LOW EXPECTATIONS OF CONVERSION

Mark Horton

THE ARMINIAN MAGAZINE. Issue 35. Spring 2017. Volume 35. Posted May. 21, 2017  

A recent article circulated on Facebook and attributed to an author named Preston Sprinkle was entitled: "F-Bombs and Bikinis: What It Really Means to Be a ‘Christian.'" It highlights a growing problem in American Christianity. In the article, Sprinkle was saying new Christians might still use bad language and have a residual potty mouth. He advocated, "Bad language may take years to weed out." The bikini reference was a reference to a youth pastor that allowed mixed bathing at youth events. These types of behavior were defended because only God can see the heart. Adequate grace in our lives would keep us from getting hung up on such small stuff. He appealed to the disciples before Pentecost as an example of people God used and termed them "thugs" and "criminals."

This kind of thinking seems most prevalent in church history when renewal is needed most. Preston Sprinkle is merely verbalizing a growing problem in the American church. As Christianity makes less and less difference in a person's life how do we explain the lack of definitive change? One of several ways are popular. Sprinkle's method is change takes time. So we must be patient and wait as God slowly changes people from sinners to saints. Another approach is that we are all sinners even once saved, so residual sin in one's life is proof that we are sinners still. Only Heaven will cure us. In this world, we must accept that the Scriptures at times present an ideal that few if any will ever achieve.

After thirty years of pastoring and attempting to take the Scriptures seriously I have had my questions. I still do. In my first church I contemplated the task to make disciples as Jesus commanded. How would I know when I have one made? If the promise of God under the new covenant is a change of heart that has his law written upon it, how long does this take? If we now have the power of his Spirit within us to teach and enable us to live as Jesus did, when does this occur? The Apostle John's expectations seem very high when he states, "as Jesus was in the world so are we." Is this the result for only the mature believer or the beginner also? Where are the churches that expect and are producing believers that actually live like Jesus? Most I know are lamenting that there is little difference between our disciples and the world. Bill Hybels acknowledged this in his own church at Willow Creek after thirty years of ministry. A survey of his people revealed a shallowness that alarmed him. His candidness and honesty about this is to be much respected. But Hybels isn't the only one with this problem.

I began to read the literature of church revivals. I especially read a great deal of the early Methodists and their literature. John Wesley learned from personal experience that only certain things could produce peace in the heart and power over sin. Once he found them in his own life he taught them and expected them of his converts. His converts discovered that God was had no respect of persons. What Wesley experienced, they did too. These high but biblical expectations were taught and honored for nearly two generations among the Methodist and produced a revival that lasted nearly eighty years. Their methods were different than ours but so were their results.

Wesley taught three main changes produced by a genuine Christian conversion:

  1. Peace with God as a result of the knowledge that their sins were forgiven.
  2. Power over sin even in the earliest stages of conversion. The Spirit of God broke the habits and chains of sin and enabled the weak will of people to be strong to do good and resist evil.
  3. The witness of the Spirit. Confidence and assurance as to where one stood with God. Less than this could not be labeled Christian. It is true using his models of the natural man, the servant and the son of God he acknowledged progression in grace prior to conversion and in his teaching of Christian Perfection he acknowledged growth after it as well. But it was clear to me in reading his teaching and journals that what he called a Christian and what we Americans had called Christians were miles apart.

Just last year I picked up another book from an author who had lived a generation before John Wesley. The book is entitled, A Treatise on Conversion and was authored by Richard Baxter, a Puritan. I found amazing consistently between Baxter and Wesley though the two men came from different schools of theological belief. Baxter's mark of a Christian were amazingly high, yet consistently biblical.

I will highlight some of his beliefs later in the next article. I suspect we expecting too little of our generation and getting what we expect? Why we expect what we do is probably an issue of both our personal faith in what God says and the models we use as we go about our work. Let me give you just a brief overview of the more popular models I have been exposed to in my lifetime.

The Romans Road to Salvation. This model basically walked a person through a formula derived from the book of Romans and if the person was in agreement with it, we termed them "saved." All have sinned (3:23). While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us (5:8). If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved (10:9).

The ABC's of salvation. I first heard of this one at a John Maxwell leadership seminar. I learned a lot of good things from John, but this model has some real issues. 1. Admit you are a sinner, 2 Believe Christ died for your sins, 3. Confess him as your Savior. 4. You are a Christian

The Savior vs Lordship approach. John MacArthur took this one on in The Gospel According to Jesus (1988). He was in disagreement with it and so am I. It basic premise is that when a person get saved they take Christ as their Savior and at a later stage acknowledge and accept him as Lord of your life. In this paradigm we are evangelized when we accept Christ as Savior and discipled when we accept him as Lord. There is no biblical precedence for this. We cannot divide the person of Christ. When we accept him we take him as both Savior and Lord. I take him I all his offices. He is my Prophet, my Priest and my King or there is no deal.

Come Forward for Prayer. In this model the seeker is encouraged to come to a place and meet with an elder of the church for prayer. This model usually was used around an altar as the meeting place between the seeker and God. After a person came forward and prayed, they were later asked to join the church and be baptized and told they are saved.

Baptismal Regeneration. This is popular among Christian Churches, particular mega churches, and is found among Disciples of Christ as well. It is taught and assumed that the act of baptism saves a person. Immediately after baptism discipleship occurs through Bible Study. Usually this study is just a transmission of facts with little or no accountability or followup in most churches.

The Seeker Sensitive approach. This paradigm attempts to design church around the felt needs and desires of the unchurched. The music, message and programs are designed to please the unchurched "Harry" or "Sally" on the street. My perception of this is that the goal seems to want to make people comfortable so we soften our message, lower our expectations and seek to do away with guilt. But can we preach a message that calls for them to take up a cross and be crucified with Christ and make them comfortable? Can I design a service around a person with the natural mind that hates God and get a service God will honor?

These approaches have been widespread in America for more than fifty years, so that we are now seeing a generation of leaders who have been taught by the church to equate Christianity with the pursuit of one or more of these models. I do acknowledge that it is possible for a person to be saved in any of these models. But I would assert it is more the result of the heart of the seeker than the rightness of our models.

The problem with most of this stuff is that the church is not doing a good job reproducing Christ-followers who live out the Scriptures. Many Christians do not live or pursue a holy life, forgive those who hurt them or seek the will of God as the best possible way to live their life. If foul language takes years to clean up, what about deep seated addictions, the effects of dabbling in the occult? Just a cursory look over the church landscape today tells us we have real problems.

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