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What Is Conversion?

God continually calls us away from what is harmful in our lives and back to communion and new life with him

Conversion is for everyone.

Conversion is the master theme of the entire Bible and the enduring message in salvation history. Every prophecy, every proverb, psalm, chronicle, law, commandment, parable, beatitude, and moral insight is proclaimed for the purpose of conversion: of the soul, of the heart, and of the mind.

Recall how Moses ministered to the grumbling tribes who had already chosen God but faltered along the way when met with challenges in the wilderness. The episode of the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20 marked a key point at which God instructed his people how to live—by turning away from their former lives.

Remember also the prophets who had to preach through the ebbs and flows of faith, generation after generation. From Nehemiah’s wall to the promises of the Messiah, the theme of conversion continued. The New Testament Church preached in continuity with it too: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt. 3:2); “Put off your old nature” (Eph. 4:22); “Repent therefore, and turn again” (Acts 3:19).

Christianity is about conversion because our faith is something that is grown, our hope is something continual, and our love is something that is worked unto perfection.

We can grasp this by reflecting on marriage. To be a faithful, hopeful, and loving spouse requires years of learning, trust, and the habitual practice of unselfish giving—the desire for the good of the other at whatever cost to us. None of this comes quickly in a marriage, and it’s the same for the Christian life: the life of conversion, renewal, and ever-deepening love.

But conversion doesn’t end with communion with the Catholic Church. Our work of participation in God’s saving grace is a lifelong duty even for “cradle Catholics.” Conversion is for everyone, because its fruits of faith, hope, and love are for everyone.

Conversion comes from the Latin conversio, meaning “to turn around.” In the New Testament, the Greek writers used the word metanoia, meaning a change of heart, particularly toward repentance.

Conversion involves both turning away from a past life and turning toward God, resulting in an interior transformation of the person. Conversion can mean turning from sin to repentance, from laxity to fervor, from unbelief to faith, from error to truth. It includes the initial turning toward God away from atheism, turning toward moral virtue from vice, and turning toward belief in Christ from non-Christian religions.

Just as a parent calls a child in a dangerous situation back to safety, so does God, a loving Father, continually call us away from what is harmful in our lives and back to communion and new life with him.

We also use the word to refer to turning toward the fullness of Christian truth in communion with the Catholic Church. But even this is not the end of conversion. Making the choice to join the Church is just a milestone in one’s journey to heaven. Conversion is also a daily choice to turn our eyes and hearts back to God in everything we do, say, and think. We are not called just to turn around and face the way of safety and peace but to continually “sweeten” our faith.

The conversion of St. Paul in Acts 9 is perhaps the preeminent conversion story of Christian history. Being blinded and hearing the heavenly voice of Jesus is nothing short of astonishing. Most people don’t have an experience like that, though. Our conversions aren’t sudden; we maintain our senses, and we don’t have our names changed as Paul did.

But the unseen graces that accompany conversion for all of us are no less powerful. In baptism we are cleansed of original sin and raised into new life with Christ. In baptism the Holy Spirit comes more fully to dwell in our soul, bringing knowledge, wisdom, and understanding to help us live fruitful Christian lives. To sustain converts and all Catholics in unity and strength, there is the spiritual food of the Eucharist.

All of these allow Catholics to perform the works of Christ and greater than these as well (John 14:12). Conversion, then, is not just an initial turning toward God or the truth but a continual process of sanctification, leading the believer to perfection.


This is an excerpt from Shaun’ new booklet, 20 Answers: Conversion, available now from Catholic Answers Press.

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