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I have surely heard Ephraim bemoaning himself thus; Thou hast chastised me, and I was chastised, as a bullock unaccustomed to the yoke: turn thou me, and I shall be turned; for thou art the Lord my God. Surely after that I was turned, I repented; and after that I was instructed, I smote upon my thigh: I was ashamed, yea, even confounded, because I did bear the reproach of my youth. Jeremiah 31:18-19


A turning

In the ordo salutis, the logical sequence in which the Holy Spirit applies the benefits of salvation decreed by God in election and purchased by Christ on the cross, the third step is conversion. Conversion is God’s work of turning us from sin to Him. Logically, conversion follows regeneration and calling. When the Spirit begins to apply salvation, the sinner is dead in trespasses and sins; therefore, his first need is life, which God gives in regeneration. That life must come to conscious expression; therefore, the regenerated, now living sinner is called by God with His powerful voice out of darkness into light. In calling us, God addresses us in the depth of our souls: “Come to me.” Then, we who are spiritually alive and conscious must be moved to spiritual activity, that is, God turns us from sin to obedience.

Conversion, like each of the steps in the ordo salutis, is God’s work: we are the ones who are turned, while God is the One who turns us; or to express it differently, we do not turn ourselves. The prophet describes that beautifully in Jeremiah 31:18-19 where Ephraim, or the ten tribes of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, is groaning. “I have surely heard Ephraim bemoaning himself” (v. 18), says the prophet. Why is Ephraim bemoaning himself? “I was chastised,” he says, “as a bullock unaccustomed to the yoke” (v. 18). Ephraim views himself as an untamed beast needing discipline to teach him proper behavior; therefore, exile is chastisement designed to correct him. Such a heavy rod of discipline is necessary because of Ephraim’s stubbornness or obstinacy, for just as a stubborn bullock cannot turn, so a foolish sinner cannot convert himself. A great work is necessary to turn Ephraim from sin, which is why he prays: “Turn thou me, and I shall be turned” (v. 18) and “After that I was turned, I repented” (v. 19). That is Ephraim’s confession: he did not turn or convert himself, but God turned or converted him.

A spiritual turning

Conversion is a spiritual turning. That must be so, first, because it is a work of the Holy Spirit, who alone has access to the deep recesses of the heart. Only the divine Spirit can work inwardly, so that we are turned from sin to God. Only the omnipotent Spirit can renew our wills, so that we desire to please God. Only the irresistible Spirit can change our hearts, so that we begin to live unto God. Second, conversion is an inward work of the Holy Spirit. In conversion God does not merely turn us away from some bad habits so that we “turn over a new leaf.” In conversion God does not merely cause us to adopt new practices. Conversion is the turning of our heart: “Turn thou me, and I shall be turned.” “Turn me in the center of my being, whence are the issues of my life. Turn my mind, my will, my affections. Turn me so that what I once loved (sin) I now hate. Turn me so that what I once hated (God, Christ, righteousness, and holiness) I now love.”

That is conversion.

An activating turning

It is at this point in our salvation that we become active. Our activity is not our part in salvation or our contribution to salvation, but it is the fruit of God’s saving work in us. Before this, we were not active: in regeneration we were passive; in calling we were passive, but in conversion we became active. That is because we are not mindless automatons, unthinking puppets or “senseless stocks and blocks” (Canons III/IV.16). God turns us so that we turn, so that we turn willingly and consciously. God wills that in our salvation we experience that turning, not that we are forcibly turned against our will. God, we read in Canons III/IV.16, “[does not] take away [our] will, neither does violence thereto.”

Our turning consists in our repentance, which is both the gift of God and our activity. The relationship is this: we repent because God gives us the gift of repentance. That is clearly the teaching of Scripture and the creeds. “Him hath God exalted with his right hand to be a Prince and a Saviour, for to give repentance to Israel and the forgiveness of sins” (Acts 5:31). “Then hath God also to the Gentiles granted repentance unto life” (Acts 11:18). “In meekness instructing those that oppose themselves if God peradventure will give them repentance to the acknowledging of the truth” (II Tim. 2:25). Canons III/IV.12 expresses the relation between God’s grace and our activity in these words: “Man is himself rightly said to believe and repent by virtue of that grace received.” Repentance, although our activity, is not an activity of ours on which salvation depends, for God gives it to us. At the same time, it ought to be obvious that repentance, although a work of God in us, is not His activity or act. God works in us so that we repent; God does not repent in us, through us, or instead of us.

We read of this repentance in Jeremiah 31: “Turn thou me, and I shall be turned” is Ephraim’s prayer in verse 18, followed by Ephraim’s confession in verse 19. “Surely, after that I was turned [God’s work of conversion], I repented” [our activity]. And after I was instructed [God’s work of correction], I smote upon my thigh [the expression of Ephraim’s sorrow], I was ashamed [another expression of Ephraim’s sorrow], yea confounded [another expression of Ephraim’s sorrow], because I did bear the reproach of my youth.” We see how beautifully Jeremiah describes God’s work of conversion and its fruit in the life of the penitent sinner: God turned me, I was turned, I repented.

The Heidelberg Catechism describes this turning from sin in Lord’s Day 33, where it explains the mortification of the old man and the quickening of the new man. I do not have space to explain those two terms, the old man and the new man, but a few words about turning from sin are necessary at this point. Turning from sin is in the words of the Catechism “a sincere sorrow of heart that we have provoked God by our sins.” It is also “more and more to hate…them;” and it is “more and more to…flee from them” (A. 89). Sorrow, hatred, flight: that is turning from sin. God causes us to sorrow over our sins, to hate them, and to flee from them: that is conversion.

For example, we tell a lie in violation of the ninth commandment. When God works in us by His grace, several things happen. First, we are genuinely sorry that we uttered deceit. Our sorrow is not because we were exposed in telling a falsehood, or because of the embarrassing consequences that we must bear because of our dishonesty, but because we have provoked God who forbids lying. Second, from the heart we hate that lie that we have uttered because we now see our lie as it truly is: the proper work of the devil. Third, we turn from our lie, we confess it and apologize for it, we do what we can to correct the falsehood, and we endeavour to be truthful in the future. Sorrow, hatred, flight.

Paul writes of the Thessalonians that “[they] turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God” (I Thess. 1:9). That reminds us that conversion is not merely negative, a turning from sin, but also positive, a turning to God. The Heidelberg Catechism describes that positive turning: “it is a sincere joy of heart through Christ” (A. 90). Unless we know God’s salvation of us as something in which we rejoice, we will not walk in new obedience out of thankfulness to our Savior. It is also “with love and delight to live according to the will of God in all good works” (A. 90).

The fruit of conversion is good works, good works that we do by the power of God’s grace. Sadly, the idea of good works makes some Reformed Christians nervous; so ingrained into them is the beautiful truth that salvation is not by works (Eph. 2:8-9) that they prefer never to speak of good works lest they inadvertently speak too highly of them. Neither the Bible nor the creeds encourage such nervousness. The Catechism does not say, “We cannot do good works.” The Catechism does not assert, “All we can do is sin.” The Catechism does not teach, “The believer is still totally depraved” (yes, our flesh is totally depraved, but we, who are more than the flesh, are not). The Catechism proclaims unapologetically, “With love and delight [believers] live according to the will of God in all good works” (A. 90). Elsewhere, the Catechism asserts, “With a sincere resolution [believers] begin to live not only according to some, but all the commandments of God” (A. 114).

If one objects, “I cannot do good works,” either he is lying or confused or he is not converted. A regenerated, called, converted person can do, and does do, good works. If you have been converted, you are changed or transformed and you are a new creature. Now walk in that newness of life (Rom. 6:4; II Cor. 5:17).

A gradual and incomplete turning

Conversion is not a once-off, once-for-all, finished work of God, but it is a gradual work of God’s grace. Initial conversion is followed by lifelong conversion. We have been converted, and we are being converted, and we shall be converted in the future. Therefore, we must have realistic expectations for the Christian life. If you are converted, expect to turn daily from sin to God, but do not expect perfect, instantaneous, complete conversion. Expect to struggle with sin, and do not expect that struggle to end in this life, but also do not expect that struggle to be hopeless. Paul writes, “Sin shall not have dominion over you: for ye are not under the law, but under grace” (Rom. 6:14).

Apply such realistic expectations to others also. Do not expect perfection from your fellow saints. Do not expect perfection from your spouse. Your spouse will commit sin against you; your spouse will annoy you or even hurt you. Do not expect perfection from your children. They will commit sin; foolishness is bound up in their hearts; they, like you, are holy only in principle. Do not expect perfection from other church members, for they will sin against you. Practice longsuffering, kindness, and love: “Put on therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, bowels of mercies, kindness, humbleness of mind, meekness, longsuffering, forbearing one another, and forgiving one another: if any man have a quarrel against any, even as Christ forgave you, so also do ye” (Col. 3:12-13).

Your fellow saints are imperfectly converted, they are not fully renewed, not perfectly turned, and God has much work yet to do in them, as well as in you. Let that knowledge of your conversion and theirs determine how you relate to others, as you trust in God’s grace to renew you after the image of His Son.