In this series of posts, we are thinking through what we learn from the results achieved by a particular method of reaching out or actually teaching the gospel. Any method for reaching out will yield some kind of results, even if it is no result. The fact that American Christians so often ask about results shows how interested we are in them. The question we are pursuing here is what those results tell us about the approach or method.
Our first task will be to look at the kinds of results that are seen in the New Testament. We believe the Scriptures are inspired by God and provide good guidance for our lives and ministries. So we first want to notice what results to evangelism are seen in the New Testament.
We begin today with the result we all desire, which is for people to come to God through Christ. The New Testament describes this favorable response in a broad range of ways, including accepting the message or word, believing or becoming believers, believing and turning to the Lord, being brought to the Lord, receiving him (Christ) or receiving God’s abundant provision of grace, repenting, being baptized (into Christ), believing and being baptized, coming to know God or be known by God, being made disciples, being persuaded (by the message), turning to God, being justified or made righteous, being reconciled to God, being born again (and born from above), conversion and others.
For a lot of years, people referred to it as “conversion.” This is not the most common way of describing it in the Bible, but it is found there. Paul and Barnabas “were describing in detail the conversion of the Gentiles” (Acts 15:3; ESV, NASB, NRSV; NIV has “how the Gentiles had been converted”). Though not a part of the actual biblical text, the word conversion is also found in some headings to sections of Scripture in some editions (such as “The Conversion of Saul” or “Saul’s Conversion” in the headings in ESV, NASB, NRSV and NIV before Acts 9:1). The translation of Acts 15:3 as “conversion,” plus the use of the term in some headings, shows that this is still a common, short-hand way of referring to people coming to believe in Christ, or whichever of the other biblical phrases you might want to use.
The Greek word that underlies the noun “conversion” in Acts 15:3 is “turning.” The verb form of the word (“turn”) is often used to describe the same thing (Acts 3:19; 11:21; 14:15; 15:19; 26:18, 20; 28:27; 2 Corinthians 3:16; 1 Peter 2:25). In some of these passages, “turn” is used in parallel with “repent” and seems to be a synonym for it (Acts 3:19; 26:20). A similar verb, also translated as “turn,” is used both in the passive (i.e., someone turns you, Matthew 18:3) and active (i.e., you turn, John 12:40) forms.
Since the English word “conversion” has often been used to describe people putting their faith in Christ, since the English word means “change from one form to another” (i.e., dead to alive or natural to spiritual or estranged from God to reconciled with God or from in Adam to in Christ), and since the underlying Greek word (turn) is indeed used in Scripture, it seems like conversion is a reasonable word to use for describing people believing and being baptized in the name of Christ. Even so, we would do well to use some of the other, various biblical phrases to describe conversion to help us appreciate more of the breadth of what it includes, as you may have noticed I have been doing above.
Our desire, however, is certainly not for mere religious profession or church membership but for “authentic conversion.” Even though it is technically redundant, I find myself using this phrase often because we are all too familiar with people who claim to have been converted to Christ but who have not. We do not want people to merely commit to church attendance or get dunked. Authentic conversion entails much more than this.
The way Scripture describes what happened in Thessalonica gives us some rich, healthy ways to think about conversion. I’ll modify some verb tenses and pronouns in these quotes so they make sense in the context of this paragraph. We are hoping people will “turn to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead—Jesus, who rescues us from the coming wrath” (1:9-10). We would like to see them “receive the word of God, which they hear from us, and accept it not as a human word, but as it actually is, the word of God, which will indeed be at work in those who believe” (2:13). This will lead them to “become imitators of God’s churches which are in Christ Jesus by being willing to suffer for him” (v. 14). In order for this to happen, it is necessary that the “gospel come to people not simply with words but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and deep conviction” and for us to “live among them” in a godly way (1:5). The gospel Paul spoke at Thessalonica, which led to all these wonderful results, centered on “explaining and proving that the Messiah had to suffer and rise from the dead. This Jesus I am proclaiming to you is the Messiah” (Acts 17:3).
Another beautiful and power description of some of the aspects of authentic conversion is for people to have “been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit, who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age “ (Hebrews 6:4-5). Many other passages express various other inward and outward aspects of the authentic conversion that we long for when we reach out to others.
Regardless of what words we use to refer to “conversion,” it is the gospel has the power to bring it to pass, as it was at Thessalonica. The gospel is God’s power for salvation (Romans 1:16), and when it is announced, many can become disciples (Acts 14:21). When we tell the good news of the Lord Jesus, the Lord’s hand may well be with us, and a great number may believe and turn to the Lord (Acts 11:20). When Peter told the good news about Christ for the very first time after Christ ascended to heaven, 3000 people accepted his message and were baptized in the name of Christ. They had their sins forgiven, received the Holy Spirit, and were added to the number of God’s people (Acts 2:38-39, 41, 47).
Conversion is internal as well as external, so it is not fully visible, and we might not always perceive it accurately. Ultimately, God and Christ will judge people, not us. But when we perceive authentic conversion as just described, we can surmise that the approach and method used to communicate the good news about Christ has been faithful, powerful, and effective. In contrast, if there is never any such result, we may wonder whether our approach or method has been an avenue for God’s power.
For more on how Empowering Subjects is training people to share the good news, see here.