Question: what is compulsory for entrance to heaven, but merely optional in most churches? In a word – conversion.
To stress the imperative need of individual conversion the Lord Jesus said: “Verily [assuredly] I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not [Lit: ye shall by no means] enter into the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 18:3). Not many of the pronouncements of the Lord begin with the word ‘assuredly’. Fewer still contain the double negative ‘by no means’. Undoubtedly the Lord meant His hearers to understand this; conversion is absolutely vital. Have you ever been converted? How, when and where did it happen? Are you sure it was real?
The Lord’s words represent a stark ultimatum. No conversion, no heaven. Period. Without conversion you are sure to be in hell. How essential therefore to be right on this crucial matter and discard any thought that one may be born into or drift into the kingdom. All must have a conversion. Yet in 21st Century ‘Christian-speak’, while expressions such as ‘making a commitment’, ‘going forward’ and ‘becoming a Christian’ are universally in vogue, talk of ‘conversion’ is seldom heard. Many scornfully laugh off the whole idea. “I didn’t have a Damascus Road conversion. I suppose you could say there’s never been a time when I didn’t believe.” (Paul’s conversion was certainly unique as to its circumstances, but not as to its nature).
So, what is conversion? To avoid the dryness of a theological definition let us think of it this way. Firstly, what comes before conversion; secondly, what goes with conversion and thirdly, what follows after conversion? Three references to conversion in the Bible will help us answer these questions.
What comes before conversion? – A Realization.
“Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt 18:3)
Why did the Lord speak of becoming like little children in this verse? Because His disciples had just been discussing which of them was the greatest. They were proud men, sure of their abilities and full of their own self-importance – how unlike a lowly little child who will freely acknowledge its ignorance and helplessness. By so saying, the Lord Jesus was intimating that before conversion there must be a realization of one’s own sinful helplessness. All converted people have had this life-changing realization.
Upon the death of Charles IV King of Hungary in 1922, his widow, Zita von Bourbon-Parma, went into prolonged mourning. She wore black for the rest of her life, dying in 1989 in Switzerland aged 96. Thousands fell in line behind her coffin which was drawn by six black horses. The funeral procession stopped at the Capuchin Church where a long-observed tradition was enacted. A member of the funeral party knocked on the closed door of the church. A voice from within asked, “Who goes there?”
The departed Queen’s titles were read aloud: “Queen of Bohemia, Dalmatia, Croatia, Slavonia, Galicia. Queen of Jerusalem, Grand Duchess of Tuscany and Krakow.”
“I do not know her,” came the response from inside the church.
A second knock, and a repeat of the question “Who goes there?” elicited a further response: “Zita, Empress of Austria and Queen of Hungary.”
Again the reply, “I do not know her.”
When the question was put the third time, the answer came back simply, “Zita, a sinning mortal.”
“Come in,” replied the welcoming voice, as doors slowly opened.
Stripped of all her grand titles, Queen Zita found a welcome as a plain sinning mortal – and all who come through the narrow gate into life are likewise stripped by God of everything and left bankrupt, helpless and cast alone upon His mercy. Have you ever come to that place? Were you ever left speechless before a holy God in the full and solemn realization of your lost condition and deservedness of judgment?
Some who profess conversion may give up their smoking and drinking. Others may even be brought to give up their trust in baptism and the church. But few are willing to give up their belief that deep down they really do have a sweet, refined and cultured nature and then to admit their inner corruption and rebellion against God. The human heart is deceitful and unwilling to come to God with a broken and contrite spirit (Psalm 34:18). Yet the true convert learns to say in truth:
“Nothing in my hand I bring,
Simply to Thy cross I cling:
Naked come to Thee for dress,
Helpless look to Thee for grace;
Vile, I to the fountain fly –
Wash me Saviour or I die!”
What goes with conversion? – Repentance.
“Repent ye therefore and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out.” (Acts 3:19)
Once the realisation of a sinner’s true condition sinks in, repentance is never very far away. Yet it is here that so many go astray. Some speak of their hopes for heaven being assured by confessing their sins every night before turning over to sleep, thus confusing confession with repentance. Others feel they have repented by conquering various destructive habits and becoming ‘better people’. Still others feel safe because they have experienced grief for their sin and have been filled with sorrow over their past. Yet Biblical saving repentance is none of these things.
Many a reformed man is filled with regret and remorse over a misspent life, yet despite turning over a new leaf has never had any poignant sorrow of heart for his ingratitude and rebellion against God. He may be sorry that his wayward lifestyle has ruined his own well-being or that of his family or simply that he has been found out. But the sorrow that accompanies true repentance comes from a real inward realization of one’s utter sinfulness and deservedness of eternal hell. When God reveals a true consciousness of what a sinner is in His sight, and when that sinner knows and feels the corruption of his own heart, there is born in his soul not only a holy desire to turn from sin, but an entirely new attitude towards self, sin and God.
The Prodigal Son illustrates all of this perfectly. He took a good look at himself. He felt and owed his sinfulness. He confessed his own unworthiness to be called a son. He turned around and headed home with no excuses, no reluctance and knowing he deserved no mercy from His father. Such features ever and always mark Biblical conversion. Have you ever known anything of this? Did you ever have even one half hour’s soul-trouble? Has there ever been true repentance in your life? If not, you are perishing. John 3:16 says “believe or perish”, but never let it be forgotten that Luke 13:3 says “repent or perish”.
But how can one know if they have truly repented? How is conversion evidenced?
What follows after conversion? – Results.
“Ye turned [converted] to God from idols to serve the living and true God.” (1 Thess 1:9)
What convinced Paul that his audience in Thessalonica had truly repented? He witnessed them forsaking their idols and becoming ‘bond-slaves’ of God. Does true conversion in the 21st Century differ from conversion in the 1st? By no means. These results always follow true conversion. Indeed, any professed conversion that does not turn a rebel sinner into a basically obedient servant of God should be marked down as spurious.
The thought of becoming a slave of God has no appeal to the worldly man. Men like to think they are free, but the truth is, there’s not a free man on the face of the earth. On the one hand, the unconverted are slaves of sin (John 8:34); on the other hand, the converted are slaves of God (1 Thess 1:9). Yet many today claim to be able to serve both masters. They live a life of sin but are not embarrassed to claim they are saved. The Bible speaks clearly to this confusion in plain and powerful language: “Whoever has been born of God does not practise sin” (1 John 3:9). When true conversion occurs there are lasting results. A truly converted man doesn’t need to be forced to read his Bible and pray, for when a genuine work of conversion by the power of the Holy Spirit has been done in a soul, the resultant godliness will be plain to see. Have you cause to acknowledge that you have never been truly converted? Then awake and flee to Christ without delay. Let no one calm your fears and put you back to sleep, lest you wake up in eternity never to be converted.
On the night of 13th October 1939, the HMS Royal Oak, a 600 foot long 29,000 ton Dreadnought battleship, was secure in Scapa Flow, an extensive landlocked anchorage in Scotland’s Orkney Islands. Scapa Flow’s extensive sheltered waters were selected as a suitable base from which the British fleet could patrol the North Sea. Ships had been deliberately sunk by the British at the shallow mouth of Scapa Flow to make it even more secure. The Royal Oak had the largest guns ever fitted on a British Navy vessel and its extra thick sides made it seem all the safer. However, on that fateful night in 1939, Gunthur Prien, the Commander of German U Boat U-47, found his way into Scapa Flow, entering unannounced and unseen. At precisely 1.04 U-47 fired its first load of torpedoes. Failing to secure a direct hit, the torpedoes landed a minor blow on the Royal Oak’s bow. It was enough to wake the men up, but after a brief investigation, the Royal Oak’s captain, William Benn, concluded that it had been an internal explosion caused by CO2 bottles in the refrigeration plant and there was no cause for alarm. Captain Benn told his men, “Go back to sleep”.
12 minutes later at 1.16am the second salvo scored three perfect hits. The result was devastating. The Royal Oak took an immediate 20 degree list to port, helped by its 15″ swivelling guns, and within 13 minutes had sunk to the bed of Scapa Flow. That night, 833 men drowned in only 30 metres of water because they listened to their Captain’s advice to go back to sleep.
Unconverted reader, don’t go back to sleep. Remember – no conversion, no heaven. Your conversion is far from incidental. It’s not even ‘important’. It’s imperative.
Michael J. Penfold