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The doctrine of conversion is of paramount importance in the total body of Scriptural teaching and Christian belief, since it shows how the salvation won for us by Christ is brought into the possession of the individual sinner for his soul's eternal salvation.

I. Necessity of Conversion. It is God's good and gracious will that every human being should be saved (Jn 3:16; 1 Ti 2:4; Tts 2:11); Jesus fulfilled the Law in our stead and provided a sufficient ransom from sin, death, and the devil (Jn 1:29). But it is not in the power of anyone to take for himself the fruits of Christ's redemption. Faith in Christ, deliverance from the power of darkness, and translation into the kingdom of the Son cannot be achieved by any human being for himself (Eph 2:1). The 1st disobedience brought dire consequences to the entire human race. Man lost his perfect knowledge of God (1 Co 2:7–9; 13:9–10). After the Fall man is still a rational being, with understanding and a will, able to acquire intellectual knowledge of the truths of the Gospel; but he cannot of himself acquire the spiritual grasp that accepts, believes, and trusts in what has been heard and learned (1 Co 1:23; 2:14). Man's will is free in worldly affairs (Ap XVII 4, 7, 9), but there is nothing in the mind and heart of natural, unconverted man that could incline his will toward God (Gn 8:21; Jn 6:44; Ro 8:5). This corruption of the mind and will is not merely a relative loss of righteousness, but natural man no longer has a remnant of the divine image or of his original powers (Mk 16:16: Jn 1:5; 8:34, 37; 15:5; Ro 3:12; 8:7; 1 Co 2:14; 2 Co 3:5; Eph 2:1–2, 12; Ph 2:13; 2 Ti 2:26; FC SD II 7, 12–14, 20–21). See also Free Will; Image of God.

II. Nature of Conversion.

1. The word “conversion” (Gk. epistrophe) is taken from Scripture (Ps 51:13; Is 60:5; Acts 3:19; Ja 5:19–20); tr. “turn” (Acts 9:35; 11:21; 14:15; 26:18; 2 Co 3:16), “return” (1 Ptr 2:25). Luther commonly tr. it with Bekehrung. Various synonyms are used in Scripture (e.g., regeneration, new birth, second birth, awakening, illumination, call, repentance), all denoting the act of divine grace by which the sinner is delivered from the power of darkness and tr. into the kingdom of Christ. (Cl 1:13)

2. The word “conversion” is used in Scripture in a wider and a narrower sense. In the wider sense it designates the entire process whereby man is transferred from his carnal state into a spiritual state of faith* and grace* and then enters, and under the continued influence of the Holy Spirit continues in, a state of faith and spiritual life.

3. Conversion in the narrower sense is essentially the bestowal of faith (donatio fidei) in God's promise of salvation for Christ's sake. It takes place in the heart and consists in this, that a heart, broken and contrite because of sin, comes to faith in Christ and trusts in Christ for grace and forgiveness (Acts 11:21). It takes place when the Holy Spirit engenders faith in the hearts of penitents through the Word of God (Law and Gospel) and the Sacraments. (Is 55:10–11; Jn 1:45–50; 6:63; Acts 8:34–38; 16:13–34; Ro 1:16; 10:17)

4. Though conversion is a divine miracle that cannot be understood through psychological observation and introspection, Scripture speaks of distinct “inner motions” of the heart, namely contrition* and faith; when these are present, conversion has taken place; these inner motions are described by dogmaticians by the words motus interni, quibus conversio absolvitur (Is 42:3; Mk 9:24). Contrition does not form a beginning of, or half of, conversion, nor does it produce a better spiritual condition in the sinner, since of itself it can only lead to despair (2 Co 7:10); but it is the indispensable preparation for conversion. The converted person may be sure of his conversion. (2 Co 13:5; 1 Jn 3:14)

5. Conversion is sometimes spoken of as being gradual; but in that case the term is used in a wide sense to include certain outward acts that commonly precede conversion and only prepare for conversion. Conversion proper is the matter of an instant, the moment when the Holy Spirit through means of grace* engenders faith in a contrite heart.

6. Since God's mighty power (2 Co 4:6; Eph 1:19) works through means in conversion, it can be resisted. (Mt 23:37; Acts 7:51)

7. Concerning the fact that some passages of Scripture speak of God's converting man, others of man's converting himself (Jer 24:7; 31:18; Acts 3:19), J. W. Baier* says: “The word 'conversion' is taken in a double sense in the Scriptures, inasmuch as at one time God is said to convert man and, at another, that man is said to convert himself, though as to the thing [itself] the action is one and the same.” (Compendium, III, 191)

8. Men may fall from grace after conversion (David, Peter, Hymenaeus, Alexander). Unless the sin against the Holy Ghost be committed, they may again be converted (“reiterated conversion”; David, Peter; Eze 18:23–32). See also Sin, The Unpardonable.

III. Effects of Conversion. Through conversion and faith the believer is made a child of God (Gl 3:26); enters the kingdom of God; is, for Christ's sake, declared just and absolved from all guilt and punishment (Ro 3:28; 8:33); has peace, boldness, confidence, comfort (Ro 5:3–5), and hope of eternal life (Ro 5:21; 8:30). The Holy Spirit, who creates justifying faith in the heart of the sinner, also, from the moment that this faith has been wrought, sets in motion the divine work of sanctification* (Ro 6:16; 8:14; 13:10) until in the ch. triumphant the divine image of perfect righteousness will be completely restored (Heb 12:23). WHW

See also Justification; Synergism; Synergistic Controversy.

F. W. Stellhorn, “Conversion,” The Lutheran Cyclopedia, ed. H. E. Jacobs and J. A. W. Haas (New York, 1899), pp. 136–141; “Conversion,” The Concordia Cyclopedia, eds. L. Fuerbringer, T. Engelder, and P. E. Kretzmann (St. Louis, 1927), pp. 181–182; C. Kleiner, “Conversion,” The Encyclopedia of the Lutheran Church, ed. J. Bodensieck (Minneapolis, 1965), I, 618–619. In Proceedings of LCMS District Conventions: C. F. W. Walther, “Thesen über die Bekehrung des Menschen zu Gott,” Northern 1873, pp. 19–58; J. Frosch, “Thesen tiber den rechten Gebrauch der Gnadenmittel im Werke der Bekehrung,” Canada 1882, pp. 12–37; H. Hanser, “Thesen über die Lehre von der Bekehrung,” Eastern 1882, pp. 24–50; R. H. Biedermann, “Thesen über die Lehre von der Bekehrung,” Nebraska 1882, pp. 7 to 48; F. Pieper, “Thesen über die Lehre von dem gänzlichen Unvermögen des natürlichen Menschen in geistlichen Dingen in ihrer Wichtigkeit für das christliche Leben,” Southern 1882, pp. 6–61; C. F. W. Walther and R. H. Biedermann, “Thesen über die Rechtfertigung des sündigen Menschen vor Gott nach dem Evangelium,” Nebraska 1883, pp. 10–72; A. Gräbner, “Von der Wiedergeburt oder Bekehrung,” Southern 1894, pp. 10–79; H. A. C. Paul, “Die schriftgemässe Lehre von der Bekehrung,” Oregon and Washington 1901, pp. 12–54; C. M. Zorn, “Vom freien Willen und von der Bekehrung,” Central 1906, pp. 11–53; W. H. Bewie, “Der zweite Artikel der Konkordienformel: Vom freien Willen oder menschlichen Kräften,” Texas 1919, pp. 56–130. F. W. Stellhorn, Worum handelt es sich eigentlich in dem gegenwärtigen Lehrstreit über die Gnadenwahl? tr. G. H. Schodde, What Is the Real Question in the Present Controversy on Predestination? (Columbus, Ohio, 1881); C. F. W. Walther, Beleuchtung des Stellhorn'schen Tractats über den Gnadenwahlslehrstreit (St. Louis, 1881); F. W. Stellhorn, Prüfung der “Beleuchtung”; Hrn. Dr. Walther's (Columbus, Ohio, 1881); The Error of Modern Missouri: Its Inception, Development, and Refutation, tr. from the Ger., ed. G. H. Schodde (Columbus, Ohio, 1897); C. M. Zorn, Bekehrung und Gnadenwahl (St. Louis, 1902); F. Pieper, “Eine deutschländische Disputation über die Lehre von der Bekehrung,” L. u. W., XLVIII (1902), 289–298, 327–333, Die Grunddifferenz in der Lehre von der Bekehrung und Gnadenwahl (St. Louis, 1903), Zur Einigung der amerikanisch-lutherischen Kirche in der Lehre von der Bekehrung und Gnadenwahl (St. Louis, 1913), tr. Conversion and Election: A Plea for a United Lutheranism in America (St. Louis, 1913), and Christian Dogmatics, II (St. Louis, 1951), 452–503; J. T. Mueller, Christian Dogmatics (St. Louis, 1934), pp. 336–366; G. J. Fritschel, Zur Einigung der amerikanisch-lutherischen Kirche in der Lehre von der Bekehrung und Gnadenwahl (Chicago, 1914); L. S. Keyser, Election and Conversion (Burlington, Iowa, 1914); O. Hallesby, Infant Baptism and Adult Conversion (Minneapolis, 1924); T. Engelder, “Let Us Get Together on the Doctrines of Conversion and Election,” CTM, VI (July 1935), 539–543; H. E. Brunner, Wahrheit als Begegnung, tr. A. W. Loos, The Divine-Human Encounter (Philadelphia, 1943); W. H. Wente, “Conversion,” The Abiding Word, I, ed. T. Laetsch (St. Louis, 1946), 168–187; C. G. Carlfelt, “The Work of the Holy Spirit,” What Lutherans Are Thinking, ed. E. C. Fendt (Columbus, Ohio, 1947), pp. 219–246; E. S. Jones, Conversion (Nashville, 1959); J. Baillie, Baptism and Conversion (New York, 1963); W. Barclay, Turning to God: A Study of Conversion in the Book of Acts and Today (Philadelphia, 1964).

Edited by: Erwin L. Lueker, Luther Poellot, Paul Jackson
©Concordia Publishing House, 2000, All rights Reserved. Reproduced with Permission

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