Leaning Against the Gates of Hell
The Problem with Evangelical Soul-Winning Methodology
(This article was originally published on Blogos http://blogos.org/theologyapologetics/convert-disciple.php)
“their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work. If what has been built survives, the builder will receive a reward. If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved—even though only as one escaping through the flames.” (1 Corinthians 3:13–15)
People are disappointed under only one condition: when their expectations are not met… and many “converts” flee Christianity for just that reason. Not long after praying the sinner’s prayer they look around and realize, “This is not what I signed-up for!”… and they’re right. We misrepresent both the Christ and Christianity when we pitch the savior-only Jesus.
But, you may ask, isn’t the most important thing to just “get ‘em saved” — to pull them back from the abyss? Well… yes… but to do what? To prop them up just inside the door… to leave them leaning against the gates of hell? But what other posture should we expect from people who have been living selfishly for decades — just marinating in the world — who then sidle-up to the savior-only Jesus… sacrificial service?
But what of the Holy Spirit? Doesn’t he guide and protect? Yes he does — and every convert benefits from his indwelling. But the Holy Spirit does not lobotomize the believer… I mean, look at us; even we who know better still fail God continually. So, unless the Church takes steps to educate and to encourage Christ’s new creations immediately, how would they know enough not to live their lives as closely to the flames as possible?
Besides, the real Jesus has work for us to do — and this work is to be done by disciples, not converts. “Conversion” is a state of being, but “discipleship” is a state of doing. So, where conversion secures one person (which is great!), discipleship serves many (which is greater!) So, unless you believe that “being something” is Jesus’ end-game for believers, you should ensure that “doing something” follows… like Ephesians 2:10 follows verses 8 & 9… and not just as an add-on — but as the point.
But before we go any further, let’s clarify a key issue: Are these barebones converts saved? Yes. The Apostle Paul taught about just such people in 1 Corinthians 3:13-15.
“their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work. If what has been built survives, the builder will receive a reward. If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved—even though only as one escaping through the flames.” (NIV, emphasis mine)
But is this what God wants for such a person? No. (See again 1 Cor. 3:13-15.) This kind of salvation is only minimally better than damnation — and again, it only serves that one person. A “mere” convert provides no benefit to the Body of Christ… unless headcount alone somehow functions as a benefit. But does that make traditional soul-winning methodologies necessarily bad? No. Making converts is certainly better than not making converts. Indeed — snatching souls from the edge of destruction is one of Christianity’s practicable mercies.
“Be merciful to those who doubt; save others by snatching them from the fire; to others show mercy, mixed with fear—hating even the clothing stained by corrupted flesh.” (Jude 22–23)
But soul-winning is not “the job.” Making disciples is.
“Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”” (Matthew 28:19–20)
Now, I will agree — you can’t make a disciple unless you first make a convert. But why did Jesus omit the “convert” part in the great commission? Perhaps he did not want converts-only… which are the type of believers you’d get from a savior-only. Jesus wants his people to become earnest and fully-formed Christians — the kind you get from the whole Christ. Those are harder to make, of course, but again… that’s the job.
In the soul-winners’ defense, they struggle against the popular idea that “being good” in this world ensures bliss in the next. But the Bible is clear that salvation comes by grace alone, through faith alone — and apart from any payment-looking-thingies… like working in a soup kitchen or partaking in a sacrament. And since these notions permeate the culture, soul-winners must avoid even the smell of a works-based salvation. But should they respond by inventing a savior-only Jesus… even if that greases the salvific moment? How is that not a bait-and-switch… a lie?
One problem is that we think too little of people… and perhaps too much of our methodologies. The people God wants — those who will become disciples — will rise to his challenges. The others? That’s the wrong focus. Remember what God did with Gideon sans the others? (Judges 7:7). Remember what God did with Jonathan and his armor bearer sans Saul’s army? God has chosen that we, his people, will fight his battles… but our number is not the key to victory.
“….Nothing can hinder the Lord from saving, whether by many or by few.”” (1 Samuel 14:6).
Another problem is that we present theoretical extremes as practical norms — that is, we fail to separate our disciplines adequately. You see, soul-winners and philosophers often have overlapping data, methods and goals — but they have different sub-purposes in the kingdom of God. The soul-winner communicates the Gospel, while the philosopher explores its philosophical and theological limits. As such, the philosopher must ask questions like, what are the edges of salvation? How “bad” of a person can exist and still be saved? How “good” of a person can exist and not be saved?
As important as those questions are (and as astonishing their answers can be!) the soul-winner should never even infer that these philosophical or theological extremes are normal… let alone desirable… so we should exercise extreme caution — traveling to the Savior-only edge only when necessary… and perhaps in the same proportion as does the Scripture. To illustrate, let us explore salvation’s edges by running a few scenarios.
Charles Manson (still imprisoned for the Tate murders) and the late Mother Teresa (on the fast-track to Roman Catholic sainthood) represent the opposite edges of moral behavior — indeed, they are icons for evil and for good — and our world seems balanced between them. But if Mother Teresa — who, in spite of her many good-works done on this earth… and all done in the name of God — was never truly converted, then all her good works would count for naught… and she would be disqualified from entering heaven.
This shocks some people, but the Bible is very explicit: first, you must be “born again” to get into heaven — and if you are not thus converted you can’t even see the kingdom of God… let alone participate in it.
“Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.””
(John 3:3, NIV)
The Bible is also clear that there are plenty of people doing great-looking things in the name of God… but who do not belong to him. These souls are not just wasting their time… they are perishing... and furthermore, Jesus disavows them… even though they evoke his name!
““Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’” (Matthew 7:21–23, NIV)
Now let us examine the other extreme: what if Charles Manson had a death-bed conversion? That is, with only minutes to live, Manson truly repents… truly relies on Christ… and then dies. Would he wind-up in heaven? Sure he would… and this should cause you a visceral reaction.
But how would Manson be any different from the thief on the cross whose deference to the Savior eclipsed the evil of his fully horrible life… but in its final minutes… and garnered the assurance of his salvation from Jesus’ own lips? If this shocks you — that Charlie Manson could be saved — you probably think too much of yourself, too little of your sin… and too little of the Savior. Because, before salvation, we all failed the litmus test as sinners. Yet people cling to a vain notion that their pre-regenerate selves were somehow better than some other persons’ pre-regenerate selves… and that’s just not so.
But the Manson scenario (as does the account of the thief on the cross) represents the practical limits of salvation, because such late-hour converts would have no lives left to live. That is their loss… and perhaps that would have been our loss, too… but that is not the norm. So, when soul-winning, why focus on a minimal scenario to demonstrate maximal power? Instead, why not raise the eyes of the lost… or at the very least… let us discourage their looking back (Gen. 11:26).
It is the philosopher’s job to explore the edges of salvation, but it is not the soul-winner’s job to sell Charlie Manson’s edge as normative… and that is what savior-onliness does. If a person is promised that he can become a Christian by committing to the least, then it will be okay if he performs to the least… after all… he only signed up for salvation, right?… and none of that take-my-yoke-upon-you stuff.
Although the saving aspects of Jesus Christ can and should be considered discretely for analysis and study, they should never be used to spearhead methodology. Jesus Christ is a package — and he is best understood as Jesus, the Christ… and all that implies through both Testaments.
So, is Jesus the Savior? You bet! Is Jesus the only Savior? You bet! Is Jesus the Savior-only? You decide.