A friend who is near ninety called me the other day to talk about Simon the magician in Acts 8. My friend said, “He was really born again, wasn’t he? After all, Luke says that ‘Simon himself also believed…and was baptized.’ (Acts 8:13). But, some of the people at my church are saying that Simon was not born again because he sought to buy the ability to convey the Holy Spirit by the laying on of hands and because Peter rebuked him.”
I agree with my friend. Simon does not profess to believe. Luke in inspired Scripture says that he believed. And we know Luke is speaking of believing in Jesus for everlasting life because he says “Simon himself also believed.” His faith was no different from that of the others in Samaria who had come to faith (Acts 8:12).
For more information on Simon in Acts 8 see here (by Zane Hodges) and here (by Jody Dillow) and here (by James Inglis in 1867!).
But why is there controversy here at all?
The reason is because some people interpret the Bible backwards.
Backwards interpretation is where you let your theology tells you what the Bible must say. Then when you read a text that doesn’t seem to fit with your theology, you ignore the details on the front end that create problems for you and you look for something on the back end that supports your theology.
Front end: “Simon himself also believed…and was baptized.” Done deal.
Back end: Simon sought to buy the ability to convey the Holy Spirit and Peter pronounces a curse on him and calls him to repent.
If new believers can’t commit big sins, then Simon must not be a new believer, no matter what Luke says. (Oops. That sounded wrong.)
But new believers can commit big sins. Even those who’ve been believers for decades can commit big sins.
Lordship Salvation people are guilty of reading their theology into texts all the time. They twist the meaning of texts to fit their own theology.
Do Free Grace people do this too? I believe we do. But hopefully not often.
Here is a personal example. In Rom 1:5 and 16:26 Paul says that his ministry was “for obedience to the faith.” Does Paul mean obedience that results from faith? Obedience that is faith?
I argued in an article years ago that Paul was calling for Gentiles to obey God’s command to believe in His Son. Hence I thought the issue was obedience that is faith. After all, I reasoned, obedience does not necessarily result from faith. A believer might be carnally minded like most in the church of Corinth.
What I did was reject an option that did not fit my theology and grasped at one that did fit. But there is another and more obvious interpretation that I had missed. Paul’s ministry was designed to get Gentiles to be obedient to the teaching of the Christian faith. That would not mean he taught that godliness was a condition for everlasting life. The issue in both passages is sanctification, not justification. Paul first led Gentiles to faith in Christ. Then he taught them to be obedient to the Christian faith.
The expression the faith often stands in Scripture for the teachings of the New Testament.
I was so concerned to keep good works out of evangelism that I missed a fairly obviously reference to good works in Paul’s writings.
I’m not saying that it is always easy to interpret the Bible. I’m saying that it is much easier if we are open to the Bible meaning what it says. A common saying in interpretation is this: When the plain sense of Scripture makes common sense, seek no other sense. I might modify that saying in this way: When what appears to be the plain sense of Scripture makes common sense, then confirm that is the plain sense, and then seek no other sense.
Occasionally what we think is the plain meaning is actually the meaning which someone’s theology told us was the plain meaning. Those who reject the salvation of Simon in Acts 8 are examples of how well-intentioned people might miss the plain meaning. They need to check their interpretation against the text. If they do, they will see that they missed the plain sense.