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"Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me." — Revelation 3:20
One of the major problems of the church today is phony repentance. Multitudes have walked down the aisle, mouthed the right words, and joined the church, only to become what is delicately called inactive members.
All kinds of explanations have been offered for this sad state of affairs. Some attribute the problem to ineptness in follow-up. They argue that these inactive members came to church really wanting to serve the Lord, but no one told them how to go about it, and so they became discouraged and dropped out.
Others say the problem is due to failing to teach new converts about a second level of Christian living. Often people are told to accept Jesus as Savior but never taught that they must also accept Him as Lord. Many, therefore, have settled down in something of a halfway house. They are not lost, but neither are they living for the Lord. They are, the argument goes, carnal Christians saved but living as unbelievers live.
The common assumption in both of these explanations is that those who have made a profession of faith are genuinely saved. However, very few seem willing to allow the possibility that many of our inactive members may have never truly come to know God at all, that their repentance was superficial and incomplete, and that, therefore, they remain in their sins.
The reluctance to talk about phony conversions is surprising because Scripture has so much to say on the subject. There are, for instance, the teachings of Jesus. In the Sermon on the Mount, He explicitly warned about the danger of being deceived about our standing with God (Matthew 7:21-23). In His parable of the sower, He spoke about the stony ground hearer who receives the word with joy but in whom the word does not take root (13:20-21). In addition, we have clear warnings from Paul (2 Corinthians 13:5), Peter (2 Peter 1:10-11), John (1 John 2:18-19; 5:13), and the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews (6:4-6; 10:26-39) on the danger of being deceived about being converted.
We also have several notable examples of spurious conversions. The names of Esau (Heb. 12:16-17), Judas Iscariot (Acts 1:16-20), Simon Magus (8:9-24), and Demas (2 Timothy 4:10) are all inextricably linked to phony repentance. In addition, the Old Testament records the case of Ahab, who, upon hearing Elijah's message of judgment, tore his clothes, put on sackcloth, fasted, and went about mourning (1 Kings 21:27). It also tells us that because of this self humiliation, God delayed sending the promised judgment (vs. 29).
Many would have no doubt that these verses tell us that Ahab, the archenemy of God and godliness, had a genuine conversion experience. Certainly, every child of God would like to see Ahab and Elijah strolling together on heaven's golden streets. Yet even though some of the greatest sinners in history have been plucked out of hell at the very last moment, the evidence is overwhelming that Ahab was not one of them.
Ahab's demonstration of repentance was striking and impressive, but consider for a moment what he did not do. First, he did nothing to repudiate Jezebel or to reduce her evil influence in the kingdom. Second, he took no action to restore Naboth's vineyard to his heirs or next of kin. Third, he did not break with his idols, when he and Jehoshaphat, king of Judah, decided to go to war against the Syrians, Ahab consulted with four hundred false prophets (1 Kings 22:6). If Ahab had been truly converted, it is safe to say that he would have addressed each of these situations, but he did not.
We should also consider what Ahab said after the four hundred false prophets assured him of success in the battle against Syria but Jehoshaphat asked to hear from a prophet of the Lord (vs.7, NIV). There was such a prophet, Ahab conceded, but he went on to say, "I hate him because he never prophesies anything good about me, but always bad" (vs. 8). The fact that this prophet, Micaiah, had nothing good to say about Ahab indicates that the king of Israel had not truly repented of his sins, and Ahab's confession of his hatred for a servant of God ought to remove all question about his spiritual condition.
But if Ahab's repentance was not genuine, how are we to explain his tearing his clothes, putting on sackcloth, fasting, and mourning? The answer is that these actions were all induced by fear of judgment, not by true sorrow for sin. Ahab knew Elijah extremely well by this time. He knew that whatever Elijah said would most certainly come true, and he was distraught because God's judgment was hanging over him and he could not escape it.