True Repentance, True Conversion

There are very few things which are more important than getting the issues of repentance and conversion right. The fact that we need to get them right means that we may in fact get them wrong – to our eternal detriment. Thus this is a vitally crucial issue to ensure that we have got it right.

Like many of my articles, this one may be the result of a divine convergence. Four related issues occurring almost at the same time have led to the writing of this piece. They were: my daily Bible reading; a post on another website; an email of a few days ago; and a book on my shelves.

This morning’s reading in Jeremiah took me through chapter 34. During the final days of Jerusalem before its defeat by Babylon, there was a covenant renewal effort, in which the people agreed to free their slaves. “But afterward they changed their minds and took back the slaves they had freed and enslaved them again” (v. 11).

Yahweh through Jeremiah says this: “Recently you repented and did what is right in my sight: Each of you proclaimed freedom to your own people. You even made a covenant before me in the house that bears my Name. But now you have turned around and profaned my name; each of you has taken back the male and female slaves you had set free to go where they wished. You have forced them to become your slaves again” (vv. 15-16).

J.A. Thompson comments on this situation: “It was a short lived freedom for the slaves. When the siege was momentarily lifted (vv. 21, 22) they reversed their decision and forced their fellow Israelites back into slavery. It was a predictable response from people whom Jeremiah had exposed time and time again as covenant-breakers. The whole exercise of proclaiming emancipation was abortive. The crisis led to an apparent repentance and a desire to obey Yahweh’s law and to do what was just and right. But there was no depth of conviction, and a reversion to complacency and injustice was evident as soon as the crisis had passed.”

Thus this was like a death-bed conversion – one which we need to be quite careful about. It was repentance for convenience sake – as a way out of trouble – but not real repentance. Because it was a false repentance, the people simply ended up in a worse jam.

Only by true repentance and obedience do we experience real freedom and blessing. Yahweh was certainly not pleased with their turn-around: “Therefore this is what the LORD says: You have not obeyed me; you have not proclaimed freedom to your own people. So I now proclaim ‘freedom’ for you, declares the LORD—‘freedom’ to fall by the sword, plague and famine. I will make you abhorrent to all the kingdoms of the earth” (v. 17).

Comments Philip Graham Ryken, “If liberty is what the people wanted, however, then God would give them ‘liberty’ all right! This was perhaps the most ironic of Jeremiah’s puns. God promised to give his people ‘freedom’ – freedom to suffer war, disease, and starvation. In effect, he was saying, ‘You did not release [your neighbours from their debts], so I will release – sword, pestilence, and famine!’ In the words of J. Gresham Machen, ‘Emancipation from the blessed will of God always involves bondage to some worse taskmaster’.”

The second motivation for this article comes from a recent speech given by US pastor Mark Dever. He has very correctly warned against the dangers of false repentance and false conversion. One story describes this as follows:

“False conversions are a serious problem that could lead not only to the ‘suicide of the church’ but also to the defaming of God’s name, an evangelical pastor warned. Mark Dever, senior pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., told some 8,000 ministers Tuesday at the Together for the Gospel conference that he fears there are thousands, if not millions, of people in churches who are not truly converted. ‘My fellow pastors, could it be that many of our hearers each week aren’t saved, even many of our members?’

“The problem isn’t just the ‘occasional hypocrite lost in unrepentant sin,’ but ‘systems that seem to produce false converts – not just one man, but whole congregations,’ he lamented. While some may brush off the problem as inevitable and one that pastors should not worry too much over, Dever sought to underscore how false conversions could dim the light of the church. More importantly, ‘false conversions obscure God’s plan’ – which he described as God doing all things for the glory of His name.

“The Southern Baptist preacher described false converts as those indistinguishable from the world and who don’t hold to certain Scriptural truths. A big source of the problem, he named, is false teachers, and that includes ‘health and wealth’ preachers. ‘We need to know that we can teach the wrong things with disastrous results,’ he said, noting that the New Testament has ‘too many’ warnings about false teachers.

“Dever listed five truths that are frequently distorted and attacked: God’s judgment is coming, we should be judged by God, our only hope is in Christ, we don’t see the fullness of our salvation in this life, and we can deceive ourselves and others about our relationship with God. By not teaching these truths clearly, churches become filled with those who do not ‘evidence the fruit of the Spirit’ or who aren’t truly born-again.”

The article continues, “‘If you want to get a lot of fake Christians in your church, just tell them that there is this free gift that entails no self-sacrifice and trouble,’ the Baptist pastor told conference attendees in Louisville, Ky. ‘The truth, however, is “no cross, no crown”.’ When believers get doctrine and life wrong, church life and mutual edification are eroded, the church’s witness to the world is subverted, and God’s name is profaned, he summed.”

The third factor behind this article is a short video clip which I came across this morning. R. C. Sproul says that false repentance involves people who just want to escape punishment, and the penalties of sin – to get a free ticket out of hell. He contrasts this with true repentance as found in David’s confession of sin in Psalm 51. This very brief video clip is well worth watching and re-watching until this message sinks in:

Fourthly, I was reminded of a title of a book by someone quite different theologically to the Reformed champion Sproul. So I dug out of my shelves a short collection of sermons by Charles Finney entitled True and False Repentance.

Six sermons are included here, with the first on “True and False Repentance” (based on 2 Corinthians 7:10), and the second on “True and False Conversion” (based on Isaiah 50:11). There is much of value in these sermons, but let me share a quote from his first sermon.

Says Finney in his conclusion, “We learn from what has been said, one reason why there is so much spasmodic religion in the church. They have mistaken conviction for conversion, the sorrow of the world for that godly sorrow that worketh repentance unto salvation, not to be repented of. I am convinced, after years of observation, that here is the true reason for the present deplorable state of the church all over the land.”

Quite right. I finish with the words of C.H. Spurgeon as a good summation of all that I have been saying here: “If the man does not live differently from what he did before, both at home and abroad, his repentance needs to be repented of, and his conversion is a fiction.”

[1283 words]

15 Replies to “True Repentance, True Conversion”

  1. Bill, I think Finney is brilliant in his statement that you quote here “we have mistaken conviction for conversion”. There is a very big difference between realising we blew it (conviction) and actually turning around to face the right way (conversion). I suspect there are many people who have been convicted who stopped short of conversion.
    John Symons

  2. Thank you for writing this Bill. I’ve long believed that true repentance produces true forgiveness and true conversion.
    Peter Findlay

  3. I always work on the simple idea that “true repentance” is a life long, ongoing, never ending activity.
    1. Ongoing prayer, I liken it to a two way communication with two relay stations, us>Jesus>God>Holy spirit>us, rinse repeat.
    2. keep his commandments, learn to study the entire scripture, study to learn the entire scripture.
    3. Implementation, everything you learn while studying the scriptures, you put into action, turn those actions into habits, gain an understanding of the blessings that come from the commandments.
    4. Enduring to the end, simply put, you gotta keep it going, without pause, never stopping, keeping your eye on the goal of eternal life. (this in my opinion is the bit too many forget to do)
    5. More prayer, prayer is often over looked as vitally important, in this modern world, people have forgotten to communicate. Pray, while everything is going dandy, pray while nothing is happening, pray while suffering.

    Anyhow, hope this helps.
    Neil Waldron

  4. I agree with everything you have said above.

    The thing that I keep thinking is, ‘I had no idea what true repentance was when I truly repented, I just found out I was different somehow from the other Christians I started to meet, and I had no idea why I seemed to attract so much negative attention by simply asking questions of the people I thought should know the answer’.

    It must be so hard for people who believe they are justified by faith, but do not realize they do not have the Biblically defined ‘faith’ that comes from God but a culturally defined ‘faith’ that comes from… well – somewhere else that I don’t know.

    The condition of these people has largely been the result of other Christians (and/or christians) who are leading these people and are content to have numbers with no purity.

    The purity of salt (or any spice, precious metal etc) causes it’s potency and/or value – salt that is not potent or pure is good for nothing. It ceases to be salty enough to make a difference – it probably never ceases to be vaguely salty – but just not salty enough to be worth using. It just takes up space and is destined to be thrown out.

    Joshua Ferrara

  5. I have to seriously question many of today’s conversions, what are they converted to a religion, Christianity, a church, or to Christ? We may become part of a church and pray and sing choruses etc but are we part of the faith? I was always taught repentance simply meant to change ones mind but later on found out implicit in the meaning includes a return back to God.

    When I was converted/saved my whole life changed and it wasn’t something I worked at, I changed into a different person (my wife was the same) and those around me at home or work noticed and asked questions. For one my foul language disappeared,I didn’t give it up it gave me up. I had a burning desire to read the bible and a unquenchable thirst to understand it, I also has a burning love for Jesus and a whole set of new friends I desired to be with.

    Either God saves us and the proof is the witness inside us that we are saved or we are not saved and have just become religious and when the test comes, as it must we become found out. I have seen so many supposed conversions it is not funny, in youth groups whatever and yet today where are they? In my opinion they never actually seemed to get anything of substance and the passing fad fell away.
    One day when conversing with someone (in his house) heavily involved in my Pentecostal church (formally in the salvation army for years) the Spirit of God came upon me unexpectedly and I pressed him heavily with the question that he was not really saved, he was shocked and completely denied it but after several long minutes he relented and admitted, no he had never ever been saved, he was just hoping he was saved because of his works. I think there are millions of professing Christians in this condition. Some in my own family, whom I have pressed for evidence without success. When I got saved I got something.

    Rob Withall

  6. Bill, I feel we always need to be aware of how we are contributing to problems, through our own wants and desires and even those demanded by society. We need to keep assessing ourselves on whether we are displaying the fruits of the Spirit to others and if not, why not? Is it because we are working longer hours or our days are filled with after hour commitments such as sport and we are consequently stressed out, lashing out at others and not giving them or God the attention they deserve. This can quickly lead to other problems such as marital, our friendships, health or even alcohol etc. All these things can then lead to a weakening of our faith or worse still, giving up on our faith if we blame God for our troubles. We need to make sure that we have balance in our lives and we aren’t allowing one area, to overtake the other.
    We all have our weaknesses in different areas and rather than blame others we need to recognise our own faults and pray that Christ can strengthen us in our weakness.
    As society is telling us that the opposite of what God wants is good, we need to be continually reading his word. We are always going to make mistakes as we are not perfect, only God is perfect but with true repentance and Christ’s forgiveness we have a new start. The main thing is that we depend on Christ, not ourselves for Salvation. We know that perfectionists are the hardest people to live with, so we need to remember that the fruits of the Spirit come from Christ, they are not from us. If we think we are better than others, we’ll quickly become the oppressors.
    I feel there is too much emphasis on social gospel by many churches and not enough on personal responsibility and being guided by the Spirit.
    In Galatians 6:1 we are told that if someone is trapped in sin we need to gently lead that person back to the right path.
    I agree with Neil that, “true repentance” is a life long, ongoing, never ending activity.
    Helen Nitschke

  7. In relation to RC Sproul’s comment above about people who repent because they do not want to go to hell, I think that would have to include everyone who has genuinely converted, when I read about that place, it gave me an awful fright and it was certainly instrumental in helping me to examine myself on a regular basis to see that I am in the faith. I find it hard to believe that someone would come to God simply so they could escape hell, wouldn’t you think that they would start looking more deeply into the requirements for Christian living and then realise that if they want to stay out of hell then there is a lot more they need to do? Conviction is the first step, being made aware of your sins, but useless unless it is coupled to conversion, it is like knowing you have been bitten by a deadly snake and instead of saying, “I need help fast”, you say, “oh well, let’s see what happens”. Neil’s comment about true repentance is spot on, every day you need to look at yourself and if you sin then fess up, I had a sinful thought last night and simply said, Lord, I confess it, I am guilty as charged and please forgive me for this. We may have to do this a thousand times in a week but this is a part of the trial we must go through. I think one of the signs of true conversion is realising too that God’s way for each of us is the right way regardless of what we might “feel” about it. Someone once asked how much I love Jesus, I simply replied, only He knows that, all I can do to show my love for him as far as I am aware is to make every attempt to live my life each day in accordance with His word and His commands and call on Him to help me through this life. If I am missing anything will someone please correct me and put me on the right track?
    Steve Davis

  8. Thanks Bill.
    This highly thought provoking. The R.C. Sproul video clip is a real eye opener. It should make us question where we stand.
    Hell is a real place and contrary to Cardinal G. Pell’s comment, that he hopes it is empty, I do not think so. How would this motivate us to reach out to the lost? Many souls meet the Lord in total depravity. We must truly repent now, in this life.
    One reason to be repenting of our sinful state, is in the desire is in wanting to see Jesus. In focusing on Heavenly thoughts rather then hell. The motivation would then be turned to wanting to be with the Lord for eternity.
    I recently read Randy Alcorn’s book entitled, Heaven. On reading this, who would want to miss out on heaven. A great motivator to place much less emphasis on this “twinkling of an eye ” place.
    Bill Heggers, Perth

  9. This may also be slightly off topic, but I was so exited about finding this quote from William Carey this morning that I was looking for one of your most recent posts to share it. By the way, that is a sad thing about blog sites that only the most recent articles get viewed and conversations usually fizzle out after a few days. Here is the quote, which I think is so relevant to today’s evangelism efforts.
    “in preaching to the heathen we must keep to the example of Paul and make the great subject of our preaching Christ the crucified. It is a well known fact that the most successful missionaries in the world at the present day make the atonement of Christ their theme.”
    No 5 of Carey’s “11 commandments of missions” 1805.
    Christian History Magazine, 2012
    Many blessings,
    Ursula Bennett

  10. Bill, I imagine you’d get along with Ray Comfort – he’s been saying this for years!

    Marcus Anderson

  11. I went through that online form called Sure about Heaven, while these things may help you to revisit areas of your walk with God, I think that people need to be careful about basing their Christian Faith upon its outcomes. As an example there is a question about God looking more favourably upon you if you do what pleases him. If we seek to do God’s will then of course that will please God, He does look favourably upon those who seek Him out and seek to do His will, the Bible tells us this quite plainly. If we seek to please God, we will seek to do what He wants us to do and we will do this because it is right to seek God’s will in our lives. We just need to be careful that we do not brag about pleasing God and in doing so, elevate ourselves more highly than we ought to.

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