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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament [1]


1. The Gospel terms. —In Authorized and Revised Versions of the Gospels the vbs. ‘turn,’ ‘convert’ represent no fewer than 8 different Gr. words. The ordinary terms, and the ones we have almost exclusively to do with in the following article, are στρέφω and ἐπιστρέφω (whence ἐπιστροφή, ‘conversion,’ in  Acts 15:3). In addition to these we find (each, however, used only once in the Gospels) ἀποστρέφω ( Matthew 5:42), ὑποστρέφω ( Luke 2:45), ἀναχωρέω ( Matthew 2:22), ἀνακάμπτω ( Luke 10:6), ἀποβαίνω (21:13), γίνομαι ( John 16:20)—all associated with the idea of turning, and rendered by ‘turn’ either in Authorized Version or Revised Version NT 1881, OT 1885.

(1) Literal turning .—Both στρέφω and ἐπιστρέφω are used in this sense. Once στρέφω occurs transitively, where Jesus bids His disciples, when smitten on the right cheek, turn the other to the smiter ( Matthew 5:39). Both vbs. frequently occur in the passive form, but with a reflexive or middle meaning, to denote the turning of oneself round. Usually it is Jesus Himself who thus turns round (στραφείς, ἐπιστραφείς), to look for someone ( e.g.  Mark 5:30,  Luke 22:61), or to address some pointed word to those who follow ( e.g.  Matthew 16:23,  Luke 9:55).

(2) Figurative or spiritual turning .—In this sense both στρέφω and ἐπιστρέφω are employed, but the former only once ( Matthew 18:3). The noun ἐπιστροφή, corresponding to ἐπιστρέφω in its spiritual sense, does not occur in the Gospels, and is found only in  Acts 15:3. Both in the Gospels and elsewhere in the NT the Authorized Version frequently renders these vbs., when they denote a spiritual turning, by ‘ convert ,’ and in  Acts 15:3 it renders ἐπιστροφή by ‘ conversion .’ Revised Version NT 1881, OT 1885 retains ‘conversion’ in the last-mentioned passage, and ‘convert’ in  James 5:19-20 (where the vb. is active and transitive—‘convert a sinner’); but otherwise it has substituted ‘turn’ for ‘convert’—a wise course, in view of the fact that in modern religious speech ‘conversion’ has come to be used in a conventional sense that does not always correspond to the meaning of the original. In another important respect the Revised Version NT 1881, OT 1885 has corrected a wrong impression produced by the Authorized Version renderings. The latter, through the influence of the Vulgate ( convertor ), not only uses the vb. ‘convert,’ but renders the reflexive στρέφεσθαι, ἐπιστρέφεσθαι as if they were genuine passives, and instead of ‘turn’ has ‘be converted.’ A still more glaring mistranslation appears in the quotation from Is 6:10 [LXX Septuagint] given in  Matthew 13:15,  John 12:40,  Acts 28:27 (cf.  Mark 4:12). In Is 6:10 Authorized Version, correctly enough, has ‘lest they convert’—‘convert’ in the time of King James being used intransitively. But in the NT passages, though the Gr. vb., except in  John 12:40, is in the active form, just as in the LXX Septuagint, the ‘convert’ of Isaiah is changed into ‘be converted.’ Both in the last-mentioned passages and in those cases in which, in accordance with the ordinary usage, the vbs. though passive in form are certainly reflexive in meaning, Revised Version NT 1881, OT 1885 has changed the ‘be converted’ of Authorized Version into ‘turn’ (see  Matthew 13:15;  Matthew 18:3,  Mark 4:12,  Luke 22:32,  John 12:40,  Acts 3:19;  Acts 28:27). It is with this spiritual turning or ‘conversion’ that we shall be occupied in the remainder of the article.

2. The NT facts. —(1) So far as the term ‘turn’ or ‘convert’ is concerned, the Gospels can hardly be said to afford sufficient data for a doctrine of conversion in the modern sense of the word. In  Matthew 13:15,  Mark 4:12,  John 12:40 an OT prophecy ( Isaiah 6:10) is referred to; but both in its original use and its NT application it is a national rather than an individual turning that is meant. Again, the notable passage,  Matthew 18:3. ‘Except ye turn, and become as little children,’ etc., though often taken as a fundamental utterance of our Lord on the subject of conversion, can hardly be used for this purpose when read in the light of the context. For it was addressed directly to the Twelve at a time long subsequent to their call to the Apostolate; and, with the exception of Judas, who will venture to say that the Apostles at this period were ‘unconverted’ men? Moreover, the turning which Jesus demanded of them was not that absolute turning from sin in order to follow Himself which the word ‘conversion’ is used to denote, but a turning from those foolish, unworthy ambitions which had just prompted the question, ‘Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?’ (v. 1), and a recognition of the truth that in God’s Kingdom humility is the real badge of greatness. Similarly, when our Lord says to Peter, ‘When once thou hast turned again (Authorized Version ‘When thou art converted’), stablish thy brethren’ ( Luke 22:32), it seems evident that the Apostle did not lack conversion in the technical meaning of the word, but that he was being summoned beforehand to a fresh and more devoted return to his Master’s service after his fall.

When, we pass to Acts, however, we do find ἐπιστρέφω and ἐπιστροφή in a sense that corresponds to the familiar use of the term ‘conversion.’ When St. Peter, preaching to the multitude in Solomon’s Porch, says, ‘Repent ye therefore, and turn again, that your sins may be blotted out’ ( Acts 3:19), the turning he demands is unquestionably the kind of turning that conversion implies. When it is said of the inhabitants of Lydda that they ‘turned to the Lord’ ( Acts 9:35), it is their conversion that is referred to. So likewise at Antioch, when ‘a great number that believed turned unto the Lord’ ( Acts 11:21); and when Paul and Barnabas preached to the people of Lystra that they should ‘turn from these vain things unto the living God’ ( Acts 14:15); and again when the same Apostles passed through Phœnicia and Samaria ‘declaring the conversion of the Gentiles,’ and causing great joy unto all the brethren ( Acts 15:3; see, further,  Acts 15:19,  Acts 26:18;  Acts 26:20).

In the Epistles the use of the figure of turning to denote the great spiritual change that constitutes a man a Christian is infrequent; but we have it in  2 Corinthians 3:16, and notably in  1 Thessalonians 1:9 ‘How ye turned unto God from idols, to serve a living and true God.’ And this use of the word ‘turn,’ we must remember, was not only a natural figure to denote a great spiritual transformation, but one that was especially familiar to every pious Jew. The prophetic writings are full of it. And no where, whether in the OT or the NT, is there a finer expression of the idea than in the words of Deutero-Isaiah: ‘Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts: and let him return unto the Lord, and he will have mercy upon him; and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon’ ( Isaiah 55:7; cf.  Isaiah 6:10,  Psalms 51:13,  Jeremiah 3:14,  Ezekiel 33:11,  Hosea 12:6,  Joel 2:12 f.,  Zechariah 1:3 f.).

(2) But we are not confined to the terms for ‘turning’ in the NT, in seeking there for the fact of conversion. The reality itself is constantly in evidence. In the ministry of our Lord Himself we have manifest cases of conversion in the sinful woman in the house of Simon the Pharisee ( Luke 7:47 ff.), in Zacchaeus the publican of Jericho ( Luke 19:8 ff.), in the penitent robber on the cross ( Luke 23:42-43). The parable of the Prodigal Son ( Luke 15:11 ff.), who ‘came to himself’ and then returned to his father, is a parable of conversion. And what are those great appeals that Jesus constantly makes—for a taking up of the cross in order to follow Him ( Matthew 16:24 ||), for a willingness to lose one’s life in order to find it ( Matthew 10:39,  Matthew 16:25,  Matthew 18:8-9), for a ‘hating’ of one’s dearest friends in order to be His disciple ( Luke 14:26)—but a demand for conversion, even though the figure of turning is not employed?

In the story of the Apostolic Church, again, we have constant illustrations of the great spiritual change—the 3000 souls brought into the Church on the day of Pentecost ( Acts 2:41), and those who thereafter were added to them day by day ( Acts 2:47); the results that everywhere followed the preaching of the word, whether by the lips of evangelists ( Acts 8:5-6;  Acts 8:12,  Acts 11:21;  Acts 11:24) or Apostles ( Acts 9:35,  Acts 10:44,  Acts 14:1 etc.); the striking individual cases of the Ethiopian eunuch ( Acts 8:37), Cornelius ( Acts 10:44 ff.,  Acts 11:18), Lydia of Thyatira ( Acts 16:14 f.), and the jailer of Philippi ( Acts 16:30 ff.). Above all, we have the case of St. Paul himself—the most typical and remarkable example the world has ever seen of that complete and conscious turning of the soul which we name conversion ( Acts 9:3 ff.,  Acts 22:6 ff.,  Acts 26:12 ff.).

(3) Once more, the fact of conversion is brought before us in the teaching of the Epistles , and above all in the Pauline Epistles, by the employment of other figures than that of turning. For it is evidently conversion that is described by the putting off of the old man and the putting on of the new ( Colossians 3:9), by the transition from a world of darkness to a kingdom of light ( Romans 13:12,  Ephesians 5:8,  Colossians 1:13,  1 John 1:7;  1 John 2:8), by the ideas of a crucifixion of the old self ( Romans 6:6), an awaking out of sleep ( Ephesians 5:14), and even a rising from the dead with a view to walking in newness of life ( ib. ,  Romans 6:4). This last figure of a rising from the dead reminds us how near conversion as a forthputting of the human will approaches to regeneration as an act of the Divine Spirit, and so brings us to consider the subject in its larger doctrinal relations.

3. The Christian doctrine. —Properly speaking, conversion as we use the word is a modern and popular rather than a Scriptural or theological term; but, while its inexactness leads sometimes to its being misapplied, it is nevertheless a convenient word to denote the conscious side of that great change by which a man becomes a Christian. In dwelling further on it we may think (1) of its essential nature; (2) of its particular contents; and (3) of its types or modes.

(1) The essential nature of conversion .—There is a very frequent misconception, according to which conversion is thought of as a passive experience rather than an active energizing of the human will. We have often heard it said, for example, that someone ‘has got converted.’ Most, if not all, of the blame for this incorrect use of the word must be laid at the door of the Authorized Version, with its ‘be converted’ instead of ‘turn.’ The Greek lends no support to the idea of a passive conversion. If we except  James 5:19-20 (where the reference is to the action, not of the Divine power, but of the human preacher or teacher who mediates the message of salvation), there is not a single case in the NT where the word for turning or conversion is so employed as to suggest that something is wrought upon a man from without. Always it is an act of the man himself that is so described; the turning is a self-turning, a human and moral, not a supernatural and metaphysical change.

This, of course, is not to deny that there are other figures in the NT which represent the process of becoming a Christian as something that is carried through by the operation of a Divine power. The new birth ( John 3:3 ff.), the new creation ( 2 Corinthians 5:17,  Galatians 6:15), the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Ghost ( Titus 3:5), all point to another side of the matter. But what we have to notice here is that, as distinguished from regeneration, conversion at all events is always represented as a work and a duty the full responsibility for which is laid upon man.

When we come to consider the precise relations between conversion and regeneration, we pass into a difficult region where questions are raised which, as Professor Laidlaw has said, it has been the habit of theologians to avoid. ‘Reformed theology presents no reasoned connexion between regeneration in the stricter sense and conversion with its fruits’ ( Bib. Doct. of Man , 266). And for lack of a reasoned and definite theory, or even of a careful study of the NT teaching, the figure of regeneration has very commonly been overworked, while the moral side of the change involved in becoming a Christian has been neglected. But, while it is Scriptural to say that when a man becomes a Christian a mysterious Divine work has been effected within him, it is equally Scriptural to say (and Scripture says it much oftener) that we become Christians by our own free choice, and that the power of deciding whether we are to be Christ’s disciples or not rests with ourselves. Thus we are brought face to face with the larger problem of the relation between human freedom and the Divine will, and can only say here that in the NT regeneration and conversion come before us as one and the same process, looked at from the Divine and the human side respectively, but looked at as essentially a moral rather than a metaphysical change. Men are born. of the Spirit, but they must turn if they are to enter into the Kingdom of God. ‘This my son was dead, and is alive again,’ exclaimed the father of the Prodigal, for he recognized a miracle of Divine grace in his son’s return. But that heavenly mystery had its human counterpart, that miracle of grace its moral coefficient; for the Prodigal had turned away from the swine-trough, ‘and he arose and came to his father.’ See, further, art. Regeneration.

(2) The particular elements of conversion .—When we analyze conversion, two elements show themselves; for two moments are involved in every act of turning: there is a turning from and a turning to . Christian conversion is a turning from self, the world, and sin; and a turning to God in Christ. But these are just the two moral acts which in the NT are commonly designated by the names ‘repentance’ and ‘faith.’ And so it seems proper to say that repentance and faith are the elements that go to make up conversion. And this is confirmed when we find that in the record of the Apostolic preaching conversion or turning is associated with repentance on the one hand and faith on the other. ‘Repent ye therefore, and turn again’ is the point to which St. Peter brings his sermon in Solomon’s Porch ( Acts 3:19); and St. Paul’s claim, as he stands before King Agrippa, is that he has declared alike to Jew and Gentile ‘that they should repent and turn to God’ ( Acts 26:20). On the other hand, we read of the Greeks of Antioch that ‘a great number that believed turned unto the Lord’ ( Acts 11:21). Corresponding again with this separate presentation of the two sides of conversion, is the fact that St. Paul combines the two when he says to the elders of the Ephesian Church, as he sums up his ministry among them, that both to Jews and Greeks his testimony has been this: ‘repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ’ ( Acts 20:21). Much has been written on the question whether in conversion repentance comes before faith, or faith before repentance. From the point of view of theory it is a somewhat barren discussion; and when we come to practice, the fact appears to be that in the conscious experience of the soul faith rises into more immediate prominence in some cases and repentance in others. But what is of importance is to note that in conversion both are inextricably joined together in the unity of a complex but single moral act.

(3) The modes or types of conversion .—(α) Two strongly contrasted types meet us in the NT and in the whole history of Christian experience. The one is marked by deep contrition for sin—contrition that amounts in some cases to a positive agony of mental distress. From the other the element of pain and contrition is almost wholly absent; it consists in a joyful and unclouded acceptance of the love of God as revealed in the face of Jesus Christ. St. Paul and the jailer of Philippi are representatives of the violent and painful type of conversion—reproduced in the later history of the Church in the experience of such men as Augustine and Bunyan. Cornelius, the Ethiopian eunuch, and Lydia ‘the seller of purple,’ may stand, perhaps, for the gentler and simply trustful type—forerunners of multitudes like them in every subsequent age. Theologically the difference between these two types might be accounted for by saying that as repentance and faith are the two elements that go to make up conversion, in the one case repentance is more prominent, and in the other faith. For while it is true that repentance is primarily a change of mind, and is not to be confounded with the mere feeling of sorrow on account of sin, yet repentance is at all events that side of conversion which represents the soul’s backward and downward look, just as faith is the aspect of it in which the soul looks forward and upward. And so contrition for the sorrowful past, even while it must be distinguished from true repentance, is yet in certain cases its very natural accompaniment. The full explanation, however, of the differences between these two types of conversion must be sought from psychology rather than theology, in the field of experience and not in that of doctrinal theory. They are due for the most part to diversities in natural temperament, in personal history, in religious education, and especially in the prevailing atmosphere of religious thought and belief. Professor Henry Drummond, remarking on the fact that in his wide experience as an evangelist he had never met with conversions of the agonizing type so common in an earlier generation, once raised the question whether the Holy Spirit may not in these days have changed His modus operandi . The question is startling; but considered in the light of  John 16:13 it may have the kernel of truth in it. For the Holy Spirit has led the Church of our time into new and larger views regarding the revelation of God in Christ; and the comparative infrequency of a once familiar type of conversion is probably due to the fact that, without surrendering their belief in the reality and heinousness of sin, both the Christian evangelist and his hearers have gained a better understanding of all that is involved in the Fatherhood of God and the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.

( b ) Two other well-known and strongly contrasted types are those of sudden and gradual or, as it is sometimes called, nurtural conversion. Of the former the NT affords numerous examples; indeed, nearly all the NT conversions are evidently sudden in their mode. It does not follow, however, that we should take this to be the ordinary, much less the only legitimate type. In NT times it lay in the nature of the case that conversion should be sudden. The gospel made its appeal at first to those who had grown up in a world ruled by principles the very opposite of those of the Divine Kingdom, and the transition from either Judaism or paganism to Christianity was bound to be of the nature of an absolute and sudden break. And such conversions, of course, are common still, in Christian lands as well as in the mission field,—in the case of those who find themselves standing face to face at last with the Christ of whom they have never heard before, or of whom they have never rightly thought, or whose grace, though long familiar enough, they have hitherto deliberately resisted. Then constantly there takes place, as Henry Drummond said, ‘an experience which words are not allowed to utter—a something like the sudden snapping of a chain, the waking from a dream’ ( Nat. Law in the Spir. World , 94).

It is different in the case of those who from infancy have been brought up under the nurturing care of the Christian Church and a Christian home, and who have almost unconsciously been responding to this nurtural treatment. Timothy suggests to us an example in NT times of gradual or nurtural conversion ( Acts 16:1,  1 Timothy 1:5); though it was through St. Paul’s teaching, no doubt, that his early training blossomed into the flower of a rich personal faith ( 1 Corinthians 4:17). In later times nurtural conversions become common; and under ideal conditions of Christian education they may be regarded as the normal type. When one has been born in a Christian home, dedicated to Christ in infancy, surrounded continually by a Christian atmosphere, and so has learned ‘from a child’ to know and love and follow Jesus, a sudden and startling conversion is not to be looked for. Christians with such a history can seldom tell the day and hour of their conversion. And yet the name of ‘conversion’ is not to be withheld from certain experiences that have usually come into such lives. For the unconscious Christianity of childhood needs to be transformed into the conscious Christianity of developed character. There may be no day and hour that can be named, but there is generally a pretty well-defined period when the first instinctive love and faith and obedience pass into the deliberate attitude of the surrendered will.

Modern students of the psychology of religious experience have proved to how large an extent what we call ‘conversion’ is associated with those physiological and psychological changes that belong to the transition from childhood to dawning manhood or womanhood. This transition is not a sudden process, not a thing of a day or an hour. It covers a considerable period, but in that period a momentous work is going on. And in those days there comes to every young soul that has been well nurtured a new feeling of the beauty and mystery of life, and a fresh sense also of the possibilities that life offers of good as well as of evil. The old Greek stories about the parting of the ways and the choice of youth are not only perennially true, but have a special Christian application. Even those who have learned from their earliest childhood to love and honour Christ as their Saviour and Lord do not escape the need for a critical decision. When the time comes for taking up the free development of character, Jesus Christ stands at the parting of the ways; and though He knows of very many that they have been following Him hitherto, He asks whether they are going to forsake Him now or follow Him still. When a young heart replies, like Simon Peter of old ( John 6:67 f.), ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? thou hast the words of eternal life,’ that heart has turned consciously and deliberately to Christ. Of such conversions there are multitudes; for in order to conversion a soul does not need to be violently plucked up by the roots and transplanted to another soil. It is enough if, knowing what it does, it turns joyfully to Christ, as the flower turns to follow the pathway of the sun.

( c ) The question is sometimes raised whether it is possible for a man to be converted more than once; and point is given to the inquiry by the fact that in the night in which He was betrayed the Lord said to Peter, ‘When once thou has turned again (Authorized Version ‘when thou art converted’), stablish thy brethren’ ( Luke 22:32). It is impossible, however, to suppose that that process of conversion which is the full equivalent on the human side for the Divine act of regeneration is an experience that can be repeated. And in the case of St. Peter, it is evident from the Gospels that the definite yielding of his will to Christ took place at the beginning of the Lord’s ministry, and not after the ministry was ended. But these words of Jesus to His Apostle suggest that while conversion in the express and primary sense can be experienced only once, there are secondary conversions , of one kind or another, that may fall within the compass of a true Christian life. One such is when a Christian man, as in Peter’s case, has fallen into grievous sin, but repents and turns to Christ again, not only ‘with grief and hatred of his sin,’ but with a fuller purpose of new obedience than he ever cherished before. This is that repentance of a Christian man which St. Paul describes in  2 Corinthians 7:11—a repentance which may work in him such indignation against himself, such vehement desire to make amends for his backsliding, and as it were to be ‘avenged’ upon it, that he may become in many respects a stronger Christian than he was before, and thus better able to stablish and strengthen his brethren. Another type of secondary conversion is when a man, without the quickening spur of repentance for some great backsliding, comes to a fuller realization of Christ’s claim upon him for the costliest and best he has to give, and so makes a, fresh and higher departure in the Christian life, a departure that is deliberate and definite, and thus may properly be described as a turning. In ways. like these there may be several conversions or spiritual turning-points in a Christian’s history—zigzags, so to speak, on the steep ascending path upon which he made his definite entrance when he first turned to Christ, with full consciousness, as. the Lord and Master of his life.

Literature.—The Lexx. of Cremer and Grimm-Thayer, s.vv. στρέφω, ἐτιστρεφω; Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible, art. ‘Conversion’; Field, Notes on the Translation of NT ( 1899), 246; ExpT [Note: xpT Expository Times.] vii. [1896] 396, xi. [1899–1900] 4, 244, 289, XV. [1904] 337. On the doctrine of conversion see Augustine’s Confessions  ; Bunyan’s Grace Abounding  ; Charnock, Works (Nichol’s ed.), iii. 88; Laidlaw, Bib. Doct. of Man , 263; W. N. Clarke, Outline of Chr. Theol. 401; Stevens, Chr. Doct. of Salvation , 483; Stearns, Evid. of Chr. Experience , 126; Drummond, Nat. Law in the Spir. World  ; ‘The Psych. of Conv.’ in ch. Quart. Rev. lvi. (1903) 17; A. E. Whately, ‘Conv. and Mod. Thought’ in Churchman , xx. (1906) 413; A. J. Mason. The Ministry of Conversion (1902); W. Adams Brown, Chr. Theology in Outline (1907), 408; and more fully, for the psychology of the subject, J. B. Pratt, Psych. of Rel. Belief (1907), with the literature on p. 312 f.

J. C. Lambert.

Webster's Dictionary [2]

(1): ( n.) The place of a turn; an angle or corner, as of a road.

(2): ( n.) Deviation from the way or proper course.

(3): ( n.) Turnery, or the shaping of solid substances into various by means of a lathe and cutting tools.

(4): ( n.) The act of one who, or that which, turns; also, a winding; a bending course; a fiexure; a meander.

(5): ( p. pr. & vb. n.) of Turn

(6): ( n.) The pieces, or chips, detached in the process of turning from the material turned.

(7): ( n.) A maneuver by which an enemy or a position is turned.

Vine's Expository Dictionary of NT Words [3]

1: Τροπή (Strong'S #5157 — Noun Feminine — trope — trop-ay' )

used especially of the revolution of the heavenly orbs (akin to trepo, "to turn"), occurs in  James 1:17 , "(neither shadow) that is cast by turning," RV (AV, "of turning"). For a more detailed treatment of the passage, see Shadow , No. 2.

King James Dictionary [4]

TURN'ING, ppr. Moving in a circle changing winding.

TURN'ING, n. A winding a bending course flexure meander.

1. Deviation from the way or proper course.