The great news of the Gospel is that we have a God in Christ who supernaturally saves sinners. One of the clearest pictures of the relationship between the preacher’s responsibilities in evangelizing and God’s bringing sinners to new life can be seen in the vision of the prophet Ezekiel in the Old Testament.
In Ezekiel’s vison, he stares out across a lifeless valley of dead, dry bones. These skeletons had no hope of putting themselves back together. They had no hope of recreating a new heart within their decaying chest cavity. Furthermore, these bones had no desire for life. They could not decide that they wanted to life and give themselves breath because they were dead. As Ezekiel gazed out at this valley of dead bones, the Lord asked him a question.
“And he said to me, “Son of man, can these bones live?” And I answered, “O Lord God, you know.” Ezekiel 37:3.
God asked Ezekiel how it could come to pass for the dead bones to have life in them. Ezekiel did not pretend to have the answers. Ezekiel was smart enough to realize that he could not pull off the supernatural. His only response to God was, “Only you know God.” For there is nothing man can do to bring that which is dead to new life. God’s question to Ezekiel is followed by a startling command to the prophet.
“Then he said to me, “Prophesy over these bones, and say to them, O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: Behold, I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. And I will lay sinews upon you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live, and you shall know that I am the Lord.” Ezekiel 37:4-6.
God told Ezekiel to prophesy or speak the word of the Lord over these dead bones. This is the only job given to the prophet. From there, through the spoken word of the Lord, God pulls off the supernatural. The Lord covers the once dead bones with skin and gives them new life. Again, the bones did not pray a prayer, and then God respond to their prayer. God alone was the catalyst to this new life.
The vision of Ezekiel was not randomly placed in the pages of scripture. As Jesus himself said after His resurrection of the writings of the Old Testament prophets;
“These are the words I spoke to you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about Me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms.” Luke 24:44.
Everything in the Old Testament points to Christ. Everything in the writings of the prophets, the Psalms, and the books of Moses are God telling us something about Himself. In the vision portion of Ezekiel, God is giving us a glimpse of the spiritually dead state of sinful man and the supernatural nature of salvation that only God can bring.
Ezekiel plays the part of the Christian evangelist. He has no secret formula to restore life to the dead. He has no reliance on anything in himself to give these bones hope. His only reliance is on the Lord as he proclaims the word.
God’s supernatural work in salvation as well as the minister’s total reliance on the Spirit have been historically acknowledged throughout the ages. However, as the centuries progressed, man began to think that he needed to help God out in this supernatural work of salvation and employ methods that never existed Biblically or historically before the 20th century.
Prior to the 20th century, evangelist were ecstatic if only 10 percent of people who came forward for prayer were actually saved at the alter. However, in many churches today, everyone who comes forward after a sermon and repeats a form of salvation prayer is told by the minister that they are now born again Christians. Either we have improved the Gospel over time, or our methods of evangelism are producing a staggering number of still births.
Here is a modern day snap shot example of how many churches have come to view the salvation process.
Step one; a sermon is given followed by a time of response. The listener is told to stay in their seat and raise a hand or perhaps come forward if they would like to be saved.
Step two; once the person has either raised a hand or come forward to the alter, a salvation prayer is repeated. Many ministers believe that if only a person prayers this salvation prayer once in their life, then they will go to Heaven upon their death regardless of how they live their earthly lives. This widely used two step process of evangelism gives the person coming forward a false idea of what salvation is, and it gives the minister undue bragging rights he and God saved another one.
Barna Christian Research recently reported that 84-97 % of professing Christians in the United States eventually fall completely away from their faith. They have a form of Godliness, professing to be saved due to once praying the salvation prayer, and they live a life apart from God. They deny that salvation is fully a supernatural work of God and claim that they are saved due to what they did at the end of a service.
“But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty. For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, 5having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. Avoid such people.” 2 Timothy 3:1-5.
There is nothing wrong with an alter call that is done with reverence to the Lord. Charles Finney is such an example. Finney would ask seekers to come down after the service to a designated room where they could receive council and guidance on how one could attain salvation in the Lord. Granted, Finney never used the sinners prayer tactic nor told anyone that they were saved due to their profession of faith. Finney knew only God could see the true intentions and the heart of man. This is why Finney is called the father of the alter call.
Finny once said, “Never tell as sinner anything, or direct him to do anything that will stop him short of absolute submission to God. Suppose you tell an unbeliever to pray a prayer or teach him anything less than God’s absolute hand in saving repentance, and then that night he falls and breaks his neck. Whom will God blame when the man stands unjustified before God because he trusted in a prayer rather than in Christ? It makes the hearts of the faithful bleed to see how many people delude the hearts of anxious sinners.”
The perversion of the sinners prayer came onto the scene for the first time ever in the early to mid 1900’s beginning with an evangelist named Billy Sunday. Sunday was an American athlete who, after being a popular outfielder in baseball’s National League during the 1880s, was converted to Christianity and became a full time evangelist.
Billy Sunday became frustrated with the alter call methods of ministers who had long come before him. Sunday was once quoted as saying, “Some people do not think that they can be converted unless they go down on their knees in the straw at a camp revival meeting or unless they labor in prayer all hours of the night. What I want to preach is that a man can be converted without all of that fuss.” Due to this, Billy Sunday would plead for sinners to come forward, pray a prayer, and then shake his hand as a seal of their new found commitment to God. Sunday would then declare that person to be saved right then and there with no further questions asked. After Billy Sunday, this quick and easy method of evangelism became extremely popular.
“And they said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” Acts 16:31.
Ministers such as Billy Sunday would incorrectly use a verse like this to justify their sinners prayer type evangelism. They would wrongly claim that the verse states that all that is required is mere cognitive belief that there is a God. But as evangelist R.A. Torrey rightly said, “Saving faith is believing God, not just believing in God.”
Believing God involves a revelation of God that can only come through the direct influence of the Holy Spirit. Just believing in facts about God or treating salvation like a flu shot via praying a one time sinners prayer is not saving faith.
“The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.” 1 Corinthians 2:14.
This is why ministers before Billy Sunday never presumed to tell people they were saved based on anything they had done. Sunday preferred to never leave a person with a doubt in their mind that they were saved. In essence, Sunday’s evangelism eliminated the wrestling with the Spirit, and the professing Christians need for constant personal examination of the soul as the apostle Paul called for in 2 Corinthians 13:5. If they ever found themselves doubting their salvation due to a love of sin in their lives, they were told to recall the moment they prayed the sinners prayer and look to their past actions for assurance of salvation.
Starting with Billy Sunday, ministers began to feel pressured to take grievous short cuts in their evangelism to assure and boast of higher numbers of converts. Conversion to Christ began to be seen as being as easily attained as buying an item at a local mall. The term “Sunday Conversion” caught on during this time and eliminated the Biblical exhortation of Christ for the sinner to count the high costs that accompanied true salvation such as turning from sin and facing worldly persecution.
“Sunday Conversion” could be easily attained by anyone willing to come forward and shake his hand. This was a radical departure from what the Bible says regarding true salvation. Throughout history, ministers and preachers of God’s Word have taught the necessity of regeneration.
Regeneration is the supernatural process in which God causes the sinner to actually begin to hate the sins that he once loved and love the righteousness of God that he once hated. 2 Corinthians 5:17 describes this as become a totally new creation. Regeneration does not mean that the persons is now sinless, because as long as we have flesh we will fail. It does however mean that it is impossible given the new nature for that person to walk in a continual, deliberate, practice of sin.
Before the 20th century, believers fully taught that salvation was a mysterious event orchestrated only by a sovereign God. The pre 20th century method of salvation lined up with the Bible. All evangelicals, including Jonathan Edwards, George Whitfield, and John Wesley taught the born again experience as being definite, complete, and accompanied by identifiable marks in the persons life.
As Whitfield said, “The new creation is not a mere metaphor. It is as self evident as a tasteless pallet suddenly brought to life at a sumptuous feast. Everyone who has the least concern for his immortal soul should never cease striving after the Lord until he has experienced a real saving inward change wrought in his heart, and therefore knows of the truth, that he dwells in Christ and Christ dwells in him.”
From the teachings of Christ, the Apostle Paul, and throughout the ages preceding the 19th Century, evangelicals taught that salvation was accompanied by a born again experience. This experience being that the Holy Sprit had actually entered into a person, and the proof of that was that their life and desires began to conform to the will of God. The Spirit of God is seen in how they now live out their lives as God’s new creation. When a person is truly saved, God’s Holy Spirit inhabits their soul and literally begins to change their nature from the inside out.
“Do you not know that he who unites himself with a prostitute is one with her in body? For it is said, “The two will become one flesh.” But whoever is united with the Lord is one with him in spirit.” 1 Corinthians 6:16-17.
Johnathan Edwards once remarked that a love and pursuit of holiness and happiness in God’s righteousness were new attributes of the former sinner once they have been saved because God now dwells in them. Edwards identified five different stages in which God prepares the heart of person who will come to know Christ.
The first stage is the awareness within that person that he or she is eternally lost. For this to take place, this person much acknowledge that they are a sinner, and because of that God owes them nothing but His wrath and separation from God in Hell.
The second stage is when the seeker tries in his own power to stop sinning and to remove his guilt anyway he can.
The third stage is when the seeker comes to realize that only God can save him from sin. And only God can give new desires, turning a heart of stone into a heart of flesh.
The forth stage is when the seeker begins to see themselves as rightly deserving sinners in light of the Holiness of God. They see the reality that we have broken all of God’s laws, and that God would still be just and right if we were to never be saved. He knows that God doesn’t have to save him, and he is at the mercy of God.
The fifth stage is when the seeker begins to have religious affections for God. He no longer sees the law of God as a burden, but rather as King David said, as honey on the lips. There is now a deep appreciate for the atoning work of Christ on the cross, dying in our place and for our sins.
It was not the practice, as it seems to be in our day and age, of the early ministers to tell people that they were now saved based on a confession they made or prayer they prayed. It wasn’t that they didn’t believe God could save, but rather they did not presume to know that which only God can know. They didn’t know who was truly repentant in their hearts and who had merely experienced an emotional moment and made a false profession that weeks later, they would abandon.
John Wesley knew more than any other evangelist the deceitfulness of the human heart. He served as a priest and missionary to the indians all the while knowing that he was not truly saved. After twenty three years of seeking God and striving to come to grips with his own sinfulness, he was finally born again.
Wesley said, “Saving faith is the gift of God. He can as easily give this faith in a moment as in a thousand years. We know not why he bestows this on some even before they ask for it, and on some after they have sought it for a few days. And permits other believers to struggle with it for many years.”
Modern seeker sensitive theology teaches predominantly that salvation is as easy as praying a prayer and signing your name to the back of a card. But most people go through a struggle of faith and self examination when God truly begins to change their heart. The prophet Isaiah was a righteous man and believed in God. But it wasn’t until Isaiah saw himself as a sinner in light of the Holiness of God that he fell to his knees in true repentance (Isaiah 6). Jacob literally wrestled with God (Genesis 32). And Job in like manner was a righteous man. It wasn’t until Job saw the Lord through affliction that he could say at the end of the book;
“I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you;” Job 42:5.
Most people experience a struggle of faith and a soul seeking examination of self prior to God saving them. Franklin Graham is a great example of this. When he was eight years old he made a decision for Christ and was told he was saved. But according to Graham, it was not until he was 22 that he was truly born again.
Before the Billy Sunday’s of the world changed the salvation paradigm, people know that making a mere decision for Christ was not the same as being born again. This struggle of faith began when seekers became concerned for the welfare of their souls, and ended when they knew without a doubt due to the extreme change God had wrought within their hearts, that they were born again.
John Calvin’s struggle of faith lasted twelve years. George Foxes struggle of faith lasted 12 years as well. John Wesley’s struggle of faith lasted 23 years. John Whitfield’s struggle of faith lasted 1o years. Jonathan Edwards struggle of faith lasted 5 years. David Brainard’s struggle of faith lasted 9 years. John Newton’s struggle of faith lasted 6 years, and Charles Spurgeon’s struggle of faith last 4 years.
Charles Spurgeon gave an example of someone who merely wanted salvation and a person who had genuinely experienced salvation. Spurgeon said, “For years as a child I tried to learn the ways of salvation. And either I did not hear it set forth, which I believe could not have been the case, or else I was spiritually blind and deaf and could not see it and could not hear it. Had I read my Bible? Yes, and read it earnestly! Had I never been taught by Christian people? Yes I had, by my mother and father and others. Had I not heard the Gospel? Yes I think I had. Yet somehow it was like a new revelation to me!”
Edwards, Whitfield, Spurgeon and most all evangelist before the 20th century taught that true saving faith was supernatural. Just agreeing to some facts and walking through a man made process is not salvation. Edwards once said, “Those who aren’t saved think it disastrous to enter into a period of self examination since their faith is based solely on hope. If a person has nothing but hope to prove he’s saved, then to question that hope would ruin his entire position. Those who insist on a person living by faith when they have no experience of struggle are very absurd in their notions of faith. What they mean by faith is believing that they are in good estate. Hence they count it a dreadful sin to doubt of their state, whatever frames that they are in. If this be faith, the Pharisees who committed the unpardonable sin against the Holy Spirit would have to be seen as having an extraordinary faith.”
“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Hebrews 11:1.
Theologians historical have known that faith is not the same as hope. Faith comes by and through the Holy Spirit. This is especially true for the faith that is necessary for regeneration.
“For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not of yourselves, but the gift of God. Not by works, so that no man may boast.” Ephesians 2:8-9.
Saving faith is a gift from God. We are totally dependent upon Him for the born again experience. We cannot do anything to earn this gift, or decide to give it to ourselves, for that would lead to boasting. As Jonah 2:9 states, “Salvation is of the Lord.”
Oswald Chambers made a clear distinction between the Billy Sunday type of convert and those who had been truly born again. Chambers said, “When a man fails in personal Christian experience, it is nearly always that he never really received anything. However, when a man is born again, he knows it because he has received something as a gift from almighty God and not because of his own decision.”
“children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.” John 1:13.
In the 1930’s, Dawson Troughtman started a group called The Navigators to combat the Billy Sunday type of evangelism. He taught his Navigators, “You can lead a man to Christ in a couple of minutes to a couple of hours, but it takes 20 hours to a couple of years to follow him up.” In essence, Troughtman was saying that true salvation is seen over a lifetime of little by little conformity to Christlikeness.
Christ can save in an instant. But the proof is seen in the life that follows, not in the prayer that was prayed or card that was signed. I am by no means saying that a person who was led to salvation by the means of a sinners prayer is not saved. However, it that be the case, God saved you in spite of the methods used, not because of them.
This Billy Sunday type of evangelism that is still very popular in our world today is called decisionism. And it is idolatry because it exalts the tactics of man above the work of God. It is to place the decision of the believer as the catalyst of salvation, and minimize the supernatural work of God in bringing a spiritually dead soul to new life. Decisionism gives partial bragging rights to the preacher in saving sinners, and it gives opportunity for partial boast from the one who had received salvation, because they can say they were saved due to the decision that they made.
Jesus said only two things were required for salvation. Repentance and belief (Mark 1:15). Christ never utilized a sinners prayer. Rather, He called for a life change as proof of salvation. Decisionalistic evangelism does not stress the need for repentance and reliance upon God, but rather rushes seekers through a few man made hoops in hopes of seeing quick and struggle free conversions that require little to nothing from the convert.
Again, the Lord can save a man instantaneously. The struggle of faith comes not from the Lord’s salvation, but in the truly regenerate man’s process of sanctification that follows. Paul never said “Say a one time prayer and then just rest in your salvation and enjoy your earthly desires. Rather Paul said to struggle, to search, and to work out this salvation through constant examination of self through the lenses of the Word. We rejoice in our salvation, but we never get lazy in our pursuit of righteousness. The pursuit of the Holiness of God becomes our new life long quest.
“Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling,” Philippians 2:12.
However, it is not for a man to tell another man that he is saved based on a moments decision that was made. God is the only one that tells a man that he is saved based on the change in their hearts, and that pursuit of Holiness that follows the many years afterward. We would do well to learn about true salvation from the scriptures as well as hundreds of years of church history that followed.
“Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless indeed you fail to meet the test!” 2 Corinthians 13:5.