Things aren’t always what they appear to be—even when it comes to conversion experiences. Here in Matthew 13, Christ clearly teaches that there will be those who will hear the gospel, respond immediately with joy, but then later renounce the faith and Lord they once professed. As times get tough, it will be revealed that these with rocky-soiled hearts did not truly experience the transforming power of God’s grace after all. As quickly as he jumped on the bandwagon, he has jumped off. There was every appearance, at least early on, of conversion, but in the end there was no fruit produced. And this fruit is always the evidence of a true work of God in an individual’s life.
As you read on into the chapter, you will find that there is a second group of professing Christians—those whose hearts are filled with weeds and thorns. In this case, the gospel is choked out by “the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches.” The end is still the same and that is unfruitfulness.
If you do the math, 66% of those who hear the gospel in Matthew 13 have the appearance of a true conversion because of their initial response to the planting of the Word. However, over time and for different reasons, the seeds planted produce no fruit. This may seem like an extremely large number, but this is consistent with all of Scripture. In Matthew 7, as an example, we learn two important truths:
1. There will be false prophets and believers coming into the local church whose intent is very evil. They look like sheep, but they are “ravenous wolves.” The good thing is that they are recognized by their fruit. “A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits” (Matthew 7:18-20).
2. There will also be many who are self-deceived thinking they are children of God when in fact they are not. “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness’” (Matthew 7:21-23).
So whether a deceiver or self-deceived, the numbers are large. Another example of this and a warning to the local church is found in Philippians 3. Here the apostle Paul wrote: “Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us. For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things” (Philippians 3:17-19). These “enemies of the cross of Christ” were not atheists or pagans standing outside the church lobbing intellectual grenades in at the Christians. Instead they were impostors coming into the assembly of believers to deceive and gain personally from positions of authority. This is why Paul is so passionate in his plea for the Philippians to be on their guard.
We find this truth to be consistent throughout the history of the Church. In commenting on the Great Rival of the 1780’s and 1790’s here in the United States, Iain Murray has written:
In times when it seems as though almost whole communities are entering into the kingdom of God, time must elapse before a more balanced assessment can be made. In all revivals there are admixtures. It cannot be supposed that, in the high excitement attending a work of the Spirit of God, God’s saving work can be instantly distinguished from what moves men only temporarily or from what can be accounted for in psychological terms. The depth of feeling shown by professed converts, and physical phenomena such as falling and swooning, provide no safe means for distinguishing the permanent from the transitory.
For the most part, preachers of this period recognized the danger. They knew no procedures by which men could be led to a ‘decision’ which would classify them as Christians, and they avoided hasty admissions into the church. Nonetheless, Semple observed, ‘Many ministers who labored earnestly to get Christians into their churches were afterwards much perplexed to get out hypocrites.’ A winnowing season generally follows revival: ‘Many that seemed to be somewhat proved to be nothing.’ (Taken from Revival and Revivalism, 82-83)
So what should we do to avoid and even expose the impostors for who they really are and ensure that we ourselves are not deceived? There are two biblical principals we need to follow:
1. Dealing with Impostors: John in his first epistle wrote to the believers to warn them “about those who are trying to deceive” (1 John 2:26). So John advised his readers to continue to abide in Christ and His truth (1 John 2:24, 27). They were also to test the spirits to determine if the teaching is from God because “many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1). (Here is another text with the word “many” in it. John also points to “many antichrists” having been in their midst, but who left the fellowship because they were not true believers (1 John 2:18-19).)
2. Dealing with Self-Deception: Paul in 2 Corinthians 13 wrote: “…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” (2 Corinthians 13:5-6)! The test is the same for us as the one used to weed out false teachers … are we in agreement with the core doctrines of Scripture and is there increasing evidence of God’s grace at work in our life manifesting itself in the fruit of the Spirit (see 2 Peter 1:3-11)?
God has never intended for the true believer to be unsure of his position in Christ (“I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God that you may know that you have eternal life. And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us” (1 John 5:13-14).). The Lord also does not want us to be blindsided by impostors or self-deceived unbelievers. May He give us discernment, wisdom, and grace to be as a shrewd as a snake and as innocent as a dove.