First Century Conversion
Quarter 2, Lesson 1

Lesson One

Understanding the Concept

Depending on the English translation used, the words "conversion, convert, converted" occur infrequently in the New Testament. These words primarily occur in the King James translation. In Acts 15:3, Paul gave a detailed report concerning the "conversion" of the Gentiles to "the brethren" in Phoenicia and Samaria. When Paul gave this report, he was en route to Jerusalem. The purpose of his trip was to discuss with the Jerusalem church leadership the validity of the same Gentiles' "conversion."

Part or all of Isaiah 6:9,10 is quoted in Matthew 13:14,15; Mark 4:12; Luke 8:10; John 12:40; and Acts 28:26,27. In the King James translation, all of those quotations [except Luke's partial quotation] contain the word "converted." Many other translations use the word "turn."

The "conversion" concept is based on the redirection of the person, a definite "turning." This "turning" is illustrated in an instruction Jesus gave and in a statement made in James.

On his betrayal night, Jesus informed Peter that Satan "demanded permission" (New American Standard) to sift Peter like wheat. Jesus prayed Peter's faith would not fail. The instruction (King James translation): "when thou art converted, strengthen thy brethren (Luke 22:32)." The Revised Standard translates, "...when you have turned again..." Today's English translates, "...when you turn back to me..." The New International translates, "...when you have returned to me..." The Jerusalem Bible translates, "...once you have recovered..." The New English translates, "...when you have come to yourself..." The New American Standard translates, "...when once you have turned again..."

Conversion is a redirection, a turning, a return. Peter's turning (return) occurred when he renounced his denial of Jesus. He publicly reaffirmed his devotion to Jesus in Acts 2.

James 5:19,20 illustrates to "covert" is to turn, to redirect. Again, the King James translation uses the English word "convert." It states: "Brethren, if any of you do err from the truth, and one convert him; let him know, that he which converteth the sinner from the error of his way shall save a soul from death, and shall hide a multitude of sins." In this statement, converting is turning a person from error. To abandon error and to return to truth is to "convert."

The essential questions to be answered are these. Biblically, when people were converted, from what did they "turn?" To what did they "turn?" Was the "turning" identical for everyone? Did everyone "turn" in the same direction to the same thing?

When biblical information is considered, some things become obvious. #1) In a diverse religious world, people consistently "turned" to Jesus. # 2) The "turning" involved different issues for people in different religious circumstances. #3) Regardless of individual circumstance, the "turning" involved (a) recognizing Jesus was Savior and (b) placing trust in Jesus. # 4) The essential foundation of "turning" was the personal conviction that Jesus was the Christ.

When we biblically study the concept of conversion, a realization becomes strikingly obvious: their "conversion issues" and our "conversion issues" are different. Our conversion issues frequently center around "church membership" and "changing churches." Our issues frequently involve reactions to the denominational concept. Their issues did not. Whereas now many churches exist, then one existed. Our struggle with the concept of "church" was not their struggle. Commonly, our conversion struggle involves a "leaving." Commonly, their conversion struggle involved an accepting.

Virtually all "converted" in the first century were first generation Christians. None of them had Christian mothers and fathers. They had no Christian home background. Surely, some Jewish converts came from homes of "the righteous." Surely, many righteous Jewish converts understood pre-Jesus Judaism and post-Jesus Christianity shared at least one common issue: the importance of being God's people. However, those converted from idols did not come to Christ from a background that produced those understandings.

Today, how do congregations typically measure success in conversions? Are preachers ever asked to leave because a congregation is not experiencing enough baptisms? Are statistics regarded as a primary instrument for measuring congregational spiritual growth?

Our culture becomes increasingly complex. Our congregations increasingly feel the stresses of society's changes. Too many Christian adults increasingly think like, behave like, and adopt the standards of people who are not Christians. Too many Christian teens enter adult life by abandoning Christianity.

All these factors increase the level of spiritual stress and concern in converts' hearts and minds. Everyone searches for answers. Everyone has ideas, suggestions, and convictions. Everyone is convinced, "If my understandings were used, things would get better." All of us are tempted to believe, "If the church would just place emphasis on 'X', there would be no problem."

Consider a possibility. First, this understanding is accepted. The situation is too complex, the causes are too many, and individual struggles are too complicated to be "fixed" by a single approach or solution. Second, could it be too many adults who are baptized are not converted? Could it be that too many of our young people who are baptized were not converted? Could it be that "church membership" was substituted for conversion? Could it be what we consider conversion is distinctly different to what Acts considered conversion? Could it be that our conversion focus needs adjustment?

Keep your thinking on conversion. Do not allow other important matters to distract your thinking. The importance of the church is accepted. However, if we are successful in restoring the structure of the church, that of itself does not achieve God's purposes. What if the restored structure [system] contains significant numbers of baptized members who are not converted? Does the mere existence of the structure or system accomplish God's purposes? Is conversion simply a matter of placing one's faith in the structure or the system?

When you examine [not judge!] Christians today, in what is the "turning" seen? Did the person ever feel "lost" and in need of a Savior? Did the person realize the need to be forgiven? Has the objective of baptism become "escaping consequences" without finding the compassionate, merciful, forgiving Savior? If a person can state in "one, two, three" order the importance of baptism but has little understanding of what God did in Jesus, is that enough for conversion?

Link to Teacher's Guide Quarter 2, Lesson 1

Copyright © 2001
David Chadwell & West-Ark Church of Christ

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