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Does what a church believes about how people become Christians change how we do evangelism? In this concise book, Michael Lawrence explains the doctrine of conversion and helps us consider the relationship between what we believe about how people are saved and our approach to sharing the gospel in the context of the local church. Readers of this book will understand how the local church should participate in the conversion process through ordinary means, such as biblical preaching and intentional relationships.
144 pages, Hardcover
First published June 1, 2017
Too often our confessional theology says one thing, while our practical theology says something else. We say that regeneration makes us new creatures in Christ, but then we teach our kids a moralism that atheists could duplicate. We say that Christianity is about a trusting relationship with Jesus, but then we treat it like checking a box on a decision card. We say that only the Holy Spirit transfers a person from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of light, but then we employ the marketing tools used for getting someone to switch brands of toothpaste. Again and again, what we claim in our doctrinal statements about conversion doesn’t match what our churches practice or their ministry models. So it shouldn’t surprise us that our kids end up being something less than Christian.
I want to think about the difference that should make in the life of the church—from the way we go about evangelism, to our membership and discipleship practices, to the way we think about the church as a whole. In other words, this is a book of doctrine, and this is a book of practice. It is a book about conversion, and it is a book about the church. After all, God creates a people through conversion. Show me someone’s doctrine of conversion, and I can tell you a lot about his church.
Good theology is intensely practical, and if it’s not, then it isn’t worth the name.
These days, there are lots of different kinds of nice. There’s the polite but detached tolerance of “live and let live” nice. There’s the socially conscious and politically engaged nice. There’s religious nice in many different denominational and faith-community forms. There’s “spiritual but not religious” nice. There’s even what’s known in my town as “Portland nice,” a sort of nonconfrontational, “let’s not make anyone feel uncomfortable, even though we’re silently judging and dismissing you in our minds” nice. But for all the different kinds of nice, the appeal of nice hasn’t changed much in the last two thousand years. To be a nice person, a good person, a person who’s becoming a better person, is to feel good about yourself. It’s that appeal of moral self-commendation that binds our modern variations together into a common religious program that Nicodemus would have recognized (see Luke 10:25–29). Nice allows you to commend yourself to others, and maybe even to God. Nice gives you the means of self-justification and the ability to vindicate your life to whoever is asking. That’s appealing.
The appeal of nice is always based on three ideas: an optimistic view of human beings, a domesticated view of God, and a view of religion as a means of moral self-reform.
No churches ever explicitly teach the religion of nice. In fact, they typically teach the exact opposite. But those same churches are filled with people who believe that God will accept them based on how good they’ve been. I’ve heard it on too many living rooms couches and nursing home beds. Not perfect—no one ever says that—but good enough.
What makes the moralistic program of nice difficult to spot in our evangelical churches is that it’s almost never taught explicitly. Instead, it’s the natural condition of our unregenerate selves. It follows us into the church like walking inside with the aroma of the outdoors: it’s hard to smell on yourself because you are so accustomed to it.
We condemn the world’s sin more than our own.
We put sins in a hierarchy, and tolerate some sins (especially our own) more than others.
In church, we sing songs and pray prayers of praise, not songs and prayers of confession.
We describe our own sins as “mistakes.”
We use Bible stories to teach children to be good rather than to point them to a Savior: “Be like David” not “You need a new and better David, who is Christ.”
So many of us learned the message of nice in churches that introduced us to a Jesus who promised to improve us, not a Jesus who calls his followers to die to themselves; these churches taught us to be nice without making sure we were new. I fear this is why so many of my friends’ children have walked away from Christianity. They haven’t given up on nice. They’ve simply discovered that they don’t need Jesus to be nice.
A radical change must occur in us. But the word that the Bible never uses to describe what Jesus is talking about is reformation. You might reform a church, but not a dead heart. The personal change that Jesus says we need goes much deeper; it reaches down to our very nature. The necessity of being born again flows from five biblical truths: the inability of human beings, the holiness of God, the grace of the gospel, the power of God’s Spirit, and the creation of a people.
When churches look more like the world than Christ, we effectively preach a different gospel. More than likely it will be the gospel of nice.
It’s popular to think of God’s judgment of sinners in hell as God giving us what we ask for—life without God. It’s true that hell is the absence of God’s love. But hell is also the presence of God in his justice, measuring out to sin what it deserves. And it is this, the wrath of God, from which we must be saved. Since God is good, he will pay back injustice and sin what it deserves. And we all have sinned. This has enormous implications for our preaching. For the gospel to make sense, we must preach the justice and wrath of God. Too easily, however, churches downplay these basic truths and so change the gospel. It’s hard to talk about hell and God’s wrath. It is much easier to talk about being saved from purposeless lives, low self-esteem, or unhappiness. So we treat Jesus as the solution to a subjective, internal problem. Come to Jesus; he’ll give you purpose and meaning. The trouble is, subjective problems can be solved through subjective solutions. I might choose Jesus to gain a sense of purpose, but my friend down the street sincerely chooses a career. Who’s to say which is better? It’s all subjective. When we fail to preach the justice of God and downplay his wrath, we are talking about some other gospel. We have changed it from an objective rescue to a subjective path to personal fulfillment.
Grace is what saves. Faith is the instrument. Which means: we’re not saved by faith. We’re saved by grace, and faith receives that grace. Faith trusts that gift. What happens when we think faith saves us? Sincerity becomes paramount. We begin to think of faith as a single act—a prayer prayed, a decision made, a card signed, a hand raised—rather than as a whole-life orientation. The trouble is, we can never be sure if we were sincere enough. So insecurity follows, and a culture of rededication develops. Anxious children pray “the prayer” over and over. Youth rededicate themselves at every youth retreat. Adults do the same. All are hoping that this time the expression of faith will be sincere enough.
The language of God’s love is the language of God’s choice, his election. God chooses to love. He doesn’t have to love us. In fact, by all rights, he shouldn’t love us. But he does. God’s love for us isn’t on a whim. If we turn this around, so that God loves us because we chose and love him, Christianity becomes a religion of selfsalvation. The message is that God is obligated to save us because of our love, our choice, our sincerity. Our faith, not his love, becomes the deciding factor. And we introduce pride into the heart and soul of our churches. The gospel has been turned on its head.
To become a Christian, you must repent of your sins. The basic idea of repentance is to turn.
We were created to worship, and if we won’t worship God, we’ll worship something else. Calling people to repentance, then, means calling for a reorientation of worship. So who or what are we worshiping rather than God? What compels our time and energy, our spending and our leisure? What makes us angry? What gives us hope and comfort? What are our aspirations for our children? Idols make lots of promises, even though they can’t keep them.
Repenting means exchanging our idols for God. Before it’s a change in behavior, it must be a change in worship. How different that is from how we often think of repentance. Too often we treat repentance as a call to clean up our lives. We do good to make up for the bad. We try to even the scale, or even push it back to the positive side. Sometimes we talk about repentance as if it were a really serious, religious New Year’s resolution.
Repentance is not a feeling. Repentance is being convicted by the Holy Spirit of the sinfulness of our sin—not the badness of our deeds but the treachery of our hearts toward God. Repentance means hating what we formerly loved and served—our idols—and turning away from them. Repentance means turning to love God, whom we formerly hated, and serving him instead. It’s a new deepest loyalty of the heart.
If repentance really is a change of worship, then our churches must not pressure people to make hasty, illconsidered “decisions” for Jesus, and then offer them quick assurance. Instead, we must call people to repent. When we separate repentance from conversion, either because we think it can come later or we fear scaring people off, we reduce conversion to bad feelings or moral resolve. Worse, we risk assuring a “convert” that he is right with God when in fact he is not. It’s almost like giving someone a vaccine against the gospel.
Often, it is someone who
is excited about heaven, but bored by Christians and the local church;
thinks heaven will be great, whether God is there or not;
likes Jesus, but didn’t sign up for the rest—obedience, holiness, discipleship, suffering;
can’t tell the difference between obedience motivated by love and legalism;
is bothered by other people’s sins more than his or her own;
holds grace cheap and his own comfort costly.
To become a Christian is to take up a life of repentance. Jesus described it as taking up our cross and following him. It begins at a point in time, but it continues in a life of service and love to God. If repentance is one side of coin, the other side is belief or faith. To become a Christian, you must not only repent, you must also believe the good news about Jesus.
Real faith leans, and depends, and follows, and works.