The Lord Jesus constantly drew attention to the fact that it is quite possible to look, sound and act like a ‘Christian’ without ever actually being one. He spoke of two trees that looked very similar but ultimately one was seen, by its fruit, to be diseased. Then He spoke of two houses that outwardly appeared the same. No one could tell them apart until the storm came, which revealed one’s faulty foundation. Next, He drew attention to two crops growing in the same field. The wheat and the tares looked very similar at the start, but the tares’ real identity was discovered and dealt with at harvest time. Christ continues to labour this point with the parable about the two groups of virgins in Matthew Ch 25, which looked very much alike until the midnight hour when one group was found wanting. Later in the same prophetic section of Matthew’s Gospel, the Lord spoke of two types of animal – sheep and goats – which in Israel look quite similar. On judgment day the sheep enter everlasting bliss but the goats are cast into everlasting torment.
Nothing helps to clarify this issue better than a working knowledge of the parable of the sower (Matt 13) in which the first three ground-types picture the hearts of unregenerate sinners. Only the ‘good ground’ represents a true believer. The first ground-type, the wayside, pictures a hard-hearted hearer who has no room for the ‘seed of the Word’. Such a person is clearly not saved. However, the ‘shallow’ and ‘thorny’ ground-types represent people who at first appear to be genuine converts. Notice how the rocky shallow ground receives the seed and quickly produces a crop. Here is someone who receives the gospel with excitement and joy, yet after the initial burst of encouraging growth the crop withers because the roots are not deep enough to withstand the heat of the sun. Outwardly everything seemed fine at first, but the Lord says of these shallow hearers, they “believe for a while” (Luke 8:13). What kind of ‘faith’ is this? We could call it emotional faith, unaccompanied by any depth of reality. Yes, there are often tears when a soul is saved – but mere emotion, which can be produced by eloquent rhetoric and musically accompanied appeals, will always result in false short-lived professions.
What was the problem with the shallow rocky ground? It had never been ploughed up and cleared. Before the seed of the word of God can drop into the ground of the sinner’s heart and germinate, that heart must be ploughed up by exposure to God’s truth. The sinner must take on board what the Bible says about the sinfulness of man, by nature and by practice. Preaching that emphasises the ruin of man’s sinful condition prepares the ground for the good news of redeeming grace. What does such preaching sound like? An excerpt from a sermon by George Whitefield, perhaps the greatest preacher ever to come out of England, will furnish the reader with a good example. Whitefield was a fervent evangelist who employed a probing, conscience-awakening type of Biblical preaching that the Spirit of God was pleased to use mightily in the conversion of thousands:
“Give me leave to ask you, in the presence of God, whether you know the time, and if you do not know exactly the time, do you know there was a time, when God wrote bitter things against you, when the arrows of the almighty were within you? Was ever the remembrance of your sins grievous to you? Was the burden of your sins intolerable to your thoughts? Did you ever see that God’s wrath might justly fall upon you, on account of your actual transgressions against God? Were you ever in all your life sorry for your sins? Could you ever say, my sins are gone over my head as a burden too heavy for me to bear? Did you ever experience any such thing as this? Did ever any such thing as this pass between God and your soul? If not, for Jesus Christ’s sake, do not call yourself Christians; you may speak peace to your hearts, but there is no peace. May the Lord awaken you, may the Lord convert you, may the Lord give you peace, if it be His will, before you go home!”1
Contrast such earnest, pointed and persuasive preaching with today’s fare. In the few remaining evangelistic ‘crusades’ still conducted today, after sitting through the entertainment set before them, the people listen to a brief ‘gospel message’ that deliberately avoids addressing the issue of sin in any depth or with any pointedness. Yet when they are urged to raise their hands, come down to the front, sign a card or “pray this prayer after me” they eagerly do so and are immediately congratulated and “welcomed into the family of God”. The initial results may look promising, but anywhere from 80-100% of those who ‘go forward’ at such events are rarely ever seen again. The September 1977 issue of Eternity Magazine reported the results of an evangelistic crusade that involved 178 churches. Out of 4,106 decisions, only 3% joined a local church. That series of meetings created 3,983 ‘backsliders’. Sadly, these figures are typical. The drop-out rate among those ‘raised in the church’ and ‘saved at a summer camp’ is equally shocking, even among many of those who once seemed to be very active for the Lord. John MacArthur recounts three ‘Christians’ he knew in his younger years:
“I am convinced that the visible church today is literally jammed full of people who aren’t Christians but don’t know it…Some of the most dramatic examples I’ve ever seen of the deceived disguised as Christians were people who had been my closest friends. The first was a high school classmate and team-mate named Ralph. He and I worked summers at his dad’s car dealership, repossessing cars from people who hadn’t made their payments: a teenager’s dream job. We spent a lot of other time together besides work and school, passing out tracts and witnessing in Pershing Square in downtown Los Angeles. He was the head of his church youth group, and I was the head of mine. He said all the right things and seemed for all the world to be on fire for Christ. But when he went off to college, he completely abandoned the faith. I was stunned.
“In college I had a close friend named Don who was, I thought, a true spiritual friend in every sense. We were co-captains of the football team; he was class president and I was vice president; we both taught Bible studies; our dads were pastors, and we were thinking about being pastors too. We talked a lot together about serving the Lord. But then he went to Europe, got a Ph.D. in psychology, became a teacher and rock-concert promoter, and eventually was indicted, convicted, and sentenced for having students naked up in front of his classroom. He totally abandoned the faith.
“Then I went to seminary, where one of my best friends, whose father was the dean, put a Buddhist altar in his house after he graduated. Here was someone who had prepared himself for a life time of teaching and preaching the truth of Scripture, yet whose whole life and ministry up to that time were revealed to be a deceptive lie…They went out from us because they were not of us.”2
Perhaps the most famous ‘born-again Christian’ in the United Kingdom around the turn of the Millennium was the Olympic Triple Jump gold medallist Jonathan Edwards. As a six-year-old boy at a Christian youth camp in North Devon, England, with tears streaming down his face, Edwards ‘asked Jesus to come into his heart’. By the time Edwards retired from athletics in 2003, he was so popular and prominent in the Christian world that he landed the job of fronting a landmark documentary on the life of the apostle Paul and secured the presenting role on the BBC’s flagship religious programme, Songs of Praise. Yet an article in The Times newspaper on 27th June 2007 announced that Edwards now believes that his ‘born-again’ experience was all a grand mistake; that his conversion was nothing more than self-delusion; that his catharsis at age six is easily explainable psychologically and that the Bible is not the word of God. Edwards is now an atheist. Shocked? Not if you understand the parable of the sower.
The third ground-type, the one cluttered with thorns and thistles, produces no more fruit than the first two. The thorn infested ground depicts those who hear the word and may well give mental assent to the gospel at the time, but life continues as busy as ever and no fruit is forthcoming. Such people have what could be called intellectual faith. They may be able to argue the case for the existence of God, the reliability of the Bible and belief in creation – but their mental assent to ‘the truth’ is not true salvation. Their real concern in life is business, money and pleasure (Luke 8:14). They have never been converted and if they honestly examined their priorities and ambitions, their true standing before God would soon become blindingly obvious.
Reader, where do you stand today? Was your conversion mere emotion, or have you perhaps just an intellectual grasp of the truth? Have you just mentally assented to factual information, without the truth ever really gripping your heart and changing your life? No real work of the Spirit, no sense of guilt, no brokenness, no moment of time when you were truly converted. Will you be among those on the day of judgment who will say “Lord, Lord,” to whom He will reply, “Depart from Me, I never knew you“? Are you just the same person you always were, or have you ever truly become a new creature in Christ?
In the 19th century, The American Tract Society published a book called Self-Deception: Its Nature, Evils and Remedy by Jacob Helffenstein. After recounting a few details of the initial false conversions of David Brainerd, Andrew Fuller and others, Helffenstein makes the following telling statement:
“Here is the spot where hundreds fail. They take up with a conversion that falls infinitely short of saving faith in Jesus Christ, and when they lose their religious impressions and live habitually in the neglect of secret and family prayer and other religious duties, they lay the flattering unction to their consciences that they are backsliding saints, and that God will bring them back in His own good time.”3
There is indeed a very large group of souls who, though they neither read their Bibles, nor spend time in prayer nor even attend Christian meetings – to the contrary, their life is marked by a course of habitual sin – still confidently assert they are ‘saved’ (though somewhat ‘backslidden’). However, if one thing is clear in the New Testament it is the fact that where there is a total lack of fruit or a large measure of disobedience in a professing Christian’s life there can be no assurance of salvation.4
It was none less than C.H. Spurgeon who, commenting on Matthew 9:12, said: “Many people think that when we preach salvation, we mean salvation from going to hell. We do mean that, but we mean a great deal more: we preach salvation from sin; we say that Christ is able to save a man; and we mean by that, that He is able to save him from sin and to make him holy; to make him a new man. No person has any right to say, ‘I am saved’, while he continues in sin as he did before. How can you be saved from sin while you are living in it? A man that is drowning cannot say he is saved from the water while he is sinking in it; a man that is frost-bitten cannot say, with any truth, that he is saved from the cold while he is stiffened in the wintry blast…Christ did not come to save thee in thy sins, but to save thee from thy sins.”
On 4th September 1683, a long and mournful procession composed of more than 60 noblemen, in carriages drawn by six horses each, and of many others in mourning coaches and on horseback, silently followed the mortal remains of the Puritan John Owen (1616-1683) through the streets of London to Bunhill Fields. Owen, who authored more than 80 books and survived on 4 hours sleep a night, was a mighty theologian, chaplain of Cromwell’s army and a frequent speaker in the British Parliament. After decades of experience with souls he summarized the two most common mistakes people make in spiritual things. Firstly, people think they are going to heaven without being born again and, secondly, they think they have been born again without the evidence of a life of holiness to substantiate up their claim. Can Owen’s second point be proved from the Bible? Most definitely so. “Whoever is born of God does not practise sin” (1 John 3:9).
To avoid ‘stopping short’ of truly coming to Christ it is vital to examine and understand what coming to Christ really means. It will be helpful in this exercise to examine what coming to Christ is not. Firstly, it is not a physical act. Walking down an aisle, raising a hand or reciting a prayer are well known physical acts that millions have come to associate closely with salvation. A report in a church newspaper detailing the fact that at such-and-such a ‘revival’ five people ‘came to Christ’ usually means no more than five people went to the front during the altar-call. Such a thing was unknown to the apostles and indeed to evangelicalism in general until the days of Charles Finney (1792-1875).
Secondly, coming to Christ is not a mere mental act. That is, giving mental assent to the facts of Christianity or nodding one’s head to the meaning of the cross is not true salvation. “Do you believe you are a sinner? [Yes]. Do you believe Christ died for sinners? [Yes].Then you are saved.” No. Without repentance and true saving faith, no mere mental assent to a sequence of questions will secure eternal salvation. It is even possible to have a ‘click of logic’ about the facts of Calvary without once trusting in Christ. The evangelist holds his Bible in his right palm. “That’s you with your burden of sin. [The Bible is then transferred to the left palm]. That’s what God did to your sins at Calvary. Where are your sins now?” If the sinner says, “Oh, I see it!” he is pronounced saved, yet he may never once have repented and trusted alone in Christ for salvation. To quote A.W. Pink:
“At no point does Satan use his cunning and power more tenaciously, and more successfully, than in getting people to believe that they have a saving faith when they have not…all that is needed is to bring before a sinner a few verses of Scripture which describe his lost condition, one or two which contain the word ‘believe’, and then a little persuasion for him to ‘accept Christ’, and the thing is done. And the awful thing is that so very, very few, see anything wrong with this – blind to the fact that such a process is only the devil’s drug to lull thousands into a false peace. So many have been argued into a believing that they are saved. In reality, their ‘faith’ sprang from nothing better than a superficial process of logic.”5
Calvary is not just a fact of history to which one assents and is thereby saved – it is an atoning work, accomplished by the Son of God, in whom the sinner must trust. Faith alone, through grace alone, in Christ alone.
Thirdly, coming to Christ is not a mystical act. Experiencing a feeling of being born again has been claimed by everyone from tourists dipping in the river Ganges to those touched on the forehead by a preacher at a healing crusade. No. Trusting in Christ involves believing the truth, understanding the gospel, obeying the preached word. The gospel engages the conscious reasoning mind with a call to repentance and saving faith – it is about as far from mysticism as it is possible to be.
Fourthly, coming to Christ is not a mere volitional act. That is, it is not a mere decision. True, everyone who comes to Christ makes a choice. But a mere decision cannot save. People routinely change religions around the world for numerous reasons. Indeed, a large number of folk around the world regularly decide “to become Christians” without ever being saved. After all, if truly becoming a Christian were a mere decision, one could later decide not to be a Christian.
To return to the parable of the sower, the true believing heart, as pictured in the fourth ground-type, the good ground, is interpreted as one who “hears the word and understands it“. That is, the sinner understands his lost condition before God and is convicted of his sin. Now by ‘conviction of sin’ the Bible does not mean the ordinary smiting of conscience that is felt when one commits a sin, or worse, gets caught. Nor is conviction grasping a mere head knowledge of what the Bible says about sin. Nor is it a passing, shallow or grudging acknowledgement; “I’ve made a lot of mistakes”; “I’ve done a few things I’m not proud of” or “Nobody’s perfect”. Nor is it a mere fear of going to hell. As A.W. Pink so succinctly says:
“Multitudes desire to be saved from hell (the natural instinct of self-preservation) who are quite unwilling to be saved from sin. Yea, there are tens of thousands who have been deluded into thinking that they have ‘accepted Christ as their Saviour’ whose lives plainly show that they have rejected Him as their Lord.”6
Conviction of sin that leads to salvation is not even a mere admission that one is a sinner. In the Bible, Pharoah, Saul, Balaam and Judas all said “I have sinned”, yet died without being right with God. True conviction of sin takes place when a person comes to a proper sense of the dreadfulness of their sin against God, owning their guilt and deservedness of eternal punishment. To take sides with God against oneself is a humbling but necessary experience. It is the very essence of repentance – a change of intellect, will and emotion (i.e. the mind) about sin – without which all will perish (Luke 13:5).
Such a dark background brings ‘Christ crucified’ into bright focus. He is the water of life to thirsty sinners, cleansing for filthy sinners, light for dark sinners and peace for troubled sinners. To trust Him is to abandon all hope in works, religion and self and to cast one’s soul upon Him for eternal salvation – believing on Him, not just about Him – taking God at His word when he says, “He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life” (John 3:36). Suppose you are standing safely on the deck of a ship. Pointing to the life-belt the Captain asks you, “Do you believe that life-belt can save you?” “Yes,” you confidently reply, “I do.” Are you saved by this acknowledgment? No. Now, try to imagine being washed overboard on a stormy night. You are in danger of imminent death by drowning. A life-boat pulls alongside and the same life-belt you saw before is thrown towards you. Without a moment’s thought about ‘believing’ or ‘not believing’, you immediately rest all your hopes on the life belt by grabbing it and hugging it to yourself. At that precise moment, you moved from a mere intellectual belief in life-belts to a personal experience of being saved by a life-belt. Realising the utter hopelessness of your situation you rested your all on the life-belt for salvation. That’s what it means to trust Christ. To rest on Him and His finished work as all that is necessary. That’s saving faith. Nothing more is needed: nothing less will do.
Michael J. Penfold
1. George Whitefield, Select Sermons, (Banner of Truth, Edinburgh, 1958), p. 792.
2. J. MacArthur, Hard to Believe, (Thomas Nelson, Nashville, 2003), p. 95-1003.
3. Jacob Hellfenstein, Self-Deception: Its Nature, Evils and Remedy, (The American Tract Society), p. 334.
4. Matt 7:16-19, Eph 5:3-6, 1 John 3:9-105.
5. A.W. Pink, Studies in the Scriptures, Saving Faith, Mar-July 1932.