During my daily reading this morning I came across the story of Simon the Magician in Acts ch. 8. As Philip preached the gospel in Samaria many believed, Simon included. Verse 13 states, “Even Simon himself believed, and after being baptized he continued with Philip. And seeing signs and great miracles performed, he was amazed.” (ESV)
However, later on, Simon approached Peter and John when he saw that the Holy Spirit came upon people by the laying on of hands. He offered money to the disciples so that he too could lay hands on people that they might receive the Holy Spirit. Peter sharply rebukes him and in verses 21-23 says, “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 that you are in the gall of bitterness and in the bond of iniquity.”
Simon believed the gospel message but had not repented of his ways. He perhaps saw the laying on of hands as another magic trick to impress the people with, bring attention to himself and turn a tidy profit. He revealed what was truly in his heart when he attempted to buy the power of God. Peter knew that Simon was not truly a Christian because he had not turned from his evil ways. Simon’s belief was only at the level of intellectual assent to the facts of the gospel. The message had not pierced his dark heart to bring true conversion. Peter called him to repentance, since belief without the accompanying sorrow for sin is completely worthless.
I think this is an excellent case study on the importance of the element of repentance in the sound conversion of a soul. True belief cannot occur without a turning away from sin. Salvation only comes when a person fully understands just what exactly he is being saved from. A call to faith without a call to forsake sin is the recipe for a false conversion.
Of course, as the situation in the text reveals, even a well-rounded presentation of the gospel can produce false converts. I’m certain Philip presented the gospel in all its fullness yet Simon was a false convert. This is no fault of the preacher but of the hearer. This simply demonstrates the difference in God converting a soul and bringing them to repentance and faith and of a person trying to convert himself apart from the work of the Holy Spirit. Simon, as are all people in their natural state, is an idol maker. He took the parts of the message that appealed to him and applied them to himself while casting the more unpleasant elements to the ground. He wanted the signs and miracles and the fame and attention that goes along with it but he had not interest in turning away from his evil ways and walking in love and humility toward his God and neighbor. The fact that some people tend to pick and choose what parts of the gospel message to believe and which to reject does not excuse preachers who do the sifting for them by proclaiming only a partial gospel message in order to prod unbelievers into making a good decision. All of God’s people are responsible for proclaiming the full counsel of God. We don’t have the right to censor any part of the things God has revealed that are for us and for our children (Dt 29:29).
There are those who would accuse me of promoting a salvation by works by demanding that turning away from sin is a requirement for salvation. My simple response is that John the Baptist, the forerunner to Christ, preached repentance (Mat 3:2). Jesus Christ himself preached repentance (Mark 1:15) and the apostles preached repentance (Acts 2:38; 17:30). I conclude then that repentance is absolutely necessary for our redemption. I can say without hesitation that repentance is in no way a meritorious work. Repentance isn’t the means by which a person breaks away the stony exterior of his hardened heart. It is evidence that God has already performed a miracle there by transforming stone into flesh.