1. THE TYPICAL SOUL-WINNING PROGRAM NEGLECTS REPENTANCE (Acts 20:21).
Repentance was preached by John, by Jesus, and by Peter. It appears 68 times in New Testament, 10 times in the book of Acts alone.
Repentance was a major part of Paul’s message (Acts 17:30; 20:21; 26:19-20).
The Bible teaches that repentance is not same as believing (Acts 20:21). Sometimes repentance is emphasized (Luke 5:32; 13:3,5; 24:47; Acts 3:19; 5:31; 17:11; 26:20; 2 Peter 3:9); sometimes faith is emphasized (John 3:16; Acts 16:30-31; etc.); and sometimes both are mentioned together (Acts 20:21; Hebrews 6:1).
Repentance is not a change of life; it is a change of mind that results in a change of life (Acts 26:20). It is a surrender (1 Thess. 1:9). “Believing” without surrender is not salvation.
Repentance is an assassin laying down the knife. Evangelist James Stewart wrote: “The hand that clutches the assassin’s knife must open ‘ere it can grasp the gift its intended victim proffers; and opening that hand, though a single act, has a double aspect and purpose. Accepting the gift implies a turning from the crime the heart was bent on, and it was the gift itself that worked the change. Faith is the open hand, relatively to the gift; repentance is the same hand, relatively, not only to the gift but more especially to the dagger that is flung from it” (Stewart, Evangelism, pp. 48, 49).
Repentance is the thief returning the stolen property. The late Lester Roloff said:
“I believe we ought to make right what we can make right. What if I was staying with a group of preachers and one of them stole my wallet while I was sleeping? The next day he comes up to me and tells me he is terribly sorry and asks me to forgive him. I would be glad to hear that he is sorry for stealing my wallet, but I would certainly want and expect more than that from a repentant thief. I would want my wallet back! I don’t believe he has really repented unless he brings my billfold back. I DON’T BELIEVE YOU HAVE REPENTED UNTIL YOU GET RIGHT AND SAY, ‘LORD, I’M GOING TO LIVE DIFFERENT FROM NOW ON,’ AND BY THE GRACE OF GOD YOU WILL LIVE DIFFERENT” (Roloff, Repent or Perish).
The question is how do we use repentance in soul winning?
First, we must not skip over it. We should explain that the individual must be ready to surrender to God, and not give him the idea that it is possible to be saved without this (Lk. 13:3; Acts 17:30). Of course, we explain that God will do the changing, but the sinner must be ready to accept God’s working. If the individual is not ready to do this, he is not ready to be saved. I have dealt with many people who understood and believed that Christ died for their sins and that faith in Christ is the only way of salvation, but they simply were not ready to surrender to God. They refuse to repent.
This is often the case with people who grow up in Christian homes. Repentance was the thing that was missing in my life as I grew up in a Baptist church. I don’t recall a time when I did not believe in Christ. I had no doubt that He died on the cross for my sin. I made a public profession of faith at about age 10, but it was empty because I had no intention of surrendering my life to Christ. Bowing before Him as Lord was the farthest thing from my mind. The course of my life did not change one iota.
When my wife and I first began our missionary work in South Asia in 1979, our landlord began coming to our house to have Bible studies. He was a wealthy middle-aged Hindu and had a concubine with whom he spent most of his time, though he was married and had grown children. After we went through the gospel a few times, he told me he felt that he understood what I was teaching and that he was interested in receiving Christ, but he wanted to know what he would have to do about two specific things in his life–his shady business practices and his illicit relationship with the concubine. I could have said, “Don’t worry about those things. Just pray to receive Christ and those things will work themselves out later.” That’s the method I was taught in Bible School, but I don’t believe it would have been scriptural counsel. I don’t believe he could receive Christ and be saved unless he repented of his immorality and his dishonesty. Salvation requires surrendering. I explained to him that if he would turn to Christ, God would change his life and he would have different desires, but he didn’t want that. The power to change one’s life is from God, but the sinner must surrender to God’s working.
Dealing with sinners according to repentance is often neglected today. There was an Independent Baptist church campaign in Maine a few years ago in which the people were taught to go house to house and say, “If I were to tell you today that you can be saved and go to heaven and you won’t have to change anything, would you be interested?”
That is not biblical soul winning or biblical gospel preaching. That is cheap religious salesmanship.
Consider Christ’s dealings with the woman at the well in John 4. He faced her squarely with the immorality that had controlled her life. He also faced the Rich Young Ruler with his sin of self-righteousness and covetousness (Luke 18).
This is the way God always deals with people, and this is the way we must deal with them, too, if we want to follow the Bible in our gospel work. To preach repentance means to deal with glaring sins that people are holding onto and to tell them plainly that they must repent of sinning against God; they must yield their lives to Him; they must change directions; they must surrender. God will do a new work in their lives but they must be ready for that to happen. They must have a change of mind about God and sin that will result in a change of life.
It appears that many soul-winning programs try to “slip the gospel by the sinner” and get him saved before he really knows what is happening! That is not possible. The Lord Jesus Christ said, “I tell you, Nay: but, except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish” (Luke 13:3, 5). There is no salvation without repentance, and it is a Holy Spirit-wrought change of mind that results in a change of life.
To tell sinners that God demands that they repent might cut down on the “decision” statistics, but it is the only honest and scriptural path. God has commanded that they repent and Jesus said they can’t be saved without it, so how can we fail to tell them this?
One afternoon I accompanied a pastor to knock doors in a part of a city that was populated with university students. A few times in one afternoon he shared a five-minute Romans Road plan (i.e., all have sinned against God, the wages of sin is death, and Jesus died for our sin and those who believe can be saved) and then immediately asked three questions: “Does that make sense to you?” (All of them said it made sense.) “Do you have any questions?” (None of them did, because they didn’t appear the least big interested.) And “Would you pray to receive Christ right now?” (None of them did.) Not only was the program “quick,” to say the least, the pastor didn’t even hint to the people that there would need to be a change in the direction of their life, a turning, a surrender to God.
This is not a pastor who is into the numbers racket or who is trying to impress some preacher’s fellowship or perhaps get his name in a national magazine. He is a man that I respect, a mature Christian leader who has been in the ministry for many years and who has taken a scriptural stand on some unpopular issues. I believe the problem is that he is simply following a program of soul-winning that he has been taught and that is standard fare for a large percentage of fundamental Baptists. The program simply isn’t questioned.
Second, it is not necessarily the word “repentance” that always has to be used; it is the concept and meaning that the soul winner must get across. We must make the individual understand that God requires surrender.
Third, we need to deal with each case individually. Paul preached repentance directly and forcefully to the Athenians because they needed to be confronted with God’s requirement (Acts 17:30). On the other hand, he didn’t have to preach repentance to the Philippian jailer, because the Spirit of God had already done a great work in his heart and he was ready to do whatever is necessary for salvation (Acts 16:30-31).
2. THE TYPICAL SOUL-WINNING PROGRAM EMPHASIZES HEAVEN TOO MUCH.
It is very common for soul-winning programs to emphasize “going to Heaven when you die.” The course entitled In the Highways and Hedges, published by First Baptist Church of Hammond, Indiana, takes this approach.
This soul-winning plan instructs the evangelist to begin by asking the individual, “If you were to die today, are you 100 percent sure you would go to Heaven?”
When the individual replies, “No,” the soul-winner is instructed to give a simple little Romans Road presentation (you can know that you have eternal life, you are a sinner and under God’s condemnation, Jesus died for your sin, salvation is a gift that you can receive today).
After the very brief presentation using a few isolated verses, the soul-winner is instructed to say the following:
“Now, John, if you will trust Jesus to take you to Heaven when you die, just bow your head and close your eyes with me right now. If you mean this with all your heart, pray this prayer after me: ‘Dear Jesus, forgive me of my sins. I trust You today. Jesus, and only You, to take me to Heaven when I die. Thank You for saving me. Amen.’”
It’s all about “going to Heaven when you die.”
There is absolutely nothing like this in Scripture. Never did Jesus or the apostles and preachers in the early churches approach someone and ask if they wanted to go to Heaven when they died. Who doesn’t! But salvation is not a mere ticket to Heaven. It is a saving, life-changing relationship with the living God through Jesus Christ in the here and now.
The “do you want to go to Heaven when you die” approach was used by Jack Hyles on May 3, 1998, when he claimed that more people were saved then than on the day of Pentecost. Hyles preached a message titled “A Place Called Heaven.” His text was John 14:1-6, which, of course, is addressed to believers, not unbelievers. After preaching on Heaven, he told the crowd, “If you have the least desire to go to Heaven, if there’s just a little bit of a desire to go to Heaven, then this morning, you trust Jesus as your Saviour.”
Heaven is a wonderful subject, but the gospel is not about Heaven. The gospel is the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ for our sin.
“Moreover, brethren, I declare unto you the gospel which I preached unto you, which also ye have received, and wherein ye stand; by which also ye are saved, if ye keep in memory what I preached unto you, unless ye have believed in vain. For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; and that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:1-4).
Heaven is definitely a product of salvation, but why is it that none of the apostles preached on Heaven when they were presenting the gospel? Why are the sermons recorded in the book of Acts so different from the one Hyles preached?
Consider the sermon Paul preached on Mars Hills to the idolatrous pagans in Acts 17. Paul did not preach on Heaven; he preached on God and His righteous judgment so that the idolaters would understand their sin and turn to Christ for redemption. The average person in North America today is very similar to those idolatrous pagans, and North Americans need the same type of preaching. An idolatrous and apostate people need sermons on Hell more than sermons on Heaven. They need sermons on the law more than sermons on grace, because biblical grace is only understood in the context of the law. No one can understand and appreciate God’s grace unless they first understand His holiness and justice. This is how Peter preached on the day of Pentecost. He didn’t ask the Jews if they wanted to go to Heaven.
We need to follow the Bible rather than some man today or a modern soul-winning program. The emphasis of the Bible is on telling people that God is holy and just and a judge of sin, that they are lost and undone, and that God demands that they surrender to His authority (repent) and receive Christ AND BECOME DISCIPLES OF CHRIST IN THIS PRESENT WORLD rather than think they can get some sort of cheap ticket to Heaven through a religious ritual (e.g., saying a prayer). Not one person in the book of Acts received the gospel as a mere ticket to Heaven and when his way unchanged. Each one of the conversions recorded in Acts was of a dramatic, life-changing sort in which the individual not only trusted Christ but also surrendered to Christ.
One of the clearest examples of biblical salvation is the church at Thessalonica. They didn’t pray a little prayer so they could go to Heaven one day. They “turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God” (1 Thessalonians 1:9).
3. THE TYPICAL SOUL WINNING PROGRAM DOESN’T PLOW THE GROUND PROPERLY.
No individual will cast himself upon Christ in a saving way unless he first is convinced that he is a lost sinner with no hope apart from Christ. Most soul-winning programs pass over this fact far too lightly. They teach you to quote a verse or two about sin and then ask the individual, “Do you believe you are a sinner?” Many people will answer this in the affirmative but that does not mean they understand and believe what the Bible says.
Most people will admit that they aren’t perfect, but they also think of themselves as good. They think that their good outweighs the bad they do. They know they have done wrong, but they don’t think of themselves as truly deserving of hell. In their minds, they typically redefine “sin” to be a lack of perfection or a lack self-esteem or (if Catholics) they divide sin into “categories” of big and small or some such thing. They do not believe that were sinners from conception and that even their very righteousness is as filthy rags before God (Isaiah 64:6).
To be saved I have to acknowledge that I am the sinner that the Bible says I am, that I am such a sinner before God that I deserve Hell, that I have wickedly broken God’s holy laws. To confess that I am sinner in a biblical, saving fashion means that I stop making excuses for my sin and blaming others.
For this to happen, the ground of the soul has to be properly plowed and the divinely-ordained plow is the Law (Gal. 3:24). It is God’s Law that exposes man’s sinful condition by showing what God requires and how far man has fallen. It is the Law which takes away man’s excuses and stops him from judging himself by human standards and comparing himself to other men and makes him stand guilty before God (Romans 3:19).
This is why the Bible is two-thirds law before we come to the New Testament with its gospel of grace. The Old Testament is the preparation for the New.
Consider Romans 1-3. This is the true Romans Road. Paul spent the better part of three chapters establishing the fact of God’s holiness and His righteous judgment upon sinful mankind (Romans 1:18 – 3:23) before he preached salvation through the grace of Christ (Romans 3:24 – 4:25). The love of God isn’t mentioned until chapter 5. This is the true Romans Road. This is how Peter preached to the Jews on the day of Pentecost and how Paul preached to the pagans on Mars Hill.
The Ten Commandments in Exodus 20:1-17 can be used effectively toward this end, beginning with the first commandment. Ask the individual if he has always put God absolutely first in his life. The sincere answer, obviously, will be no. Ask if he has always honored and obeyed his father and mother, whether he has ever stolen, ever lied, ever coveted that which belonged to someone else.
Go further and show that God requires that we keep His laws from the heart. External obedience is not enough. Thus, lusting after a woman is likened to adultery (Mat. 5:28) and hating someone is likened to murder (Mat. 7:21-22).
Show that “whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all” (James 2:10).
This establishes the fact that all men are sinners who constantly break God’s laws and deserve God’s punishment. It means that all men are under God’s judgment and will be punished with eternal punishment, because we can never pay the full amount that God’s law demands. Thus the wages of sin is not only physical death but also eternal torment in the lake of fire (Rev. 20:15).
This type of plowing of the ground of the soul is what the Spirit of God uses to bring proper conviction to the heart and to remove the sinner’s false sense of hope and compels him to fervently want to know what he can do to be saved.
4. THE TYPICAL SOUL-WINNING PROGRAM DOESN’T EMPHASIZE THE IMPORTANCE OF PATIENCE AND THOROUGHNESS.
The typical soul-winning plan is far too hasty and shallow. We need to deal with people more carefully, more thoroughly, and more patiently so that they understand the gospel and are able to make a proper Spirit-led decision.
Consider the previous example of giving a quick Romans Road presentation to a stranger at the door and then actually expecting him to be ready to be saved and encouraging him to pray a sinner’s prayer.
On one visitation outing in Oklahoma City, my soul-winning partner knocked on a door and it was answered by a woman from South America who could only speak a few words of English. She invited us into the house (her teenage children were there) and told us that she was Roman Catholic. Though it was obvious that she couldn’t understand English sufficiently, my partner went quickly through the Roman’s Road and then asked her if she wanted to pray. At that point I intervened and suggested that we find someone from the church who spoke her language and send them by to visit with her and also that we try to get her a Bible in her own language. How could an individual possibly understand the gospel and be saved when they are being dealt with in a language they don’t understand? Further, as a Roman Catholic, it appeared to me that what little she did understand she was re-interpreting in light of her false religion.
This is an example of failing to deal with an individual properly.
My partner that day was a humble, sincere man of God. He was not trying to make a name for himself; he simply wanted to win people to Christ, but he had been influenced by the standard soul-winning program and had not thought beyond it.
Many people in America today are as Bible ignorant as the Hindus in South Asia. Many are steeped in humanism and believe in evolution, and evolution is as far-fetched as any Hindu myth. If we tried to use the aforementioned soul-winning technique in South Asia, we could get half the people to pray a sinner’s prayer “so they could go to Heaven one day.” But in the vast majority of cases, what they would be doing would be adding Jesus to their other gods, which, typically, is the first thing a Hindu tries to do. It is quite another thing for the Hindu to turn to Jesus Christ ALONE as Lord and Savior and to turn FROM all of his other gods, as we see in 1 Thessalonians 1:9: “For they themselves shew of us what manner of entering in we had unto you, and how ye turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God.” But this, and this alone, is biblical salvation.
I have never met a Hindu who understood the gospel the first time he heard it. There probably has been some, but in the 20 years I have been a missionary among them I have not experienced it or even heard of it.
We have found that in the vast majority of cases, the Hindu has to hear the gospel over a period of time. He must be dealt with very carefully and very patiently.
Someone might argue that people in the Bible got saved the first time they heard. Yes, some did. The Philippian jailer is an example, but he had also been listening to Paul and Barnabas’ preaching and we don’t know what other preparation he had received before that night.
Some Important Scriptures about Being Careful in Gospel Presentation
In the matter of dealing with sinners in a patient and thorough manner, consider the following Scriptures:
“And with many other words did he testify and exhort, saying, Save yourselves from this untoward generation” (Acts 2:40).
Though we know that 3,000 were saved on the day of Pentecost, it is also important to observe that they weren’t saved on the basis of a five-minute gospel presentation. Further, these were Jews that were already steeped in Scripture and had a foundation of spiritual and religious knowledge that most people don’t have today. They knew about the true God. They understood the concept of the fall of man and sin. They had the testimony of the sacrificial system. They had the Messianic prophecies. And many of them had heard the preaching of Christ Himself.
Consider another passage:
“These were more noble than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness of mind, and searched the scriptures daily, whether those things were so. Therefore many of them believed; also of honourable women which were Greeks, and of men, not a few” (Acts 17:11-12).
The conversion of the Bereans did not involve a five-minute Romans Road presentation. It occurred over a period of time during which they heard Paul’s teaching and searched the Scriptures.
Consider two more Scriptures:
“For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Saviour; Who will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:3-4).
“But God be thanked, that ye were the servants of sin, but ye have obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine which was delivered you” (Romans 6:17).
In these passages Paul describes salvation as coming to the knowledge of the truth and as believing a form of doctrine. Salvation requires knowledge. This does not mean that the sinner must learn systematic theology. It means that he must know and understand the content of the gospel. He must know what it means when the Bible says that Jesus died for our sins according to the Scripture, that he died, and that he rose again the third day according to the Scripture (1 Cor. 15:1-4). He must know what sin is and recognize himself as the type of sinner that the Bible says he is. He must understand who Jesus is and the significance of His death. He must understand what saving faith is.
In light of this, it is obvious that the soul winner must patiently teach sinners these things and try to make sure that they understand.
Don’t Forget the Law of Sowing and Reaping
Consider the fact that soul-winning is likened to sowing and reaping. Typically, these two aspects of farming don’t happen at the same time. There is sowing, following by watering, fertilizing, weeding, etc., then there is reaping.
Soul-winning programs too often create the expectation that the sowing and reaping will occur at the same time. But when this does seem to happen, it is usually because the sowing had already been done, perhaps by godly parents, perhaps by a co-worker or friend, perhaps by personal Bible reading.
The Preparatory Work of the Law
In light of dealing with sinners properly, consider the make-up of the Bible. The reason why such a large percentage of Scripture is devoted to presenting the law is to prepare the way for the gospel. The law is the schoolmaster that leads sinners to Christ (Gal. 3:24). The law shows man how holy God is and how sinful man is. Until a person understands his great guilt before God, he will not flee to Christ in a scriptural sense (Heb. 6:18).
Preachers used to understand that the ground of the human heart must be plowed up with the law before it can bear the sweet fruit of the gospel. Some of the old evangelists would hold meetings and not even preach the gospel for the first few days, preparing the way by preaching hard on sin and judgment.
J. Frank Norris once preached an entire week on the subject of hell without giving an invitation. Only after a full week of such preaching did he give an invitation, and more than a hundred and fifty were saved.
In the 1960s Oliver B. Greene preached 25 radio messages in a row on the wrath of God. I doubt he could even get away with that on any of the national Christian radio stations today.
Everything is quick and shallow today, and we have all been affected by the spirit of the times.
The Sinner Typically Reinterprets the Gospel according to His Religious Background
Furthermore, it is important to be careful and thorough in presenting the gospel because people tend to interpret it in light of their religious background. When a Roman Catholic first hears about being born again, for example, he naturally thinks about baptism. When he hears about “receiving Christ,” he thinks that it is something that is done repeatedly through the sacraments. When he hears about sin, he thinks that there are different categories of sin and that only certain types of sin have eternal consequences. He might tell the soul winner that he understands these things and he might say that he has no questions about what has been presented, but in reality he doesn’t understand at all because of his previous false training.
This is why ecumenical evangelistic crusades are so insufficient. When Billy Graham or Luis Palau preach to Roman Catholics, they might preach a sound gospel message, but that message is interpreted wrongly by their Catholic hearers, and the ecumenical evangelists refuse to make things plain by preaching AGAINST false doctrine. To be understood, the truth must often be contrasted plainly with error.
In no wise am I saying that confrontational evangelism is wrong or that we should not seek to win people to Christ right where we find them, if possible. If God is convicting the individual and if he understands the gospel and is ready to repent and believe, then nothing else is necessary.
I am simply saying that one of the best ways to avoid false professions is to avoid shallow, insufficient presentations of the gospel. Even the most careful presentation of the gospel will not avoid all false professions, but it will greatly cut down on them in contrast to a shallow presentation.
Someone might protest, “But time is short and you never know if you will see that person again.” That is so very true, and oftentimes we only have one opportunity to give the gospel to any certain individual. In such a case we must do the best we can and leave them a gospel tract. But it is one thing to give a quick word of testimony or even a quick Romans Road plan of salvation, while it is quite another thing to use that hasty presentation as the basis for manipulating someone into praying a sinner’s prayer.
Someone might protest that it is not possible to be thorough when people won’t even open the door and let the soul winner in the house. That is true, but if a person is not willing to listen to what God has to say, there is no hope for him beyond praying that God will give him an interest. The gospel cannot be forced upon the heart and it cannot be snuck in some side door.
We must ask God to lead us to people who will listen, who will let us into their homes to have a series of gospel Bible studies, who will attend classes at church, etc.
Whatever the problem might be and whatever protests might be offered, being too hurried and plucking the fruit before it is ripe is not the solution!
SOWING AND REAPING: A COURSE IN EVANGELISM.
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