Stillborn Souls

Published in SATS ‘Pastor to Pastor’

 

Anyone who has been a pastor for more than a decade will most likely have some of the following concerns:
• That, irrespective of the average wealth of the congregation, one third of the income earners supply two thirds of the church’s income.
• That no matter how often or enthusiastically the pastor calls the people to weekly corporate prayer, only a handful of people respond.
• That, even in a church that teaches believers baptism by immersion in water, so many folk who have transferred in have not been baptized and are reluctant to do so.
• That, despite the fact that the exercise of spiritual gifts is welcomed in the assembled church, so few people are prepared to minister in the power of the Holy Spirit.
• That, even after years of exposure to consistent biblical teaching, a distressingly large proportion of the people have an essentially consumerist attitude towards the church.
I love my local church and I am so grateful to God that He has allowed me to pastor it, yet I have to confess that all five of the above concerns continue to trouble me. Perhaps this is not your experience and these are not your concerns, but I suspect they are.
In this article I am not presuming to lecture or criticise. That would be unhelpful and hypocritical, seeing as how I have already admitted that these concerns apply to my local church. Rather, I am attempting to expose some possible underlying issues so that we can reason together and perhaps, with God’s help, find some solutions.
But first I need to make one disclaimer. I do not believe that everything we do has been preordained by God. I do not hold that those who are saved are favoured because God has decided beforehand that they are the select subjects of His irresistible grace. If you have an essentially Calvinistic theology then you might well have different concerns to mine and alternative ways of looking at things.
As a pastor, it would be easy to blame a perceived ‘Laodicean’ condition of the church on the world system or the devil. I am sure both of these have something to do with things, but perhaps it would be better to start with ourselves as pastors. How have we structured the church – have we set it up to produce exactly what now concerns us? How do we preach – ear-tickling topical sermons or passionate expositions of the written Word of God? I intend addressing these two subjects in later articles, but right now I want to respond to a third question; how do we evangelize? I have chosen to formulate my response under three headings; Doctrine of Salvation, Priority of Rebirth, and Altar-call Midwifery.

 

Doctrine of Salvation

Most modern theologians take a holistic view of human nature, or distinguish only between a material and immaterial component. I, on the other hand, believe that a functional trichotomy is more helpful in understanding human makeup. Of course, while on earth, we cannot reasonably separate our material being from our immaterial being. I also acknowledge that ‘spirit’ and ‘soul’ are interchangeable biblical words and conflated concepts. However, I firmly believe that the essential thing that separates human beings from all other creatures is not ‘mind’ but ‘spirit’. God created us in His image as triune beings – body, mind, and spirit.
I am starting the discussion at this point because I suspect that the modern (and postmodern) tendency to merge mind and spirit into one undifferentiated immaterial constituent is perhaps at the heart of the malaise we observe in so much of the church. Some of the almost inevitable results of this thinking are:
• Presenting Christianity as a knowledge-based religion rather than a living relationship with God and His children.
• The resultant focus on learning and the acquisition of biblical and theological knowledge.
• Emphasis on the human will and the need to commit to activities and causes.
• The programmatic approach to church and private life, including the areas of sanctification and evangelism.

Most pastors and theologians acknowledge that what we term ‘salvation’ is a process that extends through on-going sanctification to ultimate glorification (resurrection of the body). It could be argued that the concerns I have listed are evidences of lack of personal sanctification. In other words, the church people are just not growing into the likeness of Jesus as they should. Perhaps this is true of some, but I suspect that there is another reason. How can people grow spiritually if they are not born again spiritually? A still-born baby cannot grow, can it?
I am painfully aware that at this point I am running the risk of appearing judgemental. However, if many of my people are in effect still-born souls, this is probably more my fault than theirs. And if it isn’t my fault, then the blame lies with some other pastor. So, believe me, I realise that the finger curls back and points inwards. This article is an attempt to wrestle with these realities and to invite you into the ring with me.
The best place to begin is usually at the beginning, and the beginning of salvation is rebirth of the spirit.

Priority of Rebirth

Think for a minute about the terminology we use when explaining salvation. Typically, we speak about how Jesus paid the price on our behalf on the cross of Calvary, about being justified by faith, and about committing our lives to Jesus. When we wish to enquire about a person’s spiritual status we often ask, ‘When did you commit your life to Jesus?’ Even when we ask, ‘When were you born again?’ our expectation is that they will recount the time they said the ‘sinner’s prayer’ or responded to an altar-call, or made some form of commitment.
Of course commitment is an important part of salvation, but is it the first and primary element? When Jesus was discussing entry in the Kingdom of God with the learned Nicodemus, He said, ‘You must be born again’ (John 3:7). He then explained that He was describing a metaphysical reality, not a mental acceptance of a philosophy or teaching (John 3:5-8). If you think about it, Jesus taught only three things concerning the start of salvation – repent and believe (Mark 16:16), believe and be baptised (Mark 1:15), and be born again from above. (I regard baptism as the physical witness to repentance and belief, so I won’t deal with it further in this article.)

To repent is surely more than just changing our minds about our own sinful condition and about what Jesus has done for us. It must include a deeply heart-felt sorrow for our personal rebellion against God and the hopelessness of our lost condition. When Peter preached his first evangelistic sermon on the day of Pentecost the people were ‘cut to the heart’ (Acts 2:37). The accounts of the great revivals of the early twentieth century all recount how people responded to the proclamation of the Gospel with deep groans, crying, and palpable emotional discomfort – they were cut to the heart. This is the work of the Holy Spirit in convicting of sin, but also the experience and evidence of deep heart-felt mortification and shame before a holy yet loving saviour. I must ask the question, if there is no evidence of this sort of ‘repentance’, then is the rebirth of the spirit not aborted?
Similarly, to believe must surely mean more than just mental assent; it must also encompass a whole-hearted trust and abandonment of life to Jesus. ‘Save me Lord!’ is the cry of a desperate soul who has realised that true life is just not possible without the grace of God. It is the cry of someone who has realised the deadness of their spirit and their total dependence on the Holy Spirit to give them a spirit that is alive to God and His kingdom. All of this is summed up by the little word ‘belief’, but it is the result of a dynamic interaction between God and a repentant person – it is something in which both we and God are involved. Rebirth, on the other hand, is all of God. We cannot will our spirit alive and we cannot recreate it by force of our imagination. Only God can give the gift of a new spirit; only God can create life from death.
What a far cry all of this is from the mumbled ‘sinners prayer’ uttered when ‘all heads are bowed and all eyes closed’.

 

Altar-call Midwifery

Perhaps you disagree with much of what I have written so far, but if you have found yourself nodding in agreement, then it is time for us to consider how we as pastors might be aiding in the production of still-born souls. My contention is that unless people are genuinely born again of the Spirit, they cannot function as devoted disciples of the Lord Jesus, no matter how much they try to commit to this noble endeavour. Jesus put it this way; ‘I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again’ (John 3:3).
Jesus taught the thousands, but He called individuals to follow Him. Right from the start, salvation is presented in scripture as relational and personal. We come into a personal relationship with Jesus and on the basis of this we enter into relationships with His people, the church. Mass evangelism is a relatively recent development, and even more recent is the use of ‘the altar-call’. Before the early eighteen hundreds, evangelists sometimes called enquirers to stay behind, or to gather together so that others could pray with them. However, it was Charles Finney who popularised the practice we refer to as the altar-call. After him, men like Moody, Sankey, and more recently Billy Graham, perfected the practice. Today it is to be found in almost all Evangelical evangelistic settings and in many Pentecostal churches it is a standard addendum to every sermon.
Here is the thing though – it is not to be found, either in principle or precedent, anywhere in the New Testament. When he preached at Pentecost, Peter did not use any form of altar-call, nor did Stephen, or Phillip, or Paul. Unsurprisingly then, we do not find the altar-call as we know it in the first eighteen hundred years of church life.
Not only does it lack biblical and historic support, but consider how it is usually conducted. An aspect of the Gospel is preached and then the invitation is given. Come to Jesus; let Him into your heart; while all heads are bowed slip up your hand; repeat a short prayer; come to the front; allow someone to pray with you … and you are saved. Where is the cut-to-the-heart repentance? Where is the desperate cry for help and total surrender of life into the hands of the saviour? Where is the bold confession before men and angels that Jesus is the only hope for eternal life? In my opinion, the whole altar-call process just does not fit with these deep spiritual realities.
I am not claiming that people cannot be genuinely born again through the mechanism of an altar-call. With God all things are possible (Mark 10:27). However, I am asking the question, ‘does the altar-call not generally lend itself to easy-believerism and aborted spiritual rebirth?’

 

Conclusion

I started by describing some of the things that concern me as a local church pastor. Many of the folk in my church are born again disciples of Jesus who love Him and His church. They are wonderful pillars of the faith and I thank God for them constantly. Others are surely born again, yet their focus on themselves and the pressures of their circumstances hold them back from growth into the image of Jesus. However, alongside these folk are others whom I suspect are just not born again, so how can I expect them to grow? Through my fault, or the fault of other church leaders, they are still-born souls. Perhaps the use of the altar call is partly to blame, or perhaps an inadequate theology of salvation is to blame. Whatever the cause, the effect deeply concerns me, and I am currently giving it a lot of thought and prayer.

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