One day the disciples of Jesus asked Him, "Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?" Jesus answered them in part by saying, "Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven" (Matt. 18:3).
If this is true, then it becomes important for us to properly understand what it means to become converted if we want to inherit the kingdom of heaven.
Yet, at another time Jesus declared, "Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God" (John 3:3). Was Jesus contradicting Himself when He made these two statements or is this an additional requirement for being saved in the kingdom of heaven or do these two statements essentially mean the same thing?
The key to understanding this question is to understand what Jesus meant when He said that a man must be "born again."
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints places great emphasis on doing missionary work and one of the ways they do this is by sending forth an army of young missionaries throughout the world to teach people what it is we believe in an effort to convince them to become members of our Church. And the way people join the LDS Church is, after they've become convinced that the things we believe are true, they are then baptized. We further teach that unless a person is baptized by someone having the proper authority they cannot enter into the kingdom of God. It is generally understood that this is what Jesus meant when He told Nicodemus that "Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God." And, the fact that members of the LDS Church commonly refer to newly baptized people as "converts" seems to make it appear that the word "conversion" means being baptized.
This impression seems to be borne out in the Book of Mormon when we read where Ammon and some of his brethren preached the gospel to their enemies, the Lamanites and "as many as believed, or as many as were brought to the knowledge of the truth, through the preaching of Ammon and his brethren, according to the spirit of revelation and of prophecy, and the power of God … I say unto you, as the Lord liveth, as many of the Lamanites as believed in their preaching, and were converted unto the Lord, never did fall away. For they became a righteous people" (Alma 23:6-7).
Quite often, the way we view new converts is to assume that once they have been brought to a knowledge of the gospel and believe that the things we teach are true then they have become converted. But that is not exactly what these scriptures are telling us.
The dictionary defines the word "convert" as "to change from one use, function, or purpose to another; to exchange by substituting something of equal value; to undergo change." We often use the word "convert" when talking about changing currency. For example, in America we use the dollar as our form of currency, but in Great Britain they use the Euro, in Japan they use the yen, in Russia they use the rubble, in South Africa they use the rand, and in Mexico they use the pesos. If someone from Japan went to Acapulco, Mexico for vacation and tried to buy something there using the yen, most of those businesses would probably not accept that form of currency. Therefore, if the vacationing person wanted to avail themselves of what Acapulpo had to offer they would have to go to a bank first and exchange their yen for pesos. The same is true if someone from the Netherlands visited Cairo, Egypt. If they wanted to purchase something there they would first have to exchange their gilders for dinars.
On a spiritual level we must essentially do the same thing when converting to the gospel of Jesus Christ. If we want to partake of and participate in the things of the kingdom of God we have to exchange our worldly lifestyle for a godly way of living. The reason for this is because the worldly way of getting things is by putting our own needs ahead of others. It's the currency of self-preservation at all cost. In contrast, the currency of heaven is to deny ourselves and put the needs of others ahead of ours. Therefore, to become converted to Jesus Christ means that we are willing to give up our former way of life and exchange or convert it to a new way of living.
The apostle Paul explained it this way: "Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new" (2 Cor. 5:17). "For to be carnally minded is death; but to be spiritually minded is life" (Romans 8:6). "Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life" (Romans 6:4). Alma the younger explained, "people, must be born again; yea, born of God, changed from their carnal and fallen state, to a state of righteousness. And thus they become new creatures; and unless they do this, they can in nowise inherit the kingdom of God" (Mosiah 27:25-26).
To be "reborn" or "born again" means that we have put away our old way of life and are willing to exchange it for living a new kind of life. It means to have a change in lifestyle where our old way of doing things no longer exists because we now behave according to a different standard of living. Just as a newborn child learns how to behave from its parents, being reborn of God means we become children of God and are willing to have our Father in heaven teach us how to live according to His ways. That's why the scriptures describe us as becoming a new creature whereby we "walk in [a] newness of life."
And this is the sense in which the scriptures refer to conversion. Conversion is not just knowing certain facts, such as Jesus is the Christ or that Joseph Smith is a prophet of God. Conversion is not just being baptized. While these things are necessary, conversion doesn't really happen until a person has a change of attitude towards life. The apostle Paul described this condition when he said, "be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind" (Romans 12:2). Alma asked the people of his day "And now behold, I ask of you, my brethren of the church, have ye spiritually been born of God? Have ye received his image in your countenances? Have ye experienced this mighty change in your hearts?" (Alma 5:14). If this mighty change in heart has not occurred in a person's life, if there is no change in the way a person thinks or conducts their life then no conversion has taken place and they have not been reborn.
When people asked Peter what they must do to be saved he replied, "Repent ye therefore, and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out, when the times of refreshing shall come from the presence of the Lord" (Acts 3:19). Only when there is a real conversion to Christ do we receive a forgiveness of sins and unless there is such a blotting out of our sins we cannot enter the kingdom of heaven.
This is what Jesus meant when He said, "Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven" (Matt. 18:3). "Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God." If we have not completely given up the world's currency of sin and exchanged it for God's currency of righteousness then we will not be able to enter into the kingdom of God and partake of what it has to offer.
The gospel of Jesus Christ teaches us to love our neighbor (Mark 12:31), to forgive those who do evil to us (Matt. 18:21-23), to do good to all men (Gal. 6:10), to deal justly with one another (Alma 41:14), and to be longsuffering, gentle, meek and temperate (Galatians 5:22-23). Although there are many in the world who don't behave this way, even among those who profess a belief in Christ, yet there are many others who do live these gospel principles, even among those who do not consider themselves Christians. If entrance into the kingdom of God is based on the way we live our life, does that mean non-Christians who love their neighbor, forgive others, are longsuffering, gentle, meek, and temperate are worthy to enter there?
Not at all because entrance into the kingdom of God depends on being converted to Christ rather than merely following a set of moral principles. Just like it does no good for a person from Russia who is visiting America to convert their rubbles to yen, so it does a person little good to convert their behavior unless they have converted it to the standard that Christ has set. If we want to enjoy the things the world offers then we must live our life according to its standards but if we want to live in heaven with Christ then we have to pattern our life according to the rules of heaven.
Just as we need to go to a certain institution to exchange our worldly currency, so also conversion requires going to the proper institution that will exchange our spiritual currency. To become truly converted to Christ requires making and keeping certain covenants and serving God in a way that assists Him in saving His children. If that willingness to keep those covenants is absent then such a person has not become converted to Christ.
To better understand what conversion is, let's look at two other words that are very closely associated in concept that are just as essential to salvation. One of them is repentance. The Bible dictionary defines repentance as "a change of mind." It is "a turning of the heart and will to God and a renunciation of sin to which we are naturally inclined. Without this there can be no progress in the things of the soul's salvation." President Ezra Taft Benson has said, "repentance involves not just a change of actions but a change of heart… It's as though we have become a new person. You have forsaken lives of sin. You have no more disposition to return to your old ways. You are in reality a new person. That is what is meant by a change of heart" (Ensign, Oct. 1989).
As we look at this definition of repentance we see that, in essence, it is the same as that for conversion. And that's because conversion is a form of repentance and repentance requires a conversion. Unless a person has become converted to a principle of the gospel they will feel no need to repent for violating it. On the other hand, if a person has become converted to Christ they will want to repent by forsaking their sins. Therefore, genuine repentance is the evidence that a person's heart has indeed been converted to the Lord.
The other word that is closely linked to conversion and repentance is commitment. Commitment means being faithful, loyal, devoted and dedicated to someone or something. It means pledging one's allegiance and being steadfast in keeping that promise regardless of circumstances.
In the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints each person who has been baptized has made a solemn promise to take upon themselves the name of Christ and to keep His commandments. Furthermore, as a person grows in the Church they willingly take upon themselves additional promises called covenants, such as the oath and covenant of the priesthood and temple covenants. They also covenant to faithfully serve the Lord in whatever calling they may receive. But without conversion to Christ there can be no real commitment to keeping any covenant made with Him. While it is true that someone who isn't truly converted may keep their covenants for awhile, yet such promises will easily be forsaken when it becomes inconvenient to keep them. Thus, a person's commitment to keeping the teachings of Christ is an indication of the sincerity and depth of their conversion.
There are many reasons people give for resisting the need to change their life. Some of those include the fear of rejection by family or friends or the unwillingness to give up certain habits. Many times people find the things of the world more appealing than the things of God and sometimes people are put off by the actions of others. But whatever the stated reason for not living the gospel principles the real reason a person doesn't want to follow the standards of God is because they have not experienced a mighty change in their heart. By its very nature, a mighty change of heart changes the way a person feels and thinks about things and compels them to act according to their new attitude. When a person genuinely and sincerely desires something they will find a way to overcome any obstacles and will be willing to make whatever sacrifice is necessary to get what they want.
On the other hand, whenever people make excuses for not living the teachings of Christ it is evidence that they have not experienced a mighty change in the desires of their heart. They may have become a member of the Church and know its doctrines are true but they have not become genuinely converted to Christ. And until they do they will feel no need to repent nor will they be committed to keeping Christ's teachings. Everyone follows after and does those things they desire. The reason why people become inactive in the Church is because they have no desire to be submissive and obedient as a child of God should be to their Father in heaven. Instead, they have a greater desire for the things of the world.
But, conversion is not something we either have or don't have, nor is it something that remains constant and fixed throughout our life. For example, a person may be converted to the principle of tithing but not be converted to the principle of home teaching. They may be converted to doing their family history but not to having daily scripture study. They may have been converted to Christ yesterday, be wavering in their faith today, and be converted to the ways of the world tomorrow. Thus, conversion is an ongoing process that begins when we first accept Christ and continues for the rest of our life.
If conversion is such an important part of salvation then how does a person become converted?
The first step is they must hear the gospel preached to them. People are not going to know on their own that they need to change their way of life unless someone not only tells them why they must make such a change but also what kind of change is needed. As the apostle Paul explained, "How then shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? and how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard? and how shall they hear without a preacher?" (Romans 10:14). That's why the Church sends out missionaries.
But people are not converted to Christ simply because they have been taught the truth. And neither are people converted solely through the power of the Holy Ghost. While there are those who believe that it is the Holy Ghost, working in the hearts of people, who does the actual converting, that is not entirely true. The role of the Holy Ghost is to reveal truth and to bear witness of that truth, but that is also what missionaries themselves do. As they teach the gospel they are revealing truth and they often bear their personal testimony of that truth. The difference between them and the Holy Ghost is that the Holy Ghost is able to touch hearts and convince people of the truth in a way that no human can.
But knowledge alone is not sufficient to cause someone to act. For example, just because a person may know they should eat healthy food doesn't mean they will do so. In the same way, there are many people who believe that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is Christ's true church and yet that doesn't prevent them from postponing baptism or becoming inactive after baptism. Whereas the missionaries and the Holy Ghost can teach and encourage people to accept Christ, they cannot make them do so.
The Church has taught, "It is insufficient to just hear the word of God. To receive its blessings we must follow it. It is our responsibility to live by the commandments not just know them. Our testimony must give us a desire to serve the Lord. Conversion must be to Christ, His gospel, and His Church. It must be a commitment to the covenants and our individual callings. A truly converted follower of Christ will not be casual or complacent in their approach to service in the Church or in keeping the commandments. President Harold B. Less said, 'Conversion must mean more than just being a card carrying member of the church with a tithing receipt... or a temple recommend.' He then added, that someone who is converted 'strive[s] continually to improve inward weaknesses and not merely the outward appearances'" (Church News May 25, 1974)
If God has given man the freedom to choose for himself then it is obvious that God will not force anyone to live a certain way. Therefore it is just as obvious that something more than hearing the gospel preached is needed for people to become motivated enough to make the changes in lifestyle that God requires.
As stated earlier, what motivates people to do anything comes from an inner desire on their part, but when that desire is missing there is a lack of action. That means that neither the Holy Ghost nor anyone else can actually convert someone. People convert themselves when they have a desire to change their lifestyle. And until they gain that desire they will feel no need to change.
If that is true then how do people gain the desire they need to become converted both before and after baptism?
There are two answers to this question. The first concerns what people can do for others and the second relates to what people must do for themselves.
The Lord explained, "No power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood, only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned; By kindness, and pure knowledge, which shall greatly enlarge the soul without hypocrisy, and without guile" (D&C 121:41-42).
Since we cannot force anyone to behave a certain way, the only means we have to help instill in people a desire to become converted to Christ is to persuade them to adopt our ideas as their own. This is the way any good salesman sells their product. It is through the power of persuasion they seek to convince people of the benefits and value of their product. It is through the power of persuasion they attempt to overcome every objection the customer may have to buying their product. It is through the power of persuasion they seek to convince the customer that their product is better than anything anyone else is selling. And even after the sale, a good salesman will provide the best customer service possible in an effort to keep their customers happy and satisfied.
This is the same way we persuade people to become converted to the gospel of Jesus Christ and help them remain faithful to Him. If people are not convinced of the benefits and value of following the teachings of Christ they will have no desire to change their habits. If people have questions or concerns about certain aspects of living the gospel they will hesitate in their commitment to the Church. If they are persuaded by someone else that another belief system is better than ours, they will become converted to another faith. If people become dissatisfied with their life in the Church their desire to remain faithful to it will change.
Thus, it is through persuasion that we can help people gain the desire they need to become converted to the gospel of Jesus Christ. But for our persuasion to have any power we must be long-suffering and patient with those who resist the urge to change. We need to treat them gently in an attitude of meekness. We need to show them genuine kindness and unfeigned love. When we do this in conjunction with giving them pure knowledge without being hypocritical or using deceit we greatly increase the possibility that their soul will become enlarged with a desire to follow Christ.
This is why Jacob, the son of Lehi taught "Wherefore we labored diligently among our people, that we might persuade them to come unto Christ, and partake of the goodness of God, that they might enter into his rest, lest by any means he should swear in his wrath they should not enter in, as in the provocation in the days of temptation while the children of Israel were in the wilderness. Wherefore, we would to God that we could persuade all men not to rebel against God, to provoke him to anger, but that all men would believe in Christ" (Jacob 1:7-8.)
This is how the Holy Ghost Himself works in people's hearts. He doesn't somehow magically put a desire there to follow Christ. If He did we would not be responsible for our own actions. Instead, He seeks to persuade us to follow Christ by convincing us of the truth in a way that we know with certainty what the truth is.
However, despite all the persuasions of others, including that of the Holy Ghost, each individual must decide for themselves whether or not they want to make the changes in their life that God requires. If this was not so then we would not be responsible for our own salvation, in which case we could neither be rewarded for accepting Christ nor punished if we didn't. Therefore, in the final analysis, each person becomes converted because of the desires of their own heart. That means there is something each person must do for themselves to make conversion possible.
Just like a plant cannot grow in unfertile ground, so also the desire to follow Christ cannot develop in a negative environment. If the nutrients to feed the plant are not there or the plant feeds on a poisonous substance it will eventually wither and die. Fear, doubt, criticism, discouragement, and pride are like poisons that eat away and destroy a person's desire to change. By their very nature, each of these attitudes produce negative thoughts, and when people feed on these negative feelings they can't expect to see positive results in their life.
On the other hand, faith, hope, humility, submissiveness, kindness, and love feed and strengthen a person's desire to accept Christ. And the way these attitudes are developed is by dwelling on the things of God. Just like if we don't eat food we become physically week, so, in the same way, if we are not feeding ourselves spiritual nourishment on a consistent daily basis our desire and motivation to remain committed to Christ will also become weak. And without that commitment there can be no conversion.
Therefore, the key to becoming and remaining converted to Christ is to seek for and remain close to God's Spirit. When people pray regularly and sincerely, read and study the scriptures, and fill their mind with spiritual thoughts their hearts become receptive to the persuasive influence of the Holy Ghost. But when these things are missing in a person's life, their heart can become hard like the ground when there is no rain to soften it. Nephi explained, "And when that happens the heart is inclined to disregard the things of the Spirit behold, there are many that harden their hearts against the Holy Spirit, that it hath no place in them; wherefore, they cast many things away which are written and esteem them as things of naught" (2 Nephi 33:2)
Since each of us are susceptible to losing our spirituality if we are not careful and thereby risk losing our commitment to Christ, the Lord has instructed that after we have become converted we should help strengthen others in their conversion process (see Luke 22:32). In our day the Lord has further instructed priesthood holders that it is their "duty is to watch over the church always, and be with and strengthen them; And see that there is no iniquity in the church, neither hardness with each other, neither lying, backbiting, nor evil speaking" (D&C 20:53-54). And the reason why the Lord has given us this counsel is because when people engage in such behavior it keeps them from being influenced by the Lord's Spirit.
The process of conversion to Christ is a two-step process. The first step involves the gospel being preached to someone in such a persuasive manner that they develop a desire to follow Christ. But, while that is the primary role of the Holy Ghost, which He performs with our assistance, in order for the process of conversion to be complete each person must be receptive to God's persuasive influence. And that is the second step of the conversion process. While it is true that only through the influence of the Spirit can people experience a mighty change in their heart and be spiritually born again, that can only happen when someone is willing to submit themselves to the influence of the Holy Ghost. And until both steps have occurred in a person's life they have not become truly converted to the Lord.
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