The pastor of our church has a gift for evangelism and has inculcated an evangelistic spirit into the congregation. The type of evangelism they practice is what I call ‘decision based.’ It involves getting the seeker to respond to a gospel presentation with a raised hand and a simple prayer of faith. We have become friends with one of the men who prayed the prayer. He subsequently went through an introductory series of Bible lessons and attends church. But in talking with him, we realized he does not really know what faith in Christ is. Another woman who responded to the invitation immediately went out and bought a Bible, began to study it on her own and makes every effort to get to church on Sunday so she can be with other believers. She has expressed an interest in being baptized. Are both of these people born again?
Prior to the era of mass evangelism, few people came to Christ by responding to an ‘altar call.’ There were no altar calls in either the New or Old Testament periods. In the parable of the three soils, Jesus makes it very clear that not everyone who responds to the gospel comes to genuine faith. In other places He says that not everyone who calls Him ‘Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven. That would include people who attend church on a regular basis.
Jesus describes what it means to be ‘born again’ in John 3 when a religious leader named Nicodemus came to him with a question about the source of His authority. Nicodemus knew that the miracles Jesus performed could only be done by the power of God, but he was still unsure about how to respond to Jesus. Although he couldn’t quite put his question into words, Jesus knew Nicodemus’ heart and immediately addressed his unspoken question, i.e. “I want to believe, but I don’t know how.” What Jesus said was “You must be born from above.” In other words, “You cannot fully embrace me on your own. You must be given new life by the Spirit of God.”
Like you and me, Nicodemus could do nothing to contribute to his own physical birth. His conception was an act of the flesh involving his mother and father. Jesus was telling him that spiritual birth works the same way. People who are spiritually dead cannot give themselves new life in Christ. The spiritually dead includes everyone, since according to Scripture we are all dead in our trespasses and sins. God the Father must take the initiative by quickening our spirits ‘from above’ with new life in the Holy Spirit.
This new spiritual life is never simply imparted in a moment and left in a static state until death separates body and soul. Just as in the physical realm, genuine life is accompanied by growth. If there is no growth, there is no real life. A person who makes a decision for Christ is not really saved unless he begins to grow. If he doesn’t grow, he is spiritually stillborn. It is not possible to separate salvation from sanctification. They are both part of a single continuum that extends from birth through life eternal.
Physical growth is marked by observable changes in physical characteristics. My wife and I eagerly watched for signs of growth in our first grandchild. We registered her first attempts to roll over, sit up, stand up, take a step, climb the stairs, feed herself, make sounds, form them into words, and spell (as in “I think it’s time for a ‘n-a-p’,” followed by “I don’t want a nap”).
There are also spiritual characteristics that clearly mark the person who is genuinely ‘born again’ by the Spirit of God. He has a natural love for God’s word. He abides in Christ by practicing obedience to that word. Trials strengthen his faith by driving him closer to Christ, not farther away. He loves God’s people and wants to be with them. As the Holy Spirit gifts him for service, he seeks ways to put those gifts into practice for the blessing and benefit of others. If there is no evidence of these characteristics of spiritual growth, it is safe to say a person is not really born again.
That is why it is so important to couple evangelism with discipleship. If genuine spiritual life is always accompanied by growth, then it is the responsibility of the body of Christ to nurture the new babe in Christ, not just leave him to his own resources in the false confidence that he has been born again because he made a ‘decision for Christ.’ It is in the process of discipleship that true conversion is confirmed and affirmed. Solid Bible preaching is paramount to this process. To incorporate a ‘new believer’ into a church that does not systematically and sequentially exposit scripture leaves the uninitiated to their own resources when it comes to knowing Christ. To couple a decision-based methodology of evangelism with weak teaching is to expose those who are evangelized to all kinds of error that could potentially undermine whatever modicum of faith they may have.