In the recent past, in the Gambia, there was a big stir among many in Christian circles when a former clergyman announced his conversion to Islam on a national platform. This event doubtless re-ignited the age-old discussion, “does once saved mean forever saved?” – otherwise known in theology as the perseverance of the saints.
Before one can go on to address this question, however, I believe that it is important to settle the controversy of who a genuinely converted Christian is, and who is not? In this two-part article, we will attempt to show from biblical examples how one can tell the difference between the two. This is important because we see in the Scriptures that not all who are in the realm of the Church are genuinely regenerate.
What is Conversion?
Conversion can be defined as the first exercise of the new nature, in ceasing from old forms of life and starting a new one.¹ Notably, in conversion, there is a turning from one thing (or one way of life) to another. Although in the Bible we see that the term is sometimes used for a backsliding believer’s return to the Lord (please see Luke 22:31-32), the term is generally confined to a sinner’s (initial) conversion to faith.
A classic text that teaches this doctrine is Matthew 18:3. There, our Lord says,
and said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
Conversion follows the effectual call of the Gospel. To put it another way, if the call of the Gospel is effectual in us, we will respond. What one does, in response to the effectual call of the Gospel is what we call conversion.
In John 6, after feeding the five thousand, myriads of “disciples” started following Jesus on account of the miracle they saw Him perform. In response, Jesus began to tell them how that as the bread of life which came down from heaven, they have to eat his flesh and drink his blood. Pretty hard teaching, isn’t it? “How can he possibly expect us to eat his flesh and drink his blood?” they grumbled. Why would Jesus seem to dissuade these people from following Him? I believe the answer is in what John tells us few chapters earlier:
Now when he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Feast, many believed in his name when they saw the signs that he was doing. But Jesus on his part did not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what was in man. (John 2:23-25).
Jesus knew those who truly believed in Him and those who were merely following Him because of the miracles. Throughout the epistle of John in particular, we see that there are “believers” who are not true believers at all. I call these, miracle believers. Although these followed Him alright, and had heard Him preach, they did not have genuine heart-faith in Him. These followers had what you might call, a temporary conversion.
In the parable of the sower (Matthew 13:1-9; 18-23), we see a perfect example of a temporary convert. Notice Jesus’ explanation of his parable of the seed which fell on stony ground. This kind of person, says Jesus, receives the word with joy, yet he has no root in himself. Such a seed immediately springs up as a result of lack of depth. This type of “believer” endures only for a little while; however, in the face of tribulation and persecution, he falls away. There was no root all the while (no true life) hence such a seedling could not bear fruit. Of the seeds mentioned in this parable, only the one which fell on the fertile soil represents true converts. Genuine converts last, and they prove that they have true life in Christ by bearing fruits, fruits which last. This is the lesson of the vine and branches.
The Vine and the Branches
In John 15, Jesus uses a metaphor to describe the relationship true believers have with Him as their vital source of life. He says,
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit.
Many people have stumbled at the fact that there are branches in the vine that the husbandman (the Father) cuts off and throws away (verse 2), eventually burning such with fire (verse 6). However, the key to understanding what Jesus says here lies in verse 8: By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples.
It is our abiding and bearing fruit that proves we are true branches in the first place. There are some temporary converts who seem to be branches in the vine but are in reality not, and the evidence is that they don’t bear fruit. They are like the seed that fell on rocky ground, which fails to bear fruit because they have no root in themselves. Once these hear a searching sermon or face the slightest tribulations on account of the gospel, they fall back.
Simon the Sorcerer (Acts 8)
Simon the sorcerer presents another classic case of temporary conversion (Acts 8:9-13). Following the preaching of Philip, Luke records that Simon believed and even offered himself for baptism. But had he really? Peter’s words few verses later proved what he had experienced was not genuine, for his heart was not perfect with God. Peter rightly discerned that Simon was “in the gall of bitterness and in the bond of iniquity” – in other words, all his show of conversion was fake. His offering himself for baptism, and attending church with the other converts were all not genuine. He needed to ask God to have mercy on him –for he was not yet saved.
The example of Simon weakens the argument of those who hold that baptism in and of itself has the power to save. This is not biblically true, for if it did, then Simon’s heart would have been regenerated as a result of his baptism. But as it were, he was still in the gall of bitterness and in the bond of iniquity even after baptism. Obviously, when Peter laid hands for the new converts to receive the Holy Spirit, Simon did not – because he was not a true believer — hence he offered money to Peter to be given the gift of the Holy Spirit. Alas, the gift of God cannot be purchased with money, and God only grants the Spirit to those who obey Him (Acts 5:32). Simon was not one of those, hence, “he had neither part nor lot in this matter, for his heart was not right before God.”
The Lord Knows Them That Are His
In 1Tim 1:19-20, Paul admonishes Timothy, with regards to “holding faith and a good conscience.” The contrast to this was the example of Hymenaeus and Alexander who had shipwrecked their faith. “By rejecting this, some have made shipwreck of their faith, among whom are Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have handed over to Satan that they may learn not to blaspheme“. In his second epistle to Timothy, chapter 2, Paul will again pick up this theme. This time, alluding to how those who have shipwrecked their faith have caused an upset in the Church – and some people are feeling as if all is lost. However, Paul says, the falling away of these false prophets did not take God unawares – He knew them that were His!
Among them are Hymenaeus and Philetus, who have swerved from the truth, saying that the resurrection has already happened. They are upsetting the faith of some. But God’s firm foundation stands, bearing this seal: “The Lord knows those who are his,” and, “Let everyone who names the name of the Lord depart from iniquity.”
The Lord knows them that are His – in other words, Hymanaeus and Philetus were none of His. Some may fall away, but the true people of God – whom He knows, can never be lost. As John says in agreement, “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us.” (1John 2:9). This should be a great comfort to us, and also an admonition to carefully examine ourselves to be sure we are really in the faith. We may be able to fool everybody else, but the Lord knows them that are His. You’re either His, or you’re not. There is no middle ground.
To be continued…
1. Dr. Martyn Lloyd-John, on Conversion, http://www.mljtrust.org