March 14, 2017

Four Characteristics of a False Convert

by Jordan Standridge

Over the years I’ve seen that one of the most powerful moments in a new believer’s life is the realization that there is such a thing as a false convert. The sudden realization that salvation is not dependent on a prayer, a baptism or family history propels true believers to a whole other dimension in their walk with Christ. They begin to examine themselves properly (2 Cor 13:5), they become more evangelistic, they care more about theology and they appreciate being at church so much more. Understanding the fact that false converts are a reality is so important for those who call themselves Christians.

dying plantAs we saw last week, there are few things more disappointing than when someone from our church walks away from the Lord. Especially when you’ve spent countless hours not only teaching and discipling that person, but you have shared a myriad of hours of ministry with him.

Maybe at some point in the grieving process, you will wonder why you weren’t able to tell that he was a false convert. Maybe you question your ability to discern over the fact that you were unable to tell, and you are beating yourself over the head.

Philip was one of the first deacons in the Church. He was selected by the disciples to be one of the seven to serve the tables in Acts 6:1-6, and he went on to becomes an incredible evangelist soon after that. In fact, when Stephen was martyred, Philip was the one who was sent to Samaria and Judea in order to spread the Gospel past the confines of Jerusalem. And we see that the Lord used him greatly. But, what we also see is the first false convert. Simon, the magician, was a man whom the people practically worshiped. He was able to do incredible tricks that caused the people to say to themselves, “This man has what is called the Great Power of God.”  When Philip showed up, the Bible tells us that 1) he believed, 2) he was baptized, and 3) he continued on with Philip. As soon as Peter and John showed up, though, we realize that Simon was a false convert and we are left wondering how did Philip miss it? Perhaps Philip was left wondering how he missed it as well.

Of course, no amount of time spent discipling people is wasted time, but there is a sense in which we want to use our time wisely and be able to water where the grass is green, rather than spend our time watering dead grass. Is there a way to tell? Is there a way to be able to recognize the sheep from among the goats in this life? Well, Simon had four red flags that Luke points out in the short story of Acts 8:9-24 which we can apply to all false converts. These don’t encompass all the red flags, but they are a helpful start. So, here are four characteristics of a false convert.

They are man-centered

In other words, they like to be exalted by others. They are all about seeking attention and wanting to be noticed.

Notice an important statement in Acts 8:9. Simon claimed to be someone great. Simon was all about exalting himself and stealing from God’s glory. In fact, the people’s response was to exalt Simon to worship-like status, claiming that he had the power of God. When Philip showed up with real miracles rather than tricks, Simon decided to hop on the bandwagon, hoping to retain the influence he had worked so hard to establish. He was absolutely obsessed with his image.

False converts don’t truly love God and don’t care if He ultimately receives the glory from their life; rather, they are simply after the cheap thrills of recognition and attention. A lack of love for God’s glory shows up in a lack of evangelism, and a lack of speaking about God at all. Those who are man-centered only care about how God can affect them and improve their life and aren’t interested in picking up a cross to follow Christ (Luke 9:23).

They are not devoted to Jesus 

Simon seemed to just go through the motions in Acts 8. As we’ve already seen, he was simply after holding on to his influence and adapting to what the culture around him wanted. Most people in his cult were giving their lives to Jesus, and so, in order to fit in, he also sought to accept Christ. He didn’t truly love Jesus, he simply wanted Jesus to give him what he ultimately sought– the desires of his carnal heart. He completely misunderstood salvation. I mean, he did it all:  he believed, was baptized, and followed Philip.

But, as we know, salvation is not actions, but rather, it is a heart change that God does to a person.  Ultimately it takes Peter one conversation to realize that this man hadn’t truly been saved. False converts completely misunderstand salvation and think that it is through their actions that they are saved. They might say that salvation is not through works with their lips, but their hearts declare something completely different. They don’t truly love Jesus in their hearts and are only after the benefits of what Jesus can bring to their life.

They have a selfish attitude

This is where Simon’s motives become clear. Acts 8:18-19 shows us Simon’s heart. He offered Peter and John money to be able to have the Holy Spirit and do the miracles that they were doing. Of course, this is silly to us and shows us a deep misunderstanding of how the Holy Spirit works. But, if we go beyond the surface, we will notice an even greater red flag.

Notice why he wanted the spiritual gifts. He wanted spiritual gifts so that he could be noticed and feel good about himself. He had completely selfish reasons for them. But, a simple reading of the New Testament will teach us that spiritual gifts are only given to us to be able to serve those around us. Their only goal is to serve the other members of the Church.

Today, so many churches promote certain spiritual gifts as more important than the others, and they also encourage those in their congregations to experiment with spiritual gifts that were not intended for them. Even if they do so unintentionally, they are setting up their congregations to see spiritual gifts as a way to promote themselves in front of the eyes of the church. This is a complete misunderstanding of spiritual gifts and it shows a love-of-self that is dangerous at best.

Christ, on the other hand, teaches his disciples that in order to be great one must be willing to serve (Mark 9:35). He then, through the Holy Spirit, gifted each member of the church with spiritual gifts intended to bless the whole body. The Christian life is a life of self-sacrifice, each Christian is called to put selfish desires to death and be willing to put the interest of others above their own (Gal 5:13).

They misunderstand repentance

Ultimately, Simon showed a lack of understanding of what repentance is. First of all, he got rebuked by Peter. Peter exposed his heart’s intentions and called him out on his sin. Simon’s response is telling. He cared about what Peter said, but not because he displeased his Savior, but because he was concerned about the consequences. He didn’t want what Peter said would happen to Him. This is worldly sorrow. Look at his response, “Pray to the Lord for me yourselves, so that nothing of what you have said may come upon me.”

Not only was he more worried about his consequences, but he also misunderstood how repentance works. He asked them to pray for him. Repentance is a constant desire to be pure in front of God. Repentance doesn’t need others to intercede for them, but, instead, it is the act of a person who humbles himself before his Father and requests forgiveness and desires to change. And this doesn’t just happen at the moment of conversion. This is continual each and every day. Paul Washer says it well when he says,

“Conversion is not like a flu shot. ‘Oh, I did that. I repented. I believed.’ The question is my friend–are you continuing to repent of sin? Are you continuing to believe? Because He who began a good work in you will finish it. He will finish it.”

Jesus’ parable of the unforgiving slave (Matt 18:21-35) teaches a simple fact, and that is if you are unwilling to forgive, then you probably haven’t truly experienced grace. You could also say that someone who doesn’t repent of sin after he becomes a Christian probably isn’t a Christian. A Christian’s humility doesn’t go away at conversion, but rather continues on into his sanctification. As his love for Christ increases, his hatred for sin will increase as well, and it will show itself in a desire to admit sin and continue to repent daily.

On the other hand, false converts hate confrontation. They close up and defend themselves, or, better yet, attack back in order to keep the confronter at bay. They can’t possibly believe that they could have sinned in some way. False converts are prideful and don’t ever own up to sins that they have committed. In other words, they are blind to their sin.

Of course, this must have been eye opening to the early church. Most churches would be ecstatic to have a guy like Simon proclaim Christ and join the church, and maybe Philip was blinded by this as well. But, Simon had all the wrong motives in coming to Christ, and, even though it wasn’t evident at first, his true colors came out in time. Having someone walk away can be extremely painful, but each time it happens, we can be thankful that God has changed our hearts and given us new life. I think that when false-converts walk away, we are also more likely to value the seasoned saints in church around us who have been so faithful to follow Christ for so many years, and who have said, perhaps thousands of times, no to the world and yes to Christ.

Jordan Standridge

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Jordan is a pastoral associate at Immanuel Bible Church in Springfield, VA, where he leads the college ministry. He is the founder of The Foundry Bible Immersion.
  • Wiseopinion

    I love the Lord. I love His Word. I do love church. Have been a faithful attendee for over 35 years. Have served faithfully as well. But lately, the changes are alarming. There are false teachers teaching another Christ, teaching not from Bible but from various “popular” authors, speakers, preachers(?). Bringing so much of the world into the church…it is hard to find a church that is not compromised or tainted in some way. Some are pretty blatant, while others more subtle but the end message is a new Christ, a new gospel, a new way to salvation and heaven. It is quite disheartening for those of us who so desire a true Bible believing, Bible teaching church that treasures and preach the truth found in God’s Holy Scriptures.

    • Chuck

      So very true.

    • Jason

      I’ve found the important thing is: Are the elders believers? If they are, support and come along-side them. Ask questions.

      Unfortunately, I think a lot of the error promoted by today’s leadership is because these positions are not always entrusted to the most mature members of the congregation and then there is an air that “if you don’t like it, leave” (and that’s not just the leadership who feel this way).

      Ideally, a church would always be lead by the most mature, Biblically qualified members of the congregation rather than those with the most degrees. However, if immature believers are thrust into a position of leadership, instead of feeling unqualified to confront errors, we need to care enough about them to at least have a sit down first.

      • Wiseopinion

        Jason, I do appreciate your exhortation. You speak wise words. Sadly, I did approach, I did have a face to face, a sit down with the elders about my deepest concerns…not to judge but because I love them as brothers and they all know that) and I loved the people in my church family. The “if you don’t like it, well we understand and we want you to know we don’t want to lose you, but things will remain as they are.” was told not just to me, but to many of the people who had similar concerns. It was very painful and disheartening and I feel a great grief at the loss. I have visited several churches and guess what, I am finding the same nonsense, the same borderline heretical teachings with no one knowing the problems with the teachings. Sigh, I sigh often. I want to go to church, I want a church family, but not at the cost of accepting false teachings.

        • Jason

          Sorry to hear that. There is much to grieve in this life. Hope you find a good congregation soon.

        • JoeB

          The problem is too many pastors due to either pride or having another agenda refuse to listen to those saints in their congregations with the gift of discernment. God imparted that gift to protect the Church from error. Instead such believers are usually thrown out. These leaders would rather have their church growth programs than have a solid God-fearing Bible believing church that will not compromise with the evil in the world and will grow the church God’s way.

    • Rach

      Hi Wiseopinion, Try doing a zip search at Speak to the Elders, then visit in person, expect imperfection, you yourself be determined (obedient) to submit to Biblically qualified male Elders & Deacons. Go to the best tainted one you can find. If you are truly seeking a sound church to sit under the authority of God’s word & the authority of the shepherds He has gifted for Eph 4 purposes & to serve Christ’s Bride, be prepared to drive or move, nothing is more important.

      There is definitely a famine in our land, but God always has His remnant, pray the Lord would lead you to those He has kept for Himself nearest you & be determined to sacrifice your comforts to do so 🙂

      Hint: All of them are tainted 😉

      • Wiseopinion

        Thank you for your kind words and suggested link. I will check it out. Please see my reply above to Jason. I know that all are tainted…and I pray that I am His remnant and I have been encouraged by a small group of us who all feel the same loss. Our weekly meetings are the closest thing to church as I have found in a very long time….so perhaps…perhaps God has already led me and I have not recognized it as the place to start…I am encouraged by the love and exhortation in the thread…thank you all.

    • Jordan Standridge

      What’s your zip code?

      • Wiseopinion


        • Jordan Standridge

          This church looks promising… It may be worth the drive.

          • Wiseopinion

            Thank you Jason for taking the time to help me. It is worth looking into. I will admit the drive has to be a consideration when one wants to be very involved in the church and the lives of those who attend. Not just the drive for me, but for those who want to reach out to me as well…it is a long drive through downtown Columbus for all. I do appreciate your effort…and how I wish there were more to choose from for everyone’s sake.

  • Ciscostudent561

    Thanks for your faithfulness in sharing.

    • Jordan Standridge

      You’re welcome. Thanks for reading!

  • alexguggenheim

    Looked through the text. Nowhere is there a claim of Simon being a false concert and certainly there is that of him becoming a believer and following his belief with baptism.

    Also, the text does not say that he wanted the Holy Spirit to do miracles. It states, “Give me this power also so that anyone who I lay my hands in they receive the Spirit”.

    What Simon sought was a part in the Apostolic ministry of imparting the Holy Spirit.

    Simon was an infant in Christ and clearly brought into his Christianity, bad ideas or baggage and one of them was the belief that Christian ministry was a commodity like his “magic” work before his conversion (and he would not be the last to bring baggage as any church leader knows adult spiritual infants tend to do) which was to be purchased.

    He has zero understanding and maximum arrogance in his spiritual infancy and is no doubt joined by many believers who have been very arrogant in their spiritual infancy.

    Finally, while it is pondered that Phillip may have wondered how he missed it but Peter and and John got it, throat Simon was not really saved, we have to wonder how Luke missed it too, in rmwriting to us this account and telling us Simon believes and was baptized without inserting what he would allegedly have know by the time Acts was penned which was that Simon was pretending and didn’t really believe.

    • Jane Hildebrand

      I remember reading in Irenaeus that Simon the Sorcerer was not a true convert. Tim Challies had this to say:

      “After this event, the Bible never again refers to Simon the Sorcerer. It would appear, contrary to apocryphal and Gnostic texts that seek to glorify his role as sorcerer and his previous satanic abilities, that Simon was repentant and may have continued to be a member of the local church in Samaria. However, Justin Martyr and other Christian apologists like Irenaeus insist he was an antichrist and continued his sorcery, even founding Gnosticism itself. The greed of Simon is recalled in the modern word simony, “using religion as a means of profit.”

      I would venture to say that given the Apostles sharp rebuke of him, Simon was not seeking to join in their ministry any more than the demon possessed girl who followed Paul yelling, “These men are servants of the Most High God, who are telling you the way to be saved” in Acts 16:16-18.

      • alexguggenheim

        Actually it was only Justin Martyr making that claim. Irenaeus was quoting Martyr as are all subsequent theologians. Hence, it was one sourcing which, it appears, the claim that Simon in Acts is the Simon Magus is quite dubious and stems from Justin Martyr’s historical error regarding two different Simons which was evidence in the find of the ‘large marble fragment in the island of the Tiber bearing the inscription “SEMONI SANCO DEO FIDO””. Unkess we are claiming Martyr a source of historical infallibility. I recommend you research this issue much more further before sighting Martyr again.

        Secondly, the question is asked, and so? So what if the Bible never mentions him again? What kind of new hermeneutic do we now seek to establish? That is a meaningless point but especially in light of the text clearly stating he did believe.

        And no matter how you want to frame your belief about the rebuke, and I’m not denying Simon was rebuked, the text is rather clear he was seeking to join the apostolic Ministry of imparting the Holy Spirit, that is precisely what the text says.

        Ultimately, what I believe most people encounter in this passage where they cannot imagine Simon could be saved is a presuppositional view that if one is “really saved” they would act a certain way and they couldn’t dare act in the way Simon acted therefore, the text that says he believed is simply dismissed, ignored or qualified where it is not qualified by Luke, in order to compensate for a theology that demands a certain outcome. And Jane, I did notice that in your interaction, you did the least amount with the text, itself, and the most amount with sources outside of the text. That generally is the least healthy course to take in effective interpretation.

    • Jordan Standridge

      I cheated Alex. I looked at church history. That said when I was preparing for my sermon on this passage last week I was already inclined to believe that he was a false teacher based on just the text. I don’t think you need church history to see that Simon’s theology was pretty messed up.

      • alexguggenheim

        As are that of many infant converts.

  • Chuck

    Well said and spot on. I was once a false convert myself only seeking what I could get out of following The Lord Jesus seeking signs and wonders and with no repentance. Since I left Pentecostalism and began to study Reformed Theology I now understand and grow in it daily. God is Sovereign and as one Theologian said, “we are just a worm in His hand.” I do study from Pastors/Teachers from Calvinistic and Armenian proponents of Theology and believe there can be no Salvation without Sovereign God initiating it but that does not negate our responsibility to accept it and follow Christ. God Bless all.

    • Jordan Standridge

      Thanks for sharing your testimony Chuck!

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