One can be converted without being saved, but one cannot be saved without being converted.
The word "conversion" has, in common usage, come to be almost synonymous with "salvation." This is not true, however, in its Biblical use. "Conversion" simply means to turn, in a wide variety of ways. It can be merely a physical turning of the body, or it can be a turning of the heart to the Lord. Therefore the word "convert" is sometimes translated simply as "turn." And here is a truth not commonly realized in connection with the word. One can convert or turn away from the Lord, as well as to Him.
Notice the use of the word in the following passages. In each case, the italicized words are the translation of the Greek words epistrepho or epistrophe, which simply mean to revert or reversion.
"For this people's heart is waxed gross, and their ears are dull of hearing, and their eyes they have closed; lest at any time they should see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and should understand with their heart, and should be converted, and I should heal them" (Matt. 13:15).
"But Jesus turned Him about, and when He saw her, He said, Daughter, be of good comfort; thy faith hath made thee whole" (Matt. 9:22).
"And her spirit came again, and she arose straightway: and He commanded to give her meat" (Lk. 8:55).
"And if he trespass against thee seven times in a day, and seven times in a day turn again to thee, saying, I repent; thou shalt forgive him" (Lk. 17:4).
"And some days after Paul said unto Barnabas, Let us go again and visit our brethren in every city where we have preached the Word of the Lord, and see how they do" (Acts 15:36).
"For they themselves show of us what manner of entering in we had unto you, and how ye turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God" (I Thess. 1:9).
"For ye were as sheep going astray; but are now returned unto the Shepherd and Bishop of your souls" (I Pet. 2:25).
We have already mentioned that the word "convert" can mean to turn from God as well as turn to Him, and we see this illustrated by the use of the word in Paul's Epistle to the Galatians, and Peter's Second Epistle:
"But now, after ye have known God, or rather are known of God, how turn ye again to the weak and beggarly elements, whereunto ye desire again to be in bondage " (Gal. 4:9).
"For it had been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than, after they have known it, to turn from the holy commandment delivered unto them. But it is happened unto them according to the true proverb, "The dog is turned to his own vomit again and the sow that was washed to her wallowing in the mire" (II Pet. 2:21, 22).
Thus we can see that conversion speaks of any kind of turning and does not necessarily imply turning to the Lord for salvation. One may be converted to certain beliefs which he did not formerly hold. One may be converted to religion, to church membership, or to reformation without turning to the Lord Jesus Christ at all. Such conversions would not constitute salvation, of course, for no one can be saved apart from the grace of God in Christ. "Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved" (Acts 4:12).
Nevertheless, when the Scripture writers speak of the conversion of sinners, their writings do imply salvation, speaking of a whole-hearted turning to God through Christ. In Peter's sermon in Solomon's porch of the temple, he told the Jews: "But ye denied the Holy One and the Just, and desired a murderer to be granted unto you; and killed the Prince of life, whom God hath raised from the dead; whereof we are witnesses. ... Repent ye therefore, and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out, when the times of refreshing shall come from the presence of the Lord" (Acts 3:14-19).
True conversion, then, is the turning to God which brings salvation, resulting in the forgiveness of sins. "Brethren, if any of you do err from the truth, and one convert him; let him know, that he which converteth the sinner from the error of his way, shall save a soul from death, and shall hide a multitude of sins" (Jas. 5:19, 20).
The Lord Jesus, when He was here, desired so much (as He had done for centuries before) that Israel might turn to Him with their hearts and that so He might heal their terrible malady of sin, but they would not. When His disciples asked Him why He spoke to the people in parables, He answered: "Therefore speak I to them in parables: because they seeing see not; and hearing they hear not, neither do they understand. And in them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah, which saith, By hearing ye shall hear, and shall not understand; and seeing ye shall see, and shall not perceive: for this people's heart is waxed gross, and their ears are dull of hearing, and their eyes they have closed; lest at any time they should see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and should understand with their heart, and should be converted, and I should heal them" (Matt. 13:13-15).
When Peter healed palsied Aeneas at Lydda, "all that dwelt at Lydda and Sharon saw him, and turned [converted] to the Lord" (Acts 9:35). We read that when some of the early disciples, "men of Cyprus and Cyrene...were come to Antioch" (Acts 11:20), they preached the Lord Jesus, "the hand of the Lord was with them: and a great number believed, and turned [converted] unto the Lord" (vs. 21), and here again we see that true conversion is evidenced by true faith in the Lord Jesus Christ as Saviour.
Again, when Paul healed the impotent man at Lystra, the people said: "The gods are come down to us in the likeness of men" (Acts 14:11). Then "the priest of Jupiter, which was before their city, brought oxen and garlands unto the gates, and would have done sacrifice with the people" (vs. 13). It was then that Paul and Barnabas ran in among the people, and said: "Sirs, why do ye these things? We also are men of like passions with you, and preach unto you that ye should turn [convert] from these vanities unto the living God, which made heaven, and earth, and the sea, and all things that are therein." (vs. 15). This was the very thing which the Thessalonians did; they "turned [converted] to God from idols to serve the living and true God; and to wait for His Son from heaven, whom He raised from the dead, even Jesus, which delivered us from the wrath to come" (I Thess. 1:9, 10).
Paul wrote to the Corinthians of the blindness which is upon Israel's heart, that "their minds were blinded: for even until this day remaineth the same vail untaken away in the reading of the Old Testament; which vail is done away in Christ. But even unto this day, when Moses is read, the veil is upon their heart. Nevertheless when it shall turn [be converted] to the Lord, the vail shall be taken away" (II Cor. 3:14-16). And while the apostle is speaking here of the Jews, he goes on to tell us in the next chapter that all the unsaved have a like blindness, "in whom the god of this world hath blinded the minds of them which believe not, lest the light of the glorious Gospel of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine unto them" (II Cor. 4:4). In each case, spiritual blindness is lifted only by genuine conversion, "when it [the heart] shall turn to the Lord."
In connection with salvation, let us notice what Paul testified to King Agrippa—that the Lord Jesus had appeared to him on the Damascus Road, telling Paul: "I have appeared unto thee for this purpose, to make thee a minister and witness both of those things which thou hast seen, and those things in the which I will appear unto thee; delivering thee from the people, and from the Gentiles, unto whom now I send thee, to open their eyes, and to turn [convert] them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan unto God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins, and inheritance among them which are sanctified by faith that is in Me. Whereupon, O King Agrippa, I was not disobedient unto the heavenly vision: but showed first unto them of Damascus, and at Jerusalem, and throughout all the coasts of Judaea, and then to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn [be converted] unto God, and do works meet for repentance" (Acts 26: 16-20).
Such are the accompaniments of genuine conversion. The eyes of the heart, once blinded, now see spiritual truth. Instead of darkness within, there is light; and whereas Satan held us in his power, now we are free to serve our Redeemer-Lord. Our sins are forgiven, never to be remembered any more; we are "heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ" (Rom. 8:17), and "we are sanctified through the offering of Jesus Christ once for all" (Heb. 10:10). Those who have heeded the tender and compassionate call of the Saviour and have turned to Him, have been "blessed...with all spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ" (Eph. 1:3). No wonder, then, that when Paul and Barnabas, on their way to Jerusalem for the first church council, "passed through Phoenicia and Samaria, declaring the conversion of the Gentiles...they caused great joy unto all the brethren" (Acts 15:3).
Conversion has an application to the Christian too. In our lives there is often the need of turning back to God, just as there was need of Peter's return to fellowship after he denied the Lord Jesus. "And the Lord said, Simon, Simon, behold, Satan hath desired to have you, that he may sift you as wheat: but I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not: and when thou art converted, strengthen thy brethren" (Lk. 22:31, 32). It is only the believer who is being continually converted, who is continually confessing and turning from his sins, that has any testimony to the unsaved. David, after confessing his sin with Bathsheba, prayed: "Restore unto me the joy of Thy salvation; and uphold me with Thy free Spirit. Then will I teach transgressors Thy ways; and sinners shall be converted unto Thee" (Psa. 51:12, 13).
The human heart is proud and rebellious, seeking its own way and ready to trample the rights of others. Worst of all, it is defiant toward God. Therefore there must be a turning toward God before He can save, great as His love for the sinner is. Nor must we who by grace know the Lord forget that we need to turn toward Him, moment by moment, in true humility of mind and heart. Let us recall the time when our Lord's disciples came unto Him, saying: "Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven? And Jesus called a little child unto Him, and set him in the midst of them, and said, Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven. Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven."
Copied for WholesomeWords.org from Great Doctrines Relating to Salvation by John B. Marchbanks. Neptune, NJ: Loizeaux Brothers, 1970. Chapter 2.
Selections from Great Doctrines Relating to Salvation