In 1998 Evangelical Press published my book Are you really born again? which was essentially a study of true and false conversions. It was the product of several years of work on the nature of Christian conversion, promoted by my understanding of the contribution of Charles Finney to evangelical Christianity. For the first time I became aware that a recitation of the famous ‘sinner’s prayer’ did not guarantee a genuine conversion.
Questionable conversion was something I already knew about, even while mired in a thorough-going Arminian theology. But I had usually attributed the faulty conversions to lack of follow-up, the work of the devil, failure to be obedient, and so on.
For most of the 1970s, I am very sad to say, I had the notion that if a person spoke in tongues then he or she must be a genuine Christian — for no one could do so without the Holy Spirit.
If a person had the Holy Spirit, well, he or she must be born again! I did not understand at the time that anything that could be observed could also be mimicked. This was the worst of it for me in terms of not understanding conversion, but there are subtler forms of confusion.
Since the publication of the book, I have received many dozens of stories from pastors expressing their familiarity with false conversions. In fact, I have yet to talk with a pastor who was not aware of the danger of false conversion — based on his or her own ministerial experience.
And, since the writing the book, I have continued to witness false conversions and, very recently, some very striking examples.
One middle-aged man had three different spiritual encounters. One he thought was with Jesus, and thus energised and excited, he has become quite a whirlwind of ‘Christian’ zeal.
He has succeeded in bringing some ‘unchurched’ people into a local church. He is beginning to be recognised as a valuable evangelical asset. His theology is fairly sound, and he is a very pleasant and likeable person.
But he has no conversion testimony and does not attribute his conversion to anything that might make me feel he is genuinely converted. And this troubles me.
Another younger man, after a crisis experience, took up the Bible, began to read and found comfort and encouragement. He then set out to convert the world to Jesus and has met with some success.
However, he has no Bible-based concept of salvation. His preaching and testimony have some degree of light and heat, but very little mention of the great work of Jesus and the cross. Under his ministry, people become enthused, their lives enhanced, and they become quite zealous themselves.
I have had to look close at these two men because I have become fairly intertwined with their lives and ministries. More than that, I have had to question their conversions in personal and private conversations with them.
This is not something I do routinely, though maybe it should be. Increasingly I see that conversion is a crucial issue. We may warm and fill people with our ministries, but that is only here and now — eternity is of far greater weight.
Jesus warned about false conversions in the Sermon on the Mount and elsewhere (Matthew 7:21-23). Paul warned about it (2 Corinthians 13:5). We know of an example in Acts with Simon the magician (Acts 8:9-25).
False conversion is, I believe, the least understood but most important issue that confronts those of us who work in the western world where it is easy to become Christianised and not Christian.
Yet, who wants to face it? It is unpleasant to deal with! At least, it is for me. It is so unpleasant for me that I will forget about it for long periods of time unless it directly impacts me so that I cannot avoid it — as in the cases of the two men I mentioned earlier.
If you are a preacher, do you get excited about preaching against false conversion and for genuine conversion? Probably not.
Those of you who love to witness personally concerning Jesus to friends and acquaintances — is this an area you explore with them? Probably not. We simply assume that people are safe with Jesus if they ‘talk the talk’ and seem to ‘walk the walk’.
Have we not seen, though, that many are able to do the talking and the walking without being Christians? Have we not seen people depending (unconsciously of course) on doctrinal correctness, personal piety, spiritual experiences, or some prayer or act they performed — rather than the finished work of Jesus?
Yes, I know that my dependence on what Jesus did does not save me. Rather, it is Jesus who saves me through his atoning sacrifice, his sovereign calling and his electing grace. If I understand what my salvation is all about, I will know that it is the work of God in Christ.
You may not totally agree with me, and this article may put you off. My request to you is — please consider the possibility of false conversion. If you are a pastor, in the normal processes of your ministry, ask people to describe their conversion experience.
You might be pleasantly surprised or unhappily dismayed. But in either case there can be a good outcome. On the one hand, a person may be brought to greater assurance in their salvation; on the other, a person may become aware of their need and begin to seek Jesus Christ and true faith.
If done properly, my work as a pastor will result in people hearing Christ say to them, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant, enter into the joy of your Lord’ — and not hearing him say, ‘Depart from me, I never knew you’.
I hope I never get too far away from this emphasis — because all my other work, while important, is nothing compared to the preaching of the gospel.