Chapter XX, Of Conversion

Chapter XX.

God converts the repenting sinner, that his understanding might be enlightened for the purposes of the knowledge of God and of His merciful will; and that all his energies might be turned from sin unto God and His love, to obedience and justification, and that he might as much as possible walk in accordance with God’s will. 


537. With reference to conversion the following points are to be considered;

a. the nature of conversion, 

b. God, who works the conversion, 

c. Man who becomes converted, and

d. The fruit of conversion. 

538. a. The nature of conversion; this change is described to take place, when men are pricked in’ their hearts. Acts. 2, 37; when their hearts are smitten, 2 Samuel 24, 10; when their hearts are opened, so that they attend unto the word of God, Acts. 16, 14; when the stony heart is taken out of them, and a new and pure heart given them, when a new and a free spirit is put within them, and they thus become the people of God and walk in His statutes, Hesek. 11,39; 36,26; Pslm. 51, 12.

539. Thus we learn that by the term conversion the following act is implied. If there be men having their understanding darkened, being alienated from the life of God through the ignorance that is in them, because of the blindness of their heart, Ephes. 4, 18. being in their stubbornness, enmity and disobedience far from God, — then they are enlightened by Christ, the great light of the world, John. 1, 9; so that, having formerly been darkened they are now a light in the Lord, Ephes. 5, 8. and walk in the light, John. 12, 35. 36; doing deeds that may be made manifest; casting off the works of darkness, and putting on the armour of life, walking honestly as in the day, not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strive and envying, but putting on the Lord Jesus Christ, Rom 13, 12. 13. And like as, previous to their conversion, they had turned away from God, so after the same has taken place, they return with humUe obedience, subjection, confidence and love to him. In the same measure as they used to have a desire for the earthly, so they have it now for heavenly things; and like as they formerly delighted in doing evil, in the same measure they now hate and flee sin; loving the truth they had become acquainted with, and rejoicing in the same, being attached to it, yield obedience to the same as far us in them lies.

540. b. God, who works conversion; more especially

i. His part in this transaction. This will appear from the fact that God is the originator of every good and perfect gift, James. 1, 17: “not that we are sufficient of ourselves to think any thing as of ourselves, our sufficiency is of God,” 2 Cor. 3, 5. Thus He is, in our conversion, the beginning and the end, as also the only source of it. Jerem. 31, 18: “turn thou me, and I shall be turned;” John. 6, 44: “no man can come to me except the Father which hath sent me to draw him;” v. 29: “this is the work of God, that ye believe on him whom he hath sent;” Philip. 2, 13: “for it is God who worketh in you, both to will and to do of his good pleasure;”- Acts. 15, 9: “God purifies their hearts by faith;” 2 Thess. 3, 5: “the Lord direct your hearts into the love of God, and into the patient waiting for Christ.” — God is said to originate the good work in us, and to finish it, Philip. 1, 5; He is “the author and finisher of our faith.” Heb. 12, 2. —

541. ii. What it is that induces God to convert men? The whole work of our Salvation has its source only in God’s mercy, and if it is asked what it is that induces God to convert us, we answer that there is no other reason but his mercy and lovingkindness. As God’s grace and man’s merits cannot stand together, we conclude that God, in the work oft conversion does pay no regard to man’s virtue, worth or merits, as if by them He was induced to convert him. Thus we read of the shepherd bringing home his lost sheep, quite without any deserving on the part of the latter, Luk. 15, 4. 5; of the woman that seeks the lost penny under the same circumstances, V. 8. As also that the king in preparing the marriage feast for his son, and the Lord for his evening meal, are inviting the poor, the maimed, the halt and the blind to come and join him, Matth. 22, 9; Luk. 14, 21. It is exactly in the same way that God calls, leads and turns us to Himself; nevertheless we are unable to deserve anything in the sight of God, than eternal condemnation as the Apostle exclaims, Ephes. 2, 4. 5: “But God, who is rich in mercy, for his great love, wherewith he hath loved us, even when we were dead in our sins, hath quickened us together with Christ.” 

542. We have to consider

c. Men, who becomes converted; in which respect we have to observe:

i. what men are able to do towards their conversion, 

ii. what they are unable to do towards it, 

iii. the conditions, by which they are fitted to conversion, 

i. The preparations men can make towards their conversion, are of a twofold kind. There are some that proceed conversion, and may be called outward actions; others again that essentially belong to conversion, which may be called inward actions.

543. As outward actions are to be considered: the hearing of the word of God; the hearing it with diligence and with the purpose to be taught by it; and seriously considering the subject matter of it. This is to be proved by testimonies and instances from scripture.

Testimonies we find when St. Paul writes concerning false teachers: “that they are ever learning, never coming to the truth,” 2 Timot, 3, 7; and of the Israelites, Rom. 9, 31: “Israel, which followed after the law of righteousness, hath not attained to the law of righteousness, for they stumbled at that stumbling block.” — Concerning the time of the babylonian captivity Amos says: 8, 11. 12: “behold, the days come, saith the Lord God, that I will send a famine in the land, not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord; they shall wander from sea to sea, and from the north even to the east, they shall run to and fro to seek the word of the Lord, and shall not find it.”

544. Instances of that description we meet with in the history of Herod, who liked to listen to the preaching of John the baptist, and in many instances obeyed him; in the history of Sergius, the Roman governor, who sent for Barnabas, desiring to hear the word of God, Acts. 22, 7. As also in our days many people hear the word of God, with the purpose of attending to the contents and teaching of the same, and to whom nevertheless it becomes a savour of death unto death, 2 Cor, 2, 16; for “the God of this world hath blinded the minds of them which believe not, lest the light of the glorious Gospel of Christ shine upon them.”

545. ii. What men are not able to do with reference to their conversion? this question leads us to speak of those inward actions which essentially belong to conversion. Such are: that man cannot enlighten his own mind; that he cannot turn his heart from evil, and bring it to good, in order henceforward to love God and godliness, and hate and abjure sin. In this respect no man is able to make even a beginning towards conversion, much less carry it on and accomplish it; for:

546. We are not able to perform works even of less consideration; “Thou canst not make a hair white or black, Matth. 5, 36: — No man could undertake to change anything within him, as his brain, liver etc., “which of you by taking thought, can add a cubit unto his stature?” Matth. &, 27. And if man is not even able to perform such an insignificant work, how can he be expected to bring a change into his soul, his will and his reason, so as to turn them from inclinations, with which they have been born.

547. The Holy Scriptures expressly deny that man ever performs good and spiritual works, especially such as tend towards conversion and salvation, thereby evidencing:

aa. That we are not able to do any good thing; as Christ says, John. 15, 5: “without me ye can do nothing.” And a corrupt tree, can it bring forth good fruit?Matth. 7, 18; and are we not every one among us by nature corrupt trees? for “every imagination of the thoughts of our heart are only evil continually,” Genes. 6, 5; 8, 21.

bb. That we are not able to speak any thing good; Matth. 12, 34: “Can ye, being evil, speak good? for out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh;” 1. Cor. 12, 3: “no man can say that Jesus is the Lord, but by the Holy Ghost.”

cc. That we are not even able to think any thing good; 2, Cor. 3, 5: “Not that we are sufficient of ourselves to think any thing of ourselves.” From all which we conclude, that an individual, that cannot even do, speak or think good, cannot be said to be able to perform anything towards his own conversion; for to this purpose, he would need good thoughts and works.

548. iv. The conditions which make fit for conversion. That some men remain unconverted is to be considered as their own fault. Suppose a conscientious and diligent teacher who is anxious to change his pupils from being ignorant to being learned, and to turn them from vice unto virtue, and who does not spare any pains, to accomplish this end.” Nevertheless his disciples do not all profit by his anxiety: and that not as a consequence of the master being at fault, but because of his pupils not choosing to listen to him, but laughing to scorn his injunctions think themselves to be wiser than he; whereupon they join evil society, by the example of which they are misled, and remain in ignorance and vice. Exactly so God, on his part, is doing his best for the Salvation of all men, and is anxious not to have lost even one from amongst them, and it is to all men that He addresses the words He once spoke to Israel “Now, O inhabitants of Jerusalem, and men of Judah, judge, I pray you, betwixt me and my vineyard; what could have been done more to the vineyard, that I have not done in it? Wherefore, when I looked that it should bring forth grapes, brought it forth wild grapes,” Isa. 5,-3. 4.

549. That man might be fit for conversion, it is requisite for him

1. to determine hearing the word of God for the the purpose of being converted by it. For to him the word is still foolishness, and he cannot perceive in what manner the preaching of the same might tend to his Salvation, 1. Cor. 2, 14. Rom. 8, 7: “the carnal mind is enmity against God.” For if any man could have, by himself such a good intention, then he would be able to think something good by himself, which we have seen disproved 2. Cor. 3, 5. In such a case he would have the will to do that good, which God alone works, Phil. 2, 13.

550. 2. Much less is it necessary for him to dispose himself by good works, for conversion, which also appears impossible from the reasons adduced above; and it would therefore be impossible for any man to be saved. Besides conversion is performed some what like as a fish caught by the net, and drawn out of the water, Matth. 4, 19: to which the fish cannot be said to dispose himself. Nor was this the case with the malefactor, who was crucified along with the Lord Jesus, Luk. 22, 42; or with the centurion, who was standing by the cross, Matth. 27, 54; or with the keeper of the prison, who had the care of Paul and Silas, Acts 16, 29 ff. — All these things are therefore not required of man, on account of his conversion.

551. But this one and great thing is required of him, that in hearing the word he might not throw any wilful obstacles into the way of the divine working. It is true that by nature we are disinclined to this divine work, and that the word of God is foolishness unto us, 1. Cor. 2, 14. But yet this natural obstinacy is not able to hinder any man from effectually listening to the word, because in this way nobody would be saved. Such wilful hindrances, which every one opposes to the divine work, are partly outwardly, or such as hinder the necessary preparations. As, for instance, if one lives in perfect security, caring but for his daily food, and living only for his enjoyment, despises the word of God. Such a one can never come to be converted, since he stifles the word of God, so that it can bear no fruit within him, Luk. 8, 14; 14, 18. Yea they are responsible even for the neglect with which, when hearing something of the word of God, they treated the same, and for their not trying to understand it, whilst they, on the other hand, did shun no pain or trouble or danger if the gain of worldly goods was concerned. — There are also inward obstacles which hinder those works which are essentially necessary to conversion: viz

552. i. Atheism, when namely the fool saith in his heart “there is no God.” For every one, who has plunged into an ungodly life to such an extent, as not any more to consider God, has fallen into the snares of the devil, 2. Timot. 2, 26.

553. ii. Old opinions, that have grown up with us. Thus, for instance, the Jews have set their heart upon a Messiah that was to establish an earthly kingdom and rule over them; and as long as they do not dismiss this thought they cannot possibly come to Jesus of Nazareth, whose kingdom is not of this world.

554. iii. The authority of people in high station of life. In this way the Pharisees hindered their servant from coming to the Lord Jesus, John. 7, 47ff.: “Then answered them the Pharisees, are ye also deceived? have any of the rulers or of the Pharisees believed on him? But this people who knoweth not the law are cursed.” — And by this means also many among the papists, although they see the light, are prevented from coming to the truth. For the Pope, the Cardinals, Bishops and king hold closely together, and stand in great reputation before the world; — whilst in the lutheran church no such authority is admitted.

555. iv. A too great anxiety for the food of the body, for enjoyments and earthly honours. This same sort of care prevented the rich man from being converted, Luk. 16, 19; as also the young ruler from selling all that he possessed and giving it to the poor, as he was bid to do by the Lord Jesus. He went away, we are told, sorrowful: for he had great possession, Matth. 19, 21. 22; as did also Demas who forsook the Lord, because he had loved this present world, 2. Timot. 4, 10. — And many there are in our days, who, prevented by their authority, importance, and other enjoyments, are kept from turning to a truth, they are perfectly aware of.

556. v. The imaginations of our own reason. If we desire to follow Christ, then we must bring into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ, 2. Cor. 10, 5. But every one who allows himself to be guided by his own reason cannot be converted, unless he abstains from it. Thomas, who rejected the doctrine concerning the resurrection of Christ, remained in unbelief until his reason had been brought into captivity to the obedience of Christ, John. 20, 25. 27; 28.

557. vi. The refusal of the divine working. If the holy Ghost is beginning the work of conversion in man, but the latter dismisses every thought of it, or has no desire to hear of it, thus rejecting the truth, which he had even now become acquainted with, — then of course the work of conversion cannot go on. Such an instance we meet with in the history of king Agrippa. He, after having heard Paul’s preaching said: “Almost thou persuadest me to be a christian.” But the instant Paul required him to be converted, Agrippa rose up and went away, thus quenching the spark of faith, the Holy Ghost had lit up within him, Acts 26, 28 ff.

558. vii. The wilful denial, yea even persecution of the known truth. Many men come even the length of being convinced, within their heart, that that, which they have heard is heavenly, eternal truth. But if a man has no inclination to confess the same, then he tries to contradict and to persecute the doctrine, which he had been convinced to be truth. With reference to such an individual almost all hope for conversion is lost. The like people were the Pharisees, who saw, and were convinced that the Lord Jesus was a teacher come from God, that his teaching was unexceptionable, that nobody could work such miracles except God be with him, John. 3, 2. Nevertheless they persecuted him, his words and his works; not being satisfied until they had brought him to the cross. By this they hearkened their hearts, and blasphemed the Holy Ghost, as the Lord Jesus told them himself, Matth. 12, 31. 32. — Stephen admonishes them Acts. 7, 51: ” Ye stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears, ye do always resist the holy Ghost; as your fathers did so do ye.

From what has been said above, it will appear, that man, if he desires to be instructed by the Holy Ghost, must entirely remain inactive; as also, that if once convinced of the truth nothing in the world ought to draw him from it, and that he should allow himself to be led by the Holy Ghost. Then he will be fit for conversion.

559. The question as to how it is, that, in the whole, but a few men are converted, every one will easily answer himself when attending to that which has been stated already. For although it is true, that man can do nothing for the furtherance of his conversion, yet he may do a great deal to hinder it. It is true that he cannot work out his own conversion, but it is as true, that he can hinder his being converted. Suppose a man falling ill, then he cannot cure himself; but he can easily put an obstacle in the way of his recovery, in that he does not obey the injunctions of his medical adviser, and, casting from him his medicines, does every thing to augment his sickness. Or suppose a man, who has fallen into a deep hole, and on a rope being cast to him, by means of which he might be pulled up again, it is quite possible for such a one to reject this help, thus denying the help, by which he might be rescued. Now just as it is sufficient for a patient to submit himself to the injunctions of his Doctor, and not to withstand them, — or for one who has fallen in to a pit, in order to be pulled up again, merely to allow himself to be drawn up, where in both cases they have merely passively to subject themselves, — so it is sufficient for man, in his conversion not to withstand the Holy Ghost, but to allow him to work out his conversion, although he cannot do the least thing towards it.

560. d. The fruits of conversion. These are partly identical with those of repentance and of justification, viz: God’s mercy and lovingkindness, peace of conscience, improvement of life, new obedience and good works. For he who is converted loves God, and accordingly also his fellowmen, gives unto God the obedience due to Him, serving Him wherever he can; but unto his neighbour he does all thing whatsoever he wisheth they should do unto him, Matth. 7, 12.

561. Another kind of fruit of conversion is the liberty of man’s will. For even so as his will has not been free before his conversion to do whatever is good, so, after his conversion this gift is given him by the Holy Ghost. Rom. 6, 12. 13: “Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, that ye should obey it in the lusts thereof; but yield yourselves unto God, as those that are alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness unto God;” Rom. 8, 13. 14: “if ye through the spirit do mortify the deeds of the body ye shall live; for as many as are led by the Spirit of God, they are the Sons of God.

562. But as, whilst upon earth, every thing is imperfect, the liberty of the converted man itself is also imperfect, and not without its trials. Whereby many a good thing is hindered, and much evil promoted, as the Apostle himself complains, Rom. 7, 14 ff.; Galat. 5, 17.