We must ask ourselves this question, ‘How can I know I have been born again, that I am truly a child of God? How can I know that I have believed unto eternal life?’
The relevance of these questions becomes apparent as we consider that we live in an age when many claim to have some sort of eternal hope in Christ, yet reflect so little of his teachings in their lives.
The seriousness of the matter becomes even more acute because twentieth-century preaching and evangelism radically altered the content of the gospel, the gospel call, and the means by which people obtain assurance of salvation.
Many preachers today now present the gospel as a series of concise, convenient statements that, while inherently true, are often left unexplained and hollowed of their true evangelical meaning and power.
The gospel call to repent and believe has been replaced with a call to accept Christ and repeat ‘the sinner’s prayer’, which is often at the end of tracts and the conclusion of emotional and often manipulative public invitations.
Many people no longer obtain assurance of salvation by a careful consideration of their conversion and lifestyle in light of the Scriptures. Rather, it is granted by a well-meaning minister, who is quick to pronounce the full benefits of salvation upon any who have prayed to receive Christ with any degree of apparent sincerity.
The result of these drastic alterations in the gospel is that multitudes of individuals demonstrate little evidence of saving grace, yet walk with the greatest assurance of salvation and respond with the greatest offence to anyone who would question their confession.
They believe themselves saved, carry their assurance in their heart, and have the affirmation of a religious authority. They have seldom heard a gospel warning to empty confessors of faith or been admonished to examine themselves in light of the Scriptures or test themselves for objective evidences of conversion (Matthew 7:13-27).
They sense no urgency and find little need to make their calling and election sure (2 Peter 1:10).
Warning to ministers
Many who serve as gospel ministers must accept the greater blame for people’s prevalent nonchalant attitude toward salvation and superficial view of assurance.
These erroneous opinions and careless attitudes toward the gospel and conversion did not spring forth from a careful reading of the Scriptures or a serious study of the great confessions and preaching of former centuries.
Rather, these faulty, dangerous opinions are the result of ministers who preach carelessly, handle the gospel with little trepidation, and deal with people’s souls in a superficial manner.
This depreciation and poor handling of the gospel results from the twentieth century’s gradual but decisive departure from a serious and devout study of biblical truth, which alone has the power to give men a high view of God, a right esteem for the gospel, and a healthy fear to discharge the solemn responsibility that has been laid upon ministers.
Thus, men have traded their mantles for methodologies, prophecy for pragmatism, and the power of the Holy Spirit for cleverly devised marketing strategies. The school of the prophets now looks more like a leadership-training seminar for future CEOs and junior executives.
The pastor’s presentation of life principles is given priority over gospel preaching, the rapid growth and mobilisation of the congregation has become more important than the purity of the church, and the conversion of the congregant is assumed if he has prayed ‘the sinner’s prayer’ and participates in the advancement of the church’s mission statement.
As ministers, we must guard through the Holy Spirit the treasure that has been entrusted to us (2 Timothy 1:14).We must return to the ancient paths marked out by the Word of God (Jeremiah 6:16).We must be absorbed in the Scriptures, that our progress in piety and our usefulness in the gospel ministry might be evident to all (1 Timothy 4:15).
We must be diligent to present ourselves approved to God, as workers who have no cause for shame, accurately handling the word of truth (2 Timothy 2:15). We must pay close attention to ourselves and our teaching — especially as we teach the gospel — for as we do, we will ensure both our own salvation and that of our hearers (1 Timothy 4:16).
As ministers of the gospel, we cannot be uninformed or careless with regard to our preaching of the gospel, our calling people to repentance and faith, and our counselling of seekers. People’s eternal destiny and the church’s reputation depend upon our diligence and fidelity in these high matters.
God’s spectacular work
We must remember that Christ has a church made up of those who have been regenerated by the Holy Spirit, who have repented and believed unto salvation, and who continue walking and growing in grace.
This church is God’s creation and one of his most spectacular works (Ephesians 2:10). It is the instrument God has ordained through which to display his glory and make known his manifold wisdom to the rulers and authorities in heavenly places (Ephesians 3:10).
The church is an important enterprise, and all of us, ministers and laymen alike, who have been called to contribute to her edification, must take extreme care. We must do all within our means to see that our service adds to her edification and beauty, rather than weakens her or does insufferable damage to her testimony.
This present threat is what gave rise to the apostle Paul’s admonition to the church in Corinth: ‘For no other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on this foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, each one’s work will become clear; for the Day will declare it, because it will be revealed by fire; and the fire will test each one’s work, of what sort it is’ (1 Corinthians 3:11-13).
Jesus Christ is the great cornerstone (Psalm 118:22; Isaiah 28:16; Matthew 21:42; 1 Peter 2:6-7) of the church; therefore, her foundation is unshakable. On the other hand, we have been called to build upon that foundation with a fear and trembling that flow from two fountains.
First, we know that our contributions to the church have the power to strengthen or weaken and beautify or spoil her. Second, we know that we will be judged for the quality of our ministry toward the church.
On that great day, the value of our labour will be revealed by fire. These thoughts should move the gospel minister to be careful in every aspect of his ministry, but especially in his preaching of the gospel and care for souls.
If this first stone is out of place, then the entire wall will be weakened, and the church’s reputation, which is more precious than gold, will be soiled.
Many have handled the gospel carelessly, generalising its essential truths and reducing its content to the lowest common denominator, in order to include the largest number of professions into a fellowship.
The glorious gospel of our blessed God (1 Timothy 1:11) has become a shallow creed made up of a few spiritual laws or principles. If an individual is willing to give even the most superficial assent to this creed, we authoritatively declare him born again, welcome him into the family of God, and place his name on the church roll.
Although a few converts are converted, far too many either never return to the fellowship or disappear from the congregation after only a few months.
Others who keep their association with the church often demonstrate a great dullness toward Christ, a frightening apathy toward holiness, and a disregard for ministry. They are not bound to the church by a vital union with Christ, but by all that the congregation with its vibrant leadership and programmes can offer them: a wholesome community, exciting relationships, a place for their children to grow, and a constant catering to their felt needs.
Because of an evangelical pulpit weakened by ignorance, pragmatism and fear, the professing church is filled with individuals who have never really been confronted with the gospel and have little understanding of biblical assurance.
This is an extract from the author’s book Recovering the Gospel, published by Reformation Heritage Books. The author was a missionary in Peru for ten years, during which time he founded the HeartCry Missionary Society to support Peruvian church planters. He now serves with the HeartCry society.