False Conversion: Is this a possibility?


That people are falsely converted to Christ has been observed throughout the Church’s history. Every pastor, at least those who have been in place a decade or so, are well aware of false conversions. Perhaps this is a time when those of us who have not lived up to the high calling of service in the church, particularly for one of the offices in the Church (see Ephesians 4:11-13), to examine our conversion. Paul spoke of a spiritual self examination in 2 Corinthians 13:5:

Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves. Do you not realize that Christ Jesus is in you, unless, of course, you fail the test?

            This is not to say that a false conversion must have occurred if there has been a failure, of whatever nature. Some of whom I considered the morally finest Christians I have ever met, turned out to be or proved to be unconverted people. Moral uprightness is good but not proof of genuine salvation. Were not the religious leaders of Jesus’ day at least outwardly holy? And it is likely that these priests, synagogue leaders, scribes, and so on, were rarely if ever found out. And no one of us has ever been completely found out; this will only happen on the Day of Judgment at the end of the age.

            Maybe I should not write what follows, but I have discovered over the decades of my ministry that only those who have been born from above will risk the kind of examination Paul urges to the Corinthians. It is generally known among pastors that only the regenerate are concerned about their salvation, since they know that this is the only real issue in all of life. There are likely exceptions to this rule, but most pastoral veterans will say the same.  

What can the unconverted do?

What about false conversion? I am aware that false conversions do occur, as any pastor will observe, and most Christians also realize.

            There is a bit of a paradox involved here. On one hand, we must be called and elected, and at the same time, we must trust Jesus as our Savior and Lord. The paradox is that, on the one hand we are called to believe in Jesus, and yet God will save those whom He has elected or chosen. Yes, there is the Arminian position and the Calvinistic position, and I embrace both at once. This is the paradox—two truths alongside each other like train tracks.

            There is more that could be said here, but I want to move on to a brief examination of at least some means that may result in false conversions. These are: decisional conversion; doctrinal conversion, generational or cultural conversion; moralistic conversion; conversion by imitation, and experience-based conversion.

Means of false conversion

Decisional Conversion

It is highly likely that Charles G. Finney, between the years 1825 and 1840, developed ways in which a person could supposedly become a Christian. He invited seekers forward to occupy the ‘anxious seat’ and to eventually recite a prayer that was essentially a decision to invite Christ to be one’s Savior and Lord. It proved to be a useful tool, and it spread and spread and spread, unto the present day. Make the decision, pray the prayer, and shazzam, you were saved. It happened to me as well, and for nearly three decades I was a Finney man.

            Later on, I learned that this was tantamount to forcing God’s hand, at best, and even magical thinking or practice, at worst. God, in this scenario, is not sovereign and in control; no, the one who would or would not pray the prayer is in charge.

            Could it be that someone, maybe aged eight or eighty, prayed the prayer, and then it was confirmed by someone that this person was now born again? A conversion was announced, and all on the basis of someone following instructions to pray a prayer.

            In my experience as a Gospel preacher, to be as honest as I can, it seems to me that sometimes the prayer resulted in a genuine salvation experience, and other times, at some point further on, it was clear that there had not been a real experience of salvation.

            Doctrinal Conversion

Believing rightly or correctly, answering the catechetical questions properly—does this mean that one is certainly a Christian? I have made this error any number of times. Upon finding a fellow traveler who had all the right statements of doctrine, surely this meant I was in the company of a true Christian brother or sister.

            While it is fine to think biblically and be theologically solid, this does not equate with true conversion. This error may be even more prevalent than decisional conversion, even among fundamentalists and evangelicals.

            Generational or Cultural Conversion

If I live in America, I am Christian. I was not living in a Hindu, Buddhist, or Muslim nation, so I counted myself a Christian. When I enlisted in the military in 1961, I checked that I was a Protestant of the Episcopal variety. This last designation was based on the pop, sociologically oriented book The Status Seekers, where I learned Episcopalians were the most prestigious of the lot.

            I was obviously a Christian, because I was born and raised in the good U S of A, and if everyone I knew did not count themselves Christian, at least the founding fathers had been, and Christianity permeated the culture.

            One of my parents was a Christian, my grandparents had been, and I must be, too. That did it for me.

            Moralistic Conversion

It seems as though I was quite moral up until the age of fifteen when things went south. Lust set in, the never-ending weird thoughts going through the brain at 100 mph; I was doomed is how I put it. Other vices set in as well. There was no hope for me, and I knew it, so I did not try to hide behind the idea I was morally upright. Thank goodness.

            There is a twist to this, however. What I discovered, and I found this within myself, was that after my conversion, my genuine conversion, I fell into the idea that I was now morally upright, and I noticed more than ever before that others were not. All the sins, except for a few, that the good Baptist pastor of mine spoke of I had pretty much stopped, at least for fairly long stretches at a time. Of course, I found interesting ways to justify periodic lapses.

            Over the years I have found many who pride themselves on not only their doctrinal correctness but that they succeeded in leaving the unclean world and had devoted themselves to Christ. In thought and action, all was well.

            The two in combination are a deadly concoction, one that lulls one to sleep before the brain function closes down completely. The fact is, there is nothing a person can do in terms of “work” that can affect salvation. Nothing at all; this is the plain biblical truth.

            Conversion by Imitation

During the 1970s I pastored an evangelical church that was fairly charismatic. As the years progressed, I came to think that if a person moved and swayed to the music, closed one’s eyes, raised the arms to heaven, and shouted out a few hallelujahs, then salvation must be in place. And wow, if one spoke in tongues, that sealed it. The trouble that resulted is something I may never get over.

            What can be seen and heard can be imitated. To be part of the group, to be in, to win acceptance, even status, only required imitating the behavior of existing group members, which is not all that hard. I have known preachers who wowed the crowd and even had spiritual gifts, especially that of healing, who were about as converted as a demon. And this last sentence I do not write easily.

            Experience Based Conversion

To have what is thought to be an experience with God, which is widely promoted these days, is to assume that one must be born again. How about “lying under the power of God” on the floor, maybe for hours even days—does this not assure that one is a child of God? Hmmm, I fail to think of a verse or two that supports this.

            If one is healed, does this prove one is also then born again? Again, in vain do I look for a verse that supports such a notion. Witnessing a miracle or being present when one is told the Holy Spirit is moving in power—these can be false signs and wonders. It is abundantly clear that Satan performs his miracles, and like a famous baseball broadcaster once said, “Look it up.”

            Nowhere in Scripture, and I mean nowhere, is there any idea expressed that we are to seek after an “experience” with God. The counterfeit for a simple trusting in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord is experience, perhaps in an altered state of consciousness where anything might be experienced and none of which is good. This is no proof of anything at all. Salvation is not a feeling or an experience.

            Can anyone ever be sure?

Some say yes, some say no to this question. There is Romans 8:16: “The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God,…” The Holy Spirit convinces us, but this is internal and individual, undocumented, and mysterious.

There are the traditional “marks” of a Christian: conviction of sin, revelation of Jesus as Savior and Lord, belief in the truth of the crucifixion and resurrection, moral change, love of God, worship of God, desire to know Jesus more, fellowship with other Christians, desire for baptism, love of receiving the bread and the cup, faithfulness to serve, worship with tithes and offerings, continuing desire to turn from sin, ongoing repentance, enduring the race, and getting back up if one should fall.

When I look at myself, I see many of the marks of a Christian. It does seem to me that the Spirit of God indwells me and convinces me that I really am in the Family of God. Yet these are inner convictions, subjective not objective, thus there is room for doubt.

What to do? Follow Jesus in faithful service and worship in any case. If I became convinced that I was not among the elect, never mind, I would continue anyway. And this alone proves nothing except that at minimum you recognize following the truth of Scripture results in a more meaningful and better life than the converse.

Some of the Puritans would say that whether they are converted or not is something they will leave in the hands of God. For them, they would faithfully follow Jesus as Lord in any case. Perhaps they were guarding against pride or presumption, but they did not rely on a sense of assurance. Assurance is blessed indeed, but even here it is not essential.

For more thoughts on the subject of conversion, please read my book, A Matter of Life and Death, also previously published with the title, Are You Really Born Again?

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