The Lord's Day Morning
First Presbyterian Church
February 4, 2007
Psalm 51:1-19; John 3:1-8
“A Biblical Understanding of Conversion”
Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III
We've been working for a number of weeks through what we've called biblical priorities for a healthy church. We've been looking at some of the qualities which characterize a local gathering (a local body, a local congregation) of believers in our Lord Jesus Christ who are ruled in their life and ministry together by the directions of the word of God, and whose life and ministry is in fact fueled by the work of God's Holy Spirit. And, among other things, most recently we have been looking at a biblical understanding of the gospel as one mark of a healthy local fellowship of believers. One thing that every Christian church ought to have is an understanding of, an experience of, the gospel itself. And when we were looking at the gospel, we said that first and foremost the gospel is about God. It's about Christ. It's about what God has done, what Christ has done for us. But we also said that the gospel demands a response, and that that response is a response of faith and repentance. And so it's very logical that we follow up our two considerations of the gospel. We've spent a couple of weeks in our series on the gospel. It's appropriate that we would follow up that two-week consideration of the content of the gospel and what the gospel demands of us with a consideration of conversion, because one way we define conversion is our response of faith and repentance to God's gospel call and to His work of regeneration. And I've chosen two passages, one Old Testament and one New Testament, to remind us that this doctrine of conversion is not just a doctrine confined to the New Testament, it's a whole Bible doctrine. In fact, when New Testament authors are talking about the dramatic transformation which occurred because of the work of the Lord Jesus Christ in someone's heart, the New Testament will use Old Testament illustrations of this. And so I want to begin with David's great Psalm, which you've already sung. And by the way, if you remember back in the verses that you sang, the first verse and the fifth verse that you sang in that metrical version of Psalm 51 contain the outline of the sermon today. If you’re looking for it in the passage we're going to read in Psalm 51, you can look for it in verse 10 and in verse 1. The three-point outline to the message today as we consider what it means to be converted, as we consider the importance of conversion, and understanding an experience of that in a healthy local church to set us apart from the world, I want us to see three things today: the importance of a new heart; a new trust; and, a new desire. Or, to put it another way, there must be a regenerating work of God's Holy Spirit that changes our hearts, that gives us new hearts. There is a faith in Christ, a faith in God and His word of promise that we trust, and there is repentance. There is a new desire. We no longer love sin and run away from God; we love God and we do our very best to run away from sin. And so if you’ll look at verse 1 and verse 10 of Psalm 51, you’ll see that outline.
Now let me say before we even read the passage that theologians will use the word conversion in different ways. Sometimes when theologians use the word conversion they are referring to regeneration, or to the result of God's regenerating work in our hearts, so that He gives us new life and it leads to results in a transformation or conversion of our character.
Sometimes they mean repentance, because the word used very frequently in the New Testament for repent could very legitimately be translated be converted; and so, sometimes when they use the word conversion they’re talking about repentance.
Sometimes they’re talking about both faith and repentance as our response to God's work of new life in us by the Holy Spirit…and sometimes they’re talking about the whole thing! God's regenerating work and our response in faith and repentance, our expression of that regenerating work in faith and repentance.
Today we're going to be talking about the whole complex of that, focusing both on what God does and how we respond in faith and repentance. And we're going to be doing that in order to emphasize just how radical a change is involved in conversion, and just how radical a difference that makes in the lives of those who have been converted, and then how that impacts the way we feel about sharing the gospel message with others.
So let's look to God in prayer before we read His word.
Heavenly Father, open our eyes to behold wonderful things about Your work of the new birth, and the response of faith and repentance. Grant, O God, that we would not simply be hearers of the word, but by the power of Your Holy Spirit would respond in trust with an embrace that goes to the very depths of our being and expresses itself in the very extent of the actions of our lives. We ask these things in Jesus' name. Amen.
This is God's word:
“For the choir director. A Psalm of David, when Nathan the prophet came to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba.
“Be gracious to me, O God, according to Thy lovingkindness;
According to the greatness of Thy compassion blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.
For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.
Against Thee, Thee only, I have sinned,
And done what is evil in Thy sight,
So that Thou art justified when Thou dost speak,
And blameless when Thou dost judge.
“Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity,
And in sin my mother conceived me.
Behold, Thou dost desire truth in the innermost being,
And in the hidden part Thou wilt make me know wisdom.
Purify me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
Make me to hear joy and gladness,
Let the bones which Thou hast broken rejoice.
Hide Thy face from my sins,
And blot out all my iniquities.
“Create in me a clean heart, O God,
And renew a steadfast spirit within me.
Do not cast me away from Thy presence,
And do not take Thy Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of Thy salvation,
And sustain me with a willing spirit.
Then I will teach transgressors Thy ways,
And sinners will be converted to Thee.
“Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God, Thou God of my salvation;
Then my tongue will joyfully sing of Thy righteousness.
O Lord, open my lips,
That my mouth may declare Thy praise.
For Thou dost not delight in sacrifice, otherwise I would give it;
Thou art not pleased with burnt offering.
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;
A broken and a contrite heart, O God, Thou wilt not despise.
“By Thy favor do good to Zion;
Build the walls of Jerusalem.
Then Thou wilt delight in righteous sacrifices,
In burnt offering and whole burnt offering;
Then young bulls will be offered on Thine altar.”
Amen. Thus far the reading of God's holy word.
Then we come to John 3. I'd like you to glance across the whole of John 3:1-8 (but I'm only going to read John 3:3). And here, Jesus in a nutshell draws attention to this doctrine of the Spirit's change of the heart, when He says to Nicodemus, the Pharisee, the teacher of Israel:
“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
Amen. And thus ends this reading of God's holy, inspired, and inerrant word. May He write its eternal truth upon all our hearts.
A healthy local church, a healthy family of Christians, is characterized by an understanding and experience of the powerful converting work of the Holy Spirit. A healthy local church understands that God alone can change the human heart; that God alone can create deep change in deep places where no human being can get to; and, that when God changes the human heart, the human heart responds in trust in God, in repentance for sin; and, there is along with that repentance a transformation of life, so that those around can see that new work that God is doing in the heart of that man, that woman, that boy, that girl, who has been converted. And that makes the church different from the world, set apart from the world.
What makes the church different from the world? There are a lot of actually right answers to that question, but one of the things that makes the church different from the world is that in the church God has done a work of new birth in the hearts of all those who are true believers, so that they have a new trust and they have a new desire. And I want to think with you about those three things (that new heart; that new trust; and, that new desire) today.
I. The Holy Spirit must work first in our hearts.
First of all, notice in Psalm 51 that David emphasizes that he wants God to work in the innermost parts of his being. In fact, in verse 10 he says: “Create in me a clean heart, O God.” He doesn't say ‘Lord, help me to create a clean heart in myself.’ He doesn't say ‘Lord, give me the five steps that I need to take in order to create a clean heart.’ He doesn't say ‘Give me the two things that I need to do before I can change my own heart.’ He says ‘Lord, You create in me a clean heart.’
And notice that Jesus says the same thing to Nicodemus: ‘Nicodemus, let me explain something, friend! You can't even see the kingdom of God, much less understand it and respond to it rightly and be a part of it and teach it. You can't even see the kingdom of God unless you are born again.’ In other words, both David and Jesus are emphasizing that the deep change that has to take place in the heart of every man, woman, boy and girl in this world, because we are under the bonds of sin, in the darkness of iniquity. The change that has to take place in our hearts is not something that any human being has the power to create. I don't have the power to create it in you; you don't have the power to create it in you.
By the way, isn't that a tremendous difference from the kind of stuff that is peddled in both secular and in religious spirituality today, that gives you the steps that you need to take in order to make that dramatic inward change? No, only God can do it. That's what David's saying. ‘Lord, You've got to create a clean heart in me.’ Jesus is saying to Nicodemus ‘Unless the Spirit causes you to be born of God, born from above, born again…unless the Spirit gives you the new birth, you cannot see the kingdom of God.’ And this is so important for us to understand because the change that we are calling people to, the gospel call that we are issuing to everyone out there, is not a call that we can effect by anything that we do. We must be faithful to speak the truth to our friends; we must be faithful to proclaim the gospel and call men and women and boys and girls to faith and repentance in Jesus Christ, but we cannot create the heart conditions in them for them to respond to that gospel call. That is the work of the Holy Spirit. And it's so important for us to understand that, because in understanding it, it will not only remind us of the greatness of God's grace to us…the difference between us and the world is not that we are smarter than they: “We got it, they don't”… but that God has done a work in our hearts to show us our sin, to show us our need. He's opened our eyes. He's drawn us to Himself.
And by the way, this is not just some sort of teaching that Calvinists try and sneak in on people. Let me ask you to take your hymnals out and turn with me to one of our favorite hymns, And Can It Be?…455. Listen to how Charles Wesley, an Arminian Methodist… Well, actually the Wesley's thought they were Arminians. They really weren't. They were confused Calvinists. But they thought they were Arminians. Listen to how Charles Wesley…look at the fourth stanza:
“Long my imprisoned spirit lay,
Fast bound in sin and nature's night;
Thine eye diffused a quickening ray;
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light.
My chains fell off,
My heart was free.
I rose, went forth,
And followed Thee.”
Do you notice the order? It's the work of God's sending that quickening ray that wakes him from the dead. The picture is of his heart in a dungeon with no hope, no life, and God sends His quickening ray and wakes him up from the slumber of death, and calls him to Himself and gives him new life–and then he gets up and follows God. A-men! Charles Wesley couldn't have put it better! That's precisely what Jesus is talking about; it's precisely what David is talking about. The work of regeneration, which begins that whole complex of conversion, is God's work. We cannot do it. That is why it is so important to make clear that no matter how faithful we are in sharing the gospel, that that sharing of the gospel cannot produce the results that we desire it to produce. Only God the Spirit can do that. And that keeps us humble and dependent on God, because God alone can change the human heart.
Yes, we must be faithful. This does not in any way undermine our responsibility to share the gospel, because God in His word says that “faith comes by hearing,” so it's our job to share the word of truth with others. And how often has God used the word of truth as the very thing that His Spirit would use to waken someone from death?
Sometimes it's not a very flattering word that He uses to waken us from death. William Perkins, who later became one of the premier preachers and theologians in all of England, was a drunkard. And one day he was walking down the street in Cambridge, England, and he heard a mother saying to her son through the window of a house…he heard a mother saying to her son, “Now, don't you keep acting that way, son, or you’re going to end up like that drunkard Perkins!” And the Lord did a work in that man's heart! He was convicted, and he was converted, and he became one of the great Christians of his time. His work still blesses to this day. And the Lord used that word, but it was the Spirit that changed his heart. I wonder how many times someone had confronted him about his drunkenness before. But it was that time that he was struck, that time that he was convicted.
This regeneration doesn't happen the same way for everyone. This conversion experience is not the same thing for everyone. For Paul, it was an instantaneous thing, wasn't it? He was on the way to Damascus to kill Christians, and Jesus meets him; and he is suddenly and instantaneously dramatically transformed and converted into a follower of the Lord Jesus Christ. But on the other hand, in Acts 10, the very next chapter, we come to this godly Gentile man who is clearly under the influence of God's Holy Spirit. He's clearly convicted for his sins. He's crying out to God for salvation, and he says ‘O Lord, save me!’ And the Lord says ‘Well, here's actually what I want you to do, Cornelius. Send somebody to this other city to ask for a guy named Peter.’ God does not come and instantaneously convert Cornelius. And meanwhile, God is saying to Peter (now, in a vision), ‘Peter, you can go speak to this Gentile about Jesus.’
‘Are you sure, Lord?’
‘Yes. You can go speak to this Gentile about Jesus.’
And then He takes an angel to get Peter to Cornelius, and then Peter shares the word of the gospel, and then and only then is Cornelius converted.
Why did God do it that way? I don't know! But He did. Cornelius was converted, but it was totally different from Paul's conversion.
When was I converted? I'm not exactly sure. I know I fell under conviction probably by the age of five, through the testimony of my mother, my father, my pastor, my grandparents, their pastor. Over the course of time, I came to a faith and trust in Jesus Christ. When did it happen along the way? I have no idea…no idea; but God was doing a work in my heart.
Derek was in college. He had never been in a Christian church, except maybe to be hustled into a corner of an Anglican church to be christened when he was a child. And he was drawn to Christ, he was converted, he was transformed by the gospel being put into his hands through a friend, and through books.
God changes us and transforms us in dramatically different ways, but it always starts with the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit.
II. We must respond to the work of the Holy Spirit.
And then we respond in faith and in repentance. Do you notice how David does this at the very beginning of Psalm 51? “Be gracious to me, O God….” According to what? According to David being a nice guy? He has just murdered, committed adultery; he had taken another man's wife even after he had entered into a relationship of sexual immorality with her; he had lied. In fact, one commentator walks you through that story and shows you how David had broken every single one of the Ten Commandments in the course of this incident. So David wasn't saying ‘Lord, be gracious to me because I'm basically a good person. Lord, be gracious to me because I've made a mistake here or there.’ Notice what it is: ‘Be gracious to me because of Your lovingkindness, because of Your compassion.’ Where is David's trust? His trust is in God, in who He is, and what He alone can do for David. His trust is not in anything else. That, my friends, is faith. And it's always a part of the glorious conversion that God brings to those that He is drawing to Himself.
That faith, you understand, is not simply a decision. It's not mental assent to three minutes of information that have been shared with you. It's a dramatic life-changing shift of trust, to trust from whatever it is that we've been trusting in–whether we've been looking for fulfillment and satisfaction in life in our own accomplishments, in wealth, in power, in friendship, in marriage…whatever, wherever our trust, our hope has been…shifting from that to God, to God alone: to His word, to His promise, to His grace. And trusting in that alone is very different from a decision. A decision you can make. But, you know, decisions by themselves–mere decisions–don't transform a heart. You can make a decision and it can not be a life-transforming decision.
A couple of years ago, I came home one afternoon and Anne was a little agitated, and she said, “Look, I'm really sorry. I spent $75 that we don't have today, but you need to understand. A guy came to the door selling steaks. And he had a knife in his hand, and he was really agitated and frazzled, and he said, “Look, my freezer has gone out in my truck, and the steaks are going to warm up and they’re going to go bad. Can you please buy some steaks?” She said, “When a guy comes to your door and he's big and frazzled, and he's got a knife in his hand and he asks you to buy a steak, what are you going to do? I bought a steak! I bought several of them, in fact! And then I threw them away immediately because he said that his freezer had gone bad. I mean, what kind of e coli bacteria were in those things by now?” She made a decision, but she didn't trust him, she didn't trust the steaks, and it made no difference in her life…except we were out $75.
You can make a decision, and it can mean absolutely nothing. And it's important for us to remember, friends: You can come and you can answer the five questions of membership of First Presbyterian Church, and you can still be lost as a goat.
No, in conversion God does change in our heart, and we don't just mouth some words or pray a prayer that somebody has told us, or fill out a card. No, we shift the totality of the trust of our lives to God and to His promises in the gospel. That's what happens in conversion.
III. We must then repent of, and turn from, our sins.
Then, my friends, with it there is repentance. Do you notice that most of Psalm 51 is about repentance? And even more embarrassingly, have you noticed what the first words of Psalm 51 are? I want to remind you that when you’re reading through your Scriptures, those words in small print above the Psalms, that's part of the text of Scripture. (Not the part in italics that sort of describe the content of the Psalm; that's what an editor put there to sort of help you understand the topic of that particular Psalm.) But the small print that starts in this Psalm: “For the choir director…”–do you realize what that says? It says that the most wicked thing that David ever did, God called David and all the choirs and all the people of Israel to sing at worship every week forever. Can you imagine your most wicked moments being memorialized in a hymn? And sung at First Presbyterian Church several times a year for the rest of your life? That's what God directed in David's great Psalm of confession. The choir director set it to music, and the whole congregation sings that confession. I can't imagine any way more dramatic of pressing home the importance of repentance. Did David repent specifically and sincerely, and repeatedly in this Psalm, of the depths of his sins? And then God says ‘David and everybody in Israel, sing that to Me when you gather for worship.’ Because you see, in conversion our desire is for change, so that our desire is no longer to indulge ourselves in sin but to indulge ourselves in God. In repentance we turn from sin and we turn to God.
And so in conversion there is a new heart, and there is a new trust, and there is a new desire, and that expresses itself in a new life, doesn't it? A changed life. David even talks about that, doesn't he?
“Restore to me the joy of Thy salvation, then I will teach transgressors Thy way.”
And what? “Sinners will be converted to Thee.” Lord, when my heart is made right, through my transformed life with lips of joy, I will bear testimony to sinners.
And, my friend, that's why conversion is so important for a healthy local church, because without it we're no different from the world. There is not the new heart; there is not the new trust; there is not the new desire; there is not the new life. Without it, we're the same as the world. But with it, the words that we speak to the unbelieving world around us come with power, because there is no argument against the transformed life. There is no argument against a changed heart.
It comes differently to everybody, but to every Christian, every true Christian, there is conversion. And to every local church that is healthy, that is biblical, that is characterized by a congregation full of believers who not only profess faith in Christ but who have been converted by the Holy Spirit and truly trust in Him alone for salvation as He is offered in the gospel, and have turned from sin to God, and bear the marks of that new life. Does it mean that there is no sin in our lives any more, that there is no struggle with sin, no deep struggle with sin? No. But we know what John Newton said:
“I am not the man I ought to be, and I am not the man that I want to be; and I am not the man what I one day will be; but, by God's grace, I am not what I used to be.”
Every Christian…every professing believer who knows God, who trusts in Christ, is a converted believer. And it makes all the difference.
Heavenly Father, grant that when we sing of the marvelous grace of our loving Lord, we would sing with belief as those who have been transformed by grace. This we ask in Jesus' name. Amen.
[Congregation sings: Marvelous Grace of Jesus]
Grace, mercy, and peace to you, from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.