In evangelism, we have a very specific bull’s-eye to our aim: we want to persuade people to become followers of Jesus. We want them to convert. But Paul says we persuade others to follow Jesus (2 Cor. 5:11). I find the word persuade helpful, as it guards us from error: we persuade, but we do not manipulate; we persuade, but we are not the ones who bring about repentance or conversion. Of course, we long to see people converted because we understand that conversion is required for them to become Christians. But true conversion is the work of the Holy Spirit.
Conversion is the point of Christian faith that is most often misunderstood. It’s also a word that’s not particularly in favor with the modern world. No surprise. It was confusing when Jesus taught it to a religious leader of his day (John 3), and it is confusing to Christians and non-Christians today. So it’s good to spend some time explaining it.
In the Muslim context where I live, many people from other faith backgrounds find it disorienting to hear me preach that no one is born a Christian, that all Christians are converts. Even those from Christian backgrounds are confused about conversion, because many come from traditions that emphasize that a person is a Christian because of external reasons. But the Bible clearly teaches that conversion is not a function of your parents’ religion, of which church you join, or of what your passport says. It’s not based on your academic achievements, even if they are from a religious institution. Conversion comes from true, conscious, genuine faith in Jesus.
But just as we cannot produce conversion, neither can we produce genuine faith. This also is the Holy Spirit’s territory.