“In Judah it was said, “The strength of those who bear the burdens is failing. There is too much rubble. By ourselves we will not be able to rebuild the wall” (Nehemiah 4:10).
The Priority of Rubbish Removal
It is impossible to build or rebuild on a foundation that is faulty and covered with rubble. When Nehemiah returned to Jerusalem for the purpose of rebuilding the wall, his first order of business was to inspect the foundation of the wall (see Nehemiah 2:11-16). Once he had learned what needed to be done, he encouraged the people to rebuild the wall by reminding them the good hand of God would be with them and give them success (see Nehemiah 2:20).
After the work had begun and was progressing well, God’s people encountered opposition and began to become discouraged. One of the reasons for their discouragement was the large quantity of rubble that needed to be carted away.
I would invite you to consider Jeremiah’s call and commission as a prophet of Jehovah. The LORD said to him, “Behold I have put my words in your mouth. See, I have set you this day over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to break down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.” (Jeremiah 1:10). Notice that before God instructed him to build and to plant, he told him to tear down and pluck up.
It has become quite difficult to engage in biblical evangelism because the landscape of evangelical Christianity has become cluttered with so much non-biblical rubbish. I am not only or even primarily referring to the non-biblical and often anti-biblical practices and message that are in vogue. Instead, I am referring to the mindset that has characterized the evangelical church for decades. That mindset has resulted from a set of theological [or in many cases anti-theological or a-theological] presuppositions that have prevailed in the evangelical church for more than a century.
One such assumption is that faith is a decision that locks a sinner into an eternally secure salvation even if he should later deny the faith and return to a life of unbridled sin and wicked unbelief. According to this understanding of faith, if ever we can get a person to come to a point of decision at which he acknowledges the facts of the gospel, he will be saved for eternity. Some have traded biblical teaching that true believers will persevere in faith to the end for the doctrine of “once saved, always saved.” Please do not misunderstand me. I believe that once God has truly declared a person to be righteous in his sight he will never alter that verdict, but that is different from the teaching that all who profess faith in Christ are saved for eternity no matter what occurs subsequently. This presupposition of “once saved, always saved” grows out of the free will doctrine. The belief is that once the scale of the sinner’s libertarian free will is tipped toward Christ so that he “decides for Christ” [as if Jesus is running for office] he gets his ticket punched for the gospel train that takes him to heaven. Nothing that occurs after that can cause him to be kicked off the train.
I know that for anyone who has carefully read and studied the Scriptures the idea that anyone could believe such a doctrine sounds too bizarre to be true, but I will not ask you to merely take my word for it. You can read it for yourself at such web-sites as http://www.expreacherman.com. The following represent a small sample of the statements that confirm their doctrine.
“It is possible for a believer to lose confidence in eternal security, or any other part of the gospel message. In such cases, he still has eternal life. (Luke 8:13).”
“One does not have to love God to receive the free gift of salvation. He needs to believe on Jesus as his Savior.”
“Demas is an eternally secure believer who turned his back on God. He is in heaven.”
From these brief quotations it is easy to see that in their view, faith need not involve anything more than an intellectual nod to certain propositions. It clearly has nothing to do with guilty rebels being reconciled to God and need not be ongoing. It appear that according to this view, once a sinner gets his ticket punched by making the right choice, he is home-free for eternity whether he continues to believe the gospel or not. Admittedly, this appears to be an extreme view even among those who practice free will evangelism, but it is in line with the widely held view called the “carnal Christian doctrine.” The idea is that once a person has made an open profession of faith, he is eternally secure no matter what occurs subsequently.
Several false doctrines as well as many non-biblical practices have grown out of this presupposition. I intend to discuss the faulty theological foundation of modern evangelism in detail in a subsequent chapter. For now, I want to focus more on the evangelistic rubbish that has cluttered the landscape of the Christian church.
The “Invitation” and the Sinner´s Prayer
In the first half of the nineteenth century, Charles Finney introduced a number of innovations into the practice of evangelism. One such innovation was what he called “the anxious seat.” At the end of an evangelistic meeting he would invite those who “were willing to be on the side of Christ” to come forward and sit on the anxious seat. In his view, if a person had been able to overcome his pride and natural timidity and had come to the anxious seat, he had given evidence of saving faith. In his Lectures on Revival he made it clear that the anxious seat was intended to be a replacement for baptism. He wrote,
The church has always felt it necessary to have something of this kind to answer this very purpose. In the days of the apostles, baptism answered this purpose. The gospel was preached to the people, and then all those who were willing to be on the side of Christ were called to be baptized. It held the place that the anxious seat does now as a public manifestation of their determination to be Christians.
Since he had assumed that all who came to the anxious seat were truly converted, he later found himself in a quandary when they gave no evidence of genuine faith. For that reason, he introduced the idea of a second work of grace that would accomplish what he had expected from the first work of grace.
The “anxious seat” was the precursor of the modern “invitation system” or the “altar call.” Many modern pastors and evangelists make the same assumption that Finney had made. They assume that if a person walks the aisle of a church building or coliseum and makes a public profession of faith, he or she has been saved for eternity. If such people give no evidence of love for Christ or a desire to obey him, they are referred to as “carnal Christians.” They are encouraged to make another decision and become a “spiritual Christian.”
The question is, “How can we know these people are truly Christians”? The stock answer is that we know they are saved because we saw them “get saved.” By that they mean they saw them walk the aisle to make a profession, and they assume that means they became genuine believers. Now if they are right, they are completely justified in using every psychological technique and emotional tactic possible to induce people to make that all important decision. Additionally, we are remiss if we do not use every scheme possible to get such decisions out of people.
What we need to discuss is not whether such practices as the “invitation” and the “sinner’s prayer” are justified, but whether the underlying presuppositions on which they are based can be supported biblically. There is nothing inherently wrong with a person walking to the front of a church building or coliseum to confess that he or she has trusted in Christ for salvation. The assumptions we need to question are those that have been taken for granted by modern evangelists and those who follow them. If you do not believe these folks actually assume these ideas, simply listen to them talk. The following are a few of their assumptions:
1. The use of such methods is necessary for the sinner’s salvation. I have often been asked, “If you don’t give an invitation, how can anyone “get saved?” This clearly implies that a walk to the front of a building or repeating a prayer is necessary for salvation. It seems that, according to their view, if we do not use their methods there will be people who will be lost who would otherwise have been saved.
2. A proper response to an invitation to come forward is an evidence of saving faith. I have often heard people make statements like “There were five people saved in the meeting last night.” By this they mean five people walked the aisle and made a profession of faith. At times they will say something like, “I know she is a Christian because I saw her “get saved.” Or “I saw him ‘get saved,’ and now he has backslidden. It must be possible for a person to lose his salvation.” Again, the inference is that if a person walks the aisle, he must be a true believer.
3. There is a limited time in which a person can be converted. One often hears them say, “If no one comes while we sing this verse, we are going to close the invitation.” Who do these people think they are? Are they going to open the gates of heaven to sinners and then close them because they didn’t respond at the proper time? God’s invitation to sinners is open as long as they live.
4. It would be wrong to conclude that a person’s profession may not have been genuine if he shows no evidence of love for Christ or a desire to obey him. These people must be Christians because they responded properly to a gospel invitation. They simply need to take a second step of faith and become “spiritual Christians.”
5. If a person doesn’t give “an invitation” at the end of a gospel message, he must not care about souls.
The Proper Venue for Evangelism
Another area in which the evangelical church needs to experience a radical paradigm shift is in its thinking about the proper venue for evangelism. For decades, evangelicals have been conditioned to think that the purpose of the church meeting is to provide a venue for the propagation of the gospel. This mentality has manifested itself most blatantly in the “seeker sensitive/friendly movement” and in the “emergent church movement.” The idea that seems to underlie the methodology of these movements is that the church should be a place where sinners will feel comfortable to “hang out.” As a result, everything that might be offensive to an unconverted person has been eliminated from the program. The entire idea of a hymnology in which God’s people were instructed in the great truths of the faith and inspired to worship him intelligently has vanished. The great hymns of the faith have been replaced with vapid ditties and theologically vacuous mood music designed to prepare the sinner to hear the message.
The message itself has been carefully crafted to produce the desired response from the unconverted. Everything that might be distasteful or offensive to the unconverted person has been omitted. We should remember here that a portion of the truth when presented as the whole truth becomes a whole lie. God forbid that any preacher should actually proclaim sound biblical doctrine in such a gathering. Preachers are often urged to “put the cookies on the bottom shelf so that everyone can reach them.” The result of following this advice has been an epidemic of spiritual malnutrition that is plaguing the church.
Just yesterday I listened to a portion of a “sermon” in which a Southern Baptist pastor was excoriating people in the so-called church he claims to pastor. He referred to these people who wanted to be taught more doctrine as “big fat spiritual babies,” and suggested that they are the excrement of the body of Christ. He said to these people, “I don’t have time to feed you; I’ve got work to do.” This man has been set over one of the larger churches [and I use the term “churches” very loosely] in the Southern Baptist Convention. He described the church as having a “big front door” through which unchurched, unbelieving people enter and “choose Christ.” To me, this speaks volumes about this man’s doctrine of the church. He clearly believes his work is not to feed the flock over which God has made him overseer, but preach to these people who are entering “the big front door” so that they will be converted, or to use his non-biblical phrase, “choose Christ.” The church is advertised as “A safe place for non-believers.” Is it any wonder that God’s people are malnourished when charlatans like this guy are allowed to stand in the pulpit and spew their putrescent garbage?
Please do not misunderstand me. I am not opposed to having unconverted people attend the gathering of God’s people to observe how we worship our God and hear what the Bible teaches. I am delighted when such a person is so overwhelmed by God’s truth that he or she becomes a true believer, but the evangelization of the unbeliever is not the purpose of the gathered church. Additionally, unbelievers should never feel “safe” from the possibility that they might hear something that will make them feel guilty before God.
There is not a single verse in the Bible in which believers are instructed to invite their unbelieving friends and loved ones to church. Christ’s command is not “bring people to church,” but “Go and make disciples.” The purpose of the assembly and of the teaching pastor is to equip believers to do the work of ministry. There is only one passage in the New Testament Scriptures that mentions an unconverted person coming into the assembly and in that passage (1 Cor. 14:23-24) it is stated as a possibility—“What if an unconverted person should happen to come into the assembly?” The apostle does not instruct them to bring such a person in for the purpose of evangelizing them.
It is time for shepherds to return to the task for which God has equipped them. If they are unable to nourish the flock with healthful teaching, it is time for them to find a new profession. Perhaps selling vacuum cleaners would suit them better.
In a later chapter, I want to offer suggestions about the proper venue for evangelism based on the biblical pattern. For now, suffice it to say that it is not the purpose of the gathered church to provide this venue.
The Use of Unbiblical Jargon
There are certain phrases one will never find in biblical proclamations of the gospel, yet many would think it impossible to evangelize without using them. I invite you to read the New Testament gospel presentations and see if you can find any of the following phrases that have become so commonplace in modern evangelism:
Let Jesus come into your heart.
Give Jesus your heart.
Open your heart, and let Jesus come in.
You need to “pray to receive Jesus.”
You need to “decide for Jesus.”
Jesus died for you.
God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.
Smile, God loves you.
God hates the sin, but loves the sinner.
God can’t save you unless you let him.
Perhaps you are thinking that though these exact phrases do not occur in the New Testament Scriptures, we can certainly find verses that express the truth that lies behind them. After all, doesn’t the New Testament tell us that God loved the world in such a way that he gave his only Son (John 3:16) and that he demonstrated his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8-9)?
Regarding the first of these verses, I would invite you to read “Arminian Presupposition #2 Refuted” at http://www.truthunchanging.wordpress.com. The reality is that the word “world” was almost never used to designate every person on the globe without exception. John used it to indicate the condescension of God’s love. The holy one loved fallen rebels who were hostile toward him. John’s emphasis was not on the number of the people loved but on the nature of the people loved. Additionally, he used the word to indicate the true universality of God’s love. He did not merely love people from the nation of Israel but from every nation on earth. This is probably the predominant sense of the word translated “world” the New Testament Scriptures.
But what about verses like Romans5:8 that state that God loved “us” and Jesus died for “us?” Any reasonable person would simply need to read these verses in context to understand that “us” does not refer to every human being on earth. First of all, we should consider to whom Paul addressed the letter. He wrote, “To all those in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints” (Rom. 1:7). Additionally, the immediate context makes it clear that “us” refers to Paul and to the believers in Rome. Consider his description of those to whom he addressed this epistle. He refers to them and to himself as follows:
We have been justified through faith (v.1).
We have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ (v. 1).
By faith we have obtained access into this grace in which we stand (v. 2).
We rejoice in hope of the glory of God (v. 2).
We rejoice in sufferings also (v. 3).
God’s love has been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit who has been given to us (v. 5).
We have now been justified by his blood (v. 9).
We shall be saved by him from the wrath of God (v. 9).
Certainly, no one would be so theologically inept as to suggest that “we,” “our,” and “us” in these verses refers to every sinner without exception. Yet, incredibly, there are those who contend that “us” in Romans 5:8 refers to every sinner without exception.
It is time for evangelicals to bring our phraseology into conformity with the biblical pattern. I urge you to read the sermons on record in the New Testament Scriptures and to begin to incorporate more biblical language in your gospel presentations. In the following chapter, I intend to examine those sermons and suggest a more biblical expression of the gospel of our great God.
If ever we are to be effective in making disciples, we must dispose of the rubbish that has so greatly damaged the cause of God and truth. I implore you to examine your message and methods in the light of Scripture. “Put all things to the test; hold fast what is good” (1 Thess. 5:21).