Conversion to Christianity is the religious conversion of a previously non-Christian person to some form of Christianity. It has been called the foundational experience of Christian life. Conversion to Christianity primarily involves belief (faith) in God, repentance of sin, and confession of Jesus Christ as the Son of God. While conversion to Christianity may simply involve a personal choice to identify with Christianity rather than with another religion, many Christians understand it to mean that the individual attains eternal salvation by a genuine conversion experience or act—a "radical transformation of self."
Conversion has also been described as the point of transition from "natural life" to spiritual life. In this sense it is seen as both a "radical change of heart and life" and also a more gradual process in which the convert's spiritual nature develops through Christian culture and education.
According to theologian Charles Curran, conversion is the central moral message of Jesus. He describes it as an "awakening to a consciousness of the presence of divine reality" in one's life. The Gospel of Matthew quotes Jesus as teaching, "Truly I say to you, unless you are converted and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven."
Social scientists have shown great interest in the Christian conversion as a religious experience that believers describe as strengthening their faith and changing their lives.
Not to be confused with Conversion to Christianity is Christianization, defined as the "reformulation of social relations, cultural meanings, and personal experience in terms of (commonly accepted or supposed) Christian ideals." It typically has involved efforts to systematically convert an entire continent or culture from existing beliefs to Christianity.
Some New Testament examples
As Luke tells the story, it was the miraculous catch of fish that awakened Peter's consciousness to an awareness that there was more to Jesus than meets the eye. Peter found himself in the presence of someone or something which elicited from him that most natural of all gestures of awe, reverence, and holy fear—he fell on his knees. This gesture was accompanied by a confession of his own wretched condition: "Leave me, Lord; I am a sinful man" (5:9). Once again, however, this insight is incomplete. Immediately a new life, a new direction is held out to Peter. "Do not be afraid; from now on it is men you will catch" (11a). And Peter followed Jesus, leaving everything behind.
An even more dramatic conversion to Christianity occurred in the life of the Apostle Paul whose pre-conversion name was Saul. He was a zealot for the cause of first century conservative Judaism who had been "breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord" (v. 1). While traveling to Damascus to arrest Christians, he fell to the ground upon being surrounded by a bright light "from heaven." He heard a voice accusing him: "Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?" (v. 4). The experience rendered him temporarily blind. The voice directed him to go on to Damascus where he received his sight again, was described as being filled with the Holy Spirit, and began to passionately proclaim the Christian gospel (good news).
Hanigan perceives a common "death and rebirth" experience in these and other conversions which he describes as "encounters with the living God." His analysis is that these individuals responded not so much out of a sense of guilt, but from their awe, reverence, and holy fear of God's presence. The pattern, he writes, begins with God taking initiative in the individual's life. Then, the person responds by acknowledging and confessing personal lostness and sinfulness, and then accepting a call to holiness.
Methods and procedures vary
The exact understanding of what it means to attain salvation varies somewhat among denominations. The procedure for conversion itself depends on the sponsoring denomination and hinges on meeting the ritual and substantive requirements for such conversion. A person converting to Christianity often chooses to experience baptism as a sign of their conversion. It is required by some Churches and denominations as a prerequisite to membership.
Some Churches and denominations believe that baptism is essential for salvation, though most do not. Conversion is generally understood to be undertaken by a person who explicitly chooses to convert. In some denominations, this may include any person above the age of reason (typically between seven and 14 years of age, according to denomination). The official reception is usually preceded by a period of instruction in the faith.
Conversion through salvation
Conversion through salvation is predominantly a Protestant Christian position. It is variously called being "saved," "born again," and "converted." It holds that conversion to Christianity begins with salvation. A major tenet of the Protestant Reformation was that "Justification," i.e., salvation," is attained by faith alone (Sola Fide). The exact understanding of what it means to attain salvation varies somewhat among denominations. It primarily involves belief (faith) in God, repentance of sin, and confession of Jesus Christ as the Son of God. In some denominations, these are all accomplished through the sinner's prayer.
The Protestant position further asserts that (1) all things necessary for salvation and concerning faith and life are taught in the Bible clearly enough for the ordinary believer to find it there and understand; and (2) Scripture alone (Sola Scriptura) is their authority.
Protestants typically view profession of faith in Christ as savior (salvation) as the only step of conversion to Christianity. To them, baptism has more to do with public confession of faith in Christ than with salvation. They consider being baptized as identifying the individual with Christ through Christ's death, burial, and resurrection of Christ, and being obedient to Christ's command, but as having nothing to do with one's eternal salvation. Proponents find biblical support for this understanding the account of the "penitent" thief also hanging on another cross asking Jesus to "…remember me when You come in Your kingdom!" Jesus' straightforward reply was "Today, you will be with me in paradise." They point out that Jesus offered him unconditional salvation, apparently without necessity for baptism or any other prerequisite, based solely on the man's belief and confession. Further evidence is taken from the biblical implication that Jesus never personally baptized anyone: "In fact it was not Jesus who baptized, but his disciples." That interpretation, taken together with the New Testament's consistent representation of Jesus as "savior," leads them to their conclusion that baptism is not necessary for salvation.
Evangelical, Fundamentalist, and Pentecostal Christians emphasize the need for a conversion experience that involves a personal, and sometimes intense, encounter of the individual with the power of God. Generally, these denominations teach that those without such a conversion experience are not "saved" and therefore are not true Christians. These groups frequently refer to personal salvation as being "born again." This term comes from Jesus' conversation with a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a member of the Jewish ruling council. Jesus told him, "no one can see the kingdom of God without being born again." 
Most other Protestant denominations place less emphasis on a conversion experience and rely mostly on the individual's personal statement of belief in and commitment to Jesus Christ as "Lord" and "Savior." They would expect the "convert" to receive believer's baptism to join the church.
Conversions/transfers to another Christian denomination
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In groups and denominations that practice believer's baptism, all people who declare themselves "being born again" and who have not previously been baptized as a believer are (re-)baptized, as baptism is not seen as a sacrament, but as a ritual expression of an interior conversion.
Some denominations accept one's baptism performed by another denomination. Nearly always, the baptism must have been with water and performed in the name of the Trinity. Such converts are usually received by a formal rite which normally also includes taking Communion in the denomination.
In the Catholic, Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox Churches, converts also receive the sacrament of Confirmation/Chrismation at reception into the Church, except when they come from a Church about which it is accepted that the sacrament has been administered validly (as in the case of an Eastern Orthodox person converting to Catholicism).
In the Latin Church (the largest branch of the Roman Catholic Church), children who convert after having attained the age of reason, but before confirmation age, are generally not confirmed until they have attained that age. In the Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox Churches, where infants are chrismated and receive First Communion at baptism, there is no such limitation.
(See Baptism comparative summary).
The majority of Protestant churches practice infant baptism. However, most do not deem baptism as absolutely essential for salvation. They view it to be a sacrament or ordinance that is an outward symbolic sign of one's identification with Christ and membership in the Christian community. Protestants that do not practice infant baptism include Apostolics, Baptists, Disciples of Christ,Churches of Christ, Pentecostals, and Seventh-day Adventists.
- Hanigan, James P. "Conversion and Christian Ethics." Online: http://theologytoday.ptsem.edu/apr1983/v40-1-article3.htm. Accessed 17 June 2009
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- Rhodes, Ron. Complete Guide to Christian Denominations. Harvest House, 2005. ISBN 0736912894
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