My notes on Mark Dever’s session on the importance of a healthy local church (paraphrased):
Why should you as a pastor be concerned about your local church beyond the obvious ways that you would be in your day-to-day life? Why should this topic matter to you? Tonight, I want to bring a message on this topic to you—False conversions: the suicide of the church
Our text for tonight is 1 Tim. 4:16:
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.
My fellow pastors, could it be that many of our hearers aren’t saved? Maybe even some of our members?
Some might ask, what’ the problem with false conversions—I mean, as long as people are really becoming converts, what’s the issue? A fear of false conversions could lead to graceless suspicion and legalism, won’t it? Why give time to a problem that the Bible tells us is an inevitability of ministry in a fallen world?
I want to address you as interested Christians and brother pastors to help you understand that this is a problem, and what we can do about it. So tonight, I want to look at the plan, the problem and the source of the problem.
God has an overarching purpose to get glory to himself through people. So he calls Abraham to himself in Gen. 12 and gives that great promise that all people would be blessed through him. He rightly wants his creation to know him in his glory.
God’s plan is to make himself known and make his name exalted among the nations
(Psa. 86:8, Psa. 22; Psa. 36)
This is what God says he will do, and is doing.
But how will he? How will he do this thing?
Through Jesus Christ, and specifically through the Church of Jesus Christ (Matt. 28). So as we go through the book of Acts, we see this taking place. It’s not merely the story of people coming to faith, but it’s the story of the planting of congregations.
That’s been the plan from the beginning that his name would be made great through his people bringing him glory through the nations.
I hope you’re encouraged that what you’re about is even bigger than what you thought it was when you came in tonight.
But that brings me to the problem—that God’s people in the Old Testament were unfaithful (Psa. 106). When God’s people were in exile in Babylon, God told them over and over again that he does all things for his name. God’s name was blasphemed among the nations because of God’s people. That’s why he exiled them. Whatever God did to his people, whether blessing or cursing, it was all done for the sake of his name so that the nations will know that he is the Lord.
This is what God does—he does everything for the sake of his name. And non-Christians hate this message. Christians love it. You preach that message from your pulpit and you’ll get a very quick read on what’s going on in your church.
So he does all things for the sake of his name—can we see echoes of this in the New Testament?
Matt 5:16, 1 Pet. 2:12 = yes.
But the problem is that we’ve built systems today where we’re building whole congregations where it’s not one person, but the entire congregation are false congregation.
Let me give you four aspects of the problem:
1. It’s a problem for the expression of our love for sinners—it’s not right to act as though a man or woman is a convert when there’s no evidence of their conversion accept for a record in 1947. That’s not loving to them.
2. It’s a problem for the church’s internal love—the entire congregation is affected by this. What are the implications of many false converts within the church? Hundreds? Does it make our life less loving, hopeful, joyful? What toll does it take on its leaders?
3. It’s a problem for our witness. Our witness is subverted. It appears that we have no better hope than theirs. We’re to be a light to the world, but if our lives don’t evidence it, hope vanishes.
4. God’s name is defamed. God sets apart a people for himself for his own glory—but what he sets apart for himself becomes grounds for his name to be defamed. False converts slander the glory of God.
All of that is gone wrong when we have churches that are characterized by members whose lives are indistinguishable from the world.
What’s the Source of the Problem
Why are there so many churches where the people don’t evidence the fruit of the Spirit, where there’s no evidence of conversion? We have to look at three aspects:
There are too many warnings against false teaching in the New Testament. The Scriptures are rife with these warnings. If God has this great plan that he’s about, and if we to be a part of this plan, even though our character by itself is insufficient to display his glory on its own, but when we come together something happens—the teachers have a special calling and accountability over this. I think the text I started with is a good summary of this:
We need to know that we can teach the wrong things with disastrous results. We know that saving faith only comes by hearing the gospel of Jesus Christ—so what will false teaching do? Will it be ignored? False teaching will bring converts, but false converts. Five truths that were being distorted then that are still being distorted today:
God’s judgment is coming. (2 Pet. 3). When you get this teaching right, when you teach the doctrine of judgment and hell regularly, there’s a mercy that becomes evident within our congregations.
We should be judged by God (Rom. 1-3). We are lost, depraved and fearful under the sure judgment of God. We need to know and feel our own helplessness. We need to know that because God is good and we are not, we deserve God’s judgment. God should judge us—we should be clear on this in our teaching. Imagine how much that humility mentioned above would grow as we apply this understanding to our own life—that God judges and that we deserve to be judged. If we think seriously and biblically about sin, how much sweeter is God’s mercy.
Our only hope is in Christ. We must make it very clear in our teaching that we are to trust not in who we are or what we are done, but in Jesus Christ, his substitutionary work and his resurrection. We must be wary of any denial of Christ’s work on our behalf. We must be wary of any denial of Christ’s resurrection. We must preach and teach clearly on who Christ is and what he has done. Now, you can make converts without this—but it’s converts to fatalism.
We don’t see the fullness of our salvation in this life. Christ’s death and resurrection secure for us forgiveness and reconciliation with God, but it’s an error to teach that Christ’s work is primarily for benefits in this life. Our primary posture in Scripture is waiting—we wait for his return. It’s why Paul said that if for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied above all men.
We can deceive ourselves and others about our relationship with God. Please teach this clearly—it is counterintuitive in our culture, it is clear in our Bible. We must be clear in teaching that we can deceive ourselves. “Examine yourselves to see if you are in the faith. Test yourselves.” When we get this, there’s a child-like reliance on him that can mark our congregation with great joy.
Think about the people you’ve baptized in the last year? Do they believe these things? Have they been taught them clearly?
Teach these things—and remember that false converts hire false teachers. There’s a symbiotic relationship between false converts and false teachers. If you want to be sure that your successor is denies the gospel, just admit a bunch of false converts into membership.
It’s an error to present a church without holiness. Unholiness may thrive in some churches because pastors are afraid to confront sin. It may thrive where there is no accountability. Preach on 1 John to teach this. There is a wonderful health and beauty and freedom in holiness—it frees us to help us understand how we are to live, as God’s Spirit remakes us into more and more of his likeness.
It’s an error to present a church with no suffering. Left to ourselves, we would all avoid poverty and sickness. But such goals are too small. Jesus saves us from ultimate bankruptcy and suffering, but he saves us into suffering in this life. Health and wealth teachers are FALSE teachers—we must be clear on this. But we have to be mindful in the ways in which we’re subtly doing the same thing. What do miserable Christians sing? What if I’ve lost my job, what if I’ve had a terrible fight with my wife? How can we lead those who are hurting to hope rather than push them away? Our churches should have room for great joy, but it should be in the context of understanding where people are at. So are all people called to suffering? The truth is: no cross, no crown. In this world you will have trouble.
It’s an error to present a church without love. You want to present the church in a godly way, you’re good with suffering. You’ve got a grim willingness to suffer. But if love does not mark the church, you might attract spiritual hobbyists, but not people who are willing to inconvenience themselves for the good of others. 1 John teaches that if we walk in the light, we will love one another. We know that we have passed from death to live because we love our brothers. Whoever does not love does not know God because God is love. One of the most striking needs our world has is churches full of Christians who are sacrificing for one another and showing great love to one another.
Brother pastors, when we get some crucial things right about life and about doctrine, we’ll start to show light to this world.
Solving the Problem
So how are false converts suicide to the church and how can we solve the problem?
Always be evangelizing—and as Spurgeon says “steadily and well.” Ask yourself how you’re evangelizing and if it’s creating false converts.
Always be shepherding sheep. Re-center your thoughts on the individuals to be shepherded. With each person you take into membership, you’re telling them they’re giving evidence that they are born again and spiritually fine. Do not forget that God has called you into a great role in people’s lives. Don’t just try to get your numbers straight—remind yourself that God cares for each one of those people.
Always remember the account you’re going to give to God. Our accountability to God reminds us of the huge role we play in God’s great plan.
“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.”