Conversion and its Necessity
From Notes of an Address
Conversion is a term used in connection with science, politics, commerce and religion. We speak, for instance, of
1. Converting iron into steel:
2. A man being converted as to his political principles:
3. Converting stocks and shares:
4. A man being converted in turning to God.
It is with this last use of the term that we have to do. Conversion is not merely a change of religion—though the word may be used in that sense sometimes: conversion according to God is infinitely more than that. Man has often been termed a “religious animal,” and there are nearly as many religions as nations. If the Word of God has to speak of a “pure religion” there is an impure one somewhere! God’s Word speaks of “love unfeigned,” and of “faith unfeigned,” and thus it infers that a spurious love and a spurious faith are in existence. Satan always imitates what God introduces.
The question that is worthy of our consideration is, What did our Lord mean when He attached such vital importance to conversion? “Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 18:3). Depend upon it, when He says, “ye shall not” He means an absolute prohibition. It is not, “perhaps ye shall not,” nor, “ye may not,” nor, “ye must not.” Who is going to twist the “shall not” of the Son of God and bring it within the bounds of a possibility? Whatever it may mean, it indicates the one absolute necessity for an entrance into the kingdom of heaven, without which there is total exclusion. When in another place He said. “How hardly shall they enter,” His disciples immediately took the expression to mean absolute exclusion, for they cried, “Who then can be saved?” Here He does not say, “how hardly shall,” but, “ye shall not” positively.
To plead ignorance as to the meaning of these words of the Son of God, and manifest no concern about them, merely shows complete unbelief and a serious indifference. A government order exists that except persons can show a passport they shall not be allowed to board a certain passenger steamship. What folly it would be to expect that a plea of ignorance of the meaning of a passport would be accepted, and thus you would be allowed on board. It would be an equal folly to imagine that a railway ticket, a steamboat ticket, or even a bank pass-book would admit you, however satisfactory it might be to yourself. “Except you show your passport, you cannot board the ship.” would he the word. How much greater the folly to expect to enter the kingdom of heaven neglecting CONVERSION, which is not merely a desirable thing but imperatively indispensable.
Let us be quite clear what conversion is NOT. It is not merely a change from Judaism to Christianity, or from Romanism to Protestantism—that is, a change of outward religion. We have often asked the question, “Are you converted?” Once we got the reply, “Oh, yes! I was converted when I was fourteen years old. I was confirmed by Bishop —.” But confirmation is not conversion, though a curate once told us that conversion is only the nonconformist way of speaking of confirmation, and that it all really means the same thing.
Conversion is not an outward reformation of character, a subtraction of bad habits and an addition of good ones. That would be diversion and not conversion—a diversion from the dirty side of the broad road to the clean raised-up causeway of respectability—clean and uplifted, but on the same broad road.
What then IS conversion? If we turn up a dictionary we may find it defined as “a change of state.” That is good so far. We may see the outward effect of that by a change of habits and behaviour, it is a moral and inward change resulting doubtless in an outward change of life. It is a moral revolution that takes place in a person. Satan too knows how vital it all is. “Except ye be converted,” says Christ in Matthew 18. “Lest they . . . should be converted” is Satan’s objective, as stated in Acts 28:27.
Man in his unconverted state is described in Romans 3. He does not seek after God. There is no fear of God before his eyes. This is the result of being “alienated from the life of God” (Eph. 4:18). “Alienated and enemies in your mind by wicked works” (Col. 1:21). Not one pulsation of our moral being toward God; enemies too in our mind: no desire to look in His direction: no seeking after God: no fear or regard for God before us. Conversion is the turning round that takes place within us. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. At one time we turned away from God and any mention of Him: now we have turned to Him. That is conversion.
Luke 8 gives us a sample of a man under the power of Satan, “What have I to do with Thee?” he cries to Jesus. He did not want to have anything to do with Jesus. He wanted to be left alone. Within a few hours he is sitting at the feet of Jesus, and his cry is virtually, “Let me be with Thee!” A moral revolution had taken place, and all his state and feelings had been reversed.
Alienation is the word that describes our natural state. Conversion is the word that marks the beginning of our spiritual state.
Naturally we have no affinity for God but the very opposite. The poles of a magnet could not be more opposite. Bring the south pole of a magnet to the south pole of a compass needle, and you see how the nearer the magnet approaches the needle the further the needle flies away from the magnet. The nearer a sinner gets to God the more miserable he becomes. Bring a warm-hearted, soul-loving servant of God near to a sinner and he soon finds a reason for getting out of his way. There is such a moral difference between the two that, until it is overcome, you will not get them together.
Look at that hen with a brood of ducklings! They rush to the very thing that she avoids. They find their delight in that which would mean her death. They naturally turn from the hen to the water. How call after that? Suppose some power could instantly impart the nature of a chicken to the ducklings. Then suddenly they want to get out of the thing they once loved. They once saw nothing but pleasure in it now they see nothing but danger and death in it, and how readily they respond to the cluck of the hen. They now as readily run to her as once they ran from her. They are converted. Their state is changed by the introduction of a new nature. The change in their habits is due to a change in their nature.
An external change is not sufficient. No mere change of environment will meet the case. A sow that is washed may turn to wallowing in the mud. You may see it at one moment in the filth at the edge of a mud pool, and then at another rooting up the grass that grows at the margin in order to feed upon the roots of the plants. But if you could perform the miracle of imparting the nature of a sheep to that sow, how quickly it would seek other surroundings and a new kind of food.
Just as a sheep hates the mud so would the pig now hate it. It would show it by seeking the green pastures, not to root up the grass but to feed on tender blades. What a change! What a conversion! It was not done by driving it from its filthy surroundings into the green paddock, but by the impartation of a new nature.
In the light of these things it is not difficult to see the connection between “new birth” and “conversion.” In John 3 we have the Lord saying, “Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom.” In Matthew 18. He says, “Except ye be converted . . . ye shall not enter into the kingdom.” The one is the underlying cause; the other is the effect. But both are divine operations and not by any effort of man, as is intimated in John 1:13.
“Not of blood,” that is not as the result of hereditary advantages, obtained by natural descent.
“Nor the will of the flesh,”—not that I make up my mind to do it.
“Nor of the will of man,”—not what others are determined to do.
“But of God,”—it is a divine operation from the beginning. We are born of Him. No work of man can bring it about. No ordinance of man can substitute it.
This is why we have prayer meetings before we preach the Gospel—and should have them far more frequently, and marked by far greater fervency, than we do. We know that God alone can do the work. A great preacher of a bygone century used to give the following advice:—“Preach as though all the work depended on you. Pray as knowing that all the work depends upon God.”
The manufacture of iron and steel furnishes us with a striking illustration, in the way that the changes are labelled. When the work of smelting is done, pig-iron is produced. but it is altogether useless in that form. To make it workable the pig-iron is put into puddling furnaces and when molten the puddler churns it with an iron rod until he sees particles separating from the mass. In due course other particles separate and it is his business to roll them all into one mass of soft iron, which is ultimately taken out to the steam hammer and the rolling mills. This change that takes place under chemical action. is called in the iron trade, “coming to nature.”
There is another process gone through in manufacturing iron into steel. It is called in the steel trade, “conversion.”
It is not a little striking that when these changes have once taken place the metal can never go back to its original state, any more than, when the farmer’s wife has finished the churning, she could turn the butter back to cream.
In the case of new birth and conversion it is a spiritual change, but never can it be undone.
Let us be careful how we use these great terms. Conversion, salvation, forgiveness, peace with God, eternal life, mean all the same thing to many people, and thereby they lose much helpful instruction.
The prodigal’s conversion, as we take it, took place at the pig trough, but his forgiveness when he met his father. “I will arise and go,” is the language of a heart turning in God’s direction. “He arose and came,” is but the outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual turning which has taken place. He turned in the far country, but he was kissed and forgiven at home.