Updated June 8, 2006 (first published March 16, 1997) (David Cloud, Fundamental Baptist Information Service, P.O. Box 610368, Port Huron, MI 48061, 866-295-4143, firstname.lastname@example.org) -
Among the multiplied thousands of conversions that are reported annually by churches, evangelists, missionaries, and parachurch organizations, only a small number result in biblical fruit. There are many ways this is manifested.
There is, first, the problem of unchanged converts. A frightful number of those who “profess Christ” or “pray to be saved,” show no evidence that they were truly born again by the Spirit of God. Their lives are not changed.
There is also the problem of worldly converts. Vast numbers of those who are said to be converted to Christ remain worldly. They love the same music and fashions, run with the same crowd, retain the same humanistic philosophies, and have the same carnal mindset as before they were “converted.” The “Christian rock” crowd illustrates this category.
Further, there is the problem of ecumenical converts. They have no zeal for the truth and no distaste for error. They accept anyone as a brother or sister in Christ as long as he or she “loves Jesus,” ignoring the Bible’s warning that there are false christs and false gospels. They do not carefully test doctrine by the Word of God. In fact, they despise and mock those who measure everything by the Word of God and who practice biblical separation. The Promise Keepers crowd illustrates this category.
At this point, we should plainly state what we mean by the gospel. According to 1 Corinthians 15:1-4, the gospel is that Christ died for our sins, that he was buried, and that he rose from the dead the third day. Salvation is received freely by believing in this gospel.
The same Bible that defines the gospel also shows us how to present the gospel. It is possible to present the true gospel in such a way that it produces perverted results. This is being done on every hand today in the following four ways. While I do not doubt that there are many reasons for the aforementioned problems in evangelism, I am convinced the unscriptural presentation of the gospel is high on the list.
THE FIRST UNSCRIPTURAL PRESENTATION THAT WE WANT TO MENTION IS THE EASY-PRAYERISM PRESENTATION, WHICH IS TO FAIL TO DEAL PLAINLY WITH REPENTANCE.
In Acts chapter 17, we see the apostle Paul dealing with a group of unbelievers in the city of Athens. Here we see the difference between “easy prayerism” and Bible evangelism.
“Then Paul stood in the midst of Mars' hill, and said, Ye men of Athens, I perceive that in all things ye are too superstitious. For as I passed by, and beheld your devotions, I found an altar with this inscription, TO THE UNKNOWN GOD. Whom therefore ye ignorantly worship, him declare I unto you. God that made the world and all things therein, seeing that he is Lord of heaven and earth, dwelleth not in temples made with hands; neither is worshipped with men's hands, as though he needed any thing, seeing he giveth to all life, and breath, and all things; and hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth, and hath determined the times before appointed, and the bounds of their habitation; that they should seek the Lord, if haply they might feel after him, and find him, though he be not far from every one of us: For in him we live, and move, and have our being; as certain also of your own poets have said, For we are also his offspring. Forasmuch then as we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Godhead is like unto gold, or silver, or stone, graven by art and man's device. And the times of this ignorance God winked at; but now commandeth all men every where to repent: Because he hath appointed a day, in the which he will judge the world in righteousness by that man whom he hath ordained; whereof he hath given assurance unto all men, in that he hath raised him from the dead. And when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked: and others said, We will hear thee again of this matter” (Acts 17:22-32).
The Approach and Emphasis Is Different
“Easy prayerism,” in its approach, emphasizes Heaven and blessing and God’s love. Bible evangelism, in its approach, emphasizes God’s holiness and just demands upon mankind; it emphasizes the necessity of repentance.
It is interesting that Paul did not say, “Hey, Athenians, God loves you and Heaven is wonderful; don’t you want to go to Heaven when you die? It’s easy; just believe in Jesus and pray this prayer after me.” Yet, this is the approach used by “easy prayerism.”
The Four Spiritual Laws of Campus Crusade illustrates this. It approaches the unsaved in the following manner: “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.” While this might sound reasonable and right to this positive-oriented, self-esteem-crazed generation, it is not the approach we see in the Word of God.
The Requirement Is Different
Not only was Paul’s approach and emphasis different from that of “easy prayerism,” his requirement was as well. “Easy prayerism” emphasizes faith and prayer. “Just believe. Don’t worry about giving up anything; that will come in time. Just pray this prayer.” Bible evangelism, rather, requires repentance.
“And the times of this ignorance God winked at; but now commandeth all men every where to repent” (Acts 17:30).
That is what Paul required of his listeners, and that is exactly what we must require. Repentance was not just something preached by John the Baptist. Repentance was preached by Jesus Christ (Matt. 3:1, 2; Lk 5:32; 13:1-5). He said, “I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” Christ’s goal in dealing with men was to bring them to repentance. Repentance was also preached by the apostles (Acts 2:38; 5:31; 17:30; 20:21; 26:20). The Bible says that God is “longsuffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance” (2 Pet. 3:9). Repentance is God’s goal in dealing with sinners.
Repentance means a change of mind that results in a change of life. It means to turn to God from sin. Bible examples of repentance show a clear change in people’s behavior. The change does not save us from sin, but IT IS the clear fruit of Bible salvation.
Consider Zacchaeus. He repented, and the evidence of this is that he gave half his goods to the poor and restored five-fold that which he had stolen through his crooked tax-collecting business (Lk. 19:1-10). Consider the idolaters at Thessalonica. They repented, and the evidence was that they “turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God” (1 Thess. 1:9- 10). Consider the Jews in Acts 2 who heard the sermon Peter preached on Pentecost. They repented, and the evidence of this is that they gladly received his word, were baptized, joined themselves with the hated Christians, and “continued stedfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers” (Acts 2:42).
We could go on and on. There is no Bible example of people being saved who did not evidence a drastic change in their lives. Repentance is a change of mind that results in a change of life.
The Bible approach to the sinner is to demand that he repent and turn to God. The apostle Paul reviewed his ministry before King Agrippa and noted that he went about preaching to Jews and Gentiles both “that they should repent and turn to God, and do works meet for repentance” (Acts 26:20). This is exactly the message that we are to preach today.
To preach repentance means to deal plainly with sin. There is a sense in which we can say that the word “repentance” encompasses all of the gospel’s requirements for salvation. It is a change of mind and a faith in God which results in a change of life, and that is what God requires. Bible translator William Tyndale, who was martyred for his faith in Christ, gives the following definition:
“Concerning this word REPENTANCE ... the very sense and signification both of the Hebrew and also of the Greek word is, “to be converted and to turn to God with all the heart, to know his will, and to live according to his laws; and to be cured of our corrupt nature with the oil of his Spirit, and wine of obedience to his doctrine.” Which conversion or turning, if it be unfeigned, these four do accompany it and are included therein: CONFESSION, not in the priest’s ear, for that is but man’s invention, but to God in the heart, and before all the congregation of God; how that we be sinners and sinful, and that our whole nature is corrupt, and inclined to sin and all unrighteousness, and therefore evil, wicked, and damnable; and his Law holy and just, by which our sinful nature is rebuked: and also to our neighbours, if we have offended any person particularly. Then CONTRITION, sorrowfulness that we be such damnable sinners, and not only have sinned, but are wholly inclined to sin still. Thirdly, FAITH (of which our old doctors have made no mention at all in the description of their penance), that God for Christ’s sake doth forgive us, and receive us to mercy, and is at one with us, and will heal our corrupt nature. And fourthly, SATISFACTION, or amends-making, not to God with holy works, but to my neighbour whom I have hurt, and to the congregation of God, whom I have offended, (if any open crime be found in me); and submitting of a man’s self unto the congregation or church of Christ, and to the officers of the same, to have his life corrected and governed henceforth of them.” (William Tyndale, “To The Reader,” 1534)
Note that this man of God wrapped confession, contrition, faith, and satisfaction into the term repentance. There is certainly no “easy prayism” here. The sinner who would be saved must repent, and this will always result in a changed life.
This means that we cannot have the attitude that we will only deal with sin after the person receives Christ; yet that is the philosophy of many. If the sinner brings up his love for liquor or for immoral relationships or for gambling, some think it best to delay dealing with such things until after the person has come to Christ. And sometimes this is the best policy, but only if the sinner is clearly under the conviction of the Holy Spirit about his sin and is clearly ready to repent of it and to turn to Christ. If a sinner indicates he has no intention of turning from his sin, he is not repentant.
When my wife and I first began our missionary work in South Asia in 1979, our landlord began coming to our house to have Bible studies. He was a wealthy middle-aged Hindu and had a concubine with whom he spent most of his time, though he was married and had grown children. After we went through the gospel a few times, he told me he was interested in receiving Christ, but he wanted to know what he would have to do about two specific things in his life--his shady business practices and his illicit relationship with his concubine. I could have said, “Don’t worry about those things. Just pray to receive Christ and those things will work themselves out later”; but I don’t believe that is scriptural counsel. I don’t believe he could receive Christ and be saved unless he repented of his immorality and his dishonesty. Salvation requires yielding to God; it requires surrendering.
During the 15 years we have spent in South Asia, we could have gotten large numbers of people to pray a prayer if that had been our objective. If we had simply asked if they wanted to go to Heaven when they died and if they believed that Jesus died for their sins and if so would they pray a sinner’s prayer, a large percentage of them would have muttered a prayer. They are accustomed to mantras and chants and would have seen the sinner’s prayer in the same light. If we had urged them only to “believe” without dealing with them about repentance, we would have had a multitude of unrepentant, “believing” Hindus on our hands--but believing in what? They eagerly believe that Jesus was a god, that he was good, that he loved them. It is very common, though, that instead of turning to Christ exclusively as God and turning FROM their idols, they merely want to add Jesus to their other gods.
Without repentance, there is no salvation. “I tell you, Nay: but, except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish” (Lk. 13:5). It is imperative to deal with people about their sin and about repentance.
Someone might say, “Yes, but that is in Asia where people have never heard the gospel; things are different here in America.” It is true that things are different in America, but the average person in North America today is almost as gospel ignorant as someone in South Asia. The average person we meet in many parts of North America has no knowledge of the Bible’s teaching, not even of its stories and basic content. His mind is filled with the evolutionary, new age myths. Someone who has been educated in the North American public school system and who has had no sound Bible training is actually more prejudiced against believing that the Bible is the infallible Word of God than a Hindu in darkest Asia. The same is true for England and Europe and Australia.
The Bible principles of dealing with people are the same no matter where those people are found, and the Bible requires repentance.
A church in Maine had a soul winning campaign a few years ago and the people were instructed to go house to house and ask the following question of those who opened the door: “If I could tell you that you can go to heaven when you die and you won’t have to change anything, would you be interested?” I believe that type of methodology is heresy and deception. It is a lie to tell a sinner that he can go to heaven when he dies without changing anything. There must be a turning, a yielding, a surrender of the will to Almighty God. There must be a change of direction, a change of mind that leads to a change of life. We must tell people the same thing that the apostle Paul told them, that “they should repent and turn to God, and do works meet for repentance” (Acts 26:20). Anything less is an unscriptural program of evangelism.
Thomas Smith, pastor of Mt. Zion Baptist Church in St. Clair, Missouri, had a conversation once with another pastor who was committed to “Quick Prayerism.” Pastor Smith said, “What if you were dealing with someone like Dennis Rodman [the professional basketball star who openly lives the most reprobate life] and you told him that he needs to receive Christ as his Saviour and he replied, ‘That is all well and good but I have no interest in changing my life,’ would you try to lead him in a sinners prayer anyway?” The other pastor replied, “Yes.”
This is definitely not what we see in Scripture.
When the Lord Jesus dealt with the rich young ruler who inquired about salvation, He did not tell him just to pray a prayer. He dealt with him plainly about his covetousness and pride and self-righteousness. The young man had to repent of such things before he could be saved. The Bible says that he went away sad because of his great riches.
Consider also Christ’s dealings with the woman at the well. He faced her squarely with the immorality that had controlled her life.
This is the way God always deals with people, and it is the way we must deal with them, too, if we want to follow the Bible in our gospel work. To preach repentance means to deal with sins that people are holding onto and to tell them plainly that they must repent of sinning against God; they must yield their lives to Him; they must change directions; they must surrender. God will do a new work in their lives but they must be ready for that to happen. They must have a change of mind about God and sin that will result in a change of life.
The Expectation Is Different
“Easy prayerism” seems to expect a slight interest in the gospel and a willingness to pray a prayer. But mere interest in Christ isn’t salvation, and neither is the willingness to pray a prayer. Bible evangelism, on the other hand, looks for and expects supernatural conviction that has been wrought by God. I have been soul winning with many men who have encouraged people to pray a sinner’s prayer when it was obvious, to me at least, that the people were not under any conviction of sin and had no intention of repenting. I do not find it surprising when these people often will not so much as visit the church.
Years ago, my wife and I were responsible to follow up on the ladies’ soul winning visitation program in a certain church. This program was patterned after a popular plan that focuses on “getting decisions” and involves clever ways of manipulating people to say a salvation prayer. It was common for the ladies to return from these visitations claiming that three, five, or ten “souls were saved.” The problem is that these “saved souls” usually had no interest whatsoever in coming to church, in baptism, or anything spiritual.
Why is it so often a real tug of war to get people discipled who have prayed a sinner’s prayer? Because so often they are not saved; they have never been under the conviction of the Holy Spirit; they do not yet even understand the gospel; they have never repented of their sin. Too often, they should never have been encouraged to pray a prayer. The personal soul winner looked for the wrong thing. He looked for some brief interest on the part of the sinner, when he should have looked for something Holy Spirit-wrought, something real and deep.
I am not talking about putting people through a long, drawn out agony over their sin. When it is evident that God is convicting them and giving them repentance, it is time to point them to Christ as their sin-bearer. They don’t have to follow someone’s formula for properly mourning over their sin. People are different and individuals react differently to Holy Spirit conviction; but they DO have to be convinced of their wickedness before God and they DO have to be clearly repentant. Anything short of this is not Bible salvation.
The old-timers had what they called the “anxious room” and the “mourners bench.” The anxious room was a place where the unsaved could go when they were under conviction. That is why they used the term “anxious.” Folk were clearly expected to be anxious about their sin and their lost condition if they were ready to be saved. The mourner’s bench was something similar. The term “mourner” referred to the sinner under Holy Spirit conviction for sin. Where is the anxious room today? Where is the mourner’s bench? Most churches don’t have anything like this anymore, because a new positive methodology has taken over and anxiety and mourning over sin is not something we expect. Again, I am not saying that we are to put people through a drawn out routine of anxiety or mourning, but the Bible plainly shows that people who were saved were under conviction about their sin against God and were openly repentant toward God about their rebellion to Him.
We Fundamentalists criticize the shallow Hollywood and sports star conversions that so obviously lack Holy Spirit conviction and repentance; but I am afraid we are promoting the same type of problem when we say people are saved who have done nothing more than say a prayer. It is the same type of shallow, positive approach that is used, and I believe this is one of the culprits in the matter.
A weak gospel produces weak converts. Is it any wonder that the Four Spiritual Laws produces converts who do not see anything wrong with rock music or with Hollywood’s cesspool productions or with dancing and drinking or with mixing together with Romanism and Modernism and Charismaticism? The New Evangelical crowd sees little or nothing wrong with any of this, and it should be no wonder because a weak gospel produces weak converts.
What, though, about the gospel frequently presented in fundamental Baptist circles? What kind of converts are we producing in our churches? Yes, praise God, there are some wonderful saints of God in our midst; but there is also a crop of strangely weak converts. Converts who have no zeal for truth. Converts who have no real love for the Bible. Converts who don’t care enough about the church even to attend Sunday evening or mid-week services. Converts who never try to win someone to Christ. Converts who have no discernment between truth and error, who will watch some Charismatic preacher on the television and be impressed with his shallow emotionalism or will listen to a radio psychologist and think he is a great man of God. Converts who seem as at home in the world as lost people are. They watch the same wicked Hollywood movies and have the same vile television programs on every evening; they laugh at the same dirty comedians; they go half-naked at the same beaches; they listen to the same worldly music.
I’m not trying to be unkind. I’m trying to point out a tremendous problem. I think many of these “converts” are not saved. Could it not be that this harvest of weak converts is being produced by a weak gospel approach, an approach that we have unconsciously adopted from the worldly ecumenical Christian crowd? Too often, we are trying to disciple people who have never experienced true conviction, repentance, and regeneration.
I realize that some of the biggest-name fundamental Baptist leaders in recent decades have popularized this type of thing, emphasizing numbers of decisions or prayers rather than repentance and Bible salvation; but we should not follow them in this. They are leading us away from the Bible.
Like the preacher’s in the book of Acts, we must look for one thing in our gospel work, and that is Holy Spirit-wrought conviction and repentance and sincere faith in Jesus Christ.
The Counting Is Different
“Easy prayerism” counts prayers, decisions, professions; whereas Bible evangelism counts genuine heart-felt, Holy Spirit-wrought faith and repentance that results in a new way of life. Bible evangelism counts genuine Bible conversion and is not interested in anything less.
This is in contrast to many of the reports we hear of “souls saved.” A missionary to an eastern European country wrote and said that 250 were saved during the past year. Yet only eleven were baptized, and there were only ten or so in the church services. Does it look like 250 people really repented of their sins and received Christ as their Savior? No, it looks like perhaps eleven did. The others were the result of “easy prayerism.” Why not say that 250 prayed a prayer or 250 made some sort of decision or 250 showed a passing interest in the gospel. That is the truth of the matter. Why confuse things and say 250 were saved, when there is no Bible evidence whatsoever that they were? Why say that the angels in Heaven are rejoicing over these “decisions,” when there is no evidence that salvation has happened? I don’t quite understand the motivation in all of this unless it is an attempt to impress other men.
We don’t believe it is wrong to count converts. The Bible counts converts in several cases. It only counts true converts, though, not people who merely prayed a prayer or something of that sort. It counts those who demonstrated regeneration. Those saved on the day of Pentecost were counted, but they demonstrated clear evidence of repentance. They continued stedfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers.
This is what we see in Acts 17. The Bible tells us about those who responded to Paul’s message. There were three categories. Some mocked. Others put the matter off, saying, “We will hear thee again of this matter.” But a third group “clave unto him, and believed” (v. 34).
The Bible focuses on those who showed genuine evidence of having been born again. They believed. That was what brought them salvation, but their believing resulted in cleaving! They cleaved to Paul. They stayed right with him. When he left the meeting, they went with him. They went home with him; they went to church with him; they followed his teaching; they were eager to learn more and to grow in their new faith. They joined themselves with the Christians! Their believing resulted in a dramatic change. It always does. Some demonstrate change more rapidly and dramatically than others, but there is always a clear change in those who are born again.
This is real Bible salvation. When you see people being baptized and cleaving to the house of God and growing in the things of Christ, you have good cause to rejoice and to say that they have been saved, that the bells of heaven are ringing. On the other hand, when people pray sinner’s prayers and make “decisions” for Christ but aren’t interested in getting baptized, coming to church, learning the Word of God, and fellowshipping with God’s people--they didn’t get saved and we should not count them as such.
To get people to pray to “receive Christ” when they are not under conviction of sin and are not ready to repent, and to say that people are saved when they do not have evidence of Bible salvation is to confuse the gospel in a most fantastic way. It fills the land with people who are almost inoculated to the gospel. When you try to deal with these people about their need to be born again, they tell you they “have already done that.” Done what? Well, they have prayed that prayer, they have gone through those motions, and a soul winner has even given them assurance that they are saved. And just where did they get the idea that salvation is merely a prayer without a life change? They got that idea from those who are promoting this type of thing.
The fruit, my friends, has been fearful. The Charismatics and New Evangelicals are tremendously guilty of this, but so are great numbers of fundamental Baptists.
For a number of years, I preached in a county jail and it was common for those who came to the Bible studies to claim that they were saved. When we asked them why they thought they were saved, they often pointed to a time when they prayed a sinner’s prayer, walked the aisle of a church, or were baptized. When we ask them if their life changed after they prayed the sinner’s prayer, they usually acknowledged that it did not. They associated salvation with some sort of religious ritual, such as praying a prayer or walking an aisle. They usually showed very little or no remorse over their sin and even over the crimes that had put them into jail. They didn’t seem to understand what a wretched testimony and how tremendously incongruous it is for a Christian to be in jail for his own sinful behavior. All too often, they were full of the same self-justification and deception that the unsaved display in prison.
It was very rare that they would point to a scriptural relationship with Jesus Christ. Rarely did they say, “I know I am saved because I remember when I came to Jesus Christ and received Him as my Lord and Savior; I walked and talked with Him; I served Him; what a joy that was; but then I was foolish and backslid and now I am suffering the consequences.” When they did give a testimony like this, we could have reason to think that they might indeed be saved, particularly if they showed genuine remorse over their sin and their backsliding against God.
We need to do everything in our power to make people understand that an unrepentant prayer is not salvation, any more than any other religious ritual is salvation. These people don’t need to be counseled to grow in Christ, they need to be counseled to be saved! If a repentant sinner under conviction of sin prays to be saved, Christ will receive Him and he will be saved--and his life will change. If, on the other hand, an unrepentant person prays, nothing spiritual, nothing eternal whatsoever happens. Let’s not be guilty of causing any sinner to think differently.
To preach repentance is not “lordship salvation.” It is not some kind of Puritan methodology. It is not works salvation. It is simple Bible evangelism.
THE SECOND UNSCRIPTURAL PRESENTATION THAT WE WANT TO MENTION IS AN INSUFFICIENT PRESENTATION, WHICH IS TO FAIL TO DEFINE THE TERMS OF THE GOSPEL SO THE HEARERS PROPERLY UNDERSTAND IT AND TO FAIL TO CONTRAST THE TRUE GOSPEL WITH FALSE ONES.
Another reason much of the evangelistic work today produces unscriptural fruit is its failure to define the terms of the gospel plainly and its failure to contrast the true gospel with the false ones known to the hearers.
In our ministry in a county jail, we were continually reminded that it is crucial to define gospel terms carefully. Many who came to our Bible studies told us that they had trusted Christ as their Savior, but when we dug a little deeper into their faith, we found that they did not believe the Bible.
One woman told us that she was a Methodist and she knew Christ as her Savior. I asked if she believed she was a sinner, and she said that she did. I then read Jeremiah 17:9, that the heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked; and I read Psalm 58:3, that we go astray from the womb, speaking lies. In response she stated that she was not a sinner in that sense, that she was basically a good person and that she did not believe God would send her to Hell for her small “sins.” If I had not taken the time to define sin biblically, her false profession would not have been exposed and I would have accepted her as a genuine Christian.
Many of the gospel tracts commit this error. The writers of the tracts assume that their readers will understand gospel terms such as sin, grace, atonement, faith, and repentance; but this is not the case. Unless a person has been under the influence of sound Bible teaching, he will not understand any of these terms properly when he first hears them or sees them in a Bible verse. Most unsaved people think of sin merely as a few gross acts such as adultery and murder. Or they think it is a psychological problem or need. Or they think it is lack of tolerance or unkindness to animals or lack of care for the environment. We must be very careful to define gospel terms plainly from the Scriptures so people understand, and so that when they acknowledge their sin and believe on the Lord Jesus Christ they are not doing so with false concepts in their minds. The Bible says we are saved by obeying from the heart “that form of doctrine which was delivered you” (Rom. 6:17). If a person believes a false concept of the gospel, he is not saved.
A similar error occurs when the gospel is preached but it is not contrasted plainly with false gospels. Ecumenical evangelistic crusades habitually commit this error. The ecumenical evangelist preaching to a mixed crowd of Protestants and Roman Catholics will not make the gospel plain because he does not want to offend those who hold a false gospel. In such a context, for example, it is not enough to say that salvation is by grace. The Catholic Church teaches that salvation is by grace. Sometimes the Catholic Church even claims that salvation is by grace alone, but by this it does not mean what the Bible means. The Catholic Church claims that no man can be saved by the grace of Christ without works or sacraments. It redefines grace to include works, thus perverting the gospel of Jesus Christ. The Council of Trent, which has been affirmed by many modern Catholic Councils, including Vatican II in the mid-1960s, stated: “If anyone shall say that justifying faith is nothing else than confidence in the divine mercy pardoning sins for Christ’s sake, or that it is that confidence alone by which we are justified . . . let him be accursed” (Canon 12).
The declarations of the Council of Trent have never been rescinded. This is what the Roman Catholic Church still believes today. Consider two statements from the New Catholic Catechism: “The Lord himself affirms that Baptism is necessary for salvation” (New Catholic Catechism, 1257). “The Church affirms that for believers the sacraments of the New Covenant are necessary for salvation” (New Catholic Catechism, 1129).
When Rome speaks of salvation by grace, it does not mean the free grace of the apostolic gospel. It has perverted the meaning of grace by intermingling it with sacraments and works. Contrast Romans 11:6. “And if by grace, then is it no more of works: otherwise grace is no more grace. But if it be of works, then is it no more grace: otherwise work is no more work.”
If an evangelist preaches the gospel to those who have been taught a false gospel, he must contrast the true gospel plainly with the false one. If he does not, he is guilty of leaving people with false impressions of what he meant by salvation.
CONFUSION IN NEW ORLEANS
In 1987 I witnessed firsthand the confusion that can result from failure to contrast the true gospel with false ones. I received press credentials to attend the massive North American Congress on the Holy Spirit & World Evangelization in New Orleans, July 1987. There were roughly 40 denominations represented. More than 200 speakers presented messages during the Congress. Fifty percent of those in attendance were Roman Catholic. A Catholic mass was held every morning. Catholic priest Tom Forrest, headquartered in Rome and head of Rome’s Evangelization 2000 program, brought the closing message. One night a Charismatic evangelist concluded his message with an evangelistic invitation. He told the crowd that if any of them were not certain of their salvation they should stand and pray the sinner’s prayer with him. At least fifty percent of the crowd of roughly 40,000 stood. The next day at a press conference, Dennis Costella, one of the reporters, mentioned what had occurred the prior evening and asked the leaders of the Congress why they did not plainly define the gospel and expose false gospels so that those present could understand what salvation is. They replied that they did not have time to do that! It was not on their agenda.
I believe the real reason for this is that to preach the gospel plainly in such a way that it is contrasted with false gospels would destroy their ecumenical harmony. Ecumenical unity cannot be maintained when doctrine is defined precisely and contrasted with error. A faithful preacher must lift up his voice and proclaim that baptism does not save and sacraments do not save and churches do not save and priests do not save and Mary does not save and the saints do not save and mystical experiences do not save and tongues do not save. Salvation is strictly and solely through faith in the finished atonement of Jesus Christ. Anyone that intermingles works or church sacraments with salvation has perverted the gospel and is cursed of God.
“I marvel that ye are so soon removed from him that called you into the grace of Christ unto another gospel: Which is not another; but there be some that trouble you, and would pervert the gospel of Christ. But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed” (Galatians 1:6-8).
Failure to be this plain will leave one’s hearers in a confused state, vainly trusting false gospels to take them to heaven.
“FALL IN LOVE WITH JESUS”
In April 1995 Luis Palau preached to an estimated 26,000 in four meetings in Kathmandu, Nepal. The report in Charisma magazine noted that since proselytization of Hindus was illegal in Nepal, “Palau encouraged the Nepalese to ‘fall in love with Jesus’ instead of urging them to renounce Hinduism.”
For a Hindu to “fall in love with Jesus” is not the same as repenting of his idolatry and sin and receiving Jesus Christ as the SOLE Lord and Saviour. We have lived with and preached to Hindus for 15 years, and in my estimation, it is criminal for an evangelist to urge Hindus merely “to fall in love with Jesus.”
Let me ask two questions that illustrate the wickedness of such inadequate preaching.
First, Palau told the Hindus to “fall in love with Jesus,” BUT WHAT ABOUT THE OTHER GODS THOSE HINDUS WORSHIP? Typically, the first inclination of the Hindu when he hears the gospel is to add Jesus to his other gods. He wants to make Jesus his favorite god but not the ONLY God. Typically they want to continue in their idolatry while adding Jesus to the list. When an evangelist does not deal clearly with such matters, he is preaching an insufficient message that results in at least as much confusion as blessing.
Second, Palau told the Hindus to “fall in love with Jesus,” BUT WHAT JESUS? Hindus in Kathmandu see all sorts of Catholic pictures of Jesus (long haired Jesus, Sacred Heart Jesus, baby in Mary’s arms Jesus, etc.) which are for sell on the streets and bookstores alongside of the pictures of Hindu gods. Is that the “Jesus” they are to fall in love with? The Jesuit priests have been in Nepal longer than any other foreigners. They have schools and churches and every Hindu in Kathmandu knows that the Catholics claim to be “Christians” and that they preach “Jesus.” How will they know that the Catholic Jesus is a false Jesus unless the evangelist tells them plainly that this is so? Ecumenical evangelists, though, refuse to preach the gospel this plainly.
MASS EVANGELISM IN ASIA
One of our friends is a missionary to the Philippines. He has told me that he despises the use of mass evangelism among the Filipino people because of the common misuse of such methods. When evangelists and missionaries conduct mass evangelistic meetings and invite their hearers to “raise your hand if you want to receive Jesus,” without explaining clearly what it means to receive the Lord Jesus Christ, they are creating great confusion. The Roman Catholic Filipino people are accustomed to “receiving Jesus” repeatedly. They “receive Jesus” in baptism, in confirmation, in the Mass, in the confessional; but they don’t understand the biblical gospel that complete and eternal salvation is provided through confidence in Christ’s once-for-all Atonement.
BORN AGAIN CATHOLICS
A missionary friend who has labored for many decades in Quebec has described to me the changes that have occurred in the Roman Catholic Church in that land. Before the 1970s, he almost never met a Catholic in Quebec who had a Bible or who understood biblical terminology about salvation. These days he does meet such Catholics. When he asks French Canadians if they have been born again or if they have received Christ as their personal Savior, some today reply in the affirmative. Many of these are charismatic Catholics and they will claim that they received Christ as their Savior in some charismatic meeting. A less astute missionary would be deceived by this reply and would assume that these “evangelical Catholics” must truly be saved. Instead, this man wisely pursues the matter, asking, “You mean that before you received Christ in that meeting you were lost and Hell-bound?” The person will quickly reply, “No, it is not like that; I received Christ in my confirmation.” The missionary again asks, “You mean before that, then, you were a lost, Hell-bound sinner?” The individual, somewhat frustrated, will reply, “No, I also received Christ in my baptism when I was an infant.” It becomes evident that though the individual is using biblical terminology, he is still using the Catholic dictionary and is still cleaving to the false sacramental Catholic gospel.
If a preacher avoids controversial doctrines, does not preach repentance and separation, does not sufficiently define gospel terms, and does not plainly contrast the true gospel with false gospels, he can be popular with the rebellious ecumenical crowd. On the other hand, he is a traitor to the truth and to those to whom he is responsible to preach the whole counsel of God.
THE THIRD UNSCRIPTURAL PRESENTATION THAT WE WANT TO MENTION IS THE POSITIVE PRESENTATION, WHICH IS TO FAIL TO LAY A PROPER FOUNDATION OF THE HOLINESS OF GOD AND THE SINFULNESS OF MAN.
The book of Romans was written to present the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ systematically. The love of God is not mentioned until chapter five. The first two and a half chapters lay the foundation for the gospel, presenting the absolute holiness of God and His hatred of sin and the utter moral corruption of the human race. Only when this crucial foundation has been laid does the Holy Spirit explain the gift of God’s salvation in Christ Jesus.
We see this same manner of presentation in the layout of the Bible as a whole. It begins with the law of God and ends with the gospel. The law was given to show man His sin and need for salvation. “Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith” (Galatians 3:24).
To preach the gospel in such a way that the holiness of God and sinfulness of man and God’s hatred of sin is downplayed or ignored and His love is exalted and even misdefined is to pervert the gospel.
THE FOUR SPIRITUAL LAWS
An example of this is the Four Spiritual Laws written by Bill Bright, founder of Campus Crusade for Christ. These “four laws” are supposed to present the gospel. Law number one is “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.”
While it is true that God loves the sinner and Christ died to make it possible for him to be saved, it is not true that God has a wonderful plan for every lost sinner. His plan for lost sinners who reject Jesus Christ is to put them into eternal Hell. That is not very wonderful! Why did the apostle Paul not start with a Campus Crusade-type approach when presenting the gospel in the book of Romans? Why did he not approach the people at Athens in such a manner (Acts 17)? Instead he first explained God’s holiness and judgment to come and commanded them to repent of their idolatry and sin.
Bill Bright admitted that he wrestled with his conscience when he changed the approach to a positive one, and even one of his own daughters at that time told him she felt he was on the wrong track. When Bright first wrote his gospel pamphlet in 1958, it began with man’s sin and separation from God. But when the pamphlet was revised a few of years later, in the early 1960s, he changed this so it would be more positive. In his book Come Help Change the World, he relates this account:
Originally our first law emphasized man’s sin, but the Lord impressed me to emphasize God’s love. This change was made just before we went to press. I had done my final editing and had left Vonette and the girls to finish the typing. As I had been traveling a great deal and it was quite late, I had gone upstairs to bed. In fact, I was in bed just at the point of going to sleep, when suddenly there came clear as a bell to my conscious mind the fact that there was something wrong about starting the Four Laws on the negative note of man’s sinfulness. ... I felt that few people would say ‘No’ to Christ if they truly understood how much He loves them and how great is His concern for them.
So I got out of bed, went to the head of the stairs and called down to Vonette and the girls to revise the presentation so that the first law would be, ‘God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life,’ instead of ‘You are a sinner and separated from God.’ ... Thus the Four Spiritual Laws started with the positive note of God’s love and plan.
Some time later, one of the girls said to me, ‘I was so distressed over your change in the presentation that I wept that night. I was afraid that you were beginning to dilute the gospel and that you were no longer faithful to the Lord, because you placed such a strong emphasis on the love of God rather than on man’s sin. Now in retrospect, I realize of course that this is one of the greatest things that has ever happened to the Campus Crusade ministry’ (Bill Bright, Come Help Change the World, Here’s Life Publishers, 1985, pp. 28,29).
We believe Bill Bright’s staff worker was right when she wept and feared that he had diluted the gospel. He adapted the gospel to the philosophy of the world. He removed much of the reproach of the cross. He created an evangelistic tool that can be used successfully by the entire world of apostate ecumenism. His type of gospel presentation is used by modernistic World Council of Churches-affiliated denominations. It is so generic that it is used even by Roman Catholics. We are convinced that the voice that spoke “clear as a bell” to Bill Bright about changing the approach of the gospel was not the Lord’s.
Three decades later this positive, psychological, man-centered approach has swept through most Christian circles. It is the approach used, for the most part, by the New Evangelicals, by the Charismatics, by the Ecumenists, even by most Fundamentalists. While biblical Fundamentalists eschew Campus Crusade’s worldly, New Evangelical approach to Christianity, all too often the soul winning plan used in Fundamentalist circles is very similar to the Four Spiritual Laws.
We don’t mean to belittle the fact that God loves sinners and we don’t mean to say it is wrong to tell the unsaved of that love. God does love sinners, and that is what the gospel is all about. We praise Him for it. But when approaching the unsaved, the apostles emphasized God’s holiness and His just demands upon a sinful world. They emphasized man’s lost condition and the necessity of repentance. This is the right way to approach the unsaved. It is not very positive and does not fit in with the popular philosophy of the hour, and might not result in as many “decisions,” but it is Bible; it is the pattern that God has given us.
The Bible does not start with God’s love. It starts with God’s holy character and with man’s fall. In fact, the entire first two thirds of the Bible deals with this before it gets to the New Testament presentation of Christ. Who would deny that the Old Testament is largely negative? And why is this? Are we to ignore the fact that God lays a foundation of law for the presentation of the gospel? Evangelists and revivalists of old certainly followed the Bible’s pattern in this. The apostles certainly did. Who are we to change this?
Why the negative approach? Why not just focus on God’s love and on Heaven and let sin take care of itself? The reason is that unsaved man does not understand nor appreciate the love of God until he understands the holiness and justice of God.
When Paul preached the gospel in the book of Romans, he did not even mention the love of God until chapter 5. He began with God’s claims on man, with the law, with man’s wretched condition. God uses the law to create in man the understanding he needs of God and sin in order to get saved. The law is the schoolmaster to bring sinners to Christ (Gal. 3:24).
Many years ago, as a young missionary newly arrived in the country of Nepal, I was invited to preach at an underground evangelistic meeting (gospel preaching was illegal in Nepal at that time) arranged by the national branch of Campus Crusade for Christ. (Though we were independent missionaries and did not work with Campus Crusade, they invited me to speak at that particular meeting, and in my ignorance and naivete I accepted the invitation.) Standing before a group of idolatrous Hindus and Buddhists, I used Romans as my text and went point by point through the gospel just as Paul preached it. (1) God is holy and righteous and hates sin. (2) All men have sinned and are therefore and under God’s righteous judgment. (3) God has provided for man’s salvation through the atonement of His Son the Lord Jesus Christ. (4) This redemption is received as a free gift by faith in the finished work of Christ and by calling upon Him for salvation. The leader of Campus Crusade for Christ in Nepal took me aside after the meeting and told me that my preaching was “too negative.” He instructed me to be positive in my approach and not to make the hearers feel depressed. I rejected his counsel, because the Holy Spirit’s presentation of the gospel in the Bible is different from that of Campus Crusade.
I reject every presentation of the gospel that is positive in its approach and that ignores or slights over God’s law and holiness and sin and repentance.
THE FOURTH UNSCRIPTURAL PRESENTATION THAT WE WANT TO MENTION IS THE NEED-ORIENTED PRESENTATION, WHICH IS TO FAIL TO MAKE A DISTINCTION BETWEEN GENUINE SALVATION AND MERE REFORMATION AND RITUAL.
A fourth way to pervert the presentation of the gospel is to present it merely as a means of solving human needs. The “Christian psychology” movement is often guilty of promoting this because of its need-oriented approach to biblical matters. Individuals approach the counselor with various personal needs--marriage problems, drug or alcohol addictions, loneliness, etc.--expecting help in resolving these issues. The counselor presents a simple and hasty gospel plan, not emphasizing repentance, and then encourages the individual to “receive Christ.”
Too often, I fear, individuals in such a context merely pray a prayer and go through a religious ritual with the goal of receiving God’s help for their day-to-day problems. This is not repentance and faith in a biblical and saving sense. The idolaters at Thessalonica demonstrated true salvation when they “turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God” (1 Thessalonians 1:9). This was the genuine article. These people did not merely want God’s help in a temporal, earthly sense. They were ready to turn from their wicked doings and to make the God of the Bible the Lord of their lives.
There is always the danger of a person showing interest in the Gospel merely to resolve some personal conflict in his life. I saw this many times when I was preaching in a county jail years ago. The men and women who attended the Bible studies had deep problems. They had experienced serious failures in life. They came to our Bible studies and appeared interested in the gospel, but all too often what they are seeking was not a right relationship with Almighty God but a “fix” for their earthly problems. They wanted a 12-step program or a “lucky charm” of some sort that would give them success in life, but they did not want to repent of their wickedness before God and yield their lives to His authority and trust Christ exclusively for salvation.
It is impossible for a diligent soul winner to avoid getting some false conversions and empty professions. The human heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked (Jeremiah 17:9). There will always be those who feign a desire to know Christ, those who want to reform but not to repent. We must carefully avoid, though, unscriptural presentations of the gospel that can multiply this sad problem.