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"For we have this treasure in earthen vessels, so that the surpassing greatness of the power will be of God and not of ourselves."

Are You Really Born Again?

Book: Are You Really Born Again?

Chapter 2:

The Mystery of Conversion

Hank Hanegraaff, known as the Bible Answer Man, wrote the following prayer in the Christian Research Institute’s newsletter:

Simply bow your head right now and pray:
Heavenly Father,
I thank you that you have provided a way for me to have a relationship with you. I realize I am a sinner. I thank you that you are my perfect Father. I ask you, Jesus, to be my Savior and Lord. I repent and receive your perfection in exchange for my sin; in Jesus’ name I pray. Amen.

I heartily endorse the theology expressed in this prayer—especially what it says about Jesus and his perfect provision for us. However, is Hanegraaff correct when he goes on to say, “If you have prayed this prayer, you can know with certainty that you have eternal life…”?

The Sinner's Prayer--is it reliable?

In 1963, I prayed a "sinner’s prayer" with a deacon from the Baptist church I attended, but I was not converted until six months later. My father, Vernon Philpott, did not "go forward" at the invitation during a Billy Graham Crusade but was converted later that night while lying in his bed.

For thirty years I prayed with many people who were seeking salvation. I have almost always relied on some version of the familiar sinner’s prayer. Some were converted and some were not converted—or so it seemed to me as I looked for signs that would indicate whether they were born again or not. (I will describe these signs in chapter 6.)

God will do what he will do, and the sinner’s prayer may be used by God to bring about conversion. Billy Graham, who has long been a hero of the faith for me, popularized the sinner’s prayer. I do not want to demean his ministry, but at the same time, I think that salvation is not assured by merely saying that prayer. In fact, the act of reciting the sinner’s prayer may give false assurance to certain people who are not genuinely converted. After all, praying a prayer is a work, a conscious act, and no one is born again by an act of the will. Over the course of my ministry, I have met many people who were not born again despite their many prayers for salvation.

CONVERSION INVOLVES A PARADOX

Conversion is a mystery. Conversion is not guaranteed by saying a simple prayer or, for that matter, a complex and theologically correct one. Conversion, or the new birth, involves a paradox—that is, two thoughts that seem at odds with each other and appear impossible to harmonize. For instance, conversion is a work of God, yet we are called to “turn to God in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus” (Acts 20:21). So then, God works and we repent and believe—this is a paradox or a mystery. To admit that a mystery exists is neither a compromise nor a concession; rather, it is a necessary admission in light of the biblical testimony and our desire to be faithful to what Scripture has revealed about the nature of conversion.

The central problem

The central problem is that this mystery has so often been swept aside by the invention of purely human means to receive salvation. The result of ignoring the mystery is Christianization, or false conversion.

The problem illustrated

One problem in using the sinner’s prayer is illustrated through my voluntary work at San Quentin State Prison. Most of the time I go from cell to cell and talk to the convicts. Many of them report that they are born-again Christians. Thanks be to God, there is hardly a prison, county jail, or institution for juvenile offenders that does not have concerned Christians undertaking evangelistic work. As a result, many incarcerated persons have heard the wonderful gospel of our Lord Jesus and have prayed for salvation. Some have prayed those prayers many times in many places, and they testify that they are converted. Yet, after years and years, the spiritual life of many “converted” convicts is a flat line. There are no signs of life! When the “born-again” person manifests no desire to pray, no interest in the Scriptures, no desire for worship and praise, no love for Jesus and his cross—is there any life in that person?

“Are you a Christian?” A person may reply, “Well, I prayed to receive Jesus.” Is this adequate? Where is the acknowledgement of being lost and the futility of self-righteousness? Where is the cross of Jesus and his cleansing blood? Where is the affirmation that Jesus is that living Lord and Messiah? Where is that coming to Jesus for forgiveness and salvation?

The shock of realization for the pastor

As a pastor, I am often dismayed by the testimonies of “conversion” that I hear. People believe they are converted by baptism, by receiving communion, by being good and loving, by not hurting anyone, by being a member of a church, or by having “gone forward” to pray the sinner’s prayer. Can I be assured that a person with  a weak, unbiblical and confused conversion testimony has his name recorded in the Lamb’s Book of Life?

Recently I imagined one of my church members standing before God’s terrible throne of judgment and hearing Jesus say, “I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!” (Matt. 7:23). And then that person replied, “But that preacher, that pastor of mine, he never told me of my danger; he never warned me of my true condition. So I never came to an assurance of salvation, and now it is too late.” I was stunned to think that people in my own congregation might not be converted.

Signs of Christian or Christianization?

I cannot determine with certainty whether a person is truly born again. I have no spiritual gift that allows such insight; I claim no special anointing or knowledge. Yet I can often see whether or not the life of Jesus is in a person. There are signs of being a Christian, even in the “babe in Christ.” If there is a love for God, love for the Savior, interest in the Bible, concern for worship, praise and prayer, then I believe a biblical conversion has probably taken place. (Many of the great American preachers of the eighteenth century would have said in such a case that a person was “hopefully” converted.) However, people who say they are born again but shows no signs of conversion are probably not converted. The most dangerous situation of all is that a person imagines himself to be converted when in fact he is not. Christianization, of false conversion, is a sure road to hell.

Consider the case of a man who for many years confesses faith in Christ and is active in a church (perhaps in a leadership position), but then abandons his faith, rejects the church and joins another religion. In my ministry, I have seen such people embrace religions like Islam and Buddhism. This is more common than I like to think. Were such people converted in the first place? After a period, will they come back to Christ? After observing such people and questioning them as to reason and motive, I have found in every instance that there was no true conversion present in the beginning. Instead of true conversion I found Christianization—a person went along with his childhood teachings, identified with the beliefs of his parents, conformed to church practices in order to be accepted by Christian friends and leaders, and so on. (My conclusion my seem self-serving and unverifiable. If so, you might put it to the test when circumstances make it possible.)

This description illustrates something that has been observed all the way back to the early church. The Apostle John was aware of people in the church of his day who were not Christians. Probably in reference to those who went on to embrace Gnosticism, he wrote, “They went out from us, but they did not really belong to us. For if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us; but their going showed that none of them belonged to us” (1 John 2:19). Most pastors understand this verse. They have known people—good people, spiritual people, zealous people, loving people—who claimed to be Christians but were not. Some of them will leave a church if there is clear, consistent preaching the cross (or they will be converted!), but where the gospel is not faithfully proclaimed, these same people will mistakenly think they are included in the kingdom of God.

A WORK OF GOD

Conversion is the result of the sovereign work of God in Christ. God’s Holy Spirit gives a person the gift of repentance and faith, so that they can turn from their sin and believe in Jesus. Salvation is all of God. The way an individual is converted, from a human point of view, is a mystery. However, all are urged—even commanded—to “believe in the Lord Jesus” (Acts 16:31).

What about methods? How, then, IS someone saved?

In the Bible no particular method is given about how a person is to believe. Even when the Philippian jailer asked Paul and Silas what he must do to be saved, the response was only, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31). Although they had given him nothing to do or say, we find later on in the story that he did in fact believe—but we do not read of any steps that he took to get there.

In the prologue to John’s Gospel we find the well-known sentence: “Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God—children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God” (John 1:12-13). How do we believe in Jesus? How do we “receive” him? John does not say—but we would like him to have done so. In the face of the Bible’s silence on this crucial issue, many have unhappily, and dangerously, given answers. But no answer can be biblically correct, since the Bible does not explicitly tell us how a person is born again, except to say it is not of our own will or doing. (In Ephesians 2:8-9 Paul makes it clear that even faith is a gift of God.)

The mystery remains

Many readers will undoubtedly have seen photographs of Michelangelo’s painting, The Creation, on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Rome. The painting is that of the Creator, God Almighty, reaching down to man, his fallen and beloved creature. Adam is shown reaching up but not touching the finger of God. For me, this space between God and man (which is only a few inches in the painting) symbolizes the mystery of conversion. It is as though we want to close the gap and bring God and man together; we want to rearrange the painting; we want to resolve the mystery—a tantalizing temptation. We want to be able to offer concrete and do-it-yourself methods for achieving salvation. And in so doing, we have taken (as if we could!) salvation right out of the hand of God. Despite all our attempts to invent  methods that make conversion seem obvious and visible to us, these merely serve to Christianize people without truly converting them. Conversion is, and will remain, a mystery.

Christian Research Institute’s Newsletter, Winter/Spring 1996, vol. 9, issue 1.

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Last Update: 2012-10-19 17:10