Are You Really Born Again?
Fourteen simply and clearly written chapters of useful but critical thinking for Christians and non-Christians alike include the following:
- Christianization or conversion?
- Signs of the converted
- False conversion: a biblical basis
- How do false conversions occur?
- The stages of conversion
- Profiles of true and false conversions
Forward to the Second Edition
In May 2000 I reached the age of sixty-five and felt it right to lay down my responsibilities as pastor of Great Hollands Free Church in Bracknell, England. There were a good number of unsaved friends of mine present at my farewell service. Copies of my books were on sale but the book that I urged all of my friends to buy was Are You Really Born Again? by Kent Philpott. I felt that this practical book dealt with the most vital question of all at that hour; I still think it does.
Most of us regularly come across various types of people who say that they are Christians. There are those who are confident of their salvation because they have made some kind of decision to follow Christ, and there are others who hope they are born again but remain full of doubts and fears.
Reading this book would particularly help the first kind of people. So many people have prayed the "sinner's prayer" and been told that they are now Christians because they have done so. They do not realize that quite often all that has happened is that they have made a decision, but then when things get tough or they find the people in their church do not live up to their expectations, they can unmake that decision--and drift away from God and the people of God.
Kent maintains that such actions are not necessarily true conversions; these people may merely have changed their minds. If they were really saved when they "asked Jesus to come into their hearts," it was not because of anything they did; it was as a result of what Christ has done on the cross. There has been a sovereign work of saving power in their lives.
Then there are the other types of people who truly are born again, but because of their personalities or particular circumstances of life they have doubts about it. They think they are not good enough for God to have mercy on then and grant them his salvation. Or they may think they are not bad enough to be given such a blessing. They mah have read or heard a glowing testimony of someone who was saved from a life steeped in sin--a womanizer, a gambler, a drunkard, or a drug addict. And because they have never succumbed to such evils, they think they are too ordinary to be saved. These people would also find much to help them in this book.
Sadly, in these days, there are comparatively few professions of conversions in Britain, but the opposite is true in some parts of the world. However, whether there are few or many claims of salvation it is vital that they prove to be genuine. One test the the Lord Jesus Christ gave in John 15:8 was that they "bear much fruit, showing [themselves] to be [his] disciples."
Kent is concerned that those who claim to be real Christians should know for certain that they are born again. This small book sets it all down in fine clarity. Its great benefit is that its short chapters are simply written so that the evidences of true conversion, as well as the signs of false conversion, are clearly detailed.
So, whether you are seeking salvation yourself, struggling with your own faith, or seeking to help other people along their Christian pathway, you will find much spiritual guidance in this volume. I would have appreciated this book when I was a young pastor, but now as I approach my seventies, I find it a blessing to my own soul, as well as an asset in helping others.
I pray that this second edition will continue to be a great Godsend to may new readers.
Ten years ago my attention was drawn to the subject of conversion. For twenty-nine years of ministry I had assumedd--without really thinking about it--that a person could choose to become a Christian. I assumed that he or she, by an act of the will, could decide to repent and trust in Jesus as Savior and Lord. I had learned this standard evangelical model early on, and I never questioned it.
If I had been pressed to say if I really believed a person had the power to become a Christian by means of a choice or a decision, I would probably have said no.
Not many evangelicals believe a person can literally decide to become a Christian, because that idea is generally understood to be inconsistent with biblical theology. Without depreciating the role of free will, is deciding to believe in Jesus Christ the same as conversion? Certainly, we understand that we are to repent and believe (see Acts
2O:21), but we rightly understand that God makes both of these things possible by convicting us of our sin and revealing Jesus as Savior to us. Indeed, most evangelicals
(and I am one) speak of 'saving grace' and know that the new birth comes only through the work of the Holy Spirit. This was also true of me, but my practical evangelistic methods were not consistent with my theology. Conversion is something God does to or for us - he births us. From our perspective, it may seem as though we have made a choice, but it is actually and completely the work of God. For salvation to be seen as no more than a human act or choice is to misunderstand and misrepresent saving grace.
A STARTLING DISCOVERY
In 1994, I began to read the history of the Great Awakenings in America. What captured my attention and stopped me dead in my tracks was the controversy between Asahel Nettleton and Charles Finney in the 1820s over "means." Finney had introduced means or procedures, techniques or devices, by which a person could become a Christian. These included the “altar call” or invitation and the “sinner’s prayer,” which many evangelicals today depend upon to “lead a person to Christ.” Nettleton thought these techniques were contrary to biblical practice—that being, to present the gospel of Christ and depend upon the Holy Spirit to bring about conversion. Nettleton contended that the “means” Finney employed would result in false professions of conversion.
I found myself agreeing with Nettleton—unbiblical evangelistic methodology could result in people thinking they had become Christians when, in fact, they had not. Certainly, during the many years of my ministry some people who claimed to be Christians later proved not to be so. I was aware of this, but I did not seriously consider what it meant. Were there people in the pews—not really Christians but thinking they were Christians—who were merely fooled into thinking they were on their way to heaven?
The idea that there could be false conversion was revolutionary to me, and I wondered why I had never come across it before. It was also not an easy pill to swallow, because it called into question three decades of my own ministry. Armed with new information, I was compelled to rethink the true nature of Christian conversion. The result was the book Are You Really Born Again? which Evangelical Press published in 1998.
A MAJOR SHIFT IN DIRECTION
Converted in 1963 through the ministry of Robert D. Lewis at the First Baptist Church of Fairfield, California, I became, ipso facto, an evangelical in the Arminian tradition. By Arminian, I mean non-Calvinistic. At the time, however, I did not know anything about Calvinism or Reformed theology. (The term “Reformed” theology is broadly used to denote Calvinistic theology. I want to make it clear that I am not trying to turn people into “Calvinists.” My focus is on the nature of conversion—a major concern for all Christians, Arminian or Reformed.) The church in Fairfield practiced the kind of evangelism that Nettleton had argued against in his controversy with Finney, and I quite naturally embraced it. Later, from 1968 to 1980, I was what might be called a charismatic evangelical in the Arminian tradition. After 1980 I was not active in charismatic ministry, but I did continue to hold to a general evangelical, Arminian theology. It was not until 1997 that I began moving towards a reformed viewpoint. This brief history of my Christian life is only meant to point out that I was thoroughly steeped in the mainstream of evangelical, Arminian theology.
False conversions were more abundant in the charismatic period of my ministry than before or since. I think this is because I was more focused on charismatice expression, especially speaking in tongues, and assumed that speaking in tongues was proof of a genuine conversion. I have come to believe that this is erroneous, although I am not a complete cessationist (i.e., believing that the expression of charismatic gifts of the Holy Spirit ceased with the publication of the New Testament).
There will likely always be some people who make false professions of conversion, despite our best efforts, but I see fewer people experiencing this in non-charismatic settings. Providing a “means” or technique for someone to become a Christian or accepting some show of spirituality as a sign of conversion is no longer acceptable to me and is inconsistent with how I now view biblical conversion. After all, a means can be follwed without any change in the heart, and signs can be mimicked through observing others.
Suspecting that employing the usual evangelical methods to bring people to Christ could lead to false conversion, I started to change the way in which I conducted my ministry. It was a genuine struggle for me to come to the end of a strong evangelistic sermon and not invite people to come forward, to raise their hands or do something visible to indicate that they wanted to accept Jesus as their own personal Savior. I gradually stopped using the standard invitation, but I never stopped urging people to repent of their sin and trust in Jesus as their Savior and Lord. What I stopped doing was manipulating people at the end of my sermons to do what I wanted them to do—come forward and pray a prayer. As a result, I did receive some criticism from church members. I respected and considered these criticisms, but I realized I had to start depending on the Holy Spirit to bring both the conviction of sin and the revelation of Jesus as Savior and Lord.
One suggestion I examined with considerable attention was that I ought to cast a wide net, meaning that I should use any and all evangelistic strategies to bring as many people into the church as possible, and then let God sort it out. I should employ the latest styles of worship, entice people to make decisions, make Christianity as attractive as possible, conduct ministries that would enhance people’s lives, and so on. “So what,” the argument went, “if people were not genuinely converted? As long as they were in the pews, they would hear the gospel and might eventually be converted. Better that than no exposure to any form of Christianity.”
I was almost persuaded by this reasoning. After all, I am not the judge and jury; God is sovereign, and he will use whatever means he wants. I had, in fact, used many techniques over the years that seemed to be successful in urging people to make a Christian commitment. But now I saw the great danger of false conversion, and I wanted to trust God to do the work and not use unbiblical methods to get people converted.
REMOVING THE OFFENSE OF THE GOSPEL
The temptation in evangelism is to avoid the offense of the cross. To proclaim that there is nothing we can do to earn forgiveness is offensive. We want to be in control, and we are revolted by the idea that God alone calls, elects, and saves.
If Paul had not preached that salvation could be had in Christ alone but had taught that salvation could be achieved by obeying the Law of Moses, he would not have run into trouble with those who said otherwise. He wrote to the churches of Galatia, “Brothers, if I am still preaching circumsion, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offense of the cross has been abolished” (Galatians. 5:11). To present Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross as the only means of salvation is modified sharply by demanding circumcision as well. If we are given something to do, many will do whatever is being asked—whether it be circumcision, baptism, saying a prayer, joinging a church, changing behavior, or giving intellectual ascent to various points of doctrine. These are things we can do. But it is not the same as looking to Jesus alone as Savior. And precisely what I had been doing was unwittingly giving people something “holy” and “Christian” to do. They would generally “do it” and conclude that they had met the requirements for salvation.
WAS I RIGHT AND COULD I BE SURE?
For a few years, there was little visible evidence that I was on the right track. However, my preaching became more focused on the gospel, lifting up Jesus and the cross as strongly and clearly as I could and trusting that the Holy Spirit would bring conversion. I preached sovereign grace and the need for men and women to seek and turn to Christ as their Savior and Lord. But without being able to count numbers of people raising their hands or somehow responding to an invitation to believe in Jesus, I had a difficult time evaluating the effectiveness of my ministry. From time to time I would question myself, revert to my old pattern and close a sermon with an invitation. When I did do this, there were usually some responses—often from the same people who had responded in the past! There were also responses from people who never developed into anything like what I would expect a disciple of Jesus to be. I persisted then in preaching clear gospel messages, ending sermons with a prayer or a hymn and trusting that God would empower his Word.
You may have noticed in a previous paragraph something that might appear to be a contradiction. I said that I preached sovereign grace (or election) but that I also preached that a person must repent of their sin and trust in Jesus as Savior and Lord. Yes, this appears to be a contradiction, but I hold to both at once, just as C. H. Spurgeon did back in the late nineteenth century. Spurgeon was attacked by “hyper-Calvinists” for preaching the necessity for repentance and faith, and at the same time Arminians attacked him for preaching sovereign election! Spurgeon said he preached both, because the Bible taught both. I now hold to that understanding as well. I do not offer “works” a person can follow to achieve salvation. Rather, the Holy Spirit must do the whole work, from repentance to faith. (I recommend Iain H. Murray’s Spurgeon v. Hyper-Calvinism, The Banner of Truth Trust, 1996, for more on this crucial point.)
Slowly, encouraging results began to be seen in my ministry. One here, another there—people were converted while they were in church, at home, in the car, or at work. As they discovered their new birth, they began to confess their faith in Jesus in varying ways, some by direct personal statement, others by baptism, and others by simply living out what it is to love Jesus and his Word. It was wonderful to see God at work!
CONVERSION IS ALWAYS A MYSTERY
Conversion is still a mystery to me, and I am sure it always will be. However, the possibility that false conversions were common in evangelical circles seemed probable to me and prompted me to write this book back in 1998. Based on responses I have received as a result (letters, phone calls, and emails from all over the world—mostly from Christian leaders in the Arminian tradition), I now consider the issue of false conversion to be more serious than I had first imagined (see Appendix III).
Here are some typical email statements: “Now I understand why so many drifted away and never became disciples,” or “It never occurred to me that [name of person] was not actually a believer. I expected a real Christian to have a minimal interest in things Christian, but I never guessed it was something so serious as a false conversion,” and “A few times people suggested I was not really a Christian but I didn’t believe them.” Most often, I would read something like, “I wondered what was wrong, but everyone continually assured me I was a Christian.” Occasionally a correspondent would report his or her own conversion, which came to that individual as quite a surprise.
This book has caused difficulties for some people. It is unsettling to bring up the subject of false conversion. Several pastors who came to agree with my position ran into problems with their congregations. One Lutheran minister was forced to leave his church when a largely unconverted membership grew tired of him preaching “law and gospel.” However, a few were converted, and my friend felt that he had done the right thing in spite of the rejection. Another pastor, from an independent Bible church in Singapore, saw his congregation dwindle to the point that he grew discourage and resigned. I received other similar reports. To a pastor whose church I knew well, I said that if I preached a few sermons in his church, he might find that a significant number in his congregation would discover they were unconverted. He quickly responded, “You are not preaching in my church!”
And this is what it comes down to: What are we really doing? Are we simply filling the pews, or do we actually care whether our family members, our friends and members of our congregations hear Jesus say, “Well done, good and faithful servant…Enter into the joy of your Lord” (Matt. 25:21 NKJV)? Would we rather they hear him say, “I never knew you; depart from me” (Matt. 7:23 NKJV)? How difficult it is to have eternity in our minds! We easily focus on just the here and now.
Reader, the stakes are high. One passage that grips me and gives me courage to act upon my convictions is 2 Corinthians 2:15-16: “For we are to God the aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. To the one we are the smell of death; to the other the fragrance of life. Who is equal to such a task?”
A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH
In preaching for conversion I would rather risk personal rejection and ridicule than provide a quick and easy method of using human means to acquire questionable professions of conversion. In my mind, it is a win-win thing to question our own conversion and that of others. On the one hand, we may see that we are converted and thus have greater assurance of our salvation. On the other, we may see that we are not converted and then seek Jesus for salvation. The great danger is in not realizing that a profession of conversion was false—then there is no hope at all. As the apostle contended, it is a matter of eternal life and death.
Preaching the gospel of Christ and his cross will cause trouble, and many pastors and preachers will not do anything that has the potential to drive people away. It is a wrong priority, for sure, but I understand the feeling. Many pastors feel pressured by their denomination, association, church council, or board of elders to keep in place the standard evangelistic practices and so record conversions. More than that, it is an excruciating emotional experience to see people leave the church. It is enough to drive preachers to discouragement and depression—I can personally attest to this. I was accused of becoming non-evangelistic when I started to trust the Holy Spirit to bring conversion rather than relying on various techniques. This pressure if often enough to keep faulty methods in place in a person’s ministry.
Christians may find it unpleasant to question the eternal destiny of those close to them. We tend to avoid talking about things that might create conflict. For myself, I have gradually found the courage to speak the gospel message and learned to help a person examine whether there is anything approximating a genuine conversion in their life. This potentially awkward situation is preferred to being silent about the truly central reality of life—whether someone is truly converted or not.
I am hopeful that the tide is turning and that many Christians are seeing what their real work is and are going about it. My prayer is that this second edition is sharper, clearer, and stronger and will be useful to those who seek to share the grace and mercy of God our Savior with others.