[NOTE: The following is not offered as a systematic refutation of "false conversion" teaching, nor an attack on its proponents, whose motives are surely sincere. My purpose is to show how this doctrine of questionable value can do serious harm to the Body of Christ.]
We have heard that some went out from us without our authorization and disturbed you, troubling your minds by what they said. Acts 15:24
The young believer was apparently having his first serious crisis of faith. He wrote:
I've recently realized that I'm a so called 'false convert' and never really got saved. I've already called upon the name of the Lord for quite some time to save me from my sins with a heartfelt conviction of the gravity of my sin but nothing really happened. I repented from my sinful ways and did quite well in the beginning to abstain from sin but it didn't take long before I succumbed back to some of my sins. I continue to repent, and desire and value the Word of God more than ever, but my momentum and desire to read it starts to lessen. Should I continue to call upon his name to save and regenerate me, and only then follow Him?
Aside from his obvious Christian faith, I was struck by how closely his words paralleled Paul's:
Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God's law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? Romans 7:21-24
This young man's misdiagnosis of his problem as false conversion — what some preachers call "Hell's best kept secret" — directed him away from the only cure, which Paul reveals in the next verse: "Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!" (Romans 7:25). Apparently no mature believer had explained to him that he already has been, is being, and will be delivered from sin by his continuously interceding Savior (Hebrews 7:25). His ignorance about the real Christian life, and the false explanation for his struggle with sin, disabled him from resting in and growing in that assurance (Matthew 11:28; Romans 8:35-39; Philippians 1:6).
Years before hearing the term "false conversion," a few young believers opened up to me about their private insecurities regarding their own salvation. It usually went something like this:
Maybe I'm not really saved, that I'm just another unsaved hypocrite. Everyone else at church seems to have a solid walk with the Lord, but I still struggle with sinful thoughts and emotions and failures. If they really knew me they probably wouldn't think I was saved. Our pastor probably wouldn't. He says Christ gives us daily victory over the world, the flesh and the devil — I'm losing all three battles! Maybe I should just leave the church and figure out what I really believe.
The correct response is: You wouldn't care if you weren't saved.
Distress about your sins is a healthy sign of a saved soul, not a symptom of false conversion. Sanctification isn't instant or easy, it's a lifelong, painful, humbling process. Real false converts don't care about their sins and don't know they aren't saved. Our warnings to them fall on deaf ears — ears which cannot hear (Jeremiah 6:10). That's because "the person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit" (1 Corinthians 2:14). False converts may call themselves Christians, attend church and use a lot of "God talk," but most are unaware and unconcerned that they are not reconciled with God and still destined for hell.
False conversion is presented as the reason for rampant immorality in many churches today — drug and alcohol abuse and addiction, sexual sin, divorce and more. That may be partly true (actually, the failure of church leaders to understand and counter the enormous power of modern culture is a fuller explanation).
But Scripture is far more concerned about false teachers than false converts
(1 Timothy 1:3; 4:1-2; 2 Peter 2:1; 1 John 4:1; Galatians 1:6-9). The most dangerous false converts by far are those who infiltrate the Church into positions of leadership in order to tear the flock apart and lead it astray (Matthew 7:15; Luke 21:8; Acts 20:29; Romans 16:17). While the sinful behavior of a few members may infect others, they are a small problem compared to our real enemies, false teachers, who have wiped out entire Christian denominations, leading millions of followers to tolerate and even celebrate, in the name of Christ, doctrines of demons (1 Timothy 4:1) and the evil behavior from which Christ came to set them free (Romans 6:11-18; Galatians 5:1).
Tragically, false conversion preachers re-aim the big guns of church condemnation from the primary target — false teachers — to our weak, stumbling brothers and sisters who desperately need God's love, and ours, starting with the reassurance of the forgiveness of sins (Luke 1:77). In extreme cases such preachers may actually serve Satan's disabling function as accusers of the brethren (Zechariah 3:1-2; Revelation 12:10), rather than the edifying role of the Church under the direction of the Holy Spirit for the fruitful conviction of sin (John 16:8; 1 Corinthians 14:24-25; 1 Thessalonians 1:4-5).
Preachers of "false conversion," however sincere, exploit a potent reality: that all of us sin (1 John 1:8-10). So there is always plenty of "evidence" available for every believer that he or she was never saved. That is a lie, and a faith-damaging distortion of the Christian life. It also misses a fundamental reality — that we saints are capable of some very nasty behavior.
For example, 1 Corinthians records some of the many sins those believers were practicing — lawsuits against fellow believers, quarreling, division into factions, drunkenness, sexual sin, arrogance, discrimination against the poor. Yet Paul in his distress never accuses them of being false converts. A thousand years before that, King David, the "man after God's own heart," seduced the wife of a friend, then had him murdered to cover up his crime (2 Samuel 11-12; Psalm 51). Yet no one considers David a false convert.
This is not to suggest we shouldn't take sin in our lives seriously — we are to deal with it ruthlessly and never compromise or tolerate it for a moment (Luke 15:7; 1 John 2:1; Galatians 5:19-21; Colossians 3:7-9; James 1:21). But even those living in deliberate sin were not accused by Paul of being false converts, though some were at the point where he had to "turn them over to Satan" so they would learn a lesson and still be saved (1 Corinthians 5:1-5; 1 Timothy 1:20). Again, it is not false converts but false teachers that Paul identifies as a far more serious problem, to the point of wishing them damned (Galatians 1:6-9).
Christians are tempted to sin more than unbelievers, who aren't a threat to Satan or the world. Not until we become children of God do we become offensive — "the smell of death" (2 Corinthians 2:15-16) to those doomed entities. Satan asks God's permission to attack his people (Job 1-2; Luke 22:31). We're going to fail some of those tests; that's how we learn and grow in our walk with God in the process of sanctification. But the false conversion doctrine turns our many stumblings into the evil suggestion that we were never saved. The Gospel corrects that disabling error by taking our focus off of ourselves, and onto God's amazing grace. As we mature in our faith and start realizing how many sins God has forgiven us, our love for God grows (Luke 7:47).
Christians need to understand through teaching and experience that the sin nature never dies in any believer during this life (Genesis 4:7; Romans 7:14-25). Sanctification is a lifelong process that God won't complete in us until we die or Christ returns, whichever comes first (Philippians 1:6). We all sin. That's why the Bible says we are to continually confess our sins (1 John 1:8-10; James 5:6). The Lord's Prayer was given to believers, not to unbelievers — there is no time in this life when we stop asking God to "forgive us our debts." The prodigal son was a believer when he went wild, not a false convert, (Luke 15:11-32). Jesus told us to forgive our fellow believers an endless number of times (Matthew 18:21-22). Doing so glorifies God by reflecting his nature, because He does the same for us (Matthew 5:44-45).
One more error of false conversion teaching needs correction. Proponents suggest there are so many "false converts" today because they did not genuinely repent of their sins due to the failure of evangelists to present the complete Old Testament law. They claim that without fully understanding God's holy standards that all of us have violated, false converts never realize how much they have been forgiven, and therefore do not come to true repentance for salvation (Acts 11:18; 2 Corinthians 7:10). There is some truth to the point, but that is not how the Gospel was presented in the New Testament to non-Jews. To Jews, Paul "reasoned with them from the Scriptures" (Acts 17:2). But to non-Jews, the Apostles presented a much simpler, more direct Gospel. Look at Philip with the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:30-35), Peter in the Roman centurion's home (Acts 10:34-43), and Paul with the Athenians (Acts 17:22-31) and the Philippian jailer (Acts 16:30-33). After all, there weren't Bible book stores in even the most civilized cities back then. Many real converts had little or no exposure to the Old Testament. They simply accepted the good news of the Gospel on the spot in all its glorious simplicity and clarity.
This is especially true for young believers. The vast majority of Christians living today, at least in the United States, came to faith before they were adults. Though all people have an equally corrupt sin nature, children are not and cannot be as aware of it. They don't yet have the "track record" that undeniably reveals their fallen nature, which we adults acquire over the years. As Christ explained, "whoever has been forgiven little loves little" (Luke 7:47). So to prepare young Christians to mature in their faith, it is essential they are taught the correct diagnosis and cure for their misbehavior — not that they were never saved, but that they were never challenged to deal with their own sinful nature in all of its raging youthful energy (Genesis 4:7; Psalm 25:7). As they come to realize that they are no better than anyone else (Romans 3:23), they will grow in humility and gratitude towards God for his amazing grace for them, while learning to extend that same mercy and grace towards others (Matthew 6:12).
The vital truth missed by false conversion teaching is that we Christians will continue to be tempted all our lives, we will continue sometimes to fail, and our heavenly Father will continue to forgive us and love us and work in us through his mercy and grace (Psalm 51; Romans 5:20-21), thanks to the continuous intercession for us by the Son and Spirit (Romans 8:26-27; Hebrews 7:25; 1 John 2:1). Embracing that process, rather than mislabeling it, burns up our shallow, immature, judgmental faith as we learn to extend to our fallen neighbors the grace and love that was so freely lavished on us.
It is this long, humiliating, painful process of sanctification that eventually teaches us how to "act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God" (Micah 6:8).