I’m concerned that many well meaning pastors and preachers are undermining their goal to make faithful disciples of Jesus by pronouncing people who have responded to a Gospel invitation as “saved”.
You’ve probably seen these announcements. You’ve probably even said things like this yourself! I have many times in the past.
“So and so got saved last night!”
“We had 16 youth get saved at the D-Now this weekend!”
Before I go any further, let me be clear. There is nothing wrong with giving invitations to respond to the Gospel! I love inviting people to repent and believe in Jesus. Our church does it virtually every single week. It’s certainly biblical.
In Acts 2, after preaching the first Christian sermon in church history, the Apostle Peter compelled his hearers to “repent and be baptized, every one of you, for the forgiveness of your sins” (Acts 2:38)
But it’s critical to remember that when we are calling someone to respond to the Gospel, we are not calling them to merely make a decision at a point in time. We are calling them to a new way of living and to a new identity.
My concern is that many ministry leaders are holding contradictory beliefs. Here’s what I mean.
On the one hand, most pastors (at least in the Baptist camp) would agree that a) Once someone is saved, they cannot lose their salvation and, b) A genuine believer will bear the fruit of the Spirit and grow in Christlikeness.
The problem is, when a teenager walks an aisle with her friend at a youth rally in response to a Gospel invitation and we tell her that she is now “saved”, we have a major dilemma on our hands if one year later she is not walking with the Lord and living in sin.
Since we told this girl (and announced to the world) that she is saved, there’s one of two possibilities.
- We were wrong. She was not actually saved, but we led her to believe that she was by using that kind of language
- She is saved and our theological convictions that genuine believers will continue in the faith and bear the fruit of Christlikeness are mistaken
I think we know which of these two possibilities is the correct one. And this is not just a hypothetical scenario, by the way. We all know that it happens all the time.
Avoiding False Assurance
The danger of pronouncing people “saved” upon walking an aisle or filling out a card is that we are subtly communicating that the primary evidence of salvation is that you walked an aisle, raised a hand, or came forward to be baptized.
Coming forward in response to an invitation to trust in Christ very well could be the beginning of new life in Christ, but wisdom (and Scripture, I will argue) dictates that we ought to let some time elapse and allow for fruit to grow before we prematurely pronounce someone as “saved”.
It would be more helpful, I believe, to refer to those who respond to the Gospel as those who have “professed faith in Christ”. This acknowledges the important decision that they have made, while also communicating that the decision to follow Jesus is just the beginning of a journey.
Whenever we announce things like “22 people were saved last night at our meeting”, we risk giving false assurance to false converts.
In his book “Revival and Revivalism”, Iain Murray describes the phenomenon of tent meetings that swept the nation, led by the likes of Charles Finney.
While many of these evangelists and preachers meant well, they began to point to emotional responses to the preaching of the Gospel as the primary evidence of a move of the Holy Spirit in someone’s life rather than to the fruit that is produced over a period of time.
How The Bible Says We Know Someone Is “Saved”
Whenever Scripture talks about the assurance of salvation or the evidence of salvation, the primary evidence we are encouraged to look at is the consistent fruit of growing Christlikeness and enduring faithfulness to the Gospel.
For example, in Hebrews 3:14 we read, “For we have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end.”
Notice that according to this passage, the evidence that one is a genuine believer is that he or she will “hold [his] confidence firm to the end”.
Or consider 1 John 2:4-6. John writes, “Whoever says ‘I know him’ but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him, but whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected. By this we may know that we are in him: whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked.”
According to this passage, the evidence that someone is a genuine believer is a lifestyle that obeys God’s commands and resembles Jesus.
Or consider the parable of the 4 soils that Jesus told in Matthew 13. Jesus taught that there would be many who would appear initially to be genuine believers.
One type of soil hears the word and “immediately receives it with joy, yet he has no root in himself, but endures for a while, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately he falls away” (Matt. 13:20-21)
Another type of soil hears the word, “but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and it proves unfruitful” (Matt. 13:22).
The only way to tell the type of soil in the heart of a new professing believer is time. We simply cannot confidently pronounce someone as “saved” because they prayed a prayer or walked an aisle, because the reality is that we do not know whether they are, in fact, saved.
What we do know is that they have made a profession of faith. Rather than pronounce such individuals as ‘saved’, we ought to “urge them to continue in the grace of God (Acts 13:43)”, just as Paul and Barnabas did for the new believers in Antioch Pisidia.
Because it is those who “continue in the grace of God” who show themselves to be truly saved.
And just to be clear, it is not by willpower that believers stand firm in the faith and produce spiritual fruit. It is the grace of God that empowers believers to do these things. But true believers will do them.
God will finish what He has started in those whom He has chosen.
So let’s continue to pray that many people respond to invitations to respond to the Gospel. Don’t stop inviting people to come forward, fill out a card, or raise their hands. But make it clear to those who respond that their profession of faith is the first step in a lifetime of “continuing in the grace of God”.
Jared Huntley is a church planter and the teaching pastor at Pillar Church of Washington, D.C.
Check out this week’s podcast from In The Trenches as Jared and Logan talk about how to deal with depression and anxiety in the ministry.