Former believers claim that they believed in Jesus when they identified as Christians. But is it possible they were wrong?
Understanding how a person who gave every indication that they were born-again in actuality wasn't, requires acknowledging the very real possibility that they were sincerely mistaken in their understanding of what it means to "believe". I realize it's hard to imagine that someone who says they really believed in Jesus never really did, but bare with me as I unpack how such a thing might be possible. To do that we need to look at three specific things:
The possibility of false belief
The concept of a false self
The Biblical data.
Before we look at the concept of false belief we need to establish what the Bible means when it calls us to believe in Jesus. The answer: intellectual assent and personal trust.
Intellectual assent means that a person has a positive mental attitude toward the claims the Bible makes about Jesus. Trust, means reliance on him as savior and entrusting ourselves to him as Lord.1 Unless a person's belief has both of these aspects, it is not biblical belief. Sometimes, a person may only have a positive mental attitude toward the claims of the Bible about Jesus without ever really entrusting themselves to him as Lord. In that case, a person may "believe" but only in a superficial manner that does not result in salvation.
A false belief is the name I use to describe a belief in Jesus that does not reflect the biblical notion of belief. It is sufficiently deficient in one way or another that it does not bring one into a saving relationship with Jesus. False beliefs can be held with the utmost sincerity by an individual, convincing them and those around them that they have been born-again even though they have not. There are two different forms of false belief.
Option #1 Self Deception
The first kind of false belief is the result of self-deception. Admittedly, self-deception is a perplexing thing. It's hard to imagine how we can trick ourselves into believing a falsehood. The reason it is such a vexing topic is that on the one hand, to be deceived means to be fooled into believing a lie. On the other hand, to deceive someone, you must know the truth in order to lead a person astray. This raises the question of how can a person both know and also not know the truth at the same time. And yet, despite its strangeness, it happens all the time.
Self-deception is a real thing and humans have a fondness for it. This is easy to see. A key aspect of self-deception is the need a person has for a belief to be true. If that desire is strong enough it can cause a person, unbeknownst to themselves, to deceive themselves that the belief is actually true. Any counter-evidence is explained away in a manner that seems plausible to the self-deceived person.
A good example of this is parents. Parents often deceive themselves about their children, believing them to be nearly perfect, despite the evidence to the contrary. For example, It is immensely important to Mrs. Jones that she be viewed by her peers as a good parent. Consequently, she believes her son Billy is an angel even though he is sent to the principal's office nearly every day for his bad behavior. Because she has a need to be seen as a good parent and can't stand the thought of her son being anything other than an angel, she will explain away the evidence which shows he is not. She may believe that Billy's teacher is too strict, or that the teacher has it out for Billy because Billy comes from a wealthy family. Mrs. Jones sincerely believes her son is a good boy. But deep down, at a level she will not allow herself to access, she knows he is not. She is self-deceived.
Mrs. Jones may be an example of extreme self-deception. But we don't have to look too hard to find more mundane acts of self-deception that we engage in every day. If we have perfectionist tendencies we may overestimate our positive characteristics and underestimate our negative ones even though there is ample evidence to an objective observer that our perception is biased. If we hate the thought of being late and how it reflects on our character, might offer ourselves excuses - and believe them - as to why it's okay for us to break the law and drive over the speed limit. We may really want to avoid our reputation being tarnished for some immoral act we have committed so we tell white lies to save ourselves and then comfort ourselves by convincing ourselves the lies weren't really that bad. A man who desires sexual gratification but has an estranged relationship with his wife may justify his use of pornography by telling himself that using it is morally acceptable given his situation. In the above examples, each of the individuals sincerely believes their choices were justified because they deceived themselves. Nevertheless, in spite of how sincerely they believed their own reasons they were wrong. They were self-deceived.
Cornelius Plantinga describes it well.
Self-deception is a shadowy phenomenon by which we pull the wool over some part of our own psyche. We put a move on ourselves. We deny, suppress, or minimize what we know to be true. We assert, adorn, and elevate what we know to be false. We prettify ugly realities and sell ourselves the prettified versions. Thus a liar might transform “I tell a lot of lies to shore up my pride” to “Occasionally, I finesse the truth in order to spare other people’s feelings.” We become our own dupes, playing the role of both perpetrator and victim. We know the truth—and yet we do not know it, because we persuade ourselves of its opposite.2
If self-deception is a common phenomenon in numerous areas of our life, why would it not also be found in our spiritual lives? If biblical belief is comprised of both intellectual assent and submission to Jesus as Lord, it's not hard to imagine an individual who:
thinks the gospel claims are true.
thinks Jesus is their Lord.
But is self-deceived as to the lordship of Jesus.
Saying "Jesus is Lord" is not the same thing as making him, Lord. And even though no one thinks that to be a Christian an individual has to submit to the lordship of Christ with complete consistency, it does require a change of heart that is reflected in one's life. It is a willingness to bring one's life in line with the will of God. Remember, self-deception occurs when reality conflicts with something we deeply desire. For whatever reason, Billy's mom deeply wants to be seen as a good mother. She also can't accept that her son is anything less than perfect. Those desires motivate her to explain away evidence to the contrary and she doesn't even realize she is doing it.
Something similar may be going on with deconverts. They may believe that Jesus is the Lord of their lives. Nonetheless, they are self-deceived. Jesus is not the Lord of their lives, they are. In reality, they have never truly repented of their desire to run the show, to be captain of the ship, to sit on the throne of their heart. They are motivated to ignore the evidence of their Lordship by all of the good things they desire that come with salvation. Like Mrs. Jones, they want something. Maybe it's the hope of heaven, the sense of peace that comes from believing that God has forgiven their sins or the joy of becoming a member of the family of God. Whatever it is, it will cause them to ignore the evidence that points to the fact they are not really followers of Jesus. What is that evidence you ask?
Jesus says, that the evidence a person is not a Christian despite what they say, is that they do not obey him. In Luke 6:46 Jesus says:
Why do you call me "Lord, Lord," and do not do what I say?
Doing what he says means making his word the standard by which one lives. Seeking to honor him by putting into practice his teaching. And living intentionally to please him. At the very least, it means wanting to affirm and intending to obey whatever Jesus or his Scriptures teach. That’s what it means to say, “Jesus is Lord.” If that is not the reality in a person's life, then they have never been born again.
At the same time, it is important and needs to be said that no one perfectly obeys what Jesus teaches all the time. I certainly don’t! Thankfully, it’s not our success but our intent that’s the issue. Despite all our failures to do so, we should want to affirm and intend to obey him. That’s the key. Hopefully, our success at doing that grows as we mature in the faith. It's a posture of the heart that should be reflected in our lives as time passes.
Option #2 Misidentification
Despite what I have said above about self-deception, I realize that it's hard to believe an individual could be so mistaken about what they claim to believe. Perhaps option #2, misidentification will prove more persuasive.
Consider Aimee, a 14-year-old who girl goes to summer camp and meets a boy named Gord.
Aimee and Gord spend the entire week together and develop strong feelings for each other. At the end of the week, they each return to their respective cities but continue to talk on the phone and email each other. She spends most of her waking hours thinking about Gord and when she will get to see him again. She writes and rewrites his name on her school binder, and is saving all of her money to buy a bus ticket to visit him over the Thanksgiving break. If you ask her how she feels about him she’ll say that without a doubt she is in love with him.
And perhaps in her limited understanding of the notion that’s what it is - to her. However, compared to genuine love it's lacking important factors. Aimee might be feeling infatuation, physical attraction, or even lust, but not love. At best it is an undeveloped form of love, at worst it is mislabeling what is really going on. Either way, it is not love. That's because love isn't primarily a feeling it's an action, a choice. People do not fall in love. They can immediately find themselves attracted to another person. They can have instant, strong emotional feelings for someone. They may even have those feelings for that person for the rest of their life. But none of that is love. Love is an act of the will. It is something bestowed on another. Love is a verb, it is something that we do.
Amiee believes she loves Gord. She's convinced of it. But she's wrong. She has misidentified love with something else.
If eternal security is true, and an individual walks away from their faith, it means they were never saved. If biblical belief is required for salvation, it follows that despite appearances the individual never expressed biblical belief in Jesus. They, like Aimee misidentified biblical belief with something else.
Well, it seems to me that one very obvious way that a person could misidentify their deficient belief for biblical belief is by assuming that biblical belief just is being convinced a claim is true and nothing more. I think this is a real possibility given the fact that in our common usage, to "believe" means nothing more than to think a claim is true. If you are asked, "Do you believe that Washinton crossed the Potomac?" and you say "Yes.", that merely means you think there is good reason to think the claim "Washington crossed the Potomac" is true. But it doesn't also mean that you have a personal commitment to that claim or that you pledge your loyalty to it.
Likewise, when the gospel is presented as something to believe, it can convey to modern hearers that what they are being called on to do is affirm the basic claims of the gospel as true. And, if they have been given enough good reasons to think that the gospel is true, then they will find themselves thinking the gospel is true. Some former believers are adamant that they not only believed that the gospel is true but that they were convinced it was true.
But of course, if there isn't a corresponding commitment to Jesus as Lord then it is not biblical belief. Like Aimee, former Christians may have been adamant that they "believed" the gospel when they identified as a Christian, but they may have misidentified what it means to believe in the same way that Aimee misidentified love. In both cases they are sincere. But nevertheless, they are sincerely wrong. They never believed in a biblical way and thus were never born-again.
We cannot only be mistaken about our beliefs but about our very selves. That is the second way we might account for a person who looked like a Christian but in reality, wasn't.
In the next section, we'll look at the second concept, that of the false self.
1 When a person comes to saving faith in Jesus they cannot fully understand what it means to make Jesus Lord. Likewise, mature believers are always growing in submission to Christ. That is to say that no one ever makes Jesus Lord in the way they ought to. Having said that, it is inconceivable to me that an individual could be born-again and reject the Lordship of Jesus. Therefore in order to be saved a person must recognize the lordship of Jesus to some minimal degree.
2.Cornelius Plantinga, Jr., Not the Way It's Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans; Leicester, England: Apollos, 1995), 105.