When you hear the word “conversion,” what’s the first thought that comes to mind? More than likely you would recall a story of someone like a drug pusher or a famous personality who hits rock bottom before undergoing a sudden and dramatic change as he surrenders his life to Christ. That’s the kind of testimony we often hear about, but it’s not the only way we experience conversion. Jesus calls each of us daily to deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow him. This post is the first in a series of six that seeks to understand just what that means and how to get there.
The word “conversion” comes from the Latin, convertere, which translates as “to turn back.” Picture someone moving in one direction and then stopping and reversing his course. The whole person — with his mind, senses, and action — begins to follow a new trajectory. We assent to God’s truth and in particular, to the reality of the person and mission of Jesus Christ. We experience a change of heart, leading to repentance and a desire to turn from sin and turn toward God. We respond by reforming our lives. This profound change in mind, heart, and in one’s life is known as metanoia.
The process is not one-sided. God desires our conversion and first calls us to Himself. His Spirit works in our hearts and when we open ourselves up to His grace, He helps us. As we come to know and seek Him, we grow in a personal relationship with Christ.
Nothing in Scripture or Church teaching says this has to happen abruptly or in a sensational way. While many Christians can describe a singular, life-altering moment of conversion, it seems that a majority (some say 70%) do not. The change of heart and mind of this second group has been more gradual, but no less decisive. God moves as He pleases and doesn’t need to conform to our romanticized notions.
Evangelicals often speak of conversion as making a decision for Christ. I think they mean to emphasize its decisive nature. Unfortunately, the terminology can give you the impression that conversion is only a matter of intellectual assent, overlooking the change in heart and the subsequent response in action that should follow.
How does conversion fit in with Baptism, particularly for Catholics who receive the sacrament as infants? Baptism gives the capacity to believe and the presence of the Holy Spirit, but it still requires our personal assent and cooperation. It is then possible to receive Baptism without personal conversion, becoming sacramentalized without ever being evangelized.
I was raised Catholic and attended Catholic schools. I believed in God, and I knew and accepted the teachings of the Church. I prayed, attended Mass, and tried to live a moral life. The Holy Spirit was active in my life. But in another sense, I had never taken the Gospel to heart. I was living an inherited faith, never having surrendered to Jesus. Spanning the course of one year during my junior and senior years of high school, the Spirit began to awaken my soul. As I started to recognize the magnitude of what it meant to be a disciple, I resisted. It was during a retreat that I experienced a pivotal moment when I gave my life over to Christ, but God had already been working with me for some time before then. You can read more about my story here: My Story
Can someone have “accepted Christ” and yet never have undergone actual conversion? I believe so. It certainly was true for me in my early teenage years, and if this is so, it raises a question. If conversion can be gradual, without a defining moment, and is more than simple intellectual assent to biblical truths, then how do we know when we’ve experienced it?
To believe, not just in a theoretical way, but with our whole heart, mind, and soul, is in itself evidence of conversion. The Holy Spirit comes upon us and works in our hearts in a special way. Our spirit recognizes and rejoices in Him. We also recognize Him by the fruits of the Holy Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. This same Spirit gives us a hunger for God that calls us to seek Him and do his will.
The Spirit who lives within us continues to draw us to God. God desires that we share in His divine life and be formed into the image of his Son. Our imperfect human nature, laden with concupiscence or the tendency to sin, will not vanish when we come into a relationship with Christ. Our first conversion, whether experienced in a more dramatic way or more gradually, sets us up for an ongoing battle and the need for continual change and growth. Look for my next post, “Conversion 101: Conversion as a Way of Life,” to find out about how you can make ongoing conversion a part of your everyday experience.
Conversion 101 is the first post in a six-part series about energizing your spiritual life through ongoing conversion.