Elder Neil Phelan, Jr.
"The law of the Lord is perfect, converting the soul: the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple" -Psalm 19:7
May I change your mind today? In essence, this is conversion: a change...a turn. It may refer to a change in the mind alone, or even more desirable, the whole walk of life, as David here refers to as the soul. The Hebrew word for "converting" is shuwb, which means "to turn back" or "retreat". Repentance is the first step towards conversion. It takes a powerful force to alter the course of a heavy laden ship. It must begin with the navigational system: the mind. David has declared that force to be God's law, which is "perfect, converting the soul". And since it is perfect, or without flaw, we may trust its directive influences for every course we plot. Turn your way of thinking to think like God; turn back from wicked works; change; retreat from the world; turn back towards the position of man before the fall; turn unto God.
As David here uses the word law, he refers not to the ceremonial law of the elders, but rather to doctrine, which includes every inch of sacred scripture, also presented in this Psalm by other descriptive terms such as testimony, statutes, and commandment. And this is the purpose of all of scripture: conversion, not regeneration; not to give life, but to give light upon the life that one already possesses(II Timothy 1:9-10). May I change your mind today concerning this important principle of God's word?
CONVERSION OR REGENERATION?
Many times interchanged, frequently used as synonymous terms, conversion and regeneration are, in fact, two distinct biblical doctrines. They are, in reality, two completely different events.
It was conversion, and not regeneration, that occurred on the day of Pentecost. The house of Cornelius, that Peter preached unto, was converted to the common faith, not regenerated. The Ethiopian eunuch was converted to Christ, not born of God's spirit. Lydia's heart was opened, not quickened, to receive the things spoken by Paul. Consider, my beloved, your experience. What does it tell you? Let us not allow professors of religion to put ideas in our heads; ideas about our own personal experience with Jesus. The moment we first heard the message of Christ and His death for our sins, were we born from above or were we drawn to this message as a magnet to steel; as a moth to the light; as a thirsty hart to the water brooks; as a bankrupt sinner to a mighty saviour? Were we born or was a living soul fed? If you have been misled, may I change your mind?
WHY THE CONFUSION?
It would be easy to confuse the moment of light with the moment of life. The moment when the message of Jesus and salvation stirs the soul could be easily confused with the beginning of spiritual life. And there is a simple explanation for this: The Holy Ghost, is powerfully active at both events: at conversion and at regeneration. In regeneration, the Holy Ghost is given to impart life as a new nature is given. At conversion, the Holy Ghost is seen as the teacher; its influence shedding light upon the law that God has already written upon the heart in regeneration(Hebrews 8:10). Regeneration must precede conversion.
CONVERSIONS AT PENTECOST
At Pentecost, the Holy Ghost was poured out in great measure. As a rushing mighty wind, it sat upon men as cloven tongues of fire and they were filled with the Holy Ghost. But what kind of men were present? Were these men unregenerate? Were they ignorant men, without knowledge and love for God? According to the Bible these were "devout men, out of every nation under heaven." Devout is an important word. It is the word Luke uses to describe old Simeon; and even Cornelius. These were holy men, God loving men, believers in God: children of God.
The sum and substance of Peter's sermon that day was Jesus, showing by the scriptures that Jesus was indeed the promised messiah: "Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly, that God hath made that same Jesus, whom ye have crucified, both Lord and Christ"- Acts 2:36. Their nature was not changed, but their heart was touched. Hearing this(the law of the Lord), they were pricked in the heart as the Holy Ghost acted powerfully as teacher, convicting them of their error. Their response was appropriate: Conversion. First the mind, then the response: their lives were changed, they became followers of Christ. Conversion is what really occurred at Pentecost as the Spirit was powerfully active.
CORNELIUS IS CONVERTED
The Holy Ghost paints a complimentary picture of Cornelius as well. He is also described as, "A devout man, and one that feared God with all his house, which gave much alms to the people, and prayed to God alway"-Acts 10:2. How does his life, before his conversion, compare to ours dear Christian? All his house, family, workers, and children, were God fearing people. Cornelius didn't give meagerly to the poor, he gave much alms. His prayers were not hindered by pleasures and pressures, they were consistent, he prayed to God alway. Could we not say that this man's testimony would outshine even our own as professing Christians? Let us be honest. This man was a child of God before Peter arrived. When Peter arrived with the message of Jesus Christ and Him crucified, Cornelius and his house received the gift of the Holy Ghost as it acted as a teacher imparting knowledge unto their souls: who Christ really was and what he had accomplished for them upon the cross, and they, being Gentiles, were included in His covenant promises. They were taught, they were convicted, they were converted to Christ as the Spirit was powerfully active.
And what about Lydia? What picture does the Holy Ghost paint of this woman? She is described as a worshiper and a praying woman. She had life.....she needed light! Paul preached Christ, the Holy Ghost gave knowledge and light; Lydia was converted and baptized!
SAUL OF TARSUS
But such is not the picture the Bible paints of Saul of Tarsus. Rather than breathing out prayers unto God, this man was "breathing out threatening and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord"-Acts 9:1. Unregenerate, hateful, despising Christ and his disciples, the Holy Ghost paints no spiritual fruit upon this tree prior to his Damascus road experience. As a Pharisee of Pharisees, Saul viewed Christ as an imposter; just a man trying to usurp his authority as a teacher from God. He had heard Jesus preach, but the preaching was foolishness to him(I Cor 1:18,21) because he was unregenerate, His heart was an empty slate, God's handwriting was not upon it........yet. He had, with contempt, observed the effect Jesus had had upon his friends, such as Nicodemus, and he was determined to lose no more to this man and His followers. He would extirpate this flock. But notice the power of God's spirit upon this man as his nature is changed. Suddenly, upon the Damascus road, a miraculous change occurs as the Holy Ghost is powerfully active. As we carefully survey the scene we find no preacher, no Bible, no sermon, no cathedral, no choir, no invitational hymn, no worship.......just a sinner and one Holy God possessing all power in heaven and earth; the power to create worlds and the power to regenerate souls at His own will and pleasure. Saul of Tarsus is born of God's spirit. Paul's own confession of this experience is, "And last of all he was seen of me also, as of one born out of due time"-1 Corinthians 15:8. It would be three days before Paul would stand before Ananias and enter the sacred waters of baptism. The Holy Ghost is powerfully active as Paul is born of God's spirit upon the Damascus road.
Man is helpless without God. The Holy Ghost must be powerfully active at both events: in regeneration as well as conversion. But they are different events, occurring separate and apart from one another.
SOME STRIKING DIFFERENCES
Upon examination, we find some striking differences between conversion and regeneration. Briefly let us consider:
(1) Regeneration is spontaneous while conversion is a gradual, ongoing process.
Saul of Tarsus was quickened immediately; instantly; spontaneously. He passed from death to life. But such is not the case with conversion. Conversion is an ongoing process never perfected in this life. The prophet of old describes the ongoing process of conversion as the learning of knowledge from God, one truth at a time. Like entering information on a hard drive, one bit at a time, "For precept must be upon precept, precept upon precept; line upon line, line upon line; here a little, and there a little:"-Isaiah 28:10. The foundation of it all is Christ(I Cor 3:10), then we build upon that knowledge one line of law at a time, one precept at a time. On what subject do we need to be converted today? Creation, abortion, giving, loving, praying, reading......what does the word of God have to say about these subjects? Is our mind in tune with God's? This is conversion, by degrees, little by little.
There is no such thing as a full grown disciple. Today, at best, we see through a glass darkly. We all need to be converted upon various principles of God's word. Many times, we have forgotten to practice something we already knew. Consider the language of Jesus to Peter, "But I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not: and when thou art converted, strengthen thy brethren"- Luke 22:32. Chosen to apostleship, Peter walked with Christ, saw the miracles He performed, cast out devil's in Christ's name and preached Christ's truths. But there was yet much for Peter to learn. Peter did not, at this juncture of his experience, understand the full mission of Jesus; His judgement; His death; His burial; His ascension; and Christ's spiritual kingdom. Jesus encouraged Peter to strengthen the faith of his brethren when he was fully converted to these truths. Even among the apostles, conversion was an ongoing process.
Since regeneration is spontaneous, and conversion is gradual and the result of exposure to God's law, we should know that:
(2)The creature is active in conversion and passive in regeneration. Saul was passive in his experience not cooperative. He was subject to the creative force of God. "If any man be in Christ, he is a new creature". The word creature means "created". Spiritual children do not evolve through a series of religious exercises and experiences, they are created anew, quickened(Ephesians 2:1). When God created the stars and the planets he did not ask for their permission. "May I create you Adam?", never came forth from the mouth of God. "Will you receive my Spirit and be born again?" is just not the language of God. When Jesus called Lazarus from the tomb of death, Lazarus was not persuaded, he was commanded. When life is given, both natural and spiritual, God is the sole author, the only life giver, for all life proceeds forth from God.
But in conversion, the quickened soul must be willing to forfeit his idols for Christ and His principles. This brings about repentance which requires an active effort upon the part of a believer. Turning, saying, "God is right, I have been wrong" takes an effort. The first step in the right direction is difficult and a contradiction to the flesh. Thus, we are passive in regeneration and active in conversion. This being the case:
(3) Regeneration precedes conversion or conversion will never occur. One must be alive to respond to stimuli. One must be alive naturally to exercise any of the five natural senses. Even the unregenerate enjoys the natural senses of man because he is naturally alive. But until God gives spiritual life, one will never hear the gospel nor respond appropriately, "But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned"- 1 Cor. 2:14. Therefore, before one can be converted to God's way of thinking, they must be alive spiritually. Regeneration must proceed conversion, or true conversion can not occur. Since we are actively involved in conversion we should know that:
(4)In conversion, God uses means, while in regeneration God acts sovereignly and alone. Preachers are used to bring about conversion. This is their purpose: to preach the "Law of the Lord", which is perfect; the good news of Jesus Christ; to open eyes, not to give life. Those who are regenerated, or, born from above, are the only ones who will be interested in such a message. And even here, God's spirit must be active as we have noted. In his defence to King Agrippa, Paul shares his call and purpose from Jesus: "To open their eyes, and to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan unto God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins, and inheritance among them which are sanctified by faith that is in me"-Acts 26:18. Opening eyes to error and turning to God is conversion in its most basic sense.
But in regeneration, God acts sovereignly; alone. He needs not help from man. He is not a god that must be carried about upon a totem. The Spirit is not subject to the tongue of a man or the will of a stubborn heart, as "The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit"- John 3:8. According to Jesus, every one, Jew, Gentile, bond, free, people out of every kindred, tribe and nation are born this way. Since man has a hand in conversion and since God is the sole author of regeneration we should not be surprised to know that:
(5) Conversion may be defeated while regeneration is forever. Even though Hymenaeus and Philetus, would teach untruths, and "overthrow the faith of some", Paul was happy to report: "the foundation of God standeth sure, having this seal, The Lord knoweth them that are his", -2 Tim. 2:17-19. Since there are so many conflicting doctrines among professing Christians today, this is certainly good news. What security could we enjoy today knowing that heaven or hell depended upon our accuracy upon every point of doctrine. Though we may be taught something that is not right, and even believe it, this will in no way alter our eternal relationship with our heavenly father: He knows us, we are bought with a price...we are His. The Galatians could be bewitched, the disciples may be blown about by every wind of doctrine, but God's covenant promises are immutable.
The Christian must never forget that there have been ages of darkness in which the rulers of this world have prevented the printing and ownership of God's written word: His law. Their purpose and design was to pervert knowledge and prevent conversion to the doctrines of God: they would substitute theirs for His. Did their wicked schemes prevent regeneration? Were they able to abort the spiritual soul from the womb of God's grace? Could jails, edicts, laws, tortures, and murder prevent the wind from blowing where it pleases? Could they blockade heaven's gates? I am persuaded with Paul that they could not( Romans 8:35-39). "The law of the Lord is perfect", we should use it for that which it is designed: "converting the soul." May I change your mind today?