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FIRST-PERSON: Salvation is of the Lord, not human coercion

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (BP)–Witnessing opportunities happen sometimes when we are concentrating on ourselves.

Recently my wife and I were having dinner at a Jacksonville-area restaurant. It was a wonderful occasion as Linda and I were taking stock of the blessings of having sold our house in Louisville, Ky. and finding a house here. We were looking forward to getting the move behind us.

As we were thinking about ourselves and our moving plans that’s when it happened. Our waiter noticed my shirt with the logo of Southern Seminary, my alma mater and former place of ministry. The waiter wanted to talk about Southern Baptists, but Linda and I were soon able to turn it to a discussion about Jesus Christ and the young man’s relationship with Him.

The waiter, I’ll call him John for the sake of this column, told me that at one time he “prayed the prayer” to accept Jesus but didn’t really mean it. He only prayed because he felt forced by the pastor who talked to him. Worse yet, John said that it seemed like the pastor was mostly interested in numbers — that he was just another notch in the pastor’s belt.

Thinking later about John’s spiritual confusion caused me to ponder again the miracle of salvation and God’s amazing grace. The spiritual life of the young man also caused me to think about integrity in evangelism and how even something as important and obligatory as witnessing can be abused so that God is not glorified and human beings remain in their sin.

Manipulative evangelism like that experienced by John is really not evangelism at all. True evangelism is telling the Good News that God saves sinners and how human beings can be reconciled to Him. True evangelism does not happen when people are tricked into praying a prayer. Coercive evangelism is wrong on at least three counts: ethically, spiritually and theologically.

Manipulative evangelism is ethically wrong. Pressuring people to verbally assent to deeply significant spiritual truths that they have not really accepted is a violation of their religious liberty. Each person has the right [and duty] to accept or reject Christ for themselves. Christians should not force people to mouth a “prayer” that they do not own as their own expression.

This is especially true for children. An office colleague told me recently of having been forced to pray to accept Christ as a 3rd grader in Vacation Bible School. Without seeking to discover the spiritual condition of the children, the adult made each child repeat a prayer after him. Not suprisingly, the parents of my colleague were quite upset by the incident.

Manipulative evangelism is spiritually wrong. One of my former pastors would say in almost every invitation time, “Don’t accept Christ because I ask you to. Anything I can talk you into, someone else can talk you out of.” Persons who have experienced manipulative evangelistic techniques are less likely to be open to proper evangelism, having equated Jesus with pressure tactics.

Additionally, it seems likely that such persons will be driven to false religions and even cults, or to reject spiritual things altogether. John told us of his interest in books which promote New Age spirituality.

Manipulative evangelism is theologically wrong. Most important of all, manipulative evangelism turns the Gospel upside down. Rather than emphasizing God and His amazing grace, such methods exalt man and his ability. While God uses human beings as a means we are saved because God gave us new hearts through the spiritual rebirth. Is it possible that coercive evangelism reflects a fundamental lack of trust in God?

It is the witness of all of Scripture that God- not man-saves sinners. After Jesus fed the 5,000, the people asked, “What shall we do, so that we may work the works of God?” In response, Jesus said, “This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He has sent” [John 6:28-29].

God seems to be working in John’s life. We talked throughout his time of serving us. Linda and I told him about claims of the Gospel and his spiritual state without Christ. I urged him to check-out a web site [www.gotlife.org] created by a Southwestern Seminary prof that presents the Gospel in an engaging fashion for young people. I’ve sent John a New Testament and will be following up with other materials. Please join me in praying for John.

Personal evangelism is a duty of every Christian. Let’s persuasively, emphatically, prolifically tell the Good News. But let’s not forget that “Salvation is of the Lord” [Jonah 2:9].

    About the Author

  • James A. Smith