This is an essay I did as part of my undergraduate theology course. One or two people have asked me to post some of my essays, so here’s the first. It seemed pretty good at the time, but I was under stress of a deadline! Feel free to comment.
The set question was:
Is conversion a once-for-all event or is there a need for many conversions? Justify your answer.
THE ASSERTION THAT God can transform a person from the most depraved of sinners into a productive, useful member of society is met with a wide range of responses. There are those who would dismiss the idea out of hand, cynically believing that trying to do so is like trying to change the spots of a leopard — probably dangerous and certainly futile.
Others, though, believe God to be a little more powerful than that. I personally believe that God is able to transform a person’s life. I believe that not only because I have seen it happen to others, but I have experienced myself.
Part of the problem is that when God transforms a person in this way he doesn’t seem to finish the job immediately. There is work still to be done. This raises a question about the nature of conversion. Does conversion happen all at once, or does conversion happen bit by bit throughout the life of the believer?
As we will see, there is some difficulty in answering this question, partly because the concept of ‘conversion’ itself isn’t clearly defined. I shall begin by formulating a suitable definition for ‘conversion’ to aid us in our investigation. I shall also consider similarities between the question in view and other questions that have been an important part of the theological discourse within my own faith tradition.
Defining the term ‘conversion’ is a little more difficult than it might seem. The word itself is common enough in everyday English, where it refers to a process whereby one thing is changed into another. This definition is relevant as far as it goes, but it doesn’t shed much light on the particular technical use of the term.
Dicker (1999), p. 25 points out that the verb generally translated ‘convert’ in the New Testament is normally found in the active voice — we are told to ‘convert’, not ‘be converted’. Erickson (1986), p. 934 notes this and continues to describe conversion as
…a single entity which has two distinguishable but inseparable aspects: repentance and faith. Repentance is the unbeliever’s turning away from sin, and faith is his or her turning toward Christ.
I find this definition a little narrow. The term ‘conversion’ is relatively rare in the Bible, but the concept itself is quite common (Dicker 1999, p. 25). The Greek word translated ‘conversion’ conveys the idea of ‘turning’. Biblical authors describe conversion in different ways. For example, John uses the terms ‘to change’, ‘to be reborn’, ‘to pass from death to life’. On the other hand, Paul associates conversion with ‘believing’, ‘justification’ and ‘baptism’ (Dicker 1999, p. 25).
Thus we can expand our definition a little. We will allow God a measure of activity here, and take the process of conversion to include many of the other things that might occur at the moment a person ‘passes from death to life’. In broad terms this will include concepts such as justification and regeneration.
A simple recasting of the question, then, might go something like this: ‘Are the events of repentance, belief, justification and regeneration once-for-all events, or do they need to be repeated at various times during the life of the believer? ’
On the face of it this question seems quite simple to answer. It is generally accepted that a believer will be required to repent of wrongdoing subsequent to their initial conversion, and it is also accepted that he or she must always have faith. Justification, which is the changing from one legal state to another might be seen as a once off event. Regeneration, on the other hand, will be the work of a life time.
At the moment of conversion the believer repents, believes, and is justified. Regeneration begins, and it is aided along by continual faith with periods of repentance. So the answer then is ‘Conversion is both once-for-all and a repeated process.’ This is even clearer for those whose theology allows backsliding — in that case even justification is potentially a repeated event.
On deeper inspection this account has merit, but it does seem a little simplistic. Some of these concepts are quite complex, and reducing the whole question to the sum of its parts doesn’t allow for the nuances it contains.
For example, ‘faith’ is a many faceted jewel. The quote from Erickson (1986) above describes faith as the unbeliever’s ‘turning toward Christ’. Is this ‘turning toward’ Christ the same as the long term ‘fixing of the eyes’ on Christ in Hebrews 12:2? One describes the turning to Christ; the other refers to keeping turned towards him when it might be tempting to look away.
This example gives a clue to the nature of the problem. Faith is faith, but it needs to be exercised differently at different stages of the journey. In each case the goal is facing Christ. An analogy might be made with an airline pilot whose job it is to pilot an aeroplane from one city to another. There are different sorts of changes that need to be made to the course along the way. Sometimes the pilot will have to make major deviations to avoid storms or other aeroplanes. Most of the changes made, however, will be subtle and minor; correcting the course due to an unexpected shear wind, for example. The most significant change along the journey, however, is the change made when the pilot first enters the cockpit and enters the destination into the plane’s computer. The destination is set; all else is correction. Those corrections, however, are just as important as the initial data entry. Without them the plane will miss its destination, and perhaps even crash. In each case the pilot still has to keep the ultimate goal in mind.
If this analogy holds true, it would seem that many conversions are needed as the believer progresses through their life as a Christian. There will inevitably be times when the eyes stray from Jesus, and at such times the believer must repent from the new object of his or her affection and by faith turn back to Christ. This isn’t unusual, and it would seem to be the normal way of things in the Christian life.
Multiple Conversions and Sanctification
Dicker (1999), p. 33 suggests that part of the reason for this is that ‘rarely we are totally converted all at once’. Whilst there might be many changes wrought in the heart of the new Christian at the first moment of conversion, the conversion of every area of the Christian’s life may take the rest of the believer’s life. In this vein Dicker makes an interesting connection in the thought of John Wesley:
We can no more depend on a single conversion than we can depend on a single act of repentance. John Wesley became very wary of speaking of a justified or sanctified state. He thought it misled people, inducing them to trust in what was done in one moment. I believe he would have been equally wary of speaking of a ‘converted state’ and would have preferred to think of it, like sanctification, as a blessing repeated many times in the course of the Christian life.
(Dicker 1999, p. 32, emphasis mine.)
Dicker draws a parallel between the ideas of multiple conversions and the Wesleyan idea of sanctification.
Sanctification in the thought of John Wesley
Wesley taught that at some point after conversion the believer could receive a ‘second blessing’ in which God would perform another work of grace, ridding the believer entirely of sin. This wasn’t unlike conversion. In that case the not-yet-believer would become aware of his or her sin, repent, turn to God and be justified. The second work of grace would often come, according to Wesley, when the believer became aware that they still weren’t entirely free from sin:
Although we may, by the Spirit, mortify the deeds of the body, resist and conquer both inward and outward sin; although we may weaken our enemies day by day; yet we cannot drive them out. By all the grace which is given at justification we cannot extirpate them…. Most sure we cannot, till it please our Lord to speak to our hearts again, to speak the second time, “Be clean”; and then only the leprosy is cleansed. Then only the evil root, the carnal mind, is destroyed; and inbred sin subsists no more.
(John Wesley, cited in Larsson 1983, p. 43)
The teachings of John Wesley were quite influential in the years that followed, and several denominations followed in the ‘Holiness’ tradition, including my own, the Salvation Army. In such denominations there has been an emphasis on Wesley’s doctrine and the attainment of the ‘Blessing’. Indeed, the Salvation Army has traditionally observed two ‘meetings’ every Sunday; a ‘Salvation meeting’, in which the gospel is preached, and sinners are given an opportunity to be converted; and the ‘Holiness Meeting’, where the doctrine of Entire Sanctification (another term for Wesley’s second blessing) is taught and believers encouraged to pray for it. The folklore of the Salvation Army is replete with stories of people who have attained it, often through marathon prayer meetings exhibiting Pentecost like displays of excitement and chaos.
The term ‘sanctification’ itself speaks of a state whereby the believer becomes wholly separated from the world to God (The Salvation Army 1969, pp. 148–149). To repeat the metaphor from Hebrews, it involves turning the eyes away from the world and fixing them on God. Thus, like conversion, it involves faith and repentance on the part of the believer (The Salvation Army 1969, pp. 166-158). Furthermore, sanctification is provided for by the atonement and is effected by the Holy Spirit (The Salvation Army 1969, pp. 151–154).
Wesley’s doctrine has, over the years, softened a little. This even seems to have happened during the lifetime of John Wesley himself (Larsson 1983, p. 44). Whereas the earlier teaching placed an emphasis on a crisis which culminated in a moment of sanctification, modern teaching tends to concentrate on the process of healing which follows. The crisis may typically be characterised by repentance or a some sort of commitment to deeper service to God. The process will be the ‘subsequent action by which the implications of this commitment are worked out in every department of life’ (The Salvation Army 1969, p. 159).
Importantly, there can be more than one period of sanctification; a blessing subsequent to conversion doesn’t necessarily complete the work that was started at conversion, and may be repeated many times through the life of the believer.
As mentioned above Dicker finds some similarity between the concepts of multiple conversions and sanctification. They certainly share many of the same features; they are both works of the Holy Spirit which, by means of repentance and the exercise of faith, give a believer a nudge further along the road to Christlikeness. I wonder if the two concepts might be one and the same thing.
Indeed, understanding sanctification in terms of conversion may be quite useful. Instead of a ‘one-off’ event conversion can be seen as a life long process of ‘converting’ from a state of unregenerate darkness to that of complete Christlikeness. In this sense the term goes beyond the mere legal translation from ‘guilty’ to ‘innocent’ that happens at the moment of justification. To borrow another phrase from the Wesleyan tradition, the ultimate goal of conversion might quite properly be called ‘Full Salvation’.
So is conversion a conversion a once-for-all event or is there a need for many conversions? The answer really depends on what is meant by ‘conversion’. If conversion is strictly supposed to refer to those things that happen at the point of justification, then it is, almost by definition, a once-for-all event.
However, as the Christian continues on his or her journey there will be times when processes very similar to conversion come into play; indeed, apart from the fact of justification, they quite neatly fit the definition of conversion. There is no compelling reason why the term ‘conversion’ couldn’t be used to refer to these processes. If extending the definition of ‘conversion’ in this way is warranted, then it is quite safe to say that we will continue to be converted until our final conversion in heaven.
Dicker, G. S. (1999), Promise & Hope, Openbook Publishers, Adelaide, South Australia.
Erickson, M. J. (1986), Christian Theology, Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Larsson, J. (1983), Spiritual Breakthrough, The Salvation Army, London.
The Salvation Army (1969), Handbook of Doctrine, The Salvation Army, London.
The Salvation Army (1998), Salvation Story, The Salvation Army, London.
The Holy Bible: The New Revised Standard Version (1989), Collins.
1For those outside the Salvation Army, the term ‘Meeting’ might best be translated ‘Service’.
2Whilst I have borrowed the term, I have broadened it somewhat by allowing it to include the final perfection that awaits after physical death. Used more traditionally: ‘The concept of full salvation…should not be understood as a state of spiritual saturation beyond which we cannot receive further grace. It simply refers to our faith in, and openness toward, the full gift of God’s grace’ (The Salvation Army 1998, pp. 96–97). Still, our faith in and openness toward God’s grace will presumably remain once we are perfected.