When I was a kid my parents loved to watch Billy Graham crusades on TV. Billy would faithfully present the gosple, call people to give their lives to Christ and almost immediatly hundreds, if not thousands came forward and ”got saved.” Or did they? For the record, Billy Graham was the gold standard for ministry integrity and biblical faithfulness. He clearly had the spiritual gift of evangelism and I have personally met dozens of people who came to faith through his ministry.
But for almost five years in the late 80’s I was the president of The John Guest Evangelistic Team. John too, was gifted and we conducted evangelistic meetings in major cities all over the U.S. So I believe in the mass proclamation of the gospel. However I also know first hand the journey to faith for most people, maybe even the majority of people who appear to “get saved” at an evangelistic meeting, is a bit more complex. The spiritual journey to faith generally has these elements, or stages, although they may not always happen in this order;
1. By a sermon, a series of sermons, the testimony of another, reading of scripture, or a life well lived by a parent, or grandparent, we come to believe certain basic information about Jesus to be true – that he loves us in spite of our sin, that he was the Son of God, died for us on the cross, rose from the dead and lives today and wants to forgive us from our sins and have an eternity long love relationship with us. The basic gospel.
2. We begin to have a deeper understanding of how sinful we are and what those choices have done to God, to us and others and we’re out of answers as to what to do about it ourselves, so in desperation we ask Jesus to forgive us and change us and take control of our lives.
3. We respond by beginning to take childlike steps of obedience – we stop doing some of the things we know are wrong and begin trying to imitate, or be like Jesus. We begin this journey of having a relationship with Christ - learning, failing and succeeding, but generally moving forward.
4. At some point in this process, perhaps even before #1, if you’re a Calvinist, God declares us righteous, because of what Jesus has done. The Holy Spirit creates a new spirit within us, the “old man”, our sinful rebellious spirit dies and we are truly born again.
The longer stage #3 is lived out, the more confidence one can be that #4 actually happened. If we “fall away”, that is lose our love for Jesus and the desire to live for him, and obey God, then we will always doubt our salvation, which we may have good reason to do. In fact, it may well be that we do not yet truly believe and stage #4 will not happen until we demonstrate our faith, in stage #3 ways.
While it’s clear that we must make these critical decisions somewhere along the way, it is usually unclear exactly when we are born again. It may feel like we did at some evangelistic meeting, retreat, or event. But perhaps that’s only where our journey “to Jesus” rather than “with Christ in us” began. This we do believe – ultimately it is God choice when to grant salvation, not man’s. We might like to think that we made “our decision” at an evangelistic meeting or summer camp which gave us great joy and temporarily increased devotion to God and that may, or may not have been the true moment of our salvation.
It may also have been that stages #1, #2 and #3, happened almost simultaneously, but God is waiting to see if we truly demonstrate, or live out our faith, especially when it get difficult and costly, before he declares us righteous. While we know the Father, Jesus and the Holy Spirit, all join together to make salvation possible, the truth is, it is a mystery exactly in what sequence this happens.
Therefore, when we host an evangelistic meeting, I believe we should never declare, “Today you can settle this issue forever and know that you have salvation.” I believe that gives people who respond a false sense of security. Better to say, “Today you can begin a spiritual journey toward God by… ” then describe the basic elements of beginning the journey and offer to journey along with them. Call people to a spiritual journey and do not do, what only God can – declare them righteous, born again and his children, perhaps prematurely.
Next week I’ll describe the 30 Day Challenge I prefer to use to introduce people to the gospel And the journey.
Well, what do you think?