4 Types of Conversion

Louis Berkhof

Recently I worked through Louis Berkhof’s Systematic Theology. The book is a helpful mix of historical and systematic theology, with much practical application for those engaged in pastoral ministry. One section that I found particularly helpful was Berkhof’s chapter on conversion, which is essentially a chapter about repentance. It may go without saying, but pastors are in the business of conversion. Whether giving an evangelistic appeal in a sermon, sharing the gospel on the mission field, or engaging in personal evangelism, pastors need to understand the biblical view of conversion and how repentance fits into conversion.

Berkhof’s treatment of conversion and repentance is helpful because he recognizes that the Bible speaks about different types of conversion and different types of repentance. A flat reading of scripture would assume every conversion story referred to the same thing, that all repentance was essentially the same. Berkhof’s approach to scripture is more nuanced. True to the context of individual conversion stories, Berkhof recognizes there are four types of conversions presented throughout the Bible:

  1. National Conversions. Examples would include national repentance during the time of Moses, Joshua, the judges, Hezekiah, Josiah, and even Jonah. These conversions amounted to widespread moral reformation accompanied by a few genuine individual conversions. Berkhof explains, “As a rule they were very superficial,” lasting only as long as the influence of the leader who led the moral reformation.
  2. Temporary Conversions. Examples would include Jesus’ parable of the sower, Hymenaeus and Alexander, Demas, and those mentioned in Hebrews 6 and 1 John 2. Berkhof explains that these instances of repentance had the appearance of genuine conversion, but in the end they are, “only of passing significance.”
  3. True Conversion. Berkhof’s explanation is worth quoting at length: “True conversion is born of godly sorrow, and issues in a life of devotion to God, II Cor. 7:10. It is a change that is rooted in the work of regeneration, and that is effected in the conscious life of the sinner by the Spirit of God; a change of thoughts and opinions, of desires and volitions, which involves the conviction that the former direction of life was unwise and wrong and alters the entire course of life. There are two sides to this conversion, the one active and the other passive; the former being the act of God, by which He changes the conscious course of man’s life, and the later, the result of this action as seen in man’s changing his course of life and turning to God.” Biblical examples include Naaman, Zacchaeus, the Samaritan woman, Cornelius, and Paul.
  4. Repeated Conversion. This last category describes the repentance of a believer who has sinned. Berkhof certainly holds to the perseverance of the saints, but he also recognizes that believers may experience, “a temporary lapse into the ways of sin.” These lapses will be followed by repentance even though, “conversion is the strictly soteriological sense of the word is never repeated.”

As a pastor I’ve dealt with each of these situations. I’ve had to lead a congregation through a corporate experience of “revival.” I’ve had to counsel people through the confusion of false conversion, especially among those whose conversion experience happened at a very young age. I’ve had to encourage true believers to turn again in repentance and faith.

These are not simply academic categories to be analyzed and debated. These conversion experiences are a regular part of pastoral ministry. Pastors must understand conversion and repentance, and Berkhof’s treatment offers tremendous wisdom for those of us who are in the business of conversion.

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