Are You Really Born Again?
How False Conversions Occur
by Kent Allan Philpott
It was the singer/songwriter Bob Dylan who said that we will serve somebody—“It may be the devil or it may be the Lord,”1 —but we will serve somebody.
The people of the world are very religious. The Creator made us that way so that we might seek after him and find him (Acts 17:22-27). Religious concerns dominate the record of human history. People worship different gods for many reasons. With all the cults and theological confusion around us, who can doubt that “conversions” to strange and false gods occur?
It is God’s Holy Spirit working to bring a person into a saving relationship with Jesus Christ that accomplishes true Christian conversion. False conversions are those that seem to imitate this but do not have their focus on saving faith in Jesus. But how do these false conversions occur?
A crisis may predispose us emotionally and spiritually for a false conversion. There may be a death in our family, a terminal illness, a house fire, a flood or tornado that destroys everything, a divorce and the fracturing of our family life, the loss of our job—such a crisis may touch many of our lives sooner or later. Then, while our defenses are down and we are very hurt or needy, we may listen to someone or some group that claims to have all the answers. In desperation we welcome whatever is offered and relax, sheltered from the storm and turmoil of our life. It may be a secular, anti-Christian, cultic, or mainstream Christian message. In the midst of crisis, we may lose our ability to think critically. Many of us will grasp onto anything that relieves our pain, sense of loss, or confusion.
Crises brought about by drug and alcohol abuse and/or sexual misconduct (occurring primarily among adolescents and young adults) are responsible for the majority of false conversions in evangelical and charismatic Christianity. This may be illustrated by what often occurred in the Jesus Movement. The Jesus Movement was an awakening among counter-culture young people (“hippies”) and middle class Catholics and Protestants.2 Many large and successful ministries and churches emerged from the Jesus Movement, and I was a leader in one such ministry in the San Francisco Bay area. These ministries and churches offered an opportunity for a new life through an extensive support system. Their process of conversion usually followed this course: the person in crisis came into direct contact with a member of a group comprised of those with similar troubles in the past; the newcomer was heartily embraced and given a conditional acceptance. He was then challenged to repent from sin and rebellion. The newcomer could resolve the tension by conforming to the desires of the group and thereby receiving their full approval, love, and support. This process was cemented by his “acceptance of Jesus,” baptism, and formal membership in the group.
The “testimony” given by such a person was primarily focused on the contrasts between his old and new life. For example, he may have testified that he was “once a doper, an addict, a deadhead, an alcoholic…” and so on. There may be no question that such a person had altered his life for the better. However, his testimony did not center on Jesus and the cross. Rather, his focus was on the group and the changes in his own behavior and/or feelings.
Testimonies of life-enhancement are common with many groups, be they religious, political, educational, psycho-therapeutic or commercially-based sales and motivational groups. If someone is no longer a despairing addict, does it necessarily mean that they have been genuinely converted? It could be that complex psychological, emotional, or social forces motivated them to change their life.
Certainly, I am glad for any improvement in a person’s life, but I am more interested in whether this “recovered” person has been converted. Our society applauds upright living, good citizenship, respectable action, family stability, honesty, kindness, and love—whether these admirable qualities are the result of the gospel of Christ or not. Consequently, Christian leaders may fall into the trap of accepting upright behavior in place of true conversion.
During my ministry I have not always recognized that people in crisis are vulnerable to false conversion. But experience has shown me that many crisis conversions do not last. Sometimes a person in crisis truly comes to Jesus after the Holy Spirit reveals to them their lost condition and need of a Savior. In other situations this is not the case at all. I have prayed the sinner’s prayer with some and led them in a confession of the risen Christ as their Savior and Lord. Often baptism and church membership followed. When the effects of the crisis diminished, however, the person appeared to walk away from Christianity. In reality, neither of us had recognized that there had been no true conversion—certainly not the person over whom I had pronounced, “You are now born again.” I cannot undo the mistakes I made, but I am now acutely aware of how vulnerable people in crisis are to false conversion.
It is good and right to embrace moral values and practice healthy living. Many people have discovered that the alternative is eventually disastrous. In nearly every segment of society, living a clean and moral life is applauded. The question we must ask is, “If I live well, does that make me a Christian?” The clear, biblical answer is a resounding “No!”
Living according to biblical principles may Christianize me, but it cannot make me a genuine Christian. In fact, a person who is able to persuade himself that he is living a commendable life may suppose that he does not need a Savior at all. Such was the case of one particular man long ago.
Jesus told the story of two men: a Pharisee, a very clean man, and a tax collector who, in the eyes of his peers, was a very unclean man. In fact, Luke introduced the story this way: “To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable” (Luke 18:9). The story commences with these two men going to the temple in Jerusalem to pray. The Pharisee, a religious man, boasted about his scrupulous observance of the traditions of the elders of Judaism. The tax collector, however, “beat his breast,” perhaps out of a sense of personal loathing, and could only pray, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
Jesus’ response in Luke 18:14 is astonishing: “I tell you that this man [the tax collector], rather than the other [the Pharisee], went home justified before God.” Despite the clean living, the Pharisee only managed to deceive himself.
I am continually meeting people who think that Christianity is only about living a good life and helping other people. These things are important, but they do not make you a Christian. Our works can never cause us to merit heaven or take away the sin that separates us from God. Only the payment of our sins through the blood of Christ is powerful enough to accomplish that. Many people possess strong moral standards but have not experienced the new birth—that will be all that matters when we stand before the righteous Judge.
As a young man I had what I thought were miraculous experiences. One such experience was surviving a horrific car crash. My life, as is often said, did in fact “flash before my eyes.” I took it as a sign that God was protecting me and that I must be on good terms with my Maker.
Others report similar experiences: an angel guided them, a spiritual presence appeared to them, a miracle of healing saved them, incredible coincidences took place that had to be of a spiritual origin, and so on. The result was the idea that they are somehow approved by God.
People who had been atheists have been known to suddenly switch to theism due to an extraordinary spiritual event, perhaps in a séance or through contact with a medium or fortune teller. The proverbial “foxhole religion” (e.g. “If I live through this, I’ll go to church…etc.”) is generally short-lived. Regardless of the source or nature of the spiritual experience, some will take false comfort in it.
We must remember that the Holy Spirit always and only points to Jesus Christ. Other unholy spirits will only mislead, deceive, and distract. A spiritual encounter is not in itself a converting or saving event; at best it is only a preliminary sign.
INSTITUTIONAL CONVERSION AND DENOMINATION AFFILIATIONS
This form of false conversion rests on the authority of a religious or church organization. These organizations may baptize, which is the usual rite, or christen, initiate, or confirm. People depend on the “magic” of the institution to perform rituals and ceremonies that are said to have the power to forgive, save, enlighten, or bring a person into the presence of God. As long as the religious act has been performed, despite any other consideration, people rely entirely upon the authority of the institution or denomination.
We also hear people say, “I am a Baptist” or “I am a Catholic” or “I am a Methodist.” In the USA and the UK, a high percentage of people are baptized as infants. They naturally adopt at least a nominal allegiance to whatever denomination or church did the baptizing. And these church or denominational affiliations may pose a substantial barrier to a person’s true conversion.
Often family tradition and fear may be the glue that holds a person to a religious group; they may never have evaluated their affiliation. Such a person may have little or no idea of how one becomes a Christian or that being a Christian is not just kind actions and a loving attitude—it is a life that is transformed by a personal relationship with God brought about through trust in Jesus for the forgiveness of sin.
A person who attempts to stake a claim in the kingdom of heaven on the basis of denominational affiliation or baptism has not been truly converted. Scripture is abundantly clear on this point. Rituals, priestly injunctions, “holy” water, or magical procedures cannot bring salvation. Yet people submit to these rites out of fear—fear of losing the salvation that they were told belongs only to their particular religious tradition. They also fear the loss of family, friends, and status, which is often anchored on their original religious affiliation.
The Christian worldview and the doctrines of Scripture are compelling. Dominant, sophisticated cultures have been undergirded by Christian faith and practice for centuries. Many of those raised in a “Christian culture” may absorb the main tenets of Christianity, but this is not the same as genuine conversion. They may have intellectually embraced orthodox Christian doctrine but remain unconverted. Neither do they usually understand the difference.
In my view, this is one of the greatest problems to face those raised in cultures dominated by Christianity. Typically, in North America, the United Kingdom, and most of Western Europe, doctrinal conversions are bound to occur. In the long run, it leads to spiritual erosion in mainline Christian churches. It is a case of having the form of religion but not the substance—and the downhill slide is inevitable. Our churches may be full, but there are many who are unconverted and unaware of their true condition—this is indeed tragic.
There are many cults and sects that have Christian links. They are distinguished by the fact that they tend to identify salvation, therefore conversion, as dependent on membership in their group and adherence to their theology or set of beliefs. A kind of “conversion” does occur when new people struggle with the claims of the group and then, due to many and varied reasons, decide to become members and embrace the claims and ideology of the cult. This is sometimes described as a “bending of the mind.”
Christian conversion is different. It is not giving up and submitting to a group’s doctrine, certain rites and rituals, or the influence of family, society, or personal pressures. Christian conversion is being called by God and irresistibly drawn to Jesus Christ and the cross. Christian conversion is not faith in an institution or its ministers; it is not merely belief in certain doctrines or a group; neither is it is submission to a way of life. It is trusting in Jesus—trusting that he has forgiven and saved you.
We hear people say: “I am an American” or “I am a Russian” or “I am an Englishman.” These are examples of identities that are usually acquired at birth. Some people also believe that their birthright as Americans, for instance, automatically makes them Christians. After all, if they were not born Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Jewish, and so on, then they must be Christian. This is what I thought. I assumed that being an American (a member of a “Christian” nation) made me a Christian. Few pastors and ministers would accept such a basis for conversion.
Our birthright, however, can become a major impediment to the new birth brought about solely by the Holy Spirit of God. Some Jewish friends of mine, for instance, are sure they could never, or should never, believe in Jesus because they are Jewish. They are impressed with the idea that true Jews just do not believe in Jesus. The same could be said of a Muslim, Buddhist, or Hindu. However, a Jew may become a Christian, as may a Muslim, Buddhist, a Hindu, or whatever “religious birthright” he or she might have. We are not permanently fixed to the religious identity we start out with in life. Faith in Jesus Christ is open to all (Rom. 1:16). He is the Savior of the world. We always have in mind those most gracious words: “For God so loved the world…” (John 3:16). Any and all may trust in him for the forgiveness of their sin.
EVANGELISM OF CHILDREN
Some popular evangelism techniques that are directed at children may also result in false conversions.
As a child, I “accepted” Jesus many times. I remember Mrs. B, who conducted vacation Bible schools every summer in the Portland, Oregon, neighborhood where I grew up. She was a large person with a big voice and aggressive ways. She would gather up the children and take us to her house for Bible stories, songs, biscuits, and a fizzy drink. I recall the black, red, and white felt hearts displayed on the flannel boards she had set up in her living room—one felt heart laid on top of the next. First, there was the black heart, the sinful heart which we did not want, since we could not go to heaven with a black heart. Next, there was the red heart, which was formerly the black heart, but now it was coated with the blood of Jesus. Then there was the white heart, the one we wanted, since we could not go to heaven and be with Jesus unless we had a white heart. There was not one child who did not want a white heart, so we prayed to be washed in the blood of Jesus. Mrs. B made sure every one of us prayed; every summer my brothers and I would pray for a white heart so we could go to heaven.
I believe what my brothers and I experienced were introjections rather than conversions. Introjections occur when someone, in the presence of a powerful person or group, feels very anxious and reduces his anxiety by conforming to the expectations of that person or group. He does not realize that his new beliefs are motivated by an unconscious desire to relieve the tension produced by anxiety. Mrs. B wanted to make sure we would go to heaven—so she scared the wits out of us! If we did not have a white heart we would go to hell. As children, we were scared not only that we would disappoint Mrs. B but that we would also burn in the devil’s hell. As a result, she racked up a good number of “conversions.”
I am concerned that ministers and pastors may be offended by my ideas. The problem is, if you abandon the traditional invitation, the sinner’s prayer, and simplistic child evangelism, what will happen to your ministry? Indeed, I had the same problem. For nearly thirty years, I operated with this evangelical model: I used the standard invitation and the sinner’s prayer. Although I found that conversions did not automatically happen, I did not know what else to do. I did not appreciate the actual process of conversion. It took me well over a year of preaching on conversion to alter the traditional model in the church where I am pastor. Each week was a struggle, because I did not have the usual conclusion to my sermon—that being the standard invitation. Through my newsletters and other means, I let the congregation know what I was working through, and I asked them for their prayers and understanding.
“I PRAYED TO ACCEPT JESUS”
One day, in a Baptist church service, I “came forward” in response to the invitation by the pastor; I then prayed the sinner’s prayer with a deacon. Despite this, I was not converted. According to what Hank Hanegraaff has written (quoted at the beginning of chapter 2), I should have been converted. What happened?
I recited a prayer that acknowledged my situation, but I did not understand it. I did not see my lost condition nor realize that my sins had separated me from God. Do you think I was going to baulk right there in front of 300 people? No! I was going to pray whatever it was that deacon told me to pray. I was so new to the gospel that I understood little about Jesus or the significance of the cross. A heretic of the lowest order could have simply told me, “Jesus is from Venus, and he came here on a spaceship.” Who was I to argue? There had been no revelation to me by the Holy Spirit of my particular need for salvation. All of this slowly dawned on me over the next six months. More than likely, my initial experience is very much aligned with the “conversions” of the many who have “come forward” in church services.
Frequently I hear ministers say that “x” number of people accepted Christ at their Sunday service. When I inquire further, I am told that they came forward in response to an invitation and then prayed with someone. Sometimes people merely raised their hands to indicate that they were accepting Christ. Often the sermon had little to do with the heart of the gospel and the need for conversion. If any follow-up session occurred, the topic was usually baptism, church membership, or some other tangential issue. Why is conversion taken so lightly? Is conversion always as simple as saying a little prayer or raising a hand?
These standard invitations to acknowledge acceptance of Jesus are traditional—even expected—in many Christian groups. My view is that we are making conversion out to be something easy and comfortable. These practices, while traditional in our churches, are without biblical precedent, and we must have the courage to abandon unbiblical practices. Why do I make what seems to be such a harsh and, yes, even judgmental statement? Because so many people in evangelical churches have recited a prayer, were baptized, and have become members of a church without ever being converted! Unless God intervenes in their lives to show them their true state, these people will certainly hear Jesus say, “I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!” Preachers of the gospel must have a greater desire for the lost to be converted and to enjoy God’s love forever, than to see their church pews fill up.
THE ORIGINS OF THIS TYPE OF EVANGELISM
How did the evangelical church come to use methods like coming forward and reciting the sinner’s prayer? I touched on this briefly in my introduction to this book but now let us consider it more fully.
In his Revival Lectures, the renowned revivalist of the mid-nineteenth century, Charles G. Finney, powerfully influenced evangelical Christianity. Many people were born again into the kingdom of God through his long ministry. However, he taught that a person could choose to accept Jesus at any time. Finney taught “decisionism,” which emphasized man’s capacity to accept Jesus as Savior apart from the working of the Holy Spirit in conviction of sin and the revelation of Jesus to the spiritually blind. Finney invented what we know as the “altar call” and the “sinner’s prayer.” Finney’s apparent success influenced many others to imitate his methods. In a relatively short time Finney’s “new measures,” as they were known, strongly affected the heart and soul of evangelical Christianity.
Finney’s influence is evident in the ministries of many of the great American evangelists from D. L. Moody to Billy Graham. They have taught that all a person needs to do is come forward, pray a (theologically correct) sinner’s prayer and—just like that—he or she is converted. Although I acknowledge that some are genuinely converted, I challenge their assumptions about the process of conversion. Many people come forward for spurious reasons. They are often emotionally confused and feel pressure to recite the prayer. Evangelists from Charles Finney to Billy Graham have readily acknowledged that all who come forward and recite the sinner’s prayer are not necessarily converted. Yet the standard model persists.
While working on the revision of this chapter I attended a gospel concert. The opening piece was, “I Have Decided to Make Jesus My Choice.” A mass choir delivered a powerful, magnificent rendition; the audience was greatly moved. I hummed along, too, but as the evening wore on the words of that song began to trouble me. “Decided” and “choice”—this was how so many view the way you become a Christian. Is this true? Can someone who is spiritually blind, deaf, dumb, and dead in their sins make a decision and a choice? Do we have that kind of control over our eternal future? Evidently, the author of that song and many in the choir and the audience thought so. The song communicated a kind of boastfulness—“See what I did! I chose Jesus”—that celebrates the human will and makes light of the will of God. But worse than that, it deludes those who have decided to choose Jesus into thinking they have been converted, when all they have done is made a decision.
THE CHURCH-GROWTH MOVEMENT
I have attended several seminars on church growth. They focused on various techniques which you can use to get new people into your church. I also regularly receive materials announcing workshops or seminars that claim they can help me double the size of my congregation by some method or another. These methods include contacting people by cold-calling, mailing out a series of brochures and flyers, or giving a series of sermons featuring self-help topics such as “How to be successful in a crazy world.” I am advised to preach positive sermonettes that will inspire, uplift, and help newcomers to feel welcome. Sermons that might be considered negative should be avoided, especially ones that mention sin, hell, and the exclusiveness of Jesus.
The idea is that the Sunday morning “celebration” is intended to be like a funnel into which are poured the maximum number of people. The gospel is not presented in these large gatherings; it is only presented in small groups, usually called cell groups—the bottom of the funnel. By the time newcomers make it to one of these groups they have been more thoroughly prepared for conversion through various levels of social and psychological bonding.
When I read about these church-growth strategies, I am reminded of cult recruitment techniques. Typically a cult’s public meetings have a hidden agenda (especially when the cult has received bad press); the cult puts its best foot forward, leaving more controversial issues for small group situations where some bonding has already taken place. When a Christian church does not proclaim the gospel in its public worship services and only evangelizes newcomers in its cell groups, it reminds me of these kinds of recruitment tactics. Yet these strategies seem to work! Statistics clearly indicate that by using church-growth techniques, you can increase the membership of your church. It seems hard to argue with success.
All across America churches are energetically recycling Christians who are constantly searching for the church that offers the best range of activities. If churches do not get on the bandwagon with these methods, they will lose out. Other churches will attract new people, perhaps from your congregation, if you do not employ positive celebrations, modern choruses with bands, lead singers and special praise groups, great activities for children, and self-help groups for every dysfunction under the sun. Unconverted people who are looking to improve their lives may seek out a church that promises great things to those who join its congregation. Although their lives may be enhanced (with families strengthened, careers augmented, and new friends acquired), the most important issue of life—salvation—may be entirely missed.
The methodology of the church-growth movement may result in false conversions when churches want to make it easy for people to become members. Preachers may shy away from strong gospel messages to avoid being “offensive.” A preacher who uses a straightforward presentation of the need for conversion may not be as outwardly “successful” as someone who is a church-growth practitioner. Church-growth techniques seem to work, while preaching a straightforward gospel message often drives people away. I have found that if a conversion-oriented sermon is preached, those who are merely Christianized may not come back. Those who are satisfied with their own righteousness will baulk at the truth, which declares that they must either come to Jesus and his cross for forgiveness, or else they will be lost forever.
Some churches, unhappily, attempt to convince people of their righteousness and membership in the kingdom of God—hoping to gain members and keep old members from straying. I did so, and I see others doing it. It is vital to remember what C. H. Spurgeon said: “The audience is not in the pews; the audience is in heaven.”
The tragic fact is that false conversions do occur. But what is the nature of true conversion? And how can we more carefully understand the nature of false conversion? Let us now turn our attention to the common experiences of true and false conversions.