T4G 3: Mark Dever, “False Conversions: The Suicide of the Church”
Audio for this session here.
Could it be that many of our hearers, each week—even many of our members—aren’t saved?
Westley and I were surrounded by sisters and deacons praying. It was very hot in the church, and getting late now. Finally Westley said to me in a whisper: “. . . I’m tired o’ sitting here. Let’s get up and be saved.” So he got up and was saved.
Then I was left all alone on the mourners’ bench. My aunt came and knelt at my knees and cried, while prayers and song swirled all around me in the little church. The whole congregation prayed for me alone, in a mighty wail of moans and voices. And I kept waiting serenely for Jesus, waiting, waiting – but he didn’t come. I wanted to see him, but nothing happened to me. Nothing! I wanted something to happen to me, but nothing happened. . . .
God had not struck Westley dead for taking his name in vain or for lying in the temple. So I decided that maybe to save further trouble, I’d better lie, too, and say that Jesus had come, and get up and be saved.
So I got up.
Suddenly the whole room broke into a sea of shouting, as they saw me rise. Waves of rejoicing swept the place. Women leaped in the air.
Why give time trying to fix a problem that’s inevitable (false conversion). The experience of Langston Hughes is, I fear, the pattern of thousands—even millions—or people around the world.
This is a serious problem.
1. God’s Plan
God has an overarching purpose to get glory for himself through a people. All peoples on earth will be blessed (Genesis 12). God’s plan is to make himself known among the nations—through Christ, and specifically through the church. The early church planted churches. They continued God’s plan of working through a people. His people are a means of bringing him glory—that’s the pattern from Genesis to Revelation. Pastors, you are about something at the center of God’s existence.
2. The Problem
God’s people were unfaithful. Instead of honoring God’s name, they mingled with the nations, adopted their customs, and worshiped their idols (Ps. 106).
The problem is not just the occasional hypocrite, but systems that seem to produce not just one man but whole congregations characterized not of holiness but of worldliness.
2.1. A problem of individuals deceived.
It’s not loving for people to remain deceived.
2.2. A problem of the church’s love.
It makes our lives together less joyful and forgiving. Hebrews 13:17 says we should make leaders’ lives joyful. But not when the church is becoming more like the world.
2.3. The church’s witness to the nations is subverted.
When we become like the world, the world no longer has any questions. If our words and actions aren’t true, the light of the world is dimmed. Hope vanishes.
2.4. Worst of all, God’s name is defamed.
Paul asks the Corinthian church this penetrating question, “Is Christ divided?” (1 Cor. 1:13). The local church is designed to reflect Christ. Is the church’s holiness and love reflecting God’s holiness and love so that God can get glory among the nations? We work against him when we build churches that camouflage God’s character.
3. The Source of the Problem
Why are there so many churches that don’t evidence the fruit of the Spirit, that don’t appear to be born again?
We have to begin by looking at ourselves.
There are too many warnings against false teachers to list here: Paul, Peter, John.
Not many of us should presume to be teachers (James 3:1).
“Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1 Timothy 4:16).
We can teach the wrong things with disastrous results. Saving faith only comes by hearing the gospel (Rom. 10). What will false teaching do? It won’t be ignored. It will bring converts—false converts.
In reading through the NT, there are five summary truths that were being distorted in NT times and are still being distorted again—on these we must be especially clear on:
- God’s judgment is coming (2 Peter 3). You can easily fill a church with people who will follow their own evil desires. Avoiding the doctrine of hell is one step away from denying it altogether.
- We should be judged by God. It’s not just out there for someone. We need to feel our own helplessness. God is good and we are not. We need to understand and teach clearly our natural state and indisposition—we love darkness rather than light. This will preserve us from the idea that if we just fiddle with stuff enough, things will be successful. Meditate on Ezekiel 3. Don’t deny or downplay natural human lostness. We cannot deserve—but Someone Else has deserved for us. He who thinks lightly of sin will think lightly of the Savior.
- Our only hope is in Christ. We must trust in Christ—who he is and what he is done. We cannot be converted through our own works. The bodily resurrection is an essential part of our message. Without Christ’s person and work, you can make “converts” but you will not have a Christian church. When we get this right, we begin offending and attracting all the right people. Only true converts respond to the truth about Jesus Christ.
- We don’t see the fullness of our salvation in this life. Christ’s death and resurrection secure forgiveness—but it’s not true that salvation is mainly for this life only. There is a blessed hope—the glorious appearing. If only for this life we have hope, we are to be pitied for all men (1 Cor. 15:19). Wanting health and happiness is not the same as repentance. We need to see Christ as worth more than all worldly treasure.
- We can deceive ourselves and others about our relationship with God. It’s counter-intuitive in our culture, but clear in the Bible. Please teach this! How would your congregation understand 2 Corinthians 13:5: “Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless indeed you fail to meet the test!”
Have you taught new converts at your church these five truths? Do they understand these things? If we are off on any of these things, it can create false converts. And false converts hire false teachers. There is a symbiotic relationship between false converts and false teachers.
“Watch your life . . . closely.” Wrong living can be just as damaging as false teaching.
Three common errors in the NT:
- To present a church without holiness. Unholiness can thrive in churches with no accountability. We must be motivated by love of God that’s contrary to love of this world. Hebrews 12:14: “Strive for . . . the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.” It’s tempting to present the church as tolerating all sins—even unrepentant ones.
- To present a church with no suffering. We all want to avoid poverty and sickness—but this cannot be an ultimate goal, or we will mislead others about what God saves us from. True Christianity will call us to suffering. Health and wealth preachers are false teachers. We also need to ask ourselves if we are doing more mild versions of the same thing? Do we act like a healthy church has an ethos of triumphalism. As Carl Trueman asks in his excellent article, “What Do Miserable Christians Sing?” Many unbelievers tell Mark that many churches don’t listen to them emphatically but imply you have to be part of a Happy Club to draw near. If you want to get a lot of fake Christians in your church, tell them that picking up the cross daily is for those who order Extra Large when they order their spiritual meal.
- To present a church without love. Mark sometimes has to tell young guys who love to read Puritans but won’t get up early to help a 90-year-old man to church—perhaps you’re not a Christian. Demons are great theologians. We need love. “We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brothers. Whoever does not love abides in death” (1 John 3:14). We must love, imperfectly but really. We need true Christians giving themselves away to each other. Real love with authority and kindness and the ability to correct and self-sacrifice and wisdom—it’s bracing, even shocking. Many are repelled. And many will be attracted.
Mark shares the gospel here for those who might be at T4G who may not be a believer.
A Few Practical Suggestions
- Always be evangelizing. Spurgeon said to evangelize “steady and well.” Spurgeon said: “Do not number your fishes before they are broiled; nor count your converts before you have tested and tried them. This process may make your work somewhat slow; but then, brethren, it will be sure. Do your work steadily and well, so that those who come after you may not have to say that it was far more trouble to them to clear the church of those who ought never to have been admitted than it was to you to admit them.”
- Always be shepherding your sheep. Spurgeon: “I am occupied in my small way, as Mr. Great-heart was employed in Bunyan’s day. I do not compare myself with that champion, but I am in the same line of business. I am engaged in personally-conducted tours to Heaven; and I have with me, at the present time, dear Old Father Honest: I am glad he is still alive and active. And there is Christiana, and there are her children. It is my business, as best I can, to kill dragons, and cut off giants’ heads, and lead on the timid and trembling. I am often afraid of losing some of the weaklings. I have the heart-ache for them; but, by God’s grace, and your kind and generous help in looking after one another, I hope we shall all travel safely to the river’s edge. Oh, how many have I had to part with there! I have stood on the brink, and I have heard them singing in the midst of the stream, and I have almost seen the shining ones lead them up the hill, and through the gates, into the Celestial City.” Do not forget God has called you to a great role in people’s lives.
- Always remember the account that you are to give to God. What he’s about is something huge and wonderful. The 19th century Scottish pastor, John Brown: “I know the vanity of your heart, and that you will feel mortified that your congregation is very small, in comparison with those of your brethren around you; but assure yourself on the word of an old man, that when you come to give an account of them to the Lord Christ at his judgment seat, you will think you have had enough.”