Dec 1, 2010

Don't just get people "saved"...give them the gospel

Ok.  Time to get something off my chest.  The longer I am in ministry and the more I look at the state of the church in America, the more concerned I am about some of the tactics and methods we use to help people understand salvation and what it means.  I believe that there are several well-intentioned, but sometimes misleading things that we do in churches today that actually go against helping people to find a true personal relationship with Jesus Christ. 

Let me illustrate first from personal experience.  I have been a "Christian" (I prefer to say a disciple of Jesus) for about 20+ years.  However, I have been a Baptist for 42 years.  I spent my Sundays as a child growing up in an SBC church - attending Sunday School and VBS, going to "big worship", and hearing all the Bible stories.  My church heritage laid a spiritual foundation for me at an early age.  As a child, I deeply believed there was a God.  Not only that, I knew that he had "a wonderful plan for my life."  I knew that Jesus died on the cross to forgive me of my sin.  However, like most children, my young age prevented me from really understanding the true implications of the gospel facts that my church gave me.  I did know enough though to know that I wasn't the kind of person that God wanted me to be.  I knew that I did things that displeased him and I was ashamed of them. 

In seventh grade, an FCA group came to my school for an assembly.  They asked us to come back that night for a big gathering in the gym.  What 7th grader doesn't want to go hang out with friends and hear ex-jocks tell their stories?  Besides, I think there was free pizza. (isn't there always?  I don't think most churches can share the gospel with students without pizza.)  I heard athletes share about how they lived their lives in drugs and sports.  I heard them share about how they trusted Jesus to forgive them of their sins.  I heard them tell us that if we didn't trust Jesus as our Savior that we would spend eternity in hell.  (I knew I didn't want that.  My dad often referenced hell, but I don't think he understood it biblically either.)  Then some guy gave an altar call.  I watched as dozens of kids came down out of the gym bleachers to get "saved".  My friend Darren who was next to me said "Do you want to go down?" (Darren wasn't a Christian.  He was just a guy with a mullet who liked heavy metal music like me.)  I said "Yeah, do you."  We both went down and had some guy on a stage say "If you want to get saved, pray this prayer."  We did.  Then we were given some cards to fill out.  That was pretty much it.  The only problem was, nothing really changed.  I still liked heavy metal music, thought cursing was cool, and was tempted to look at dirty pictures of women.  However, I was "saved". 

Several years later, I was at a student night revival at my church.  I was a junior in high school.  I just had 5 pieces of pepperoni pizza (see, gospel and pizza).  I heard the revival speaker tell stories about kids who went out and got drunk and died and were spending eternity in hell.  He talked about how Jesus wanted me to get saved.  I knew that I was in need of something.  When the invitation was given, I went forward.  I was sent to a room with a counselor who shared the gospel with me and prayed with me.  However the doubts about my salvation remained for two more years until I fully surrendered to Christ at age 20.

The point of my story is that I wasn't ignorant about my need to get "saved".  I knew that Jesus died on the cross and that he rose again.  I knew he loved me.  Some would say I had a head knowledge of Christ, but not a heart knowledge.  I don't think that was the case.  I did want to love God.  I loved what I knew of him.  I meant it when I sang the youth choir songs.  What was missing was a continual planting in me of the gospel. 

Let me clarify a couple of things:  1.) I believe that everyone along my spiritual journey (SS teachers, youth ministers, evangelists) genuinely wanted me to know about the love of God and Christ's sacrifice on my behalf.  2.) I know that my capacity to have a saving knowledge of Christ, implications of my sin, etc. was limited along my journey by my age and personal knowledge and experience of sin.  3.) I don't think that someone must have a complete understanding about all the gospel facts in order to experience real salvation.  Jesus himself said we must come like little children.  Romans 10 says that what is needed is confession of Jesus as Lord and belief in his resurrection. 

Here's the point of all this.  I want to plead with my brothers in ministry to hold true to the gospel.  Sometimes in the simplicity of the gospel, we try to make it too simple.  In ministry we often judge success by spiritual identification and not spiritual transformation.  So, we give stories about hell, give powerful pleas to "accept Christ", get people down the aisle and into the baptistery, and consider ourselves success.  We use the scorecards of church attendance and baptisms instead of saved marriages and changed lives.  We need to help people see that they need the gospel as much to be saved as they do to become saved.  We need to remember our end goal is not getting people down the aisle.  We need to remember as Dallas Willard says that "our end goal is not to get people into Heaven, but to get Heaven into people."  This week, I had the privilege to talk with a 48-year old guy who is trusting the gospel for the first time.  He's been "saved" and "rededicated" several times.  He knew many facts about the gospel.  He just didn't know the gospel.  I explained that following Jesus meant the death of him.  I explained that in order to follow Jesus he had to give up everything he was for everything Christ is.  His eyes lit up.  For the first time, he was experiencing the gospel.  He went from spiritual jargon to spiritual reality.  It was a beautiful site.  The sad thing is that 28 years ago, this guy walked an aisle.  He was probably very emotional.  He was told how to be saved.  He prayed the prayer.  He was baptized.  However, by his own words he admitted that nothing changed.  He said it felt like the door was shut on him.  Frustrated, he decided that since heaven was secure then God wanted him to just do his own thing.  He lived 28 years with just enough facts about the gospel to reserve an eternity in hell.  I do not fault him.  I don't know who to fault.  I fault a system that takes a simple, yet beautiful message and boils it down to a simplistic jargon and recitation of facts.  We must do better. 

Brothers.  If we are going to get people saved, let's make sure that we make the gospel; it's facts and implications, the starting point.  Let's not be afraid to take some time and carefully explain it.  Let's be more afraid of false conversions than gospel rejection.  Let's not measure success by getting them down the aisle and instead measure it by their progression towards Christlikeness.  And, let's make sure that we understand and preach the gospel as larger than "getting saved." 


Larry said...

Brother Matt,

I'll have to admit I am in that state. I too, have been down the aisle, done the ritual, so to speak, but having read the way you spell it out here, I can't say with certainty, I am saved. in fact, I understand now why the Word teaches that only those who walk the narrow path will enter. I believe there are lots more of ME out there and even in our congregation who are going to be doomed to being shut out of life eternal with God.

Matt Haines said...


Thank you for your transparency. The purpose of my post isn't so much to cause doubt on people for their salvation as much as expose pastors and leaders that we must work to make the gospel central and not just get people down an aisle. That is difficult to do because we measure so much by how many people walk an aisle and get baptized.

I hope that telling my story doesn't confuse you or anyone else about your personal salvation. I do not want to necessarily cause doubts. What I hope is that we understand that salvation is more about what God is doing in you everyday to make you into the image of his Son than some one-time transaction that we did years ago. If you feel conviction and the need for repentance when you sin, that is a good sign of the presence of the Holy Spirit. Walking the narrow path is not the entrance into heaven, it's the proof that we are on the right road. I would love to talk with you more about this if you are having doubts.

Larry said...

Brother Matt,

These comments stem from a long marriage to my first wife who was a member of the Church of Christ. I became a member as to be able to raise our children in the same belief system. Little did I know, I was becoming more and more distraught and actually angry over how I was told Lord's Day after Lord's Day how I was lost and how I was going to hell. I grew up in the Baptist Christian faith and I knew what they were trying to fill into my head was what they truly believed was the Gospel, but deep down, it was destroying me as a Christian. i knew I wasn't supposed to feel as if we were the "chosen ones" going to heaven. Anyway, without boring you to tears, I feel I am back on the right track as far as my faith goes. I know I use the excuses you outline in your sermons to justify some of my actions as far as forsaking the assembly. i do work odd hours, but I caught myself at times staying up or getting up early for a function that was not for His Glory, so I have done much better on that point. I guess when I read about the man in your blog, it hit home that I don't do enough and I certainly don't do it for HIS GLORY.