This post is a summary of the lessons I derived from a book I just finished reading. The details are below:
Title: Conversion: How God Creates a People
Author: Michael Lawrence
Publisher: Crossway in partnership with Ekklesia Afrika
Michael Lawrence addresses one of the most confounding things facing the final church age- the issue of false converts. However, it is not a new matter. The early church faced this as well; countless people who allied themselves to the faith of Jesus Christ but were not truly converted. In 1 John 2:19 the apostle warns the church not to be dismayed by those who fell out from the Body of Christ because they were never part of it in the first place. They attended the services like everyone else; they had God to thank when they had milestones in their lives; they had scriptures engraved on their note pads and their bumper stickers; they even had Christian names, but all that was cosmetic- they were not part of the sheepfold. When persecution checked in and the real burden to live the faith ensued, they abandoned the faith in a heartbeat. Jude 1:4 says that some of them even became enemies of the faith; they begin to teach sin and the abuse of God’s grace as a way of living. They may even speak boldly of why they left the faith, yet the scriptures speak overtly that they were deceived and did not have the Spirit of God in them in the very first place.
Even as Jesus conducted his earthly ministry, many gathered to him in the thousands but they really did not desire the eternal life that He offered. In John 6:26 Jesus confronts the crowd that has gathered to see him; he blatantly tells them that they are not after the truth but simply for his miracles to multiply the food. Many people come to Jesus for many things except Jesus. They come because he is philosophically trendy, they come because they love him as a moral teacher, they come because they want stuff, they come because they want the things his power can do; but they don’t want Him; they don’t want a saviour; they want an accessory to their existing life and they still remain in their sins.
Perhaps like Simon Magus of the book of Acts, they came to Jesus with the intent to have Him supplement on their magic arts. The danger of this is that these people look like genuine Christians on the outside but they are still unregenerate on the inside and may assume all is well between them and their Creator. They may have attended Sunday school or been to Christian schools but they only possess handed down beliefs; they don’t own them; they are not converted. The common term for this category of people is nominal Christians.
Michael Lawrence lists a number of ways false converts are deceived and the root of their deception. These deceptive ideas brought to light serve to complement what Paul taught in 2 Corinthians 13:5, to search our hearts to see if we are truly in the faith. They also complement 2 Peter 1:10 that asks us to make our Christian calling and election sure. Michael Lawrence argues that true Gospel conversion primarily makes us:
• New not nice
• Saved not sincere
• Disciples not decisive
• Holy not healed
• Distinct not designed
New not nice
The Gospel of Jesus ultimately pegs itself on two powerful truths: that God is infinitely holy and that man is utterly sinful. These contradictions in nature cannot be reconciled naturally. Meaning to say, we can’t buy or bribe our way into God’s kingdom through moral self-effort. The scriptures teach that moral self-effort is but filthy rags before a Holy God (Isaiah 64:6). And even if it were possible to please an infinitely holy God with our efforts, the problem of sin still remains. If I kill someone while drunk driving, my standing as a good citizen of my country does not wipe away my crime. If being a nice person does not atone for earthly crimes, what in the world would make me believe that niceness would atone for heavenly crimes?
The Gospel of Jesus Christ is not to make us nice people; it is to make us new people. Anybody can be nice. But nobody can bring about the newness of spiritual regeneration that the Gospel does. 2 Corinthians 5:17 affirms that coming into God’s kingdom is about receiving a new nature. The quality of being a nice person will easily flow out of a new person. But the newness that conversion brings can never spring from the weak effort of human niceness. The Gospel making you new means that your heavenly crimes of sin have been paid for on the cross by Jesus Christ. Men who reject the Gospel because they are nice anyway still have the wrath of a Holy God hanging over them because they reject the sacrifice made on their behalf. Believing in one’s own goodness is by far the fastest and easiest way to reject the life-saving truth of the Gospel. Lawrence argues that churches that do not preach the gospel are heavily responsible for the mass deception. When we preach be good instead of repent and be new, we damn many to hell to believe in themselves and not in the saviour.
Saved not sincere
Lawrence proceeds to argue that many nominal Christians insist to be in the faith because they said a prayer one day. While it is very accurate that we believe in our heart and confess with our mouth and so we are saved (Romans 10:9), we must realise that the words are not a magical formula. They are a repentant response to the Gospel of Jesus. The believing is not a mere mental assent to the facts about the faith; you can do that through historical studies. You can study non-biblical sources like the works of Josephus and Hebrew history to investigate the facts of the faith. However, we must understand that mental assent is no different from that of demons; even demons believe these things (James 2:19). The truths must be accepted in your heart in humility because you understand that apart from them you are spiritually dead and an enemy of the one that loved you.
The truth brings a spiritual rebirth that makes you saved from the wrath of God. No, many false converts argue that they were sincere when they said the prayer. Well, you can be sincere by sincerely wrong. Many students in my high school made that prayer as we approached the final national exams. They were sincere but they were not saved. They did not desire salvation from their sins; they desire salvation from examination failure. Many people make that prayer while broke. They do not desire repentance from their sins and to turn to God; they desire a financial breakthrough. And because of that, Jesus ceases to be a saviour and He becomes a butler to avail his stuff for you. Your sincerity accounts for nothing if it was not pegged on Jesus. It is the object of our faith, Jesus Christ, that saves us and not the sincerity of our false hope. The question is not whether you believed, but rather, in whom did you believe and was it the Gospel? The result is not whether you were sincere but rather whether you were saved from your sins.
Disciples not decisions
It may seem silly to say, but true followers of Jesus will actually follow Him. Jesus himself affirmed this in John 14:21. Proof of being converted is that our lives will show the new life from the Holy Spirit. If the new life from the Holy Spirit is not in us, then we lie to ourselves that we belong to Him. The assurance of our faith is in the life that begins in us. False converts point to religious decisions to give them a false assurance. They may say they attend church regularly. But attending church regularly does not regenerate you into a follower of Jesus any more than standing in a garage makes you a vehicle. They may say that they were baptised as a child. But if you were baptised and not spiritually regenerated, you simply went into the water a dry sinner and left a wet sinner. They may say they have read the entire Bible. But reading the entire Bible doesn’t make me a believer any more than reading Ben Carson’s Gifted Hands makes me a Neurosurgeon.
Lawrence paints a picture of the proof of our conversion using a powerful analogy that he borrows from John Piper. He says, “I don’t know I’m alive because I have a birth certificate. I know I’m alive because I’m breathing.” Nominal Christians deceive themselves through their participation in religious activity. And they see genuine believers involve themselves in the same activity and think that all is well. But you must realise that the Gospel change in genuine believers does not put the cart before the horse. We do not get baptised to get saved; we get baptised because we are already saved. We do not attend church to get born again; we attend church fellowship because we are already born again. We do not read the Bible to receive new life; we read the Bible as a response out of the new life. A false convert looks for the birth certificate; a genuine convert looks for a pulse. A false convert may even serve in church ministries. To these, Jesus said in Matthew 7:23 that He would cast them out on the final day of judgement for He never knew them. Christ does not say that He knew them but they backslid. He says unequivocally that He NEVER knew them. They never came to the faith in the first place by believing the Gospel of Jesus for the forgiveness of sins; they were self-deceived.
Holy not healed
The Gospel of Jesus states that God is infinitely holy, that man is utterly sinful, that man cannot save himself, that God has offered a way of salvation through Jesus and that all who humble themselves for the forgiveness of sins through Jesus receive eternal life. Any other message that calls itself the Gospel invites the curse and condemnation of God (Galatians 1:8). Any message that says come to God to receive financial breakthrough, emotional healing, fulfilment in your career etc is humanism-based false teaching. The word holy means to be set apart. In contemporary circles, it means to be pure. The Gospel of Jesus does both. It sets us apart and it makes us pure.
The Gospel is pegged on the forgiveness of our sins and not the promotion of self. Many professing pastors today have gathered thousands in their church campuses by avoiding the message of repentance of sin and focusing on a message of self-promotion- your money, your time, your season, your situation, your happiness, your way and all about you. And in all this, they fail to recognize that the chief problem of man starts with focusing on self. Sin’s middle letter is I for good reason. Messages that comfort complacency in sin make men and women think themselves converted while they are not. Messages that offer part truth and leave out the rest make false converts tickled by these teachers (2 Timothy 4:3-4).
There are three ways to deceive people. One, tell them the absolute lie. Such a teacher will deny the faith blatantly and say something like, “Jesus is not the way, the truth and the life.” And with this obvious life, some may believe. But most fall for deception number two and three.
The second way to deceive people is to give half-truths. You do this by speaking one part of the scriptures truthfully but leaving out a crucial second supporting truth. And by doing this you leave the first part hanging bare leading people astray because of its incomplete nature. An example of this kind of deception is the tickling teacher saying, “God wants you to be happy so don’t let no devil stand in your way.” What he has left out is that perhaps most of the congregants are unhappy because they are living in sin, not because of the Devil. Perhaps they are suffering from the consequences of carnality and not because of Satan. Or the tickling teacher may say, “Don’t give up on your dream!” But he leaves out the truth that your dream could be selfish and egocentric and against the will of God. Your dream could be to build a name for yourself at the expense of your intimacy with God. And people who should be called to repentance end up claiming, shouting and saying amen but return home to their depression when God Himself is tearing down their tower of Babel. These messages excite you like a fast and fiery flambé but they never change you like the sure slow heat of a refining kiln. The tickling teacher may say, “Get rid of those who are against you!” But he leaves out the fact that God in His mercy brings men and women of God to stand against you if you are walking a path of sin and destruction. So the fornicating couple says amen because their “foolish” Bible study members who stood against them, instead of falling to their knees in repentance.
The third way to deceive people is to twist the truth to make it sound real. This is by far the worst way. The tickling teacher may say, “God loves you the way you are!” and it may sound really comforting but it is deceptive. It is a twisted version of the truth of the Gospel that says “God loves you DESPITE the way you are.” There are people God hates (Psalm 5:5-6) and there are those he hates passionately (Psalm 11:5). The Gospel teaches that for these enemies of God, He has chosen to show them love by dying on the cross for them. He has made His enemies His treasure. He has loved them when they were unlovely. If they repent they can experience His love; if they harden their hearts, they live under His wrath. God loving you the way you are is incomplete and therefore deceptive. God loving you despite the way you are sobers you up to see His mercy. With the former, you kick your legs back and stay complacent; with the latter, you seek his redemptive free grace through repentance to not remain the way you are. The Gospel changes you; deception comforts you.
I will leave out the final one, Distinct not Designed, for you to imbibe it yourself from the book. The book serves as a good resource for churches and small groups that are keen on discipleship. God creates a people afresh through the Gospel. The Aramaic Old Testament says in Genesis 1 that in the beginning as God made the earth, the spirit of God was hovering above the waters like a dove. God spoke and He created. Much, much later, the Son of God begins his ministry of reconciliation. And during the launch of it, during His baptism, the same Spirit of God hovers above Him in the form of a dove. And God spoke as he did in Genesis 1. And so he says in Mark 1:11 that Christ is His son, whom He loves and in whom He is well pleased. This Son pleased the Father. Through his sacrifice on the cross for our sins, we can be forgiven if we humble ourselves. And the Holy Spirit can live in us and make us Sons who are loved by the Father and pleasing to God. And like Genesis 1, new life can begin in us. This is how God creates a people; through the Gospel. Are you truly converted?