I have been going through my journals and reflecting on the things that took place whilst I was on Logos Hope and later in the Philippines. This was when my eyes were opened to the dangers of ‘Easy Believism’ or ‘Decisionism.’ These titles are attributed to methods of conversion which encourage an instant, on the spot decision in order to become a Christian. They usually use forms of commitment like an ‘Altar call’ and ‘The Sinner’s Prayer’ in order to lead someone to ‘accept Christ.’ They are not always a bad thing but we need to be aware of the dangers.
Thinking back, I realise that these methods were around when I was a teenager. I would often re-commit my life to God during an emotional moment at a worship service or large Christian event. I did this every time I fell into sin, promising God that this time I would really change my life and make a new start. But this only lasted until the next sin and recommitment at the next event. What was this? It was a failure to understand that Jesus’ death had already paid the price for my sin; past, present and future. It was a belief that somehow if I had had a ‘good’ day and my good behaviour outweighed my bad, God was more pleased with me and that therefore I was more acceptable to Him. The root of this is a subtle belief in salvation by works or good deeds. If I live a good enough life, I will be saved. But if I don't I need to keep starting the Christian life again in order to reset the balance to zero. I had no assurance of salvation.
There is a tendency for us all to think like this. It's human nature to want to do something to earn our place with God. But the reality is that we can never do enough good things to get right with God. All of the things that we consider righteous God sees as filthy rags. That’s why Jesus had to die. He was the perfect sacrifice for our sin and His gift is free. My frequent re-commitments were the result of a lack of depth in my Christian understanding and a lack of understanding of God. The right response would have been to confess my sin every time I messed up and seek not to repeat the sin (repentance.) This, not for fear of losing my faith and being condemned to hell, but out of thankfulness to God for sending Jesus, knowing that I could not measure up without Him.
Responding to ‘Altar calls’ and frequent recitations of the ‘Sinner’s prayer’ acted as a method of getting right with God for me but they didn’t change my behaviour or my heart. I hear many stories of teens, and even older people, that go through this process, especially those who have been brought up in the church. They are sometimes responding to an awareness of God ingrained in them from a young age. It can be hard for them to separate their own beliefs from those of their parents or other adults in the church. They may not yet be truly born again.
Maybe you are thinking, so far so good; that it will take time for a person to mature in the faith and to find their feet spiritually. Maybe you're thinking that ‘Altar calls’ and the ‘Sinner’s prayer’ can be part of this process, reminding people and convicting them of their sin and the need to get right with God. Certainly this can be the case, which is why I hesitate to dismiss them completely. I know people that are clearly saved that trace their moment of new birth back to a decision made at a rally or church where these methods are frequently used. There is no doubt that an ‘Altar call’ can be used to prompt someone to make a decision that they have been hesitant to make, that it can cause them to take their commitment more seriously as they are making it public by walking to the front. The ‘Sinner’s prayer’ could be offered to someone as a guide for how they could pray to become a Christian. But why do that when we already have Jesus’ example in the Lord’s Prayer? Surely that is more significant. Why give someone words at all when God is examining the heart?
Now let’s look at the dangers. Statistics in the West show that 83% of Americans and 53% of Brits still describe themselves as Christians (despite only 10% of Brits attending church.) We can explain those statistics in terms of culture; I was born in England/America therefore I’m a Christian. But an incredible 27% of Americans actually identify as Evangelical. The numbers are lower in Britain but it’s still larger than you might think. But how many of these are actually following Christ? How many counted the cost and gave up everything to follow Him, having turned their back on their past life? How many are really trusting in Jesus’ death and resurrection for their salvation?
The Bible tells us that the way to hell is broad and many are on that road. But the way to heaven is narrow and there are few who will find it. It tells us that the Christian life is hard and that when we decide to follow Jesus we will face trials, persecution and struggle as we fight spiritual battles and encounter the results of the curse of original sin. How many are really experiencing this in their day to day lives? Are we telling people to expect this when we lead them to Jesus so that they are properly prepared for the Christian life? Maybe you think that’s too gloomy, but is it really fair to give a one-sided picture of what following Jesus is all about? We should obviously highlight the hope, joy and peace that are found in Jesus but what about the other things that the Bible says?
‘Easy Believism’ and ‘Decisionism’ are likely responsible for those earlier statistics. There are millions of people who believe they are Christians and are heading for heaven because they signed a card, put their hand up in a meeting, said the ‘Sinner’s prayer’ with someone, or answered an ‘Altar call.’ They were probably prayed for and sent on their way in most cases never to be heard from again and with no resultant change in their life or behaviour. Some people have done all of these things and yet are still not saved. What is going wrong?
The main problem I have witnessed is the lack of follow up by churches and those that are using these methods. They proudly announce that 17 people ‘accepted Christ’ in a meeting and then move on to preparing for the next meeting with little concern about those people that they have apparently just helped to the start of the Christian journey. There is no checking a person’s understanding and little discipleship. We don’t want to embarrass someone or make them uncomfortable by asking clarification questions so we settle for a superficial understanding. We even tell them what to say to God or sometimes say it for them by using the ‘Sinner’s prayer.’ Not all churches and ministries are like this and many have good follow up programmes but there are a lot that don’t. The emphasis has become so much on soul counting and in some tragic cases competing with other churches for numbers or an over-emphasis on church growth that the individual is lost in the confusion. They have become part of another statistic of people who have been given a false assurance that they are going to heaven. That is the greatest danger.
How do we know that this is happening? I have witnessed it particularly in Asia where in some places a foreigner is seen almost as royalty. Asian culture dictates that you must agree with everything that is said to you to avoid conflict due to the potential shame. No wonder there are overstated and inaccurate conversion rates. But ask some of these people even basic questions about the Christian faith; What do they believe about Jesus? What did Jesus do for them? Who is Jesus? And they don’t know! The person who has just walked away happily adding that ‘new covert’s’ soul to their piece of paper has done serious damage to this person by telling them they are now a Christian. They have no idea what it means to be a Christian or where they can go to find out. They have been led astray. Sadly, I saw this happen far too many times in Asia and mostly it was done by Pastors and church leaders who had obviously been taught this themselves. When I asked what they had been talking to the person about I would receive a casual ‘Oh they just accepted Christ.’ This was even in reference to multiple persons, as if this was an everyday event. There was no joy or excitement or interest in the person as an individual. It was a duty well performed and then they turned their attention back to their Smartphone. This is happening everywhere.
So what should we do? We all know it’s easy to criticise. But how can we make sure that we don’t give people false assurance and that those who profess Christianity are truly following Jesus? Of course we need to examine the Bible. We need to look at God’s methods and not our own. What happened when God had already prepared someone’s heart in the Bible? They cried out ‘What must I do to be saved?’ These people were ready; they knew that they were sinners before a Holy God and that they couldn’t rest until they found peace with Him. What was the answer to their question? It was simply “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved” (Acts 16 vs 31). And again in Romans 10 vs 9 the clear answer is, “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved.”
They were not told to recite a special prayer or sign a card or anything else. They were told to confess and believe. It was primarily a matter of the heart. If someone is ready, we can tell them that they need to get right with God by themselves through prayer. We can help them understand how to talk to God if they have never prayed before and we can explain what a Christian is and what we believe. But we really shouldn’t be putting words in their mouth or asking them to ‘repeat after me’ parrot fashion. We can also give them this free booklet ‘Ultimate Questions’ which explains the basics of Christianity, and of course we must regularly pray for them.
We need to be involved in this person’s life ensuring that they understand the commitment they are making and that they have counted the cost. This is not about making salvation complicated. We know that the Bible teaches that children can understand. It is about being clear, both about our message and about the demands that being a Christian makes on a heart and life. Jesus Himself was clear whilst He was on earth that those who wished to follow Him must be willing to give up everything. Some who understood this rejected Him because they were unwilling. He didn’t soften His message, He let them go. They had heard the truth; the seed had been planted. God would give the increase in those He had chosen.
The Gospel is urgent and it is true that we do not know how long a person has left but God knows. Demanding or putting pressure on someone to make an instant decision without them really understanding that it will change their life will not help them persevere when trials come. They may even blame you if you didn’t explain the Gospel message properly. But most likely they will not do that. They will just quietly slip away never to be seen in church again. Another lost soul, what a waste.
Let’s be sincere and genuine telling people that the Christian life is difficult but that Jesus is the Way the Truth and the Life. They must find Him in order to be free from their sin and to live a new life with God. It is good news!