If you’ve been in the American church for any amount of time, you are probably familiar with the concept of the “sinner’s prayer.” Basically, a preacher asks people in the congregation to repeat after him if they are interested in having Jesus Christ come into their hearts and save them. The prayer will generally go something like this: “God, I know I’m a sinner, and without you I am destined for eternal punishment. I repent of my sins. Please forgive me and come into my heart. Be my Lord and Savior. Amen.”
Poof! If you’ve repeated this prayer, then you’re now magically saved, right? Well, not exactly. It doesn’t work like a flu shot.
People will often point to the fact that when they repeated these words, they “meant it” and therefore, it has to be legitimate. Well, maybe or maybe not. The problem is, the words that come out of our mouths can often be at odds with what’s actually in our hearts—even if we feel like they are the same.
People can be swayed very easily by their feelings, whether it be the lovey-dovey atmosphere created by the powerful preaching, dim lighting, or soothing music. It could also be peer-pressure-induced, where friends or loved ones nudge you into saying the prayer or answering the altar call. Either way, the Bible warns us in Jeremiah 17:9 that human hearts are deceitfully wicked…who can know it?
There is not one place in the Bible that tell us that repeating a formulaic prayer will grant us salvation. A simple man-made prayer does not have special abilities. However, these prayers often contain a lot of correct elements that clue us in on how to actually find Jesus. Using my sample prayer, let’s break it down a bit.
“God, I know I’m a sinner, and without you I am destined for eternal punishment.”
The first step toward real salvation is acknowledging and understanding fully that we are sinners. This is more than saying “I’m not perfect” or “I have done wrong at least once in my life.” Everyone in the world could admit to that! No, this means recognizing that we have broken God’s law and that as sinners, we are broken beyond repair. This is letting go of the secular idea that we are essentially “good people” who slip up sometimes. Rather, it’s a realization that our sin nature leaves us in a very grave situation. We are rotten to the core, and there’s nothing we can do about it on our own. In light of a fully just God, we deserve hell.
Do you really believe that? Or do you look at other people around you and say that you are comparatively “good”? Do you secretly think, “If God turned me away from heaven, that would be unfair!” If you feel this way, you are not ready.
“I repent of my sins.”
Do you really? In addition to genuine remorse for your sins, are you ready and willing to do whatever it takes to turn completely away from that lifestyle? Do you see those things in a different light now, as dirty and serious? Or do you cling to your desire to dabble in sin, do enough “good” to cancel out the bad? Do you wish to be saved but have no desire to be sanctified?
Do you think this way? “Of course, I want to go to heaven! But while I’m here on earth, I don’t need to be a saint or anything. I’ll live it up because Jesus loves me and forgives me.”
If this is your mentality, then you are not genuinely repentant. Someone who is ready to be a Christ-follower may slip up time to time, but they do not brush it off as if it were nothing. When they slip off the narrow path to life, God comes for them and they continue fighting their flesh. If this is not you, you are not ready.
“Please forgive me and come into my heart.”
Let’s think about our own lives for a minute here. Let’s imagine you are married and you’ve had a heated argument with your spouse. Hurtful words were hurled and you’re still stinging from the pain.
Now, let’s say he or she comes up to you and says, “Please forgive me.” You look at them, and they are not truly sorry, nor do they have any intention of trying to improve themselves in the future. They just want the fight to stop so you can cook them dinner or give them other benefits. Would you forgive them?
In the same way, God is not interested in idle words and empty gestures. As Paul Washer once said, “the greatest heresy in the American church is that if you ask Jesus to come into your heart, he will definitely come in.” No, this isn’t how it works. If Jesus sees your heart and you are not ready or willing to do what it takes to make it work, he will not come in. He does not force himself upon you just because of some words you’re repeating in an instant of conviction.
There’s a reason why many will come to the gate and say, “Lord, Lord,” only to hear Jesus say to them: “I never knew you.” (Matthew 7:21-23) How do you know this isn’t going to happen to you?
“Be my Lord and Savior. Amen.”
People often think about Jesus as their savior, but that’s it. They are glad he will whisk them away to heaven and save them from the flames of hell, but they forget about the other requisite part.
He has to be LORD.
Most people in America will call themselves Christians, but they are the furthest thing from Christ-followers. They prayed a prayer and called him “Lord,” yet they live their lives as they see fit.
When someone is your LORD, that means he is your master. You are his servant/slave. Does your mentality really reflect this at all?
If the Bible says something is sinful or commands us not to do certain things (or support them), do you brush it off as outdated “advice”? Do you regard the opinions of man and culture more highly? Do the things that scientists proclaim to be true take precedence in your life?
Do you gloss over the uncomfortable portions of scripture that do not appeal to you, but rather focus heavily on God’s grace and love? Do you profess to love God but fail to live out his commands? John 14:15 tells us that if we love Him, we are to obey.
If you have the (surprisingly common) mentality of “I’ll follow, but only when I really agree,” then Jesus Christ is not your Lord. ANYone will follow someone’s commands if they fully agree with them already. Are you willing to obey even when you don’t fully understand or it rubs you the wrong way?
If God is not your Lord, then He is not your savior. Please don’t fool yourself.
If everyone who calls themselves “Christian” is capable of deceiving themselves and feelings are an unreliable measure, then how in the world can you know if you are really saved? Well, the Bible says that a good tree will bear good fruit (and a bad tree will bear bad fruit…and be cut down and thrown into the fire) – Matthew 7:17-19. It exhorts us to examine ourselves (2 Corinthians 13:5) to see if we are in the faith. The test is not whether we prayed a prayer one time in our life, but rather whether our lives are truly changed and on the narrow path in this world. Are we being sanctified? Are we convicted of our sin and repenting continually?
Granted, change is a gradual process for most people, but the trend should be unmistakeable over time. If you were “on fire” for Christ for a short period of your life but have fallen back to a secular lifestyle, there is a possibility that you are like the second or third (unsaved) soils in the Parable of the Sower.
James calls faith without deeds useless and dead. “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them?” (James 2:14)
If we are living our lives just as we were before, or we appear just like the world around us, then this is a serious symptom of a “dead” faith. This doesn’t mean that you are simply living a feeble Christian life, but rather, it means you are not His at all!
In conclusion, reciting the so-called “sinner’s prayer” has no magical powers on its own (though it does have some useful elements in it). This is not the way to test if you are a Christian. The true test and evidence comes in the way you walk and talk, the way you think. Is it conforming to God’s Word, or do you still belong to the world? Remember that you cannot serve both the world and God; it’s one or the other.
In fact, if you are truly a child of His, chances are at some point, the world will hate you or find you foolish (e.g., Matthew 10:22; 24:9; John 15:19). If the world finds you perfectly agreeable, then raise the red flags…there’s something wrong.
This is a very good question that my wife raised after my last entry, and I’m sure I don’t fully understand it yet (does anybody?)…but I’ll take a stab at it for now.
*Disclaimer: When I say “speaks to you,” I’m referring to a literal and direct form of communication. The leading of the Holy Spirit is a separate and complex issue on its own, though I do touch upon it here.
All I can really do—since I’m limited in this kind of experience—is theorize and try to deduce truths from the scriptures and from my coursework. I’m basically using what I’ve read and observed in the Bible and trying to make reasonable assumptions for today. You can also take some of the things I wrote in my previous entry regarding demon deception and flip it around (for instance, God often tells people what they don’t want to hear or do, considering our naturally sinful flesh).
I’m going to try to limit it to three basic conclusions, and you can decide for yourself whether my reasoning is valid:
1. God speaks clearly and decisively.
If you think or feel you might have been told something from God but you’re not sure, then it wasn’t from God…at least by direct authoritative means.
When God speaks to someone on earth, whether personally (as a theophany…never directly in full glory) or through a messenger angel, the recipient of that communication is never left wondering what he or she was told. All we need to do is consult the Bible and we’ll see this demonstrated repeatedly.
A clear demonstration of this is found in 1 Samuel 3 where God is calling Samuel to be a prophet, but Samuel thinks it is Eli calling him from the other room. This shows us two things: 1) God can communicate in an audible voice with actual words; and less importantly, 2) His voice might not be as booming and distinctive as we assume (God doesn’t even need to sound the same every time; it’s not like He has a fixed set of vocal chords or anything…He probably just uses what is most effective in each situation).
Another famous example is when Paul (formerly Saul) met Jesus on the road to Damascus.
Acts 9:3-6: “As [Saul] neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” “Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked. “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” he replied. “Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.”
I think it’s clear that when a communication is truly from God, we are left with more than feelings or urges. We are left with actual words, instructions, warnings, and awe. I like what Greg Koukl (str.org) said on one of his podcasts, and I’ll paraphrase: “If you’re going to say, ‘God told me,’ then you better be prepared to say something that is on the same level of authority as the Bible and God himself.” While it may be tempting, we should never use the phrase “God told me” lightly.
Now, this is not to discount the leading of the Holy Spirit for believers, which is also important and much more frequent. Sometimes, He can lead us strongly with convictions and desires, but this would generally be used for more localized purposes such as the direction of your own life. The Spirit might be leading us on the right path or growing us to become a stronger, more faithful person. To confirm answers to prayer, we will often get support and agreement from godly brothers and sisters who are not as clouded with emotional bias and tunnel vision.
But this does not seem to be the way that God uses people to command others with bold authority. You cannot use the leading of the Holy Spirit and accurately say, “God told me to tell people…” God knows our propensity to misjudge feelings and convictions, so He uses something more concrete when history is on the line.
What about an angel/messenger of God? Well again, there is no uncertainty. When people are approached by angels, they are usually in awe and fear, and again hear direct words.
Luke 2:9-10: “And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear. And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.”
Revelation 22:8: “I, John, am the one who heard and saw these things. And when I heard and saw them, I fell down to worship at the feet of the angel who showed them to me, but he said to me, ‘You must not do that! I am a fellow servant with you and your brothers the prophets, and with those who keep the words of this book. Worship God.'”
These angelic examples bring us to the next point…
2. If your encounter was definitely supernatural, then consider whether it was truly a messenger of God or a demon.
If we encountered something supernatural, we would know it unmistakably. But is seeing a greater being necessarily a good thing? Is it a messenger of God or of Satan?
Notice how both angels responded to people’s fear and even worship. “Fear not” and “Worship God” were their reactions. They were delivering a message for God, and they did not want to intimidate or impose their superiority over people. They quickly turned away worship because they wanted all glory to go to God, not themselves.
Angels always deliver messages that are consistent with the Bible and further God’s glory, not any individual’s. Often, these messages concern a nation’s repentance or deliverance.
Contrast that with a very probable demonic encounter—one involving Muhammad, the founder of Islam.
To his credit, Muhammad actually suspected that he had been approached by a demon or even had been possessed, but he was given assurances from his wife and uncle that it was from God. This demon, posing as Gabriel, told Muhammad to recite: “In the name of thy Lord who created, Created man from a clot of blood.”
Here we have something that directly contradicts or adds to scripture. That is the first big clue. Nowhere does the Bible say we were created from a clot of blood, but rather from the dust of the ground.
Muhammad was left with great fear instead of being comforted and assured, as with angels. (Demons do not care about our well-being, but want to destroy us.) He also experienced numerous violent seizures when he would receive these visions, further supporting the fact that there was some level of possession going on. In the end, great glory wound up going to Muhammad on this earth as the revered leader of a new religion. Most prophets in the Bible, however, wound up being ridiculed, persecuted, and martyred.
3. Genuine spiritual encounters are rare today, but not impossible.
You may be thinking, “If this stuff is true, then we probably never hear directly from God!”
I would partially agree with that assessment. We still are in communication with Him through prayer and such, but the need for God to speak direct words to us is vastly reduced. The two biggest reasons for this are: 1) The Bible and 2) The Holy Spirit. God’s Word is now complete and we are given the information we need to live our lives according to His will. When a specific leading is needed, the Holy Spirit guides our lives as true believers in the right direction. The Holy Spirit came to us at Pentecost after Jesus’ resurrection, so functionally speaking, it’s primarily His time on earth now.
That being said, I do believe that God has more in store for us as far as communicating directly. We definitely know of at least two cases in the future when God will speak to people: the two prophets spoken of in Revelation during the Tribulation. They will receive precise instructions on what to preach and warn people about. Again, we see a clear purpose in history for doing so.
Some people—including pastors—claim that God has spoken to them and told them things. I won’t mention names, but certain big-name prophecy guys say this or at least strongly hint at it.
Yes, it’s possible that God can still speak directly to people for a greater purpose. But all it usually takes is one look at the track record of these “prophets” to dismantle their case. If they have proclaimed something in the name of God and have been wrong even ONCE, they are false plain and simple. “The rapture is coming on this date!…oh wait, nevermind, now it’s this date!” Write them off as prophets immediately, though they may still have some valid teachings to offer.
God is never wrong, and neither are His prophets if they have genuinely been chosen for that purpose.
This phenomenon is not surprising at all…it’s what we’ve been noticing all along, but here are a few relevant quotes (try not to gag):
Barna tells USA Today, “People say, ‘I believe in God. I believe the Bible is a good book. And then I believe whatever I want.’” Indeed, Barna says only seven percent of those he surveyed say they believe in seven essential Christian doctrines, as listed in the National Association of Evangelicals’ Statement of Faith.
If you’re curious, here are the seven essential Christian doctrines according to this statement of faith:
- We believe the Bible to be the inspired, the only infallible, authoritative Word of God.
- We believe that there is one God, eternally existent in three persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
- We believe in the deity of our Lord Jesus Christ, in His virgin birth, in His sinless life, in His miracles, in His vicarious and atoning death through His shed blood, in His bodily resurrection, in His ascension to the right hand of the Father, and in His personal return in power and glory.
- We believe that for the salvation of lost and sinful people, regeneration by the Holy Spirit is absolutely essential.
- We believe in the present ministry of the Holy Spirit by whose indwelling the Christian is enabled to live a godly life.
- We believe in the resurrection of both the saved and the lost; they that are saved unto the resurrection of life and they that are lost unto the resurrection of damnation.
- We believe in the spiritual unity of believers in our Lord Jesus Christ.
Sadly, only seven percent of those surveyed believe in these essential doctrines. Seven! (And if you take the number who truly believe these things in their hearts and live it out—not just give intellectual assent—I’d imagine it’d be an even lower percentage.)
Anyway, on with the quotes:
This buffet-style religion isn’t confined to the church…[Nadine Epstein of the Jewish magazine Moment] adds, “You pick and choose the part of the religion that makes sense to you.”
But as Stan Guthrie warns:
“Jesus, unlike the religious action figures sold at Wal-Mart, is not infinitely bendable, able to assume whatever postmodern pose we give him.”
Seriously people, just write your own holy books. It doesn’t have to be original, just pick and choose the parts you like from each existing one and then add your own thoughts. Voila.
But please do us a favor and stop calling yourselves Christians.
Logically speaking, the outward behavior of Christian people should be irrelevant to the truth of Jesus Christ. Even true believers who know the gospel are prone to fail once in a while. What matters is what the Bible actually teaches, which is far from what the world sees in Christians.
Still, this objection is still very real to a lot of people, so it deserves to be addressed.
*Taking off the robot hat.
As a human being, it’s easy to discredit a belief system or religion if you see its adherents acting in unflattering ways. It’s just a natural response. In fact, Jesus was well aware of this natural tendency of human beings and instructed Christians to be like salt or a light to the world (Matthew 5:13-16), meaning we’re supposed to set a good example and positively influence the world around us. Salt is meant to represent something that not only brings out full goodness (flavor), but also to preserve and keep things from rotting. We are to be holy and uphold morality in a world that naturally degenerates toward sin. A light, obviously, shines and counters the darkness, showing the right path.
Unfortunately, Christians seem to be failing in great measure (though to be fair, some succeed). Instead of drawing people toward Christ, many of us are turning off the world to the message. As Ghandi famously said, “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”
So what exactly is the problem? Let’s start with the root of the problem…
Most “Christians” are not actually saved.
This part should come as no surprise to some people, especially considering my deluge of posts about this topic recently. Sadly, many modern churchgoers—especially in America—believe themselves to be Christian, but are really participating in just another religion. A true relationship with Christ and the changing power of the Holy Spirit cannot be found in them.
Some people estimate that perhaps only 5–10% of so-called Christians in America are actually true followers. This means that the vast majority of people are living by their own flesh, and therefore are just as likely as the rest of the world to succumb to temptations and fall to sin. The problem is, if an atheist person committed some morally questionable act, no one would flinch. But if a “Christian” does it, it sets off alarms and people cry “hypocrite!”
What is it exactly that we do that offends the secular world?
1. An average situation…
Imagine a scenario where a churchgoer is on a business trip with a few of his work buddies. Let’s call him Jim. His buddies decide one night, after a hard day of negotiations, to hit up the local strip club and down a few beers. What is the right response for Jim? Admittedly, he’s in a rough spot.
On the one hand, he could succumb to peer pressure and decide to go along. After all, he doesn’t want to offend them or come across as a Jesus freak, would he? But the problem is, he has just undermined the gospel and any possible platform he might have to share the message in the future. If a month from now, Jim is alone with one of his work friends and brings Jesus up, that friend might be thinking about Jim’s behavior that night at the strip club. His friends might think to themselves, “There’s no difference between Christians and us except we get to save our time and money on Sundays.”
On the other hand, if Jim declines the invitation, he might face added pressure. “Why not, come on man!” This is where he needs a lot of discernment and tact. Jim has to communicate that he doesn’t agree morally to such activities without coming across as pious or overly judgmental. This is an extremely hard line to walk, and most will fail miserably. (It’s probably a lose-lose anyway, practically speaking.) If he condemns the activity too hard, he adds to the stereotype that Christians are condescending and judgmental. If he’s too soft, he’s not standing up for his beliefs and is perhaps being ashamed of the gospel.
As 1 Peter 3:15 says: “But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect…”
This might mean that Jim will become less popular and that he won’t get invited to future events. They might label him as a party-pooper. So be it. At least he stood up for the truth without compromising and committing the sin of pride and condescension.
From that simple example, what I was trying to illustrate is that Christians either fail by going along with the world or by going against it with pride and spiritual piety.
2. Priests and pastors…
First off, I’ll share this rant by Christopher Hitchens, the militant anti-religious atheist: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NOamsF5r3TE.
I have to say, this is one of those rare times when I actually agree with a lot of what he says. The church has a lot to be sorry for, especially (historically) the Catholic church. Priests molesting young boys who are entrusted to their care and instruction is abominable. A history of anti-Semitism is not only abhorrent, but it’s strikingly UNbiblical and simple-minded. This kind of twisted behavior can only come about when we take something meant for good—the church—and turn it into a man-made institution, sullied by power grabbing and the substitution of earnest faith with rituals and rites. It’s no wonder so much has gone wrong over the past centuries.
But the Protestant church is not without blemish, either. You have pastors who are more interested in rubbing shoulders with the Washingtonian elite rather than being set apart from this world. There are people like Ted Haggard who embarrass the name of Christ by engaging in an active lifestyle of sexual sin and betrayal. Countless thieves, like Benny Hinn, use the name of God to fatten their wallets by deceiving the naive and trusting.
So what is going on?
It’s simple: they forgot—or never really knew—the Bible. They left the Holy Spirit out of their lives and they carried on alone, puffed up in their own pride and accomplishments (and congregation size).
Catholic priests mistakenly were taught that celibacy was holier than married life, and they chose a lifestyle that so precious few are actually called to. Think about it: Paul in the New Testament lived a celibate life, but he spent every waking minute preaching and arguing for God’s Word. When he wasn’t doing that, he was locked up in prisons and suffering. Do you think he had time to be a husband? Meanwhile, you have modern priests who interact with their parish members time to time and preach, but are left living a fairly comfortable life otherwise. With their weak flesh and idle time, it’s no wonder so many priests fall. Celibacy isn’t the way to go for most people.
Protestant pastors see their churches growing and they think, “Wow, I must be a good preacher!” They don’t spend every day in their Bibles, nor do they guard against the enemy. Pride or complacency (or straight-up being a fraud) opens the door and lets temptation come right in, besetting their lives with sin.
If only people would stay true to God’s word instead of their own insights and willpower. Man-made institutions and systems will always fail.
3. The bizarre and newsworthy…
You hear about it on the news all the time. The “Christian” mother who killed her kids because she thought God told her to (more like a demon). The “Christian” who opens fire on a Jewish crowd, thinking he’s fighting for some righteous cause (nevermind that Jesus was a Jew and that they are still God’s original chosen people).
Side note: Please stop calling Hitler a Christian and using him as an example. It’s ignorant and ridiculous. He was not a Christian, pure and simple. A person might call himself one for political purposes, but when your actions go against the Bible and you even plan on replacing scripture with your own book (Mein Kampf) in every classroom, that is not the work of a person indwelt by the Holy Spirit. It’s obvious as night and day.
Or how about the parents who beat their adopted children to death because they read from the Bible not to spare the rod? I guess they missed the part about being careful to discipline them. Perhaps they read Proverbs 23:13, which says: “Do not withhold discipline from a child; if you punish him with the rod, he will not die.” Common sense (and the countless other times in the Bible that refer to death as the opposite of salvation) would tell a normal person that the “he will not die” part refers to moral and spiritual death. By lovingly disciplining a child and correcting him, the parent is saving him from a future life of debauchery, corruption, and self-destruction. Heck, reading the very next verse should have made it obvious: “Punish them with the rod and save them from death.”
Again, this is just a result of bad biblical interpretation, twisting words to fit our own sinful agendas, or plain and utter stupidity. A wicked person can easily open up the Bible and find a way to justify his or her actions, but this blatant misuse doesn’t demean the actual word of God one bit.
So what can Christians do to fix this?
First, much of the criticism is justified, so we as a body of believers need to take responsibility and do better. Granted, we are judged more harshly than the rest of the world, that’s hard to deny. We could do the same things as a nonbeliever, but be impugned or labeled as a hypocrite for it. Is it a fair standard? Yes and no. Yes, because as true believers, we ARE supposed to be in a process of sanctification, so we simply cannot continue to live as the rest of the world. But no, it might not be completely fair because it’s still a process; none of us ever achieve perfection in our flesh.
Second, so-called “Christians” either need to give their lives over to God or stop calling themselves Christians. The word itself means “followers of Christ,” which entails actually following Christ’s way. They can attend church and call themselves seekers if they want, but they need to get it out of their heads that they’re set because of their false flu-shot salvation.
Third, we all need to bring the real Bible back to the church. Let’s ditch the man-made stuff that distracts from the true gospel—all the unbiblical rules, rites, rituals, and other things that supposedly make you holy. These things give people a false assurance and complacency that is dangerous in light of constant spiritual attack. If people were more biblical, they couldn’t possibly live their embarrassingly immoral lives and cast mud on the name of Jesus to the world.
Ultimately, the goal is not to be liked or to fit in. The Bible tells us straight up that the true gospel will probably bring hate upon us or persecution. But what we can’t do is undermine God’s glory by being poor representatives on earth. We can be hated for standing up for the truth, but we shouldn’t be hated for being hypocrites, thieves, and perverts.
1 Peter 2:11-12 tells us: “Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul. Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.”
Our good deeds might not make an impact now, and in fact, standing up for the truth may bring persecution upon us. But it will bring further glory to God in the end. May we let the Holy Spirit guide us always.
What defines a “bad preacher”? Is there some objective standard by which to judge, or is it all a matter of personal taste? If it’s the latter, then I admit that based on my subjective preferences, most preachers in churches today would qualify as bad preachers.
People who know me might tell you that I am not always the most cuddly and warm person. I don’t think I’m a total jerk either, and I’m certainly working on my heart issues, but I can tend to be critical still. There was a time when I would try out different churches and leave after a few weeks based on irksome things the pastors would do.
Some wouldn’t do their research well enough and would simply commit factual errors. I once went to a church where the pastor was on a roll, shouting out various praises to God, and the congregation gleefully followed. He would shout things like, “God is good! Just like when he helped Christopher Columbus find America in 1592! Just as he helped your car to start this morning!” (It was 1492, sir, and your car probably started because the parts were in working condition.)
Some would have annoying habits, like saying “Amen?” after every statement. It seemed almost like half-neediness for approval and half-nervous tick. “And then Paul went on that road, amen? And suddenly, amen? A great light came upon him, amen?” In addition to being distracting, it made me feel nervous and guilty for not constantly affirming vocally.
Many preachers state things that are way too obvious and simple. I end up walking out feeling like I’ve learned nothing and feeling convicted of nothing. I understand that it’s hard to cater your message to a congregation where everyone is of different spiritual walks, education levels, ages, and so forth…so it’s hard to fault them too heavily.
All of these are subjective (though I still maintain that God deserves better credibility and a higher level of scholarship throughout). Maybe it’s just me, and maybe I’m the cynical one in the crowd. But there is one litmus test (out of many) I use that helps me discern who is objectively a sound preacher.
It’s how they respond to a simple question: “Is there only one way to be saved?”
As a Bible-believing Christian, the answer to this question seems terribly obvious. It’s like asking whether Jesus really died on the cross and rose again.
Disturbingly, a large number of preachers waffle on this. Instead of a direct “yes,” they start tap-dancing like a politician. Perhaps it stems from a desire to be mainstream and popular. Perhaps it’s the desire not to offend anyone and to be a polite, open-minded fellow. Sometimes, it’s clearly the fact that they are not grounded in scripture, but rather their own ideas and experiences.
To me, if the preacher gives anything but an unambiguous “yes” to this question, he has lost a great deal of my respect. If he cannot have the courage of his convictions on this straightforward matter, how can I trust him as a credible source of spiritual truth and guidance? I realize that sometimes, things are open to interpretation and we shouldn’t be overly dogmatic, but there is no leeway on this particular issue. People are welcome to different religions and beliefs, but if someone calls herself a Christian, she must follow what the Bible says on this issue since it is crystal clear. This is not a gray area, folks.
I can think of two clear examples of men who, by all appearances, are genuine in their desire to reach people for Christ…but they have gotten their theology dangerously off course. Not so surprisingly, both are very popular and mainstream.
Joel Osteen: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lsdkqd1GcfA
I’ll be upfront and say I’ve never been a fan of Osteen. He focuses almost exclusively on the prosperity gospel and shies away constantly from anything that doesn’t make people feel good. From what I’ve seen, his sermons are shocking devoid of a biblical foundation. He’ll throw in a couple of bible verses here and there to support his claims, but mostly, he sounds like he’s giving a self-help seminar based on his own ideas. A primary reason people should go to church is to hear the word of God, not the lectures of a fallible man.
When Osteen says, “only God knows,” he’s ignoring the simple fact that the Bible explicitly states that Jesus is the only way to life. True, we might not be able to discern who’s a “real” believer and who’s really going to heaven among “Christians” (I can say with certainty, however, that it’s nowhere near the purported 2 billion people). But we can say for sure that if what the Bible says is true, people who don’t believe in Jesus will not be saved. There are no back doors, I’m afraid, and Joel Osteen should know this simple fact by now.
Billy Graham: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=axxlXy6bLH0
I must say, this one actually saddens me. Billy Graham is one of the most prolific evangelists of modern times, and no one can doubt his sincerity. However, one telling admission that he makes in this video is that he used to insist that Jesus is the only way when he was younger…but then as he got older, he mellowed out. It seems that as he became gentler, he allowed his feelings to dictate what he believes on certain points, rather than scripture.
I also have a theory that part of the reason why some preachers find it so hard to accept that nonbelievers are going to hell if they don’t accept Christ is because they face situations in their ministry where the idea of eternal torment no longer sits well with them. I wish I could ask them to consider the no-compromise conditionalist view and see if it makes more sense, but I digress.
If you’re curious, my church pastor was indeed asked this important question by a Fox News interviewer. It’s kind of funny to see him on a TV program like this and he was clearly a bit nervous haha…but I love the way he answers. He shows that it’s possible to give a respectful, gentle answer without compromising the truth: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0wjj-y7SKR0. Way to represent, brother.
**By the way, I just realized today that he’s written a book about pain and suffering. I always wondered why he didn’t author something, but I guess I just wasn’t informed. Check it out: http://www.amazon.com/Brokenness-How-Redeems-Pain-Suffering/dp/0976377004/ref=pd_sxp_f_pt
Some good reviews:
“This book will prove to be a valuable resource indeed, for anyone who has experienced pain and suffering.” –Dr. Tim LaHaye, co-author Left Behind series, April 2005
“If you need encouragement and strength, Brokenness will help you through the difficult times from someone who has been there.” –Dr. Jerry Falwell, Pastor Thomas Road Baptist Church, April 2005
“When Lon Solomon writes a book on Brokenness, I want to read it. He knows whereof he speaks.” –David Brickner, Jews for Jesus, April 2005
You see this term tossed around in Christian circles all the time. It’s surprisingly common, actually. But what does it really mean? To me, it has grave undertones of danger and of…well, being a heretic, a religious loony on the fringe of rational thinking.
The reason I bring this topic up is that I realize that I’ve been writing about some ideas that are in the minority view. I don’t claim to have the whole truth or to know anything with 100% certainty, but I think it’s foolish to accept views blindly on authority. It’d also be foolish if I discarded the opinions of other informed people without first considering their explanations carefully. My opinion firmly remains that the only infallible, wholly reliable source is the Bible itself. I don’t find myself agreeing with any person on every single point, no matter how highly I respect him or her.
Speaking of someone I regard highly, William Lane Craig likes to say in his lectures that he believes that probably no living person has gotten every point of theology right. I wondered why this is, and I think it’s because there are simply too many factors that prohibit a full understanding of God. Some of these roadblocks to understanding include: sin (which also dampens the voice of the Holy Spirit), biases, limited life/spiritual experience, lack of intelligence, lack of research, poor critical thinking, youth, old age, and especially spiritual pride. Every single person on earth is susceptible to at least some of these. It’s only by the grace of God and the hearts and minds He’s given us that allows us to find any truth at all.
That being said, what are some possible ways to define “heresy”? Let’s take a look.
1) Breaking away from the prevalent or majority views.
2) Distorting the word of God or inserting meaning that’s not really there.
3) Believing in dogma that will possibly lead to spiritual apostasy and away from salvation.
They are purposely ordered in increasing degrees of “heretical” severity, in my opinion, and they will often overlap. I don’t think it’s as clear-cut as some believe.
1) Breaking away from the prevalent or majority views.
A simple definition of heresy might be that it is a belief that contradicts the established dogma of a religion. If that was the extent of it, I don’t think it’d be all that bad. After all, as Protestants, aren’t a lot of us heretics that broke away from the established Catholic church? If this is the whole meaning of the word, then it becomes purely a matter of perspective and personal opinions. It becomes relative, and I think the word loses its importance and meaning. Dogma in itself holds no power or authority.
Majority agreement also does very little to confirm the veracity of a claim. I say this with some reservation because I do think it’s worth trying to understand why most people believe things a certain way. Often times, there is a good reason for the prevalence of a view, even if it’s not immediately obvious to us.
In the interest of full disclosure, I think this is more or less how I go about trying to figure out the truth in Christian doctrine:
Step 1: What does the Bible appear to say? If it’s obvious, accept it and move onto the next topic. If there are some apparent conflicts or difficulty in understanding, then proceed to Step 2.
Step 2: What does the majority (or respected authorities) think? Read good commentaries and if it sounds plausible and rational, stick with it. This is kind of a safe starting position to hold by default. If the explanations sound contrived or inadequate, think on it further, then proceed to Step 3.
Step 3: Consult other opinions and read into other views. Before considering the truth of these views too deeply, make sure it squares away with the Bible directly. Try to tune out ungrounded assumptions and interpretations.
Step 4: Pray and reflect further. Read both sides of the argument. Often, you’ll see that proponents of both the traditional view and the unorthodox view know the other side’s points. It’s important not to bias yourself in one direction before deciding for yourself.
Step 5: Decide where you stand on the issue for now. Never feel completely settled and be open to opposing thoughts. If good reasons are given for consideration, be flexible. Throughout your spiritual walk, you may change back and forth a few times and that’s OK.
Now, I didn’t expect to go into all of that when I started this entry, but you’ll notice that I don’t fully appeal to the majority or authority. I think that’s naive and also very dangerous. What happens when the wrong view takes over because it’s attractive in some other way (other than being true)? What happens when Muslims start to outnumber Christians?
If you’re the only one who believes in the theological equivalent of the the moon landing being faked, question your beliefs. Deep deeper. But don’t let popular opinion overpower the word of God and good reasoning. Our logical capacities may be limited, and some things cannot be fully understood. But there’s a difference between logical limitations and logical incoherence. The latter points to a problem in a truth claim, the former points to a problem in us.
So no, I don’t think this first requirement of breaking away from widely held views constitutes true heresy with all the connotations attached to the word.
2) Distorting the word of God or inserting meaning that’s not really there.
Rather than hold you in any suspense, I’ll say upfront that now we’re entering 50/50 territory.
The safer side might look like this: two Christians interpret “perish” in John 3:16 in different ways. One thinks that it means what it literally says, and happens to hold the conditionalist view. The second thinks that hell is eternal for unbelievers, so thinks that the word means a figurative kind of perishing or death.
The reason I say this example is “the safer side” is because there are ways to interpret verses differently, and more importantly, nowhere in the Bible does it say you must believe in eternal burning in hell. Someone is wrong, but it’s an honest mistake that was not motivated by intense pride or deception. I think legalism—while annoying and misguided—also falls in the safer end, unless one explicitly states that salvation is earned through works.
In the more “dangerous” end of the spectrum, interpretations start to overtake scripture and directly contradict even the clearest verses. Often, this will come through some kind of “messenger” who “heard the voice of God” telling him some inside information that must now be told to others. The problem is, God would never tell them anything that directly goes against what was already stated in the Bible.
An obvious example of this would be Harold Camping. His interpretations and convictions of knowing the end of the world directly contradict one of the most straightforward verses you could possibly find in the Bible, Matthew 24:36 (NLT): “”However, no one knows the day or hour when these things will happen, not even the angels in heaven or the Son himself. Only the Father knows.” Going directly against God’s word is certainly heretical, and in Camping’s case we see an extraordinary amount of denial and stubbornness. Perhaps his 50 years of studying the Bible were devoid of accountability—the voices of other informed, caring theologians to keep him in check. Perhaps his pride got the best of him. No one is immune to this great, original sin. (See how one pastor, Rick Warren, continues to battle pride in an admirably honest manner.)
3) Believing in dogma that will possibly lead to spiritual apostasy and away from salvation.
There are certain distortions that may or may not lead away from true faith. It’s impossible for us to say or judge with finality, and only God knows what’s really in a person’s heart.
But this section deals with beliefs that cannot be reconciled with the heart of a true believer. This is unequivocally Christian “heresy” in every sense of the word. These beliefs not only directly contradict the Bible, but cast serious doubt on their proponents.
For instance, as a Christian, you must believe that Jesus was not a mere man or messenger, but that he is the living Son of God. You must also believe that Jesus is the only way to salvation—not Buddha, Allah, Zeus—and that relativism is a logical mess. This is why I’m harsh with certain popular pastors who waffle on this question when asked, “Is Jesus the ONLY way?”
There are foundational tenets that are not up for interpretation unless a person wants to leave the Christian faith. Some have chosen to do so, like the Mormons.
All in all, many people are trying to do the best they can to learn about God, but no one has all the answers. Before we call each other heretics, consider whether other people’s views are different but plausible, or if they’re in danger of losing their souls. Everyone has a natural tendency to think that they’re right, others are wrong, because people know their own thoughts and of course they make the most immediate sense. But logically, not everyone can be right on opposing views (relativists, I’m looking at you).
Wrong doesn’t always equate to heresy, however.
Maybe it’s due to past experiences where I was turned off greatly by certain ministries and leaders, but I find myself taking everything with a grain of salt. I highly encourage people to consult God’s word and not become overly zealous “fans” of any theologian to the point where his or her word substitutes for the truth. While I admire great spiritual servants like Lee Strobel, Timothy Keller, William Lane Craig, C.S. Lewis, and others, I find myself disagreeing with every one of them on at least one point. From what I’ve read, they disagree with each other as well, but only on non-central issues.
Let’s support each other in the search for truth and also keep each other accountable. If there are any errors in reasoning or factual oversights in my posts, I HIGHLY encourage (or even plead) that you point them out to me. But please don’t assume I’m misled simply because you heard so-and-so say something else or you just don’t like the idea. It’s equally invalid, for example, to say that annihilationism is wrong because that’s what the Seventh-Day Adventists believe. Even denominations that have gotten certain points of theology wrong can be right in other aspects. It’s not always all-or-nothing. (Incidentally, this is also why I like the fact that the church I attend is nondenominational.)
Also, it’s unreliable to regard ideas so highly just because they resonate with you on a personal level. Sometimes it’s the Holy Spirit, sometimes it’s not.
What “feels right” can change through the years, so let’s all place our beliefs on firmer ground. I hope that I will be humble and honest enough with myself to know when I’m going astray. I promise that if I do spot an error in my blog, I will unabashedly fix it and make it known to people.
I’ve seen this charge levied against Christians all the time. I think it’s very misguided, and I’ll briefly discuss four points, though more could be said.
My first and longest point is that we need to establish whether it’s wishful in the first place. I would maintain that atheism, for example, is just as wishful, if not more, when compared to Christianity. On atheism, mankind is pretty much the boss. We define our own good and we answer to no higher power, because after all, who wants to be subjected to authority? On atheism, no one has to give up their precious time by attending church, studying the Bible, or sharing the Gospel. You aren’t compelled to give your hard-earned money as offering. There are hardly any restrictions on sex or the number of sexual partners you can have. In fact, even secular psychologists have posited that the issue of sexual freedom is the biggest factor in people’s reluctance to accept certain religions. I don’t know if I’d wholly agree with that, but it’s hardly a trivial point. So with atheism, you’re the boss, you face fewer “restrictions,” you get to save your time and money, and you needn’t feel guilt over much at all besides big, obvious transgressions.
Christianity, by comparison, is decidedly inconvenient. You might argue, “But what could be better than the delusion that you’re going to eternal paradise after this life?” Well yes, that could be considered one of the “perks,” but you could just as easily point to clear indications that people prefer the NOW rather than the later. If everyone actually lived for their futures and subscribed to this way of thinking, you would probably see a lot more people studying much harder in school. After all, everyone knows that if you study harder, you’ll improve your chances of future success. You’d see people diligently watching what they eat, and exercising to prolong their lives. Sure, there is a minority subset of the population that does these things–whether religious or not–but it’s not a common trait. It takes above-average individuals to live this way, and judging by the vast numbers of Christians (many of whom are not exemplary in character or discipline on their own merits), you have to conclude that there’s more to belief than hoping for a nice future in the afterlife. In fact, I know a good number of Christians who earnestly say that they would believe and follow whether there was a heaven or not. In my earlier walk, this was hard to believe, but I can see the truth in that statement now.
Well, isn’t it wishful for Christians to think that their sins are all forgiven just by accepting Christ? Isn’t this a too-easy “get out of jail free” card? Only if you believe in the concept of sin in the first place, really. It’s more convenient to believe that sin doesn’t exist at all than to acknowledge it then seek forgiveness. Plus, TRUE Christianity is anything but easy.
Second, even if Christianity is more wishful than not, that does nothing to prove its falsehood. As William Lane Craig might put it, this is “Philosophy 101.” Namely, this is committing genetic fallacy because the origins of a conclusion do nothing to determine whether it’s true or not. What matters are things like proof and logic.
For example, people fervently hope that their loved ones will return safely from war. This has no bearing on the chances of survival for that loved one. The mere fact that it might be wishful doesn’t affect the probability of it being true.
Third, wishfulness could be attributed to pretty much any belief in existence today. As I mentioned, even atheism is not exempt from this. Something’s got to be right, and chances are, whatever’s right has some wishful elements to it. After all, there’s got to be some positives or benefits in it, right? So this charge of “wishful thinking” is just irrelevant.
Fourth and lastly, one might argue that wishful thinking will cause a person to stick to a belief despite evidence to the contrary. This may be the case sometimes, true. But again, changing one’s beliefs might just be trading in one set of perks for another. You could say this for holding to any position.
What this argument really boils down to is the ability to disprove Christianity in the first place. If you can show that its teachings are demonstrably false, but people are clinging to it out of wishful thinking, you’d have a more valid point here. In that case, you don’t even need to show that it’s wishful thinking because you’ve proved Christianity false on the merits of evidence and logic.
But honest atheists will admit that it cannot proved false, at least by any scientific means. So why bring up the “wishful thinking” claim in the first place? It’s like going in circles. You can only say “they believe because of wishful thinking” if you’ve shown the belief to be false beforehand.
Sorry, now I’m the one who might be going in circles…