An Invitation to Christ
Recovering an Understanding of the Biblical Gospel
John T. Sneed . North Hill Baptist Church . Minot, ND
Bad Terminology and Fuzzy Thinking
There was a time when ministers were meticulous in their gospel presentations. That is, they would say what the Bible said and would avoid unbiblical terms in their messages. Within the last hundred years however, there has been a rise in programs and an accompanying decrease of interest in theological precision.<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> A new emphasis on God’s love for mankind and the idea that salvation in Christ is a personal decision led to new ways to present that gospel invitation that had not been seen in Baptist circles before.<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> These new ways have resulted in fuzzy thinking and bad theology about what salvation is and how it is accomplished. Indeed, such fuzziness has been so much a part of the warp and woof of modern evangelical terminology that it is hard to challenge it without being accused of apostasy.
The focus of this article will be to examine the idea of “inviting Jesus into your heart” for salvation. I believe the idea is unbiblical and leads to a misunderstanding of the nature of salvation, the work of Christ in the atonement and what it means to believe the gospel. If this is true, it is long past time for a critical re-examination of these ideas.
Bad Thinking about the Gospel
One of the worst examples of the kind of theology I am talking about is summed up in this statement I have personally heard used in many sermons. “In the matter of your salvation, God voted for you, Satan has voted against you, and now it is time for you to cast the deciding vote.” An example can be found in the following sermon excerpt. “Some people are unusually gifted in actually ‘closing the deal,’ so to speak. They know how to lead people to accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.”<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> Other examples can be found in popular Southern Baptist evangelism programs. The common element of many of these programs is the decision, usually sealed by prayer in which Christ’s atoning work is offered to the sinner, if he wants to accept it. Consider these words, “Yet we would be remiss if we did not give people a choice, the choice to receive life or death.”<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> In these and other programs like them, the death of Jesus on the cross is presented as being effective only of the sinner (considering being saved) chooses to let Christ atone for him or her.
Central to this bad idea of how salvation works is Revelation 3:20. The verse says, “Listen! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come into him and have dinner with him, and he with me.” Christ is presented as one standing outside the door of the sinner’s heart pleading with the sinner to open their heart to his saving work. Otherwise, Christ is powerless to do anything. In this context, the key to salvation is the sinner’s decision to open the door of his heart, thus giving Christ permission to impute his atoning work to the sinner’s account. This thinking ignores the fact that the verse in question was written to a church that had become important in its own eyes and had pushed Christ out. The pleading of Jesus in the verse is to be let back into his rightful place in the congregation. This is a bad use of the Bible and has led to bad thinking in terms of Christ’s work in our salvation.
We have seen several examples of unbiblical thinking come from this type of thinking. Among them is the idea that to be saved, you have to “invite Jesus into your heart.” Another is that it is your decision that makes you a Christian. This is implied in the so called “sinner’s prayer.” It is the thinking behind signing a gospel tract as a sign of your decision to allow Jesus to be your savior. Still another example of bad theology is that Jesus’ death has no effect on you unless you give God permission to let it have an effect. Finally, there are those teaching that when Jesus died on the cross he didn’t actually die for anyone but only died to make salvation potential (rather than actual). Again, it is the decision of the sinner that gives life, so to speak, to the atoning work of Jesus. Thus, the only people Jesus died for are people who let him die for them.
All these ideas are bad thinking about the gospel. They are examples of bad thinking because they move the focus of salvation off God and onto men. Everything becomes a matter of choice and this has had a cascade effect on the practical applications of this theology to the lives of Christians. However, that is the topic of another article. The fifth sola of the Reformation is Soli Deo Gloria, which means “To the Glory of God Alone.” But the ideas I have mentioned do not give glory to God except that they admit that it was God’s plan, and that Jesus died to make salvation possible. Otherwise, everything that counts is done by men.<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> In so doing, they leave Christians thinking they caused their own salvation and detract from the glory of God and the worship of God for His mighty work on our behalf.
The Wrong Question
I remember my own conversion. It was at an old fashioned revival meeting held at my original home church, Parkview Baptist Church in Landover, Maryland. I learned in the sermon that being eight years old was no defense against hell and an automatic pardon for sin. The evangelist told us we needed Jesus and he could show us how to receive Him. I went forward that night. The evangelist sat down beside me and told me about John 3:16. He put it like this “Timmy (my nickname growing up), God so loved Timmy, that He gave His only begotten Son, so that if Timmy would believe on Him, Timmy would never die but would have everlasting life.” Then he asked me what I consider to be, the right question. He said, “Timmy, do you believe?” I could not have articulated it then but I know now that his question made me look inside to see if I believed Jesus had died for me personally. That is the right question.
The wrong question, which is most commonly used today, is “Do you want to believe?” In this question, Christ is standing by powerless to move until I decide if I want to believe or not. Then and only then will it be possible for Christ to move in my life. The first question asks, am I aware of what Jesus actually did for me personally? The second question asks, do I want what Jesus did for me potentially to count for me personally? The first puts the focus of salvation in God’s work for us. The second question puts the focus on our being willing to allow God to work for us. In this, I believe it is the wrong question.
God’s Mighty Work in Salvation
If the ideas cited above are examples of bad thinking about salvation, then the question arises, “What did God do on our behalf and how do we come to believe it?” This is an important question because it goes to the heart of the gospel and how a person is saved.
There is a saying in reformed circles that salvation is a gift given, not a gift offered. How then is the gift given and how do we come to realize it?
The answer is found in the doctrine of the substitutionary atonement of Jesus Christ. This doctrine states that Jesus died on the cross as a substitute. The question is “a substitute for whom? In the wrong question, Jesus dies as a substitute for no one at the time of his death. He died for those who would to allow him to let his death count for them. Put another way, when Jesus died on the cross he did not actually die for anyone. He died so that people could choose whether or not to allow Jesus to die for them. But that is not the statement made by the doctrine of the substitutionary atonement. The Baptist Faith and Message<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> says “[Jesus] by his own blood obtained eternal redemption for the believer.”<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> In this doctrinal statement, Jesus actually obtains redemption for a group of people. In this case, it is for believers. That is to say, it is obtained for all those people who would ever believe that Jesus had died for them personally. But note, it is obtained. The apostle John says “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” (John 10:11). This agrees with the angel’s pronouncement to Mary in Matthew 1:21, “You shall call his Name Jesus for he shall save his people from their sins.” Clearly, the idea of an actual substitution for an actual group of people is set forth. James P. Boyce, an early Southern Baptist theologian states “In so offering himself, Christ actually bore the penalty of the transgressions of those for whom he was substituted.”<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> So, we join with others in agreeing with the apostles that Christ actually substituted his life for somebody. These people are called, in various spots, his people, his sheep, or believers. But how do they come to know that Christ died for them personally?
The Baptist Faith and Message says “Regeneration, or the new birth, is a work of God’s grace whereby believers become new creatures in Christ Jesus. It is a change of heart wrought by the Holy Spirit through conviction of sin, to which the sinner responds in repentance towards God and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. Repentance and faith are inseparable experiences of grace.”<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> It is by the new birth that we are able to respond to God’s work of grace in us and come to Christ for eternal life. Jesus himself said “unless a man be born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” (John 3:3). The new birth is a requisite to believing. But how do we come to believe?
The answer is by the word and the Spirit. The Bible, the written word of God testifies to Christ. It shows us the majesty of God revealed in the Person and work of Jesus Christ. The sinner who comes into contact with the word of God, either in written form or in the faithful witness of preachers, evangelists, or lay witnesses, is confronted with the Person of Christ and his claims. Paul the apostle says “how can they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how can they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without a preacher?” (Rom. 10:14).
But the sinner is blind and deaf to the majesty of God revealed in the word of God without the operations of the Holy Spirit. The Bible describes this in various ways. For example, it is said that the heart of stone is replaced with a heart of flesh. Blind eyes are opened. Deaf ears are unstopped. This is the work of the Holy Spirit in regeneration. So the effect is the immediate knowledge of the application of the atonement of Christ to the sinner which the sinner becomes aware of by the inward testimony of the word and the Spirit. It is a miraculous impartation of divine knowledge from God to the sinner, to which the sinner responds in repentance and faith, confessing Jesus as Lord and Savior. J.I. Packer notes “The internal witness of the Spirit in John Calvin is a work of enlightenment whereby, through the medium of verbal testimony, the blind eyes of the spirit are opened, and divine realities come to be recognized and embraced for what they are.”<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]>
Does this agree with scripture? Yes. Consider Jeremiah 31:33, “I will put My law in their minds, and write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” (NKJV). Jesus said “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. And I give them eternal life…” (John 10:27-28a). Consider also the apostle John “And it is the Spirit who bears witness, because the Spirit is truth. If we receive the witness of men, the witness of God (i.e. the witness of the Spirit) is greater; for this is the witness of God which He has testified of His Son. He who believes in the Son of God has the witness in himself. And this is the testimony: that God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son.” (1 John 5:6-11, NKJV). Paul the apostle said “The Spirit bears witness with our spirit that we are the children of God.” (Romans 8:16). So, does God speak to us personally and testify to us the truth of His Son and that we are His? Yes, He does.
The Testimony of Scripture
When the apostles were put to the question, did they ask if people wanted to believe or did they command people to believe? On Pentecost Day, Peter concluded his sermon with “Repent and be baptized…” (Acts 2:38a). In other words, believe what you have heard and act on it. After the lame man was healed Peter told the gathering crowd “Repent and turn therefore…” (Acts 4:19). As Philip spoke with the Ethiopian eunuch, they passed by some water and the eunuch asked “what is stopping me from being baptized?” Philip’s answer was “If you believe, you may.” (Acts 8: 36-37). While Peter preached the gospel in the house of the Gentile, Cornelius, the Holy Spirit fell on the assembled listeners and they believed. (Acts 10:44). Acts 13:48 says that “as many as were appointed to eternal life believed.” When Paul was speaking to the woman Lydia, scripture records “The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul.” (Acts 16:14). When the jailer in Philippi asked, “What must I do to be saved?” Paul answered, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved…” (Acts 16:31).
Never throughout the scriptures is a person asked if they want to believe. The command to believe was imperative and immediate. And never is the invitation given to “invite or ask Jesus into your heart” as a condition or method of salvation. The command is “believe!”
The Sinner’s Prayer
I hear the question coming “but what about the sinner’s prayer?” One of the innovations of Charles Finney was the need to get an immediate action from the sinner. Thus the sinner’s prayer was created. This was later popularized by evangelists like Dwight Moody, Billy Sunday and Billy Graham. Today, it is such apart of evangelism, no one questions it. In the sinner’s prayer, it is said that the sinner asks Christ to come into them and save them. One writer says “You can receive Jesus through prayer.”<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> The prayer presupposes Jesus is standing by, hovering on the outside of the sinner, waiting to be asked inside. Oftentimes, this prayer is spoken even if the sinner has already confessed they believe that Jesus died for them personally. The evangelist hears the person say “I believe Jesus died for me.” Then the evangelist will say, “Now you need to pray and ask Jesus to be your savior.” But the idea is a contradiction in itself. The person has already confessed that Jesus saved them. The sinner’s prayer becomes a redundancy.
But is it wrong then to pray after acknowledging Christ as your personal savior? No. Paul in Romans tells us that belief is a heart matter and our confession then displays what is in our hearts. He says “For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.” (Acts 10:10). Therefore, when we lead new believers (because that is what the sinner is when they have confessed “I believe.”) in prayer, we are leading them to thank God for saving them and to confess Jesus as their Lord and God. By such a confession they acknowledge His claims over them as they confess themselves to be one of His people. The invitation to “accept Jesus” is given to one who has professed Jesus as their savior. They accept Jesus as Lord of their lives. We remember the words of Paul who said “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved…” (Acts 16:31).
On a side note, let me remind my readers that the only sinner’s prayer recorded in scripture is found in Luke 18:13. The publican, refusing to even look up towards the sky, beats his breast and says “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” Nowhere do we find people being led in prayer to “accept Christ”. Instead, they are commanded to believe. As proof of their belief, they immediately act on the belief of their hearts. This was usually done in baptism. But the sinner’s prayer is conspicuously absent from scripture.
Putting It All Together
Evangelicalism is suffering in the 21st century from the disease of worldliness. While the causes are probably many, one cause is the poor job of evangelism being done by the Church. Our evangelism methods today are turning out people who profess Jesus as savior without wanting Jesus as Lord. As evangelism has become more man centered than God centered, everything in the Christian life becomes a desire or a want of the Christian. We foster this type of thinking with bad theology and fuzzy terminology.
But the gospel of Jesus Christ is good news about a powerful God who brings a miraculous change in His people by pursuing them and speaking directly by His Spirit to the spirit of the person, calling them out of the world to Himself. Instead of a gospel where a person wants to be saved and them accomplishes their salvation by praying the prayer of salvation, the saving gospel is God causing a miraculous change (the new birth) that results in people living for the God who saved them. We need to move the locus of salvation from man back to God. Salvation is not something we choose to let God do to us. It is something God did for us at the cross and then reveals to us that He saved us by the witness of His Spirit. God saved sinners. The truth is not that sinners save themselves by a method God has provided.
By asking the right question instead of the wrong question, we can help move our evangelism back to God centeredness. By seeing God as the active agent in our salvation we can help regain converts who confess Jesus as both savior and Lord.
In the popular evangelism tool “Share Jesus Without Fear” the author starts well and ends poorly. He closes the evangelistic appeal with these questions, do you believe Jesus Christ died on the cross for you and rose again? Are you willing to surrender your life to Jesus Christ? Are you ready to invite Jesus into your heart and into your life?<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> The first two questions are good; however the last one could be worded better. The person has confessed Jesus as their savior in the first question. Therefore, the logical final question would be “would you like to pray and thank Jesus for saving you and confess Him as Lord of your life?” The very popular F.A.I.T.H. evangelism strategy echoes Fay in how they close the gospel presentation.<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> The closing question could be better put “understanding what we have shared, do you believe you have forgiveness of sins because Jesus Christ is your savior and Lord?”
Our God has done a mighty work in salvation. Yet, we do not proclaim it as a mighty work of God. It is often portrayed as a potential work that is left up to the sinner to complete. Whether by a sinner’s prayer, or signing a tract, or being baptized, or joining a church, if the sinner does anything that causes God to save them then salvation is not by Christ alone.
Preacher, go forth preaching the mighty work of God to the glory of the Lord Jesus Christ. Preach him as a savior who saves and who saves to the uttermost! Preach and call sinners to believe. Salvation is a gift that is given to us by God. Offer people a Christ who saves. Make it a biblical presentation but present Christ as powerful and effective in bringing sinners to life. Preach it and trust God for your results.
Friend, do you believe? Do you believe that Jesus Christ, the God-man, died on the cross for your sins personally? Did He save you by His death? If you do believe, then confess Him. Confess Him as your Lord and Savior. Then, since you are one of His people, live for Him. He died for you, go and live for Him. (2 Corinthians 5:15).
Boyce, J. (1887). Abstract of Systematic Theology. Dulk Foundation: Escondito.
Dockery, D. The Rebirth of Baptist Orthodoxy. Baptist Identity: Is There a Future? Lecture given at Union University, April 5, 2004.
Fay, W. (1999). Share Jesus Without Fear. Broadman and Holman: Nashville.
Piper, J. (2000). The Legacy of Sovereign Joy. Crossway: Wheaton.
Robinson, D. (1995). People Sharing Jesus. Thomas Nelson: Nashville.
Vines, J. ed. (2004). Preaching with Passion. Broadman and Holman: Nashville.
Welch, B. and Williams, D. (1998). A Journey in Faith. Lifeway: Nashville.
<![if !supportFootnotes]> <![endif]> Dockery, Rebirth.
<![if !supportFootnotes]> <![endif]> The focus of my attention in this article in on the gospel as presented in Baptist life, especially, but not limited to, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC).
<![if !supportFootnotes]> <![endif]> Vines, The Church’s Main Business, Preaching with Passion, 490.
<![if !supportFootnotes]> <![endif]> Fay, “Share Jesus Without Fear,” 59.
<![if !supportFootnotes]> <![endif]> It is understood here that when I say ‘men’ I am using the term generically for humans or humankind.
<![if !supportFootnotes]> <![endif]> The Baptist Faith and Message is the doctrinal statement of the Southern Baptist Convention. It was most recently updated in 2000.
<![if !supportFootnotes]> <![endif]> BF&M, IV, 11.
<![if !supportFootnotes]> <![endif]> Boyce, “Abstract of Systematic Theology,” 325.
<![if !supportFootnotes]> <![endif]> BF&M, IV, 11.
<![if !supportFootnotes]> <![endif]> Packer, “Calvin the Theologian,” 166.
<![if !supportFootnotes]> <![endif]> Robinson, “People Sharing Jesus,” 168.
<![if !supportFootnotes]> <![endif]> Fay, “Share Jesus Without Fear,” 69.
<![if !supportFootnotes]> <![endif]> Welch, “A Journey in Faith,” 164-168.
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