Are You Really Born Again?
False Conversion-A Biblical Basis
by Kent Allan Philpott
In 1969 I was at a large church in New Mexico for a Sunday evening service. At the time I was part of the “Jesus Movement.” That evening our group, Joyful Noise, sang and gave testimonies. At the conclusion of the meeting I issued a standard invitation. In response to the invitation, the pastor of that large, prosperous church walked down the aisle! He was twice my age and had been the pastor there for fifteen years. He whispered in my ear that he had never come to Jesus for salvation and he had just realized it that evening. Although he was embarrassed, he could not be put off. There we were, right in the front; no one else came forward. I prayed with that sincere, brave pastor and I hope he was genuinely born again that night.
How could such a strange thing happen? This man had obviously been baptized and had studied a considerable amount of theology during his seminary training. At his ordination examination, he would have been asked about his doctrine, call, and conversion. He had preached the gospel hundreds of times and had issued hundreds of “invitations” to his hearers to receive Jesus as Savior. He had done all those things yet was not truly converted.
I am not sure how this happened. Who can fully know the spiritual workings in another person’s life? Nevertheless, there had been no true conversion for that pastor. I have observed the same in many others—pastors, elders, and church members. And if you are the pastor of a church, or a Christian who has been faithful in a church over an extended period of time, you have observed false conversions, too.
THE PARABLE OF THE SOWER
The Scripture anticipates the possibility of false conversion. In the parable of the sower (Mark 4:1-20) Jesus describes four places where a farmer sowed his seed: along the path, in rocky places, among thorns, and in good soil. Jesus explains that the seed is a metaphor for the word, which is the message of the gospel.
Jesus said that some people are like seed that is sown along the path. The word is sown, but as soon as people hear it Satan takes it away. Could any of these experiences have been mistaken for conversion? I think so. We often hear people say they used to go to church, but later they became Muslims or Buddhists, etc. Or we hear others say that they have had fantastic religious experiences in church, or on a mountain peak. Some even report “seeing God” while they were in a drug-induced state. Still others say they felt the presence of God while they were having some kind of transcendental experience. In every case, there was some kind of religious or mystical experience. Can these be true conversions to Jesus? After all, something “spiritual” or “religious” happened! I believed they have experienced false conversion.
In the second instance (see falling on rocky places) the word is heard and there is an immediate response. Jesus says, they “receive it with joy” (Mark 4:16). But there is no root or depth to their response, and when trouble or persecution (Mark 4:17). Was this true conversion? No, there was an experience of some kind, but not conversion.
In this instance, there is a falling away that occurs. In the Greek text, skandalizontai means “to be offended” and is translated “fall away” in the NIV. There people are offended because they experience trouble and persecution because of the gospel. Their initial “joy” is not able to sustain them through these challenges. I have often seen this. People weep, carry on, come forward, fall down, repeat the sinner’s prayer and praise enthusiastically. But often they never come back or show any further interest. When I attempt to follow up with them, they apologize and make excuses and promises. However, they are rarely seen again. What happened? A false conversion.
Unless we realize that false conversions do occur, we will not be able to help people who think they have been converted. These “converts” have a profound religious experience but then might ask, “Is that all there is?” When friends, family, or other associated abuse them because of Jesus and the Word, they easily and quickly walk away. Often such people say to me, “This path is not for me.” These people are unaware that they did not experience true conversion.
In the third set of circumstances (the seed sown among thorns) the word is heard, “but the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth, and the desires for other things” result in a life that is unfruitful (Mark 4:19). These people are like plants that grow but become choked by weeks so that they fail to bear fruit. And where there is no fruit, there is no conversion. While Christians may indeed go through times of unfruitfulness, a persistent unfruitfulness must be taken as a sign that there has been no true conversion. This is substantiated by Jesus in Matthew 7:16-20, where he concludes, “Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them,” and in John 15:8 WHERE HE SAYS, “This is to my father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.”
I the fourth case (seed sown in good soil) the word was heard, accepted, and produced a crop “thirty, sixty, or even a hundred times what was sown” (Mark 4:20). Obviously, this is a description of a person who has experienced true conversion. The word is planted in their heart, it takes root, it bears up under trials and persecution and their life begins to bear godly fruit.
JESUS’ WARNING IN THE SERMON ON THE MOUNT
Jesus himself warns about the possibility of false conversion in the Sermon on the Mount:
Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?” Then I will tell them plainly, “I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!” (Matt. 7:21-23).
Jesus is speaking of people who certainly do not appear to be against him. They address him as “Lord” and have carried out “power” ministry in his name. Jesus indicates that many people will assume they have salvation when they do not. These people will hear the saddest words that can ever be spoken: “I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!” This text motivated me to begin preaching conversion-oriented sermons, as I was horrified to think that members of my own congregation might one day hear those damning words. Yes, I knew it would be a shock and challenge to some in my congregation, and I knew that church membership would shrink. Nevertheless, I felt it was my responsibility to present the gospel message so that people would either see their lost condition and come to Jesus or, if they were already converted, become assured of their salvation.
PAUL’S FAREWELL TO THE EPHESIAN ELDERS
The Apostle Paul was keenly aware of the danger of false conversions. When he was on his way to Jerusalem, he asked the elders of the Ephesian church to meet with him at the coastal town of Miletus. Part of what he said to the elders included this warning: “I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them” (Acts 20:29-30).
The Ephesian church would face two threats, one external and the other internal. “Savage wolves” were the external threat. They would come into the church from the outside. This is clearly indicated by the use of the Greek word eis, which is translated in the NIV as “come in” and means “into.” The wolves would come into the church itself. How could “wolves” get in? Through false conversion! Would these “wolves” have been baptized? Would they have participated in the Lord’s Supper? Would they have been accepted as a part of the church family? It would seem so, for Paul says they would come into the church. And how could “wolves” come into the church except by false conversion?
Those who “distort the truth” constituted the internal threat. They would arise from within the church and draw away disciples. Although this is not plainly stated in the text, my supposition is that these distorters of the truth would have some standing in the Ephesian church—perhaps as teachers. Whether leaders or not, they would have been inside the church. How could they get into the church except on the basis of false conversion? This may have been due to a misunderstanding of what true conversion really is.
What pastor of any experience has not seen similar circumstances about which Paul warns the Ephesian elders? Paul’s warning does not say whether “wolves” and those who “distort the truth” are converted or not. It is true that genuine Christian converts struggle, experience setbacks, and even go through serious rebellion—these struggles do not necessarily mean they are unconverted. I would hold, however, to a high view of conversion and say that when Paul speaks of “wolves” and those who “distort the truth” he does not see them as genuine converts; he views them as enemies of the church and therefore enemies of God.
PAUL’S COMMENTS ON THE CHURCH AT CORINTH
Paul also assumed that there were false converts in the Corinthian church. He wrote, “No doubt there have to be differences among you to show which of you have God’s approval” (1 Cor. 11:19). There were divisions in the church and they were evident when the congregation me to celebrate the Lord’s Supper. The key word, “approval” (the Greek dokimoi) means “approved by a test,” “tried and true,” or “genuine.” “Approval,” in its common usage in English, does not carry the full force of the original Greek. I believe Paul was saying that there were those who were part of the Corinthian church who were not genuinely converted, approved of God, or tried and true; yet they were in the church. They would, no doubt, have made a public confession of their faith in baptism. It is well known that the Corinthian church had many problems, and one reason may have been that some of those who were active in the daily life of the church were not converted.
JOHN’S WARNING OF “ANTICHRISTS”
The Apostle John, in his first epistle, writes of the reality of false conversion:
Dear children, this is the last hour; and as you have heard that the antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have come. This is how we know it is the last hour. They went out from us, but they did not really belong to us. For if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us; but their going showed that none of them belonged to us (1 John 2:18-19).
These “many antichrists” had been part of the church. They were those who departed doctrinally from the church’s position on the person and work of Jesus Christ. If they had truly belonged to the church, they would not have left. So how did they get into the church in the first place? I believe they had experienced false conversion—a conversion so close to the real thing that the church was not able to detect it without John’s explanation.
It is thought that the antichrists to whom John refers were Gnostics. This group had a different system of beliefs, and they were adept at incorporating Christian terminology and models into their heretical system. They could repeat creedal statements, be baptized, and even make confessions of faith in Jesus by changing (in their own minds) the true meaning of the words and doctrines. The church mistook what they thought was doctrinal orthodoxy for conversion.
We often do the same today. People may have an orthodox theology, a conservative view of the Bible, a moral life, and so on, but these things do not always mean that conversion has taken place. And ministers often think it is enough to have right belief and upright behavior. Approving doctrine and living a moral life are “works” which do not produce or guarantee salvation; rather, they may only imitate a genuine conversion.
And so, Scripture repeatedly warns us about false conversion. In the next two chapters we will look at how false conversions occur.