The Mystery of Conversion
Our Choice and God's Grace
Special things happen when people gather to celebrate the Sabbath. On one particular day around the year a.d. 50, a group of women gathered by the river outside their city of Philippi to observe the Sabbath.
They had probably done this numerous times before, but by the end of this particular Sabbath celebration, the Holy Spirit had opened their eyes in a new way, and these women came to know Jesus. Chief among them was a businesswoman named Lydia. And her story is told in Acts 16:11-15.
A Prayerful Businesswoman. Lydia lived in Thyatira, a city in Asia Minor that was a few hundred miles from Philippi. Lydia must have been rather well-off, since she also owned a home in Philippi (Acts 16:14,40). Luke tells us that Lydia dealt in purple cloth. Since purple dye was the most costly to produce, it was typically reserved for only the finest of fabrics. As you might guess, then, the fabrics that Lydia bought and sold were meant probably for the wealthier people of the time.
Lydia must have been very shrewd. It took a lot for a woman to be successful back then—and in a very competitive business, as well. It’s likely that Lydia had a finger on the pulse of her trade all the time. Yet unlike her competitors, she chose not to do business on the Sabbath day. Instead, she stepped away from the day-to-day demands of her trade and spent time in praise and worship of God. And her decision was richly rewarded.
Scripture tells us that Lydia attended the Sabbath prayer with some other women. It’s unlikely that these women knew much, if anything, about Jesus. More likely, they were Jews or Gentile proselytes who knew about the God of the Old Testament but not about Jesus, his death, his resurrection, and salvation through him. Yet as we read on, we see how Lydia and all the other women had their spiritual eyes opened in a new and exciting way.
Conversion Led by the Holy Spirit. The story of Lydia opens with the apostle Paul and his companions being led by the Holy Spirit to change their plans and extend their missionary work into Macedonia, their first European destination. Their first stop in Macedonia was the major city of Philippi. In Philippi, they learned that a group of God-fearing women gathered by the river to celebrate the Sabbath, so they decided to seek out this group and join them in prayer.
When they arrived at the Sabbath gathering, Paul was given the opportunity to preach. While we are not exactly sure what he said, we can assume that it was all about Jesus: who he was, why he became a man, why he died on the cross and rose again, and maybe even what happened to Paul when Jesus revealed himself on the road to Damascus. This was the essence of Paul’s preaching in so many other places, so it’s logical that he would deliver a similar message here.
As Paul preached the gospel of Jesus Christ, the words sank into Lydia’s mind and heart. The Holy Spirit came upon this Sabbath meeting and opened Lydia’s heart, as well as the hearts of the other women who were present. This was the beginning of the Philippian church—the first church, in fact, on the continent of Europe.
God poured out a special grace of conversion by the river on that day. By his grace, he took Lydia’s limited understanding and expanded it dramatically. His grace caused Lydia to turn to Jesus in response to Paul’s preaching.
In this story, Luke describes the way unbelievers joined the early church. For the first few centuries, the typical process was threefold: evangelization, followed by conversion, and then baptism. The order may be different today, but all three elements remain essential: evangelization—the sharing of the gospel; conversion—a decision to turn away from the world and to turn toward God; and baptism—the outpouring of God’s grace to cleanse us from our sins and transform us into children of God and members of the church. Let’s look at each of these three key elements.
Evangelization. Evangelization is the sharing of the “good news” about Jesus Christ, the Son of God who died on the cross to save us from our sins. The message of the gospel can come directly from the Holy Spirit, as it did for Paul (Acts 9:1-19), but the usual pattern is for the Holy Spirit to speak through someone who has already experienced conversion. In Lydia’s case, the Spirit worked through Paul and his companions as they told the women about Christ.
Whatever the source of the message, evangelization is always, first and foremost, a work of the Holy Spirit. Only he can pierce a person’s heart with the promise of new life. Only he can reveal sin and pour out the healing love of the Father. Only he can open a person’s heart—as he did for Lydia—and reveal Jesus in a whole new way. In short, only the Holy Spirit can “evangelize” a person in a way that leads to a true and life-changing conversion.
Conversion. As we said above, conversion is the decision to turn away from sin and to turn to God. There are two dimensions of conversion—initial conversion and ongoing conversion. In his parable of the prodigal son, Jesus illustrates both dimensions beautifully. Initial conversion—the primary decision to turn away from the world and to surrender one’s life to Christ—is evident in the prodigal son himself. He is the one who “came to himself,” abandoned his former way of life, and returned to his father’s house (Luke 15:17).
The boy’s older brother, however, was already living with his father, but he still needed to experience a deeper conversion, especially in the areas of self-righteousness, anger, and resentment. As he did with this young man, God is constantly inviting us to make decisions that will turn us further away from sin and draw us closer to Jesus. This “ongoing conversion” depends on the grace we receive in prayer, as we receive the sacraments, and as we reach beyond ourselves to serve other people.
Lydia and the other women experienced an initial conversion because their hearts were open to Paul’s message. They freely chose to reject and turn away from evil and to turn and accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior. Now they were set on the path of discipleship, a path filled with countless opportunities to experience a deeper and deeper conversion to the Lord.
Baptism. Baptism cleanses us of original sin, transforms us into a “new creation” (2 Corinthians 5:17), and incorporates us into the body of Christ (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1262-1270). Baptism supposes that a person has heard the gospel, has believed in Christ, and has confessed that Jesus is risen from the dead. In the case of infant baptism, it is assumed that the child’s parents and godparents will undertake the primary responsibility of evangelizing that child and bringing him or her to a mature decision to turn from sin and turn to Christ.
After Lydia and her household heard the gospel, she was baptized, along with her whole household (Acts 16:15). Lydia’s conversion—her decision to live for Christ—was sealed and empowered by the grace of God through this sacrament.
The Gospel of New Life. Conversion is a mysterious combination of God’s all-powerful grace and our human decisions. We freely choose to give our lives to Jesus, but we would not even be able to make such a choice if it were not for the Holy Spirit showing us our need for Christ and his great love for us. After our initial experience of conversion, we still need God’s grace available to us in the Eucharist; we still need the wisdom of Scripture; we still need the mercy available to us in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Without the continual grace available in these gifts, we are more likely to lose sight of Jesus and fall to temptation, causing us to slide back and putting our ongoing conversion at risk.
Lydia probably remembered that day for the rest of her life. Far from being just one among many Sabbath celebrations, it was the day that the Holy Spirit opened her heart to the gospel. It was the day that she met Jesus and experienced the power of the Holy Spirit and the forgiveness of her sins in a whole new and exciting way.
Like Lydia and her friends, God wants each member of our household to experience the joy of initial conversion. He wants all of us to come to know the difference between living for this world alone and living for Jesus.
But beyond this grace of initial conversion, God wants us all to wake up every day and enter the School of Christ, where the Holy Spirit is ready to teach and train us. Every day, the Spirit wants to show us how to apply the lessons of ongoing conversion to our lives so that we can come to see Jesus with unveiled faces—that is, with hearts that have been purified from all the residue of sin.
Conversion is very much like marriage. A couple will always remember and cherish their wedding day as one of the most important days of their lives. But they also recognize that it’s by working out their lives together and becoming one flesh through the joys and trials of life that they will experience a depth of love that they only began to taste on their wedding day. Similarly, initial conversion to Jesus is wonderful, but growing into a mature Christian—through ongoing conversion—is far greater still.