‘Tis the VBS season! (No Sinner’s Prayer Required)

Paul Washer has declared a war on the sinner’s prayer. He even goes so far as to call it the “golden calf” within some Baptist circles (Washer is Baptist mind you). I agree with much of this shocking sentiment. Hear me out: Though I believe the biblical reasons are manifold, I also have personal reasons for my particular distaste. I don’t believe I am alone.

Here is the way the sinner’s prayer is presented in many church (Vacation Bible School) contexts:

Towards the end of the week, the children (K-5)are herded into a big room where a pastor is waiting for them. They are greeted, seated, and told to have “every head bowed and every eye closed.” There the pastor gives a very brief Roman Road-ish gospel presentation and prompts the children to a decision in this way:

“Now you don’t want to spend an eternity  in hell apart from Jesus do you? (only the spawn of Satan would really want this) Well, of course you don’t. All you have to do is repeat this little prayer after me and you will be saved. Say this:”

Usually the recitation involves a brief acknowledgment of sin, faith, the cross and the resurrection of Jesus Christ. After the pastor is finished he asks everyone who repeated the prayer to raise a hand up or stand up or look up or give a thumbs up. To those who do he gives assurance of their salvation and welcomes them into the family of God forevermore.

In third grade, this was almost verbatim the way I was presented the gospel during VBS. And I prayed that little prayer. And I prayed it again the next year. And the next. And the year after that.

Between the third and eleventh grade I probably recited the “Sinner’s Prayer” over 100 times but to no avail.

I was a bit confused (I know many others who have experienced this confusion).

The summer before my senior year I still had no assurance that little magic prayer did the right trick for me even though numerous pastors assured me it did. Around that time, during a summer camp I went to as a student leader, it pleased God to do a sovereign work in me. There, during worship, the utter ugliness of my sin and beauty of God’s grace crashed like a train wreck in my soul to produce in me true conversion. God granted me what the puritans used to call “the gift of holy tears.” I finally knew I was changed. I felt it. I was assured of it.

I don’t remember reciting any specific prayer during the whole ordeal other than maybe, “God don’t kill me.”

I have never been the same since that decisive moment. His cross and relentless grace haunts me on a daily basis, in my dreams and thoughts. I found out later the Bible confirmed what I experienced. It was true repentance.

I began to learn a staple in cultural Christianity had little or no biblical basis. Jesus never said, “The time is fulfilled the kingdom of God is at hand, so everybody bow your head and pray this prayer with me….”

But unfortunately, the “sinner’s prayer” remains as a simple effective church strategy to “win souls.” I believe this reveals our true golden calf in many evangelical churches: Pragmatism. If it works (or seems to work) it must be of God. If it gets results/decision cards it must be the Holy Spirit. So much of our church traditions are not Bible-driven but simply results-driven.

But instead of parrots and decision cards we better start looking for heaven born Fruit (Galatians 5). We need only the Holy Spirit to be saved not man-produced incantations (John 3).

Some call it easy believism. Some call decisional regeneration. Here is the really subversive thing about it: Later in life when this person feels real conviction over their sin and lost state they will go to a Christian preacher/counselor/friend about their troubled soul. And instead of giving the lost one a biblical assurance of faith (through 1 John) the counselor will ask “Did you ever ask Jesus to come in to your heart? Did you ever pray that prayer?” To which the hell raising lost sap will say: “Yes, in VBS a long time ago…” And the misguided Christian/pastor will exclaim “Well, then you’re saved!”

And another false convert heads to hell with a false comfort clinging to a false gospel understanding. Real repentance and faith must produce a life of real works and fruit (The whole book of James!). As the Reformers used to say, “We are saved by faith alone, but not by faith that is alone.”

So let’s pray for true conversions this VBS season. Let’s pray for a genuine understanding of repentance, faith, and the discipleship road with Christ. Even in six-year olds. Six year olds who grow to be sixteen year olds who have matured into deeper revelations of faith and repentance and grace.

I’ve heard it said VBS is the greatest tool of evangelism in the life of the church. I believe that is and can continue to be true. That is, only if we are patient enough to not sacrifice our children on the altar of religious pragmatism.

Keep sowing the gospel seed to those kids my VBS peeps, God is faithful to produce a harvest! No psychological techniques or arm twisting needed. : )

Bryan Daniels

The Agony of Eternal Life-God Loves You and Has an Agonizing Plan For Your Life

Strive to enter in at the narrow gate” (Luke 13:24)

Jesus would not be a minister of evangelism/missions at your church. It’s likely he would have never gotten past your search committee. You may not even want him on a visitation team. Not if you attend a church like most in modern American “churchianity”.

A cursory reading of Scripture shows that many times instead of making it easy for people to come to him, Christ put up formidable barriers to their coming. The harshness of tone and content in his invitation was usually in direct correlation to the hidden pride of his hearers. Amazingly, Christ didn’t always hit an inquiring person with a John 3:16 or a Mat 11:28 like we do. The Rich Young Ruler got smacked with the Ten Commandments when he came in Mark 10. The Pharisees were told their mom shagged the devil in John 8. Christ referred to a needy Samaritan woman as a dog when she asked for help in Mark 7:28. In general, his call in the Gospels consisted of “Turn your back on everything you know, and come die with me.” To which the response was either instant obedience to the command or “This dude’s crazy!” and “He just has a demon.”

So it shouldn’t surprise us that when Christ was met with a seemingly simple question, he handled it in an utterly unique and refreshingly blunt way. In Luke 13:23, as Jesus is teaching and journeying towards Jerusalem, an inquirer asks, “Lord, are there few who are saved?” Far from a simple “Yes” or “No” answer Jesus gives this response: “Strive to enter in at the narrow gate” (Luke 13:24).

He doesn’t just say “whosoever believes in me” will have eternal life. He doesn’t just say, “All who come unto me will be saved.” He says in effect, “Those who are saved are those who strive.” In the Greek he seems to be saying even more than that. The Greek word here used for “strive” (agonizomai) is a very expressive and emphatic one. It literally means to “agonize.” The questioner lobs an underhanded softball to Jesus, and according to our modern standards of evangelism, Christ Himself whiffs and pulls a hamstring in the process. He doesn’t tell him to just believe, he tells him to agonize. This is not friendship evangelism, the Roman Road, or even the F.A.I.T.H. outline. I have yet to see a gospel tract with the call for the unbeliever to agonize and anguish their way into eternal life.

The early church knew something of agonizing into Eternal Life

Grace is clearly free and sovereign in Scripture. (Eph 2:8, Rom 9:16) So why strive to enter into eternal life, why must we agonize for something free? It probably has to do with one of the most important words in Scripture: repentance.  Repentance is a heart-rending world-view shattering change that happens within a person. It’s a gift of God’s grace, and it is a gift that is indeed agonizing for those who experience it. When a revelation of our iniquity crashes against a revelation of God’s holiness, repentance is birthed in us and we are broken. Agonizingly and beautifully broken.

And it doesn’t stop with a one time act of repentance, but a continual repenting, a putting to death the deeds of the body for the rest of our God-given lives. Rom 8:13 As the chief of Puritans, John Owen, said, “Be killing sin, or it will be killing you.” The word (agonizomai) used in Luke 13:24 is the same word used in 1Cor 9:25 of an athlete battling to win a victory. It is also used in 1Tim 6:12, of the Christian who “fights the good fight of faith.” The life of Christ is a severe struggle, a battle, and even a life of shocking violence. This is in no way a violence to others, but a violence to self- our own flesh, desires and dreams, and everything remaining of the old nature. It’s better to gouge out your sinning eye and amputate your transgressing arm now so that you may gain King Jesus and entry into his kingdom for eternity. We see why the gate of salvation is “narrow” now. As Christ said in a tandem passage, there are “very few” who find it. (Mat 7:13-14)

This is not to deny the true abiding joy a Christian experiences. But even our joy in Christ is an agonizing joy. Our persevering on the narrow road with Christ is an agonizing persevering. I am not a woman, and thus have not experienced firsthand the sacred rite of childbirth. But after witnessing the birth of my son and hearing the testimony of many women, I venture to guess it is not just a beautiful process for the mother, but an agonizingly beautiful process. Everything worth anything is. This is especially true for the only thing worth everything-Christ Himself and gaining an eternal knowledge of him. (John 17:3)

This verse is a warning to me, and all who may be casual confessors of Christ. The kingdom of heaven does not consist of decision cards and  church attendance, the kingdom of heaven is much like a war within you. When we came to Christ we were automatically enlisted into a battle for the ages; we were set on the beautiful and agonizing path of life with Christ. Nominal striving is no striving at all. Do we agonize over our sin, the very sin that put our precious Savior on the cross? Do we agonize over our lack of fervor and obedience to our perfect Lord and Master? If we do, we may take heart that God’s grace has taken effect in us.

If not, the solution Christ offers is beautifully, agonizingly simple: “Repent and believe the gospel.” (Mark 1:15)

Bryan Daniels