In recent years we have been hearing a teaching that goes something like this: the new birth can happen in an instant, but conversion is the work of a lifetime. This bizarre statement has left me puzzled about how one can reconcile it with the Scriptures.
In Acts 15:3, we are told that as Paul and Barnabas made their way to Jerusalem “they passed through Phenice and Samaria, declaring the conversion of the Gentiles: and they caused great joy unto all the brethren.” They were recounting to fellow believers along the way how that many Gentiles had come to the faith. This was something that had already happened, there was no need to wait years after they were born again to see if they would also be converted.
In Luke 22:32 Jesus speaks to Peter, saying “But I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not: and when thou art converted, strengthen thy brethren.” If conversion is the work of a lifetime, when exactly was it that Peter was supposed to strengthen the brethren? As we follow the story of Peter, we see how he began doing this immediately after receiving the baptism of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost.
Is it safe to gather from this that the new birth and conversion are completed and sealed by the baptism of the Holy Spirit? I believe it is. Words like new birth, regeneration and conversion all speak of a break with one’s former life, a change of direction and the beginning of a new life. When this happens we become children of God and He gives us the Holy Spirit as a seal.
Galatians 4:6 “And because ye are sons, God hath sent forth the Spirit of his Son into your hearts, crying, Abba, Father.”
Ephesians 1:13-14 “In whom ye also trusted, after that ye heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation: in whom also after that ye believed, ye were sealed with that holy Spirit of promise, which is the earnest of our inheritance until the redemption of the purchased possession, unto the praise of his glory.”
Romans 8:9 “But ye are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit, if so be that the Spirit of God dwell in you. Now if any man have not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of his.”
These verses make it clear that the Holy Spirit is given to all who are truly born again, converted, regenerated. The Holy Spirit is not just a passive passenger in our lives, He wants to direct our lives in the ways of God. “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance: against such there is no law. And they that are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with the affections and lusts. If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit.” (Galatians 5:22-25).
Where then does this idea of conversion taking a lifetime come from? It is a proposition of Calvinism. Believing in unconditional election and irresistible grace leaves them with masses of people who have been born again, but show no evidence of it. Therefore, they must grant such believers a lifetime for some evidence of the new birth and conversion to manifest itself in their lives. This may be an intellectually satisfying proposition, but it gives a false comfort to those who are struggling to maintain a semblance of Christian life without the grace given by the Holy Spirit.
Genuine evidence of the fruit of the Spirit should trump any intellectual proposition that lacks a Biblical foundation. True repentance leads to the new birth, conversion, regeneration, adoption or whatever word might be found to describe a transformed life. The evidence will follow; sooner, rather than later.