There are things that can be mistaken that have little to no consequence, but conversion is not one of them. You can be mistaken by the color of your socks while getting ready in the morning. You can be mistaken by how well your digestive system can process “authentic” Chinese and Mexican food. You be mistaken by the person you saw across the department store that looks exactly like an old friend but turns out to be a total stranger. We make mistakes all the time, don’t we?
Yet, the greatest mistake carrying the greatest consequence comes down to our (1) understanding of the gospel and (2) knowing how sinners are to respond to the gospel call. The most haunting words in all of the Bible come from the mouth of Jesus near the conclusion of the greatest sermon ever preached. He said this:
21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ 23 And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’” (Matthew 7:21-23)
Does that bother you that many will be surprised in the end who have become familiar with Jesus’ name but were total stranger’s to Jesus’ face? They are people quite versed in Christian lingo, well-absorbed into the Christian sub-culture, exclusively acquainted with outwardly conforming religious influences.
In Jesus’ name.
We have seen contemporary evangelicalism produce everything under the sun in Jesus’ name, and yet we are living in a post-Christian culture. I am convinced that what our society has experienced has not been true Christianity, although there are exceptions. Indeed, I believe it can be argued that our post-Christian culture is really a post-false conversion culture that has rejected the substandard approaches to being followers of Jesus. When conversion is reduced to praying a prayer, walking down an aisle, squeezing my hand, or getting little children to assent to “accept Jesus into their hearts,” you will engender generational nominalism fostered by a truncated gospel that is followed through with unbiblical responses.
We live in interesting times when young men like Matt Chandler have evangelical platforms as a “shepherds to unregenerate sheep” that have been built upon a generation of false conversions. We are consistently hearing of new discipleship methods that are attempting to promote growth only to wear out in a short period of time. Churches are actively engaging in the culture war against postmodernism and the growing divide between the American way and the Christian way as evangelicals seem to play a smaller and smaller role in shaping the world around us.
Two areas most commonly addressed are the lack of Christian ethics and the decline of evangelism. Several years ago, Ron Sider took a note from the playbook of Mark Noll when he wrote The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience: Why Are Christians Living Just Like the Rest of the World? In his book, Sider points out that the statics on domestic abuse, divorce/infidelity, materialism/consumerism, and so on are virtually the same among “Christians” than the rest of the world. The big assumption, however, is that all these people are indeed Christian in the truest sense of the word. They have thus become indistinguishable from the rest of the world. Instead of being “in the world” but “not of the world,” professing Christians have become “of the world” and for the most part not “in the world.”
Aside from ethics, there’s evangelism. Everyone from Barna to LifeWay Research has shown that the overwhelming majority of churches have plateaued or are declining. The call for a “Great Commission Resurgence” in the SBC was first issued by Dr. Thom Rainer upon the results of research revealing that post-Conservative Resurgence churches are no better at reaching the lost than the pre-Conservative Resurgence period led by liberals. Southern Baptists essentially recovered the inerrancy of the Bible but failed to recovered the gospel. Dr. Frank Page has argued that nearly half of the churches in the SBC will likely die in the next 15-20 years if things don’t change.
What’s going on? Are our strategies and methods just not effective? Do we need to just do more “revivals” and get people excited about Jesus? The answer to the ethical question is not found in the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission and Richard Land. The answer is found in the gospel and Jesus Christ. The answer to the evangelism decline is not revivalism and Billy Graham. The answer is found in the gospel and Jesus Christ.
Simply put, the situation we are in today is fundamentally due to our loss of the gospel and failure to understand what constitutes genuine conversion. The problem is not discipleship, evangelism, or morality; the problem is what we have made of conversion. You cannot expect a sinner to pursue holiness if they do not have the Holy Spirit indwelling them. You cannot expect a sinner to be evangelistic if they have not first rightly responded to the evangel. You cannot expect there to be growth where there is no life. And when we point the finger at unconverted people in our pews complaining of a lack of obedience, we are no different than admonishing a dead man for not having picked himself up from his bootstraps.
We can miss biblical conversion in any number of ways. If a person is converted only in the mind, he will substitute repentance and faith with mental assent and assume that the mere acquisition of more knowledge (intellectualism) will guarantee salvation. They will profess, “Lord, Lord” with great profundity for sure. If a person is converted only in the heart, he will substitute repentance and faith with emotional experience (experientialism) and assume that more mountaintop experiences (or rededications) will guarantee salvation (by “nailing it down”). They will profess, “Lord, Lord” with great passion no doubt. If a person is converted only in the will, he will substitute repentance and faith with determination and resolve to do better (legalism) and assume that self-improvement (self-righteousness) brings him acceptance before God. They will profess, “Lord, Lord” with great persistence as you could expect.
Contrary to all this, a truly converted sinner will be transformed by the Spirit of God with a change evidenced by turning from sin (repentance) and turning to God (faith) which encompasses their entire being–mind, heart, and will. In recent years, we have all but taken God out of the equation so that conversion is not the miraculous working of God but a mere decision by man. Now, certainly one has to “decide” and respond in faith and repentance, but if there is not a true understanding of the gospel and a true gracious working of regeneration in the heart of a sinner, then no trick, technique, or trend will be able to accomplish what God has determined Himself to do. Conversion is not merely “our part” or something we contribute in salvation apart from God’s sovereign work of effectually drawing and applying the new covenant promise of transforming our lives from within. Everyone to whom God begins the “good work” will bring it completion (Phil. 1:6), and there should be distinguishing marks of the saving, sanctifying, and persevering grace of God in the converted sinner being daily conformed into the image of Christ.
We are living in a post-Christian culture who has looked at a version of Christian to a large degree comprised of falsely converted people and said, “If that’s what Christianity is about, then what’s the difference? Why would I want that?” They have seen the intellectual Christians (mind only), the mystical Christian (heart only), and the moral Christians (will only), but many not seen the Spirit-ual Christians–those marked, indwelt, and changed by the Spirit of God. Trinitarianly speaking, if you do not have the Spirit you do not have life (John 6:63); if you do not have the Son of God, you do not have the life (1 John 5:11-12); if you do not know the only true God, you do not have eternal life (John 17:3). The converting work of a sinner from death to life is a miracle wrought by our Triune God, graciously opening our eyes to see and our ears to hear and giving us a heart to follow and obey.
If we are to innovative and engaging in a post-Christian world, our first step is to revisit what it means to be–and more specifically how one becomes–a Christian. We do not need another evangelism strategy or to be trendy and talk about sex for 60 straight days. What we need is for the day of programming false conversions and perpetuating false assurances to come to an end. Those words of Jesus need to haunt us until we are awakened to the reality that missing it here means missing it for an eternity. Let us create a culture where we are regularly examining ourselves to see whether we are in the faith (2 Cor. 13:5), working out our salvation with fear and trembling (Phil. 2:12-13), diligent to make our calling and election sure (2 Pet. 1:10). I am persuaded that what we do “in Jesus’ name” will then flow out of who we truly are as a result of Jesus’ transforming grace in lives that marked by repentance and faith.