Authentic Christian Conversion
“For he is not a real Jew who is one outwardly, nor is true circumcision something external and physical. He is a Jew who is one inwardly, and real circumcision is a matter of the heart, spiritual and not literal. His praise is not from men but from God.” Romans 2:28-29
In my last blog post we looked at the importance of hope in the Christian’s life and how our hope is directly related to the focus of our hearts and minds. We saw how having our hearts and minds set on spiritual things rather than fleshly or worldly things will give us the power to produce spiritual fruit in our lives, rather than having our fruit “choked out” by the cares or worries of this world and the deceitfulness of riches.
In this blog post I want to look closer at this inner change that constitutes a Christian conversion. This change involves our faith, hope and love, qualities that are critical for our Christian maturity. I would like to look deeper at what is involved with this inner transformation. My desire is that we all are correctly aligned with these truths and participating properly so that we can reach full spiritual maturity and produce much spiritual fruit (100 fold).
In the above quoted scripture from the letter of Paul to the Romans, note that when Paul says “a real Jew” he is talking about a real child of God. The context of the discussion in letter to the Romans was that Paul was dealing with the problem of Jews who were considering themselves true members of God’s family based on them being a biological descendant of Abraham and their physical circumcision. In other letters from Paul, we see that he had to deal with Jews who were telling the Gentile (or non Jewish) Christians that they needed to be physically circumcised in order to be a true child of God, an idea that Paul vehemently opposed. In other words, Paul’s statement about what makes a “real Jew” in this quote from Romans is directed to all believers who wished to be a part of God’s kingdom and family, not just to the Jews of the time. The term “Christian” most likely had not become a commonly used word at the time of Paul’s writing of Romans, and Paul didn’t use the term much in any of his writings, so we should attempt to understand the meaning of the phrase “real Jew” from Paul’s viewpoint. A “real Christian” is in fact a “real Jew” in that both are descendants of Abraham, but a Christian is a spiritual descendant rather than physical one, who has the inner circumcision of their heart rather than the external physical circumcision. My point is that this scripture also applies to Christians. It could also be stated as “he is a real Christian who is one inwardly…..”
Therefore we should not be looking to outward qualities for determining the validity of Christians, but rather to inward qualities. Yet we seem to look outwardly when we ask, “What church do you go to?” and then maybe say, “Oh, that’s a good church, they must be a good Christian.” Or we hear them speak thus, “Praise the Lord, Brother….” and conclude that they are Christian. It seems as if anyone, especially a celebrity or politician, who claims to be born again or a Christian is immediately embraced by the Christian community without looking for the proof of inward conversion.
Today’s Christian’s also seem to focus on the time of the recital of the “sinner’s prayer” as the point of conversion, similar to the act of physical circumcision that the Jews were looking to as the entry point into the family of God. We seem to need something tangible to support our conversion, but in reality it is the inward, intangible change that is the true representation of our conversion. If anything, we should be looking to the act of baptism as a tangible representation of our internal change. I’ll explain more about baptism later.
My goal here is to look closer at the inward change that is mentioned in Romans 2:29. Let’s review what we have learned so far from this verse. A person is a real Christian as the result of a change that occurred inwardly, not outwardly, and so it is this internal change that we must look deeper at to understand an authentic Christian conversion. What is this inward change? We see from this verse that the change is represented by real circumcision, which is also internal. The verse says that it is a matter of the heart, spiritual and not literal (or physical). Therefore, we need to look closer at circumcision to understand this internal change.
The Lord introduced circumcision to Abraham. Paul explains the significance of Abraham’s circumcision in Roman’s chapter 4:
“He (Abraham) received circumcision as a sign or seal of the righteousness which he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. The purpose was to make him the father of all who believe without being circumcised and who thus have righteousness reckoned to them, and likewise the father of the circumcised who are not merely circumcised but also follow the example of the faith which our father Abraham had before he was circumcised.” Romans 4: 11-12
In the above verse, Paul establishes that the underlying real inner change that circumcision represents is the faith of Abraham by which he was reckoned (or accounted) as righteous. It is critical that we understand the faith of Abraham, for this is the internal change that is the core representation of our conversion as Christians.
Paul confirms in subsequent verses, also inspired by the Holy Spirit, that those who share this same faith as Abraham will be guaranteed the promises of God.
“The promise to Abraham and his descendants, that they should inherit the world, did not come through the law but through the righteousness of faith.” Romans 4:13
“That is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants – not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham, for he is the father of us all, as it is written, ‘I have made you the father of many nations’ – in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.“ Romans 4: 16-17
In the next few verses we see more of the characteristics of Abraham’s faith (emphasis added by me):
“In hope he believed against hope, that he should become the father of many nations; as he had been told, ‘So shall your descendants be.’ He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was as good as dead because he was about a hundred years old, or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb. No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. That is why his faith was ‘reckoned to him as righteousness.’ “ Romans 4:18-22
In my words, here’s a simplified version of what happened:
- God made a promise to Abraham.
- Abraham believed the promise, even though it looked impossible to his natural mind; he believed it based on the character of God and power of God.
- Abraham did not waiver but remained steady and got even stronger, convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. He steadfastly and patiently endured in his faith.
- God accepted Abraham as righteous based on this faith.
The last few verses in Romans 4 make it clear that we are expected to have this same faith:
“But the words, ‘it was reckoned to him,’ were written not for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be reckoned to us who believe in Him that raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, who was put to death for our trespasses and raised for our justification.” Romans 4: 23-25
And here is the simple version for us:
- God has made a much greater promise to us than He made to Abraham, that is, eternal life based on the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. He guaranteed us a resurrected, immortal body, and a place in His Kingdom as His children with an inheritance
- We must believe and accept this promise by faith in God’s power and divine character.
- We must remain steadfast in our conviction that God will fulfill His promise to us, patiently enduring until He comes for us
- We will be accepted by God as righteous based on this faith.
Abraham’s faith is further defined in the book of Hebrews chapter 11. I would like to look at a few verses that I feel are important to this discussion:
“By faith he (Abraham) sojourned (or lived as a temporary resident) in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise. For he looked forward to the city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God.” Heb. 11: 9-10
We see from these verses that the focus of Abraham’s faith was on God’s promise of eternal life in heaven. The Lord had made it clear to Abraham that the ultimate, eternal “promised land” was heaven and therefore Abraham lived like a temporary resident on earth. This he accomplished by his faith.
Placing our faith in God’s promise of heaven requires that we shift our hope from the promises of this world to the promise of heaven. Abraham no longer had his hopes set on the things of this world. He had left his relatives in the land of Ur, relinquishing any inheritance or benefit that he had from there. He also lived as a temporary resident in the new land that he journeyed to, awaiting heaven as his final destination.
The writer of Hebrews mentions Abraham’s hope earlier in chapter 6:
“And we desire each one of you to show the same earnestness in realizing the full assurance of hope until the end, so that you may not be sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises. For when God made a promise to Abraham, since He had no one greater by whom to swear, He swore by Himself, saying, ‘Surely I will bless you and multiply you.’ And thus Abraham, having patiently endured, obtained the promise.” Heb. 6:11-15
And a few verses later we hear more of this same hope in the promises of God:
“….we who have fled for refuge might have strong encouragement to seize the hope set before us. We have this as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters into the inner shrine behind the curtain….” Heb. 6:18-19
The circumcision of our heart suggests that we cut away the “fleshy” or worldly part of our hearts, just like the physical cutting away of flesh.
“Circumcise yourselves to the Lord, remove the foreskin of your hearts….” Jeremiah 4:4
We can see from the example of Abraham’s faith that this involves shifting our hearts away from the promises and hopes that this world offers to focusing on the promises of God, specifically, His promise of eternal life in Christ. This results, again like Abraham, in our becoming pilgrim or temporary residents here on earth with our hearts set on the promise of eternal life in heaven.
Consider this verse from the book of Colossians concerning circumcision:
“In Him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of flesh in the circumcision of Christ; and you were buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead.” Col. 2:11-12
The Amplified Bible makes a strong connection in this verse between circumcision and baptism based on the tense of the verb used (see the footnote for verse 12). It translates verse 12 as follows:
“[Thus you were circumcised when] you were buried with Him in [your] baptism, in which you were also raised with Him [to new life] through [your] faith in the working of God [as displayed] when He raised Him up from the dead.” Col. 2: 12 Amplified Bible
In other words, in the same way that the physical removal of the foreskin represents the internal change that occurs within the true child of God as a result of exercising faith in the promise of God, as Abraham did, baptism too is an external representation of the internal change that results from a Christian exercising their faith in the promise of God as presented in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. More specifically, the immersion of baptism represents burial with Christ where we share in His death to this world and consider ourselves having died to this world. The coming up out of the water represents our new position of being raised with Christ, citizens of heaven, and waiting for His return with our hope set on heaven, and our hearts treasuring the same. This internal mindset of considering ourselves raised with Christ and awaiting His return when we will be literally transformed into immortal beings is what the scriptures refer to as being “in Christ”.
True Christians have died with Christ internally, meaning that we no longer live for the things that this world has to offer them, but we consider ourselves dead to this world. We no longer treasure the things of this world, but instead treasure the spiritual things of heaven. We recognize that this world is cursed and that mankind apart from God is under God’s judgment and awaiting His punishment at the end of the age. We as Christians have embraced and accepted God’s forgiveness through Jesus Christ that includes His promise of eternal life with a resurrected body, accompanying Him in heaven as a citizen of His kingdom. We have placed our hope totally in God’s promises. This is what is required according to the scriptures for a deep, authentic Christian conversion.
“Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His Death? We were buried therefore with Him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with Him in a death like His, we shall certainly be united with Him in a resurrection like His.” Romans 6:3-5
I want to draw your attention to some examples of new conversions that were recorded in the book of Acts. I find it interesting that baptism is included in these examples, which I believe supports my tenets presented above regarding the importance of new converts understanding the need for the inward transformation that is outwardly represented by baptism.
The first is a record of Philip the evangelist when he traveled to Samaria preaching Christ to the multitudes there:
“But when they believed Philip as he preached the things concerning the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, both men and women were baptized. Then Simon (a local sorcerer) himself also believed; and when he was baptized he continued with Philip, and was amazed, seeing the miracles and signs which were done.”Acts 8: 12-13
Then there was Philip’s encounter with the Ethiopian Eunuch:
“Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning at this Scripture (a verse in Isaiah that the eunuch was reading but didn’t understand), preached Jesus to him. Now as they went down the road, they came to some water, and the eunuch said, ‘See, here is water. What hinders me from being baptized?’ Then Philip said, ‘If you believe with all your heart, you may.’ And he and said, ‘I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.’ So he commanded the chariot to stand still. And both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water and he baptized him.” Acts 8:35-38
Another example is Paul and Silas with the Philippian jailer:
“And he (the jailer) brought them out and said, ‘Sirs, what must I do to be saved?’ So they said, ‘Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved, you and your household.’ Then they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. And he took them the same hour of the night and washed their stripes. And immediately he and all his family were baptized.” Acts 16:30-33
We can logically conclude that the preaching of the Gospel to these new converts included the information that would lead to them being baptized. We know that the physical act of baptism is not a ritualistic practice and the outward act of Baptism has no real spiritual value. On the contrary, Philip, Paul and Silas knew that the spiritual value was from the internal change in thinking and focus that the external action of baptism represented.
Baptism does have value in that it is a public declaration by the believer of the internal step of faith that has occurred. It is a physical, tangible, point in time that the believer can look back to as a statement of being dead to this world and living now in Christ. All new converts should be encouraged to be baptized, but the act should not be taken lightly. A full explanation of its meaning should be made clear to the person being baptized.
New Christians need to have this inner change/conversion. It is the start of their walk of faith, and their walk in the spirit. Modern, western Christian churches need to place new converts on this path in order for them to reach full spiritual maturity. I am praying that more and more Christians become aware of this need so that more and more new believers can experience this deep inner conversion.