The Biblical Data
What does the Bible have to say about false belief and false selves?
The Bible and False Belief / Selves
That people can be wrong about the genuineness of their belief or even themselves, finds a great deal of support in Scripture.
Self-deception is not a strange notion to the biblical writers. John says that “if we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8). Paul warns his readers not to be deceived about who can inherit eternal life (1 Cor 6:9, 10; Gal 6:7- 8). James says someone who believes himself to be religious but does not control his tongue, “deceives his own heart” (Jas 1:26). Subtle deceitfulness of the human heart makes it possible for unbelievers to suppress the truth (Rom 1:18), and for false believers to suppress the truth about themselves and deceive themselves into believing that they are genuine believers. Frequent use of the word “blind” in Matt 23:16-17, 19, 24 suggests that the self-deceived are unconscious of their inner self and unconscious of not doing the will of God.1
While there is much that can be pointed to in the Bible about false beliefs and false selves, I will limit myself to just a few examples.
In the book of Matt chapter 7:21-23 Jesus says:
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. 22 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?’ 23 And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’
In this passage, Jesus explicitly says there will be false disciples who think they are genuine believers. These are not those who lost their salvation but who never had it. Jesus is clear, he never knew them despite the fact they prophesied and cast out demons in his name! According to the text they are convinced that they were sincere in their profession of Jesus as Lord, but in reality, they weren’t. They were mistaken, they were self-deceived.
Again in Luke 13:25-27, in response to the question about how many people will be saved, Jesus said the following:
When the master of the house has risen and shut the door, and you begin to stand outside and to knock at the door, saying, ‘Lord, open to us,’ then he will answer you, ‘I do not know where you come from.’ 26 Then you will begin to say, ‘We ate and drank in your presence, and you taught in our streets.’ 27 But he will say, ‘I tell you, I do not know where you come from. Depart from me, all you workers of evil!’
These people, like those in the Matthew passage, are surprised to find out that they don’t have a relationship with Jesus. Despite not only "believing" in him but also sharing table fellowship they didn’t have a saving relationship with him.
One last passage.
In Luke, Jesus tells the parable of the sower. In the parable, the seed represents the word of God and the soil represents the condition of an individual's heart who hears the word. Jesus refers to four soils in the parable. One particular soil, the rocky soil is relevant to the idea of a false self. The rocks in the parable stand for the trials and temptations that come because of the word of God.
Here is how Luke says it:
And those on the rocky soil are those who, when they hear, receive the word with joy; and these have no firm root; they believe for a while, and in time of temptation fall away.
Notice that Jesus says such persons received and believed the word with joy. They heard the good news, it was attractive to them and they accepted it by believing it. And not only did they believe it, but their belief had an impact on their lives; they were filled with joy. But Jesus tells us something else about these people and that is that they eventually fell away when temptations came. Why is that? Jesus doesn't leave us in the dark. He tells us it was because they had "no firm root." In the gospel of Mark, he adds the words "in themselves". Because they had no firm root in themselves, despite affirming that the gospel was true and having a life characterized by joy, they never were really saved. If there ever was a root it was grounded in their false self and not their true self. When temptations and trials came because of the word of God their true self emerged.
Simon the Sorcerer
An example of a person who was said to believe but was self-deceived is Simon the Sorcerer. In the book of Acts, chapter 8, Philip proclaims the gospel in Samaria and a man by the name of Simon heard him. Simon, a sorcerer, who amazed the people of Samaria and passed himself off as someone who was great had come to believe in Jesus and was baptized. Acts chapter 8 verse 13 is clear, it says that Simon believed, in Jesus.
But later in the same chapter Simon becomes enamored with the miraculous power of Peter and John and attempts to buy from them the power of the Holy Spirit. In response, Peter says:
May your money perish with you, because you thought that you could obtain the gift of God with money. You have neither part nor lot in this matter for your heart is not right before God. Repent, therefore, of this wickedness of yours and pray to the Lord that if possible the intent of your heart may be forgiven you. For I see you are in the gall of bitterness and the bond of iniquity.
Wow. All of that was said to a man who a few verses earlier it was said that he believed in Jesus and was baptized. But obviously, Simon was never converted. He believed, but not from a genuine heart. And not unto salvation. He was mistaken not about his belief, but about himself.
John Calvin describes both the rocky soil people in the gospel of Luke and Simon the Sorcerer this way.
Simon Magus is said to have believed, though he soon after gave proof of his unbelief (Acts viii. 13-18). In regard to the faith attributed to him, we do not understand with some, that he merely pretended a belief which had no existence in his heart: we rather think that, overcome by the majesty of the Gospel, he yielded some kind of assent, and so far acknowledged Christ to be the author of life and salvation, as willingly to assume his name. In like manner, in the Gospel of Luke, those in whom the seed of the word is choked before it brings forth fruit, or in whom, from having no depth of earth, it soon withereth away, are said to believe for a time. Such, we doubt not, eagerly receive the word with a kind of relish, and have some feeling of its divine power, so as not only to impose upon men by a false semblance of faith, but even to impose upon themselves. They imagine that the reverence which they give to the word is genuine piety, because they have no idea of any impiety but that which consists in open and avowed contempt. But whatever that assent may be, it by no means penetrates to the heart, so as to have a fixed seat there. Although it sometimes seems to have planted its roots, these have no life in them. The human heart has so many recesses for vanity, so many lurking places for falsehood, is so shrouded by fraud and hypocrisy, that it often deceives itself.2
The above passages show that it is possible to sincerely believe that one has, or had a genuine belief in Christ but be wrong.
This series of posts was intended to find a resolution between the doctrine of eternal security and the apparent sincerity of former Christians. Specifically, it is to address the question of how, if a true believer cannot lose their salvation, can we reasonably account for those who, for all intents and purposes appeared to be saved but never were?
I think there are no answers to that question that are truly satisfying. But if eternal security is true, then something like what I have said in these posts is the case. False belief in its various forms or a false self to varying degrees can resolve the tension between eternal security and the experience of deconverts.
For a more detailed discussion of the biblical data on self-deception see Joseph Pak's Superficial Faith and Self-Deception, in the footnotes below.
1. Superficial Faith and Self-Deception Joseph K. Pak. https://www.biblicaltheology.com/Research/PakJK01.pdf
2. John Calvin Institutes of the Christian Religion (trans. Henry Beveridge; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975), 3.2.10.