First of all, why am I asking this question? Three reasons:
1. Because in our delicate and dangerous setting of global religious pluralism, how we speak about our aims can get us kicked out of a country or worse.
2. Because we want to follow Paul’s pattern of honesty: "But we have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God” (2 Corinthians 4:2).
3. Because we need biblical clarity about our role in converting others to Christ, lest we shrink back from the aim of conversion for mistaken reasons.
Let’s begin with a definition.
Christian conversion is the act or process of being changed (without coercion but through our own volition) into a person who believes and treasures Jesus Christ, his saving work, and his promises above everything else, including all that we were believing or treasuring before conversion.
Given that definition, my answer to the question is Yes, all Christians should aim to convert people to faith in Jesus Christ. This is one of our aims in all we say and do. We hope and pray that everything we say and do will have this effect. In other words, our aim is not to say things and do things that are ineffectual. We desire—we hope, we yearn, we pray—that what we say and do will have this effect: that people will treasure Christ above all. Not to want this is either unbelief or lovelessness.
But to say that Christian conversion is our aim does not yet define what our role is in bringing conversion about. That’s what needs clarifying from the Bible.
And here I only want to bring one clarification: The fact that God is the ultimate and decisive cause in conversion does not mean we are not causal agents in conversion. We are. And as God’s agents in conversion we aim at it—we choose what we do and say in the hope that it will be used by God to bring about conversion.
The fact that Jesus said, “No one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father” (John 6:65), does not mean we are not instruments in bringing people to Christ. “The Spirit and the Bride [the church] say, ‘Come.’ And let the one who hears say, ‘Come’” (Revelation 22:17).
The Bible does not infer from God’s causing people to come that we should not say, “Come.” Our aim and effort is that they come. And God is decisive in whether they come. To say that we are not aiming that they come contradicts the command of Jesus (Luke 14:23), contradicts the human instrumentality of the gospel (Romans 10:13-15), and contradicts love.
Consider five other ways that the Bible talks about our role in the conversion of others.
1. Christian conversion involves spiritually blind people being able to see the glory of Christ. Though God opens the eyes of the spiritually blind (2 Corinthians 4:6), Jesus sends Paul to open their eyes.
I am sending you to open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins. (Acts 26:17-18)
For Paul to say that his aim is not to open their eyes would be disobedience to the mission Jesus gave him.
2. Christian conversion involves winning people from treasuring anything above Christ to full devotion to Christ. Though God is decisive in changing people’s affections (Jeremiah 24:7), Paul says his aim is to win people.
To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. (1 Corinthians 9:22)
For Paul to say that his aim is not to win people to Christ would contradict his mission.
3. Christian conversion involves bringing people back from the path of sin and destruction. Though God is the one who decisively brings us back to himself (Jeremiah 31:18; Isaiah 57:18), the Bible speaks of us bringing people back from sin and death.
Whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins. (James 5:20)
To say that we do not aim to bring people back from sin and death would put us out of step with this text and imply we don’t care about the death of unbelievers.
4. Christian conversion involves turning the heart toward the true God away from wrong ideas about God and wrong affections for what is not God. Though God is decisive in turning the human heart to himself (2 Thessalonians 3:5), John the Baptist was commissioned to turn the hearts of Israel to God.
He will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just.” (Luke 1:16-17)
For John the Baptist to say that he does not aim to turn the hearts of the people to God would make him disobedient to his calling.
5. Christian conversion involves being born again. Though the Spirit of God is the sovereign cause of the new birth, blowing where he wills (John 3:8), nevertheless, Peter explains that this happens through the preaching of the gospel by human beings.
You have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God. . . . And this word is the good news that was preached to you.” (1 Peter 1:23-25)
For the preacher of the gospel to say that he is not aiming at the new birth in his preaching would put him out of step with the Spirit and contradict the design of God in how people are born again.
Therefore, I conclude that it is unbiblical to say that we are not aiming at conversion because God is the decisive, ultimate cause of conversion. He is. But we are his agents, and he calls us to join him in this goal. Not to aim at it is to put ourselves out of step with his command and his Spirit.
- John Piper