In the previous article, we established that not all conversions are genuine — not all that glitters is gold. In this second part, we will go on to see the permanent characteristics of genuine conversion as we can glean from Scripture.
In dealing with non-genuine conversions, one can distinguish between two kinds: temporal conversion, and counterfeit conversion. This distinction is necessary because we see from the biblical examples of temporary conversions that these largely occur following the presentation of the truth. For example, Simon the sorcerer did hear Philip’s preaching, and in Jesus’ parable, we are told that the seed which was sown is the Word of God. However, there are some “conversions” which have been known to take place as a result of agents other than the word of God or the presentation of the truth.
For example, a drug addict may, as result of psychological treatment experience a change of life from one of addiction, violence or other vices, to that of decency and responsibility, free from addiction. Similarly, a cult member may be required to give up certain vices and live a highly moral life, fast a number of times a week etc. Whilst both examples above involve a turning from one way of life to another (conversion), they are not produced by the truth, hence can be described as counterfeit conversions. Near-death experiences, experiencing “flashes of light”, sudden unexplained events, or even traumatic life experiences can lead to a form of conversion that may closely simulate Christian conversion; however the notable difference is that they are not produced by the truth of God’s word, but by something else – including even demonic agents.
These go to prove that not everyone who undergoes a change in their lives has experienced true Christian conversion. Not all that appears to be conversion is true conversion – as we have seen from Jesus’ own teachings and from that of the apostles.
Non-essential Aspects of Conversion
In our quest to distinguish between fake and genuine conversions, it is important to mention certain aspects of conversion which vary from person to person, and should therefore not be used as a yardstick to measure the veracity of all Christian conversions. There are quite a few, but we’ll mention two which are common.
Age At Conversion
There are some who have postulated that if conversion does not happen at a particular age in life, then it is not genuine, or might never happen at all. Dr. Stephen Addai, former rector of the Ghana Institute of Management and Public Administration (GIMPA), speaking on the theme of moral integrity within the ranks of public officers, was heard on 12th October 2015 to have said, “Statistics show that 80 percent of all people who will go to heaven make their decision for Jesus Christ before the age of 18. The children should grow up knowing Jesus Christ and if we do so, we will not have judges who collect bribes to prevent justice.”¹
Training up children in the fear and knowledge of Christ is highly commendable, however, the good doctor’s remarks on conversion are utterly unscriptural. Sadly, Dr. Addai is not the first person to make such bold assertions. Edwin Starbuck (1866-1947)², writing on religious conversions, similarly said most religious experiences occur between the ages of 15 and 24, as part of the normal process of finding our identities as adolescents. To Starbuck, since all conversions happen in this age bracket, it may be the case that conversion is nothing more than a normal teenage experience.
The good news is, age is completely irrelevant when it comes to conversion. As noted previously, conversion is the work of the Holy Spirit – and He’s not limited by age whatsoever.
Dramatic or Undramatic Nature of One’s Conversion
A previous online article, faith, emotions and the word of God, decisively addresses the error of basing one’s assurance of salvation on feelings, instead of on the objective truth of God’s word. The danger is that, when we appeal to our emotions instead of truth-based faith, we tend to dismiss any conversion that is undramatic as not genuine. Whilst the Bible records the Philippian jailer’s dramatic conversion experience (Acts 16:25-33), it also takes into account Lydia of Thyatira, whose heart the Lord opened whilst she sat quietly listening to Paul and others share the Gospel (Acts 16:14).
If we were to insist that undramatic experiences were not genuine, we would surely discount the experience of Lydia. But thank God, the Bible does not standardise these variable aspects of conversion. As surely as our faces differ, so do our conversion experiences differ; however, they must all bear the same marks of genuineness, if they are to be counted as true Christian conversion. Whether accompanied by great tears or not, whether dramatic or quiet, all Christian conversions ultimately have two permanent marks of genuineness.
Marks of True Conversion
In Acts 20: 18-21, Paul sums up the permanent marks of any true Christian conversion:
And when they came to him, he said to them: “You yourselves know how I lived among you the whole time from the first day that I set foot in Asia, serving the Lord with all humility and with tears and with trials that happened to me through the plots of the Jews; how I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you in public and from house to house, testifying both to Jews and to Greeks of repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.
The New Testament always places emphasis on these two — repenting towards God and placing one’s faith wholly and solely in the Lord Jesus Christ. Genuine repentance is not possible to the carnal man, except his heart is changed through the regeneration of the Holy Spirit. John Owen, in his work The Holy Spirit³ aptly captures this, saying, “Before the work of grace the heart is ‘stony.’ It can do no more than a stone can do to please God.”
Genuine repentance towards God — with the evidence of a changed life from the inside out, and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, therefore, signify a genuine change of heart. These two are always essential. On this, Joseph Alleine writes,
“More particularly, this change of conversion extends to the whole man. A carnal person may have some shreds of good morality—but he is never good throughout the whole cloth. Conversion is not a repairing of the old building; but it takes all down, and erects a new structure. It is not the sewing on a patch of holiness; but with the true convert, holiness is woven into all his powers, principles and practice. The sincere Christian is quite a new fabric, from the foundation to the top-stone. He is a new man, a new creature; all things are become new (2 Cor 5:17). Conversion is a deep work, a heart work. It makes a new man in a new world. It extends to the whole man, to the mind, to the members, to the motions of the whole life.”
To conclude, anyone who has truly been converted will never turn their back on the faith. There may be seasons of doubt or even a temporal backsliding from grace. However, a true believer will never fall from grace permanently but will continue to abide in Christ, thereby proving himself or herself to be a true disciple. The case of the Gambian clergy who renounced the faith as addressed in the first part of this article will only, by the passing of time, reveal whether he was genuinely a Christian or a fake. A permanent turn to Islam will prove, as we have gleaned from the Scriptural teaching, that he wasn’t saved at all.
2. Edwin Starbuck, in “Psychology of Religion”
3. John Owen, in “The Holy Spirit”
4. Joseph Alleine, in “Alarm to Unconverted Sinners”, on “The Nature of Conversion.