Now let us turn to the 18th chapter of Matthew's gospel and the 3rd verse. We will start at the 1st verse: "At the same time came the disciples unto Jesus, 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 [you] be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven" [verses 1-3].
About a year ago it was my privilege to be the guest of General Mark Clark at The Citadel. We were walking across the campus where I was to address the cadets at The Citadel. A cadet came up to me in his uniform and said, "Mr. Graham, you are not going to let us down, are you?" I said, "What do you mean?" He said, "You are going to tell us how to be converted, aren't you?" I went into that chapel service with that on my mind and my heart.
I want to tell you tonight what I believe God wants you to do--the first step that He wants you to take, the encounter that He wants you to have.
What about this word "conversion" which we read about in this passage? The disciples came to Jesus and said, "Who is going to be first in your kingdom?" Jesus had already said, "He that will be first must be last" [see Mark 10:31]. The requirement for entrance into heaven is true humility; not a false piety, but a true, genuine humility. It is the requirement that recognizes our need and our sin, and the greatness and the majesty of God, and a willingness to receive Christ as Savior.
So to illustrate the point, Jesus called a little child to Him and said, "Look at this little child--how trusting this little child is, how humble this child is. Before you can get to heaven, you will have to become converted like a little child. In other words, you will almost have to go back to your childhood," said Jesus. "You will have to go back to your childhood. And with that same simplicity, that same humility, that same dependence that a little child has in his parents, you will need to have in God," said Jesus.
Now a lot of people today are confused about this word "conversion." But everybody else is using it today, and I don't see why we can't use it in 1958 as Jesus used it in the first century. Everybody is using it.
The advertisers are using it. Why, they are trying to get us to be converted from one type of soap to another on television all the time. I do not know how women make up their mind about the best perfume to use. It is difficult to make up your mind about an auto-
mobile. You do not know what kind to buy because all the advertisers have such attractive advertising to convert us to their product.
Finance uses it in exchanging from one type of security to another. Forestry uses it in exchanging from one type of forest to another. Law uses it in exchange of property from one nature of property to another nature of property. Mathematics uses it in exchange of propositions and equations. The military is using it in conversion of standard weapons to nuclear weapons. Everybody's using it.
And what good is this definition--from one position or direction to another, the passing from one side to another? In other words, conversion is simply the change in which you are going in one direction in your life, and then you start in a totally different direction. That is the simple meaning of conversion. It means to turn around. It means to change.
A Chicago psychologist once said, "This generation needs converting more than any generation in history." A famous British psychologist recently said, "We are so psychologically constituted as to need converting, and if the church fails to convert people, we psychologists are going to have to do it." In other words, even psychology is recognizing the need that man has to be converted.
The question I want to ask you tonight is: Have you been converted? The Bible teaches that you must be converted to enter heaven. The psychologist teaches that you must be converted in order to get the most out of life. The question I want to ask is: Have you been converted to Jesus Christ? Do you know it? Are you sure of it?
A famous movie star wrote the other day, after she had been married the third time. She said, "I desperately hope I find happiness this time." What she needed was converting. She needed change in her life. Have you been converted?
Johnny Spence, whose testimony you heard tonight, has been converted. He has been changed. He has turned around in the way he used to live. He is now a new person. Has that happened to you? If not, it could happen to you right now, before you leave here.
Conversion is taught all the way through the Bible. Ezekiel 36:26 says this: "A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you an heart of flesh." In other words, God is saying through Ezekiel, "I can give you a new heart."
Now, the "heart" all the way through the Scriptures stands for the seat of the soul--your ego, your intelligence. The seat of your emotions is said to be in the heart. God says, "I'll take out the old heart and put in a new heart." God never patches anybody up. He never does it partially. He always performs a complete process of regeneration. And conversion means you get a new nature, you get a new heart. Have you received a new nature?
Jesus calls conversion in the gospel being born again [see John 3:7], repenting of sin [see Luke 13:3], entering a narrow gate [see Luke 13:24], and many other expressions. Call it anything you like. Call it dedication. Call it surrender. Call it conversion. Call it repentance. Call it grace. Call it anything you like. Have you had this encounter with Christ? Peter calls it in Acts repenting and being converted [see Acts 3:19]. Paul speaks of it in Romans as being alive from the dead [see Romans 6:13]. In 2 Corinthians 5:17, the verse that Johnny Spence quoted, "If any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new."
In Ephesians, Paul speaks of it as quickening, or being made alive from the dead [see 2:1]. In Colossians, Paul calls it a putting off of the old man with his deeds and "[putting] on the new man, which is renewed in knowledge after the image of him that created him" [see 3:10].
In Titus, he calls it "the washing of regeneration, and [the] renewing of the Holy [Spirit]" [3:5]. In Peter, the apostle says being made "partakers of the divine nature" [2 Peter 1:4]. In the Epistle of John, he calls it passing "from death unto life" [see 1 John 3:14].
If you pick up a Church of England catechism, it reads this way: "A death unto sin, and a new birth unto righteousness." The Bible teaches it, the church teaches it--that you must be converted for the forgiveness of your sins.
The Bible says all of us have sinned [see Romans 3:23]. You might not have done all the sins that Emory Harper did, but you are a sinner and I am a sinner. We have all come short of the glory of God. We have all failed to meet God's law requirements. Every one of us has told a lie sometime, somewhere. Every one of us has had lust in our hearts sometime, somewhere. We have sinned against God, and this sin has come between us and God. And this sin causes death--physical death, spiritual death, and eternal death. That means separation from God--hell and judgment.
Now the greatest thing in life is to find forgiveness of sin. We only have a few years here. The Bible says that our lives are spent as a tale that is told [see Psalms 90:9]. The Bible says that our lives pass quicker than a weaver's shuttle [see Job 7:6]. The Bible says that it is only a shadow [see Job 8:9]. The Bible says that it is like the flower; it blooms and fades [see 1 Peter 1:24]. Our life passes so quickly that it is soon gone. God gives us a few days, a few months, a few years to find one thing--and that is forgiveness. That is the greatest thing in life, worth more than a million dollars. That is worth more than a business empire. That is worth more than a glamorous career. That is worth more than an education. That is worth more than anything. To be forgiven of sin! God says the only way that you can be forgiven of your sins and to escape the judgment of hell is to be converted!
Secondly, you need to be converted for your acceptance by God. Because, you see, just as you are now, God cannot accept you. Why, with your present evil nature, if you went to heaven, it would be hell to you.
Suppose you went to heaven as you are. You don't enjoy a prayer service down here on earth. You don't even enjoy a church service. You go because it is a duty, something you have always done. It is traditional, but you do not particularly like to go to church. You do not particularly like to be with God's people. You do not like to read the Bible. You do not like to worship God. Why, you would be miserable in heaven, because that is all they are going to do up there! We will be worshiping God day and night. And if you could not stand that for an hour down here, you would be squirming. You would surely be in hell after the first three or four hours of being in heaven. So you don't want to go to heaven with your present nature. You see, with your present nature not changed by the power of Christ, you would be out of place up there.
Somebody asked Billy Sunday, the evangelist of several years ago, "Mr. Sunday, do you think that they will chew tobacco in heaven?" He said, "They may chew tobacco in heaven, but they will go to hell to spit." I don't know about that. But I do know that until your nature is changed, until you have been converted to God, you would be out of place up there.
Now you are a sinner. You have offended God. The Bible speaks of us as enemies of God [see Romans 5:10]. We have broken the laws of God. We deserve judgment, and we are going to get judgment.
Somebody said, "Well, all I'm asking for is justice." No, I am not asking for justice, because if I were to get justice, I would go to hell. I am not asking for justice. I want God's mercy. And I see it in Jesus Christ's death on the cross when He shed His blood for my sins. I see in His death--the love of God, the mercy of God, the grace of God extended toward me. And when I come and by faith receive His Son, I am said to be converted and changed. And God comes into my life. A new life comes in. I have become a partaker of the divine nature. And in that moment I am said to be justified, just as if I had never sinned.
In other words, God does not only forgive us; God places us back in the position that Adam was, but even higher than Adam. [See Romans 5:9.] We are justified as though we had never committed a sin, so that even God forgets our sin [see Hebrews 10:17]. We need to be converted for entrance into heaven. Jesus said, "Except ye be converted, ye shall not enter into heaven." I did not say it; Jesus said it. Do you think Jesus was lying? You haven't been converted? Then you will not get to heaven. That is what Jesus said.
You say, "Oh, we will make it somehow, for God is a wonderful God. He is a God of love, and He is a God of mercy. Certainly, He is going to get us there." Yes, He is a God of mercy, He is a God of love--"not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance" [2 Peter 3:9]. God is not only mercy, not only love and grace; God is judgment. And the wrath of God shall be poured out upon men who are outside of Christ [see Ephesians 5:6].
Would you enter heaven today? Suppose you dropped dead right where you are, would you enter the kingdom of heaven? Where would you go? Are you sure? How many of you know that you will be alive tomorrow? Not one person here! [See James 4:14.] Are you willing to gamble the next twenty-four hours, to gamble on the fact that you will live?
I believe every person in this building is counting on being in heaven. You are counting on being saved. You are counting on being received by God into heaven. Yet you have not even done what God said are the basic requirements of entrance into the kingdom. I tell you the Bible says there is going to be a place of weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth. There will be a place of outer darkness. [See Matthew 8:12; 13:42.] There will be a place of judgment. And Jesus said no one will enter the kingdom who has not been converted.
You say, "Well, Billy, what is involved in conversion? What is conversion?" Well, first there must be repentance. What does repentance mean? Repentance means to change your mind, to change your feelings, to change your purpose, to change your conduct. It is intellectual, it is emotional, it is volitional. It means that I look at my sins, and I'm willing to say to God, "I am a sinner."
I talked to a man today. And before I could get a word in edgewise, he was telling me how good he was, how much he had given away, what he was doing for other people. All of that is fine, but that does not merit your salvation. The Bible says that all our righteousness is as filthy rags in the sight of God [see Isaiah 64:6]. You can obey the Golden Rule and still not be in the kingdom of God. Nicodemus was as fine a Pharisee as ever lived. He kept the law. But Jesus said, "Nicodemus, you need to be born again." [See John 3:1-7.]A rich young ruler had kept all the commandments, but Jesus said, "If you want to enter heaven, one thing you lack. You must admit that you are a sinner." [See Mark 10:17-22.] Are you willing to admit that tonight? Intellectually you will say, "I am a sinner," recognize you are a sinner. And if you ever get a vision of God--who He is and what He is--you will fall down and say, "O God, I am a sinner."
Do you know how God calls you a sinner, and how He compares you? He does not compare you with other people. Oh, you may be better than ninety percent of the people in Charlotte. God compares you to Jesus. He compares you with His Son. And there is not a person here who can stand up and say, "I'm as good as Jesus." If you come short of Jesus, you are a sinner. You must recognize that. You must acknowledge it.
And then there is a change of feeling. You know, it's a strange thing today that people don't want any emotion in religion. I never tell a deathbed story. I never tell a story to try and work on people emotionally. I think that is wrong. I think that it is deceitful on the part of the evangelist or the preacher to deliberately work on the emotions of people. Having said that, I agree with Dr. W. E. Sangster, the great Methodist preacher of London. Dr. Sangster said some time ago in his lectures at Emory University, "Anybody that will go to a football game and shout, and anybody that will go to a baseball game and yell, 'Kill the umpire,' and then say you should never have any emotion in religion, that man does not deserve any attention whatsoever."
Isn't it a strange thing that we can sit in front of a television set and go through all the emotional experiences of Lucy? We can sit in front of the television set and bite our fingernails off watching some drama. When the baseball game is on and we are watching the World Series, we are sitting there with all the emotions. And you can hear the people in the background shouting. But in church, if you shed a tear or even smile or have any emotion or any feeling, you are suspect immediately. No wonder Dr. John Mackay, the president of Princeton Seminary, speaking to the students on the opening day of school last year, said, "Nazism had fire, communism has fire; and the church must catch fire."
We need some fire in our churches today. I don't mean shouting. I don't even mean yelling "Amen." I mean that expectancy, that enthusiasm, that urgency, that fervor, which the early church had. They had seen a risen Savior. They went out to tell the world about it--like Johnny Spence, who has only been a Christian fourteen weeks and he wants to tell the world. You have been a Christian for years, and you don't want to tell anybody. That is the difference.
There is sorrow for sin. And every night we see people coming here, shedding a few tears. Thank God for tears! We have too few tears over sin today. We have tears about everything else, but not very many tears over sin. The Bible says, "Godly sorrow worketh repentance" [2 Corinthians 7:10].
Then there is a change of purpose involved in repentance. It means that I turn from sin. You may not have power to turn from your sins. Not all conversions are dramatic like Johnny Spence or Emory Harper. Some may have battles with these things even after conversion. I have seen it time after time. But there must be a willingness in the weakest heart to turn from sin. You must be willing. God does not say you have to turn; He says you must be willing. And, if you are willing, He will help you turn.
Then there must be a change of conduct. Old things must pass away, and behold, all things must become new [see 2 Corinthians 5:17]. Jesus said, "By their fruits ye shall know them" [Matthew 7:20]. If I see a man who is going on living habitually in sin, I know that man has never been converted. He does not have a new nature. He may look like a Christian at times.
You can take a pig, give him a bath, put a ribbon on him, dress him up, put a little Chanel No. 5 on him, polish his hoofs a little bit, take him in the living room, and put him in a chair. He looks like a wonderful clean hog. You say, "Why, this hog is changed. This is a different pig." You open the door, and then see what happens. The nature of the pig has never been changed, and the pig runs right to the mud puddle. That is where he belongs.
Now, take some of you people on Sunday morning. You dress up and put a little halo on your head, and you go to church and sit down and look like a saint. Everybody says, "Isn't he a fine upstanding citizen." While you are watching the preacher, you are thinking about "Gunsmoke" the night before. You reach in your pocket, and you pull out a fifty-cent piece. You flip it into the pan, just like you give God a tip. You say, "Lord, here you are. Here is your tip for the week." You get out of church, shake hands with the minister, go home, take the halo off, take your wings off, pick up your pitchfork, and the horns begin to grow again. No change has taken place.
Now, any change that God makes in your life is a permanent change! Old things pass away; your life is different. A change takes place when you come to Christ, and God brings about this tremendous transformation that we call the new birth.
Then, secondly, not only is it repentance, but faith and a belief. And this word "faith" means more than just believe. I hear a lot of people go around and say, "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved" [Acts 16:31]. That's true, but you don't know what the word "believe" means. The word "believe" just doesn't get over to us in English. That word "believe" means more than just intellectual faith. Because the Bible says the devil believes [see James 2:19]. Why, the devil is the fundamentalist! He is orthodox! He believes in the Bible. He believes the whole business. Intellectually, he believes in the dogma, he believes in the creed. But the devil has never been saved, and he is not going to heaven. You can pronounce the creed, and on Sunday morning you can recite the Apostles' Creed through without making a mistake. But, I tell you, that is not enough. There must be a real commitment to Christ. There must be a complete surrender to Christ.
Have you done that? Have you come with everything you have and allowed Him to change your life in full surrender? I come to the cross; and I say, "Jesus is my Savior, and He is my own Savior. I am trusting in Him, and Him alone, for salvation. I am not trusting in anything or anybody but Christ. By faith, I surrender to Him. I am willing to obey Him, and follow Him from this moment on."
Now, involved in faith is not only head belief and heart belief, but it is your will. You must be willing to say, "I will receive Christ." Christ appeals to the will of men. Jesus said, "Ye will not come to me, that ye might have life" [John 5:40]. Jesus didn't say, "You couldn't come." He said, "Ye will not come."
You will not come. There are hundreds of you that ought to come and give your life to Christ. But Jesus says, "Ye will not come." You are not willing for your will to be surrendered to the will of Christ. Jesus said, "If ye are not willing to confess me before men, I will not confess you before my Father which is in heaven" [see Matthew 10:32,33]. You will not. You put up a barrier. Your will will not bend to Him. "If any man will come after me," said Jesus [Matthew 16:24].
Now, the moment that you come to Christ by repentance and by faith, God in a miraculous and glorious way changes your life. He forgives all the past. He gives you a new nature. He gives you new values, and new motives, and a new direction for your life. He puts a smile on your face, and a spring in your step, and joy in your soul. Now, He does not remove your problems. In fact, I think after you come to Christ you may face more problems. But in the midst of your problems there will be peace, and grace, and strength, and a new dimension for living.
Have you been converted? Are you sure of it? If you are not certain tonight, I beg of you to come.
In the late eighteenth century, William Wilberforce was converted, and almost single-handedly broke the shackles of slavery in England. On November 29, 1785, he was converted. And he wrote in his diary these words: "I am wretched, miserable, blind, and naked. What infinite love that Christ should die to save such a sinner as me." And that night Wilberforce, only twenty-three years of age, gave his life to Christ and changed the whole course of history.
You are going to build a new Y.M.C.A. here in Charlotte. I hope it is one of the most beautiful in the South. Charlotte deserves it. And I hope all of us will get behind it. But how many of you know the origin of the Y.M.C.A.? Who founded it? In the latter part of the nineteenth century, George Williams was converted in England's west country. He later wrote how he knelt down at the back of an empty shop and said, "I cannot describe to you the joy and peace which flowed into my soul when first I saw that the Lord Jesus had died for my sins, and that they were all forgiven."
I tell you, when you come to Christ--I do not care when it is, I do not care where it is, how it is--when you come, you will have to come by repentance and faith, trusting in Him and His death and resurrection alone for salvation. If you haven't come, if you haven't met Christ there, I am asking you to do it tonight.
You may be a member of the church. You may be a choir member. You may be an usher here. You may be a Sunday school teacher. But you are not sure that you have actually met Christ and been converted. You want to be sure, and you want to settle it. I am going to ask you to get up out of your seat and come here and say, "Tonight I will receive Him. I will repent. I will give my life to Christ."