Over years of sharing my faith in Christ, I’ve always been puzzled by those who don’t stay in the faith.
Maybe you’ve seen someone pray and offer their life to Lord.
Maybe you’ve watched them raise the hand at the preacher’s invitation.
Maybe you’ve even led them to that place of prayer and their conversion moment seems so real.
But after a few months, there seems to be no lasting fruit. Their interest in following Jesus has fallen away.
I can name a few
Looking back, there are three experiences I’ve had that continue to trouble me.
Their interest in the Lord seemed genuine. Their desire to deal with their sin seemed real.
The brokeness they had before the Lord in prayer seem genuine.
I was totally convinced these three friends had truly given their lives to start following Jesus Christ.
During the next few months, they never connected with my church in spite of my invitations. There was little interest in Bible study, in spite of attempts.
To this day, I still grieve in a way for their continued state of living apart from the ways of the Christ.
Common questions come up:
- Was the converison real?
- Was the conversion partial?
- Was it entirely false?
Since I can’t read the hearts of my friends, these may be unanswerable questions.
A New Testament Conversion Story – Simon
Now we look at a puzzling conversion story from the New Testament, the story of Simon the Magician found in Acts 9.
Was Simon’s conversion complete, partial, or entirely false?
Since we can’t read Simon’s heart, it may be an unanswerable question.
The passage: Acts 8:9ff
Now for some time a man named Simon had practiced sorcery in the city and amazed all the people of Samaria.
He boasted that he was someone great, and all the people, both high and low, gave him their attention and exclaimed, “This man is rightly called the Great Power of God.”
They followed him because he had amazed them for a long time with his sorcery.
But when they believed Philip as he proclaimed the good news of the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women.
Simon himself believed and was baptized.
And he followed Philip everywhere, astonished by the great signs and miracles he saw.Acts 8:9-13 (NIV)
The apostles come to make a visit and the new believers received the baptism of the Holy Spirit.
When Simon saw that the Spirit was given at the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered them money and said, “Give me also this ability so that everyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.”
Peter answered: “May your money perish with you, because you thought you could buy the gift of God with money! You have no part or share in this ministry, because your heart is not right before God. Repent of this wickedness and pray to the Lord in the hope that he may forgive you for having such a thought in your heart. For I see that you are full of bitterness and captive to sin.”
Then Simon answered, “Pray to the Lord for me so that nothing you have said may happen to me.”Acts 8:18-24 (NIV)
Verse 13 says that “Simon himself believed and was baptized.”
Yet, when Peter visits, Simon wants to buy the power to lay hands on people to receive the Holy Spirit. (v.18).
Peter rebukes him by saying “your heart is not right before God. Repent of this wickedness . . . for I see that you are full of bitterness and captive to sin.”
Simon seems repentant ( v.24) when he petitions Peter to pray for him.
The text says that “Simon believed and was baptized.”
It is quite plausible to state that he had demonstrated some kind of conversion experience.
Luke doesn’t give us a timeline of days or months, or years here, but on the face value and plain reading, it appears that Simon believed.
Clearly, Simon was attracted to the “power” element of Phillip’s evangelism.
“He followed Phillip and was astonished by the great signs and miracles that he saw” (8.13).
Simon’s entry point to belief, so to speak, was the power of God.
Since Simon was also a Samaritan and a sorcerer, his worldview was likely beginning to undergo a shift.
It’s plausible to state that Simon did not have any accurate knowledge of the Old Testament, nor the Law or its promises, nor of God’s covenant community — it wasn’t his background.
It is quite possible that Simon believed and took baptism before he understood everything.
Peter doesn’t rebuke him for not being a Christian.
Peter rebukes Simon for not understanding how the Holy Spirit was given.
Simon is rebuked for desiring the power of God in an incorrect manner.
He seems to have wanted to further his own ministry of power – as if the Spirit of God would be just another magic trick that he could amaze people with.
Peter says Simon’s heart was full of “bitterness” and was “captive to sin.”
That’s something entirely different than saying he wasn’t a believer.
Even as believers, we can still have hearts that are full of bitterness.
Likewise, we may continue to have struggles connected with particular sinful patterns – but it doesn’t mean that our conversion was invalid.
Luke’s point is not to give us a theological treatise on conversion. In the theme of Acts, he’s demonstrating how the gospel is spreading beyond Jerusalem.
We know nothing else about Simon after this point in the biblical records. Church history identifies him as Simon Magus, and early Christian authors regarded him later as a heretic. The sin of simony, or paying for position in the church, is named after Simon.
If the later observations about the Simon from church history are true, then we might be able to say that Simon gave initial hints that he “believed” but over time, it became clear that his response, though perhaps initially genuine, didn’t bear fruit.
In our experiences, many of us have seen people who have claimed to believe before they have fully understood all the consequences and ramifications of belief in Jesus.
We’ve also seen people that “believe” but over the years, just drop out, disappear, disconnect, and leave the church in general. It seems to be the seed that fell on the rocky soil – has a good spurt of growth, but the cares of the world take over and choke the seed (Mark 4).
We can’t read the human heart. Simon appeared to have had a belief, but over time, it just didn’t pan out.
It’s not my point here to label Simon’s conversion: false conversion, conversion misfire, or backslider. I think depending on our understanding of evangelism, we may settle on one.
However, it does make me think of those I know who have left the faith after giving evidence of belief. Though they “made a decision,” they hung around for a while and eventually left. My heart breaks because they have walked away from the grace of God. Where else can they go? Jesus alone has the words of eternal life.
Let me ask you this?
Do you pray for your friends who walk away from the faith? Ask God today to bring them back – the prodigals that Christ died for.