1 John series: (post #7)
We are now halfway through the list of ten evidences of salvation that are described in the book of 1 John. So, with this post, I thought it would be good if I pulled over here for a quick break and said a word about what is known as “easy believism.”
“Just pray this prayer with me: ‘Jesus, I know that I am a sinner, and I know that you died on the cross for my sins. Right now I accept you as my Savior and ask you to forgive me of all my sins. Thank you for saving me, Jesus. Amen.'”
How many times have you heard a pastor in a church service or a preacher on t.v., the radio, or the internet say this kind of thing at the close of a service or a broadcast? I’ll admit that I myself have made such statements many times during my own ministry. Over the years, however, I have become increasingly aware of the problems that are associated with this type of invitation.
First and foremost, such prayers say little to nothing of major points of doctrine such as: Christ’s divinity, His virgin birth, His sinless life, His resurrection, His ascension, and His current place at the right hand of God the Father. Instead, the whole focus is upon His crucifixion. You might ask, “But what’s wrong with focusing upon His crucifixion?” Well, nothing is wrong with it, but it would be really helpful if the person praying the prayer understood all the following about the Jesus that he or she is asking to save them:
- He is God the Son and has eternally existed.
- He voluntarily left heaven, came down to the earth, and was conceived in the womb of a virgin and born to her.
- The fact that He was conceived in the womb of a virgin and born to her allowed Him to bypass the sinful nature of Adam with which all humans are conceived and born as part of Adam’s reproductive line.
- Him being divine and not having Adam’s nature of sin allowed Him to live a sinless life.
- He performed many miracles in His life as a way of verifying His divinity.
- The fact that He lived a totally sinless life qualified Him to die as the substitionary sacrifice for the sins of the entire human race.
- He died on the cross as that sacrifice, shedding His blood as the payment for each and every sin that mankind had ever and would ever commit.
- He was buried but arose from the dead in a glorified body on the third day afterward.
- In His resurrected, glorified body, He made periodic appearances to His followers over the course of the next forty days, thus fully verifying that He had indeed arisen from the dead.
- At the end of the forty days, He ascended back up to heaven and took His place once again at the right hand of God the Father.
- He now grants salvation (the forgiveness of all sin, the guarantee of heaven) to every person who believes in Him as Savior.
- He sends God the Holy Spirit to take up residence inside the body of each believer, and God the Holy Spirit immediately creates a spiritual rebirth (the “born again” experience) inside the believer.
- Anyone who dies without having believed in Him as Savior will spend all eternity making their own payment for their sins by forevermore remaining cut off from God in flame, torment, and suffering.
Can you imagine a preacher, one who has about sixty seconds in which give an invitation, attempting to elaborate on all these doctrinal points with a lost person who stands ready to believe in Jesus? Can you imagine a pastor trying to explain them to a nine-year-old who attends a night of Bible school and says he wants to get saved? Can you imagine a chaplain trying to work through them all with a soldier who is lying near death from a battlefield injury? No, you can’t. That’s why the so-called “prayer of salvation” or “sinner’s prayer” usually gets reduced to two simplistic basics: Jesus dying on the cross for the individual’s sins and the individual believing in Him as Savior.
The good news is that millions of people throughout history have understood enough about who they were as sinners and who Jesus is as a Savior to pray such a prayer and through it legitimately get saved. The bad news is that millions of others have gained a false hope of salvation simply because they “prayed the prayer.” These false converts are the victims of what has come to be called “easy believism” or “quick prayerism.”
These false converts are why critics of such prayers say, “Merely praying a prayer makes it too easy to get saved.” While this criticism does hold some validity, the pushback is to ask the critic, “Just how hard hard do you want to make it to get saved?” Remember, the Bible speaks of the simplicity, not the complexity, that is in Christ (2 Corinthians 11:3).
The thief on the cross (Luke 23:39-43) certainly didn’t have time to get baptized and prove his salvation by performing a list of good works, did he? The Ethiopian eunuch only received one fairly quick scriptural lesson from Philip before getting saved, baptized, and never seeing Philip again (Acts 8:26-40). When the jailor in Philippi asked Paul and Silas, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” they responded, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved, you and your household (meaning that each member of the household could also be saved by believing).” That, you see, is a far cry from requiring the man and his family to pass a course in Christian apologetics before attempting to believe.
What we must always keep in mind about “praying a prayer” is that the prayer itself isn’t what produces the salvation. What produces the salvation is the voluntary, deliberate, inner decision to place one’s belief in Jesus as Savior. The prayer is nothing more than the vehicle through which the decision gets expressed. Truth be told, if a person has the inner belief, the prayer isn’t even necessary.
Those who would disagree with that last sentence would point to Romans 10:9-10 as proof that the literal mouthing of words is necessary. Those verses say: “…if you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes unto righteousness and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation” (N.K.J.V.). Similarly, Romans 10:13 says: “For whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved” (N.K.J.V.). But there are literally hundreds of other passages that teach that it is the belief (or faith, as that word is used synonymously with belief) that produces the salvation. One prime example of these passages is John 3:16, the most famous verse in the Bible.
After Peter had preached on the Day of Pentecost, he didn’t ask his audience to pray anything (Acts 2:14-39). And yet some 3,000 of them still managed to get saved. When Jesus met the spiritually lost Saul of Tarsus on the Damascus road and Saul asked him, “Lord, what do you want me to do?”, Jesus didn’t say, “Pray this prayer with me” (Acts 9:1-9). And yet Saul still managed to get saved during that encounter. When Peter was preaching to a group of lost Gentiles and it became obvious that those Gentiles had received the Holy Spirit (which was clear evidence of their salvation), Peter didn’t say to them, “Wait a minute, you can’t get saved yet because I haven’t led you in the prayer” (Acts 10:44-48).
Since the evangelistic efforts that are described in the book of Acts were oftentimes done outdoors, and since the early church congregations met in homes that didn’t have aisles or altars, a new believer did not publicly showcase his or her salvation by coming down an aisle, kneeling in an altar, and praying a prayer. Instead, it was done by way of a public baptism. That’s why the book of Acts emphasizes baptism so much. Baptism was an outward object lesson that showed what had happened on the inside of the individual. It was an outer profession, one without words, of inner belief. For that matter, it still is.
One problem with asking someone to pray a “sinner’s prayer” is the fact that there is no standardized version of such a prayer. This allows for tons of leeway as the prayers some preachers recite might include sections about Christ’s virgin birth and His resurrection while the prayers of other preachers might stick strictly with Christ’s crucifixion and the sinner’s need for forgiveness. While all this diversity might seem harmless enough, it can become a problem when a person begins to doubt his salvation and thinks to himself, “Maybe I didn’t really get saved because I didn’t say the right words when I prayed.” Do you see how that could become an issue if the person focuses more on the prayer that he prayed than the belief he expressed?
Still, though, with all this understood, I don’t want you to think that I’m against preachers asking people to, “Pray like this…” or “Repeat after me…” Like I said, I myself have done this kind of thing many times in my ministry. People being people, most of them do have a desire to vocally convey the inner decision they are making to believe in Jesus. And if the spoken words accurately describe the inner belief, there can’t possibly be anything wrong with saying them. For that matter, speaking the words out loud can even help the person in regards to feeling assured about the salvation.
At the end of the day, there is no magic formula that can ever allow us to be 100% effective in weeding out false converts from bona-fide salvation experiences. That’s why I’m glad that God is not only the one who does the saving but is also the final Judge in these matters. Our job is simply to present the gospel and let Him do the work of convicting and saving.
Thankfully, we can take great encouragement from the fact that each individual case of salvation has already been settled by God in eternity past. We know this because Revelation 13:8, Revelation 17:8, and Luke 10:20 all teach that the names of saved believers were written in God’s Book of Life “from the foundation of the world.” That doesn’t mean that God forces those people to get saved so that He can keep His Book of Life in order, but it does mean that He knew, by way of His perfect foreknowledge (Isaiah 46:9-10), from eternity past which individuals would voluntarily choose to get saved by believing.
As I once heard a Sunday School teacher say, “God will see to it that no one ends up in heaven who shouldn’t be there, and no one ends up in hell who shouldn’t be there.” That little piece of homespun theology has always helped me immensely, and it continues to help me anytime I sail into the murky waters of “easy believism” and “quick prayerism.” I don’t suppose that I will ever completely master the navigation of those waters, but if I faithfully do my best to share the gospel and try to lead folks to Christ, that’s all that God will ever ask of me. And if that includes me saying to someone, “Pray this prayer…” or “Repeat after me…”, so be it. If God knows that I’m sincere in what I’m doing and the other person is sincere in what he or she is doing, He will make sure that the salvation experience is legitimate. That, when all the dust has settled, will be good enough to get the job done.