It is often said that we do not convert people to Christianity but to Christ.
In recent decades Christian missionaries have been hesitant and some even opposed to using the term conversion in their evangelistic work. They even go as far as to advocate against conversion and that Muslims can believe in Jesus and remain in their religious and social system. They are convinced that conversion is not necessary and even harmful to family relationships and counter productive in the life of the new believer in Christ. They would simply become followers of Jesus. This sounds very spiritual but is it biblical?
Although it is true that we are not merely looking for numbers to add to the Christian population, it can also be confusing to give the impression that one can add Jesus without making a break with Islam. Though well meaning, advocates of such concepts are effectually confusing those who want to cross over and making it more difficult. Christians have enough trouble living out the Christian life within the Christian community, namely the church. How can they survive in a culture which is diametrically opposed to Biblical faith and lifestyle?
I have met several of these people who consider themselves Muslim followers of Jesus, including leaders. Many of them may have zeal but they lack knowledge. They remain immature, weak and fragile.
In October 2013 someone told me about a Saudi student in Denver who was scheduled to be baptized at a church where he has been attending. I was excited to meet him and see how I could help in his discipleship.
But in the course of six hours of discussion it became evident that Salem had misunderstood what he was about to do. He had been told that he did not need to convert to Christianity and that all he needed was to believe in Jesus. Since as a Muslim he already believed in Jesus, he thought, there was no problem signing up for the baptism with 16 others, all Americans.
When I explained to him the full gospel and that he needed to believe in the death and resurrection of Jesus and accept him as savior and Lord, he cancelled the baptism and thanked me for explaining the truth to him. “The Qur’an says Jesus did not die,” he affirmed. He thought that remaining a Muslim meant to continue to believe the Qur’an and consider Muhammad as his prophet. When I asked him why he wanted to be baptized, he said that he wanted to gain more spiritual blessings. He saw himself as open minded but his identity was in Islam. His pastor thanked me for helping him understand what Salem was experiencing. Salem also thanked me for helping him realize that he cannot believe both the Qur’an and the Bible, nor be both a Christian and a Muslim, he had to choose between the two. He chose to remain a Muslim.
Dishar, an Indonesian Muslim heard the gospel and converted to Christianity. He decided to go to seminary and learn more about his new faith. One of his Christian professors told him that conversion is not required in the Bible and that he should revert to Islam and follow Jesus within Islam. The idea appealed to him as he was beginning to experience rejection by his family. I heard him speak at a conference where he announced that he had returned to Islam and legally converted his Christian wife and children to Islam. At the writing of this article he is attending Islamic religious school to relearn Islam. When I asked him how he could reconcile between Jesus and Muhammad he immediately said: “I don’t have to; Muhammad is my prophet, Jesus is my Savior.”
Kooraf from Nepal came to Christ after hearing the gospel on the radio. He had written to the radio program requesting help. They sent him a Bible and Christian literature. Three years later he met a Christian for the first time. It was a missionary who invited him to attend a three-month training in India. There he was told that he should not have converted to Christianity. They pressured him to return to Islam and be light in the darkness. After much struggle he reconciled with his family and announced that he is back as a Muslim. Soon he began to feel that he was betraying Jesus and his commitment to a new life. This is when I came into his life. He became an intern at our ministry center. It was a rehabilitation program for him. Now he is a confessed Christian despite the death threats he received several times.
This article is written with the premise that Muslims need to make a clean break with Islam and all the baggage from the past and begin a new life as a new creation in Christ. Those who mix Islam and Christianity never grow up to full maturity in Christ.
What does the Bible say about conversion?
Stories of conversion fill the pages of both the old and new testaments. The Hebrew word Ger גֵּר is used to identify strangers who are outside the community of Yahweh. The Septuagint uses the Greek form Proselyte to translate the Hebrew Ger meaning stranger.
In Talmudic literature Ger tzadek גֵּר צַדִּיק always stands for a gentile convert to Judaism. Gers are required to be circumcised in order to participate in Jewish feasts such as the Passover. This is not a mere physical requirement, it meant conversion to the Jewish faith. Converts had to submit to the whole burden of the Mosaic and traditional Law.
Three things were required for the admission of a proselyte; circumcision, baptism, and the offering of sacrifice (Ber. 47b; Yebham. 45b, 46a, 48b, 76a; ‘Abhoth 57a, et al.).
Obviously, women were exempt from circumcision; only baptism and the offering of sacrifice were required. Perhaps this was the reason there were more women converts than men. Josephus (BJ, II, xx, 2) tells how most of the women of Damascus were addicted to the Jewish religion.
The proselyte was received in the following manner. He was first asked his reason for wishing to embrace Judaism. The commandments and requirements of the law were then explained to him. If he was willing to submit to them he was circumcised, and after his recovery he was baptized by immersion without delay. After his baptism he was considered to be a new man, “a little child newly born” (Yebham. 22a, 47a, 48b, 97b)
Josephus describes the convert as “one who adopts the Jewish customs, following the laws of the Jews and worshiping God as they do—one who has become a Jew.”
Nehemiah describes converts as those:
“who separated themselves from the neighboring peoples for the sake of the Law of God, together with their wives and all their sons and daughters who are able to understand- all these now join their brothers the nobles, and bind themselves with a curse and an oath to follow the Law of God given through Moses the servant of God and to obey carefully all the commands, regulations and decrees of the LORD our Lord.” Nehemiah 10:28,29
Isaiah describes the convert as one who:
“has bound himself to the Lord.” Isaiah 56:3.
Converts in the Old Testament include Doeg the Edomite, Uriah the Hittite, Araunah the Jebusite, Zelek the Ammonite, Ithmah and Ebedmelech the Ethiopians, and Naaman the Syrian. Additionally entire people groups accepted to live under the law, including the Kenites, the Gibeonites, the Cherethites, and the Pelethites.
Proselytes in the New Testament:
Although the word Proselyte is used only four times in the New Testament, there are numerous stories of conversions.
Jesus was hard on the Jewish leaders for converting people religiously and accused them of causing more harm than good. Jesus was more concerned with the conversion of the heart than the external religious conversion the Pharisees sought for the gentiles.
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as you are.” Matthew 23:15
The Greek for convert that Jesus used is προσήλυτον or Proselyte. This same word is used in Acts referring to those who were present on the day of Pentecost when Peter preached his powerful sermon.
On the day of Pentecost people from 17 nations were listed among those who heard Peter preach the gospel, including “both Jews and proselytes” Acts 2:11. That day 3000 people believed.
We need to bear in mind that these proselytes to Judaism had been hearing about Jesus, who was the talk of the town, just days after his death and resurrection. They must have heard about his life, teachings, and miracles. They may have even met people who were healed by Jesus. Now they are listening to Peter explaining the purpose of the coming of Jesus, his death, and resurrection.
When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” Acts 2:37
Peter challenged them to repent and be baptized. The Holy Spirit records these amazing words that should settle the whole issue of conversion:
Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day. Acts 2:41
Those proselytes had converted twice – once to Judaism, and now to the new Way. The words “added to their number” without a doubt means that they had changed their allegiance publicly from being ger Tzadek to the new community of followers of Jesus who were called The Way and later were called Christians. (Acts 11:26)
God is not shy about the word converts to refer to a complete shift of allegiance.
This proposal pleased the whole group. They chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit; also Philip, Procorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas from Antioch, a convert to Judaism. Acts 6:5.
When the congregation was dismissed, many of the Jews and devout converts to Judaism followed Paul and Barnabas, who talked with them and urged them to continue in the grace of God. Acts 13:43.
Justus was a Jewish proselyte at Corinth, in whose house, next door to the synagogue, Paul held meetings and preached after he left the synagogue. (Acts 18:7)
Other proselytes are found in the synagogues, such as Roman Centurion, Luke 7:5; Cornelius, Acts 10:2; Lydia,; Acts 17:4; and many other proselytes (converts) Acts 13:42, 43.)
Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary defines proselyte as “a new convert especially a convert to some religion or religious sect, or to some particular opinion, system, or party; thus, a Gentile converted to Judaism, or a pagan converted to Christianity, is a proselyte.”
Transformation not Conversion
Conversion is an old fashioned word but it is not different in essence to the word transformation or change.
Jesus did not come to change our religion but he came to transform us into his likeness. However, transformation is the work of the Holy Spirit inside a man’s heart.
But it is more than that. The inner changes need outward expression. Few argue against the internal change that happens when one acknowledges Jesus as Savior and repents from sin and starts a new life. So why oppose a dramatic change in lifestyle too?
The gospel is the power of God to save those who are lost. Salvation is only the beginning. The long term goal is that each one who comes to salvation would undergo a process of transformation. Below are the seven areas of change that follow salvation:
Five Areas of Transformation:
The disparity between Muslim and Christian world-views is so huge that conversion requires a total transformation in every area of life. Discipleship is a process of being transformed into the likeness of God. 2 Corinthians 3:18; Ephesians 4:13.
- Spiritual Transformation: It’s not about religion. Rather it is about becoming regenerate children of God, born again by the inner work of the Holy Spirit. John 1: 11-13;3:8; Galatians 5:22.
- Heart Transformation: Regeneration redirects our desires and passions to be aligned with God’s heart. Romans 2:29; Hebrews 8:10.
- Mind Transformation: This includes a change in the concept of God and other theological and doctrinal issues and a complete restructuring of the mindset encompassing the intellect. Romans 12:1-2; Ephesians 2:5.
- Character Transformation: Becoming strong and mature in dealing with suffering and other hardships. Ephesians 6:10; James 1:2-4; Romans 5:3-5;
- Moral and Ethical Transformation. Christian morality is about purity of lifestyle, stemming from a pure heart and mind. 1 Peter 1:14
Putting off the old and putting on the new way of life is easier said than done. The journey is tough and our enemy “the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. (I Peter 5:8) Christians from Muslim Backgrounds (CMBs) need to grow up to be lions who, with the help of the Holy Spirit are “Strong in the Lord and in his mighty power” Ephesians 6:10.