Also see: General guidelines for effective evangelism—Is repentance necessary for salvation?
Evangelical success is at an all-time low. Modern evangelism, from large campaigns to small gospel meetings, boasts only a 20 percent holding rate.
How effective are our present-day evangelical methods when they create eighty backsliders for every one hundred “decisions for Jesus”? Some are even less effective than that—one recent campaign reported having a 92 percent backsliding rate!
The September 1977 issue of “Eternity Magazine” reported the results of an evangelistic crusade that involved 178 churches. Out of 4,106 decisions only 3 percent joined a local church. That series of meetings created 3,981 backsliders! (More up-to-date statistics are hard to come by. Understandably, they are not published with much enthusiasm.)
I did read that in 1987, however, a Luis Palau crusade reported 6,000 decisions. Yet, despite intense follow-up and counsel, within the first three months, 947 already had backslidden.
To those who have a burden for the lost, like Luis Palau, Billy Graham, and many gifted evangelists around the world, these statistics are not just bad news—they are heart rending! While evangelicals run around in ever-decreasing circles, 140,000 souls die every day.
Why No Brokenness?
As a young evangelist I would plead with sinners, begging them to accept Christ. When one would respond, I was overjoyed. But in the back of my mind I knew there was an 80 percent chance that he would backslide.
To test the sincerity of a potential convert who came to the altar, I began to approach each sinner in a gestapo-like manner. When I felt he was sincere, I would lead him in the most genuine prayer I could muster, “Dear God, I am a sinner. Cleanse me, wash me.”
As we prayed, I would keep one eye open. Although obviously sincere, sinners repeated it flippantly. Then I would slow my voice and almost tearfully affirm, “I believe that Jesus died on the cross in my place.” Still there was no sign of sorrow for sin, no contrition, and no brokenness!
What was the problem? The sinner was one hundred percent sincere—he sincerely wanted the love, joy, peace, happiness, and fulfillment that supposedly comes from being a Christian. His response was merely a test to see if the claims were true.
Sinners were not fleeing from the wrath to come. Why? Because I hadn’t mentioned there was any wrath to come. Potential converts showed no genuine repentance because I hadn’t given them a reason to repent.
The way we present the gospel determines the kind of response the sinner makes. Let me illustrate.
Two men are seated in a plane. A stewardess gives the first man a parachute and instructs him to put it on because it will “improve his flight.”
Not understanding how a parachute could possibly improve his flight, the first passenger is a little skeptical. Finally he decides to see if the claim is true. After strapping on the parachute, he notices its burdensome weight, and he has difficulty sitting upright. Consoling himself with the promise of a better flight, our first passenger decides to give it a little time.
Because he’s the only one wearing a parachute, some of the other passengers begin smirking at him, which only adds to his humiliation. Unable to stand it any longer, our friend slumps in his seat, unstraps the parachute, and throws it to the floor. Disillusionment and bitterness fill his heart because as far as he is concerned, he was told a lie.
Another stewardess gives the second man a parachute, but listen to her instructions. She tells him to put it on because at any moment he will be jumping out of the plane at 25,000 feet.
Our second passenger gratefully straps the parachute on. He doesn’t notice its weight upon his shoulders nor that he can’t sit up upright. His mind is consumed with the thought of what would happen to him if he jumped without it. When other passengers laugh at him, he thinks, “You won’t be laughing when you’re falling to the ground!”
Let’s now analyze the motive and the result of each passenger’s experience.
The first man’s motive for putting on the parachute was solely to improve his flight. As a result, he was humiliated by the passengers, disillusioned by an unkept promise, and embittered against the stewardess who gave it to him. As far as he is concerned, he will never put one of those things on his back again.
The second man put the parachute on to escape the danger of the coming jump. Because he knew what would happen to him without it, he had a deep-rooted joy and peace in his heart. Knowing he was saved from certain death gave him the ability to withstand the mockery of the other passengers. His attitude toward the stewardess who gave him the parachute was one of heartfelt gratitude.
Now listen to what the contemporary gospel says: “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ; He will give you love, joy, peace, and fulfillment.” In other words, He will improve your flight. In an experimental fashion, the sinner puts the Savior to see if these claims are so.
What does he get? Temptation, tribulation, and persecution. The other passengers mock his decision. So what does he do? He takes off the Lord Jesus Christ; he is offended for the Word’s sake; he is disillusioned and embittered, and quite rightly so.
He was promised peace, joy, fulfillment, and all he got were trials and humiliation. His bitterness is directed at those who gave him the “good news.” His latter end is worse than the first—another inoculated, bitter backslider!
The apostle Peter acted in misguided zeal when he tried to dismember the Roman servant in the garden of Gethsemane. Many misguided Christians are also cutting off ears—the ears of potential hearers. Once sinners think they have given it a try, they no longer have an ear for the gospel.
Why are sinners turned off and tuned out? Because we no longer preach the full message of the gospel. We have omitted the key to genuine repentance—the Law of God. The apostle Paul said, “I would not have known sin except through the law” (Romans 7:7, italics added).
Listen to these words from Spurgeon:
Lower the Law, and you dim the light by which man perceives his guilt. This is a very serious loss to the sinner, rather than a gain; for it lessens the likelihood of his conviction and conversion …I say you have deprived the gospel of its ablest auxiliary [most powerful weapon] when you have set aside the Law. You have taken away from it the schoolmaster that is to bring men to Christ…they will never accept grace till they tremble before a just and holy Law. Therefore the Law serves a most necessary and blessed purpose, and it must not be removed from its place.
When the sinner sees the awful consequences of breaking the Law of God—that he cannot escape the certainty of judgment—he will see his need to put on the Lord Jesus Christ. When we preach future punishment by the Law, the sinner comes to Christ solely to flee from “the wrath to come.”
Instead of preaching that Jesus “improves the flight,” we must warn men about the inevitable jump. Everyone must pass through the door of death.
It is appointed for men to die once, but after this the judgment (Hebrews 9:27).
But doesn’t Christianity offer the abundant life? You bet it does! Peace and joy are legitimate fruits of the Spirit. But we do sinners an injustice by enticing them with only the benefits of salvation. Our misguided efforts only result in sinners coming to Christ with an impure motive void of repentance.
Remember why the second passenger had joy and peace? Because he knew what that parachute was going to save him from. In the same way, the true convert has joy and peace in believing because he knows that the righteousness of Christ will deliver him from the wrath that is to come. “The kingdom of God is …righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Romans 14:17). Why is righteousness coupled with peace and joy? Because “Riches do not profit in the day of wrath, but righteousness delivers from death” (Proverbs 11:4).
Now let’s take a look at an unfortunate incident on board the plane. During some unexpected turbulence, the stewardess accidentally drops a cup of hot coffee onto the lap of our second passenger.
What is his reaction? Does he cry out in pain, then rip the parachute off his back in anger? No! He didn’t strap it on for any other reason than the jump. In fact, he doesn’t even relate the incident to his parachute. Instead, it only makes him cling more tightly to his hope of salvation and even look forward to the jump!
If we put on Christ to flee the wrath to come, when tribulation strikes we won’t get angry at God. Why should we? We didn’t come for a better lifestyle. Trials drive us closer to the Lord, and we cling more tightly to Him. Like the apostle Paul, we only stay around to encourage other passengers to put on the parachute. “For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21).
Sadly, multitudes of professing Christians lose their joy when the flight gets bumpy. They are the product of “man-centered” preaching.
Because the Law is rarely used in modern-day evangelism, many pastors are frustrated and make the gospel “man-centered” in an effort to attract converts. They don’t see men and women embracing the good news, so they turn to man-made methods.
Instead of driving the fish to the nets using the Law, they try to attract them by holding up only the benefits of salvation. Let me give an example of a typical altar call:
“Come to Jesus. Won’t you give your heart to Him? He loves you and died on the cross for you. He wants to give you love, joy, and peace. He will make your life happy and give you what you’ve been looking for.”
Ministers gently woo sinners to the altar with the “every eye closed and every head bowed” approach. Then, as the music gently plays, the preacher asks, “Why not ask the person next to you to come with you so Jesus can make him happy?”
An Invitation or a Command?
Instead of desperate sinners knocking on the door of heaven, we incorrectly paint a picture of Jesus pleading at the heart of the sinner. This type of “invitation” gives the impression that the sinner will be doing God a favor if he responds. The gospel is not an invitation, because invitations can be politely turned down without fear of reprisal. Scripture says that “God …commands all men everywhere to repent” (Acts 17:30, italics added).
We would never dare quote some of the following verses to encourage someone to come to Christ:
All who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution (2 Timothy 3:12).
We must through many tribulations enter the kingdom of God (Acts 14:22).
Many are the afflictions of the righteous (Psalm 34:19).
In the world you will have tribulation (John 16:33).
Neither would we mention the sufferings of the apostle Paul—the stonings, perils, and shipwrecks he endured. Why, it’s hard enough to get converts when we hold up the good things of the gospel!
We try, in our evangelical zeal, to argue sinners into the kingdom by appealing to their intellect. We attempt to scare them into heaven by “666 Campaigns.” We try to seduce them into the kingdom by telling them that Jesus will make them happy. In fact, we use every method to bring people to Christ except the method God has ordained—the Law!
How to Fill a Church
Let’s turn the spotlight inward for a moment. Do we preach a man-centered, “easy” gospel because we want to see more people saved or because we know the consequences? Are we like the mother who won’t discipline a naughty child because she doesn’t like the feeling she gets when she does it? She places her immediate concern over the long-term welfare of her child.
Nathan may have felt sorry for King David, as he cringed under the weight of the prophet’s words, but Nathan had to obey God-not his feelings. David’s eternal welfare was at stake. Better the sinner be offended in order to repent, than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season and be cast into everlasting fire. Where does the heart of our concern lie-with the fate of the sinner or with our own comfort?
The sinner hides behind the bush of sin. But we beat around the bush rather than beat the bush for fear of disturbing him. Yet, the day will come when every sinner is flushed out.
Some Christians innocently ask, “Why not preach a ‘man-centered’ gospel if it gets people ‘saved’?” We can preach a man-centered gospel and get results; we may even fill our churches. But adding a soul to a church does not necessarily mean that a soul has been added to the church. A decision for Christ doesn’t necessarily mean a soul for Christ.
I attended one service where a challenge was made to accept Christ, but the Law of God was not mentioned. A young man stood up and briskly walked to the altar. He stepped to the platform, turned around, and smiled at the congregation. As I looked at him I didn’t see any outward sign of brokenness, guilt, or contrition. He wasn’t fleeing to Christ for mercy. A short time later, he backslid.
Unlike this young man, some don’t slide back into the world. Instead, church becomes no different than a social club. These new converts make plenty of friends; there are regular activities and no fees. Unfortunately, they also have no burden for souls, no real hunger for the Word, no zeal for God, and no lasting fruit. A “man-centered” gospel can fill your church with this type of “conversion.”
P.T. Forsyth accurately observed:
Our churches are full of the nicest, kindest people who have never known the despair of guilt or the breathless wonder of forgiveness.
I am not against altar calls. Nothing is wrong with response to an altar call, but what sinners are responding to determines its effectiveness.
Hot or Cold?
There are only two kinds of Christian —“cold” and refreshing or “hot” and stimulating. All the rest will be spewed out of the mouth of Christ on judgment day.
I know your works, that you are neither cold nor hot. I could wish you were cold or hot. So then, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew you out of My mouth (Revelation 3:15-16).
Soft-selling the gospel is the tragedy of modern evangelism. Its massive casualty rate leaves multitudes in the “lukewarm” bracket and sours the untaught to the truths of true commitment. How can we turn the tide and restore credibility to our conversion rates? Let’s stop soft-selling the gospel and tell sinners like it is!
Author: Ray Comfort of Living Waters Publications. Excerpted from Hell’s Best Kept Secret
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