Definition of a counterfeit

A counterfeit is defined as something made in exact imitation of something valuable with the intention to deceive or defraud. Or simply put, something that resembles closely but is not the actual thing. The common Zambian colloquialism for a counterfeit is “gonga”. This is a product that resembles a genuine product but is not and is therefore of vastly inferior quality.

With regard to the assurance of salvation, a person holding on to a counterfeit assurance is one who assures himself that he has become a Christian when in actual fact he has not. This false assurance can be based on different reasons as we are going to see. The Bible in Proverbs 30:12 describes such a person as, “Those who are pure in their own eyes and yet are not cleansed of their filth.” And Proverbs 14:12 describes their position in this way, “There is a way that seems right to a man, but in the end it leads to death.”

The Basis for a Counterfeit Assurance

How do people end up with a counterfeit assurance? True assurance is based on one trusting solely on the atoning work of Christ for their salvation. The counterfeit is based on one trusting for salvation anything other than the finished work of Christ or trying to supplement or add to the work of Christ. This comes in different forms and is what the apostle Paul refers to as “a different gospel which is no gospel at all” in Galatians 1:6–9. In Romans 10:3 he calls it a seeking to establish one’s own righteousness. There are many different anchors on which people wrongly base their assurance of salvation. Here are the common ones:

  1. Church membership: Many have been made to believe that if they go through some discipleship lessons or catechism, and as a result they are admitted into church membership, then they must have become Christians. They then easily and falsely base their assurance of salvation on this.
  1. Morality: Some will assure themselves that they are Christians based on their good moral behaviour. As much as this morality may be commended by other people, the Bible in Romans 3:23 tells us that, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”. And because we are sinners, Isaiah 64:6 tells us, “All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags…”
  1. Baptism: Others have placed their assurance of salvation on water baptism. But the Bible teaches us that baptism is only an outward confirmation of the new birth. Baptism is like the Zambian identity card called a National Registration Card (NRC). It confirms you are a Zambian citizen but it does not in itself turn you into a Zambian citizen. The reason is simple: only those who are already Zambian citizens are eligible to receive an NRC.
  1. Good works: Many who are engaged in good and charitable works have concluded that God will accept them on the basis of these works. The Bible clearly states that, “…no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law…” (Romans 3:20).
  1. Religious upbringing or birth: Yet some place their assurance on their religious upbringing or the Christianity of their parents. If there was ever a man who meticulously pursued his religious convictions, it was Paul. But all his religion could not earn him salvation. Listen to his confession in Philippians 3:7–9, “But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith.” 
  1. Altar calls and easy believism: Let me begin by saying that it is possible for someone to become a genuine Christian by responding to an altar call. Unfortunately, however, many people who flock to the front at a crusade or in churches have never really understood the way of salvation. They end up believing that there is some kind of magic or power in the pastor’s (or respective preacher’s) prayer. They are quickly assured that they have become Christians and thus a false or counterfeit assurance is planted in them.

The Route to a False Assurance

How then do many end up believing that they are Christians on the basis of the above mentioned things? At the root of a false assurance is a defective understanding of the gospel message. A partial, distorted or defective understanding will lead to one believing that they have become Christians. It will lead to them entering by the wrong gate whilst convincing themselves that they are on the right path that leads to heaven.

In John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, in Chapter 13, he introduces us to a character by the name of Ignorance. Like Christian, he is aiming to get to the Celestial City. But unlike Christian, he has bypassed the narrow gate and the cross of Christ and is depending on his own understanding of the way of salvation. Here is an excerpt of the situation and subsequent conversation between Christian and Ignorance:

At that junction they met a very lively young man from that country whose name was Ignorance, and Christian asked him where he came from and where he was going.

He replied, “Sir, I was born in the country that lies over there, a little to the left, and I am going to the Celestial City.”

“But how do you think you will get in at the Gate?” asked Christian. “You may find some difficulty there.”

“I will get in as other good people do.”

“But what do you have to show at the Gate so that it may be opened for you?”

“I know my Lord’s will and have lived a good life. I pay back every debt, I pray and fast, pay tithes and give to charities, and I have left my country behind to reach my destination.”

“But you didn’t come in at the wicket gate; that is, at the beginning of this way. You came in here through this crooked lane. I fear that, in spite of how you may see yourself, when the day of reckoning comes, you will be counted as a thief and robber and will not gain entrance into the City.” (John Bunyan, 1991, 2007, p.165)

Regrettably, Ignorance did not listen to Christian’s advice and when they reached the Celestial City in Chapter 17, he could not be allowed in as he did not meet the requirements. He was instead bound hand and foot and thrown into the outer darkness. 

What a counterfeit faith can get you

Those who have wrongly convinced themselves that they have become Christians sometimes can go ahead to become religiously active in church and society. Just like counterfeit money might get you around for a little while before you are discovered and caught, a counterfeit assurance of salvation can also seem to offer those who hold on to it some kind of benefits. For example a counterfeit assurance can get you the following:

  1. False peacemany who are not saved go about with a self-induced peace having believed that it is well with their soul when in reality it is not.
  2. Baptismbased on a counterfeit assurance, many have convinced their churches that they are believers, and they have gone ahead to get baptised.
  3. Church membership—In addition to baptism, a counterfeit assurance can convince the church leadership further to admit one into membership.
  4. Church positionsthose who have convinced themselves that they are Christians and have become church members can even end up as leaders in their church.
  5. Acceptance from fellow menother church members can be led to believe that the counterfeit is true and one of them.
  6. Christian Marriagenon-believers who believe they are Christians can end up getting married to a genuine Christian in a true Christian church.
  7. Christian Funeral—and when such a person dies, they can end up being accorded a Christian funeral since they had convinced everyone they were Christians.

What a counterfeit faith can never get you

Matthew 7:21–23 narrates the sad ending of people who lived their lives in this world believing they were Christians but were not. They held on to a counterfeit assurance of salvation. Just like counterfeit money will only get you temporary benefits before you are found out, so it is with counterfeit assurance. The end, therefore, for those who cling to counterfeit assurance will be miserable. Counterfeit assurance can never get you the following:

  1. SalvationJust believing that you have become a Christian, no matter how sincere the belief might be, if it is counterfeit, will never make you a true Christian. In fact, what is most terrible about a counterfeit assurance is that it keeps you from getting the real thing. This was the plight of the Israelites, as Paul explains in Romans 10:1–4. They thought they were saved and consequently they fought against the true gospel. So, as long as you are not a true Christian, you will not experience the true benefits of a genuine assurance of salvation.
  1. True peace that passes all understandingA man in the 18th century by the name of John Wesley was so convinced that he was a Christian that he was ordained in the Church of England and later even became a missionary. But it took a storm on the ocean to show him that he did not possess the real peace that genuine Christians possess. The way a group of Christians known as “the Moravians” responded in the midst of the same storm convinced him that they had what he did not have. He was convicted that he had been holding on to a counterfeit assurance of salvation all along.

Listen to Wesley’s testimony as it is told in Sketches from Church History: “It was so with John Wesley. In 1734 he decided that he was called of God to engage in missionary work in the newly-founded American colony of Georgia. But his stay there was comparatively short. In one way or another, but chiefly through the influence of the Moravian Christians he met onboard the ship, he was forced to the alarming conclusion that he himself was not truly converted to God. He, a University fellow and tutor, he, an ordained clergyman of the Church of England, he, the product of a Christian home, was as yet ignorant of saving truth and destitute of conversion experience. ‘I left my native country’, he wrote in early 1738, ‘to teach the Georgia Indians the nature of Christianity. But what have I learnt myself in the meantime? What I the least of all suspected, that I who went to America to convert others was never converted myself’” (S M Houghton, 1995:188).

  1. Genuine fruitthe Bible teaches us that the life of a Christian will be marked by fruitfulness. This fruitfulness consists in; the fruit of the Spirit or Christian virtue (Galatians 5:22, 23), good works (Ephesians 2:10) and the fruit of one’s lips—i.e. thanksgiving, praise and worship (Hebrews 13:15). One who is not genuinely saved will struggle in all these areas and will fail to produce fruit that is acceptable before God and therefore fruit that will last (John 15:16).

The marks of a counterfeit assurance

In the Parable of the Sower, found in Matthew 13:1–23, the Lord Jesus talks about various seed and the consequence of their respective situation. Our interest is to focus on the seed that fell on rocky ground as well as the one that fell among thorns. Both represent people who at one point appeared as if they had become Christians and started living the Christian life. They themselves must have been sure that they had become Christians. But there was something missing in their Christian experience. Their lives were marked by:

  • A lack of perseverance: For the person represented by the seed that fell on rocky places, his life was marked by a lack of perseverance in the face of trials and difficulties. His had “sunshine Christianity” which was only good for good times. When difficult times came, he gave up.
  • Love for the world: For the person represented by the seed that fell among thorns, his life was marked by a love for the world and the flesh. He held on to a form of religion minus the corresponding power (cp. 2 Timothy 3:5).

Addressing the counterfeit

When dealing with items of value you need the help of an expert to verify its authenticity. For currency, you would have it checked with the Bank to ensure that it is genuine. With gold, you would have it tested by a qualified person to prove whether it is real. You would not be careless with something so valuable.

Similarly the Bible exhorts us to examine our professions of faith, to make sure that what we are trusting in is genuine and will not let us down on the last day. In 2 Corinthians 13:5 the apostle Paul encourages us, “Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves…”

In addition to examining ourselves, we must also seek external help when in doubt. This is exactly what Paul did in Galatians 2:1, 2. He presented to the other apostles the gospel he was preaching and asked them to audit him and his message. He could not afford to be mistaken on such an important matter. And if, through self-examination or external auditing, we discover that we have all along been holding on to a counterfeit assurance of salvation, we must immediately disown it like Paul does in Philippians 3:8. We must equally call it rubbish, drop it like we would a hot iron, and diligently seek to lay hold of true assurance of salvation.

In the matter of salvation do not settle for a “gonga”. Salvation is so distinctive and so precious that we cannot afford to go wrong!


John Bunyan: Pilgrim’s Progress; Pretoria, Word of the Cross, 2007

S M Houghton: Sketches from Church History; Edinburgh, Banner of Truth Trust, 1995