“He that wins souls is wise.”
We read or hear Proverbs 11:30 and hearts race as we contemplate the perceived duty we feel to “lead someone to Christ.” The very thought stirs up nightmarish reminders of blown opportunities to pray the “Sinner’s Prayer” with a lost soul.
On top of that, we’re made to feel even more shame by the “Soul-winners” in our midst; the guy who seems to pray the Sinner’s Prayer with everyone fortunate enough to get stuck on an elevator with him.
I was a Soul-winner like that once. After all, it’s what I saw being done by all my mentors and the “experts” in the Church. As one who always aspired to succeed at whatever I set my hand to do, I sought to be the best at soul-winning as well. I stopped counting souls when I personally prayed that prayer with several hundred people. Mind you, I didn’t do a thing to disciple any of these people (as Jesus commanded); I merely had the finesse to talk them into repeating after me. Try this:
“Do you want to go to Hell?”
“Then, do you want to go to Heaven?”
“OK…pray this prayer with me and you’ll go to Heaven.”
My success ratio was astounding.
I recall one Sunday, after church service, walking the neighborhood with two German women I knew and leading 14 people in the “Sinner’s Prayer” right at their doorstep. The lady of the final house we visited, directly across the street from that of my German friends, turned out to be German, too. When I walked off, the three were going a mile a minute in their mother tongue.
MY OWN GREAT AWAKENING
So, why did I stop this practice? Smply put, I studied the Doctrine of Jesus. I learned that over 30 times there are references to “following Him” or His own words of “follow Me” and only ONE reference to being “born again.” Leave it to mankind to systematize the sacred and devise various methods for “closing the deal.” I simply “got good” at the method. Until one day when I finally decided to follow Jesus.
My personal challenge to Christians of ALL denominations is always this: Did Jesus teach it or exemplify it in Scripture? If what we are doing is not a part of the Doctrine of Jesus, it is either a doctrine of man or of demons. Period. That explains much, in my opinion. The “Sinner’s Prayer” is one of these issues.
In 1995, an evangelist I knew had led 65 people in the “Sinner’s Prayer” in his hometown in Kentucky. They attended a denominational church together on Sunday mornings but crammed into his ol’ Kentucky home – all 65 of them PLUS his own family of six – on Wednesday’s and Sunday nights. He called me, saying that they needed a pastor, not an evangelist, to lead them. For whatever reason, he soon left the denominational church and all 65 followed him to his home. He wound up having 65 guests THREE times weekly.
The place? Logan County, Kentucky.
The significance? America’s Second Great Awakening was ignited there in June, 1800, by the preaching of James McGready. At the time, the community had been referred to as “Rogue’s Harbor,” or “Satan’s Stronghold,” a God-less, lawless place. Describing the area, a man named Peter Cartwright wrote: “There was not a newspaper printed south of the Green River, no mill short of forty miles, and no schools worth the name. We killed our meat out of the woods, wild; and beat our meal…As for coffee, I am not sure that I ever smelled it for ten years.” The preaching of McGready and others touched a nerve, however, and at a Camp Meeting at Red River, it was written, the ground was “covered by the slain. Their screams for mercy pierced the heavens…[and] the most notorious profane swearers and Sabbath-breakers [were] pricked to the heart.”
On my first of three visits to Logan County, I discovered that this area, the very spot of the birth of the Second Great Awakening, had a crime rate that rivaled Los Angeles per capita, higher than the national average, despite nearly 100 mostly small churches in the county. Though this was 1995 and things may be different there now, my evangelist friend, a cop by day, was ultimately murdered on the job. Smite the shepherd and the sheep scatter. His “church” fell apart. He had made converts but not disciples. We’re called by Jesus to “go and make disciples…,” Matthew 28:18-20. Ultimately, God slammed the door on any possible ministry for me there with unmistakable signs, not the least of which was the complete loss of my voice in the air while flying to Kentucky on my final trip.
This 1800 outbreak of revival in Logan County ignited others at Gasper River, and at Cane Ridge. The Cane Ridge Revival became the most famous, and was led by Barton Stone who later founded the Christian Church. It was huge. This meeting attracted nearly 25,000 people. For perspective, Lexington, the largest town in the state at the time, numbered only 1,795.
A CATARACT OF NONSENSE
C.S. Lewis used the term “a great cataract of nonsense” to describe our knack for using modern concepts to construe Biblical theology. A cataract, as you may know, is nothing less than a blind spot on the eye. Examples of such cataracts are the conversion methods referred to as the Sinner’s Prayer, the Roman Road and the Four Spiritual Laws. Lewis used this term to describe what happens when someone looks backward at the Bible based only on what they have experienced. Why shouldn’t we first study conversion practices from Scripture and THEN consider the topic in light of two thousand years of experiences? Our modern techniques have become popular and have replaced Bible-based practices as we continue making man in our own image.
Worldwide, hundreds of millions in various Christian camps hold to salvation practices that no one had ever held throughout Scripture. The notion that one can “ask Jesus into his heart” is a fairly recent practice. Too few bother to ask the tough question: “Where did we get this?” How did the process of rebirth, which Jesus spoke of in John 3, evolve into simply praying him into one’s heart?
THE GREAT AWAKENING: A HISTORY LESSON
The Great Awakening was the result of fantastic preaching occurring in Europe and the eastern colonies during the early to mid- 1700s. Great Awakening preachers created an environment that made man aware of his need for an adult confession experience. The experiences people sought varied. Jonathan Edwards, George Whitfield and John Wesley furthered ideas of radical repentance and revival.
Eventually, Revelation 3:14-20, written to lukewarm Christians, became a popular conversion tool.
This passage was written explicitly for lukewarm Christians. Now, consider by way of example, how a lecturer named John Webb misused this passage in the mid 1700s as a basis of evangelizing non-Christians:
“Here is a promise of Union to Christ; in these words, I will come in to him. i.e. If any Sinner will but hear my Voice and open the Door, and receive me by Faith, I will come into his Soul, and unite him to me, and make him a living member of that my mystical body of which I am the Head.” (Christ’s Suit to the Sinner, 14)
Preachers began relying heavily on these verses. By using the first-person tense while looking into the sinner’s eyes, preachers began to speak for Jesus as they exhorted, “If you would just let me come in and dine with you, I would accept you.”
It is documented that in 1741 a minister named Eleazar Wheelock had utilized a technique called the Mourner’s Seat. As far as we can tell, he would target sinners by having them sit in the front pew, often naming their names. During the course of his sermon, it was said that “salvation was looming over their heads.” Afterwards, the sinners were typically quite open to counsel and exhortation. According to eyewitnesses, false, emotional conversions were commonplace. Charles Wesley had some experience with this practice, but it took nearly a hundred years for this tactic to take hold.
ENTER CHARLES FINNEY
Many, including Billy Graham and Jerry Falwell, considered Charles Grandison Finney to be America’s greatest revivalist. Church rolls swelled in the wake of Finney’s revivals. Though it is hard to gather accurate statistics, he is often directly, or indirectly credited with the conversions of around 500,000 people.
I used to be quite the Finney fan. I would teach on Finney, brag on the number of conversions he had; he was my role model. Today, I must admit, I feel his teaching on salvation more accurately qualifies him as a heretic of the Church. Let me explain.
It was about 1835 when Finney perfected the system utilized by Wheelock. Shortly after his own conversion, he left his law practice and became a minister, a lecturer, a professor, and a traveling revivalist. He took the Mourner’s Seat practice, dubbed it the Anxious Seat, and developed a theological system around it. He made no excuses for the purpose for this technique and wrote the following comment: “The church has always felt it necessary to have something of this kind to answer this very purpose. In the days of the apostles, baptism answered this purpose. The gospel was preached to the people, and then all those who were willing to be on the side of Christ, were called out to be baptized. It held the place that the anxious seat does now as a public manifestation of their determination to be Christians.”
Finney made many enemies because of this innovation as well as some of his other practices. Though he believed the nation could be won to Christ in six months if every minister employed his “Anxious seat” system, the practice was considered to be a psychological technique that manipulated people to make a premature profession of faith. Such were considered emotional conversions influenced by some of Finney’s own animal magnetism. Certainly, it was a precursor to the techniques used by many twentieth century evangelists.
In opposition to Finney’s movement, John Nevin, a Protestant minister, wrote a book called “The Anxious Bench.” His goal was to protect the denominations from this novel deviation. Nevin called Finney’s new measures “heresy”, a “Babel of extravagance”, “fanaticism”, and “quackery”. He said, “With a whirlwind in full view, we may be exhorted reasonably to consider and stand back from its destructive path.”
DID FINNEY REPENT OF HIS METHODS?
Rochester, New York was dramatically transformed by Finney’s work there in 1830-31 in what has been called the greatest year of spiritual awakening in American history. Shops were closed so people could attend his meetings, and as a result of the changed hearts, taverns went out of business. Finney soon won international fame as a result. George Williams, an English worker, was converted by reading Finney’s writings. In London in 1844, inspired by Finney’s social reform stand, Williams founded the YMCA.
From the standpoint of this minister, Finney’s chief legacy was confusion and doctrinal compromise – stuff we rarely hear discussed regarding his ministry. Even though his meeting sparked tremendous so-called “revival” in western New York, ultimately, evangelical Christianity virtually disappeared from that region in Finney’s own lifetime. Despite his personal accounts of glorious “revivals,” most of the vast region of New England where he held his campaigns fell into a permanent spiritual coldness during his lifetime and more than a hundred years later still has not emerged from that decline. This is directly owing to the influence of Finney and others who were simultaneously promoting similar ideas.
The Western half of New York became known as “the burnt-over district,” because of the negative effects of the revivalist movement that culminated in Finney’s work there. These facts are often obscured in the popular lore about Finney as modern ministers attempt to use his expolits as the pinnacle to which we should all aspire.
But even Finney himself spoke of “a burnt district” [Memoirs, 78], and he lamented the absence of any lasting fruit from his evangelistic efforts.He wrote: “I was often instrumental in bringing Christians under great conviction, and into a state of temporary repentance and faith . . . . [But] falling short of urging them up to a point, where they would become so acquainted with Christ as to abide in Him, they would of course soon relapse into their former state” [cited in B. B. Warfield, Studies in Perfectionism, 2 vols. (New York: Oxford, 1932), 2:24].
B. B. Warfield, one of Finney’s contemporaries made a similar assessment: “During ten years, hundreds, and perhaps thousands, were annually reported to be converted on all hands; but now it is admitted, that real converts are comparatively few. It is declared, even by [Finney] himself, that “the great body of them are a disgrace to religion” [cited in Warfield, 2:23].
Warfield cited the testimony of Asa Mahan, one of Finney’s close associates, who wrote in his Autobiography – to put it briefly – that everyone who was concerned with these revivals suffered a sad subsequent lapse: “the people were left like a dead coal which could not be reignited; the pastors were shorn of all their spiritual power; and the evangelists–“among them all,” he says, “and I was personally acquainted with nearly every one of them–I cannot recall a single man, brother Finney and father Nash excepted, who did not after a few years lose his unction, and become equally disqualified for the office of evangelist and that of pastor.” Thus the great “Western Revivals” ran out into disaster. . . . Over and over again, when he proposed to revisit one of the churches, delegations were sent him or other means used, to prevent what was thought of as an affliction. . . . Even after a generation had passed by, these burnt children had no liking for the fire” [Warfield, 2:26-28].
Only one decade after his trademark book of revival methodology, Lectures on Revivals of Religion, was published, Finney complained that revivals had declined, both in quantity and quality. Monte Wilson correctly comments: “By Finney’s own standard, his teachings on how to produce converts and revival, as well as their underlying assumptions, were proven wrong.”
Finney grew discouraged with the revival campaigns and tried his hand at pastoring in New York City before accepting the presidency of Oberlin College. Toward the end of his life, after reflecting on the many who claimed conversion but had since fallen away, Finney had mixed thoughts about the success of his ministry. In fact, his development of a doctrine of perfectionism (“entire sanctification” was the term he preferred) came out of his attempt to answer the question as to why so many of his “converts” seemed to live such godless lives.
THE WINNING OF SOULS
There’s no denying that Finney’s ministry wasn’t all bad. At the very least, people like Finney can challenge the rest of us as an example we can all learn from. Jesus did the same. Finney popularized a more emotional style of preaching, used public prayer as a tool for applying pressure to the lost, allowed women to pray in mixed public meetings, denounced his opponents, organized small group prayer meetings and home visitation teams, gave rise to the protracted evangelistic campaign, and paved the way for what later became the public invitation system. Though many modern Evangelicals recognize that his new methods caused great controversy in his day, they also brought as many as a half million “lost souls” to salvation.
Or so it is believed.
The Soul: the mind, will and emotions. Once we have won a person’s soul, we have them on our side; we’ve gained an ally. We are wise to do so. Where and when did the winning of souls, i.e., “soul-winning” come to refer to leading another person to salvation by way of a recited or repeated prayer? Where is that example in Scripture?
John Wesley records in his Journal what he thought about the matter of leading people in a “Sinner’s prayer”. He wrote: “Preached at (such and such a place). Many seemed deeply affected. But God alone knows how deeply.” Whatever we may think of Wesley’s theology generally, on this point his thinking was quite Biblical. His concern was for God to do the work of regeneration. We do the preaching; the pleading; the modeling of our faith. But then our work is finished. God alone knows the heart, and He is well able to pursue a person and convict them hours, days or perhaps years after we’ve moved on. If they will be saved, it will be by looking to Christ whether or not there is an aisle in front of them when they do.
In other words, we all know that God is not restricted to our modern methods. He can save any man anywhere at any time. Understanding this, we all realize at least one reason why the altar call was not instituted by our Lord or His apostles: it is unnecessary.
Charles Spurgeon warned about the potential for confusing any system with salvation: “Sometimes shut up that enquiry-room. I have my fears about that institution if it be used in permanence, and as an inevitable part of the services…. If you should ever see that a notion is fashioning itself that there is something to be got in the private room which is not to be had at once in the assembly, or that God is more at that penitent form than elsewhere, aim a blow at that notion at once.”
The altar call, Sinner’s Prayer and the like are an effective way to gain faith confessions, regardless of how sincere or repentant. Here are some statistics that reveal they are a terrible method for making disciples:
· In 1991, organizers of a Salt Lake City concert said, “Less then 5 percent of those who respond to an altar call during a public crusade . . . are living a Christian life one year later.” In other words, more than 95 percent proved to be false converts.
· A pastor in Boulder, Colorado, sent a team to Russia in 1991 and obtained 2,500 decisions. The next year, the team found only thirty continuing in their faith. Retention rate: 1.2 percent.
· November 1970, a number of churches combined for a convention in Fort Worth, Texas, and secured 30,000 decisions. Six months later, the follow-up committee could only find thirty continuing in their faith.
· In Sacramento, California, a combined crusade yielded more than 2,000 commitments. One church followed up on fifty-two of those decisions and couldn’t find one true convert.
· A leading U.S. denomination reported that during 1995 they secured 384,057 decisions but retained only 22,983 in fellowship. They couldn’t account for 361,074 supposed conversions. That’s a 94 percent fall-away rate.
In my years of working as an Altar Counselor at crusades, I have my own, similar testimonies.
BE THOU LOOSED!
Time and again, the shackles of religious shame fall as I teach this message and see smiles appearing on the faces of those who hear it said. I can almost hear their collective sigh of relief when I tell people it’s O.K. NOT to pray the Sinner’s Prayer at the watercooler with their heathen co-workers. Instead, we are to love them, pray for them, speak a consoling word to them when they are weary, comfort, accept them and let our light shine in the darkness of daily encounters. Anyone can bake cookies or a casserole, sign a card, invite to lunch, visit in the hospital, inform that they’re praying for a sour marriage, a rebellious teen, or simply lend a listening ear.
The most important thing to remember is that Jesus invited people to follow Him in a number of ways – and not according to a rigid unbiblical formula. Neither Jesus, nor the early disciples or apostles, ever asked one person to pray a salvation prayer. The Scripture says,”Man looks at the outside, God looks at the heart,” (1 Sam 16:7). So, who are we to know when a person’s heart is turned toward God? Who are we to decide that this happens as a result of a repeated prayer, a baptism or any of the various methods WE require in order for an individual to be considered “saved”?
Yes, God looks on the heart and knows our intent. Our words and actions themselves are not so important. The evidence for a true “salvation experience” is that the life of a believer is transformed from the inside out. In time, there’s fruit (Gal 5:22). The character of true followers of Jesus will be gradually redeemed so that they can operate in the full power of the Spirit with their lives characterized by transforming holiness.
Too often, we fail to emphasize actually following Jesus once we join a church, nor do we teach Christians how to actually be obedient to Christ by following His example. As a result, our churches have very little societal influence and the lives of individual Christians aren’t much different than those who don’t know Christ.
Nevertheless, the message and power of the Gospel is still true.
Even if we ignore it.