When you insult the Evangelist...
(Defining terms: For clarification, by "Evangelist" I'm simply referring to anyone who gives the Gospel, not specifically itinerant Evangelists, though this post can be applied to both).
(Disclaimer: Yes, I do realize that my take on this might make some angry. If that's you, please understand that I know that not everyone who witnesses uses these parameters for their witnessing, and I'm ok with that. I'll enjoy my independence. You enjoy yours. I offer this only as some food for thought).
Colossians 1:4 "Since we heard of your faith in Christ Jesus, and of the love which ye have to all the saints"
Paul seems to have not met the converts in Colosse as of the writing of the Epistle to them (See 2:1). He’d simply “heard of [their] faith in Christ Jesus, and the love which [they had] to all the saints.”
Paul seems to have no issue considering these converts whom he’d never met to be genuine. Why? Because they naturally demonstrated their conversion by loving all the saints despite living in a culture where real threats to Christians existed.
Often those who declare a new convert “saved” from the moment they prayed a prayer, despise you when you only call it a “profession of faith”. Such differences of nomenclature often incite surprising levels of vitriol. Why? Because it’s not just a difference in nomenclature. It fundamentally calls into question the quality of someone’s evangelistic work. They get angry because they feel like you’ve thrown cold water on their effort. Their joy and praising when they tell about someone getting saved seems to be met with cold skepticism. Thus, they feel deflated.
When you begin to discuss with such a person your reasons for your caution and hesitance to declare someone saved so quickly, you’re often met with comments like, “you weren’t there. I saw what happened. I saw them cry”. Or, “you don’t have the authority to declare them not saved, only God does. So, you should accept their conversion testimony.”
There are several problems here.
1) I don’t have to have been there. I’m not evaluating the genuineness of the conversion testimony. I’m only suggesting one wait to get too excited until the convert begins to bear fruit that remains which consequently may take a while. (John 15:16)
2) Display of emotion during a conversion experience is in NO way a reliable indicator of the veracity of the experience. It never has been. Emotive responses can be present in genuine salvation experiences as well as false and/or misguided ones. It’s not reliable, no matter how much they cry. Fruit, however is a reliable indicator. (Matthew 7:16-20)
3) Of course I don’t have the authority to immediately declare the convert false. In fact, I don’t have the authority to immediately declare them saved either. And here’s a shocker- neither do you. You have no more authority to declare the conversion experience genuine as I do to declare it false, regardless of how you saw the convert respond emotionally. You’re correct in that I cannot see their heart. But if you’re honest, you can’t either. We can only see their fruit, and two seconds following a conversion experience is too soon to be able to observe any such thing. (James 2:18, 20, 26).
The first-century converts we see in scripture were often seen as genuine rather quickly because there were real-world consequences for becoming a Christian. To become a convert involved immediate fruit- a willingness to accept Christ despite being rejected by family and friends, possible loss of one’s occupation, and persecution from one’s former religion, and even the government. For someone to convert despite risking all of that was immediate evidence they really meant it when they received Christ. They were leaving a life behind by choosing Christ. I would liken or even equate this to the fruit of long-suffering.
Presently in America, in most cases, no such risks are likely in any meaningful way…for now. People can “convert” without much fear of suffering or any at all. This is why times and places in history in which Christian persecution existed, had an amazing tendency of weeding out false converts and galvanizing the true.
Should persecution ever become a real threat in America, it will become markedly easier to identify when a convert is genuine. Since this fruit of long-suffering is not often apparent in converts in a society with freedom of religion, we’re left to observe other kinds of fruit- joy, peace, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance (see Galatians 5:22-23), as well as the fruits of obedience (1 John 3:1-24), love (1 John 4:1-21), and truth (1 John 5:1-21). It takes time to observe even small amounts of these fruits and rarely do converts produce all of them immediately.
For now, it seems the wisest course of action if someone “prays a prayer” or “makes a decision” is to do these three things:
First, offer them qualified assurance, that is, assurance ONLY if they fully understood the gospel and meant their decision. This, of course, is presuming you taught them the true Gospel, that is, the one that includes real repentance (change of mind about sin, false beliefs, and self-righteousness) and saving faith (not just in Christs’ existence but in His sole efficacy for salvation).
Second, just keep waiting. Don’t immediately baptize them and add them to the church. Don’t sign and give them a spiritual birth certificate. Don’t bring them before the church declaring them born again. Don’t write all your ministry friends telling them your “numbers”. Just wait! How long should you wait? I don’t believe there is a constant for that. Instead, be discerning. The reason for this waiting is that it is better to wait than to give a potentially false convert a false assurance of salvation. Then they’ll go out from among you because they were never actually of you (1 John 2:19), all the while thinking they’re a Christian because “the preacher told me so”. Then you’ve made them twofold more the child of hell. (Matthew 23:15)
Third, offer personal discipleship. All of this waiting is work- a discerning work. A patient work. A discipling work. You are not presenting them as saved but you’re also not presenting them as still lost. All they’ve done at this point is make a profession of faith in Christ for salvation. You’re just waiting for now and offering them personal discipleship to see what happens. In many ways, the offer of personal discipleship is a simple test to see how they "stick". I know that sounds cold and sterile but it's a legitimate test, and a great way to give due diligence to the second half of the great commission. (Matthew 28:19-20)
Many men don’t like this three-pronged approach to Gospel evangelism. It is admittedly anti-climactic and lack-luster. I don’t get to tweet about record numbers of people getting saved in a single day or event. I don’t get my pride immediately satisfied with the potential quality of my ministry work. However, by the time I can in good conscience report that someone has been born again, I can do so confidently.
Not doing these three things can make ministry exhausting. What often keeps men in ministry so busy is “managing the contacts”- typically people who’ve made quick decisions that the preacher now tries to turn into a copy of everyone else who is already in the church. It's hard work trying to get good fruit out of a corrupt tree! Since there is little carefulness by the preacher in this scenario, there tends to be a higher number of decisions. The preacher must then turn to what I'll call "assimilation programs" (not the same thing as discipleship) in the church for the alleged convert so he can keep his own head above water. In such assimilation programs, it’s often easy for false converts to go unnoticed. Let’s call this whole thing “Scenario A”. Sometimes it seems to work but you end up with a church half-full of Christian-like lost people. This is a pathetic failure. Simply because some prophetic scriptures concerning this age indicate that many will be false, does not mean we should contribute to it by lack of discernment.
Sometimes managing the contacts doesn’t seem to work and the preacher has spent countless hours trying to put “shine on a coffin” to no avail. The alleged convert leaves anyway expressing no intentions of ever following the Lord and sometimes regret they came in the first place. Let’s call that “Scenario B”.
In either scenario, the preacher has busied and over-worked himself. He could have accomplished much more with less run-around if he’d used a little more discernment by not declaring every decision to be immediately genuine, giving qualified assurance to converts, not caring about reporting results, offering personal discipleship, and learning to just wait. For now, though, get used to a few people getting insulted if you call it a "profession of faith"... and maybe share this post with them, that is if you don't think it will make them even angrier.