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Author:Dr. Wes Bredenhof
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Congregation:Free Reformed Church of Launceston, Tasmania
 Tasmania, Australia
Title:All About True Conversion
Text:CD 3/4 Article 11 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:Our Salvation

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Hymn 61

Psalm 30:1,2

Psalm 30:3-5

Hymn 1

Hymn 8

Scripture readings: John 3:1-21, Acts 16:1-15

Catechism lesson:  Canons of Dort 3/4.11

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

Beloved congregation of Christ,

Every now and then you hear of someone who goes missing.  They’re never found.  Years go by and the family just assumes that the person has died.  I remember this happening a few years ago in Canada with a woman named Linda Grant.  On the rough east side of Vancouver, some 68 women went missing and Linda Grant was among them.  For all intents and purposes, she was considered dead.  Everyone had given up on seeing her ever again.  But then it turned out she was very much alive and well and living in the United States somewhere.  What appeared to be the case wasn’t the case at all – and her family was very thankful for that.  They thought she was dead, but she was actually alive. 

Is there a parallel between what happened with this woman and the spiritual state of people who are not Christians?  Some would say there is.  Some would say unbelievers simply appear to be spiritually dead, but when you look a little bit closer, you discover there is a little bit of life hanging on.  There’s just enough so the unbeliever can help himself to God’s offer of salvation in Christ.  However, we have to say this does not fit the picture of what the Bible teaches.  In the Scriptures, unregenerate people are dead – they just don’t appear dead, they are dead.  In Ezekiel 11 and 36, God says they have hearts of stone.  Hearts of stone simply don’t pump blood.  And if you don’t have blood flowing, you’re dead. 

But those same chapters, Ezekiel 11 and 36, they speak of God giving a heart transplant.  Like a surgeon, God reaches into the lives of people and changes them.  He brings what was dead back to life.  He works true conversion.  This is the truth of what we confess in article 11 of chapter 3-4 of the Canons of Dort.  Here we learn all about true conversion.

We’ll look at:

  1. The definition of conversion
  2. The need for conversion
  3. The manner of conversion
  4. The fruit of conversion

In article 11, we’re talking about what we confess about conversion.  It’s important that we be clear about the definition.   What does “conversion” mean?  Well, we’re talking about something at the beginning of the Christian life.  There is another kind of conversion found in the Heidelberg Catechism and we call that “daily conversion” – and it is related.   But here in the Canons we’re talking about something that happens as a person changes from being an unbeliever to being a believer.  To be converted is to change from one thing to another. 

In Acts 3:19, Peter is preaching and he says, “Repent therefore, and turn back, that your sins may be blotted out.”  When it says in the ESV, “turn back,” that can also be translated “be converted.”  Turning back to God is the essence of what conversion is all about.  Speaking positively, to be converted is to be turned to God.  Speaking negatively, to be converted is to be turned away from sin and a sinful life.  Conversion involves a change -- the change means being turned to someone and away from something or someone.

Conversion therefore involves faith and repentance.  When a person is converted, they have turned to God by having faith in Jesus Christ.  Before conversion, a person runs away from God.  An unconverted person is living under the wrath of God.  But when conversion happens, there is a change in a person’s position with respect to God – there is reconciliation.  A converted person is brought back to fellowship with God.  This happens through faith in Jesus Christ, through personally resting and trusting in the only Saviour. 

Conversion also includes repentance.  Repentance simply means having a change of mind or heart.  You change your mind or heart about your sins:  instead of loving them, you hate them.  You have sorrow over your sins.  You change your mind about God and his Word:  instead of hating him or ignoring him (which is no better), you love him.  You change your mind about yourself:  you have a new identity in Jesus Christ.  Now this faith and repentance happens at the beginning of the Christian life, but it continues through the years.  It’s there initially, but it’s always there as part of the ongoing process of sanctification. 

To put it simply:  conversion is an enormous change in a person’s life.  It is the change from being spiritually dead to being spiritually alive.  Now we’ll consider the necessity of this conversion…

Most of the time in the preaching in our churches, the congregation is addressed as the covenant people of God.  There is a good reason for this because we are simply following the example of the apostle Paul in his letters to various congregations.  He doesn’t address them as a mixed bag, so to speak, but as the people of God.  The apostle Peter even goes so far as to call them the elect of God.  So we do the same.  But even though we do this, we do not want to minimize the need for conversion.  There can be people in the congregation who are not truly converted to God.  Their greatest need is to hear the gospel call directly and clearly.   And if we’re going to be following the example of Paul and the other apostles, we should take a page out of his second epistle to the Corinthians.  In 2 Corinthians 5:5, Paul writes, “Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves.”  The same call has to be heard regularly from our pulpits as well – not to create doubts in sensitive souls, but to lovingly confront those who may still have hearts of stone.  We ought not to take something as important as this for granted. 

So, let’s never minimize the need for conversion.  The Scriptures speak very plainly about this.  In the passage we read from John 3, our Lord Jesus told Nicodemus that no one can see or enter the kingdom of God unless he is born again.  Further on in the passage, we get the clear message that this is a matter of eternal life and death.  Now it’s true that our Lord uses the words “born again” in this passage.  But it’s clear this is essentially the same thing as what we’re confessing in article 11.  Our Lord Jesus teaches that without this conversion or new birth, there is no spiritual life.  Without this conversion or new birth, there is no salvation.  That makes it essential. 

It is important to note that in this passage our Lord Jesus uses both the singular and plural form of the pronoun “you.”  In verse 3, he says, “I tell you the truth,” and then he is speaking directly to Nicodemus.  But in verse 7, he says, “You must be born again,” and then we could also translate that as “You all must be born again.”  Why is this important?  Our Lord Jesus was showing the need for conversion, not only to Nicodemus, but to all like him. 

You see, Nicodemus was a Pharisee.  The Pharisees believed they would earn their righteousness before God by their good works.  Their place in heaven would be secure through all the good things they did and their identity as Jews.  Jesus tells him he’s wrong.  We’re wrong if we think that way too.  We’re wrong if we think that just being a member of a Free Reformed Church is enough to guarantee us a place in the kingdom of heaven.  We’re wrong if we think that anything we do is getting us merits with God and is contributing in any way to our salvation.  Jesus says:  you need to be converted.  You need to be born again.  There is only one road that leads to the kingdom of heaven and it is the road of conversion.  Apart from the work of the Holy Spirit in us giving us a new heart, creating faith in Christ, apart from that we are lost in darkness and still objects of God’s wrath, no matter how many good things we think we’re doing.  Conversion is necessary.  So, how do we get converted? 

Jesus says in John 3 that this conversion or new birth is something that happens through the work of the Holy Spirit.  He says in verse 6 that the Spirit gives birth to spirit.  When a child is born, he or she doesn’t have any say in how it happens, when it happens, or where it happens.  Unless the woman is induced, the baby comes when it’s time.  It’s the same with the new birth.  The Holy Spirit is in control and we can’t determine when or where the new birth happens.  God is sovereignly in control of conversion.

We see that truth illustrated in Acts 16 with the story of Lydia.  Lydia was a cloth merchant from Thyatira who was worshipping with some Jews in Philippi.  She appears to have been a proselyte, a Gentile who was worshipping with Jews.  Well, when the gospel came to Philippi, we’re told in verse 14 that the “Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul.”  In other words, her heart had been closed and unable to understand the gospel prior to this.  But the Lord opened her heart and so she was now able to understand and believe. 

Even before this, God had taken care that the gospel would be preached in Philippi.  He arranged all the events leading up to the conversion of Lydia, opening and closing doors where necessary.  We confess in article 11 that God does exactly that.  God’s plan is that those who would be converted would hear the gospel message.  Now, of course, many people externally hear the gospel.  But with those who are converted, God goes further.  The Holy Spirit powerfully brings light to their minds and the result is that, like Lydia, they can understand and discern spiritual things. 

The Holy Spirit alone brings about a new birth, he creates a new heart.  He penetrates into the deepest parts of a person and does some radical surgery.  We confess that he takes the closed heart and opens it.  He takes the hard heart and softens it.  And he circumcises that which was uncircumcised.  All this is to say that he sovereignly brings about conversion in a person, miraculously changing that person into a son of God. 

And he not only changes the heart – changing what a person loves and cares about most – he also changes the will – changing what a person wants.  The will receives new qualities from the Holy Spirit.  We confess that the will is changed from being dead to being alive.  Before conversion, people often want the things that are associated with sin and death.  After conversion, people desire the things associated with God and God himself.  We confess that the will that was bad becomes good.  Before conversion, people typically want things that conflict with God’s revealed will.  Afterwards, people desire more and more what God says in his Word.  We confess that the will which was unwilling becomes willing.  Before conversion, you can expect people to not have any inclination at all to submit to God.  Afterwards, we expect to see people who say, “If God says it, I’ll do it.”  Finally, we confess that the will which was stubborn becomes obedient.  Before conversion, people are stuck in their ways and they’re not going to listen.  But after conversion, they’re willing to listen and obey.  It’s clear from all this that conversion is really a 180 degree turn to God.  In principle, it’s a matter of black and white. 

Of course, because of remaining sin, there are plenty of shades of gray in reality.  All of us are works in progress.  There may be moments or areas in our lives, where we stubbornly hold on and refuse to give up.   But brothers and sisters, the gospel of grace calls you to submission and surrender to God. 

Now that may sound strange.  On the one hand, we confess that conversion is the work of the Spirit in us.  But on the other hand, there is a call to conversion, both initially and as part of our sanctification as an ongoing thing in our lives.  The fact is that the Scriptures teach us both.  We’re told that the Lord opened Lydia’s heart, but we’re also told that she responded to the message.  And so the same is true for us.  We hear the call to conversion and we respond.  And as we respond, it is the work of the Spirit of Jesus Christ in us.  And that in no way eliminates our responsibility to respond.  So, let me again say it clearly:  all of us need to be converted.  All of us need to be able to read article 11 and say, “Yes, this is my story.  This is what God has done in my life.”  And having said that and realized that, the Lord leads us onward to produce fruit.

The last sentence of article 11 reads, “He moves and strengthens it [the will] so that, like a good tree, it may be able to produce the fruit of good works.”  Notice that good works have nothing to do with the root of conversion.  Conversion is all about what the Holy Spirit works in us.  Good works are also the work of the Holy Spirit in us, but they are the fruit of what he did earlier, the fruit of conversion.  

This is the biblical way of looking at things too.  Take any epistle of Paul and you’ll see the same basic pattern.  Look in John 3 and there too you’ll find that the fruit of conversion is in good works.  In verses 20 and 21, we read there about those who do evil and hate the light.  They won’t come into the light because they’re afraid their evil deeds will be exposed.  Those people are compared with those who live by the truth, those who have been born of the Spirit.  They come into the light and their deeds too are exposed.  They have nothing to fear, because the fruit they produce is good and comes from God. 

This brings us to the question of how we can know whether or not we’re converted.  This is an important question we all need to think about.  The answer is simple:  you can be sure you have been converted when you believe that Jesus Christ has turned away God’s wrath from you so that you are in fellowship with him.  You can be sure you have been converted when you have the new way of thinking about your sins, your God, and yourself.  You can know yourself to have been converted when your life is producing good works, the fruit of conversion.

Brothers and sisters, following the teaching of Scripture, our confession includes God’s gracious work of conversion in our lives.  Our confession implies a call to see God’s work of grace in our hearts and praise him for it.  Our confession calls us to be good trees, producing abundant fruit so that it may be plainly seen that what has been done has been done through the sovereign God and him alone.  We’re no longer dead, but alive to and through God.  Praise him!  AMEN.

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

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