Jesus commands us to preach the gospel, baptize, and teach believers to observe all he has commanded us. The Great Commission clearly commands us what we are to do, but it’s less clear on when people become believers. When does someone experience new life in Christ? How should we think about conversion in missions?
Conversion Stays the Same
Our understanding of conversion shouldn’t change based on our context. Whether we experience regeneration in a small town in Polk County, Wisconsin, or in Addis Adaba, Ethiopia, conversion remains the same. Conversion is the divinely-enabled personal response of individuals to the gospel in which they turn from their sin and themselves (repent) and trust in Jesus as Savior and Lord (believe). The means of grace may vary: God’s grace remains the same. Converts from rural America and urban Ethiopia both experience authentic repentance and genuine belief in the work of Jesus Christ. At conversion, we turn away from our sin and rebellion against a holy God and experience new life in Jesus (John 3:3).
Conversion changes us. We begin to tear down idols in order to honor and glorify Christ. We begin to take joy in Christ no matter what trials or difficulties come our way (James 1:3). Lastly, in conversion, we receive the Holy Spirit who seals us as believers and reminds us that God will preserve us to the end.
When converts are persecuted among unreached peoples and places, we must remember the necessity of a right understanding of conversion. Even in countries with a stronger Christian presence, followers of Jesus will experience rejection and they will risk being ostracized by their friends and family. We need to remember why saving faith in Christ is worth the risk. Jesus is worthy of our turning away from sin.
Conversion Takes Place by God’s Grace
The gospel teaches us that we cannot save ourselves from God’s judgment (Romans 3:10). We’re unable to do so because we cannot meet God’s righteous standard. However, we “are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:23–24). In Romans 10:13–17, Paul tells us that those who call on the name of the Lord will be saved.
However, Paul continues to state the importance and blessing of those God sends. Those who call on God cannot do so unless they believe. They can’t believe unless they’ve heard. They cannot hear unless the word of Christ has been preached by those whom God sends (Romans 10:14–17). Pastors and missionaries who faithfully preach the word of Christ are sent by God. Therefore, when someone repents of their sin and turns to Christ in surrender, we cannot take credit for it. God receives all the glory when he pours out his Spirit on the undeserving sinner.
The Ultimate Goal of Conversion
The goal of conversion in missions is to glorify Jesus and to make disciples who love Jesus based on the new life they receive (2 Corinthians 5:16–21). I would rather see a few converts who love Jesus with their whole life than many who profess faith without experiencing authentic conversion.
As pastors and missionaries, we must carefully teach our congregations what the Bible teaches us about conversion. As followers of Christ, we must be intentional with our message of hope and intentionally come alongside those who experience conversion. May the Lord bless our efforts, and may we see a multitude in our time experience the joy of conversion (Jeremiah 17:7).