Recently I had a shock. Not the electrical kind, but emotional. A guy that I have been heavily recruiting as a student for The Log College, a street evangelist with a couple of years of experience, and a guy I had hoped could be an elder candidate for our new church plant in Syracuse called and said that he had recently been converted. Saved. Born again.
The idea of false conversion is not a new one to me. I was a pastor with 12 years experience when I was saved. I know a lot about the Biblical doctrine, have taught on it, and have lived the experience. When it comes to my friend, I thought I had a pretty good idea that he was saved. Why? He preaches on street corners. He has sound doctrine. He's a nice guy. I met him at an intense evangelism training weekend in California. He had a testimony.
But he was not saved. At least, not until December 2011.
This should be a shock to the street evangelism community but I don't know that it will be. Self-righteousness is deceptive. For too long we have viewed false conversion as a "modern gospel" problem. It's the problem of the people we love to criticize: Joel Osteen, Rick Warren, Jesse Duplantis, and in some cases, entire denominations. We think like this because we have not been paying attention to the Scriptures.
The parable of the soils is not about the quality of the seed. However, too often we act as if the issue is cleaning up the seed and then we'll stop false conversions. This is patently false. Look at the text. Jesus explains that the seed is the pure, undiluted, inerrant Word of God. The reason why there are false conversions is not because of the modern gospel. The reason is because of the different kinds of soil. The heart is at the root of the issue.
Granted, if you neglect to talk about sin, ignore repentance, reduce the gospel to an invitation system, and talk only minimally about the person and work of Jesus you are begging for false converts. This kind of message is not the gospel and can't even be called a seed in many cases.
But how do you account for the fact that when the Law of God is brought to bear on the conscience to bring knowledge of sin, when the reality of judgment and hell are pressed upon the sinner, when people are urged to Biblically repent and trust Christ alone, and Jesus is exalted in all of His glory that there are still false converts?
The issue that matters more than the use of the Law in evangelism is the issue of regeneration.
Here are some lessons I think we can take from my friend's recent conversion:
#1: Being a street evangelist is not necessarily evidence of fruit of the Spirit.
#2: Intellectual conformity to sound doctrine and principles of evangelism is not saving faith. In other words, a decision to embrace truths is not salvation.
#3: Regeneration is solely the work of God and has nothing to do with man's decisions or efforts. A man may be intellectually convinced of the truths of Christianity, but if God does not work there is no salvation.
#4: The parable of the soils does not have to do with the quality of the seed that is sown. In all four instances, the seed was the Word of God--perfect and without defect. Sound gospel presentations and sound theology will not save apart from a work of God. The issue in the parable is the soil in the heart of the recipient, not the message.
#5: Since these things are all true, we cannot and must not assume that everyone who preaches the gospel on the streets, everyone who claims to believe it in the pulpit and pew, and everyone who loves good theology is in fact saved. Because we have lost the doctrine of regeneration, we have reduced the response to the gospel to the lowest common denominator. Because we are afraid to guide professing believers in Biblical self examination, we do damage to their souls by neglect.
#6: I am convinced now more than ever that if there is going to be a genuine revival it will have to start with a mass of conversions within the professing church. This will include those who love sound doctrine and evangelism. It must include the principles that lie behind what we have learned with ministries like Way of the Master and we must preach the possibility of false conversion amongst those we think do not need to hear it. And if we do that, we will need to do it without regard as to whether or not people like us for it.
#7: We need to change the way we do evangelism training. Too often we assume that if people agree with WoTM, then they are saved and only need to be trained in the "how." False conversion must be emphasized and the teaching of it has to go beyond the parable of the soils and focus on Matthew 7:21-23 and similar passages. 1 Corinthians 6 and Galatians 5 are essential as well. We need to talk about the fall away (from the gospel, not evangelism) we've seen in street evangelism circles, and we need to warn people that their interest in evangelism is no indicator of their salvation.
Biblical regeneration states that salvation is the work of the Holy Spirit (John 3:4-8) and the incorruptible seed of the Word of God (1 Peter 1:23-25). If the Holy Spirit has not done the regenerating, all of the intellectual agreement in the world could not save a genius. Since this is true, our evangelism should look a lot different than it does. As it stands right now, there are elements of decisional regeneration that we still embrace as street evangelists even though we disagree with the concept when it comes to theory. This is proven every time we regard as saved someone who agrees with us simply because we agree.