I. Meaning of the word
A turning, or returning, to God. The chief words for expressing this idea are, in the OT, šûḇ (translated in evv ‘turn’ or ‘return’), and, in the NT, strephomai (Mt. 18:3; Jn. 12:40: the middle voice expresses the reflexive quality of the action, cf. the French ‘se convertir)’; epistrephō (regularly used in lxx to render šûḇ) and (in Acts 15:3 only) the cognate noun epistrophē. Despite the av of Mt. 13:15; 18:3; Mk. 4:12; Lk. 22:32; Jn. 12:40; Acts 3:19; 28:27 (all changed to ‘turn’ or ‘turn again’ in rsv), epistrephō is not used in the NT in the passive voice. šûḇ and epistrephō can be used transitively as well as intransitively: in the OT God is said to turn men to himself (15 times); in the NT preachers are spoken of as turning men to God (Lk. 1:16f., echoing Mal. 4:5–6; Jas. 5:19f.; probably Acts 26:18). The basic meaning which the strephō word-group, like šûḇ, expresses is to turn back (return: so Lk. 2:39; Acts 7:39) or turn round (about turn: so Rev. 1:12). The theological meaning of these terms represents a transference of this idea into the realm of man’s relationship with God.
II. Old Testament usage
The OT speaks mostly of national conversions, once of a pagan community (Nineveh: Jon. 3:7–10), otherwise of Israel; though there are also a few references to, and examples of, individual conversions (cf. Ps. 51:13, and the accounts of Naaman, 2 Ki. 5; Josiah, 2 Ki. 23:25; Manasseh, 2 Ch. 33:12f.), together with prophecies of worldwide conversions (cf. Ps. 22:27). Conversion in the OT means, simply, turning to Yahweh, Israel’s covenant God. For Israelites, members of the covenant community by right of birth, conversion meant turning to ‘Yahweh your God’ (Dt. 4:30; 30:2, 10) in whole-hearted sincerity after a period of disloyalty to the terms of the covenant. Conversion in Israel was thus essentially the returning of backsliders to God. The reason why individuals, or the community, needed to ‘(re)turn to the Lord’ was that they had turned away from him and strayed out of his paths. Hence national acts of returning to God were frequently marked by leader and people ‘making a *covenant’, i.e. making together a fresh solemn profession that henceforth they would be wholly loyal to God’s covenant, to which they had sat loose in the past (so under Joshua, Jos. 24:25; Jehoiada, 2 Ki. 11:17; Asa, 2 Ch. 15:12; Hezekiah, 2 Ch. 29:10; Josiah, 2 Ch. 34:31). The theological basis for these public professions of conversion lay in the doctrine of the covenant. God’s covenant with Israel was an abiding relationship; lapses into idolatry and sin exposed Israel to covenant chastisement (cf. Am. 3:2), but could not destroy the covenant; and if Israel turned again to Yahweh, he would return to them in blessing (cf. Zc. 1:3) and the nation would be restored and healed (Dt. 4:23–31; 29:1–30:10; Is. 6:10).
The OT stresses, however, that there is more to conversion than outward signs of sorrow and reformation of manners. A true turning to God under any circumstances will involve inward self-humbling, a real change of heart and a sincere seeking after the Lord (Dt. 4:29f.; 30:2, 10; Is. 6:9f.; Je. 24:7), and will be accompanied by a new clarity of knowledge of his being and his ways (Je. 24:7; cf. 2 Ki. 5:15; 2 Ch. 33:13).
III. New Testament usage
In the NT, epistrephō is only once used of the return to Christ of a Christian who has lapsed into sin (Peter: Lk. 22:32). Elsewhere, backsliders are exhorted, not to conversion, but to repentance (Rev. 2:5, 16, 21f.; 3:3, 19), and the conversion words refer only to that decisive turning to God whereby, through faith in Christ, a sinner, Jew or Gentile, secures present entry into the eschatological kingdom of God and receives the eschatological blessing of forgiveness of sins (Mt. 18:3; Acts 3:19; 26:18). This conversion secures the salvation which Christ has brought. It is a once-for-all, unrepeatable event, as the habitual use of the aorist in the oblique moods of the verbs indicates. It is described as a turning from the darkness of idolatry, sin and the rule of Satan, to worship and serve the true God (Acts 14:15; 26:18; 1 Thes. 1:9) and his Son Jesus Christ (1 Pe 2:25). It consists of an exercise of *repentance and *faith, which Christ and Paul link together as summing up between them the moral demand of the gospel (Mk. 1:15; Acts 20:21). Repentance means a change of mind and heart towards God; faith means belief of his word and trust in his Christ; conversion covers both. Thus we find both repentance and faith linked with conversion, as the narrower with the wider concept (repentance and conversion, Acts 3:19; 26:20; faith and conversion, Acts 11:21).
Though the NT records a number of conversion experiences, some more violent and dramatic (e.g. that of Paul, Acts 9:5ff.; of Cornelius, Acts 10:44ff.; cf. 15:7ff.; of the Philippian jailer, Acts 16:29ff.), some more quiet and unspectacular (e.g. that of the eunuch, Acts 8:30ff.; of Lydia, Acts 16:14), the writers show no interest in the psychology of conversion as such. Luke makes space for three accounts of the conversions of Paul and of Cornelius (Acts 10:5ff.; 22:6ff.; 26:12ff.; and 10:44ff.; 11:15ff.; 15:7ff.) because of the supreme significance of these events in early church history, not for any separate interest in the manifestations that accompanied them. The writers think of conversion dynamically—not as an experience, something one feels, but as an action, something one does—and they interpret it theologically, in terms of the gospel to which the convert assents and responds. Theologically, conversion means committing oneself to that union with Christ which baptism symbolizes: union with him in death, which brings freedom from the penalty and dominion of sin, and union with him in resurrection from death, to live to God through him and walk with him in newness of life through the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit. Christian conversion is commitment to Jesus Christ as divine Lord and Saviour, and this commitment means reckoning union with Christ to be a fact and living accordingly. (See Rom. 6:1–14; Col. 2:10–12, 20ff.; 3:1ff.)
IV. General conclusion
Turning to God under any circumstances is, psychologically regarded, man’s own act, deliberately considered, freely chosen and spontaneously performed. Yet the Bible makes it clear that it is also, in a more fundamental sense, God’s work in him. The OT says that sinners turn to God only when themselves turned by God (Je. 31:18f.; La. 5:21). The NT teaches that when men will and work for the furthering of God’s will in regard to their salvation, it is God’s working in them that makes them do so (Phil. 2:12f.). Also, it describes the initial conversion of unbelievers to God as the result of a divine work in them in which, by its very nature, they could play no part, since it is essentially a curing of the spiritual impotence which has precluded their turning to God hitherto: a raising from death (Eph. 2:1ff.), a new birth (Jn. 3:1ff.), an opening of the heart (Acts 16:14), an opening and enlightening of blinded eyes (2 Cor. 4:4–6), and the giving of an understanding (1 Jn. 5:20). Man responds to the gospel only because God has first worked in him in this way. Furthermore, the accounts of Paul’s conversion and various references to the power and conviction imparted by the Spirit to the converting word (cf. Jn. 16:8; 1 Cor. 2:4f.; 1 Thes. 1:5) show that God draws men to himself under a strong, indeed overwhelming, sense of divine constraint. Thus, the av’s habit of rendering the active verb ‘turn’ by the interpretative passive, ‘be converted’, though bad translation, is good biblical theology., (*Regeneration.)
Bibliography. G. Bertram, TDNT 7, pp. 722–729; F. Laubach, J. Goetzmann, U. Becker, NIDNTT 1, pp. 354–362.
evv English versions
lxx Septuagint (Gk. version of OT)
av Authorized Version (King James’), 1611
rsv Revised Standard Version: NT, 1946; OT, 1952; Common Bible, 1973
av Authorized Version (King James’), 1611
TDNT G. Kittel and G. Friedrich (eds.), Theologisches Wörterbuch zum Neuen Testament, 1932–74; E. T. Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, ed. G. W. Bromiley, 10 vols., 1964–76
NIDNTT C. Brown (ed.), The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, 3 vols., 1975–8
J.I.P J. I. Packer, M.A., D.Phil., D.D., Professor of Systematic Theology, Regent College, Vancouver, BC
Packer, J. I. (1996). Conversion. In D. R. W. Wood, I. H. Marshall, A. R. Millard, & D. J. Wiseman (Eds.), New Bible dictionary (3rd ed., pp. 222–223). Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.