit and in fire” (Luke 3:16; Acts 2:3-4). Later in Acts, we get the normative experience of Christian conversion described by how the first Gentile converts received the Holy Spirit and were regenerated and promptly baptized (Acts 10:44-48). (Those Gentiles spoke in tongues as a special sign confirming to the Jewish Christians there that the Gentiles had in fact received the Holy Spirit just as they had.)

Conclusion

The Holy Spirit inspired the Bible and continues to illuminate its contents to people today. Apart from the Holy Spirit, none of us can truly understand God’s word and apply it to our lives properly. The Holy Spirit applies Scripture in conversion to non-Christians. The Holy Spirit convicts people of their sin, calls them to repent and believe in the gospel, and regenerates their hearts. A person goes from being dead in sin to alive in Christ by the Spirit. When the Spirit regenerates someone, the person is simultaneously baptized into the body of Christ.