Adapted from a Sermon by J.C. Ryle
“Repent ye therefore, and be converted.”— Acts 3:19 (KJV)
"Repent therefore, and turn back, that your sins may be blotted out."— Acts 3:19 (ESV)
The subject before us this morning is one which touches all mankind. It ought to be know by all people, high or low, rich or poor, old or young, learned or simple. Any one may get to heaven without money, rank, or learning. No one, however wise, wealthy, noble, or beautiful, will ever get to heaven without conversion.
Now the word ‘conversion’ is one which we do not hear so much of these days. It seems to have been brought into use by older translations like the King James version. In more recent translations the original word is rendered as ‘return’ or ‘turn back’ or ‘turn back to God’. So a person who is converted is a person who has returned, or turned back to God. The meaning is the same in both cases.
There are six points of view in which Ryle wanted to consider the subject before us. He wanted to show that Conversion is—
I. A Scriptural thing,
II. A real thing,
III. A necessary thing,
IV. A possible thing,
V. A happy thing,
VI. A thing that may be seen.
I. Let us follow him and see, in the first place, how conversion is a Scriptural thing.
What is meant by this, is that conversion is a thing that is plainly mentioned in the Bible. This is the first point we have to establish about anything in religion. It does not matter who says a thing, and declares it to be religious truth; it does not matter whether we like or dislike a doctrine. Is it in the Bible? That is the only question. If it is, we have no right to refuse it. If we reject a Bible truth because we do not like it, we do so at the peril of our souls, and might as well become atheists straight away. This is a principle which ought never to be forgotten.
Let us turn to the Bible. In these verses listen for the idea of turning, or bringing back. Hear what David says: “The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving”, or restoring, the soul.”—“sinners will return to you.” (Psalm 19:7; 51:13.) Hear what our Lord Jesus Christ says: “Unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven,” (Matt. 18:3.) Hear what the Apostle. Peter says: “Repent therefore, and turn back, that your sins may be blotted out.” (Acts 3:19.) Hear what James says: “whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.” (James 5:20.)
And there are many other passages in which the idea of conversion is contained: To be renewed,—to be transformed,—to be created anew,—to be raised from the dead,—to be illuminated,—to pass from death to life,—to be born again,—to put off the old man and put on the new man,—all these are Scriptural expressions, which mean the same thing as conversion. They are all the same thing, seen from a different point of view. And so there is no doubt of the truth of the statement,—that conversion is a Scriptural thing. It is not a mere human invention: it is in the Bible.
There are some who may say, perhaps, that they do not care for “texts.” That they reject the practice of making single texts decide questions in their religion. We ought to be sorry for them. Our Lord Jesus Christ and His apostles used to quote single texts frequently, and to make everything in their arguments hinge upon them. One plain text with them was enough to settle a point. Is it not a serious matter, that while the Lord Jesus and His apostles made such use of single texts, some people do not care for them?
Let us beware of badly informed prejudices on religious subjects. There are people who find fault with doctrines and opinions as enthusiastic, fanatical, and absurd, who are completely unaware that they are finding fault with Scripture itself! They give sad proof that they speak of things which they do not understand, and that they know relatively nothing of the contents of the Bible.
Beware of making such mistake by talking to others or to yourself against conversion. Search the Scriptures: conversion is a scriptural thing.
II. Let us see, in the second place, how conversion is a real thing.
We live in an age of shams, deceptions, and manipulation. It is an age where so much is superficial and artificial. It is an age of fast food, cheap imitations, false weights and measures, and shoddy workmanship. It is an age of self promoters, and whitened sepulchres, and cymbals in religion. It is hardly surprising that many consider all who profess to be Christian as suspicious characters, if not hypocrites, and deny the reality of any such thing as conversion.
Still, notwithstanding all that such people may say, it can be confidently asserted, that there is such a thing as conversion. There are to be seen among men, every here and there, unmistakable cases of a complete turning round of heart, character, tastes, and life,—cases which deserve no other name than that of conversion.
When a man turns right round from sin to God,—from worldliness to holiness,—from self-righteousness to self-distrust, from carelessness about religion to deep repentance,—from unbelief to faith,—from indifference to Christ to strong love to Christ,—from neglect of prayer, the Bible, and the gathering for worship, to a diligent use of all means of grace,—It can be boldly said, that such a man is a converted man.
When a man’s heart is turned upside down in the way which has been described, so that he loves what he once hated, and hates what he once loved, we can boldly say, that it is a case of conversion. Such a change can be described in no other way. He has returned, he has turned back to God, he has been converted.
Of such changes the Bible gives many unmistakable examples. Carefully read the histories of Manasseh king of Judah, of Matthew the apostle, of the woman of Samaria, of Zacchaeus the publican, of Mary Magdalene, of Saul of Tarsus, of the Philippian jailer, of Lydia the purple seller, of the Jews to whom Peter preached on the day of Pentecost, of the Corinthians to whom the Apostle Paul preached. (2 Chron 33: 1-19. Matt 9:9. John 4:1-29. Luke 19:1-10; 8:2. Acts 9:1-22; 16:14-34; 2:37-41. 1 Cor 6:9-11.) In every one of these cases there was a mighty change. What better name to call it than conversion?
Of such changes the history of the Church in every age can supply many well-known examples. Let any one study the life of Augustine, of Martin Luther, of John Bunyan, of John Newton. In every one of these lives he will find a description of a mighty turning of heart, opinion, and conduct, towards God. What better name to call it than conversion?
Sadly, there are too many people who will allow nothing, and will dispute everything, in religion! They know that they are not yet converted themselves, and they therefore try hard to make out that nobody was ever converted at all! Let it be firmly established in our minds, from the evidence of Scripture and history that conversion is a real and true thing.
III. Let us see, in the third place, that conversion is a necessary thing.
This is an important and central point. Some people are ready enough to admit that conversion is a Scriptural truth and a reality, but not a thing which needs to be pressed on most people. The heathen, they grant, need conversion. Even the thieves, and fallen characters, and inmates of jails, they allow, may need conversion. But to talk of conversion being necessary for Church-going people, is to talk of things which they cannot see at all. “Such people may, in some cases, need a little stirring up and correction. They may not be quite as good as they ought to be: it would be better if they attended more to religion; but you have no right to say they need conversion! It is uncharitable, harsh, narrow-minded, bitter, wrong, to tell them they need conversion!”
This sadly common notion is a complete delusion. It is a pure invention of man’s, without a scrap of foundation in God’s Word. The Bible specifically teaches that the change of heart, called conversion, is a thing absolutely needed by everyone. It is needed because of the total corruption of human nature. It is needed because of the condition of every man’s natural heart. All people born into the world, of every rank and nation, must have their hearts changed between the cradle and the grave, before they can go to heaven. All, all men, without exception, must be converted.
Without conversion of heart we cannot serve God on earth. We naturally have neither faith, nor fear, nor love, toward God and His Son Jesus Christ. We have no delight in His Word. We take no pleasure in prayer or communion with Him. We have no enjoyment in His ordinances, His house, His people, or His worship. We may have a form of Christianity, and keep up a round of ceremonies and religious performances. But without conversion we have no more heart in our religion than a brick or a stone. Can a dead corpse serve God? We know it cannot. Well, without conversion we are dead toward God.
Consider the state of Christianity in Ottawa. Mark how little interest the great majority of professing Christians take in what is going on at church. Observe how listless, and apathetic, and indifferent, they evidently are about the whole affair. It is clear their hearts are not there! They are thinking of something else, and not of religion. They are thinking of business, or money, or pleasure, or worldly plans, or amusements. Their bodies are there, but not their hearts.—And what is the reason? What is it they all need? They need conversion. Without it they only come to church for fashion and form’s sake, and go away from church to serve the world or their sins.
But this is not all. Without conversion of heart we could not enjoy heaven, if we got there. Heaven is a place where holiness reigns supreme, and sin and the world have no place at all. The company will all be holy; the employments will all be holy; it will be an eternal Sabbath-day. Surely if we go to heaven, we must have a heart in tune and able to enjoy it, or else we will not be happy. We must have a nature in harmony with the element we live in, and the place where we dwell. Can a fish be happy out of water? We know it cannot. Well, without conversion of heart we could not be happy in heaven.
Look round the neighbourhood in which you live, and the persons with whom you are acquainted. Think what many of them would do if they were cut off for ever from money, and business, and newspapers, and the internet and facebook, and vacations, and spectator sports, and worldly amusements! Would they like it?—Think what they would feel if they were shut up for ever with Jesus Christ, and saints, and angels! Would they be happy?—Would the eternal company of Moses, and David, and the Apostle Paul, be pleasant to those who never take the trouble to read what those holy men wrote? Would heaven’s everlasting praise suit the taste of those who can hardly spare a few minutes in a week for private religion, even for prayer? There is only one answer to all these questions. We must be converted before we can enjoy heaven. Heaven would be no heaven to any child of Adam without conversion.
Let no man deceive us. There are two things which are of absolute necessity to the salvation of every man and woman and child on earth. One of them is the mediatorial work of Christ for us,—His atonement, satisfaction, and intercession. The other is the converting work of the Spirit in us,—His guiding, renewing, and sanctifying grace.—We must have both a title and a heart for heaven. Sacraments are only generally necessary to salvation: a man may be saved without them, like the penitent thief. An interest in Christ and conversion are absolutely necessary: without them no one can possibly be saved.—All, all alike, high or low, rich or poor, old or young, baptized or unbaptized, all must be converted or perish. There is no salvation without conversion. it is a necessary thing.
IV. Let us now see, in the fourth place, how conversion is a possible thing.
When this subject is approached, there is a feeling that comes into many people’s minds. They take refuge in the idea that such a change as conversion is quite impossible, except for a favoured few. “It is all very well,” they argue, “for pastors to talk of conversion; but this is something impossible; we have work to do, families to provide for, business to attend to. It is no use expecting miracles now. We cannot be converted.” Such thoughts are very common. The devil loves to put them before us, and our own lazy hearts are only too ready to receive them: but they are deceiving thoughts which will not stand up to examination. Conversion is a possible thing.
However, this is not to teach for a moment that any one can convert himself, change his own heart, take away his own corrupt nature, put in himself a new spirit. No not at all. We should as soon expect the dry bones in Ezekiel’s vision to give themselves life. (Ezek. 37:3.) What is meant is that there is nothing in Scripture, nothing in God, nothing in man’s condition, which warrants any one in saying, “I can never be converted.” There is not a man or woman on earth of whom it could be said, “their conversion is an impossibility.”—Anyone, however sinful and hardened; any one may be converted.
Why can this be stated so confidently? How can we can look round the world, and see the desperate wickedness that is in it, and yet despair of no living man’s soul? How is it that it may be said to anyone, however hard, fallen, and bad, “Your case is not hopeless: you, even you, may be converted?”—It is possible because of the things contained in Christ’s Gospel. It is the glory of that Gospel that under it nothing is impossible.
i) Conversion is a possible thing, because of the almighty power of our Lord Jesus Christ.
In Him is life. In His hand are the keys of death and hell. He has all power in heaven and earth. He gives life to whom He will. (John 1:4; Rev. 1:18; Matt. 28:18; John 5:21.) It is as easy to Him to create new hearts out of nothing, as it was to create the world out of nothing. It is as easy to Him to breathe spiritual life into a stony, dead heart, as it was to breathe natural life into the clay of which Adam was formed, and make him a living man. There was nothing He could not do on earth. Wind, sea, disease, death, the devil,—all were obedient to His word. There is nothing that He cannot do in heaven at God’s right hand. His hand is as strong as ever: His love is as great as ever. The Lord Jesus Christ lives, and therefore conversion is not impossible.
ii) But beside this, conversion is a possible thing, because of the almighty power of the Holy Spirit, whom Christ sends into the hearts of all whom He undertakes to save.
The same divine Spirit who co-operated with the Father and Son in the work of creation, co-operates specially in the work of conversion. It is He who conveys life from Christ, the great Fountain of Life, into the hearts of sinners. He who moved on the face of the waters before those wonderful words were spoken, “Let there be light.” It is He who moves over sinners’ souls, and takes their natural darkness away.
Great indeed is the invisible power of the Holy Spirit! He can soften that which is hard. He can bend that which is stiff and stubborn. He can give eyes to the spiritually blind, ears to the spiritually deaf, tongues to the spiritually dumb, feet to the spiritually lame, warmth to the spiritually cold, knowledge to the spiritually ignorant, and life to the spiritually dead. “who is a teacher like him? “(Job 36:22.) He has taught thousands of ignorant sinners, and never failed to make them “wise for salvation.” (2 Tim 3:15) The Holy Spirit lives, and therefore conversion is never impossible.
What then can we say to these things? Away with the idea that conversion is not possible. Utterly reject it; it is a temptation of the devil. Do not look at yourself, and your own weak heart;-for then you may well despair. Look upward at Christ, and the Holy Spirit, and learn that with them nothing is impossible. The age of spiritual miracles is not yet past! Dead souls in our day can yet be raised; blind eyes can yet be made to see; dumb prayerless tongues can yet be taught to pray. No one ought ever to despair. When Christ has left heaven, and laid down His office as the Saviour of sinners,—when the Holy Spirit has ceased to dwell in hearts, and is no longer God,—then, and not till then, men and women may say, “We cannot be converted.” Till then, let us never doubt, conversion is a possible thing. If men are not converted, it is because they will not come to Christ for life.” (John 5:40.) conversion is possible.
V. Let us see, in the fifth place, that conversion is a happy thing.
This ought not to be overlooked. Many are ready to admit the truth of all that has been laid before us until now. Scriptural, real, necessary, possible,—all this they willingly allow conversion to be. “Of course,” they say, “we know it is all true. People ought to be converted.” But will it increase a man’s happiness to be converted? Will it add to a man’s joys, and lessen his sorrows, to be converted? Here sadly, is a sticking point for many. They have a secret, lurking fear, that if they are converted they must become depressed, miserable, and low-spirited. Conversion and a sour face,—conversion and a gloomy look,—conversion and an ill-natured readiness to snub young people, and put down all joy,—conversion and a sorrowful disposition,—conversion and sighing and groaning,—all these are things which they seem to think must go together! No wonder that such people shrink from the idea of conversion!
This is a very common and troublesome notion. But it must be stated without hesitation, that the conversion described in Scripture is a happy thing and not a miserable one, and that if converted persons are not happy, the fault must be in themselves. The happiness of a true Christian, no doubt, is not quite of the same sort as that of a worldly man. It is a calm, solid, deep flowing, substantial joy. It is not made up of excitement, joking around, and loud fitful laughter. It is the sober, quiet joy of one who does not forget death, judgment, eternity, and a world to come, even in his greatest joys. But in the main there is no doubt the converted man is the happiest man.
What does Scripture say? How does it describe the feelings and experience of persons who have been converted? Does it support in any way the idea that conversion is a sorrowful and gloomy thing?
Let us hear what Levi felt, when he had left his tax booth to follow Christ. We read that he “made him a great feast in his house,” as if it was an occasion of gladness. (Luke 5:29.) Let us hear what Zacchaeus felt, when Jesus offered to come to his house. We read that he “received him joyfully.” (Luke 19:6.) Let us hear what the Samaritans felt, when they were converted through Philip’s preaching. We read that “there was much joy in that city.” (Acts 8:8.) Let us hear what the Ethiopian eunuch felt in the day of his conversion. We read that he “went on his way rejoicing.” (Acts 8:39.) Let us hear what the Philippian jailer felt in the hour of his conversion. We read that “he rejoiced along with his entire household that he had believed in God.” (Acts 16:34.) In fact the testimony of Scripture on this subject is always one and the same. Conversion is always described as the cause of joy and not of sorrow, of happiness and not of misery.
The plain truth is that people speak badly of conversion because they really know nothing about it. They cast down converted men and women as unhappy, because they judge them by their outward appearance of calmness, gravity, and quietness, and know nothing of their inward peace. They forget that it is not those who boast most of their own performances who do most, and it is not those who talk most of their happiness who are in reality the happiest people.
A converted man is happy, because he has peace with God. His sins are forgiven; his conscience is free from the sense of guilt: he can look forward to death, judgment, and eternity, and not feel afraid. What an immense blessing to feel forgiven and free!
—He is happy because he finds order in his heart. His passions are controlled, his affections are rightly directed. Everything in his inner man, however weak and feeble, is in its right place, and not in confusion. What an immense blessing order is!
—He is happy, because he feels independent of circumstances. Come what may, he is provided for: sickness, and losses, and death, can never touch his treasure in heaven, or rob him of Christ. What a blessing to feel independent!
—He is happy, because he feels ready. Whatever happens he is somewhat prepared: the great business is settled; the great concern of life is arranged. What a blessing to feel ready!
These are indeed true springs of happiness. They are springs which are utterly shut up and sealed to an unconverted man. Without forgiveness of sins, without hope for the world to come, dependent on this world for comfort, unprepared to meet God, he cannot be really happy. Conversion is an essential part of true happiness.
Settle it in your mind today that the friend who labours for your conversion to God is the best friend that you can have. He is a friend not merely for the life to come, but for the life that now is. He is a friend to your present comfort as well as to your future deliverance from hell. He is a friend for time as well as for eternity. conversion is a happy thing.
VI. Let us consider, in the last place, that conversion is a thing that may be seen.
This is a part of our subject which ought never to be overlooked. Well would it be for the Church and the world, if in every age it had received more attention. Thousands have turned away in disgust from religion, because of the wickedness of many who profess it. Hundreds have caused the very name of conversion to stink, by the lives they have lived after declaring themselves converted. They have imagined that a few temporary sensations and convictions were the true grace of God. They have imagined themselves converted, because their animal feelings were excited. They have called themselves “converts” without the slightest right or title to that honoured name. All this has done immense harm, and it is still doing harm in the our day. The times demand a very clear assertion of the great principle, that true conversion is a thing that can always be seen.
Now the way the Holy Spirit works is invisible. It is like the wind. It is like the attractive power of a magnet. It is like the influence of the moon upon the tides. There is something about it far beyond the reach of man’s eyes or understanding.—But while we know this is undoubtedly true, we must no less realize that the effects of the Spirit’s work in conversion will always be seen. Those effects may be weak and feeble at first: to the natural man they may hardly be visible, and not understood. But effects there always will be: some fruit will always be seen where there is true conversion. Where no effect can be seen, there you may be sure there is no real conversion. Where no visible fruit can be found, there you may be sure is no conversion.
Does any one wonder what we may expect to see in a true conversion? Here it is: There will always be something seen in a converted man’s character, and feelings, and conduct, and opinions, and daily life. You will not see in him perfection; but you will see in him something peculiar, distinct, and different from other people. You will see him hating sin, loving Christ, following after holiness, taking pleasure in his Bible, persevering in prayer. You will see him penitent, humble, believing, self-controlled, giving, truthful, good-tempered, patient, upright, honourable, kind. These, at any rate, will be his aims: these are the things which he will follow after, however much he may fall short. In some converted persons you will see these things more distinctly, in others less. But without a doubt, wherever there is conversion, something of this kind will be seen.
Let this last point sink down into your heart and never be forgotten. Conversion is not only a Scriptural thing, a real thing, a necessary thing, a possible thing, and a happy thing: there remains one more grand characteristic about it, it is a thing that will always be seen.
And now we will close with a few plain appeals to each of our consciences. The nature and conversion has been unfolded and explained as clearly as possible. We have seen it in every point of view. Nothing remains but to try to bring it home to each one’s heart.
(1) First of all, there can be nothing more important than to find out whether you are converted.
I am not asking about other people. The heathen no doubt need conversion. The unhappy inmates of jails and penitentiaries need conversion. There may be people living near your own house who are open sinners and unbelievers, and need conversion. But all this is beside the question. The question is: Are you converted yourself?
Are you converted? It is no use saying that many people are hypocrites and false professors. It is no argument to say that there are many sham revivals, and mock conversions. All this may be very true: but the abuse of a thing does not destroy the use of it. The circulation of bad money is no reason why there should not be genuine money. Whatever others may be, Are you converted yourself?
Are you converted? It is no answer to say that you go to church, and have been baptized and admitted to the Lord’s Table. All this proves little: much the same could be said of Judas Iscariot, Demas, Simon the Magician, Ananias, and Sapphira. The question is still not answered. Is your heart changed? Are you really converted to God?
(2) In the next place, I urge any who are not converted, never to rest till they are.
Hurry: awake to know your danger. Escape for your life: flee from the wrath to come. Time is short: eternity is near. Life is uncertain: judgment is sure. Arise and call upon God. The throne of grace is yet standing: the Lord Jesus Christ is yet waiting to be gracious. The promises of the Gospel are wide, broad, full, and free: lay hold upon them this day. Repent, and believe the Gospel: repent, and be converted. Do not rest not until you know and feel that you are a converted person.
(3) In the last place, I offer a word of exhortation to anyone who has reason to think that he has gone through that blessed change of which we have heard.
You can remember the time when you were not what you are now. You can remember a time in your life when old things passed away, and all things became new. To you also I have something to say. Hear a word of friendly advice, and lay it to heart.
(a) Do you think that you are converted? Then give all diligence to make your calling and conversion sure. Leave nothing uncertain that concerns your immortal soul. Labour to have the witness of the Spirit with your spirit, that you are a child of God. Assurance is to be had in this world, and assurance is worth seeking. It is good to have hope: it is far better to feel sure.
(b) Do you think that you are converted? Then do not expect impossibilities in this world. Do not suppose the day will ever come when you will find no weak point in your heart, no wanderings in private prayer, no distraction in Bible-reading, no cold desires in the public worship of God, no flesh to mortify, no devil to tempt, no worldly snares to make you fall.
Expect nothing of the kind. Conversion is not perfection! Conversion is not heaven! The old man within you is yet alive; the world around you is yet full of danger; the devil is not dead. Remember at your best, that a converted sinner is still a poor weak sinner, needing Christ every day. Remember this, and you will not be disappointed.
(c) Do you think that you are converted? Then labour and desire to grow in grace every year that you live. Do not look behind; do not be content with old experience, old grace, old advances in religion. “Long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow.” (1 Pet 2:2) Entreat the Lord to carry on the work of conversion more and more in your soul, and to deepen spiritual impressions within you. Read your Bible more carefully every year: watch over your prayers more jealously every year. Beware of becoming sleepy and lazy in your religion. There is a vast difference between the lowest and the highest grades in the school of Christ. Strive to get on in knowledge, faith, hope, charity, and patience. Let your yearly motto be, “Onward, Forward, Upward!” to the last hour of your life.
(d) Do you think you are converted? Then show the value you place on conversion by your diligence in trying to do good to others.—Do you really believe it is an awful thing to be an unconverted person? Do you really think that conversion is an unspeakable blessing? Then prove it by constant zealous efforts to promote the conversion of others. Look round the neighbourhood in which you live: have compassion on the multitudes who are yet unconverted. Do not be content with getting them to come to your church; aim at nothing less than their entire conversion to God. Speak to them, read to them, pray for them, stir up others to help them. But never, ever, if you are a converted person, never be content to go to heaven alone!