Does conversion make a difference?

This ought to be one of those “duh” questions and among thoughtful evangelicals you will probably get that kind of reaction. We most certainly believe that conversion makes a difference…theoretically. But there tends to be a huge disconnect when our theory is measured against our practice. We know that theologically conversion to Jesus Christ is a life-changing experience. But experientially when purported conversions are counted and evaluated, too many evangelicals seem to put the question completely out of their minds.

There is a deadly unwillingness in our day to bring this simple question into the arena of evaluating the success of modern evangelism. Failure to do so, however, serves only to perpetuate evangelism that sends people to hell with decision cards in their pockets. Doesn’t a true love of souls demand that we ask, “What’s gone wrong with the harvest?”

God chose to plant the Gospel in the first century in the city of Jerusalem. Pentecost saw 3000 converts in one day (Acts 2:41). Shortly after that the total number of those who had been converted in the city was at 5000 (Acts 4:4). Many think Luke is speaking exclusively of male converts but that is debatable due to the way that he later uses the word in question (see 17:34). Even so, if women and children were not included in the 5000 then the total number of converts might have been around 10-12,000.

The population of Jerusalem at that time is hard to know with a high degree of certainty. Estimates from less than 100,000 to over 2 million have been made. William Smith thinks that it was perhaps 40,000 to 50,000. Josephus says that when Titus layed siege to the city that the population was 3 million. Tacitus says it was 600,000, which Smith suggests is a more realistic estimate. It is probably safe to assume, especially in light of the passover pilgrims, that hundreds of thousands of people were in Jerusalem when Peter preached at Pentecost.

What happened in Jerusalem as a result of several thousand people being converted? Acts 5:28 quotes the Jewish High Priest as accusing the disciples of having “filled Jerusalem with [their] doctrine.” The whole city was turned upside down by these new converts. Remember, they did not have any Christian churches or background on which to draw. They did not have any built in support system, but rather had to construct such systems through the church. Jerusalem was not the same as before all these conversions took place. Life changed in the city because lives were changed by the Gospel. Conversion made a difference.

Contrast that with what regularly happens in our day. Take the 2001 Billy Graham Crusade in Louisville, Kentucky for example. I suppose I need to say that in taking this example I am in no way trying to take a “pot shot” at Dr. Graham or his organization. I have great respect for him despite obvious areas where I would take exception to his comments and practices. I use this example because, when offering a critique of a movement or group, one should always seek to take the best examples of that group to build one’s case. It is easy to expose the problems with cranks and oddballs but no one wants to be (or should be) judged by the radical fringe of any group or movement with which he or she is associated. On that basis I choose to look at a Billy Graham crusade rather than at the church in my town that regularly baptizes 1000 people per year but cannot ever get more than 300 to show up for any meeting.

Many voices spoke with superlative language in anticipation of the Graham crusade coming to Louisville. During and after the crusade reports were given of thousands who “responded to the invitation” each of the four nights. That response was measured by walking down to the front at the evangelist’s request. According to the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, 10,321 people were in that category.

First, let me express a word of appreciation for the care with which Baptist Press reported these results. They were not–at least in the articles I read–immediately proclaimed converts. However, the whole point of the crusade was to make converts, and the individual stories of people who did respond spoke of them being converted. Other news outlets understandably reported that those who walked to the front were responding positively to the invitation to “make a commitment to Christ.” This is the common judgment about the 10,321 who “went to the front.”

Let’s be generous and assume that only half of those who came forward were, according to language that has unfortunately become common evangelical parlance, “first time decisions for Christ.” In the view of those who advocate and promote this kind of evangelistic practice then, 5000 new disciples (to revert back to biblical language) were made in those 4 days. It is fair to further assume that if the other 5321 people could not be said to have “prayed the prayer” or “ask Jesus into their hearts” or “decided for Christ,” then at least they could be judged to have made some kind of spiritual decision that would make them better Christians.

Here is my point: What happened to Louisville, a city of 250,000 people (700,000 if you include the Metro Louisville area), in the aftermath of the Greater Louisville Crusade? Was the city turned upside down with the Gospel message being spread by the new converts and newly rededicated old converts? In the first century, Jerusalem was eternally impacted by the thousands of converts mentioned in the book of Acts. In the 21st century has Louisville been filled with the teaching of Christ in the wake of similarly reported converts? Should not a similar kind of result be expected? Do not forget to take into consideration that those 5000 whom Luke counted did not have the kind of ecclesiastic support system that existed for the 10321 whom the BGEA counted. There were already tens of thousands of converts in established churches in Louisville before the crusade ever came to town. The new “decisions” simply added to an already large number.

Why was the impact on 1st century Jerusalem so much greater than the impact on 21st century Louisville? Does conversion make a difference or not? It used to. It did in the first century. It doesn’t seem to make much difference now. Why not? Has conversion changed? Has God changed? Has salvation changed? Has Christ or the Holy Spirit become less powerful?

Of course not. What has changed is the common understanding of what it means to become a Christian. Our understanding of conversion has changed. The loss of a biblical understanding of salvation has spawned untold problems in today’s churches. Until we go back to what the inerrant Bible says about what a Christian is and what it means to become one, we will continue to see spiritual carnage spread throughout our churches and culture.

Let me close with a quote from Tom Elliff that I cited a few days ago:

“If all the people that we say are truly born again are truly born again, we’d be a force to be reckoned with in this nation.”

Tom Ascol has served as a Pastor of Grace Baptist Church in Cape Coral, FL since 1986. Prior to moving to Florida he served as pastor and associate pastor of churches in Texas. He has a BS degree in sociology from Texas A&M University (1979) and has also earned the MDiv and PhD degrees from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Ft. Worth, Texas. He has served as an adjunct professor of theology for various colleges and seminaries, including Reformed Theological Seminary, the Covenant Baptist Theological Seminary, African Christian University, Copperbelt Ministerial College, and Reformed Baptist Seminary. He has also served as Visiting Professor at the Nicole Institute for Baptist Studies at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Florida. Tom serves as the President of Founders Ministries and The Institute of Public Theology. He has edited the Founders Journal, a quarterly theological publication of Founders Ministries, and has written hundreds of articles for various journals and magazines. He has been a regular contributor to TableTalk, the monthly magazine of Ligonier Ministries. He has also edited and contributed to several books, including Dear Timothy: Letters on Pastoral Ministry, The Truth and Grace Memory Books for children and  Recovering the Gospel and Reformation of Churches. He is also the author of From the Protestant Reformation to the Southern Baptist ConventionTraditional Theology and the SBC and Strong and Courageous. Tom regularly preaches and lectures at various conferences throughout the United States and other countries. In addition he regularly contributes articles to the Founders website and hosts a weekly podcast called The Sword & The Trowel. He and his wife Donna have six children along with four sons-in-law and a daughter-in-law. They have sixteen grandchildren.
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