© Michael Flippo – Fotolia.com
John the Baptist called on people to repent and believe the good news
(Matthew 3:2). Jesus did the same (Matthew 4:17). They were calling for people to make a decision. As Evangelicals we also call people today to make a decision to follow Christ. This is right and good.
However the call to make a decision can sometimes be divorced from the gospel itself. I was at a church meeting recently where the pastor called for people to make a decision for Christ. There is nothing wrong with that in itself. The problem was that he had not explained the gospel at all. Not a word about sin, judgement, Jesus’ death, resurrection, atonement for sin… Just a call to make a decision. A decision divorced from any historical facts and reality about Jesus. I was astounded.
Graeme Goldsworthy writes: “I remember listening to a speaker at an evangelistic meeting whose only mention of the death of Jesus was a passing reference in his closing prayer. I was acting as an advisor to follow up on the after-meeting counselling. I spoke to a young couple who had heard the talk, gone out to the front, been ‘counselled’ and then brought to me. They obviously had not heard any gospel in either the address or the counselling. They had no idea about being justified by faith in the doing and dying of Christ. It seems that the decision can become everything. People are exhorted to turn to Christ, to receive Christ, to ask Jesus into their hearts, and the like, even when they have been given no substantial idea at all of who Jesus was and what he has done to save us.”
Goldsworthy concludes: “The problem is not in the call for a decision. The error of decisionism is to dehistoricize the gospel and to make the decision the saving event.”
Related Post: Don’t Ask Jesus into Your Heart
 G. Goldsworthy, Gospel-Centred Hermeneutics (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP, 2006), 173-174.
 ibid, 174.
This is a point well made. I’d like to take the discussion a little further!
As I was listening to a radio program this morning, there was a section on buying houses at auction. The question of how an expert went about buying at auction was answered as follows: ‘its 90% psychology’. What an interesting thought (and actually quite obvious when you think about it!). The agent is manipulating people for a response using psychology.
It is sad but true that we have had a lot of amateur psychologists in the churches over the last few decades. The church (I’m thinking of the church
in the Western nations) has been is serious decline), but, clever people that
we are, we can solve the problem with our amateur psychology. So these very clever people look at the problems:
Lack of responses from people: so we’ll ask for definite decisions in public.
People don’t feel comfortable in church: so we’ll change a few things to make it easier for them.
Young people are getting fewer and fewer: so we’ll have activities to attract, involve and retain them.
We must have credibility in our community: so we’ll do things that touch a chord with them, and deal with the issues of the moment.As I see it, the church has been characterised by pragmatism and parachurch organisations to address these (and many other issues). This is not to say there is no good to be had in considering these things, but perhaps we (in our pride and arrogance) think we know better than God does how to build His Church.
I read about Moses this morning, and there is a lesson for us here, I think. God brought Moses into a very precarious time in Israel’s history. He was preserved at birth (and taken into Pharaoh’s palace!). He decided to deal with an Egyptians oppression by murdering him. He ran away to a wilderness, where God blessed him (and made him the meekest of men) and met him and sent him back to Egypt. His mission was a very difficult one (which from the start was misunderstood by ALL parties). I would NOT have wanted to be Moses, or had his mission! But all this was about revealing the character of God to Israel and Egypt, through difficulties and repeated ‘failure’ to achieve the expected result.
Without wishing to detract from your previous post about the ‘me-centred’ error of much of our Scripture reading, the lesson for me is that our role as Christians and as a body of believers is to reveal the true God, the God of the Scriptures to those near us. I may be uncomfortable at times, I may be disappointed and ridiculed, but what great excitement and joy there is when God reveals Himself to unbelievers and changes their hearts. That encourages me to go to God in prayer (not pick up the latest amateur psychology book).
Amateur psychology plays with peoples emotions and can temporarily alter their will, but God by the Holy Spirit changes hearts and lives (all sorts, nationalities and ages of people) for ever.
Thanks for the reminder that “I am, who I am” has sent us into our world to make Him known to those who continually say ‘Who is the Lord’?
Thanks for your comments. I certainly agree with you!
It seems to me that there is a key difference here between those who trust in God’s sovereignty in all things (Calvinist) and those who don’t (Arminian). The preaching of the gospel may sound the same, but my Arminian friends will want to push for a decision and the like, and try pragmatic things that seem to work, even if it means bending the rules a bit.
I am so thankful for the good teaching I received early on as a Christian that has grounded me firmly in the Biblical truths about God’s sovereignty. I still exert effort and want people to preach the gospel as clearly as possible and call on people to respond to it. However I can rest assured that God is in complete control of who will turn to him, and when, etc. I can just do my job, and leave the results to him. I don’t have to twist anyone’s arm or bend the rules. I aim at faithfully proclaiming the gospel and the Bible’s message. I rest in God for the rest.
Labels don’t always fit.
I have known a fair few ‘inconsistent Arminians’, and I suspect you do too! Some dear saints who are horrified at the harshness and coldness of what they see in the ‘Calvinists’ they have met along the way. The ‘Arminians’ that I know are some of the most faithful in Christian service and particularly at the prayer meetings. I also know some ‘theoretical Calvinists’ who have all the doctrine off pat, and see no need to bother with prayer meetings.
For me, and I suspect for you, the essential thing is trust in and obedience to God, who speaks to us now as He has always done through His word. We are happy servants when we understand that our trust is in the Saviour who was raised to life after 3 days in the grave. I want THIS Jesus revealed to the hearts of my friends and family, not some figment of imagination or hobby psychology. God is His own witness and interpreter of the Gospel in His word, the Bible, and the Holy Spirit. I have witnessed the beauty and simplicity of God doing this in the most unlikely people, and the joyous change it brings.
May we see more of it in our churches.
Yep, totally agree!
But I will just add that while labels don’t always work, I still like them. I am not a Roman Catholic, so I can wear the label “Protestant”, and when I do, it should tell others what I believe and stand for. I find that a lot better than writing out a book of doctrine each time! It’s a good short-hand.
My point is that a true Calvinist, that is, someone who really believes the gospel, preaches it, and holds to God’s sovereignty, will not push for “decisions” without preaching the gospel.
Thanks for your very helpful comments.
And when the label Christian is used, I want it to reflect the unchanging truths contained in the Bible. When we know what we are by God’s grace, and all that God has brought us into (in spite of ourselves), it fills us (as Peter puts it) ‘with joy unspeakable and full of glory’.
OK, here I am, a new believer, saved by the grace of God, redeemed by the blood of Christ, renewed by the indwelling Holy Spirit. There’s only one thing I know, God has spoken to my heart, I have responded in faith and repented of my sin.
I am oblivious to Calvinism or Arminiism. Indeed, I am totally ignorant of theology of any description, other than I am a Christian (a ‘label’ I learned from the Bible). My theology is initially a blank slate.
So, am I a child of God? YES! Am I any less a child of God due to my ignorance of theology? Of course not! Now, over time I become influenced by the theology I am taught of this or that “ism”.
Have I become any less a child of God? NO! For I am convinced that nothing can separate me from God’s love, not even my own ignorance. Just because a child is ignorant of the procreation process, makes him/her no less a son or daughter of the father.
However, it is true that my ignorance may keep me from appreciating all the provisions of God’s grace. But my standing before God is no less than that of the most scholarly belliever because we all stand before Him only due to His grace extended us in Christ.
We need to be gracious toward believers of differing theological positions. They are our brothers and sisters in Christ. We can disagree with their understanding of the Bible, but we MUST love each other. The cause of Christ requires it.
I very much agree with what you have written Don. I wonder if we are talking at cross-purposes. The problem is ERROR. And such error is dangerous. Does it matter? Yes, it does! I’m sure you would agree with me that calling for someone to become a Christian when you haven’t said a word about God, sin, judgement, Jesus’ death on the cross and resurrection, etc, is really not good?! This stems not just from laziness, or a ‘mistake’, but a different theology. The person who has ‘become a Christian’ through such preaching, probably has not become a Christian at all. Perhaps later they will, and God will use such error to his glory. But the point of my piece here is that people are converted through hearing the gospel, not through being asked to make a decision (especially without the gospel!). Surely you agree?
Yes, Martin. I fully agree that so called decisions made in a vacumn are decisions about nothing.
My comment was a segway concerning dividing over theology. A true believer in Christ is a believer, is a believer, is a believer. True, he may be in error over his understanding of the Bible and I would welcome the opportunity this presents for teaching.
My concern is the tendency to build barriers by using labels that are not biblical, ie. Calvinist/Armenian. I appreciate that labels are a convenient shorthand, but I think we need to be circumspect concerning the context in which we use them.
Another aspect of this discussion could be the fact that we can sometimes hide behind a label without being faithful to what that label actually means. Calvinism is popularly understood to be about those who believe in the sovereignty of God. Others (and I count myself in this particular number) believe that Calvinism is nothing more and nothing less than Biblical Christianity. That means of course that we faithfully believe and teach the whole counsel of God, and not a few selected doctrines.
Why do I say we can sometimes hide behind a label? Well, whilst the emphasis might be upon God’s sovereignty, we ignore aspects of the Bible that we know our own community takes particular exception to (and this is true also of sovereignty, I know). When was the last time you heard a proper treatment of the wrath of God from a pulpit? I can imagine some people shrinking away from this as they read it! Here are some useful words by Jim Packer:
Calvinism, properly understood, is Biblical Christianity, and it is a very large subject, and it affects every area of our lives. And if we have any appreciation, knowledge and understanding of this, then our
responsibility to teach it all lovingly, faithfully, boldly and humbly is very great indeed.