CONVERSION (ἐπιστροφή, G2189, literally signifying “turning,” and tr. “conversion”). This noun appears only once in Scripture, in Acts 15:3, where it is said that Paul and Barnabas “...passed through both Phoenicia and Samaria, reporting the conversion of the Gentiles.” The verbs ἐπιστρέφειν, and στρέφειν, appear several times in the Gr., and mean “to turn.”
Epistrephein is the most common Gr. word for “convert,” appearing more than thirty-five times. Basically, as with the noun cognate, this word means “to turn,” “to turn around.” It is used of the physical act of turning around as Jesus did when a woman touched Him (Mark 5:30). When it is used to describe religious conversion, it relates to turning away from sin and to God.
The RSV tends not to tr. with “convert” as frequently as does the KJV. The words “convert,” “converted” or “conversion” occur a total of eight times in the KJV (Matt 13:15; 18:3; Mark 4:12; Luke 22:32; John 12:40; Acts 15:3; 28:27; James 5:19, 20). All these eight passages tr. verbal forms of epistrephein and strephein, and the noun epistrophē. As an example, take the words tr. “convert” and “converteth” in James 5:19, 20 in the KJV. Instead of the “and one convert him” of KJV, RSV has “and someone brings him back.” And instead of “he that converteth the sinner” of KJV, RSV has “whoever brings back a sinner.”
William Barclay has examined numerous NT trs., and finds that in them three other Gr. words are at times tr. into “convert” or “conversion” in the Eng.—there being in all seven instances of the Eng. words. These three Gr. words are: (1) προσήλυτος, G4670, (Matt 23:15; Acts 2:10; 6:5; 13:43); (2) ἀπαρχή, G569, “the first-fruits” (Rom 16:5; 1 Cor 16:15); (3) νεόφυτος, G3745, a “neophyte,” a newly baptized Christian (1 Tim 3:6) (see Wm. Barclay, Turning to God, , pp. 14, 15).
It should be added that in the OT, the Heb. counterpart word, שׁוּב֒, H8740, meaning “to return,” appears eleven times. Its literal meaning of “return” is pointed up when it relates to Abraham’s returning to a given place (Gen 18:33). It also has to do with turning from sin (1 Kings 8:35).
In all, there are five instances when the KJV tr. the Heb. with “convert” (Ps 19:7; 51:13; Isa 1:27; 6:10; 60:5). In the NT, the RSV tends to avoid tr. with “convert.” All the KJV trs. of “convert” or “converteth” in the OT are tr. differently in RSV. In the RSV, “turn” is the tr. in Isaiah 6:10; “reviving,” in Psalm 19:7; “return,” in Psalm 51:13; “repent,” in Isaiah 1:27; “turned,” in Isaiah 60:5. One of these passages does not have to do with spiritual conversion or turning (60:5), but the others do.
(For further study of a related Biblical concept, repentance, with its Heb. and Gr. originals see J. Kenneth Grider, Repentance Unto Life .)
The matter of suddenness in conversion, is one which bears study and understanding on the part of various Christians. Paul’s conversion is the Biblical archetype of suddenness (see Acts 9), as was Augustine’s in later times (see his Confessions VIII:12 and IX:1). The distinguished American preacher, Phillips Brooks, “had no moment of identifiable crisis in his spiritual life” (William Barclay, op. cit., p. 94). John Wesley’s heart was “strangely warmed,” and all the world has come to know about that experience (see his Journal for May 24, 1738). He is a kind of mediating illustration on this matter of suddenness in conversion. He was no opposer of Christ beforehand, as was Paul; nor was he a profligate, as Augustine had been. He had been ordained, had been a missionary, and had preached Christ and lectured on divine things for many years.
Apart from the matter of the degree of crisis to be expected in the religious conversion of those who grow up in a Christian family and attend to spiritual matters from early life, conversion is conversion, and there is crisis in a conversion that is a new birth, when old things pass away and all things become new (see 2 Cor 5:17). See also Repentance.
Bibliography G. Jackson, The Fact of Conversion (1908); W. W. Ayer, Seven Saved Sinners (1937); O. H. Austin, Come As You Are (1956); E. Routley, The Gift of Conversion (1957); E. S. Jones, Conversion (1959); E. Routley, Conversion (1960); W. Barclay, Turning to God (1963); J. K. Grider, Repentance Unto Life (1965).