Conversion—What is it?

I am currently in Chicago at the North Park Seminary’s annual Symposium on the Theological Interpretation of Scripture, meeting friends old and new and having great conversation about conversion, the theme of the symposium.

One of the big questions that keeps coming up is very simple: What do we mean by the word conversion?

Any takers?

10 Responses to “Conversion—What is it?”

  1. Carl says:

    I know this might sound a bit Krister Stendahl-ish, but I think a key variable in the question shapes the answer–i.e. the ‘we’ bit. The follow-up then becomes: does what ‘we’ mean by conversion mean what ‘they’ (i.e. the ancients) mean by the same term? I don’t think it would–at least not in the vast majority of instances.

    Personally, aside from all his pedantic badgering, I have grown accustomed to Socrates’ concept of reorientation. For him, perceptions of reality are shaped by a person’s knowledge of the cosmos and everything in it. Inevitably, because humans are humans, that knowledge is limited or even misguided because of either faulty perceptions of reality or poor education.

    Thus, to borrow Socrates’ imagery, it is not that the soul’s eyes do not have the faculty of sight; it is that they are looking in the wrong direction and need to be set right. And it is when this reorientation occurs that one’s perceptions of reality are radically changed. Again, to borrow his imagery: the ‘allegory of the cave’ illustrates this concept. Once the freed prisoner from the cave sees reality for what it truly is, his perceptions of reality can never be the same; thus, his view and way of life must respond to the ‘bigger picture’ of the world in a way that is commensurate with that ‘bigger picture.’

    I think, and I may entirely alone on this, what we mean by conversion tends to focus on one or the other halves of this reorientation idea–but not always both at the same (like the ancients did). In other words: for some, ‘conversion’ means exchanging one set of religious beliefs for another, while for others it means exchanging one way of living for another. In either case, the consequent is only assumed to occur–i.e. way of life in the former, religious beliefs in the latter. In some instances, especially in various forms of the ‘Free Grace’ movement, conversion only means a change in one’s view of Christ’s identity without a change in one’s life(style).

    I’m sure that there are either a truck-load of questions or criticisms needing to be answered with this; but I thought I would run this idea through the Jello-test.

    On a completely unrelated note: I was wondering if you received an e-mail from me a few days ago? I know that you said you were having troubles with your e-mail and if a response did not come that it would be good to check with you in a comment.

  2. mshedden says:

    I think it would be interesting to give a discussion of conversion that took on some elements of J. Louis Martyn’s apocalyptic discussion of Galatians. Harnik’s book, Paul Among the Postliberals attempted to do that with justification and I think it might be more helpfully connected to conversion. Specifically his discussion of grace and vision in “From Paul to Flannery O’connor with the Power of Grace.” In Theological Issues in the Letters of Paul, 279-97. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1997.
    But lately I think we have big struggle talking about ‘being saved’ as well. Saved from what? Recent descriptions of salvation don’t have us being saved from all that much. That could be a right track but I am not that sure.
    Just my two cents. What have you guys come up with? Are you presenting a paper there?

  3. simon jones says:

    I guess as a jobbing minister, I’d be looking at conversion as the process of change we undergo as we choose to follow Jesus. For some Jesus comes and knocks us over (as it were) and demands our attention and then our allegiance (Paul might fall into this category!) For others the process is more gradual. But for everyone the process is the complex interaction of personal choice and the working of God through his Spirit. So conversaion has to be about being conformed to the image of Christ, so that each believer more and more faithfully embodies the values of Jesus in his or her lifestyle. At a deeper level, through sharing the cross and resurrection of Jesus, conversion is closely linked to theosis.
    The question for me is how do the programmes of the church help or hinder God in bringing such conversion about?

  4. ajk says:


  5. Dustin says:

    for me i tend to refer to the point of realization that “being a Christian” was an apocalyptic decision, apocalyptic in the sense that it required all of my life, and all of the decisions i made would have to stem from this community/story/convictions/faith etc. Perhaps it was realizing, not so much the cost, but THAT it costs to really take seriously the mystery-faith i was toying with.

    conversion is the point in time, but salvation is the continuing renewal.

    to the above comment-conversion=aorist metanoia , salvation=imperfect metanoia

  6. Tim Catchim says:

    I thi9nk conversion is linked with repenetance, a radical rethinking in light of the resurrection and Jesus as Lord. If Jesus is Lord, it requires that I re-think everything in this light. Conversion is a tipping point to enter this re-thinking process.

    Also, I think the concept of making disciples, or being a disciple should factor in here. The diciples of JEsus were disciples for over three years. When were they converted? I think we may focus too much on conversions as oposed to making disciples. Conversion is typically defined as an event. Being a disciple is a life long posture.

  7. Michael N. says:

    Conversion as process and community forming certainly resonates with me. Not that this would negate the ‘point in time’ concept or a more individual focus.

    I am reading again ‘Body, Soul, and Human Life” by Joel Green where he addresses conversion (i.e. embodied conversion) in Luke:

    Luke’s perspective thus refuses any facile distinctions between conversion as act and process, between cognitive and moral change, between external and internal transformation, between movement from one religion to another and deepening commitment within one’s religion, and between personal and community formation. “To welcome the word,” as Acts 2:41 has it, is a transformative act that places embodied life in a new light, that leads one inexorably into a multiethnic and communal existence with others who incarnate and propagate this vision of God’s restorative purpose, and that cannot but be exhibited in behaviors congruous with the way of Jesus Messiah (p. 138).

  8. Angela says:

    Hi, Michael,

    I’ve been thinking about conversion while on my trip. I think conversion is God doing something new with our identity as well as with revealing something new about his identity in the crucified Christ.

    Once the crucified Christ is encountered, the self is encountered. “The theatre of that confrontation is the heart of man, finding at last its true reflection in the Crucified” (Sebastian Moore). It is the features within this transformation and confrontation that the new identity emerges; thereby, I believe conversion.

    As an example, Paul is on his knees asking the signifying question, “Who are you, Lord?” Then Jesus rings in the authoritative disclosure,” I am Jesus” as well as announcing the pronouncement of injustice being perpetrated, “whom you are persecuting.” Moore would say at that moment “in the crucified man sees the cost of identity, and the betrayal of it, and, in the love that he feels coming into him, the transformation of the betrayal into the paying of the price. This new exercise of the heart’s affections changes the world on which a man looks out.” So when Jesus called out, “now get up and go…and you will be told what you must do…Saul got up from the ground…” and his converted heart and blinded eyes made way for a profound proclamation of the crucified Jesus.

    I think you can say that the crux of conversion is when identity intersects with and touches those whom Jesus identified himself with, “whom you are persecuting.” Humanity’s identity is inflected when confronted with injustice done toward others which as Jesus points out is against himself alone. I’m reading Jon Sobrino’s book, Jesus the Liberator, and he talks about the “world of the poor” and how Jesus identifies with them and it is through aligning with them in their journey of oppression that the minds of the faithful are “illumined” about the identity of Jesus. It is in this encounter with the poor or rather with Jesus in present situations that faith is lived out because of “this image.” While he doesn’t connect this idea to conversation, I do see that lived out faith is a crucial identifying marker of conversion. It was for Paul.

  9. MJG says:

    Thanks to all for your thoughtful interactions here. I guess it’s time for me to weigh in a bit in 3 ways: (1) brief responses; (2) thoughts from the symposium; (3) and my own reflections—all interconnected

    Carl: I like “reorientation” as long as it is understood holistically. At first in your post it sounded too intellectual, noetic. But not by the end. One sort of sociological definition is a radical change in belief, behavior, and belonging (creed, conduct, community).

    Mshedden (sorry—don’t know first name; husband of Kelli!): I think one of the benefits of thinking about conversion in apocalyptic/Lou Martyn terms is that it stresses God’s unexpected grace and initiative. At the conference I made the point that (as many have said) Paul did not repent before he was “knocked off the horse.” (This does not mean he expressed no regret about his past life—see Phil 3!) As for salvation, Richard Middleton and I have a long essay (16 pages) on that subject in vol. 5 of the New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. You might profit from it. Also, Joel Green’s book called “Salvation” is excellent. (I actually did a paper-response to another paper, Markus Bockmuehl of Oxford on the conversion[s] of Peter.)

    Simon: You make many great points in short order! I of course identify with the cruciformity/theosis theme. I would define conversion from one angle as “initial and ongoing dying and rising with Christ” or “initial and ongoing cruciformity.” Inasmuch as conversion can be rather quick and dramatic but also slow and prolonged (a theme at the conference), you are right both to differentiate “types” and to speak of the human and divine dimensions (another theme at the conference). Further (another conference theme), conversion is a process. The one thing I would add to your comments is that conversion involves the converting person, God, and the community into which one is converting (another conference theme, especially highlighted in the work of Lewis Rambo).

    Jason: The Christian church has always thought of salvation as restoration to wholeness, or health. But (1) that does not always involve physical curing and (2) it does not need to leave out reliance on the grace of God in the world (such as the gift of knowing how to care for the human body medically) to assist in that great process.

    Tony: “Repentance” (????????) came up at the conference. As I said above, repentance does not always precede the reality of being encountered and transformed. If we take repentance “literally”— turning, doing a 180, Hebrew “shuv”—I would agree. But sometimes people think repentance means just feeling sorry—not radical change.

    Dustin: James Fowler and others have spoken of conversion as adopting (I would say being incorporated into) a new master story, which rearranges everything—over time.

    Michael: Thanks! Very nice quote from Joel. On the advice of Andy Johnson, I tried to read that book before the conference but could not get hold of it. I will share my conclusions about conversion from my paper in a new post.

    Angela: I love your emphasis on the intersecting of identities as the matrix within which conversion occurs. Miroslav Volf speaks of conversion as the “de-centering of the self”—not its destruction, however. And if we truly encounter Jesus in the other, especially the broken, etc., we can expect further conversion in that process. I think it was the late Yale chaplain William Sloan Coffin who once said everyone needs two conversions, to God and then to others/the world. From a biblical perspective, however, these are inseparable, just as the commands to love God and to love neighbor are inseparable.

  10. Nicely published blog post. I adore how the article is see-through and easy to undestand for anyone.

Leave a Reply