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Is it wrong to force a conversion?

force conversion
Question: "Is it wrong to force a conversion? What role should coercion play in religion?"

Forced conversion is the use of pressure, force, or threat to make someone abandon his or her beliefs for those of another religion. Forced conversion results in the adoption of a different religion (or the abandonment of all religion) under duress. Forced conversion is prominent in some religions, cults, and totalitarian governments, but it’s easy to address from a Christian point of view.

Simply put, forced conversion is wrong. Growing the ranks of a religion should not involve any type of coercion. Often, forced conversion doesn’t even work: those who are forced into a different religion may act like a convert outwardly but secretly remain loyal to their former religion.

It is impossible to become a Christian as a result of force or duress. It may be possible to force someone to engage in a religious ceremony or mouth words to a prayer, but being a Christian is not about ceremony or perfunctory prayers. It’s about being born again by the Spirit of God, and no amount of human pressure can force the Spirit’s hand. God knows the heart. Regeneration cannot be externally imposed.

Some religious leaders in history have taken up the sword to compel people to join their ranks, but not Jesus. He laid down His life and invites us to follow Him. His kingdom functions differently from what the world is used to. Jesus told Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place” (John 18:36).

Forced conversion also contradicts the free will that God has given each of us. We extend the invitation to all to be saved, but we do not constrain them. We recognize that people must repent and believe on their own, as the Holy Spirit works in their hearts (see John 16:8). Jesus alluded to the sinner’s free will as He spoke to a rebellious Jerusalem: “How often I have longed to gather your children together, . . . and you were not willing” (Luke 13:34, emphasis added).

In Acts 16 Paul and Silas meet a man in the Greek city of Philippi who asks an important question about salvation. We know at least three things about this man: he was a jailer, he was a pagan, and he was desperate. He had been on the verge of suicide when Paul stopped him. And that’s when the man asks, “What must I do to be saved?” (Acts 16:30).

The very fact that the man asks the question shows that he recognized his need of salvation—he saw only death for himself, and he knew he needed help. The fact that he asks Paul and Silas shows that he believed they had the answer. That answer comes swiftly and simply: “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31). The passage goes on to show that the man’s life began displaying a difference right away. Note that the man’s conversion was based on faith (“Believe”). He had to trust Jesus and nothing else. His faith included a belief that Jesus died for sin and rose again, because that was the message that Paul and Silas had been preaching (see Romans 10:9–10 and 1 Corinthians 15:1–4). The salvation of the Philippian jailer was anything but a forced conversion; rather, it was based on his own personal desire and a choice to place his faith in Christ.

To convert to Christianity, we must believe that Jesus is the Son of God who died for sin and rose again. We must agree with God that we are sinners in need of salvation, and we must trust in Jesus alone to save. When we do this, God promises to save us and give us the Holy Spirit, who will make us new creations. Being a Christian is having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ that results in the forgiveness of sins and eternity in heaven. Something like that cannot be forced. True religion is not coerced.

Recommended Resource: God the Son Incarnate: The Doctrine of Christ by Stephen Wellum

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