Conversion describes a process called salvation. It is unfortunate that the word is not often used because it describes the heart change that so many people ignore whether it be evangelists or others who advise people how to believe. We do well if we do something which Philip did in Acts 8:37. After being asked permission to be baptized, he said, “If you believe with all your heart, you may.” Do note how he was asked to believe with all his heart.
The point is that faith precedes baptism. Saul had already had heart adjustments that indicate he was ready for baptism. This is what Saul (later was the famous Paul the Apostle) later taught. We are saved by grace through faith, not by works (Ephesians 2:8-9).
Ephesians 2:1-3 clearly describe that we all are dead spiritually before coming to know the Lord. We have no ability to choose the gospel. Both the Ethiopian eunuch (8:36) and Saul (9:20) proclaimed that Jesus was the ‘Son of God.’ Yet Jesus said that this revelation came about only by God’s special work in an individual.
Salvation then begins by converting our hearts (called regeneration, ‘born again,’ or circumcision of the heart) which enables us to love and understand the truths of the gospel. This new life is given by God’s grace which is well likened to the wind in the famous passage of John 3. It expresses itself by faith in the gospel and obedience to God’s word such as in baptism. We must stress the importance of God’s Word in both cases. They had the scriptures but needed to hear the gospel so that they were saved. This conversion process will bring a person in God’s presence so that they can sense their sins, repent from them and believe on the Lord Jesus Christ. It is not helpful to get much more detailed in the exact time. The scriptures simply do not speak any more intricately than this.
What happens first? How do you know?
Some people assert that baptism comes with conversion. This is wrong. Although we will agree that baptism is an essential act of obedience to following Christ, it is not essential to a person’s salvation. The sinner on the cross was saved though was not baptized.
More important is to realize that God is working in a heart when a person is humbled by His sin and desirous of following Christ. Certain aspects are more emphasized in some people’s conversions than others but all are necessary. Jonathan Edward’s A Narrative of Surprising Conversions is an excellent book to better understand conversions especially in the excessiveness of revivals.
How much intervention from God is involved in salvation?
God intervened in these two men’s salvation. The Lord appointed men to bring the gospel to them, but it was not limited to this by any means. Special words and visions were given to people including Saul. The Holy Scriptures were miraculously provided beforehand. And the special voice and light that brought Saul to the ground was all part of God’s intervention.
Many people struggle over whether God’s intervention interferes with man’s free will. Free will is not a biblical concept, at least as it is often referred to. God is not as many think breaking some moral ethic by bringing changes to the lives of the people that He created. On the other hand, God is not breaking the aspect of the will. Conversion as in the Ethiopian eunuch and Saul was something they desired. A road does not control a driver, but it does influence his decisions.
God blends this together by first awakening our hearts to respond to Him and thus causing us to be irresistibly attracted to Him and His Word. We then desire to respond to His holy person though grieved over our sin. This makes us look for a Savior (a way to be saved). Instead of trying to censor God for intervening in our lives, we should celebrate His saving us.
Christians are only so strong as that they are aware of the great grace given to them at salvation. If we stress our ‘decision’ or our will, then we are missing the issue. God intervened before then so that we could respond. We like Saul need to be fully humbled at our sin and turn to the Savior with all sense of appreciation and dedication.