By Dr. William Young
The Lord Jesus Christ has declared, “Verily I say unto you, except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven,” (Matthew 18:3 ). Since for adults conversion is an indispensable requisite for salvation, a correct view of its nature is of paramount importance. The need for such understanding is intensified by the prevalence of misconceptions in the professing church, even among Calvinists. Evangelicals, whether avowed Arminians or such in practice only, suppose that a sinner, by the exercise of his free will, can accept Christ and be converted. Some Calvinists, repudiating this error, have adopted the view that the children of believers have no need for an experience of conversion, but may be presumed to be regenerated or at least elected to salvation unless in later years they reject the faith in which they were brought up in a Christian Church, home and school. In these circles, conversion remains a locus in the system of orthodox theology, but ceases to be a reality in experience and practice.
Holy Scripture knows nothing of the popular error that conversion is merely the external move from one scheme of religion to another, nor of the mistakes of Christians who regard conversion of the soul from sin to God either as the independent act of man or as a presumptive guarantee of an external covenant relationship. All of these confused notions fall short of the Biblical teaching of the Sovereignty of God as the sole source of a sound conversion. The Word of God ascribes the priority in this matter to the Creator and not to the creature, whose prayer is, “Turn thou me, and I shall be turned; for thou art the Lord my God,” and his testimony, “Surely after that I was turned, I repented” (Jer 32:18,19 cf. Lam 5:21 ). What the Lord does in conversion is not only an antecedent condition but the efficacious cause of the human response in repentance and faith.
Scripture Words for Conversion
The most common Old Testament word for conversion is “shub,” “to turn”. Familiar examples are Ps. 19:7; 51:13; Isa. 1:27 ; 6:10. “Hapak,” “to turn”, is used in Isa. 60:5 . In the Septuagint “shub” is translated by “epistrepho”, the common word for “to turn” or “to convert” in the New Testament, e.g. Gal. 4:9; I Thess. 1:9; Jas. 5:19,20 . In Matt. 18:3 the verb is simply “strepho”, “to turn:. The fundamental notion of returning to God from sin is expressed in these words. While the word is not used, its sense is exemplified in the language of the prodigal son, Lk. 15:18. “I will arise and go to my father.” The word “conversion” is closely related to “repentance,” and may be considered a synonym if we think of repentance in a broad sense. In the narrow sense, repentance is regularly taken, together with faith, as an element of conversion. But Berkhof regards “metanoia” as “the most common word for conversion in the Old Testament.” The common translation “repentance” may be retained and the broad sense understood as implied in a radical change of mind.
The State Preceding Conversion
Before conversion itself is discussed, some consideration should be given to the state of those who are to be converted. Indeed, one may well consider man’s original state of primitive integrity as well as that of his entire depravity, to use the terms of Thomas Boston in his Human Nature in its Fourfold State. If the Scripture revelation of Creation and the Fall are not correctly understood, one may expect errors to appear in the account given of conversion. History verifies this expectation, for heresies with respect to grace have their root in false views as to man’s original state and the effects of the fall. Such appears repeatedly in the varying heresies of Pelagianism and Semi-Pelagianism.
The image of God in which man was created included not only his rationality and resulting responsibility, but the specific characters of knowledge, righteousness and holiness (Eccles. 7:29;Eph. 4:24 ; Col. 3:10 ). By his fall into sin, man has completely lost the divine image in the latter narrow sense. The unrestricted nature of this loss has been expressed in the use of the term “total depravity.” By reason of the sinner’s turning away from God, every part of his being has been corrupted. His intellect has been darkened, his affections perverted, his will enslaved, and his body as the instrument of the soul used for evil ends. Special attention may be given to the bondage of the will. While a certain natural liberty remains in fallen man, the ability to do the good acceptable to a holy God has been entirely lost (Rom. 8:7,8 ; I Cor. 2:14; Eph. 2:2-5 ;Tit. 3:3-5 ). In the language of the Westminster Confession, IX.3: “Man by his fall into a state of sin, hath wholly lost all ability of will to any spiritual good accompanying salvation; so as a natural man, being altogether averse from that good, and dead in sin, is not able, by his own strength, to convert himself, or to prepare himself thereunto.” This inability implies that saving faith and evangelical repentance must be gifts of the free and sovereign grace of God.
Preparation for Conversion
The confessional declaration that the natural man is not able, by his own strength, to prepare himself for conversion has been taken by some to exclude any preparation for conversion. A careful reading of the Confession, however, will show that this inference is unwarranted. That a man cannot prepare himself for conversion certainly does not imply that God, with whom all things are possible, cannot by his common grace prepare an elect person for conversion while that person is yet in a state of nature. It does not even mean that an unconverted person may not perform duties, with the help of God, which may, in the course of providence be preparatory to his conversion. A failure to recognize this may be due to a one-sided preoccupation with the important truth of the radical difference in the state of a sinner before and after the great change.
One contributing factor in this mistake is a confusion of conversion with regeneration. A person is either spiritually dead or alive. There is no intermediate state here, but only an instantaneous change. Conversion, however, may be a process with distinguishable stages, and in a sense may admit of repetition, which is not the case with regeneration. The Apostle Peter was no doubt a converted person when the Lord said to him, “When thou art converted strengthen the brethren.” Luke 22:32 . Among Reformed theologians, Maccovius (1588-1644) in his controversy with Amesius (1576-1633) denied preparations to regeneration as being inconsistent with total depravity. More commonly, Calvinistic writers, and especially the Presbyterians and Puritans, have agreed with Amesius. Frequently today one hears loud repudiation of what is called “preparationism” by poorly informed Evangelicals who often fail to make the most elementary distinctions in connection with the subject. Among writers that have recognized the fact of preparations, there have been diverse views expressed, while there is basic agreement in doctrine and practice.
Samuel Rutherford has discussed the question in minute detail (see pp. 275-301 of Christ Dying and Drawing Sinners to Himself, 1803 edition). Negatively, preparations are not the improvement of our natural abilities with a certain issue in conversion: even if “wrought in us by the common and restraining grace of God” they cannot produce our conversion. All such humiliation and displeasure with sin cannot please God and “can be no formal parts of conversion.” They are not moral preparation with any promise of Christ annexed to them. These antecedents to conversion do not detract from the omnipotency of free grace. One may be not far from the kingdom of God, (Mark 12:34 ), and yet not enter in. Protestant divines do not “make true repentance a work of the law going before faith in Christ.” Rutherford is especially concerned to defend preparations against Antinomian objections, particularly those of the Saltmarsh. Several pages of controversy are followed by a more positive exposition in which a number of interesting observations are made. First, a distinction is made as to whether one’s reason for believing is that one is a needy sinner or because one is fitted for mercy and humbled. The way of humiliation is sweetly subordinate to free pardon. Examples are given from Peter’s sermon at Pentecost, from Paul’s conversion and the argument in Romans 3 . Rutherford summarizes in characteristic fashion: “Preparations are penal, to subdue; not moral to deserve a merit; nor conditional to engage Christ to convert, but to facilitate conversion.” (p. 297)
Of special interest is Rutherford’s discussion of the thesis “that the promises of the gospel are holden forth to sinners as sinners.” If the assertion means that all such are in a sinful condition; it is most true and sound. But it is most false to hold, with the Antinomians, that “they are all immediately to believe and apply Christ and the promises, who are sinners; and there be nothing required of sinners, but that they may all immediately claim an interest in Christ, after their own way and order, without humiliation, or any law work,” On this view, Christ would be holden forth to those who never heard the gospel. Simon Magus was not told to believe that God loved him with an everlasting love, “nor doth the gospel-promise offer immediately soul-rest to the hardened sinner; nor is the acceptable year of the Lord proclaimed, nor beauty and the oil of joy offered immediately to any, but those who are weary and laden, and who mourn in Sion, and wallow in ashes, (Matt 11:28-30 ; Isa. 61:1-3 ). ‘Tis true, to all in the viable church, Christ is offered without price or money; but to be received after Christ’s fashion and order, not after our order; that is, after the soul is under self-despair of salvation, and in the sinner’s mouth, when he hath been with child of hell.” Rutherford grants that in regard of time sinners cannot come too soon to Christ, but adds “in regard of order many come too soon, and unprepared.”
Rutherford evidently realizes that his position is apt to be misunderstood, and hence adds further explanations. “None can be thoroughly fitted for Christ before he come to Christ, but it is true, some would buy the pearl before they sell all that they have.” To the Antinomian charge that the orthodox view preparations as making us less sinners, Rutherford replies, “Preparations remove not one dram, or twentieth part of an ounce of guiltiness, or sin; Christ, in practice of free grace, not by law, yea not by promise, gives grace to the thus prepared, and after he denies it also … The omnipotency of grace knows no such thing, as more or less pardonable in sin, yea, of purpose to heighten grace, that sinfulness may contend with grace, and be overcome, the Gentiles must be like corn ripe, white and yellow, ere the sickle cut them down, and they be converted.” John 4:35 . It follows that it is good to lie at wisdom’s door and attend Christ’s tide which may come in an unexpected hour. A final beautiful passage concerns Christ’s unchangeable love in drawing a fallen saint out of the pit. As in the Song of Solomon, love-sickness precedes Christ’s return.
A distinctive representation of preparation to conversion is found in the works of the 17th century New England Puritans. The sermons of Thomas Shepard and Thomas Hooker abound in minute descriptions of the stages of the experience of the awakened sinner prior to conversion. Detailed directions are given to those who are burdened with a sense of sin, including warning against “catching at Christ” prematurely and resting in the carnal security of the evangelical hypocrite.
The theological foundation of this pastoral practice has been developed in John Norton’s treatise,The Orthodox Evangelist. Chapter 6 has the title “There are certain preparatory works coming between the carnal rest of the soul in the state of sin, and effectual vocation; or, Christ in his ordinary dispensation of the Gospel, calleth not sinners, as sinners, but such sinners; i.e. qualified sinners, immediately to believe.” A distinction is made between mediate and immediate calling to believe: “Mediate, when we are called to believe; yet so, as that some other duty, or duties are to be done, before we can believe: thus all are called to believe that live under the gospel. Immediate, when we are not only called to believe, but the very next duty we are called unto, is to believe; so are all they called to believe, that living under the gospel are in measure or preparatorily … nextly disposed thereunto.” p. 130.
That sinners must be thus qualified, Norton argues from Matt. 9:13 ; Mark 2:17 ; Luke 5:31 . “He came not, to call all sinners; for the righteous here mentioned are sinners; but such sinners, sick sinners: the text can admit no other interpretation” (p. 130 f.). Likewise, sinners in Isa. 61:1 are broken hearted, and in Matt. 11:28 weary and heavy laden. The revelation in the word is confirmed by argument from Reason.” ‘Tis in the works of grace, as we ordinarily see in the works of nature; God proceeds not immediately from one extreme unto another, but by degrees. Here Christ, the only physician of souls so cures his elect; as that by the common work of the Spirit he maketh them sick, before, by the saving work of the Spirit, he maketh them well”( p. 135).
In chapter 7, the parts of preparatory work, wrought by the ministry of the law, are enumerated: 1. Conviction of the holiness of the law; 2. Conviction of sin; 3. Conviction of guilt; 4. Concluding of the soul under sin and guilt; 5. Conviction of the righteousness of God, in case he should punish us for sin; 6. Inexcusableness. The preparatory work of the gospel has the following heads: 1. Revelation of Christ so far as is necessary for man’s salvation; 2. Repentance; 3. Lost estate; 4. The sovereignty of God, and of Christ, in showing mercy; 5. The special object of faith, and arguments moving thereunto; 6. Waiting for the Lord Jesus in the use of means, with preparatory hope, under the “if you believe” of the gospel.
Norton definitely denies that a distinct experience of those several heads of preparatory work is ordinarily necessary to conversion, but he adds “the more distinctness the better”( p. 160.). As to the amount of preparatory work needed he states: “As the greatest measure hath no necessary connection with salvation, so the least measure puts the soul into a preparatory capacity, or ministerial next-disposition to the receiving of Christ” (Ibid.). While there is not the same degree of humiliation in all that are truly converted, yet some degree is required. A soul with a lesser degree of humiliation before conversion may expect an after-bondage before it is settled and attains assurance of salvation. The experience of preparatory work is darkened by supposing it necessary to tell the time of one’s conversion. Norton writes: “ ’Tis the duty of all who live under the gospel to be converted unto God, and it is the duty of all that are converted to know they are converted; but we are no where commanded to know the time of our conversion” (p. 162).
The most important account of conversion in colonial New England theology is that of Jonathan Edwards, whose extensive experience of conversion in the Great Awakening is reflected in his balanced treatment of the subject. In his masterpiece on The Religious Affections, Part 2, Sec. 8, he argues for the necessity of preparation, while cautioning against misconceptions. After an exhaustive consideration of Scripture instances, he concludes: “If it be indeed God’s manner, (and I think the foregoing considerations show that it undoubtedly is) before he grants men the comfort of deliverance from their sin and misery, to give them a considerable sense of the greatness and dreadfulness of those evils, and their extreme wretchedness by reason of them; surely it is not unreasonable to suppose, that persons, at least oftentimes, while under these views, should have great distress and terrible apprehensions of mind.”
On the other hand, in agreement with Thomas Shepard, Edwards states: “It is no evidence that comforts and joys are right, because they succeed great terrors, and amazing fears of hell.” In a footnote he observes: “Mr, Stoddard, who had much experience of things of this nature, long ago observed that converted and unconverted men cannot be certainly distinguished by the account they give of their experience; the same relation of experiences being common to both.” Edwards, like Norton, also points out, “nothing proves it to be necessary, that all those things which are implied or presupposed in an act of faith in Christ, must be plainly and distinctly wrought in the soul, in so many successive and distinct works of the Spirit, that shall be each one manifest, in all who are truly converted.” Although Shepard is repeatedly cited with approval, yet Edwards appears to propose a correction to prevalent views, when he writes: “Nor does the Spirit of God proceed discernable in the steps of a particular established scheme, one half so often as is imagined.” Edward’s concluding remark is worthy of serious consideration: “Many greatly err in their notions of a clear work of conversion; calling that a clear work, where the successive steps of influence and method of experience is clear; whereas that indeed is the clearest work, (not where the order of doing is clearest, but) where the spiritual and divine nature of the work done, and effect wrought, is most clear.” The study of Edward’s writings on the Great Awakening will prove rewarding, but especially the careful discrimination between the saving work of God’s spirit and all else, so admirably set forth in the Treatise Concerning Religious Affections. In similar fashion, Thomas Boston in Human Nature in Its Fourfold State describes minutely twelve stages in the breaking off of a branch from its natural stock. Yet he observes that he does not desire to rack or distress tender-consciences, of whom he found but few in his day. He explains: “But this I assert as a certain truth, that all who are in Christ have been broken off from these several confidences; and that those who were never broken off from them, are yet in their natural stock. Nevertheless, if the house be pulled down, and the old foundation razed, it is much the same, whether it was taken down stone by stone, or whether it was undermined, and all fell down together.” (Part 3, Head 2., p. 190 Sovereign Grace Book Club ed.).
Common to the doctrine of these and many other Reformed writers is the recognition of the fact that God’s ordinary method is to prepare his elect for conversion, employing the law and the gospel to produce conviction of sin and an enlightenment of the mind to see the way of salvation in Christ. This preparatory work is common to those who are eventually converted and others who are not. It neither merits salvation not guarantees conversion, but is ordinarily an antecedent to it. God’s sovereignty in the methods he uses in performing this work is acknowledged, while due emphasis is placed upon the work performed. To overlook or minimize the importance of preparation for conversion is to encourage superficial views and practices with respect to the translation of a sinner from darkness to God’s marvelous light. A solid foundation in conviction is indispensable to a sound and lasting conversion.
Systematic Theology, p. 480.
 Readers may recognize this theologian by the name of Ames.
A. Kuyper Jr., Joannes Maccovius, pp. 339-352.
 Likewise Brakel writes: “We must not be of the opinion that each act follows upon the other within the soul in such sequence as we have described it here. We cannot express both acts simultaneously, and therefore we must place the one act after the other. However, all the notions mentioned above are frequently intertwined within the soul. Sometimes they function in one and the same exercise of faith, and thus no one ought to trouble himself about the order in which they occur, either by reflecting upon the manner in which it was exercised or as to the manner in which it began” (Vol. II, p. 245 f. cf. p. 288 on the acts of saving faith).