The Definition of Conversion

Regeneration and Conversion

The human side of regeneration is conversion. Many people have different ideas about conversion. Fortunately, we are not bound to the ideas and opinions of others. The Bible describes the doctrine of conversion by written explanations of what we can expect and a detailed example of how people come to know God in the Scriptures.

The apostle Paul described the conversion experience to the Romans when he wrote, “Ye have obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine which was delivered you” (Rom. 6:17). Conversion does not involve learning a catechism or knowing the doctrine of Christ. It embraces the total person, which means conversion is related to all three powers of man: the intellect, the emotions, and the will. A person muse know certain things to experience conversion, but a knowledge of these facts alone will not save him. Conversion also involves the emotions, but it is far more than an emotional experience. Conversion is not complete until an act of the will has taken place, but even an act of our will is not enough to save if it is done in ignorance or without a heart desire. The intellect. The conversion of a man to Christ is different from a conversion to another religion or commercial product. Though many have tried, conversion cannot be passed off as a mere psychological phenomenon.

Knowledge of the Gospel

To be saved, a person must know the gospel. There is only one gospel (Gal. 1:9) but it contains two sides of the same truth. Just as a door has two sides, so the gospel is propositional and personal truth. The gospel is propositional truth which means it is a formula that is accurate. The gospel is the account of the death of Christ for our sins, his burial and resurrection from the dead on the third day (1 Cor. 15:1-4). Only Jesus could provide for us salvation. “But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8).

Personal Truth of the Gospel

A second aspect of this gospel is personal truth. When Paul came to Corinth to preach his gospel he “determined not to know anything among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2). The gospel is not complete in its presentation until it focuses attention on the Person of Christ. Jesus said, “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:14, 15). If a person does not trust in Christ, that person is not saved. It is important that we know both the content (doctrine) and the Person (Jesus Christ) of the gospel to be converted.

Roman Road of Salvation

Knowing the propositional truth of salvation is knowing God’s plan of salvation. If one wishes to become a chess master, he must learn the rules of the game and discipline himself to play by them. If one wishes to be a Christian, he must follow God’s plan. This is sometimes called the Roman Road of Salvation since the verses that are often used to lead a person to Christ are found in the Book of Romans.

Why We Need Salvation

The first step in this plan is to know your need. The Bible says, “There is none righteous, no, not one” (Rom. 3:10). This does not mean there is nothing good in man but rather that none of us is as righteous as God himself. God has a perfect standard of holiness required for entrance into heaven. Unfortunately, “All have sinned, and come short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23).

It makes little difference how good we are. We are not good enough. If a marathon runner attempts to set an Olympic record, it makes little difference if he misses by five seconds or five hours. He has missed the standard he had set for himself. Even if we were “almost perfect,” we still fall short of God’s holy standard of perfection.

Understanding the Result of Sin

The second step is to know the penalty. The Bible says, “The wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23). This refers to both physical and spiritual death. Physical death occurs upon the separation of the body and spirit of man (James 2:26). Spiritual death occurs when one is eternally separated from God. John wrote of a future point in time when “death and hell were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death” (Rev. 20:14).

Christ’s Provision

A third step in God’s plan of salvation is to know the provision. This provision is found in the gospel. “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). Because we could not pay the price for our sins, Jesus did. Today he provides salvation as a free gift to all who will take it (Rom. 6:23). Jesus provided what we could not provide for ourselves. That provision gives us the option to receive or reject God’s gift of eternal life.

Responding to Christ’s Call

A person can know the above three steps in this plan and never be saved. He must personally respond. “That if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dear thou shalt be saved” (Rom. 10:9), Jesus traveled through Israel and offered salvation to his own people, but he was rejected. “But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name” (John 1:12). You must know how to respond to the gospel and respond to be saved.

Dealing with Our Emotions

Many religious groups place too much emphasis on a person’s emotions and create what is known as “psychological conversion” to their particular religious sect. In reaction to this, some conservative Christians have attempted to deny their emotions completely. Neither emphasis is correct. God made man complete with an emotional capacity. If kept in proper perspective, our emotions lead to a healthy conversion. The abuse of emotions by some radicals should not cause us to abandon that which is good. A person will be emotionally affected by his conversion by either a cause or an effect experience.

The apostle Paul rejoiced “not that ye were made sorry but that ye sorrowed to repentance: for ye were made sorry after a godly manner…. For godly sorrow worketh repentance to salvation not to be repented of: but the sorrow of the world worketh death” (2 Cor. 7:9, 10). Paul recognized there were two kinds of emotional reactions to the gospel: “godly sorrow” and “sorrow of the world.” There is a place for “godly sorrow” in our lives that leads to further spiritual insight. The “sorrow of the world” is remorse for getting caught, not sorrow for the act committed.

Sometimes God will allow a person to experience guilt so he can understand and appreciate forgiveness of sins. Often God must use our emotions to cause us to respond to the gospel. On other occasions, God will use our emotional reaction so he can better deal with us after salvation. When Philip preached the gospel in Samaria and many people were saved, the Bible records “”there was great joy in that city”” (Acts 8:8). The apostle Paul expected his converts to continue to respond emotionally to God. He told the Philippians, “Rejoice in the Lord always: and again I say, Rejoice” (Phil. 4:4). It is all right to get excited about our relationship with Christ.

Each of us has a different way of expressing emotions depending upon age, sex, background, and a host of other unique experiences that make us who we are. Sometimes we tend to think the person who shouts and jumps for joy or a person who cries loudly is more emotionally involved in a situation than the person who sits apparently oblivious to what is happening around him. A person is not more or less saved depending upon the volume of his emotional outbursts, but when we are converted, it will affect our emotions.

The Will to Respond

God created man with a will to choose to respond or reject the work of God in his life. In order to be converted, a person must respond. This does not mean we save ourselves. “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast” (Eph. 2:8, 9). While “Salvation is of the Lord” (Jonah 2:9) and we do not earn our salvation, God does tell us to receive it (John 1:12).


Some churches baptize, teaching that baptism saves a person. But baptism should not be equated with salvation. Baptism could be defined as “salvation symbolized.” When a Christian is baptized, he is illustrating a twofold symbol. First, it is a symbol of redemption, how Christ died for his sins, was buried, and on the third day rose again from the dead (Rom. 6:4; 1 Cor. 15:1-4). Second, baptism is a symbol of regeneration. The candidate being baptized is saying he has personally trusted Christ as Savior and a supernatural change has taken place in his life (Gal. 2:20).

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Dr. Elmer Towns is a college and seminary professor, an author of popular and scholarly works (the editor of two encyclopedias), a popular seminar lecturer, and dedicated worker in Sunday school, and has developed over 20 resource packets for leadership education.His personal education includes a B.S. from Northwestern College in Minneapolis, Minnesota, a M.A. from Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, a Th.M. from Dallas Theological Seminary also in Dallas, a MRE from Garrett Theological Seminary in Evanston, Illinois, and a D.Min. from Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California.He is co-founder of Liberty University, with Jerry Falwell, in 1971, and was the only full-time teacher in the first year of Liberty’s existence. Today, the University has over 11,400 students on campus with 39,000 in the Distance Learning Program (now Liberty University Online), and he is the Dean of the School of Religion.Dr. Towns has given theological lectures and taught intensive seminars at over 50 theological seminaries in America and abroad. He holds visiting professorship rank in five seminaries. He has written over 2,000 reference and/or popular articles and received six honorary doctoral degrees. Four doctoral dissertations have analyzed his contribution to religious education and evangelism.

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