Every Christian blogger has a particular topic or topics that they are passionate about and that they keep returning to in their writing. My friend Elizabeth has said that for her it is divorce. My blogging friend Debbielynne has a particular interest in ministry to the gay community and Roman Catholicism. Another blogging friend Mike is compelled to address the issue of the church growth movement and all the error that it entails. For me, the recurring topic is false conversion. I am very passionate about it and I have deep concern for individuals in the professing church who believe that they are Christians when in fact they are not. Some of these individuals truly believe they are saved and have no idea that they are false, while others have a sinking suspicion that something is off, but they are too embarrassed or afraid to admit it.
I have written before several times that I grew up in a Christian home, but that I was not truly saved until the age of 30. I have experienced both sides of the equation, and therefore am in a unique position to understand the reality of false conversion, and how prevalent it truly is. Having now been regenerated and saved, I am keenly aware of the difference between genuine and false conversion.
Because I grew up in a Christian home, I always had an intellectual understanding of what the Bible teaches: God is creator, man has sinned, the only remedy is belief in Jesus who died on the cross for our sins, unbelievers go to hell forever. And as a child and teenager, I believed it, agreed with it as truth; I intellectually assented to those facts. I knew that God existed, but I can say with absolute certainty looking back that I was not born again. I was not saved. It is not surprising that I knew God was real, all while being unregenerate (not saved) because the Bible tells us that every single person knows that there is a God, and that He is truth: “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse.” (Romans 1:18-20)
Intellectual assent is not the same as regeneration; being born again of the Spirit. They are not synonymous. Unfortunately, in the last 100 years, formulaic evangelism has confused the issue to the point that most people do see them as being one and the same. What do I mean by formulaic evangelism? I am referring to the popular technique of having an individual repeat a sinner’s prayer, and then immediately assuring them that they are in fact saved. God is not a genie in a lamp, and conversion is not equal to saying a few magic words and being on your way. I am not saying that everyone who said a sinners prayer is a false convert. I am also not questioning the motivation or hearts of individuals who have used this strategy in evangelism. What I am saying is that doing alter calls, repeating prayers, and signing off on people who have gone through these steps and offering immediate assurance is unwise and is the reason we have so many false converts in the visible professing church today.
Every single person who has ever lived or will ever live knows there is a God. Therefore, you can have an intellectual understanding of biblical truth, and even agree with it, and not be truly born again. Dr. Albert Mohler famously said that hell will be full of people who were avidly committed to Christian values. He is right, and it breaks my heart. I’ve been on that side of the spiritual equation; I know from first hand experience. I remember growing up absolutely identifying with the morals that the Bible teaches. I knew they were right. I knew there was a God, and I knew that I sinned. But I also sensed that when I looked around at the people in my church that there were real Christians, and they had something about them that I didn’t have. There was some quality that set them apart. I now realize that what I was recognizing was that they were born again. They had the new nature and the indwelling Holy Spirit. I did not. I had knowledge of the truth and my own fallen will fueling my self-effort to try to conform and adhere to what the Bible teaches. Their motivation was internal; their obedience and good works a natural out working of their regeneration. My motivation was external, trying in my own effort to follow rules and will myself to be Christian.
I knew that I didn’t have what they had, but I didn’t know how to change it. Eventually, I drifted when I went off to college and quit trying to be something I knew that I wasn’t. Then, the year that I turned 30, God began to draw me. I was looking for something; looking for truth. I realized I was missing something….that hole I couldn’t fill. We began attending a Bible teaching church. I cannot give you an exact date of my conversion, because it was a process. God knows, but I do not. It was in the fall of that year, however, that I realized I was different. I knew I was a sinner who deserved hell. I knew I could not save myself. I knew my only hope was Christ! This internal, Holy-Spirit conviction/affirmation I was experiencing is what Romans 8:15-16 speaks of “For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God.” It was as if someone had flipped an internal switch. Suddenly, the Bible made sense when I read it. I couldn’t get enough of reading scripture. The common descriptor is ‘spiritual hunger’ and that is what I was experiencing. I wanted to talk about God all of the time! The Holy Spirit was convicting me of sins, revealing to me things that I needed to forsake, confess and receive forgiveness. My perspective changed and I saw all things in light of eternity. My thoughts and opinions began to be filtered through Scripture. When I needed to make a decision, my first thought was ‘what would God say about this? what does the Bible say?’ I began to notice changes in my thoughts, attitudes, and desires. It was all coming from within; from a changed heart. It was Christ in me, enabling me to obey, enabling me to press on in faith. It was no longer the will of my flesh trying to be a Christian. I was born again, I was a new creation in Christ. I was powered by the Holy Spirit dwelling within me. It was a complete 180 from my childhood.
For Believers: One of the biggest mistakes the church makes today is to believe that encouraging folks to examine themselves is being unkind. It is not; it is biblical. What is unkind is to give automatic assurance to each and every person who ever claims to be a believer. If they are not in fact truly saved, then you are helping to harden their hearts to the true gospel. Obviously, humility and gentleness should be the base from which we are operating when we respond to those who are struggling or doubting their faith. But it is not biblical or wise to automatically respond with assurance each and every time to each and every person who admits they have doubts. If you always automatically respond to doubt with assurance, you may be in danger of interfering with the work of the Spirit, who may in fact be working in them to convict them.
For doubting professors: Do you wonder if you are truly saved? Do you find yourself on the outside looking in like I did as a child and teen, recognizing that you don’t have what those other Christians do? Then I encourage you to be brave and examine yourself. Don’t ignore the questions and doubt that is bubbling up……it may be that you are not born again and that the Holy Spirit is beginning to convict you and bring you to repentance. 2 Corinthians 13:5 says “Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless indeed you fail to meet the test!” The Bible encourages us, even after we are saved, to examine ourselves. We need to give ourselves a spiritual check-up, just like we go to the doctor once in a while for a physical check-up. Pray and ask the Lord to make clear to you your standing with Him. Cry out to Him for forgiveness of your sins. Plead with Him to give you the gifts of repentance, belief and faith. This may not be a one time prayer, be persistent. Seek godly counsel from a pastor or mature Christian friend. Read the scriptures. I recommend starting in the gospel of John. Here are some resources I recommend for people who wonder if their salvation is genuine:
Is it Real? Article by Grace to you, a tool for self-examination to see if your faith is genuine
Traits of a True Believer Part 1 sermon by John MacArthur
Traits of a True Believer Part 2 sermon by John MacArthur
I hope this has been a helpful post. Soli Deo Gloria!