Mark Dever started off the afternoon with a session expounding on conversion. Biblical faithfulness entails apparent exclusivity in our churches. The common wisdom among pastors today is that that is not the case.
Biblical Thoughts on Conversion
We find many people who join the church who are not believers. Instead of focusing on the need for conversion though, many become tolerant to the hypocrisy. The suggestion that people can change is regarded with skepticism. Our mentality is to adapt, not to try to fundamentally change things. We are who we are, and we are taught to be proud of it.
There is no denying people have a deep longing for change. We are not content, so we re-arrange furniture, buy clothes, change where we live, change our work hours, or even change our spouse. In and of ourselves, we end up defeated in our own choices.
It is obvious to non-believers that Christians are different, and it comes from change. We read in 1 Thessalonians 1:8-10:
8 For not only has the word of the Lord sounded forth from you in Macedonia and Achaia, but your faith in God has gone forth everywhere, so that we need not say anything. 9 For they themselves report concerning us the kind of reception we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, 10 and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come.
After Paul left Thessalonica, conversions happened, change happened, and it made a difference. Verses 9-10 tell us the Thessalonians turned to God from idols to serve God and wait for His Son from heaven. True conversion will always involve turning in faith to the true God from the false ones, which we set up for ourselves. It will always involve realizing that final answers don’t come here, but we wait for the coming justice of Jesus.
In the Old and New Testaments, conversion is the idea of turning. It is the act of turning from sin to Christ in faith. As Christians, we believe there are countless people throughout history that have come to know God. We acknowledge conversion is a miracle and experience the joy of knowing that you really can be forgiven of your sins against God.
3 Steps to Conversion
1. We’re called to repent of our sins and believe in Christ.
In Acts 26:20 Paul summarizes his Gospel proclamation: “…but declared first to those in Damascus, then in Jerusalem and throughout all the region of Judea, and also to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God, performing deeds in keeping with their repentance.” True repentance always accompanies saving faith. This faith is not mere knowledge or the approval of some facts. There must be a personal trust in Christ if it is to be saving faith. That’s where the problem comes in – human depravity.
So what do we do? What we need is to be converted. We need the Holy Spirit to convert us. Everyone is either a believer or an unbeliever, converted or unconverted. There is no middle ground. No one is born a Christian. You must be converted to be a Christian.
2. God must give us the gift of repentance of faith.
3. God uses means to give us this gift: the preaching of the Word and the rite of baptism.
How Does Biblical Conversion Fit Within Our Churches?
There are two recent books that frame what we’re seeing today:
1. Gospel-Centered Church by Steve Timmis and Tim Chester. This book emphasizes how people can belong before they have to believe.
2. The Church in Transition by Tim Conder: This book shows how emerging culture churches place believing before belonging giving the assumption that believing is over and above belonging to a community.
We need to look at believing and belonging a different way. If Jesus Christ came to save sinners and if people must realize their sin before realizing their need for having a Savior at all, then don’t people have to be aware of some doctrine? To fully understand the community which He as created, we must understand His work on the cross.
We need to have high expectations for each other, treating one another as if we’re converted – love God, hate sin, and have others continually help you do that. Some churches emphasize belonging to increase numbers but in doing so obscure the Gospel. If the Gospel is confused, then the lifeblood of the church is cut off, and we’re losing our saltiness for nothing.
How apparently exclusive should we be in our church? Should we calibrate our services to unbelievers we want to reach? How much is our gathering on Sunday for those who are not Christians? Is it for non-Christians or for the building up of our people?
How inclusive should we be? Non-Christians must realize their utter need for Christ. We must be careful not to give unbelievers the lie that they belong and the profound sense that they don’t. We should show them more than horizontal community or a vague sense of God’s presence in one’s life. We need to show them the Gospel.
Dr. Dever then called Dr. Sproul up to the stage for a brief question and answer session with attendees on conversion:
Dever: Comments on conversion?
Sproul: We must be aware of giving people a false sense of assurance. Preachers need to be preaching the Word. You don’t design worship or preaching for the unbeliever. My job is to preach, not to convert people.
Dever: Why do you think so many pastors are so reluctant to tell of the need for conversion?
Sproul: We’re afraid of offending them. People have to know that they need Christ. Recent studies have shown that the number one reason people come to church is not for worship, it’s for fellowship. We try to make people feel comfortable in an atmosphere of fellowship and thus lose the understanding of who God is.
Attendee: You have to be lost before you can be found. You say your job is to preach, not to convert. But why don’t I hear the Gospel more from the pulpit?
Dever: The Gospel is going to be in the service (liturgically). It can’t be nurture or evangelism. It has to be both. But the primary purpose of Sunday morning is not evangelism.
Attendee: How do you share with Roman Catholics who believe that because they believe in Christ they are saved but they will not hear it is by Christ alone?
Sproul: I constantly try to make people understand the difference between the Roman Catholic beliefs and the Christian beliefs. The basic difference is this: before God can accept you, you must be inherently just. You must become inherently righteous to be justified, and we have no hope of that within ourselves. The Gospel is faith alone, grace alone, and Christ alone. The Roman Catholic doctrine is anything but good news. They say they’re Catholic because they believe the instrument of salvation is the church and the church’s sacraments saves them. They don’t have a clue about what the Gospel is.