Biblical Conversion Is Not Self-Improvement

Forget this bogus idea that we can somehow save ourselves:

Mankind’s greatest and most urgent need is to get right with God. That of course presupposes that we are NOT now right with God. We are sinners who live in alienation from and hostility to God. The whole point of the life and work of Christ was to make a way for lost sinners to be reconciled to a holy and just God.

But we must be clear as to what biblical conversion is all about. And that means being clear about our condition as sinners and our complete inability to save ourselves and turn our lives around. Since I am again reading through Jeremiah, I recently came upon a familiar passage found there. Jer. 13:23 says this: “Can an Ethiopian change his skin or a leopard its spots? Neither can you do good who are accustomed to doing evil.”

Our condition as sinners is one of utter hopelessness and inability. Consider some of the things the New Testament says about who we are as sinners and what we are like as sinners:

-spiritually sick (Luke 5:31-32)
-rebellious children (Luke 15:11-32)
-lost (Luke 19:10)
-enslaved (John 8:34)
-in darkness (Acts 26:18)
-remain in darkness (John 12:46)
-under the power of Satan (Acts 26:18)
-God’s enemies (Romans 5:10)
-slaves to sin (Romans 6:22)
-influenced and led astray to mute idols (1 Corinthians 12:2)
-spiritually blind (2 Corinthians 4:4-6)
-God’s enemies (2 Corinthians 5:18-19)
-slaves to those who by nature are not gods (Galatians 4:8)
-dead in your transgressions and sins (Ephesians 2:1)
-objects of wrath (Ephesians 2:3)
-dead in transgressions (Ephesians 2:5)
-darkened in their understanding (Ephesians 4:18)
-separated from the life of God (Ephesians 4:18)
-darkness (Ephesians 5:8)
-in the dominion of darkness (Colossians 1:13)
-alienated from God (Colossians 1:21)
-his enemies (Colossians 1:21)
-idol worshippers (1 Thessalonians 1:9)
-held in slavery (Hebrews 2:15)
-not a people; who had not received mercy (1 Peter 2:10)
-sheep going astray (1 Peter 2:25)

That is quite a list. It is a damning indictment of those who we are without Christ – which is all of us. And that is why Scripture speaks about what it is like to have a real, God-given conversion:

-We are moved from death to life.
-We are moved from darkness to light.
-We are moved from the kingdom of Satan to the kingdom of God.
-We are moved from bondage to liberty.
-We are moved from slaves to sons.
-We are moved from being enemies of God to friends of God.

So a radical change takes place when the sinner is converted. It has to be radical: we are talking about bringing spiritual life to dead men and women. And that is why the Apostle Paul for example speaks about the power of God when it comes to the conversion of sinners.

As he said in Romans 1:16: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.” The word for power (dunamis) is used two other times in this chapter: in v. 4 which discusses God’s power in raising Jesus from the dead, and v. 20 which speaks of God’s power in creating the world.

Many Christian commentators could be mentioned here who have spoken to these truths. C. S. Lewis for example said this: “Fallen man is not simply an imperfect creature who needs improvement: he is a rebel who must lay down his arms.” And again: “Conversion requires an alteration of the will which does not occur without the intervention of the supernatural.”

Or as Martyn Lloyd-Jones wrote: “We tend to think that some conversions are more remarkable than others. But they are not. It takes the same grace of God to save the most respectable person in the world as the most lawless person in the world. Nothing but the grace of God can save anybody, and it takes the same grace to save all.”

But I especially like what Paul Washer says about these matters in his “Recovering the Gospel” trilogy. Let me quote from each volume. In The Gospel’s Power and Message (Reformation Heritage Books, 2012) he writes:

The absolute inability of man to save himself from his sin and its consequences is a constant theme throughout the Scriptures. . . . Man’s total helplessness and inability to save himself is one of the darkest truths in Scripture. However, it serves the very high purpose of humbling man and magnifying the power of the gospel to save….


With regard to the power of the gospel, it is helpful to ask ourselves two questions. The first is, “Do we recognize the great power required to save sinful men?” Salvation is not light work; it is an impossibility for all but God. This is due to man’s fallen state and moral corruption….


The walls of depravity around the heart of a man are much stronger and made of harder stuff than those that surrounded Jericho. If men could not bring down the walls of that great city by their own power, they cannot conquer the depravity of their own hearts. It must be the power of God. For this reason, we often hear that the power of God manifested in the salvation of one man far exceeds the power of God manifested in the very creation of the universe. God created the world ex nihilo, or out of nothing. However, when God saves a man, He does an exceedingly more difficult thing. It is far easier to create the good out of nothing, than it is to recreate good out of a fallen and corrupt humanity.

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The Gospel's Power and Message (Recovering the Gospel) by Paul Washer (Author) Amazon logo

And in The Gospel Call and True Conversion (Reformation Heritage Books, 2013) he said this:

The conversion of a person is possibly the most magnificent demonstration of the power of God in the universe. Although it necessitates a decision on the part of the individual, it is primarily a work of God from beginning to end. At conversion, God regenerates and transforms a person’s heart so that he becomes a new creation. This is not mere poetry, exaggerated metaphor, or hyperbole; it is to be taken literally. Through the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit, a person is given a new nature with new and righteous affections that can no longer tolerate estrangement from God, friendship with the world, or the practice of sin. Although he may stray, he cannot stray for long, but is compelled by many forces within and without to return to God. His new nature will be sickened by sin and will cause him to loathe it even while the forbidden meat is still between his teeth. The Spirit who indwells him will convict him of his sin and renew his hope of finding pardon and restoration in the mercies of his God. The Son will seek him out and draw him with great reminders of Calvary’s love. The Father will employ every means of providence and stretch forth His hand in loving discipline. He will turn him from the path of destruction, teach him to fear the Lord, and make him a partaker of the very holiness of God. For this reason, the genuine Christian will not turn away or shrink back to destruction. He will persevere unto the end, not only in faith but also in sanctification leading to a personal righteousness. The God who began a good work in him will perfect it until the day of Christ.

Finally, in Gospel Assurance and Warnings (Reformation Heritage Books, 2014) he had this to say about the walk of the believer and how the same supernatural power and strength is needed:

It is because of this extraordinary work of God in the life of every believer that John is able to write with the greatest confidence that “whoever has been born of God does not sin” or is even able to do so (3:9). This does not mean that a believer is without sin, immune to temptation, free from struggles with the flesh, or beyond the possibility of moral failings. What it does mean is that the person who has been regenerated by the Spirit of God cannot live in habitual sin and more than a fish can live long out of water. This inability is not due to the believer’s strength of will but the work of God that has been and is being accomplished in him. God has made him into a new creature who simply cannot tolerate the sin and unrighteousness in which he once delighted. He cannot practice sin without experiencing the great affliction of conscience and the nausea of its defilement. This, coupled with God’s ongoing work of providence manifested in discipline, ensures that the believer who falls into sin will soon withdraw in repentance and seek cleansing and restoration.

The very bad news of the gospel regarding the sinner’s hopeless and diabolical situation is more than matched and surpassed by the very good news of the gospel that speaks of the incredible saving power of God. It is the power to transform us into forgiven saints with the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and the power to enable us to live a life that is pleasing to him.

All this has nothing to do with self-improvement and everything to do with the matchless grace of God.

[1560 words]

5 Replies to “Biblical Conversion Is Not Self-Improvement”

  1. I see a lot of the misconception that Jesus came to get us out of the mess we’ve made in our lives with drugs or alcohol or to just generally make our lives better. They make up their own version of Jesus via various “recovery” programs and the “Recovery Bible” with gurus in programs like Alcoholic Anonymous. Alcoholics Anonymous is actually paving the road to hell for many people. The AA disciples so focused on the particular problem that they see, ie. alcohol or drugs that they completely miss the big problem of a totally depraved, sinful heart . I have them tell me that we can make our own version of God, that’s true of course, as many do. For now, in this life, it’s a waste of time as the true Jesus of the Bible, is the only one who can deliver you from your spiritual oppression and for eternity, your own version of God is worse than worthless, it’ll usher you right into eternal damnation.

  2. Thanks William. Yes at the end of the day without Christ programs like AA are of limited use. But a few points: it seems Christians first started it, and prayer and dependence on God has been a part of it, although there are now atheistic AA groups. I am thankful for the help people may get with groups like AA, but yes, finding Christ is the ultimate help they need.

  3. Basic truth but absolutely spot on – not a popular message, very offensive to the ordinary person, but you’ll not get into heaven without acknowledging that, first of all you are in a sinful condition and in need of a saviour.
    I tried for years, going to the ends of the earth to obtain enlightenment (child of the ‘60’s), but to no avail, ending in disillusionment.
    A reading of the Bible convicted me of my sinful condition according to the God who I had been trying to get to and my need for repentance and embracing the saviour, Jesus Christ, and here I am reading wonderful stuff like this. – Thanks mate.

  4. True unfortunately too many in church leadership are pushing this false view. Come get a tune up from the heavenly mechanic. Humanity doesn’t need a tune up we need a complete strip down and overall!

    About AA being founded by Christians the hard part about founding a organization or company is you have NO control over it once your dead. So many organizations and companies were started with good missions, some about God some just about doing good or being good, and either the children or grandchildren end up changing it to something the founder wouldn’t recognize. It isn’t all cases but in a lot within 2 generations what was will no longer be.

    This seems especially true for organizations set up by someone who became wealthy after growing up in poverty or in poorer conditions. Because their children and grandchildren didn’t grow up in those same conditions they didn’t have the same experiences and thus the same values, the same beliefs and the same views. Growing up working or middle class will give you different perspective than growing up upper class will. Even growing up in poverty gives you a different perspective than growing up in the middle class. Sometimes it give you the perspective of those who suffer and thus you want to help all the more other times, we have seen this play out a bunch in lottery winners and NFL players, you are unable to handle such wealth and end up blowing it all on frivolous things. Wealth has a corrupting effect on people. Some can avoid it but their descendants often times give in to it. Even if after high school or college they were on their own their experiences growing up rich WILL have a lasting effect. We must find a way to combat this generational problem wealth can create. We might otherwise find we are in heaven but our immediate descendants are not.

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