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CONVERSION (Heb. shûv, Gr. epistrophē). The words commonly used in the English Bible as equivalent to the Hebrew and Greek words are “turn,” “return,” “turn back,” “turn again.” Thus conversion is synonymous with “turning.” The turning may be in a literal or in a figurative, ethical, or religious sense, either from God or, more frequently, to God. It is significant that when the turning refers to a definite spiritual change, it almost invariably denotes an act of man: “Turn! Turn from your evil ways!” (Ezek.33.11; cf. Matt.18.3). Since the word implies both a turning from and a turning to something, it is not surprising that in the NT it is sometimes associated with repentance (Acts.3.19; Acts.26.20) and faith (Acts.11.21). That is, conversion on its negative side is turning from sin and on its positive side is faith in Christ (“they must turn to God in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus,” Acts.20.21). Although conversion is an act of man, Scripture makes clear that it has a divine ground. The turning of sinful people is done by the power of God (Acts.3.26). In the process of salvation, conversion is the first step in the transition from sin to God. It is brought about by the Holy Spirit operating on the human mind and will, so that the course of one’s life is changed. It is not the same as justification and regeneration, which are purely divine acts. It may come as a sudden crisis or as a more or less prolonged process.

Bibliography: E. S. Jones, Conversion, 1959; J. K. Grider, Repentance Unto Life, 1965; W. E. Conn, Conversion, 1978; E. Griffin, Turning, 1980.

A radical change, a transformation, a turning around. The term applies to nonreligious responses to stimuli, or to reorientation of mental attitudes and behavior, but usually religious conversion is intended. The term does not have a prominent place in the NT, but the idea of conversion is abundantly present in both testaments, particularly with regard to the apostolic preaching of the Gospel through which men are converted to Jesus Christ. Repentance (turning from) and faith (turning to) are usually seen as the two sides of conversion; they figure more prominently in the biblical language.

Conversion is a conscious act on the part of the subject, not an event passively experienced. For the Christian, the changed life of the converted man is the outward expression of a changed heart. Biblical examples are Paul's conversion (Acts 9), the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:26-40), the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11- 32), and Zaccheus (Luke 19:2-10). While conversion is usually thought of in relation to individuals, societies and nations also have been profoundly affected by religious awakenings. These include Israel under Moses' leadership and during Hezekiah's reign, Nineveh as a result of Jonah's preaching, and more recent events like the English revival under John Wesley, and the Welsh revival.

The need of sinful men to be converted is declared by Jesus (Matt. 18:3) and the apostles (Acts 3:19; 15:3). In Acts, conversion is also presented under the figure of the two ways and choosing the Way of the Lord (9:2; 19:9,23; 22:4; cf. James 5:19,20). The new Way involves a new kind of life (Eph. 5:2; Col. 1:10; 2:10-12). Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress is a classic which presents conversion as entrance upon the pilgrimage from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City.

Conversion entails intellectual, emotional, and volitional elements, including a doctrinal relationship to or affirmation of Jesus Christ's lordship, acceptance of His redemptive work, devotion to Him personally, commitment of fellowship to the community of Christians, and the ethical transformation of life.

Many psychological explanations of religious conversion have been attempted. Most of these, following William James,* see conversion as a conscious unification or reunification of a hitherto divided self, with a sense of wholeness, being right and happy, resulting. Conversion is thus seen as a profound step in the creation of a self. The biblical language concerning the Prodigal (“he came to himself” KJV) is distinctly parallel. Other explanations include such terms as these: integration of personality, new being, freedom, reorientation, and brainwashing. William Sargant's thesis, while interpreted as a critique of brainwashing techniques in religious conversions, usually draws attention to the dangers of religious manipulation.

In its biblical sense, conversion is the soul's turning to Christ and union with Him in His death and resurrection, which baptism signifies as entering by faith upon a new life (Rom. 6:1- 14).

Augustine, Confessions (fifth century; many editions); W. James, The Varieties of Religious Experience (1907); a.d. Nock, Conversion (1933); B. Citron, New Birth (1951); O. Hallesby, Religious or Christian (1954); R.E.O. White, Into the Same Image (1957); W. Sargant, Battle for the Mind (1959); O. Brandon, The Battle for the Soul: Aspects of Religious Conversion (1960); E. Routley, Conversion (1960); E.F. Kevan, Salvation (1963).

CONVERSION (ἐπιστροφή, G2189, literally signifying “turning,” and tr. “conversion”). This noun appears only once in Scripture, in Acts 15:3, where it is said that Paul and Barnabas “...passed through both Phoenicia and Samaria, reporting the conversion of the Gentiles.” The verbs ἐπιστρέφειν, and στρέφειν, appear several times in the Gr., and mean “to turn.”

Epistrephein is the most common Gr. word for “convert,” appearing more than thirty-five times. Basically, as with the noun cognate, this word means “to turn,” “to turn around.” It is used of the physical act of turning around as Jesus did when a woman touched Him (Mark 5:30). When it is used to describe religious conversion, it relates to turning away from sin and to God.

It should be added that in the OT, the Heb. counterpart word, שׁוּב, H8740, meaning “to return,” appears eleven times. Its literal meaning of “return” is pointed up when it relates to Abraham’s returning to a given place (Gen 18:33). It also has to do with turning from sin (1 Kings 8:35).

(For further study of a related Biblical concept, repentance, with its Heb. and Gr. originals see J. Kenneth Grider, Repentance Unto Life [1965].)

The matter of suddenness in conversion, is one which bears study and understanding on the part of various Christians. Paul’s conversion is the Biblical archetype of suddenness (see Acts 9), as was Augustine’s in later times (see his Confessions VIII:12 and IX:1). The distinguished American preacher, Phillips Brooks, “had no moment of identifiable crisis in his spiritual life” (William Barclay, op. cit., p. 94). John Wesley’s heart was “strangely warmed,” and all the world has come to know about that experience (see his Journal for May 24, 1738). He is a kind of mediating illustration on this matter of suddenness in conversion. He was no opposer of Christ beforehand, as was Paul; nor was he a profligate, as Augustine had been. He had been ordained, had been a missionary, and had preached Christ and lectured on divine things for many years.

Apart from the matter of the degree of crisis to be expected in the religious conversion of those who grow up in a Christian family and attend to spiritual matters from early life, conversion is conversion, and there is crisis in a conversion that is a new birth, when old things pass away and all things become new (see 2 Cor 5:17). See also Repentance.


G. Jackson, The Fact of Conversion (1908); W. W. Ayer, Seven Saved Sinners (1937); O. H. Austin, Come As You Are (1956); E. Routley, The Gift of Conversion (1957); E. S. Jones, Conversion (1959); E. Routley, Conversion (1960); W. Barclay, Turning to God (1963); J. K. Grider, Repentance Unto Life (1965).

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)


I. The Words "Conversion," "Convert," in Biblical Usage.

1. In the English Bible:

2. In the Old Testament:

The principal Hebrew word is :shubh; other words are panah, haphakh, cabhabh, in Hiphil. They are used

(1) in the literal sense, for instance, Ge 14:7; De 17:16; Ps 56:9; Isa 38:8.

(2) In the later prophetical writings the verb shubh refers, both in the Qal and Hiphil forms, to the return from the captivity (Isa 1:27; Jer 29:14; 30:3; Eze 16:53; Ze 2:7).

(3) In the figurative, ethical or religious sense

(a) from God (Nu 14:43; 1Sa 15:11; 1Ki 9:6);

(b) more frequently to turn back to God (1Sa 7:3; 1Ki 8:33; Isa 19:22; Joe 2:12; Am 4:6 ff; Ho 6:11; 7:10).

3. In the New Testament:

The words used in the Septuagint and New Testament are strephein, and its compounds, apostr., anastr., epanastr., hupostr., and especially epistrephein. The latter word occurs 39 times in the New Testament. It is used

(1) in the literal sense in Mt 9:22; 10:13; 24:18; Ac 9:40; 15:36, etc.;

II. The Doctrine.

While the words "conversion" and "convert" do not occur frequently in our English Bible the teaching contained therein is fundamental in Christian doctrine. From the words themselves it is not possible to derive a clearly defined doctrine of conversion; the materials for the construction of the doctrine must be gathered from the tenor of Biblical teaching.

1. Vague Use of the Word:

There is a good deal of vagueness in the modern use of the term. By some writers it is used in "a very general way to stand for the whole series of manifestations just preceding, accompanying, and immediately following the apparent sudden changes of character involved" (E. D. Starbuck, The Psychology of Religion, 21). " `To be converted,’ `to be regenerated,’ `to receive grace,’ `to experience religion,’ `to gain an assurance,’ are so many phrases which denote the process, gradual or sudden, by which a self, hitherto divided and consciously wrong, inferior and unhappy, becomes unified and consciously right, superior and happy in consequence of its hold upon religious realities. This at least is what conversion signifies in general terms" (William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience, 189). In this general, vague way the term is used not only by psychologists, but also by theological writers and in common religious parlance. A converted man is a Christian, a believer, a man who has religion, who has experienced regeneration.

2. Specific Meaning:

In its more restricted meaning the word denotes the action of man in the initial process of salvation as distinguished from the action of God. Justification and regeneration are purely Divine acts, repentance, faith, conversion are human acts although under the influence and by the power of the Divine agency. Thus, conversion denotes the human volition and act by which man in obedience to the Divine summons determines to change the course of his life and turns to God. Arrested by God’s call man stops to think, turns about and heads the opposite way. This presupposes that the previous course was not directed toward God but away from Him. The instances of conversion related in the Bible show that the objective point toward which man’s life was directed may be either the service of idols (1Th 1:9) or a life of religious indifference, a self-centered life where material things engross the attention and deaden the sense of things spiritual (rich young ruler, Lu 18:22), or a life of sensuality, of open sin and shame (prodigal son, Lu 15:13) or even a mistaken way of serving God (Saul, Ac 26:9). Accordingly in conversion either the religious or the ethical element may predominate. The moral man who turns from self to God or, as Saul did, from an erroneous notion concerning God’s will to a clear conception of his relation to God is more conscious of the religious factor. Conversion brings him into vital, conscious fellowship with God through Jesus Christ. The immoral man who is awakened to a realization of the holiness of God, of the demands of His law, and of his own sin and guilt is more conscious of the outward change in his manner of life. The ethical change is the more outstanding fact in his experience, although it can never be separated from the religious experience of the changed relation to God.

3. Mode:

The mode of conversion Varies greatly according to the former course of life. It may be a sudden crisis in the moral and intellectual life. This is very frequently the case in the experience of heathen who turn from the worship of idols to faith in Jesus Christ. A sudden crisis is frequently witnessed in the case of persons who, having lived a life of flagrant sin, renounce their former life. Conversion to them means a complete revolution in their thoughts, feelings and outward manner of life. In other instances conversion appears to be the climax of prolonged conflict for supremacy of divergent motives; and, again, it may be the goal of a gradual growth, the consummation of a process of discerning ever more clearly and yielding ever more definitely and thus experiencing ever more vitally truths which have been implanted and nurtured by Christian training. This process results in the conscious acceptance of Jesus Christ as the personal Saviour and in the consecration of life to His service. Thus conversion may be an instantaneous act, or a process which is more or less prolonged. The latter is more frequently seen in the case of children and young people who have grown up in Christian families and have received the benefit of Christian training. No conversions of this kind are recorded in the New Testament. This may be explained by the fact that most of our New Testament writings are addressed to the first generation of Christians, to men and women who were raised in Jewish legalism or heathen idolatry, and who turned to Christ after they had passed the age of adolescence. The religious life of their children as distinguished in its mode and manifestations from that of the adults does not appear to have been a matter of discussion or a source of perplexity so as to call forth specific instruction.

4. Conversion and Psychology:

Conversion comprises the characteristics both of repentance and of faith. Repentance is conversion viewed from its starting-point, the turning from the former life; faith indicates the objective point of conversion, the turning to God.

Of late the psychology of conversion has been carefully studied and elaborately treated by psychologists. Much valuable material has been gathered. It is shown that certain periods of adolescent life are particularly susceptible to religious influences (compare G. Stanley Hall, Adolescence, II, chapter xiv; E. D. Starbuck, Psychology of Religion, etc.). Yet conversion cannot be explained as a natural process, conditioned by physiological changes in the adolescent, especially by approaching puberty. The laws of psychology are certainly God’s laws as much as all other laws of Nature, and His Spirit works in harmony with His own laws. But in genuine conversion there is always at work in a direct and immediate manner the Spirit of God to which man, be he adolescent or adult, consciously responds. Any attempt to explain conversion by eliminating the direct working of the Divine Spirit falls short of the mark.

See Regeneration; Repentance.


See Regeneration.