Conversion or Coercion?

By P. Andrew Sandlin
January 01, 2000

A fundamental truth of the Bible is that the nature of man can be changed only super-naturally. (By "nature," I mean ethical nature, in the sphere of right and wrong, not metaphysical nature, in the sphere of his constitution as a man made in God's image.) The Bible flatly denies that man's nature can be changed by purely natural means (Jn. 1:12-13; 1 Cor. 2:14). Men are converted (turned around ethically) by regeneration. At regeneration, the Holy Spirit implants in man the holy disposition lost in the Fall into which all men are born (2 Cor. 5:17). This is the only way that man's nature can be changed. If man is to change ethically, he must be converted.

When men give up hope in the Bible, they must find other ways to attempt to change man's nature. The most frequent way is through coercion. The most consistent example of this is in modern communistic states. They believe in exposing man to certain external stimuli by which his internal nature can be altered. By pounding into him by means of propaganda the idea that the profit motive is evil for individuals (though not, apparently, for the state), they hope to create a New Man who will work for the good of the commune and the state rather than himself and his family. If men oppose and undermine this statism, they are to be reshaped in hellish gulags by being violently broken physically, emotionally, and psychologically, and then pieced back together to be good statist citizens. This is a reasonable assumption to anyone who has abandoned hope in the miraculous work of regeneration. Mark it down: any state, church, family, or other institutional authority that opts for coercion as a means to alter man's nature has given up hope in the God of the Bible. This applies no less to fundamentalist legalists than to materialistic statists.

The Bible permits coercion in only a few, limited cases. The state may employ the sword (Rom. 13:1-7) to protect life, liberty, and property. (By implication, the state may use coercion to protect its citizens from foreign invasion.) The individual may use coercion to protect life and property (Ex. 22:1-2). Godly parents may employ limited corporal punishment to regulate children's external behavior (Pr. 23:13-14). None of this is designed to alter man's nature. Fines and restitution do not change a thief's nature any more than spanking changes a child's nature. Coercion can protect, at best, external order; it cannot alter man's nature. Only the Spirit of God can alter a man's nature.

It is not for inconsequential reason that the gospel of Jesus Christ is called the "gospel of peace" (Rom. 10:15; Eph. 6:15). It creates peace with God, peace within the individual, and peace between individuals and their fellows. Escalation of coercion and violence in the family, school, media, and the state is a mark of a godless, reprobate culture. When men are converted, only a minimum of coercion is required to hold their sinful impulses in check. The solution to widespread sin and apostasy is not widespread coercion, but rather widespread conversion.

Topics: Biblical Commentary, Theology

P. Andrew Sandlin

P. Andrew Sandlin is a Christian minister, theologian, and author.  He is the founder and president of the Center for Cultural Leadership in Coulterville, California.  He was formerly president of the National Reform Association and executive vice president of the Chalcedon Foundation.  He is a minister in the Fellowship of Mere Christianity.. He was formerly a pastor at Church of the Word in Painesville, Ohio (1984-1995) and Cornerstone Bible Church in Scotts Valley, California (2004-2014).

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