Conversion. Total change in one’s direction in life or moral orientation. For Christians this means a change from an orientation that does not take God into account to one in which the person is submitted to Christ. Conversion is the process of which repentance is the entrance and faith the new direction; the same Hebrew and Greek words may be translated either “repentance” or “conversion.”
In the OT conversion is basically a turning or returning from one’s former course of life toward the Lord, the God of Israel. Israel often had to return to their God (Dt 4:30), either as individuals (Ps 51) or as a nation (Jer 4:1); foreign nations needed to turn to God for the first time (Ps 22:27). The characteristic feature is that one turns from wickedness (Ez 18:21, 27; 33:9, 11; Jer 26:3; 36:3), from a life of disloyalty to God to a life of obedience to God (Jer 34:15; Is 10:20, 21; 44:2; Hos 14:4). Conversion means a change in inward orientation which finds expression in a changed life style.
In the NT John the Baptist begins the call to conversion (Mt 3:2; Mk 1:4; Lk 3:3), giving a prophetic call for people to change their minds (which is the root meaning of the Greek term) in the light of the nearness of God’s kingdom. This change of life must include a change in actions to prove its reality (Mt 3:8; Lk 3:8). Jesus preached the same message (Mt 4:17; Mk 1:15), adding that since the kingdom had arrived in his person, obedience to him was part of the good news of conversion. Yet it was also bad news, for one would be damned if he failed to make this radical change (Mt 11:20; Lk 13:3, 5). Conversion is radical but also simple, for it requires the simplicity of a child who commits his whole self, not the calculating self-protectiveness of the adult (Mt 18:3).
Outside the Gospels conversion is not a frequently used term except in Acts, where it forms the call to commitment climaxing evangelistic sermons (2:38; 3:19; 8:22), describes the commitment of new Christians to the Lord (9:35; 11:21), and pictures the change of life as a turning from darkness to light (26:18, 20). Later writers look back upon conversion (2 Cor 3:16), worry about Christians converting to paganism or Judaism (Gal 4:19), and call for the reconversion of Christians who have left the faith and are in danger of judgment (Jas 5:19, 20; Rv 2:5, 16, 22; 3:19).
As in the OT and in the preaching of John and Jesus, conversion has three factors. First, it is a turning from something, which includes specific sins, false gods, or simply a life lived for oneself (1 Thes 1:9; Rv 9:20, 21; 16:11). Second, conversion is a product of the will of God and his gracious working in the world (Acts 11:18; Rom 2:4; 2 Cor 7:10; 2 Tm 2:25; 2 Pt 3:9). Third, conversion is a turning to someone, a commitment of one’s whole life to God in Jesus Christ (Acts 14:15; 1 Thes 1:9; 1 Pt 2:25). It is thus a total reorientation, whether spectacular or undramatic, sudden or gradual, emotional or calm, in which a person transfers his or her total allegiance to God.
Bibliography. J. Bailke, Baptism and Conversion; W.E. Conn, ed, Conversion; E. Rontley, The Gift of Conversion; J. Schniewind, “The Biblical Doctrine of Conversion,” Scottish Journal of Theology 5 (1952) pp 267–81.
Elwell, W. A., & Beitzel, B. J. (1988). Conversion. In Baker encyclopedia of the Bible (Vol. 1, p. 512). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House.