Since the advent of the Reformation the Church has recognized the importance of being converted, born again, etc. However our understanding of what this process is and means has gone through a long development process.
In the early days of the Reformation, everyone in a locale went to church, so they were always preaching real conversion to those who attended. They expected this conversion to be a process, not a definite moment per se.
In the 19th century Finney began to place an emphasis on a moment of definite decision. It was more than a simple decision, however, it was understood to imply a change of life direction, and they created an “anxious bench” for those who were seeking God to be converted.
Charles Spurgeon talks about examining his converts over a period of time as well. By the time of Moody there was more of an emphasis on encounters, and by the time of Billy Graham, it was a single event of decision with follow up, which led directly to what we experience in church today.
Clearly we needed to move away from an interminable process with no definite results to a definite encounter with God. It seems now that we’ve gone too far. It is easy to become cynical when salvation is secretly slipping a hand up in the back. Is that really what the gospel has in mind when it talks about conversion? The typical reaction to this tendency has been to “preach harder” or “more law” or “against sin” and I just don’t see this as the Biblical resolution to the issue. That’s not saying that there is not a place for preaching against sin, just that making all messages harder to swallow is not guaranteed to produce more high quality converts either. In fact, most of what I observe is guys getting on a prideful hobby horse which condemns rather than liberates. It’s the “call down fire”, “Boanerges” spirit.
On the one hand, the call to follow Jesus is a radical and total one. On the other hand, the conversions we see in Acts do not involve an “anxious bench” either. They are definite moments. Every salvation is both a process and a moment. I believe where we err is in declaring the salvation at the wrong moment. We want to declare someone saved who was moved by a sermon, and that is a wonderful desire, but I believe that instead of being locked and loaded with the sinners prayer, we should be ready with the full gospel of surrender to God, including an explanation of what it fully means, including being water baptized right away, repenting of known sin, etc. We disserve people when we do not give them the full explanation. The main way we disserve them is that with some proper counsel someone who would have otherwise prayed a prayer and fallen away, will continue to marinate and make a full profession. In other words if you were stirred by a message, rather than give you the expectation that secretly raising your hand and “repeating after me” is salvation we should bring these fish in and “see what we caught.” A little examination will reveal that
- some were already saved, but need help,
- some are ready for a full salvation,
- some are starting on a process of salvation where we can help them,
- and still others have not heard the Spirit rightly and need to be properly instructed.
This is not a substitute for high quality discipleship, but really is a pre-requisite. When someone shows no passion for serving God, but is “saved” we should go back to the root and see what they thought they got. They may be “saved” but in a faulty or incomplete way. In my case, I know when I responded to the Gospel and was “saved” but it was many years before I entered into the fullness of what that all meant–but I did know and understand implicitly that this meant “doing the right thing” in my life and following Jesus. Many people in these “raise your hand” moments don’t see that. They really see fire insurance, or a free condo in Spain or something. Such people will not be converted. In my case, I was really converted, but needing of a fuller understanding and discipleship. Because Christ was in me, that all eventually came out, but it was a lot longer than it should have been.
Therefore, my basic theory is that we do not have to modify what we preach — there are many kinds of appeals that may “catch” a fish, as Jesus and the apostles show. And I also would say that better discipleship is a misdirected solution as well. Discipleship begins where conversion leaves off. It’s so hard to disciple an unbeliever! The missing piece is a conversion “process.” I do believe in definite assurance, and praying a prayer, but only after examination and counting the cost. Nothing says that the first time you respond to an altar call is when you need to get saved. When you are ready to repent and be baptized, you are ready to be saved. Before that you really are in a state of inquiry. If the Church recognizes that, it will help you down the path, and perhaps save your eternal soul.