Simon the Magician

Question
What happened with Simon Magus? We know that he "believed and was baptized" (Acts 8:13) but then the text seems to indicate that he wasn't truly regenerated when Peter says, "Your money perish with you ... your heart is not right in the sight of God." (v. 20). Was his "belief" not truly a belief unto salvation? Or do you think he was really saved? Then Peter says, "Repent ... and pray God if perhaps the thought of your heart may be forgiven you." Why did Peter say "perhaps?" Doesn't God promise to forgive us if we repent and confess our sins?
Answer
Simon Magus (a.k.a. Simon the Magician) is a very interesting character. The Bible records his encounter with Peter in Acts 8, and several early Christian writings tell of things that later happened with Simon Magus. For example, he reportedly fell back into magic, and sometimes followed Peter around in order to refute Peter's gospel. He is said to have fallen to his death while levitating, or, more accurately, when he stopped levitating too soon.

The question of his faith can be understood in a different ways. Some believe that he had saving faith but then lost it. However, other Scriptures clearly teach that this is impossible (cf. those listed in this Q&A).

Others believe that he falsely professed faith in order to be accepted by the apostles and to learn the secrets of their trade, so to speak. This is a reasonable understanding of the passage, particularly given Peter's strong rebuke. It also coincides well with the way tradition has portrayed his character subsequent to the events in Acts 8.

Still others say that he thought himself to be a believer, but his faith was poorly informed and not founded on Christ. In order for faith to be saving faith, it must have the proper content (i.e., conviction of sin, trust in God and Jesus Christ as savior) and it must be God-given (Rom. 12:3,6; Gal. 3:23; Eph. 2:8), residing in a regenerate heart (cf. Rom. 10:8-10). The difficulty for us as modern Christians reading the Bible is that the Bible itself does not clearly indicate what kind of faith it is talking about in all instances.

Consider, for example, John 2:23-25. There we learn that Jesus did not entrust himself to those who believed in him, and that he withheld himself from them because he knew them. Another way to describe these people is to say that they were "believers" who did not have saving faith. The point is simply that what the Bible calls "belief" or "faith" isn't exactly the same was what modern Christians mean when they use these terms. It also applies these terms to people that have false faith in the gospel, and to people who have faith in a false gospel

So, getting back to Simon Magus, it is reasonable to say that he had some kind of belief that was not God-given saving faith. If this interpretation is correct, then what we see in Acts 8 is Simon's wicked actions revealing the true nature of his so-called faith. Once Peter spots him as a false believer, he rebukes Simon Magus harshly in order that the magician might see the error of his ways and have an opportunity to repent and be saved.

This brings us to your second question: Does God always forgive us when we repent? Much as with faith, true repentance is a gift from God (Acts 11:18). A person that demonstrates God-given repentance is saved (cf. "leads to life" in Acts 11:18). Nevertheless, again as with faith, it is possible for people to have false repentance. That is, they seek true repentance, but God does not grant it, and they cannot create it themselves. One possible example is Hebrews 12:17 where Esau sought but did not find repentance, another is 1Samuel 15, the story of God's rejection of Saul as king, after he seemed to repent. But regardless of how we interpret these passages, it is not hard to conceive of situations in which we cannot repent wholeheartedly. That being said, the Bible does assure us that when our repentance is genuine, God does forgive us (Ps. 51:17; 1 John 1:9).

In the case of Simon Magus, then, whether or not God would forgive him was contingent upon whether or not God granted him true repentance unto life. Since Peter could not know God's heart in this matter, the greatest assurance he offered Simon was "perhaps."

Now, of course, the same uncertainty exists in all instances of evangelism, yet in most cases we do not see the contingency factor expressed so explicitly. That makes this passage stand out as a bit unusual. I suspect the reason for this is that Peter was speaking to someone whom he knew to be wicked and a proven deceiver. Simon Magus did not deserve the benefit of the doubt, so Peter emphasized some of the more negative possibilities, such as that God might choose not to grant Simon Magus life. This is more reminiscent of Old Testament texts that mention possible curses alongside possible blessings (cf. Lev. 26). But rather than causing us to doubt the faithfulness and forgiveness of God, it should be a reminder that those who displease him will fall under his wrath, and that only his mercy and grace stand between us and hell.

Answer by Ra McLaughlin

Ra McLaughlin is Vice President of Creative Delivery Systems at Third Millennium Ministries.