I tell people to repent and believe

I follow Puritan evangelism. What the term fully means is a discussion for another time. But essentially, when I say this, I mean that I evangelize differently from those who follow the modern evangelistic methods. How so? For one, I do not end my sharing by asking people to pray a prayer. Rather, I try my best to explain how my audience should respond to the Good News of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, and challenge them to do so.

This response, in Bible language, is a response of faith (believing) and repentance or faith-repentance (Mark 1:15). Both terms are two sides of the same coin.

Many of my friends find this odd. I do not blame them because I also grew up learning that after the Gospel message comes the prayer response. This prayer is now known as the Sinner’s Prayer.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not about to start a campaign to stop all people from using this modern method of evangelism. I will joyfully share Jesus with anyone, whether they ask people to pray the sinner’s prayer or not, provided that the Gospel is clearly presented and the response of faith-repentance adequately explained. I will also happily evangelize with anyone who asks people to pray the sinner’s prayer so long as he never uses that as basis for salvation.

I am saddened everytime I hear of Christians proudly declaring this or that number of people becoming believers after praying the prayer. I believe the Bible’s words that all who call to Jesus will be saved. But the dilemma here is on the proclamation of a person's spiritual condition. The fact is, only God can see people’s hearts, so He alone can declare who is saved.

A person may have parroted back the prayer without sincerity. He or she may have just been polite as most Filipinos are. We have no capacity as humans to know this, because we have no eyes that can see a heart of stone turning into flesh. We also do not have the ability to see faith as Jesus exhibited when He healed the paralytic brought by four friends (Mark 2:1-12).

Herein comes another distinction of Puritan Evangelism—the call to examine one's faith if it truly brought transformation. Generally, we cannot see faith instantly. But in time, the one with genuine trust in Jesus will show transformed life. This is the evidence of salvation which we can measure. This is the evidence John referred to when he said, “Bear fruit in keeping with repentance (Matthew 3:8).”

Thus, after sharing the Gospel and instructing my audience how to respond, I patiently explain that genuine salvation brings transformation. They know that their faith is true when they see change in their life.

I say something like, “Only God can see if your faith-repentance is true. But His Word says, ‘A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit (Matthew 7:18).’  If you have truly trusted in Jesus, you will see change in your life. You will see that a new love for God emerges in your heart. This love draws you to read His Word, pray, fellowship and even share Jesus to others. To some, the transformation is more evident, but to others, it is more subtle. But the important thing is, you MUST see consistent change in your life. You begin to love God more and hate sin more and more.”

This transformation is seen over and over again in the Bible. One of the examples is the Apostle Paul. He was once a murderer and a great persecutor of Christians. But when he met Jesus on the road to Damascus, God worked in his life and saved him. There is no account of him praying a sinner's prayer or responding to an altar call, but we know that Paul placed his faith in Jesus because a great change happened in his life. The once great persecutor became one of the most faithful evangelists to non-Jews, proclaiming Jesus to people high and low at the cost of his very life (Acts 26).

I also experienced this transformation and continue to experience it in my life. When I first heard the Gospel, the one who shared to me also invited me to pray the sinner’s prayer. I prayed it and he said I was already a Christian after I prayed.

On hindsight, however, I believe his declaration to be premature. Why? Because even after hearing the Gospel and praying, there was no conviction of sin in me, no new love for God, not even a desire to read His Word.

But praise God because He called me to faith more than a year later. It was in a training camp. The interesting thing is, the messages were for believers. It was not an evangelistic camp, but God's message in my heart was clear, "I am a hypocrite."

Up to that point, my Christianity was only lip service. There was nothing to prove my faith-- no transformation. In fact, I was unable to let go of a secret sinful relationship at that time. But the Holy Spirit convicted me of my hypocrisy.

Early on the second day of the camp, I went out and truly cried out to God. My simple prayer went something like this, "Lord if you want me to follow you, please help me to do so because I could not do it on my own..." I know that He answered because from then on, I saw how God slowly changed my life. He has taught me to love Him truly.

I am not discouraging people from sharing the Gospel. But I am discouraging fellow believers from taking God’s role by prematurely declaring salvation to a person on the basis of a single act. That is not our work. Even the Bible says, “The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God (Romans 8:16).”

Genuine faith is shown outwardly by transformed lives, and inwardly by a testimony of the Holy Spirit in a person’s heart.

I am on the side of caution on the issue of evangelism because it is painful to see so many people being given false assurance. Instead of helping unbelievers, we deceive them and further bury the wonderful message of grace, faith and salvation.

Response is crucial in the Gospel. This may come in the form of a prayer uttered verbally or in the secret depths of one’s heart. This may come in tears or silent conviction. It may come in sudden joy or great remorse. But all these—the responding in faith-repentance—are but the products of God’s grace.

We may not know exactly how God works and operates in our hearts. Grace is the God-side of the salvation equation (if there is such a thing because God is sovereign over all). There is nothing in our capacity to coerce or even bribe Him to grant us grace. But the side of the equation that we can understand (I am tempted to call it the human side) is God’s call to repent and believe for our forgiveness and salvation.

The believing and repenting is something an individual will do. It is, in a sense, a decision we have to make. Yet, in the grand mystery of God’s design, the Bible declares that God is behind them all. Amazing! We decide to believe and repent, yet, not on our own power but by God’s grace! I’m glad this is God’s design because I have no capacity to believe and repent using my own sinful heart.

As I end, I just want to share that I wrote this article more as a personal affirmation of what I believe is  an accurate representation of God’s working in our salvation. This was also prompted by a question raised by a student during one of our Bible studies.

Her question was, “If grace is all up to God, what can we do so that He will give us that grace so that we can repent and believe?”

My answer is this: Nothing. Grace is His domain. YET, we know for a fact that when we believe and repent, then God’s grace has been granted to us. The reality is, the fruit of grace that we see is repentant-faith, that’s why I can confidently affirm that at the moment of our faith and repentance, grace exists. I don’t claim to understand this fully. But I rest on what God’s Word has revealed so far.

Having said all these, I end with the same exhortation for all, whether they use the sinner’s prayer or not. God’s Son is the only answer to our sin problem. He came here on earth to bear the death penalty of everyone who believes. He died but rose again to give eternal life to those who will put their trust in Him.

I exhort everyone, then, “Believe in the Lord Jesus! Repent of your sins and turn back to God!” In doing so, you receive salvation! But before we become proud of our own faith and repentance, remember that we are able to do these only because God graciously enabled us!    

God bless us all!
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