What If Pastors Can't tell The Difference Between Sinners And Saints?

Evangelicals, like most sub cultures, have unique customs that appear unusual to the outsider. When examined closely, these customs can be understood from a variety of perspectives. How did the customs originate? How have the customs evolved into their present form? What foundational meaning has been lost or gained in the evolution process?

Many years ago, comedian Bob Newhart did a comedy routine illustrating the absurdity of smoking tobacco. Newhart is supposed to be in 16th century England having a telephone conversation with Sir Walter Raleigh in America. We can hear only the Newhart side of the conversation as he asks Walt why he would voluntarily put rolled up leaves in his mouth, set the leaves on fire, and then breath in the smoke.

People outside of the Evangelical community look at the custom of calling people forward in altar calls, and having them repeat a formula “salvation prayer,” and wonder what it’s all about. They’ve seen weddings where the couple exchange vows….is the salvation prayer like that, a vow to God? They’ve seen sporting events where everyone stands and says the pledge of allegiance to the American flag…is it like that, a pledge to God? If so, then what are they pledging to God? Americans are used to agreeing to things without examining the implications. A pledge doesn’t mean what it did even a couple of generations ago. (When I was a street evangelist in Southern California, I could get nine of ten people to repeat a formula “salvation prayer.”)

Is a formula “salvation prayer” a pledge?

If someone repeats a formula “salvation prayer,” is he promising to live his life in a way that’s pleasing to God? If so, why do most of the people who give this pledge show virtually no evidence of change? Do the people who go forward for altar calls understand it as anything more than a desire to “get right” with God? Does the way the minister frames the invitation have anything to do with the number and type of people who go forward? It seems there’s an inverse relation between the amount of specific information given, to the amount of people who go forward. The greater number of facts about the Gospel given, the fewer people go forward. The fewer facts about the Gospel given, the greater number of people go forward. It’s must be easier for people to go forward as a symbol of “getting right with God” than as a symbol of giving up specific sins.

Once they’re at the altar, it seems they’ll repeat anything they’re told, because they’ve already given their tacit approval to “go along” with whatever the minister suggests. Like the couple that sits through a timeshare presentation because they accepted complimentary tickets to Walt Disney World, they smile and say whatever necessary to get through it. When it comes to spelling out the specifics of the Gospel, the formula “salvation prayer” is just as vague as the altar call. They’re written in such general, all encompassing terms as to be meaningless to most people. It seems most Americans can rationalize making a pledge as obscure as “I want to trust Jesus as my Savior.” (Any 12-year-old child understands the modifier “want to” means “if I feel like it.”)

Americans know if someone has something really important to say, they wont be obscure. If a woman tells her husband over breakfast, “by the way, I bought a $100,000 diamond necklace yesterday.” He’ll probably answer, “That’s nice dear. Could you please pass the toast.” This is why most pastors and evangelists aren’t explicit in altar call invitations. This is why most formula “salvation prayers” are not specific as to the practical considerations of what is means to give your life to God. They don’t want to scare away the customers before they have a chance to buy the product.

But is salvation a product you can buy? No. It’s not a product. Neither can it be bought. And most importantly, it’s up to God when and how He saves someone.

In the 1950’s, the crowds responding to Billy Graham’s altar calls were so large that often there weren’t enough trained workers to individually counsel seekers. This caused Graham to do something never before done in evangelical history. Bypassing the all important step of evaluating whether the seeker was repentant, and ignoring the obvious need for individual counseling, he led a group of seekers in a formula “salvation prayer” without first determining the condition of their souls. A repeat-after-me “formula salvation prayer” is an oxymoron. A prayer is useless if it’s not sincere. How sincere can a prayer be if the person repeating it hasn’t had time to examine what he’s saying?

Leading someone in a formula “salvation prayer” was never done before the 20th century. Such a prayer can only cause confusion unless it comes from a heart illuminated by the Holy Spirit. The fact that a person needs to be led in a repeat-after-me “prayer” indicates the person isn’t able or willing to pray a unique, Holy Spirit-inspired prayer. Leading a group of people you don’t know, in a repeat-after-me formula “salvation prayer” is the worse possible combination. Not only is the person repeating a “prayer” that didn’t come from their heart, but since the minister doesn’t know the condition of the seekers, he imparts a false hope to many of them.

Some repeat a formula “salvation prayer,” because they think it has some intrinsic transforming power. Others see it as a vow to live for God. Others see it as a public comment like water baptism. Others don’t know anything more than they needed an emotional release, and they think it puts them “right with God.” Whatever the seeker thinks, when the minister tells them they’re now born again, regardless of why they came forward, the message is clear: because you had the guts to come forward and say a formula “salvation prayer,” God has written your name in the Lamb’s Book of Life.

Even though evangelists know some are not saved at the altar, they perpetuate the lie of universal salvation in the hope God will save them some time in the future. Telling everyone who comes forward they’re born again is as truthful as the sweepstakes letter that declares “You’ve won a million dollars.” Some will get saved, and some will win the sweepstakes, but you’d better read the fine print.

Billy Graham, the most famous modern evangelist believes only a portion of the people who come to the altar are saved at that moment. Most are in some stage of gestation, and others are completely spurious.1 For this reason, The Graham Organization considered their efforts to be “little more than a mass movement, a crowd following a crowd, a wave of religious emotion which quickly evaporated,”2 if not accompanied with competent counseling 3 and concerted “follow up.”4

Since modern evangelism doesn’t require water baptism and church attendance, the vast majority of people who say a formula “salvation prayer” are like seeds that die for lack of soil. (Matthew 13:21) This is to be expected. The problem is we tell these unfortunate souls they’re saved, effectively inoculating many against the Gospel. Most are more likely to return to their old lifestyle than take the parting advice of a minister at the altar. And even if they darken the doors of a church, their unregenerate soul is not willing to compromise with restrictive demands. And since they believe they’re just as “Christian” as the “hypocrites in church,” why would they put up with the hassle?

The Condom Mentality Of The Modern Gospel

When pastors and evangelists tell people who’ve come forward in altar calls they’re saved, they do so in the hope that God will save them sometime in the future. But the unregenerate sinner takes from this message that baptism and church attendance are optional. It’s like handing a teenage boy a condom, and then asking him not to engage in sex. The “Christian condom” is telling seekers they are protected from Hell no matter how they live their life. Telling a lost person he’s saved is worse than telling an AIDS patient he doesn’t have the disease. Not only will he die, but he’ll most likely infect many others along the way. The tragedy is, over 80% of Americans think they’re saved, and over 60% have said a “salvation prayer”, but less than 10% of Americans show any evidence of having been born again.

We Have A Problem

The only difference between a true Evangelical and a nominal Christian is the born again experience. Because Evangelicals have ignored the fact that a portion of people who go forward in altar calls aren’t saved, our churches are filled with people incapable of acting like saints.

Despite the fact that 83% of Protestant Pastors describe their churches as “Evangelical,” many congregations are morally no different than heathen. American Evangelical Christianity is in a lukewarm state for which revival seems unlikely. After 100 years of “universal salvation” for all who come to the altar, we’ve lost the desire and ability to determine if people are truly Christian. We all say we want revival, but at what cost? Are we willing to question the status of our congregations? All revivals in history start when church people get saved. But what if pastors can’t tell the difference between sinners and saints?

If a sustainable revival is ever to come to America, we’ll need to return to pre-20th century standards. We must regain the fear of the Lord, the knowledge of God’s sovereignty, the expectation of holiness in saints, and reliance on the workings of the Holy Spirit.

Scriptural and historic facts are irrefutable. By tracing the devolution of modern evangelism, this book shows how we got ourselves into this mess. In preparing to write this book, I’ve read hundreds of descriptions of born again conversions from the first to the twentieth century. The similarity of almost all conversions was striking. When one realizes these people came from different cultures from every age, without knowing what others had experienced, the conclusion is obvious. Either the born again experience is a spiritual transformation worked by the Holy Spirit inside the individual as explained in the Bible, or we are deceived by an evolutionary mental accident.

In pastor and evangelist personal accounts, and discussions with ministers behind the scenes, all relate similar born again experiences. The few exceptions were those who questioned whether salvation isn’t just a change of attitude. Without exception, these individuals weren’t sure of their own salvation, leading one to conclude that although they are ministers, they were never born again. If you find yourself in this group, please read the chapter What Does It Mean To Believe On Jesus? first.

1 Pg 251 Billy Graham, John Pollock 1966 Paperback
2 Pg 104 Ibid
3 Billy Graham, “Evangelism, Message And Method,” Christianity Today, August 1959
4 Pg 134 Billy Graham, John Pollock 1966 Paperback

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