“That Process Called Conversion,” Ensign, Sept. 1975, 63
The testimony of the Saints is the strength of the Church; or should we more properly say that those who are converted are the strength of the Church. President Spencer W. Kimball seemed to indicate this when he said that the converts are the lifeblood of the Church and “if there were no converts, the Church would shrivel and die on the vine.” (Ensign, October 1974, p. 4.)
This surely points directly to the need for conversion. Missionary work was the first responsibility laid upon the Church by the Lord in this dispensation, just as it was the last commandment by the Master in the meridian of time. His parting injunction was, “Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature.” (Mark 16:15.)
There is no one in the Church today who is not either directly or indirectly the result of missionary work. Only one man (the Prophet Joseph Smith) received the message in this dispensation without a missionary, and I’m not sure Moroni would be too happy with that statement. I think Moroni considered himself a pretty fair missionary, and surely he was. But everyone else has received the message of the restoration through missionaries, either directly or indirectly. It is expected that missionaries will seek out those who will hear the message and teach the gospel in plainness and simplicity as it is found in the standard works of the Church. Also, they will “testify of the truth of the work and the doctrines revealed anew in our day.” (Joseph Fielding Smith, Ensign, July 1972, p. 28.)
Teaching by the spirit is the vehicle of conversion. Before a testimony can be born in the heart and conversion take place in the soul, the individual must be taught the truth about his relationship to God. He must not only believe the truth but must also act in harmony with the truth. Belief plus action is faith, without which it is impossible to please God “for he that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him.” (Heb. 11:6.)
This requires someone to preach the gospel because “faith cometh by hearing” the word of God. (Rom. 10:17.) Before one can believe, he must have information presented to him. He can then either believe the information or doubt it. If the information is true and he hopes it is true, believes it is true, and then acts in obedience to the information he has received, he is exercising faith and will know that it is true and become converted. On the other hand, if he doubts it even though it be true, he will never find the truth, never receive a testimony, and never be converted—at least, until he ceases to doubt.
Faith is not to have a perfect knowledge, for surely if he had a perfect knowledge of the information, he wouldn’t need faith. If you know a thing, there is no need to believe it. (See Alma 32:18.)
Faith, then, lets one act as if he knows it is true even though as yet he does not know. As such, it is power to the investigator. It is in action that knowledge is born. Knowledge of a principle of the gospel is testimony, and action, or living in accordance with the testimony is evidence of conversion.
It is true that it is possible to have a testimony and be converted to a principle of the gospel and not have a testimony and be converted to the whole gospel program. In the beginning, Peter had a testimony that Jesus is the Christ but not of telling the truth, as we can see from his actions on the night of Christ’s betrayal. One can be converted to the law of tithing and pay his tithing, and yet refuse to pay fast offerings. Some are converted to following dead prophets but are not converted to following the living prophet. Some are converted to following the living prophet but are not converted to following their bishop, who serves at the call of the prophet. Such people, I suppose, would probably refuse to sustain Judas as a member of the Twelve even if Jesus asked them to do so.
The true mark of conversion is willingness to fast and pray for a witness of the counsel given by the Lord’s anointed servant even though you don’t agree with him. True conversion reflects the fifth principle of the gospel, which is endurance. In fact, it is the will of the Father as recorded in the Book of Mormon. Nephi records, “And the Father said: Repent ye, repent ye, and be baptized in the name of my Beloved Son.” (2 Ne. 31:11.) Later he records, “And I heard a voice from the Father, saying: Yea, the words of my Beloved [Son] are true and faithful. He that endureth to the end, the same shall be saved.” (2 Ne. 31:15.)
Then Nephi records a most significant statement: “And now, my beloved brethren, I know by this that unless a man shall endure to the end, in following the example of the Son of the living God, he cannot be saved.” (2 Ne. 31:16.) The distinguishing characteristic of Jesus’ example was obedience. “My doctrine is not mine, but his that sent me.” (John 7:16.) “The Son can do nothing of himself, but what he seeth the Father do.” (John 5:19.) Again, the Son came not to do his own will, but that of “him that sent me.” (See John 4:34.)
“Wherefore, do the things which I have told you I have seen that your Lord and your Redeemer should do; for, for this cause have they been shown unto me, that ye might know the gate by which ye should enter. For the gate by which ye should enter is repentance and baptism by water; and then cometh a remission of your sins by fire and by the Holy Ghost.
“And then are ye in this straight and narrow path which leads to eternal life; yea, ye have entered in by the gate; ye have done according to the commandments of the Father and the Son; and ye have received the Holy Ghost, which witnesses of the Father and the Son, unto the fulfilling of the promise which he hath made, that if ye entered in by the way ye should receive.
“And now, my beloved brethren, after ye have gotten into this straight and narrow path, I would ask if all is done? Behold, I say unto you, Nay; for ye have not come thus far save it were by the word of Christ with unshaken faith in him, relying wholly upon the merits of him who is mighty to save.
“Wherefore, ye must press forward with a steadfastness in Christ, having a perfect brightness of hope, and a love of God and of all men. Wherefore, if ye shall press forward, feasting upon the word of Christ, and endure to the end, behold, thus saith the Father: Ye shall have eternal life.
“And now, behold, my beloved brethren, this is the way; and there is none other way nor name given under heaven whereby man can be saved in the kingdom of God. And now, behold, this is the doctrine of Christ, and the only and true doctrine of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.” (2 Ne. 31:17–21.)
Based on Nephi’s statement, it is obvious that conversion is an ongoing process. Surely, all who are on the path need help from those who have gone before, which means that new members who have entered the gate surely need help from those who have preceded them and have greater experience in living in obedience to the commandments.
This brings us to another great evidence of conversion. You cannot be converted to Christ and his example and hate your brother, your family, your neighbor, or the stranger that is within (or without) your gate. The true convert must even love his enemies.
In other words, we don’t get credit from the Lord for loving those who love us unless we can also love those who not only don’t love us but don’t even like us. It is this kind of conduct that really bespeaks conversion. This conduct cannot be demonstrated by passiveness or lip service. We cannot sit by and watch others struggle with great physical, mental, or spiritual burdens and do nothing but urge them on with our high-sounding words.
James significantly records,
“If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food,
“And one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit?” (James 2:15–16.)
There is such joy engendered in the heart of one who has been lifted from the darkness of uncertainty and unbelief—from not knowing who he is or where he came from or why he is here or where he is going—into the marvelous light of Christ, that he feels impelled to share what he has found with others. He must tell everyone of the wondrous change that Jesus and his love have made in his life—that he has, in Alma’s words, “been born of God,” experienced a “mighty change” in his heart, received the image of God in his countenance, and become a new creature in Christ. (Alma 5:14.)
There has grown a new and very personal relationship between the convert and Jesus Christ. You consider him your friend and have a great appreciation for what he has done for you. You also know that not only your acts but your innermost thoughts are open to him. Nothing is hidden; therefore, honesty, fairness, and fidelity become the hallmark of all your dealings, both public and private. The true convert becomes the supreme creation of God—an honest man.
Conversely, those who profess to be followers of Christ or members of his church but do not love mercy or deal justly with God, man, and creatures, walking in all holiness before God and circumspectly before their fellowman, are still in need of conversion. (See Micah 6:8.) It does not matter whether you are born in the Church or joined the Church six months ago; if this description fits you, you are still unconverted. You are still a prospective convert.
In the words of Alma,
“And now behold, I say unto you, my brethren, if ye have experienced a change of heart, and if ye have felt to sing the song of redeeming love, I would ask, can ye feel so now?
“Have ye walked, keeping yourselves blameless before God? Could ye say, if ye were called to die at this time, within yourselves, that ye have been sufficiently humble? That your garments have been cleansed and made white through the blood of Christ, who will come to redeem his people from their sins?
“Behold, are ye stripped of pride? …
“Is there one among you who is not stripped of envy? …
“Is there one among you that doth make a mock of his brother, or that heapeth upon him persecutions?
“Wo unto such an one, for he is not prepared, and the time is at hand that he must repent or he cannot be saved!” (Alma 5:26–31.)
Conversion does away with all such conduct and thus is the foundation of the society of God. Conversion not only indicates an awareness and acceptance of these growth principles, but also encompasses the principle of endurance. Faith unto repentance, and precise persisting in righteousness, is the saving power of the gospel. Conversion implies a change—a change from the natural man who is selfish, conceited, impatient, intemperate, disobedient, and rebellious to “a saint … , a child [who is] submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love, willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon him, even as a child doth submit to his father.” (Mosiah 3:19.)
But you might ask, “How can I start to make this change if I perceive that conversion has not fully taken place within me? Where do I start?” You start with attitude.
The apostle Paul demonstrated precisely the correct attitude of the true convert—and the conversion process is, to a great extent, a matter of attitude. It is a fact that any man can change his life by changing his attitude any time he wants to do it. This is in accordance with the statement that “as [a man] thinketh in his heart, so is he.” (Prov. 23:7.) When Paul, on the way to Damascus, saw the light and heard the voice of the Lord, his question was, “Lord, what wilt thou have me to do?” (Acts 9:6.) Until we come to the place where we need only to know the will of the Lord in order to start to do it, we are not really converted.
Having considered, to some extent, the meaning of conversion, perhaps we should consider something about how it takes place in a human soul. In talking to a number of people who have experienced conversion in their lives—people who have come out of the world into the kingdom of God—four basic experiences seem to stand out. One, or a combination, of these four themes runs as a thread through the fabric of a convert’s testimony. Converts are profoundly impressed with:
1. The Book of Mormon. Many feel that this is the key to their conversion. Often they say, “I read the Book of Mormon and I knew it was true.” When you know the Book of Mormon is true you are also convinced that Jesus is the Christ, the Eternal God, manifesting himself to all nations, that “the holy scriptures [the Bible] are true, and that God does inspire men and call them to his holy work in this age and generation, as well as in generations of old.” (D&C 20:11.)
2. Prayer. Many converts confess that they have never prayed in their lives before being introduced to the restored gospel, even though they had been members of another church all their lives. When they finally went down on their knees to the Lord in humble, sincere prayer, they knew the gospel is true, and then they were able to call upon the Lord for strength to change their lives.
3. The missionaries. Many converts are tremendously impressed with the young men or women who come to them in the name of the Lord. They are amazed at their wisdom and the authority with which they speak. It is not uncommon to hear new converts say of the missionaries, “Their appearance was not striking, their diction and grammar were less than perfect, they did not possess great worldly knowledge, but there was just something about them that convinced me that what they were saying was true; in fact, I knew they were telling me the truth.” (No More Strangers, Bookcraft, 1971, 1:viii.)
4. The Church members. A convert’s association with Latter-day Saints, in which he feels their true love and concern, is often a new and inspiring experience. He gains strength from the members who have overcome some of the things with which he is still struggling.
Perhaps an actual account of a conversion could be helpful to see how these principles work in us to produce this miracle of conversion. Some years ago when I was a relatively new convert to the Church, I was living in Arlington, Virginia, surrounded by nonmember families. Within a one-week period, two new families moved into my neighborhood. One was located directly behind my home and the other was directly across the street in front of it. I was working for the U.S. Department of Agriculture at the time, and my assignment caused me to do much traveling. I was away about one-half of the time.
I came home one Friday evening and found that I had a new neighbor across my backyard fence and that he had cut a hole in my chain link fence and installed a gate in it. Now, I considered this a very neighborly act. He had not charged me for the gate; in fact, I had never even met the man, so I went over to his home to get acquainted with him and tell him how much I appreciated the gate in my fence. I have found that if you consider everyone you meet a potential member of the Church, it will temper your response to certain stimuli you receive from time to time. You cannot afford to offend anyone. When you offend, you lose. The Lord uses the expression “in mildness and in meekness” (D&C 38:41) to express the way we are to tell people about the Church.
The new neighbor’s name was McKoy. He was from North Carolina and, sure enough, he had a lot of great qualities that would make him a tremendous Latter-day Saint. To enumerate a few, he was a salesman by trade, and a good salesman, too. He really knew how to close a sale. I have found in my experience that good salesmen have little or no sales resistance whatsoever. If you have a good product to sell or promote, a good salesman is a prime prospective buyer.
Also, this new neighbor was easy to talk to—a gregarious individual. This is always a good sign; frankness and forthrightness usually bespeak basic honesty, which must exist if a witness is to be borne to the heart. In addition, he was the head of his family. He audibly and obviously presided over his family. I remember remarking to my wife after that first visit with my new neighbor that he was a good man and that he would join the Church.
I became vitally involved with the McKoy family. Every time I observed him doing anything contrary to the principles of the gospel, I’d talk to him about it. For instance, one Sunday morning I came out of my house on the way to priesthood meeting and found my new neighbor planting strawberries in his backyard. I leaned over the backyard fence and said, “Mac, all of your strawberry plants will die.” Surprised, he wanted to know why. “Because you are planting them on the Sabbath. You can’t expect strawberry plants to live that are planted on the Sabbath.” Mac laughed heartily at such a ridiculous notion, but they all died—every one of them.
Some time later I took occasion to ask Mac about his strawberries. He said, “I can’t understand it. They all died.”
I said, “Remember what I told you? That they would all die? You couldn’t expect those plants to live, being planted on the Sabbath.”
Mac considered that statement for a moment and said, “You work for the Department of Agriculture, don’t you?”
Mac decided his strawberry plants had been cursed—he had made many successful Sabbath-day plantings in the past; why did this one fail? As I think about it, I felt impelled to tell him his strawberry plants would not live. I am persuaded that the Lord took care of those plants. I have found that the Lord loves to stand behind his servants and he does it at every opportunity.
Some time later Mac told me he had just thrown two elders from his church out of his home. I asked him why. He said, “They came to collect my contribution pledge.” I asked what that was and he indicated it was his practice to pledge a certain amount of money to his church each year. This year he didn’t feel he could contribute the amount he had pledged, so the elders from his church had come to encourage him. Mac had been offended and asked them to leave his home.
Now, it might appear that this would not be the best time to speak of tithing to Mac McKoy, but for some reason I felt impressed to pursue the subject. I said, “Mac, did you know that ten percent of what you earn does not belong to you?” Mac didn’t understand so I continued. “Ten percent of your earnings belong to the Lord.”
Mac said, “Tell me about tithing, would you please?” I didn’t know at the time, but Mac told me much later that he had been praying to the Lord to understand tithing, wondering how he could possibly pay tithing when he was already spending ten percent more than he earned.
I took occasion to tell Mac everything I knew about tithing. Among other things, I told him President Heber J. Grant’s story about the Sunday School teacher who took ten big red apples into her little Junior Sunday School class and asked how many of her pupils would return one apple to her if she gave them all ten apples. Every member of the class responded enthusiastically in the affirmative. The teacher then likened this analogy to the payment of tithing where the Lord gives each of us everything we have but only asks for one-tenth of it to be returned to him. President Grant added, “What most of us do is cut the tenth apple in half, hold up one half to the Lord, and ask him to take a bite.” I said to Mac, “It seems to me you fit the illustration. You’re only offering the Lord a small bite.”
Mac thought about this situation and finally said, “Yes, I can understand that. I believe what you say is true.”
Well, when Mac said he believed in paying tithing, I knew he was ready to hear the message of the restoration, so I said, “Mac, there are going to be two young men from the Church in my home next Thursday evening. They have come all the way from Salt Lake City, Utah, to talk to you about the Church. We have just been scratching the surface in our conversations about the gospel over the past six months, but they will give you the full story. Why don’t you bring your wife Betty and your four children and come over? Besides, when we finish with our discussion we’re going to have a nice dessert.” I knew he couldn’t turn down dessert.
Well, Mac came. I’m not sure whether he came for dessert or not, but he came and brought his wife and his four children. The missionaries did a great job in presenting the first proselyting discussion. Surely the Lord speaks through 19-year-old young men and he speaks eloquently. Mac and his family were tremendously impressed with these missionaries. My wife had also invited the new neighbor who had moved in across the street, so we had both families together in our living room for the missionary proselyting discussions.
The meetings went forward each Thursday evening for six weeks. After the third meeting, both of the investigator families asked to be baptized. I had the privilege of baptizing Mac, his wife Betty, and his two daughters. As I recall, we confirmed Mac a member of the Church and then ordained him a teacher. I remember telling Mac that if he would really apply himself, he would be able to baptize his son Bob, who would be baptismal age in nine months. This appealed to Mac. He wanted to be the spiritual leader of his family. As a matter of fact, I have never met or known a man who did not want to be the leader of his family. It is a God-given right.
So Mac prepared himself and did in fact baptize his son nine months later. A short time after he baptized his son, he was ordained an elder and was called on a stake mission. Mac baptized 28 people his first year as a stake missionary. He had friends all over town. He would call on friends and invite them to accompany him to a baptismal service. He wanted them to feel the special spirit of such an occasion. I’ve heard him introduce his friends as “investigators.” His friends didn’t even know what an investigator was, but they surely received special attention from all involved in the baptismal service. Those who are attending Church for the first time surely need to feel the love and special concern of the members.
Mac has continued to bring his friends and acquaintances into the Church. Since he and his family were baptized 15 years ago, he has personally baptized 112 people into the Church. He is a real estate broker by trade, and, when he picks up a good family in his business pursuits who are in the market to buy a home, he endeavors to locate them in his ward. He is precisely honest with them with respect to the home they buy, which they always appreciate. When moving time arrives, Mac arranges through the bishop for assistance from the ward priesthood quorums. Food is brought into the home by the Latter-day Saint neighbors. Help in locating schools, shopping areas, bus schedules, getting utilities turned on, and newspapers delivered comes through the local seventies quorum members at Mac’s request. When it comes time for the new family to begin attending Church, it is quite natural for Mac to take them, where they also meet their new neighborhood friends. In a short time, a new family has experienced the miracle of conversion and is baptized.
It is most interesting to see the real changes that have taken place in the McKoy family in general and in Mac in particular. First, the McKoy family is now an eternal family unit, having been sealed for time and eternity in the house of the Lord by the same authority that Jesus gave to Peter. Not only are they bound on earth but are also bound in heaven. Mac still presides over his family, but now with persuasion, tenderness, kindness, and love unfeigned.
Second, those two daughters have both married returned missionaries in the temple. Third, the oldest son, Bob, is serving in the mission field as an ambassador of the Lord Jesus Christ, a full-time missionary. Fourth, the next son, Steve, is soon to depart on his mission. Fifth, there is a fifth child, Tina, a bonus on Mac’s membership in the Church, because he learned the object and design of his creation. Sixth, Mac is a high priest and is a temple worker in the Washington Temple. Seventh, Mac has taught early morning seminary for the past eight years, where he has touched the lives of hundreds of young church members in the northern Virginia area. Eighth, I have heard Mac bear his testimony in testimony meeting that he gives more to the Church in one month today than was his whole annual pledge to his former church, and he had asked the elders of his former church to leave his home when they came to collect his pledge.
It is amazing what a man will do if he knows the Lord wants him to do it. I care not who it is. If you can manifest to almost any man what the Lord wants him to do and he knows it, he will come very, very close to performing the act. I believe this is true primarily because all men are offspring of the same Heavenly Father and we all react similarly to the same given stimulus. Mac is not the same man he was. He is converted, which is the fundamental qualification for citizenship in the kingdom of God and, coupled with endurance, is the guarantee of eternal life. May it be so with us all.