Simon the Sorcerer is a New Testament example of how a person can profess to believe in Jesus Christ; submit to water baptism; demonstrate a desire for the Holy Spirit; and their heart still is not right towards God.
The Greek word for “right” in this verse is translated “straight” in the John the Baptist narrative where he is said to “make His paths straight.” This is a way of saying, “get peoples’ heart right with God.” Simon had not yet gone through this process. He never repented of his sorcery or the underlying issues that drove him to want to be a sorcerer and manipulate people.
In fact, Simon was bound up in wickedness and in a state of perishing. “Your money perish with you…” said Peter. Clearly he never repented in such a way that his heart became “right” with God and he exercised saving faith. Yet he is continuing in fellowship with others who had repented and truly believed. This is very sobering. He was going through the motions and had almost everyone fooled. But God is never fooled. Men may have failed to see his true heart condition, but God sees all peoples’ hearts and at all times.
If man had the power to baptize with the Holy Spirit as easy as man can baptize another man in water — Simon would have went into the church and caused untold destruction. He was baptized in water and had made a profession of some kind, but he still was a wicked man in need of forgiveness and regeneration. This reveals for all times that we must never place too much emphasis on outward things. Man looks on the outward appearance of things, but God looks on the heart.
Unlike in Peter’s time, in the 21st century a person can actually pass into the churches under the guise of having received the Holy Spirit when in fact they have not. Sound shocking? Consider that in many full-gospel circles a person is considered to have received the Spirit if they can move in the prophetic or perform miracles. In Classical Pentecostal circles “speaking in tongues” has been made the supreme evidence for Spirit baptism. Doctrinally, they will affirm that speaking in tongues is “the initial evidence;” however, over the last 100 years it has become the evidence on a practical level. If a person gives ecstatic speech they are said to have the Holy Ghost. Holy living and the fruit of the Spirit are marginalized if not secondary in many circles. Therefore, we are wide open to “Simon the Sorcerer” types in our day. Jesus said you will know them by their fruits not “spiritual gifts,” talents, education, etc.
Because this is a blog post I kindly refer you to my book Televangelicalism by Robert Wurtz II available on amazon in paperback and Kindle for an in depth look at this topic. However I will share some useful history for your consideration. In evangelical circles in the 1900s Evangelicalism went through a time when salvation basically became industrialized. People were being brought to Christ like cars rolling off an assembly line at the first Ford Motor plant. Moreover, people started being told they were “saved” for the first time. Prior to that nobody dared using that kind of language. It was believed that that salvation and assurance was God’s domain and few if any dared intrude into it. Sadly, telling a person they are saved is as normal today as anything. This was not the case prior to Billy Sunday.
Prior to Sunday people were said to be Hopefully Converted. This means that their conversion was “hopeful” and suggested that the person go on seeking the Lord. Today, people are told they are “saved” and generally stop seeking the Lord in any real and meaningful way. God’s dealings with the person grind to a screeching halt. Why? They already have their ticket to heaven. Why go on seeking? There are few things more dangerous than telling a person they “are saved.”
Below is an image I captured in 2009 back when Google allowed searchers to analyze the distribution of words over time. The feature placed the relevant distribution data on a nice little chart and sorted it by year. Take a close look at the distribution of the words “hopefully converted.” You will see that in early 1900 that phrase stopped being used in publications almost completely — though there was a high amount of usage since the advent of mass publication in the early 1700s. We need to ask, how and why did this happen?
The use of the inquiry room became so popular, that it became necessary to provide those who labored with the anxious sinners a guide on how to conduct themselves. In 1884 George Soltau (1847-1909) of England wrote a handbook on the subject entitled, Enquiry Room: Hints for dealing with the anxious. He moves first giving basic directions:
As a company of workers desiring to engage in the solemn and important work of dealing with the anxious in the enquiry room, we all are agreed at the very outset that the Holy Spirit alone can lead a sinner to the Savior; that each of us must look to Him for the right word, the fitting text, the wise counsel; and that we are to be but the mouthpieces through whom He will speak. Our constant attitude must be one of communion with God; our memories and minds must be well stored with Scripture, that we may be ready for the Master’s use. Before entering into the details of our subject, the following general suggestions will be found worthy of consideration:
1. Do not be too eager to lead a soul into peace. In Jeremiah 6:14, and 8:11, we find the words, “They have healed the hurt of the daughter of my people slightly, saying, ‘Peace, peace; when there is no peace.’” It is not desirable to use the expression, “Have you found peace?” seeing that the anxious soul needs a Person, rather than a blessing.
2. Avoid the expression, “You have only to believe, to be saved,” until you have very fully stated and explained the facts and promises to be believed; and then point out that it is a person in whom the soul’s trust is to be placed, and not your statements about Him.
3. Always read your quotations from the Bible, turning to the passage; so that the Enquirer may be able to distinguish between your statements and the Word of God. The latter has an authority that your statements can never possess.
4. Avoid telling your own experience or that of others; as the Enquirer must lean on the Word of God, and not on any one’s experience of it.
5. Do not try to apply to the need of the Enquirer any text, the truth of which you have not yourself experienced.
6. Make it clear that at conversion the Lord Jesus claims possession and control of the entire being. Show that it is not merely the salvation of the soul that is needed, but also deliverance for mind and body from all the power of sin in every direction.
7. If an enquirer baffles you with difficult questions, hand such an one over at once to a more experienced Christian.
8. As far as possible converse only with persons of your own age or younger; of your own sex and walk in life.
9. Do not tell a person he is saved. Let the Holy Spirit be the witness in the heart of the believer, telling him that he is delivered from sin and its penalty. (end of quote)
George Soltau then gives directions as to the importance of making sure the anxious person recognizes their sinfulness. He continues:
An inexperienced worker, having a few favorite texts, would probably speak to each person in this way, “You must just believe that the blood of Jesus Christ, God’s Son, cleanses from all sin. You know He said, ‘Him that cometh to Me, I will in no wise cast out.’ Cannot you believe that ‘Now is the accepted time,’ that ‘Now is the day of salvation’? ‘For God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son.’ Just kneel down, and say from your heart, ‘Take me as I am’” We would not say that none of those thus addressed would get any blessing through such treatment: but what we ought to do is to – First ascertain the cause of this blindness; and lameness; and numbness, etc.; and then by God’s help apply the right remedy.
Our first questions then should be, “What brings you into the Enquiry Room?”
“What do you think you need?” The answer may be, “I want to be saved,” or “I want to become a Christian,” or “I don’t feel I am quite right,” or, “I think I ought to turn.” In none of these replies is there any very definite statement concerning sin, or any apparent consciousness of sin. Therefore the first thing to be arrived at is to convict deeply of sin. The Gospel is not designed primarily to make people happy, and give them peace; but to deliver them from sin, its presence, power, and penalty; and to bring them into communion with a Holy God. Sin is not an accident or a misfortune, but a disease. Active in its principle, permeating every fiber and tissue of mind and body; hideous and loathsome as a foul leprosy; abominable and irremediable; not to be dealt with piece-meal, but to be attacked at this root. All the restlessness of soul, the craving for excitement, the love of the world, the dislike of holy things, the reluctance to come forward for Christ, are the effect of sin dwelling in the heart. What, then, is the state of the heart of a sinner? (end of quote)
We will not continue to quote from this book as the reader may acquire it free since it is now in the public domain. Nevertheless, I have shown the approach to leading an anxious sinner to Christ in an inquiry room type environment as late as 1884. This method was similar to D.L. Moody, Charles H. Spurgeon, and many others. According to the Religious Intelligencer, “The inquiry room was the place for the most heavy and successful labor, because here the attention could be fixed.” Indeed it is “heavy labor” working with God to lead souls to a genuine conversion experience in Christ. There is nothing haphazard or slapdash about it. These counselors pressed the anxious to make a decision for Christ, as had been being done for almost 100 years.
Decisionism in Infancy
Beginning with Finney, and later D.L. Moody, we experienced an up-tick of the notion that a person just needs to make a “decision” and a down-tick of the New Covenant necessity of being born again of the Holy Spirit. As I explain in Televangelicalism, in Finney’s case this is due in part to his lack of belief in Original Sin. If a person does not agree with the diagnosis — their remedy is sure to be off. Nevertheless, these changes in approach to salvation and New Birth happened so slowly over the course of time that they would have been almost imperceptible to anyone living in that day. However, they did not go fully unnoticed. Some theologians and preachers denounced the new measures and their effect on Christianity.
What happens? New Measures serve as inflection points, but emphasis on regeneration (new birth) steadily dies out. The emphasis was shifting totally towards man and the minister. Indeed, there is a sense in which God does the work; the Word of God does the work; the minister does the work; and the anxious does the work. When this reality is forgotten the whole process is thwarted, and the result is often a spurious conversion.
Fast forward to the ministry of Billy Sunday. Most serious-minded evangelists knew that Billy Sunday’s methods produced spurious conversions. This led to the derisive term “Sunday Convert.” A fellow student at Wheaton College kidded Torrey Johnson, founder of Youth For Christ, “Got religion, have you? I suppose it’s the Billy Sunday type. It’ll last about six months.” What an awful comment, but it was all too true. People would go through Sunday’s scheme and “backslide” in about six months. This is exactly what Finney’s contemporaries feared, and now it came to pass. Although Finney was not the originator of the measures he was rebuked for using, he popularized them and brought them to the mainstream. He made them acceptable. Once something is made acceptable by a famous figure, it is almost impossible to stop it. Finney influenced Moody who influenced Chapman, who mentored Billy Sunday. Each minister compromised the measure more than the person who taught it to them. The compromises added up until Christianity went from a repent, believe and “wait and see” to “walk this trail and you’re saved.” In fairness to Finney, he knew it was impossible to fully know who was saved. Again, upon seeing fruits of repentance, verifiable faith, and seeing a compelling change of lifestyle—Finney would consider the person hopefully converted. Unlike Billy Sunday, he never allowed people to rest in any assurance that man could give.
The End of “Hopeful Conversion” Terminology
God and His Word doesn’t change; only the definition of what it meant to be “saved” slowly changed. By 1918, a newspaper headline reported:
“CONVERTS RUSHED TO GRASP HANDS OF BILLY SUNDAY.” According to the media, “Publicly acknowledging their belief in Jesus Christ as their savior, and expressing their repentance for sin, 425 men, women and children of all ages and types, surged down the sawdust trail to the platform at the tabernacle last night to grasp the hand of Billy Sunday and to be enrolled as professing Christians.
It is almost inconceivable that 100% of the people who went forward were considered “saved” because of this “singular act” and “supposed mindset.” Lost in the frenzy was the Biblical teaching of the sovereignty of God and the born-again experience. The terminology “hopeful conversion” was lost by the end of Billy Sunday’s career. Within a 39-year span, “hopeful conversions” were replaced with “x number of people got saved.”