|When I read what the Bible describes as the Gospel and compare it to the gospel I hear from Evangelical preachers and church attendees, a lot of times, it is not the same.
I Corinthians 15
1 Moreover, brethren, I declare unto you the gospel which I preached unto you, which also ye have received, and wherein ye stand;
2 By which also ye are saved, if ye keep in memory what I preached unto you, unless ye have believed in vain.
3 For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures;
4 And that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures:
5 And that he was seen of Cephas, then of the twelve:
Luke 24:26-28 has a similar description of the Gospel. If we look at the sermons in Acts, such as Acts 2 and other passages, we see the same ideas emphasized. The Lord Jesus is the Messiah. He died for our sins, and God raised Him from the dead. We are to believe in Him.
What type of ‘gospel’ is typical in an Evangelical church, the message preached to supposedly save people. There are exceptions but it seems like this is typical.
1. Talk about how religion is bad and the people need a personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ, or a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.
2. Do not explain Who God is.
3. Do not explain who Jesus is.
4. Do not mention the Lord Jesus’ dying on the cross for our sins.
5. Do not mention God raising Jesus from the dead.
6. Have the people repeat some kind of prayer that is light on ‘Gospel’ information, with Gospel as defined by the verses above.
7. Declare the people saved if they really believed the prayer and the message (which was not really preached to them.)
Basically, what seems to have happened is that Evangelicalism had a ritual it used as a tool to try to get people to repent, believe, and confess their faith. The ‘Gospel content’ of the ritual and the message leading up to it fell out, leaving a somewhat Gospelless sermon and ritual. The Lord Jesus walked the earth during a time when there were many Jewish people practicing religious rituals but were lacking in the weightier matters of justice, mercy, and faith.
There are preachers who do go through these rituals who leave out the attack on the word ‘religion’ and/or include the death of Christ for our sins. It is very common for preachers and some street witnessers and individuals attempting evangelism to mention the cross but not the resurrection.
If a Hindu walks into a church, he may not understand who God is. Some friends of mine were doing international ministry years ago, and they couldn’t quite grasp why there was no transformation in the life of one of the men who had gone through the evangelical ritual of repeating a ‘prayer to receive Christ’. Many of the evangelistic sermons in Acts are addressed to Jews. But when Paul addressed pagan audiences in Acts 14:8-18 and Acts 17:22-34, he had to explain Who God is. In dealing with a pagan audience, preachers or those engaged in one-on-one evangelism should not just vaguely summarize the Gospel and expect them to understand. Many Christians, preachers included, grew up in Sunday school or spent years hearing the Bible read and taught and have no idea of the level of ignorance about Who Jesus. It can be difficult to put themselves in the shoes of the secular unchurched person in the western world who has heard of Jesus, but knows little of Who Jesus is or anything about the history of the time. Some of the first century Jews needed a shorter ‘onboarding’ process to be able to understand the Gospel than pagans. They knew Who God is. There are people from monotheistic religions Who claim to believe in Jesus, but have a very different view of Who Jesus is, and evangelism for them may have to focus on those aspects of Gospel truth. Unbelievers need to hear the Gospel message in order to understand and believe it.
In Matthew 28, we read that the Lord Jesus sent the eleven into all the world, telling them to make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey all things He had commanded them. In Acts 2, we see Peter preached the Gospel, and when the audience was cut to the heart and asked him what to do, he told them to repent and be baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus and that they would receive the forgiveness of sins. In Acts 8, Philip preaches to the Samaritans and they were baptized, and to a eunuch who is also baptized in water. We might say the apostles did have the people make an expression of their faith in these passages.
Modern Evangelicalism grew out of the Methodist movement as certain preachers realized that individuals needed to have individual faith in God and not merely have been baptized as infants. As it evolved in the United States in the 1800’s, Finney would have people come up to the front bench the ‘anxious seat’ or ‘mourner bench’ where he and others would pray with them and he would instruct them. The Salvation Army had ‘the mercy seat’ where they would invite people to come up and confess their sins to God and repeat, and would pray for them individually. (See Keith Green’s “What’s Wrong with the Gospel: Section 2: ‘The Added Parts’”.) Roman Catholics and liturgical folks would have an altar at the front for communion, and the first reference I found to an ‘altar call’ was from a Nazarene publication in the 1900’s. The padded prayer benches at the front near the stage in a church building and later the area around the stage came to be called the ‘altar’.
In the early 20th century, there was the practice of shaking the preacher’s hand as a testimony to the idea that someone had accepted the Gospel. There were decision cards in some crusades. Then in the 1950’s, Billy Graham popularized ‘the sinner’s prayer’. Other preachers such as Oral Roberts had sinner’s repeat prayers also. The sinner’s prayer seems to be based partly on the idea of confessing oneself as a sinner based on Luke 18:13, and also the idea of making a confession of faith based on Romans 10:9-10 and other passages.
Billy Graham would have the sinner in the audience confess that he or she is a sinner and confess faith in Christ’s death for his or her sin, and confess belief in the resurrection.
During my life, I have seen the sinner’s prayer evolve from a confession of faith based tightly on Biblical promises to what is quite often a vague religious ritual. It seems to underlying presupposition of many Evangelical preachers and other Christians is that salvation is a matter of going through the relatively recently-developed ritual of repeating a “sinner’s prayer”, whether or not the original intention of the ritual—to encourage a faith-filled confession of oneself as a sinner and faith in the Gospel, regarding the Person of Christ, His death for our sins, and His resurrection—is fulfilled.
As someone born in 1972, raised in church, having become a believer at a young age, I remember dozens if not hundreds of “sinner’s prayer” altar calls based on confessing Romans 10:9-10. When I was young ‘religion’ was not a dirty word in church. James 1:27 tells us how to have ‘pure religion’, using ‘religion’ in almost of all of our English Bible translations. The modern evangelical preacher, if his audience is unchurched or secular, spends time on an anti-contextual rabbit trail of trying to convince his audience that ‘religion’ is a bad thing, while the audience tries to guess what this alternative meaning of the word ‘religion’ is. From my childhood, evangelism suffered from Evangelicals slapping the word ‘personal’ on phrases where it wasn’t particularly helpful, like ‘Personal Savior’, usually without explanation. So instead of hearing a Biblical explanation of the Person and work of the crucified and resurrected Christ, the sinners so often hear some unexplained Evangelical clichés about how religion is bad and personal relationship with God saves...but the Gospel is often omitted or left unexplained. Then the sinner is told to repeat a Gospelless prayer and declared saved if he believes it.
It’s like we are serving sinners a burger after the meat patty fell out, acting as if we are serving them a proper meal.
An irony is that some Evangelicals spend a lot of their efforts trying to convince people from other Christian backgrounds who have not gone through their rituals that they are not saved, as if following the recently developed sinner’s prayer ritual is what saved. Following the recent ritual is equated with ‘receiving Christ’, or ‘being born again.’ But some of these other groups repeat the Apostle’s Creed, which is a far more complete confession of faith than is repeated during ‘altar calls’ in many churches.
Of course telling people about the need for a relationship with God does not save them. If they believe and obey the Gospel, then they have a relationship with God. The use of the term ‘personal Savior’ back in the 1970’s and 80’s was treated almost as if it was necessary for salvation. Nowadays, a speech condemning religion and encouraging ‘personal relationship’ with God is treated the same way. The first reference I could find to the idea that Christianity is not a religion, but a relationship with Jesus Christ is from Hal Lindsay’s, ‘The Late Great Planet Earth’ from the early 1970’s. I suspect this idea was developed in California to address the thinking of ‘spiritual but not religious’ Hippies, cobbling together some ideas and phrases from Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I would imagine most secular people think of religion as ‘that which has to do with faith in or honoring God or gods’, and struggle with the Evangelical new redefinition that makes it about empty ritual. I did not participate in the redefinition. It didn’t resonate with me (and I would guess) the audience when I heard the anti-religion speech first around 1982, or when it started to take over on the east coast in the early 1990s. I think it distracts from and hinders non-church people from understanding the Gospel. And it irks me because it has replaced actually preaching the Gospel for so many people.
A lot of us imitate what we have seen. We follow the methods we have seen modeled. But every generation of Christians has a responsibility to examine and evaluate its practices and doctrines as to whether they are faithful to what has been revealed in the scriptures.
I believe we should follow the teachings and example of Christ and the apostles when it comes to evangelism. When evangelizing an unbeliever, we communicate the message so that they can hear and understand. They do need to call upon the Lord (Romans 10:13), but to do so, they need to, and to believe, they need a preacher to explain it to them (v. 14). Christ desires the nations to be disciples and baptized, and we can follow the example of the apostles in baptizing those who come to faith. And if we preach or share the Gospel to someone who is not ready, we can exhort them to listen until they come to faith, to repent, to become disciples and to be baptized. A confession of one’s sinfulness and confession of faith in the form of a prayer is fine. But the act of repeating a prayer doesn’t save without faith, and we need to be careful not to think that having people repeat a prayer without even telling them the Gospel first is an effective means of evangelism.
Btw, I say 'evangelical', but I have seen this quite a bit with both Charismatics and Pentecostals.
9/16/23 10:52 am