The essence of conversion in Christianity, according to St. Paul

Conversion

“I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”

Galatians 2:20

What does it mean to truly change one’s heart and mind in the pursuit of faith?

In Christianity, conversion stands at the core of spiritual life, vividly captured through the New Testament’s portrayal by St. Paul.

His dramatic transformation on the road to Damascus sets the stage for our exploration.

Without embellishing the tale, we delve straight into the essence of this profound change, using St. Paul’s own dramatic shift as our guide.

Let’s uncover the fundamental role of conversion in fostering a deeper, more authentic relationship with God.

What is conversion in Christian theology?

Before we discuss Paul’s story, let me first overview what conversion means in Christian theology.

Conversion, at its heart, is a radical reorientation of one’s life towards God.

It’s not just a one-time event but an ongoing process of turning away from sin and embracing a life guided by the principles of faith.

In Christian terms, it involves acknowledging one’s sins, seeking forgiveness, and committing to live according to God’s will.

This transformative process is underscored by the belief in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, marking the beginning of a renewed relationship with God.

Through conversion, individuals are invited to experience a profound change in their attitudes, values, and behaviors, aligning their lives more closely with the teachings of Christ and the path He has laid out for them.

Biblical foundations of conversion

Conversion in Christian theology means turning your life around to follow God.

It’s like when Jesus said, “The kingdom of God is close. Change your hearts and believe in the good news.”

Imagine someone who makes a big mistake but then completely changes for the better. That’s what happened to Peter, for example.

He denied knowing Jesus three times and felt really bad about it. But later, he followed Jesus’s instruction to take care of His followers.

Saul is another example.

He went from hurting Christians to becoming one of their biggest champions, known as Paul.

Then there’s Mary Magdalene, who had a tough past but ended up being the first to see Jesus after He came back to life.

Each of these stories show that conversion is about making a big change to follow God’s way.

St. Paul’s road to Damascus

St. Paul’s dramatic conversion on the road to Damascus is a cornerstone of Christian theology.

Initially known as Saul, he was on his way to persecute Christians when a blinding light from heaven and Jesus’s voice halted him, asking, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”

Following this revelation, Saul was left blind and dependent on the kindness of those he had set out to persecute.

It was Ananias, a disciple in Damascus, who, following a vision from the Lord, healed Saul’s blindness and baptized him, marking the beginning of his new life as Paul.

He immediately began to preach in the synagogues, proclaiming Jesus as the Son of God, showcasing a complete reversal from his previous life (Acts 9:20).

Paul himself reflects on this transformation in his letters, noting in Galatians 1:15-16:

“But when God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles…”

As a result of his experience in Damascus, Paul’s mission became to spread Christianity among Gentiles, kings, and Israelites, showing that anyone can turn from darkness to light through faith.

Paul’s insights on conversion

1) Repentance

Repentance is essential in turning one’s life towards God, deeply rooted in regret for past sins.

This concept, encapsulated by the Greek term “metanoia,” signifies a profound shift in thinking and living, aiming for a new direction aligned with God’s will.

St. Paul emphasizes this transformation as a journey from sorrow to salvation, highlighting in Romans 2:4 that God’s kindness invites us to change.

He distinguishes godly sorrow, which leads to life-changing repentance without regret, from worldly sorrow, which brings about despair.

For Paul, true repentance intertwines with faith in Christ, steering us toward obedience and a renewed life under God’s guidance.

This process of turning back to God showcases repentance’s power to renew one’s spiritual path.

2) Justification by faith

Justification by faith is a key concept in Paul’s theology, emphasizing how Christ’s sacrifice restores our relationship with God.

It’s about being made right with God through faith, a belief deeply anchored in trust and loyalty to Jesus.

Paul describes faith as “the assurance of things hoped for and the conviction of things not seen,” highlighting it as the foundation for our salvation (Hebrews 11:1).

“For I am not ashamed of the gospel: it is the power of God for salvation to every one who has faith,
to the Jew first, then to the Greek.
For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, ‘He who through faith is righteous shall live.'”

Romans 1:16-17

This justification is a gift of grace, underscoring that faith in Christ’s redemptive death is sufficient for salvation.

“This is good and pleasing to God our savior, who wills everyone to be saved and to come to knowledge of the truth.

For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all.

This was the testimony at the proper time.”

First Timothy 2:3-6

Paul emphasizes Jesus’s role as a mediator who sacrificed Himself for humanity, ensuring that all who have faith in Him are reconciled to God.

3) The obedience of faith

The obedience of faith, a central theme in Paul’s letters, particularly in Romans, encapsulates faith in Christ as the pathway to salvation.

This concept hinges on the understanding that obedience stems from truly listening to and following God’s word.

For Paul, faith prompts voluntary obedience, contrasting the disobedience that led humanity astray since Adam’s time.

He illustrates this through the narrative of salvation history — spanning from Adam’s disobedience, through the era of the Law, to Christ’s redemptive obedience.

In Romans 5:19, Paul states, “Just as through the disobedience of one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous.”

With these words, he underscores the transformative power of Christ’s obedience.

However, this obedience is not just about adherence to rules but involves a profound internal transformation, marked by baptism into Christ’s death and resurrection.

4) Union with Christ’s love

Romans 8 celebrates the triumph of God’s love through Christ, empowered by the Holy Spirit.

This love is the very reason for conversion — it seeks us out, rescues us from self-destruction, and welcomes us back. Paul captures our human struggles, showing how Christ frees us and infuses our lives with hope.

“For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set me free from the law of sin and death” (Romans 8:2).

Living according to the Spirit transforms our focus from flesh to spirit, bringing life and peace.

As children of God, we’re assured of His unending love, especially when lost or disheartened.

“If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Romans 8:31) reminds us of the invincible support we have in His love.

5) Renewal of the mind

Conversion is also about a radical shift in mindset, as urged in Romans 12.

Paul calls for a transformation through the renewal of our minds, challenging us to resist conforming to worldly sins and instead, embody the life of the Spirit.

“Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind” (Romans 12:2).

This transformation is an ongoing effort, reflecting the inward change that must manifest outwardly. It’s about aligning our thoughts and actions with the resurrection life of Christ, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

Through this process, we discard our old selves, embracing a new identity rooted in truth and righteousness.

So, here’s Paul’s main message: renewing our minds is key to living a life that truly reflects our faith in Christ.

6) Children of God in the new creation

Through Christ’s redemptive death, we enter a new creation (καινή κτίσις) as described in 2 Corinthians 5:17.

This signifies a rebirth into a life unified with Christ, destined for divine glory.

“Therefore, if any one is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come.
All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation.”

Second Corinthians 5:17-18

This transformation, brought about by God through Christ, introduces us to a life of reconciliation and new beginnings.

By embracing Christ, we adopt a new identity, living out the resurrection life and embodying the virtues of Christ Himself.

Galatians 2:20 encapsulates this change:

“I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.”

Being baptized into Christ not only marks our entry into this new creation but also clothes us with Christ, making us heirs of God’s promise.

This new existence surpasses previous distinctions, uniting us all as one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:26-29).

In this new creation, we live as God’s children, fully embracing the life and mission Christ has bestowed upon us.

7) Life in Christ and the spirit

Living in Christ, a theme Paul references over 160 times, encapsulates the essence of Christian life.

This concept, born from Paul’s encounter with the risen Christ, signifies a total conversion and surrender to the indwelling Trinity, guided by the Holy Spirit.

The Holy Spirit, described as God’s pledge to us, empowers our lives with grace, freedom, and love (agapē), marking us for a future inheritance with God.

Through this Spirit, bestowed upon us as a down payment of what’s to come, we experience the reality of salvation, redemption, and forgiveness of sins.

This divine deposit ensures our continual growth in faith and our ultimate union with God, fulfilling creation’s eager longing for redemption.

In this way, our lives in Christ, sustained by the Spirit, reflect a journey of transformation and hope.

What changes after conversion?

In conclusion, conversion brings about profound changes in our lives, guided by the teachings and experiences shared by St. Paul.

Now, let’s take a look at the key transformations:

  • Cease sinning: A commitment to turning away from the works of the flesh and living a life that aligns with God’s commandments.
  • Inheritance of the kingdom: Living in accordance with the Spirit to ensure our place in God’s kingdom.
  • Readiness for judgment: Living in a state of grace, prepared for the moment of judgment, with the hope of salvation.
  • Practice mercy: Showing patience and kindness towards others, embodying the spirit of mercy in our interactions.
  • Embrace sacraments: Engaging deeply with the sacraments of Reconciliation and the Eucharist for continuous renewal and redemption.
  • Live by the spirit: Adopting the fruit of the Spirit—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control—as the foundation of our daily lives.

Simply put, conversion is a lifetime experience.

We must have faith in Christ, hope that we accept the grace necessary to obtain salvation, and live a life of love (First Corinthians 13).

“The Spirit gives life” (Second Corinthians 3:6).

Therefore, may we all live the fruit of the Spirit, as described in Galatians 5:22-23: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness (generosity), faithfulness, gentleness, self-control,” on our own road of conversion to Jesus Christ.

Mikkel Andrews

Mikkel Andrews

I'm Mikkel Andrews a theology professor currently based in Philippines. I've been walking with Christ ever since I can remember. My life's work is about understanding His teachings and sharing that knowledge. You'll often find me involved in community outreach or curled up with a book on theology, always looking to deepen my faith. When I'm not volunteering or diving into the latest theological texts, I'm writing for Bible Scripture to make spirituality relatable.

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