Conversion is the central ethical message of Jesus and lies at the heart of evangelical faith and experience.
For some, conversion is a slow, lifelong movement of the heart and will toward God.
For others, it is a single dramatic experience, a sudden realignment of the self as the Apostle Paul experienced on the Damascus Road (Acts 9:1-19; Galatians 1:11-24).
In Scripture, conversion is often seen in its abrupt, one-of-a-kind, transformative form.
People are “born again,” they move from “death” to “life” and from “darkness” to “light,” they “put off” the old self to “put on” the new, they enter the “kingdom of God,” and in community they discern “the mindset of Christ” (see John 3:7; John 5:24; Ephesians 5:8; Colossians 3:1-14; 1 Thessalonians 2:12; Philippians 2:5).
This call to volitional and experiential alignment with the truth revealed in Jesus is vital, but it is only the beginning of Christian discipleship.
Spiritual conversion leads to a renewed understanding of personal and public morality, and the choices and actions that follow. In this sense, each of us needs to experience ethical conversion – perhaps more than once.
This is part of what is meant when the Baptist association of which I am a member says it is “committed to the announcement and demonstration of the universal reign of God through Christ, motivated by love for God and others; [and] seeing people, communities and societies transformed.”
Salvation involves the individual and the social, the personal and the political, holy living and godly justice.
Conversion is not primarily about my escape from judgment in the afterlife, but about alignment with the principles and priorities of the kingdom of God.
True, those who defy God’s love and grace will ultimately face his wrath and judgment.
But the way to escape such horror is not merely through intellectual assent to a suite of doctrines, or repeating the words of a penitential prayer, or abstaining from harmful social practices, but through actively following Jesus each day, motivated by love, demonstrating what it is to live freely and joyfully as God’s people.
This conversion involves the whole person. Theologian John G. Stackhouse Jr. put it well. “Intellectually, one believes propositions one did not believe before. Morally, one has a different sense of what counts as good and evil, what one ought or ought not to do. Emotionally, one loves what one used to hate or ignore; one shuns former pleasures as toxic and wasteful.”
“One cares about God, other people, the rest of the planet, and oneself in a way one didn’t before,” he continued. “Aesthetically, one finds beauty where one once saw nothing worthwhile at all, or perhaps even something repellent. Spiritually, one is sensitive and open to God, but also to the spiritual needs and gifts of other people. And one highly values the physical world, including one’s body, as God’s good creation.”
Stackhouse concluded, “Christian conversion amounts to a new outlook on everything, a new attitude toward and motivation in everything; and a new relationship toward everyone.”
Scripture sums this up in the command of Jesus to love one another (John 13:34-35).
Love is not everything, but it is paramount for Christian discipleship. We are often not easy to love, nor do we often find it easy to love others, but this is what our Lord calls us to do.
As we pursue costly and loving action toward others like ourselves, God works in us to stretch our boundaries, enabling us to love those who are different from us, even our enemies.
This dimension of love is evident in Hebrews 13:1-3, where the writer echoes the love command of Jesus and extends its reach. “Keep on loving one another as brothers and sisters. Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it. Continue to remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering.”
Conversion begins in an encounter with the love and grace of God in Christ. It continues in our discovery of the joy of acting in love toward one another within the community of faith, and it extends and gathers strength as we discern and pursue opportunities to share grace, mercy and peace with our neighbors – whether next door or around the world.
Ethical conversion is Christian conversion at its best: small acts of often countercultural love and grace aligned with God’s will that together shake strongholds and change the world.
This is following Jesus, Christian discipleship, the whole gospel, the mission of God. This is the destiny to which God calls us.
Rod Benson is ethicist and public theologian at the Tinsley Institute based at Morling College, a Baptist college in Sydney, Australia. A version of this article first appeared on his blog, iDigress, and is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter @ozbap, @reaustralia and @rodsyd.