By Billy Graham
Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven. --Matthew 18:3
WE NOW recognize that there is a natural principle which pulls us down to the animal plane -- blinding reason, searing conscience, paralyzing will. It is the pull of spiritual gravity. We stand condemned by our own deeds.
God is a holy and righteous God. He cannot tolerate sin. Sin separates from God. It brings the wrath of God upon the human soul. Man has lost his moral, intellectual, and spiritual sense of God because he has lost God. He will not find God until he finds the way back to God.
The way back to God is not an intellectual way. It is not a moral way. You cannot think your way back to God because human thought-life will not coordinate with divine thought-life, for the carnal mind is at enmity with God. You cannot worship your way back to God because man is a spiritual rebel from God's presence. You cannot moralize your way back to God because character is flawed with sin.
The Way Back to God
The natural questions come to you -- What shall I do? Where shall I start? Where do I begin? What is my road back to God? There is only one way back to God. Jesus said, "Unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 18:3). It is significant that Jesus did not tell the little children to become as His disciples, but His disciples to become as little children. By childlike faith, everyone has a chance, from feeble-minded to intellectuals. Thus Jesus demanded a conversion. This is how to begin! This is where it starts! You must be converted!
There are many people who confuse conversion with the keeping of the law. The law of Moses is set forth in specific terms in the Bible and the purpose of the law is made very clear. It was not offered as a panacea for the world's ills. Rather, it was given as a diagnosis of the world's ills; the law outlines the reason for our trouble, not the cure. The Bible says, "Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God (Romans 3:19). The law has given a revelation of man's unrighteousness, and the Bible says, "No one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law" (Romans 3:20a). It is impossible to be converted by the keeping of the law. The Bible says, "Through the law we become conscious of sin" (Romans 3:20b). The law is a moral mirror, the gauge by which man can see how far he has fallen. It condemns but does not convert. It challenges but does not change. It points the finger but does not offer mercy. There is no life in the law. There is only death, for the pronouncement of the law was, "Thou shalt die." It is the "straight stick" beside which the crookedness of human nature is obvious.
There are many people who say that their religion is the Sermon on the Mount, but the man or woman is yet to be born who has ever lived up to the Sermon on the Mount. The Bible says that all have sinned and come short of His glory.
Examine your own motives before you decide that you are above reproach and living a life that absolves you from all need of conversion. Look into your own heart fearlessly and honestly before you say religious conversion is all right for some but you certainly don't stand to benefit from it.
The Universal Question
When I was preaching in Hollywood, a group of movie people asked me to talk to them about religious experiences. After my address we had a discussion period and the very first question asked was, "What is conversion?"
Some time later it was my privilege to address a group of political leaders in Washington. When the discussion period started, the first question again was, "What is conversion?"
In almost every university and college group where I have led discussions, this same question is invariably asked, "What do you mean by born again?" In my book, How to Be Born Again (Word, 1976), I described the process this way:
This new birth happens in all kinds of ways. It may seem to happen over a period of time or in a moment. The paths which people take to reach that point of decision may be very direct or very circuitous. Whatever the path, we always find Christ at the end to welcome us. And that encounter with Christ, that new birth, is the beginning of a whole new path in life under His control. Lives can be remarkably changed, marriages excitingly improved, societies influenced for good -- all by the simple, sweeping surge of individuals knowing what it is to be born again.
In today's economy we hear about "born again" cars, businesses, and fashions -- but that is not what I'm talking about here. Probably the simplest way to state what it means to be "born again" is to refer to it as being born into God's family.
Probably there are more different answers to this query than to almost any other pertaining to religion. What is conversion? What is involved in it? How is it accomplished? What are its effects? Why must you be converted in order to get to heaven?
The idea of conversion is certainly not unusual in our society. Any good salesman knows that he must convert the prospect to his particular product or way of thinking. The chief business of advertising is to convert the buying public from one brand to another. We speak of political leaders being converted from their original political philosophy and adopting a different one. During World War II, we heard a great deal about peacetime industries converting to war production, and most of the oil furnaces in private homes were converted to coal, and more recently converting from coal to natural gas. We also talk about converting our money into foreign currency.
Actually the word conversion means "to turn around," "to change one's mind," "to turn back," or "to return." In the realm of religion it has been variously explained as "to repent," "to be regenerated," "to receive grace," "to experience religion," "to gain assurance."
I remember one confirmed alcoholic who came to one of the opening meetings of a crusade and said to me, "Mr. Graham, I'm not sure there's a word of truth in what you're saying, but I'm going to give your Christ a trial, and if He works even a little bit the way you say He will, I'll come back and sign up for life!"
Weeks later he told me that he didn't quite understand it, but every time he started to take a drink it seemed as though something or someone stopped him. Christ had given him victory over his vicious habit. He returned to his family, and is now living his life for Christ. In other words, he turned around, he changed his direction, he changed his way of thinking -- he had been converted!
The Nature of Conversion
Conversion can take many different forms. The way it is accomplished depends largely upon the individual -- his temperament, his emotional balance, his environment, and his previous conditioning and way of life. Conversion may follow a great crisis in a person's life; or it could come after all former values have been swept away, when great disappointment has been experienced, when one has lost one's sense of power through material possessions, or lost the object of one's affections. A man or woman who has been focusing all attention on financial gains, business or social prestige, or centering all affection on some one person experiences a devastating sense of loss when denied the thing that has given life its meaning.
In these tragic moments, as the individual stands stripped of all his worldly power, when the loved one is gone beyond recall, he recognizes how terribly and completely alone he really is. In that moment, the Holy Spirit may cause the spiritual bandages to fall from his eyes and he sees clearly for the first time. He recognizes that God is the only source of real power, and the only enduring fountainhead of love and companionship.
Or again, conversion may take place at the very height of personal power or prosperity -- when all things are going well and bountiful mercies of God have been bestowed generously upon you. The very goodness of God can drive you to a recognition that you owe all to God; thus, the very goodness of God leads you to repentance (Romans 2:4).
Conversion at such a moment can be as sudden and dramatic as the conversion of Paul on the road to Damascus.
Not all conversions come as a sudden, brilliant flash of soul illumination that we call a crisis conversion. There are many others that are accomplished only after a long and difficult conflict with inner motives of the person. With others, conversion comes at the climactic moment of a long period of gradual conviction of their need and revelation of the plan of salvation. This prolonged process results in conscious acceptance of Christ as personal Savior and in the yielding of life to Him.
In his spiritual autobiography, C.S. Lewis describes his conversion experience:
You must picture me alone in that room in Magdalen, night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me. In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England. I do not then see what is now the most shining and obvious thing; the Divine humility which will accept a convert even on such terms. The Prodigal Son at least walked home on his own feet. But who can duly adore that Love which will open the high gates to a prodigal who is brought in kicking, struggling, resentful, and darting his eyes in every direction for a chance of escape? The words compelle intrare, "compel them to come in," have been so abused by wicked men that we shudder at them; but, properly understood, they plumb the depth of the Divine mercy. The hardness of God is kinder than the softness of men, and His compulsion is our liberation. 1
We may say, therefore, that conversion can be an instantaneous event, a crisis in which the person receives a clear revelation of the love of God; or it can be a gradual unfolding accompanied by a climactic moment at the time the line is crossed between darkness and light, between death and life everlasting.
It does not always happen in exactly this way. My wife, for example, cannot remember the exact day or hour when she became a Christian, but she is certain that there was such a moment in her life, a moment when she actually crossed the line. Many young people who have grown up in Christian homes and had the benefit of Christian training are unaware of the time when they committed their lives to Christ. Someone has said we may not know the exact moment when the sun rises -- but we most certainly know once it has risen. Others remember very clearly when they made their public confession of faith. The reports of conversions in the New Testament indicate that most of them were the dramatic, crisis type.
Psychology Looks at Conversion
For many years, psychology left conversion and religious experience alone. In the last fifty years, however, psychologists have studied the whole process of conversion. They have pointed out that conversion is not only a Christian experience but is also found in other religions, and that it is not necessarily a religious phenomenon but also occurs in nonreligious spheres. Students of psychology have agreed that there are three steps in conversion: First, a sense of perplexity and uneasiness, second, a climax and turning point; and, third, a relaxation marked by rest and joy.
In an article entitled "Why It's Good to Feel So Bad," The New York Times (29 November 1983) pointed out, "Guilt, the sense of anguish that we have fallen short of our own standards, is the guardian of our goodness. It is necessary to the development of conscience in children and to the avoidance of antisocial behavior." The article goes on to explain, "In early childhood, good behavior is enforced mainly through parental introduction of guilty fear, the fear of punishment for violating a code of behavior. But as the child grows up, an 'ego ideal' -- a form of father figure -- becomes internalized as a model of correct behavior . . . and by adulthood, people seek to punish themselves when they betray that model. Dr. Gaylin sees the lack of appropriate role models or father figures as one cause of the growing rash of guiltless antisocial behavior among young people today." It is this feeling of guilt that creates the hunger for something better -- to be found only in a right relationship to Christ.
Psychologists say that there are two kinds of conversion. One is accompanied by a violent sense of sin, and the other by a feeling of incompleteness, a struggle after a larger life and a desire for spiritual illumination.
The value of psychological studies of conversion has been underestimated. We cannot brush them aside and ignore them. Psychologists shed a great deal of light, but most of them are unwilling to accept the biblical conversion as a supernatural experience.
Actually, biblical conversion involves three steps -- two of them active and one passive. In active conversion, repentance and faith are involved. Repentance is conversion viewed from its starting point, the turning from the former life. Faith indicates the objective point of conversion, the turning of God. The third, which is passive, we may call the new birth, or regeneration, commonly called being "born again," which literally means being born into God's family.
Now in order to get to heaven, Jesus said that you must be converted. I didn't say it -- Jesus said it! This is not man's opinion -- this is God's opinion! Jesus said, "I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 18:3).
True conversion will involve the mind, the affection, and the will. There have been thousands of people who have been intellectually converted to Christ. They believe the entire Bible. They believe all about Jesus, but they have never been really converted to Him. The Bible tells us "even the demons believe and tremble" (James 2:19).
The Difference Between Intellectual Belief and Conversion
In John there is a description of the hundreds of people who were following Jesus early in His ministry. The Bible says that "many believed in his name when they saw the miracles which he did. But Jesus did not commit himself unto them" (John 2:23-24) because He knew the hearts of all men. Why would Jesus not commit Himself to them? He knew that they believed with their heads and not with their hearts.
There is a vast difference between intellectual belief and the total conversion that saves the soul. To be sure, there must be a change in our thinking and intellectual acceptance of Christ.
There are thousands of people who have had some form of emotional experience that they refer to as conversion but who have never been truly converted to Christ. Christ demands a change in the way you live -- and if your life does not conform to your experience, then you have every reason to doubt your experience! Certainly there will be a change in the elements that make up emotion when you come to Christ -- hate and love will be involved, because you will begin to hate sin and love righteousness. Your affections will undergo a revolutionary change. Your devotion to Him will know no bounds. Your love for Him cannot be described.
But even if you have an intellectual acceptance of Christ, and an emotional experience -- that still is not enough. There must be the conversion of the will! There must be that determination to obey and follow Christ. Your will must be bent to the will of God. Self must be nailed to the cross. Many of us can identify with the young woman who wrote us regarding this: "But I don't hang easy." None of us do, yet. Our main desire must be to please Him. It is a total commitment.
In conversion as you stand at the foot of the cross, the Holy Spirit makes you realize that you are a sinner. He directs your faith to the Christ who died in your place. You must open your heart and let Him come in. At that precise moment the Holy Spirit makes you realize that you are a sinner. He directs your faith to the Christ who died in your place. You must open your heart and let Him come in. At that precise moment the Holy Spirit performs the miracle of the new birth. You actually become a new moral creature. There comes the implantation of the divine nature. You become a partaker of God's own life. Jesus Christ, through the Spirit of God, takes up residence in your heart.
Conversion is so simple that the smallest child can be converted, but it is also so profound that theologians throughout history have pondered the depth of its meaning. God has made the way of salvation so plain that "the wayfaring men, though fools, shall not err therein" (Isaiah 35:8). No person will ever be barred from the kingdom of God because he did not have the capacity to understand. The rich and the poor, the sophisticated and the simple -- all can be converted.
To sum it up, conversion simply means "to change." When you are converted, you may continue to love objects which you loved before, but there will be a change of reasons for loving them. A converted person may forsake former objects of affection. You may even withdraw from your previous companions, not because you dislike them, for many of them will be decent and amiable, but because you have a greater desire to spend time with Christians who you now find to be like-minded.
The converted person will love the good he once hated, and hate the sin he once loved. There will even be a change of heart about God. Where he once may have been careless about God, living in constant fear, dread, and antagonism to God, he now finds himself in a state of complete reverence, confidence, obedience, and devotion. There will be a reverential fear of God, a constant gratitude to God, a dependence upon God, and a new loyalty to Him. Before conversion there may have been gratification of the flesh. Cultural and intellectual pursuits or the making of money may have been of first and supreme importance. Now, righteousness and holiness of heart, and living the Christian life will be placed above all other concerns, for pleasing Christ will be the only goal of real importance. In other words, conversion means a complete change in the life of an individual.
A Case of Conversion
I remember so vividly a young New York career girl who came out to Los Angeles to be married. She and her fiance had met when they were both working in a high-powered New York advertising agency, and their courtship had been conducted against the background of cocktail parties and night clubs. Filled with ambition and "on his way up," he had himself transferred to the California office, with the understanding that the girl would follow him in six months and they would be married.
About a week after she had arrived in Los Angeles, expecting to take up a joyous new life, she discovered that the man had fallen in love with a movie starlet and lacked the courage to write her about it before she left New York!
Here she was, alone in a city where she knew no one -- all her plans in ruins, her pride crushed, and the future stretching ahead, bleak and empty. Her family had not been religious, and in this hour of extreme need she knew of nowhere to turn for comfort, advice, or guidance.
As she walked along the unfamiliar streets, trying to overcome her shock and humiliation, she came upon the "canvas cathedral" in which we were conducting our crusade in 1949. She said she was never sure what made her come inside, but she did, and sat glumly through the entire service. The next night she came again, and every night for the whole week, until through the cloud of bitterness and misery that surrounded her, God made His voice heard, and she came forward to confess her need of salvation.
With the burden of guilt and rejection lifted from her through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, she came to see that the love she had lost was but a stepping stone to a far greater and much richer love. The sense of humiliation that prevented her from returning to her former New York job vanished, and rather than life being finished, she found upon her return that it was fuller than ever. Only instead of wasting her brains and organizational ability on an endless round of cocktail parties, she became extremely active walking with God and serving others.
The imagination she formerly devoted to entertaining the "office crowd" now goes into making Bible stories come alive for the young people. Her training as a fund-raiser is now being put to good use in the service of the Lord, and her minister says her ideas have been invaluable in increasing regular church attendance. Far from being rejected and unwanted, she is sought after constantly by her fellow church members. But, most important of all, her sense of loneliness has vanished, for she knows now that Jesus Christ is ever by her side, ready to comfort, to guide, and to protect her.
All this had come as a result of her conversion -- her turning away from the bleak, empty, worldly road she was traveling so unhappily -- to her Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ! She had found peace with God.