Conversion: The Experience of Salvation

John MacArthur | November 15, 2018

Many elements of the doctrine of salvation are non-experiential—you don’t feel them when they occur. For example, you don’t experience justification because it’s a transaction which happens on the divine level. You don’t experience regeneration, redemption, the imputation of righteousness, or adoption. There’s nothing that happens to you that tells you when these things occur. But there is one reality in salvation we do experience, and that is conversion.

Conversion used to be a word I heard regularly. Growing up in the home of an evangelist, I often listened to my dad talk about people being converted. But we have lost touch with this word that focuses on the experiential part of salvation, the transformation.

2 Corinthians 5:17 says, “Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature.” This kind of language refers to the transformation or the conversion of a person. All has changed. The old values, old ideas, old ambitions, old perspectives, old affections, and old beliefs are all replaced by new ones.

The greatest failure of modern Christianity is its inability to distinguish a true believer from a false oneConversion is the effect of God’s work on man. It is a critical element of salvation. If someone is genuinely saved, he or she turns and goes a completely different direction. 1 Thessalonians 1:9 speaks about the conversion of members of that church: “For they themselves report about us what kind of a reception we had with you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve a living and true God.” Paul is essentially saying in this commendation, “It’s obvious you were elect. Look at what happened.” The Thessalonians were rescued out of one set of beliefs and behaviors and placed into a new set of beliefs and behaviors.

I think the greatest failure of modern Christianity is its inability to distinguish a true believer from a false one. We talk so much about the non-experiential aspects of salvation and fail to talk about the experiential reality of the theology of salvation, which is conversion. The true church is the society of the converted.

Let’s look at a few results of the conversion of true believers:

Converted from error to truth

To be saved is to come to the knowledge of the truth (1 Tim 2:4). Romans 6:17 says, “But thanks be to God that though you were slaves of sin, you became obedient from the heart to that form of teaching to which you were committed.” Being saved demands believing the truth. You have to believe sound doctrine. That’s why the Apostle Paul encourages Titus to speak the things concerning sound doctrine (Tit 2:1).

A woman recently wrote me a letter and said she thought Christianity was fine, but she was really into Zen. She liked to listen to Christian radio because it soothed her karma. She said she listened to a lot of preachers on the radio but decided to write me a letter to tell me I was far too narrow-minded and she wanted to encourage me to be more broadminded. Here are some quotes from her letter: “God doesn’t care what you believe as long as you’re sincere,” and, “All religions lead ultimately to the same reality. It doesn’t matter which road you take.”

That’s a reflection of where our culture is today, isn’t it? This popular, pervasive lie reminds us of Proverbs 14:12: “There is a way which seems right to a man but its end is the way of death.” The road is broad that leads to destruction, and many go down that road (Matt 7:13). The modern American political climate rails on this kind of dogmatism. Nonetheless, this is what Scripture teaches. Salvation is a conversion at the level of what people believe. And that conversion demands they know the truth and that the truth takes the place of the error they previously believed. The true Christian who has experienced the working of the Holy Spirit in regeneration will have a new perspective on truth.

Converted from sin to virtue

Where there is true conversion, there is a deliverance from sin to virtue. You’re not looking for a prayer, a decision, a profession, or a claim. You’re looking for fruit. You’re looking for a manifest righteousness.

And having been freed from sin, you became slaves of righteousness. I am speaking in human terms because of the weakness of your flesh. For just as you presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness, resulting in further lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness, resulting in sanctification.

For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. Therefore, what benefit were you then deriving from the things of which you are now ashamed? For the outcome of those things is death. But now having been freed from sin and enslaved to God, you derive your benefit, resulting in sanctification, and the outcome, eternal life.

—Romans 6:18–22

Simply put: you used to be a slave of sin, now you’re a slave of righteousness. When our Lord was born, the angel announced that His name would be Jesus because “He will save His people from their sins” (Matt 1:21). Not the wrath of God, but their sins. Every time we say the name Jesus, we should remember that salvation saved us from the penalty of our sins—and someday, the presence of sin entirely. In living the Christian life, we are also free from the power of sin.

Godliness is the effect of conversion. If holiness and virtue do not appear, there is no new creation. Living in righteousness is the manifest evidence of conversion.

Converted from the dying world to the eternal kingdom

Colossians 1:13 says, “For He rescued us from the domain of darkness, and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son.” Conversion means that all of a sudden, you live in a completely different realm. That’s why John says, “Do not love the world nor the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life is not from the Father but is from the world. The world is passing away, and also its lusts; but the one who does the will of God lives forever. ” (1 Jn 2:15–17). What you believe has changed, how you behave has changed, and how you view the realm in which you live has changed.

Converted from the fear of wrath to the promise of blessing

God hates sin and must, because of his perfect holiness, punish it. He has sentenced everyone to physical death, spiritual death, and eternal death to suffer for their own sins under His justice law. But God Himself has rescued us from His own wrath. Romans 5:9–10 says, “Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from the wrath of God through Him. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life.” The point is this: if His death can save us, His life can keep us.

I pray that God will secure these things to our hearts and make us faithful to proclaim them in their fullness. May we call for true conversion and remind people that the evidence of their salvation is found in the experience of that conversion.


John MacArthur avatar
John MacArthur is the president and professor of pastoral ministry at The Master's University and Seminary. He is also the pastor-teacher of Grace Community Church, author, conference speaker, and featured teacher with Grace to You.

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