THE DOCTRINE OF CONVERSION
I. CONVERSION DEFINED
1. CONVERSION PROPER
By conversion proper we mean the technical and theological sense in which the term is commonly used. In this sense it has been defined as follows:
"Conversion is that voluntary change in the mind of the sinner, in which he turns, on the one hand, from sin, and on the other hand, to Christ. The former or negative element in conversion, namely, the turning from sin, we denominate repentance. The latter or positive element in conversion, namely the turning to Christ, we denominate faith." And again: "Conversion is the human side or aspect of that fundamental spiritual change which, as viewed from the divine side, we call regeneration."-A. H. Strong, in Systematic Theology, p. 460.
We may go further than Strong goes in the last quotation, and say that regeneration, or the new birth, in its broadest sense, includes conversion. It is thus presented in such passages as Jas. 1:18 and I Pet. 1:23, where the Word of God is distinctly represented as the instrument of the Holy Spirit in regeneration. If the new birth meant only the impartation of life, then there would be no need of the instrumentality of the Word. So we may say that regeneration has both a divine and a human side. The divine side we may call quickening, and the human side we may call conversion.
"From the fact that the word 'conversion' means simply a 'turning', every turning of the Christian from sin, subsequent to the first, may, in a subordinate sense, be denominated a conversion (Luke 22:32). Since regeneration is not complete sanctification, and the change of governing disposition is not identical with complete purification of the nature, such subsequent turnings from sin are necessary consequences and evidences of the first (Cf. John 13:10). But they do not, like the first, imply a change in the governing disposition; they are rather new manifestations of the disposition already changed. For this reason, conversion proper, like the regeneration of which it is the obverse side, can occur but once."-A. H. Strong, in Systematic Theology, p. 461. In this chapter we have reference to the technical and theological sense of conversion as given in the first instance above.
II. THE LOGICAL ORDER OF QUICKENING AND CONVERSION
As stated above, quickening and conversion seem to be the divine and human sides of regeneration or the new birth. It is our purpose at this time, therefore to consider the question as to which is logically first, the divine side or the human side, in regeneration. To propose this question is to answer it for all that are capable of logical thinking. The divine side is most certainly logically prior to the human side. In consideration of this position let us note:
1. PROOF STATED
(1) Conversion Involves Turning From Sin, and Man By Nature Is Unable To Do This.
Man by nature is able to reform his life to some extent. He can turn from some forms of sin. But he is unable by nature to change the governing disposition of his nature. This is proved by Jer. 13: 23, which reads: "Can the Ethiopian change his skin, or the leopard his spots? Then may ye also do good that are accustomed to do evil." The sinner is accustomed to do evil. Therefore it is impossible for him to turn from evil (or sin) until his governing disposition is changed. This is just as impossible as it is for the blackest Negro to make himself white, or the leopard to divest himself of his spotted robe.
(2) Conversion is Pleasing to God, and the Natural Man Cannot Please God.
No one can doubt the first part of the above statement. The last part is proved by Rom. 8:8, which says: "They that are in the flesh cannot please God." This includes all to whom God has not given a new nature.
Paul said that there was no good thing in his fleshly nature (Rom. 7:18). This is the only nature man has until God gives him a new one. And since no good can come out of that in which no good exists, conversion cannot proceed from the fleshly nature. Therefore the giving of the new nature, or quickening, must come before conversion. To affirm otherwise is to deny total depravity, which means that sin has permeated every part of man's being and poisoned every faculty, leaving no good thing in the natural man.
(4) Conversion Involves Subjecting Oneself to the Will or Law of God, and This is Impossible to the Natural Man. That such is impossible to the natural man is established by Rom. 8:7, in which we read: "The mind of the flesh is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be."
This latter truth is declared in 1 Cor. 2:14, as follows: "The natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him; and he cannot know them, because they are spiritually judged." If the truth of Christ's saving power through faith is not a thing of the Spirit of God, that is, a thing which man can understand only through the revelation of the Spirit then what truth is a thing of the Spirit of God?
(6) Conversion is a Spiritual Resurrection, and in a Resurrection the Impartation of Life Must Always Precede the Manifestation of Life in Coming Forth.
Conversion is represented as a spiritual resurrection in Eph. 2:4-6, which says: "God, who is rich in mercy, for his great love wherewith he loved us, even when we were dead in sin, hath quickened us together with Christ, (by grace ye are saved); and hath raised us up together and made us sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus." The raising up here represents conversion. So the question we are considering is as to which is first, the quickening or the raising up. There can be no reasonable doubt that the quickening is first in a logical sense.
(7) Conversion Involves Coming to Christ, and the Act of the Father in Giving Men to Christ Precedes Their Coming to Christ.
In John 6:37 we read as follows: "All that the Father giveth me shall come unto me." This passage certainly places the Father's act of giving men to Christ logically prior to their coming to Christ. This act of the Father is a discriminative, effective act, for all that are given come and all men do not come. Thus this act of giving could not allude to the mere giving of the opportunity of coming to Christ nor could it allude to so-called "gracious ability which is supposed by its advocates to be bestowed upon all men. This act can refer to nothing short of the actual giving of men over into the immediate possession of Christ by quickening them into life. Men come to Christ in conversion. Thus quickening must precede conversion.
In John 6:65 we read: "No man can come unto me, except it be given unto him of my Father." This passage, as the one just noticed, does not refer to the mere giving of the opportunity to come to Christ, nor to the impartation of so-called "gracious ability" for the same reasons stated above in comment on John 6:37. This latter passage, like the former one, refers to a discrimative act. The context makes this clear in the case of John 6:65. The words of this passage were spoken in view of and as an explanation of the fact that some believe not.
Neither of these latter passages can refer to any kind of mere assistance that God might be supposed to bestow on the natural man, for repentance and faith cannot proceed from the natural heart, as we have shown. Both passages can refer to nothing short of the quickening power of God, in which men are enabled to come to Christ.
It being true that conversion is the result of quickening and therefore, not a condition thereof, it may be asked how we are to understand those Scriptures that make faith a condition of sonship. See John 1:12; Gal. 8:26. We reply that these passages refer to sonship through adoption and not to sonship through regeneration. As we have already noted, adoption is a legal term. It comes as an immediate result of justification. It is not the same as regeneration. It confers the right of sonship. Regeneration confers the nature of sons.
III. THE CHRONOLOGICAL RELATION OF QUICKENING
Because quickening logically precedes conversion is not proof that it does so chronologically, or as to time. We maintain that quickening does not precede conversion in matter of time, but that they both are synchronous or simultaneous. Let us note:
1. ARGUMENTS IN PROOF OF THIS
(1) A Chronological Difference Between Quickening and Conversion Would Involve the Monstrosity of an Individual With Life from Above and Yet in Unbelief.
In the impartation of divine life we partake of the nature of God (2 Pet. 1:4). And it is impossible that such a nature should be in unbelief. All unbelievers are spoken of in the Bible as being dead. Hence it cannot be that there is ever a time when there is life without faith.
This is declared in 1 John 5:12. Having the Son involves believing on the Son. Hence none have life except believers. Or, to put it another way, all that have life are believers; therefore there can be no period of time between quickening and conversion
How can there be a logical succession without a chronological succession. A number of illustrations could be given to show that this is possible, even in the physical realm. One apt illustration is as follows. Imagine a tube extending from the Atlantic coast of the United States to the Pacific. Now imagine also that this tube is filled with an incompressible fluid. If pressure is exerted on this fluid on the Atlantic coast, it will be registered instantly on the Pacific. Yet, logically, the exertion of the pressure must precede the registering of it at the other end.
Then we give the following beautiful illustration of the simultaneousness of quickening and conversion. It is from Alvah Hovey, as given by A. H. Strong: "At the same time that God makes the photographic plate sensitive, He pours in the light of truth whereby the image of Christ is formed in the soul. Without the sensitizing of the plate, it would never fix the rays of light so as to retain the image. In the process of sensitizing, the plate is passive; under the influence of light, it is active. In both the sensitizing and the taking of the picture, the real agent is not the plate nor the light, but the photographer. The photographer cannot perform both operations at the same moment. God can. He gives the new affection, and at the same instant He secures its exercise in view of the truth."
3. OBJECTION ANSWERED
To the foregoing position it may be objected that "godly sorrow worketh repentance," and that one dead in sin cannot have godly sorrow. This is true. But godly sorrow works repentance instantaneously, and is synchronous with repentance. It is impossible to conceive properly of a man having godly sorrow without possessing also a changed mind or attitude towards sin. Thus godly sorrow, the same as quickening, logically precedes repentance, but neither of them precede it chronologically.