Conversion, I (in the Bible)
CONVERSION, I (IN THE BIBLE)
In the OT and the NT God calls human beings into relationship among themselves and with God. Both testaments show an awareness of the sinful condition of humanity, so much in contrast to the holiness of the God of Israel. The result of a sinful rejection of God's design from the beginning of history (Gn 2:4b–3:24), human beings are born sinners (Ps 51:7). Sin has entered and dominated men and women (Rom 5:12). From that time on, sin has dwelt within the intimate recesses of all human beings (Rom 7:20). Thus, the response to the divine call to enter into communion among themselves and with God demands a "turning away," or a "turning back" from the situation of sin.
The Hebrew verb sûb with its noun t ešûbâ, the Greek verbs στρέφω and ἐπιστρέφω with their associated noun ἐπιστροφή, have an original sense of a physical turning back, or returning. They are found across both the OT and the NT. A similar, but more internal, idea is found in the verb μετανοέω and the noun μετάνοια. These expressions contain the notion of a transformation of the inner self. The verbs and nouns contain a recognition that one is following the wrong path, and is called to turn back, or turn away from that path, in order to return to the original divine plan for communion between human beings (Gn 1:1–2:4a; 2:4b–25) and with God (Gn 1:26–31).
In the Old Testament. Across the development of the OT traditions there is a growth and a deepening of the recognition of sinfulness and the need to turn toward God. Even in ancient times, once there was a sense of a nation in a covenantal relationship with God, individual and collective sinfulness is seen as demanding a recognition of a breakdown in the relationship with God (Jos 7; 1 Sm 5–6). The community establishes punishments for those who offend, including the penalty of death (Ex 32:25–28; Nm 25:7–15; Jos 7:24–26). Divine pardon was also sought by less dramatic signs of conversion: fasting (Jgs 20:26; 1 Kgs 21:8–9), tearing of one's robes and dressing in sackcloth (1 Kgs 20:31–34; 2 Kgs 6:30; 19:1–7; Is 22:12). There is evidence in the Psalter of crying out formulas of lamentation over collective or personal guilt (Ps 60; 74; 79; 83; Lam 5). There are also collective confessions of guilt (Jgs 10:10; 1 Sm 7:6), and recourse to the intercession of a prophet (Ex 32:30–34). Such practices, which had their beginnings in the earlier epoch of Israelite history, are found throughout the OT (see, for example, Jer 14:1–15:4).
The dramatic experience of the exile, read as punishment for sin, is a turning point in Israel's recognition of the need to "turn back" to God's design. But it had its precedents in the period of David, where prophetic elements in the nation called the sinful king back to the Lord (2 Sm 12:13–23). This is not reserved only to David, as other kings are called to a similar process of conversion (e.g., Is 7:1–25). The pre-Exilic prophets berate Israel's sinfulness: "Ah, sinful nation, a people laden with iniquity, offspring of evildoers, sons who deal corruptly! They have forsaken the Lord, they have despised the Holy One of Israel, they are utterly estranged" (Is 1:4). The preaching of Amos (Amos 5:4, 6, 14, 15), Hosea (Hos 14:2–9), and 1 Isaiah (Is 1:11–15, 16–18; 6:10; 30:15) call for a recognition of sin and a return to the original covenant with God. Isaiah looks forward to the day when a remnant will return to the mighty God (Is 10:21).
Within the context of the final destruction of Judah and Jerusalem, and the subsequent exile, Jeremiah develops more fully the concept of conversion. His unflinching criticism of the sinfulness of the nation and its leaders is that: "It may be that the house of Judah will hear all the evil which I intend to do to them, so that everyone may turn from his evil way, and that I may forgive their iniquity and their sin" (Jer 36:3). It can be claimed that the theme of "turning back" is the leitmotiv of the book of Jeremiah. Rebellious Israel must recognize its sin if it wishes to avert God's anger and punishment (2:23; 3:11–12), but it is not enough for the people and its leaders to shed tears or parade their sins in false penitence and external rituals (3:21–25). They are to reverse every aspect of their behavior, they are to circumcise their hearts (4:1–4). Jeremiah is pessimistic about the possibility of such conversion. Israel prefers to follow the direction of its wicked heart (2:23–25; 18:11–12) as it sinks deeper into wickedness (8:4–7). The call to conversion, however, must be preached (Jer 20:7–10), and the prophet dreams of the day when a vanquished people will pray for its conversion: "You have chastened me, and I was chastened, like an untrained calf; bring me back that I may be restored, for you are the Lord my God" (31:18. See v. 19). The Lord will not be deaf to this prayer. Israel's "turning back" will lead to the establishment of a new covenant, the Lord's law, written on their hearts (31:33). "I will bring them back to this land… I willgive them a heart to know that I am the Lord; and they shall be my people and Ishall be their God, for they shall return to me with their whole heart" (24:6–7).
The postexilic period deepens the sense of sin and the call to conversion among the Prophets. Ezekiel points to the rebellious nature of the people, and to the reward or punishment they will receive according to their turning to the Lord (Ez 2:4–8; 3:16–21; 18:31–32; 22:1–31; 33:10–20). He also looks forward to the gift of God, a new heart and a new spirit so that they might adhere to the law of God and turn away from their evil ways (11:19–20; 36:26–31). Parallel themes emerge in Second and Third Isaiah's message of consolation and hope (Is 40:1–2; 51:1–3, 7–8). The days of suffering are over and the Lord has blown away the sins of Israel as if they were clouds (40:2; 44:22). A similar message is found in the postexilic work that produced our present Book of Deuteronomy and the so-called Deuteronomistic History. Israel is summoned to an unconditional adherence to the Law. "You shall keep his statutes and his commandments, which I command you this day, that it may go well with you, and with your children after you, and that you may prolong your days in the land which the Lord your God gives for ever" (Dt 4:40). The major books telling the history of Israel, collected and edited by the same school at about the same time (Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, 1 Samuel, 2 Samuel, 1 Kings, 2 Kings), render this theology into narrative. Israel's "history" shows that God has dealt with Israel according to its performance: an original blessing and a call to covenant, the increasing sinfulness of the nation, punishment, followed by suffering and a cry for mercy. This leads to gradual conversion, until the cycle starts again with a further blessing and the restoration of the covenant.
In the same postexilic period a tendency toward the universalization of God's promise emerges. All the nations are called to conversion. If they leave their idols and turn toward the one true God, they will be blessed (Is 45:14–15, 23–24). The pagans will turn to Israel (Is 56:3,6), and an eschatological vision emerges of the assembly of all the nations turning toward the God of Israel (Ps 22, 28; Jonah). From its original sense of the need to perform ritual acts Israel journeyed long to express its need for conversion and thus purify itself from sin. Behind this journey lies a unique sense of the holiness of God and the sinfulness of human beings. The OT is, in many ways, a continual summons to conversion.
In the New Testament. Much that is central to the OT understanding of conversion flows naturally into the teaching of the NT. The faith of the early Church, however, that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of God (Mk 1:1, 11; Mt 27:54; Lk 1:35; 3:23–38; Rom 1:3–4 Jn 20:31, etc.) radically changes the situation of the sinner before the holiness of God. Fundamental to the teaching of Jesus of Nazareth was his conviction that in his presence, in his word and deed, the Kingdom of God was breaking into the human story (Mk 1:15; Mt 4:17). Yet, only Jesus lives the Kingdom. Everyone else is made aware, by what Jesus says and does, that the Kingdom is "at hand." In order to gain entry to the Kingdom, the believer must repent, turn away from all sinful ways, and enter (Mk 1:15). Luke's Gospel summarizes one of the crucial elements of Jesus' mission: "to call sinners to repentance" (Lk 5:32).
Jesus' teaching attempted to lay bare the subtle but deep reign of human self-sufficiency (Mk 10:21–25: riches; Lk 18:9: pride). He attacks a wicked generation (Lk 11:29–32), rendered public (from the perspective of the Evangelists) by the inability of the Israel of Jesus' and their time to see and accept God's gift of the Kingdom in Jesus (Mt 13:15). Conversion is crucial (Lk 13:1–5) or they will perish like the sterile fig-tree (Lk 13:6–9; Mt 21:18–22). Examples of conversion abound in the Gospels. Simon becomes Peter, a disciple of Jesus, when he falls to his knees and confesses his sinfulness (Lk 5:1–11), the Syrophoenician woman is contrasted with the arrogance of Israel (Mk 7:1–23), as she considers she is of no more worth than the dogs under the table, accepting the crumbs that might fall (Mk 7:24–30). A father cries out, "I believe; help my unbelief" (Mk 9:24), and a centurion confesses, "Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; but only say the word and my servant will be healed." As in the OT, the coming of the Kingdom in Jesus calls for the recognition of the holiness of God. God's reigning presence is to be found in Jesus' word and person. Thus, the Christian believer is called to a change of heart, a turning back from sinful ways so as to enter the Kingdom of God found in Jesus' word and person.
The Lukan writings are particularly concerned with the theme of conversion. Jesus is the Good Shepherd, in search of the one lost sheep (Lk 15:3–7), a theme eloquently developed in the immediately following parable of the father with two lost sons, only one of whom has come home (15:11–32). Jesus rejoices in the return of the sinful woman (7:36–50) and Zaccheus (19:5–9). On the cross, Jesus hears the cry of the repentant thief, and welcomes him into the Kingdom (23:39–43). As the Gospel of Luke closes, the risen Jesus instructs the disciples that they are witnesses of these things, and "that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be preached in his name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem" (24:47). Obedient to this command, the story of the disciples, and then of Paul throughout that Acts of the Apostles, calls for conversion (μετάνοια) so that sin might be forgiven (Acts 2:38; 3:19; 5:31; 28:30–31). The new Christians must turn toward (ῃπιστρέφειν) God through faith in Jesus Christ (see Acts 3:19; 9:35).
For Paul, the glory of God's original design has been lost by sin, sin having entered our story in the ongoing story of Adam (Rom 5:12). All, Pagans and Jews, find themselves in a situation of a hopeless "lostness" in sin (Rom 1:18–32 [Pagans]; 2:1–3:20 [Jews]). But that situation has been transformed. Jesus' unconditional obedience to God (Phil 2:5–11) has drawn back God's eschatological restoration of the original glory, due to take place at the end of time, into our history. Now it is possible to be inserted into the Jesus story, where the free gift of God surpasses the judgment following Adam's sin. Where sin abounds, there is also a superabundance of grace (Rom 5:12–21). The Christian is called to "put on" Christ (Col 3:10–11), to enter into a new life "in Christ"(e.g., Gal 3:27–28; Rom 10:12–13; 1 Cor 12:12–13). By entering into the new eschatological people, made possible because of the free act of God and Jesus' response (Rom 3:21–26), the believer becomes part of a "new creation" (Gal 6:15; 2 Cor 5:17). The believer, however, must turn away from idols, "to serve a living and true God, and wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come" (1 Thes 1:9–10). Later, in a more theologically developed restatement of the same call to conversion, Paul instructs the Romans, "How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life" (Rom 6:2–4). God's eschatological people exists through a process of conversion.
As with the OT, the NT can be read as a long summons to conversion, so that all might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and believing have life in his name (Jn 20:31).
Bibliography: b. r. gaventa, "Conversion," in The Anchor Bible Dictionary, v. 1 (6 v.; New York 1992) 1131–33; From Darkness to Light: Aspects of Conversion in the New Testament (Philadelphia 1986). w. l. holladay, The Root šûbh in the Old Testament (Leiden 1958). s. kim, The Origin of Paul's Gospel (Grand Rapids 1982); "Repentance/Conversion," in Dictionary of Biblical Theology, ed. x. lÉon-dufour et al., tr. p. j. cahill (2d ed.; London 1988) 486–491. s. l. mckenzie, "Deuteronomistic History," in The Anchor Bible Dictionary, v. 2 (6 v.; New York 1992) 160–168. h. merklein, "μετάνοια, μετανοέω, " in Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament, v. 2, ed. h. balz and g. schneider (3 v.; Grand Rapids 1991) 415–419. k. stendhal, "Call Rather Than Conversion," in Paul among Jews and Gentiles (Philadelphia 1976) 7–13.
[f. j. moloney]