The Sovereignty of God in Conversion


The advance of the kingdom of God and the fulfillment of the Great Commission is dependent on the active gospel ministry of the church and the active sovereignty of God. God uses the proclamation of the gospel to regenerate sinners (Rom. 10:17; cf. Jam. 1:21). Every time you have a gospel conversation over lunch with a lost friend or relative; every time a preacher expounds the gospel from the pulpit or stage; every time a missionary shares the gospel for the first time in an unreached people group; the sovereign will of God is the ultimate determinant in the conversion of a lost sinner.

This is exactly how all Christians came to Christ. Christian, do you remember your conversion? Do you remember when you heard the gospel? How did you feel when your sin was confronted with the holiness of God and his grace in the person and work of Jesus on your behalf? Maybe a more appropriate question for our purposes here is: Why did you go from rebelling against God to putting all of your hope in him? Humanly speaking, it makes no sense for rebels to all of a sudden submit to the king they have waged war against. However, God insures that both his purpose of election and the work of Christ would not be in vain through the sovereign conversion of dead hearts (Eph. 2:1-3).

The book of Acts is full of examples of the sovereign purposes of God in the conversion of sinners. In Acts, Luke is recording the advance of the gospel and the growth of the kingdom from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). The means of such advance and growth is the gospel, the vehicle is the church, and the power is the sovereignty of God. As you go about your day interacting with countless lost people, be confident and unafraid in sharing the gospel because ultimately it is God who grants repentance and faith. I see five examples in the book of Acts of God’s sovereignty in conversion. Check these out and marvel with me at the God of our salvation.

Conversion of the Three Thousand (Acts 2:37-41)

Firstly, following Peter’s first sermon three thousand souls were added to the church. The church grew and the gospel advanced in the conversion of three thousand. The ultimate reason for this is the regenerating grace of God through his Spirit. After hearing Peter’s proclamation of the gospel, the people were “cut to the heart” (2:37). Was every heart pierced by Peter’s sermon? At least three thousand hearts were cut, but were there some left further hardened against the apostles and their Christ? The text does not directly answer this question, but it seems likely that not every person present was convicted of their sin against God only to find salvation in Christ. So, what is the reason for the effect of the sermon in the hearts of the three thousand? Answer: the sovereign grace of God. Without being cut to the heart, these hearers would not have responded “Brothers, what shall we do?”

This conviction and inquiry led to conversion. Period. God is not seen as simply convicting and softening hearts only to offer salvation through repentance and faith. God effectually saves because he is utterly sovereign over those he would save. I. Howard Marshall sees no significance in the phrase that translates, “cut to the heart,” other than the fact that Peter’s hearers were convicted under sin.[1] It seems, however, that for a group so hardened as to, at the very least, having been indifferent to the murder of an innocent man to desire repentance is nothing short of miraculous. In fact, in contrast to these three thousand who were cut to the heart when hearing the gospel message, when the Council heard this same message, they “were enraged and wanted to kill them” (5:33).

Conviction of sin seems always to be significant and in light of the picture Luke has painted of God’s sovereignty thus far, it seems likely that mentioning the conviction of these Jews with such strong language is indicative of God’s sovereign goodness. It can further be established that it is God who is playing a sovereign role in salvation from the nature of the early church. Luke summarizes in Acts 2:42-47 the activity of the early church. Luke mentions the growth of the church at the end of this section giving the glory to God. “And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved” (2:47). It was God who was adding to their number day by day. Again, Luke conveys God’s sovereignty in salvation. God was in control of the conversion of the Jews that would make up the early church. The church grew and the gospel advanced through the sovereignty of God in the conversion of sinners.

Conversion of the Ethiopian Eunuch (Acts 8:26-40)

In the conversion of the Ethiopian eunuch the sovereignty of God is on full display. As the gospel is advancing and the church is growing into Judea and Samaria (see 1:8), the first of the Gentiles is converted under the sovereign grace of God.[2] This is seen in many ways. Firstly, it is the Spirit of God that directs Philip to “Go over and join this chariot” (8:29). Secondly, although the eunuch was reading from Isaiah, the message of the passage is unclear to him. He needs a guide (8:31). Ben Witherington picks up on the sovereignty of God in this passage when he writes, “An especial stress is placed throughout this narrative on God’s engineering of this conversion, and thus that it is part of God’s plan.” Witherington continues by saying that Philip’s hearing of the Eunuch’s reading was “providential” and the two came upon a body of water “not accidentally.”[3] God’s sovereignty and salvation meet in the conversion of this eunuch. Because of the sovereignty of God, the gospel advanced and the church grew even among the Gentiles.

Conversion of Saul (Acts 9:1-19)

Perhaps most noticeably, God’s sovereignty shines like a glorious light from the pages of Luke’s account of the conversion of Saul. Saul was a Jewish persecutor of the Christian church, and a violent persecutor at that (9:13; cf. 1 Cor. 15:9; Gal. 1:13-14; Phil. 3:6). Witherington believes that the conversion of Saul is quite possibly “the most important event that Luke records in Acts.”[4] His conversion is definitely unique, as he actually sees the risen Lord Jesus. God’s sovereignty is seen in this passage as Christ actually speaks to Saul. Saul receives the gospel directly from the mouth of God. Saul was also a “chosen instrument” (σχευος εχλογης) even before he was a believer. This is evidence of God’s sovereign purpose of election. Paul would become a missionary to the Jews and Gentiles, and would carry the gospel to the end of the earth (1:8). God advances the gospel and grows his church in such a way that only his sovereignty could be the cause. Only one who is in control of all things could use a persecutor of the church to expand the church from Jerusalem to Rome. In the words of Joseph Fitzmyer, “The call of Saul…remains one of the great wonders of divine grace in the history not only of Christianity but of the world.”[5] Because of the sovereignty of God, the gospel advanced and the church grew even among Christ’s greatest enemy.

Conversion of Lydia (Acts 16:11-15)

As the gospel is taken into Philippi, Luke records the conversion of Lydia. While many things are at hand in this passage (i.e. Lydia’s hospitality, gospel penetration of Macedonia and a Roman colony, etc.) the main point of this passage is Lydia’s conversion. In fact, conversion finds a concise and basic definition in this passage. Marshall comments, “Luke underlines that conversion is due to the action of God who opens the hearts, i.e. the minds, of men and women to receive his Word.”[6] John Polhill is a bit inconsistent in his comment on Lydia’s conversion. At one point he says that “God responded to her faith and opened her heart”. However, two lines later, Polhill asserts, “As always with divine grace, it was God’s Spirit moving in her heart that led to faith.”[7] It seems that this divine grace that led to faith is the opening of her heart. God in his sovereignty in salvation, opened Lydia’s heart by means of the Spirit’s regenerating grace. Nevertheless, Lydia’s conversion is a direct product of God’s sovereign grace to open her heart, whereas he seems to not extend this grace to the other women present. Salvation is solely due to God’s sovereignty.

Conversion of a Philippian Jailer (Acts 16:25-34)

The theme of God’s sovereignty in salvation through conversions continues with the conversion of a jailer in Philippi. The conversion of this jailer falls within a miraculous context. Paul and Silas have been beaten with rods and thrown into the “inner prison” with their feet fastened in stocks (16:22-24). In prison, Paul and Silas demonstrate their unaltered joy in God through prayer and the singing of hymns to God (16:25). As fellow prisoners listened to this boast of praise from Paul and Silas, an earthquake shook the foundations of the prison opening every cell door and unfastening every chain (16:26). Overwhelmed with guilt and fear, the jailer sought to kill himself, but Paul assured him that the prisoners had not fled the scene. This event led the jailer to cry out, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” (16:30). Paul and Silas responded by proclaiming the gospel to the man, calling him to believe in Jesus (16:31). The jailer trusted Christ and was baptized (16:33).

The only way to explain the jailer’s conversion is to understand it as a work of the sovereign God. Luke does not provide a glimpse into the mind of the jailer. All that is written is the jailer’s obvious recognition of his need for salvation and desire for salvation. From whence came such a recognition and desire? It must be directly related to the divine salvation of Paul and Silas from prison. The jailer is no doubt amazed that an earthquake freed every prisoner from his cell and chains, but he was must have seen a “divine sign” in the fact that the inmates had not escaped, sparing the jailer punishment.[8] The sovereign miracle God worked in freeing every prisoner caused the jailer to consider the grand possibility that he might be released from the bondage of his sin. Such conviction can only be wrought by the sovereign grace and call of God. The order of events in this passage seems to indicate that at the very least, the earthquake “arrested his attention and prepared his heart to receive Paul’s message.”[9]

The theme is continued. God is actively and sovereignly working out salvation in those for whom his Son bled and died. Salvation is once again seen as an undeserved gift and a divine miracle. The gospel is advancing and the church is growing through the sovereignty of God in the salvation of sinners. And this pattern continues today.

I challenge you to write out your own conversion story and maybe the conversion story of people close to you and observe the sovereignty of God all over your repentance and faith.


[1] I. Howard Marshall, Acts, vol. 5 in Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, ed. Leon Morris (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1980), 85.

[2] Joseph A. Fitzmyer, The Acts of the Apostles: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, vol. 31 in The Anchor Yale Bible, eds. William Albright and David Freedman (New York: Doubleday, 1998), 410.

[3] Ben Witherington III, The Acts of the Apostles: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1998), 293-294.

[4] Ibid., 303.

[5] Fitzmyer, 422.

[6] Marshall, 284.

[7] John Polhill, Acts, vol. 26 in The New American Commentary: An Exegetical and Theological Exposition of Holy Scripture, ed. David S. Dockery (Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 1992), 349.

[8] Witherington, 498.

[9] Polhill, 355.

396110_519885398036913_1852978654_nMathew Gilbert is a student at Boyce College (B.A. Biblical and Theological Studies, Dec. ’14). He is the author of the forthcoming book Come to the Well: 50 Meditations to Fuel Your Joy in God (CrossBooks). Mathew lives in London, KY with his wife Erica and their dog, Simba.


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