Salvation Counseling

This post is a follow-up to a note I wrote yesterday. I felt like I left several questions hanging out there with no answers, so that is why I felt the need to write this post. One of the thoughts that came forth in that note was the way we’ve been taught to “close the deal” with people when we’re sharing the Gospel or when they have doubts or questions. SO, how do you faithfully share the Gospel without trying to close the deal?

Counseling with those who have never heard or considered the Gospel

#1 Remember God is sovereign and He works in us as individuals.

We must remember that every situation and every person is unique. It shouldn’t surprise us that God would deal with us as individuals. It’s not like He has difficulty multi-tasking. Some of the problem we have in sharing the Gospel is that we have a cookie-cutter approach to making Christians of people. We also like to do it en masse. Think about that for a moment. Does God deal with us this way? There is nothing wrong with sharing the Gospel with large groups, of course, but I don’t see any situations in Scripture where a large crowd is asked to bow their heads and close their eyes and with no one looking around to raise hands, pray prayers, and come forward to receive Christ. Even in large crowds, God deals with people individually. Counseling regarding issues of salvation should be done on an individual basis and no 2 situations should be expected to be identical. Of course there will be similarities but to expect it to always be a certain way is erroneous. Just look at Scripture and you’ll quickly see that God calls people and saves people in multiple ways. Only Moses saw a burning bush. Only Jacob wrestled with God. Only Paul was blinded at noon and had Jesus speak in a vision. If you think every person should follow your steps and jump through your hoops, you’re placing a huge limit on how God can work.

#2 Some will hear and believe instantly.

You don’t have to close the deal here. They hear, repent, and believe. There are definitely some people who may hear the Gospel and God miraculously and gloriously saves them in a moment. I’ve seen it happen. I’ve heard of this happening many times on foreign mission fields. There are some who will hear and believe, asking, “what must I do to be saved?” These are like the Day of Pentecost, the Ethiopian eunuch, and the Philippian jailer kinds of situations. Praise the Lord! Some already have some kind of understanding of who God is but have never heard the good news. In America, many have heard about Jesus but some may have never heard the truth about Him. Some have heard the Gospel many times before but never TRULY heard it from within, but this time God awakened them to truly hear it. You won’t have to go find them. They’ll likely find you or they’ll shout and everyone will know it.

#3 Some will struggle with faith for varying periods of time- don’t be afraid to leave people to the Lord’s working.

For some it is a fight, a major inward battle. I’ve read John Bunyan’s Grace Abounding where he shares about his extended struggle with coming to faith. I can’t claim to understand this, but I just know that God’s timing is perfect. When we push these people and attempt to “close the deal,” we push them away. They may still come to believe the Gospel later in life or they may never believe if we push them too hard. There is a girl who grew up in our church who struggled for years with faith, but by God’s grace I didn’t try to close the deal. When faith was formed in her, a gradual transformation took place and she came to have a strong assurance of salvation based on God’s working in her life. Now she has surrendered to the Lord to become a Christian counselor. It was a struggle for both of us to leave that first conversation open-ended. I was used to wanting closure after a short time of counseling (and she wanted assurance from me), but if it’s not real, why make it something it’s not by having someone pray a prayer? God just had me to encourage her to keep calling out to Him and wait on the Lord. We left that conversation open-ended for months before she finally found peace with God.

#4 Don’t give up or lose touch with these people- and keep praying.

We are impatient by nature. We want to say, “Just pray and ask Jesus to save you and He will.” But there is a difference between mental assent and spiritual formation of faith. Just because someone understands something mentally doesn’t mean it is a reality on the inside. I heard of a pastor who prayed and read Scripture with a man for many hours. It was a man who had been given only a short time to live. They read the Scriptures and prayed, and again, and again, for several hours. Nothing happened. Both became frustrated, but they continued. Then they went back to John 3:16 one more time and the man looked at the pastor and exclaimed, “I’m saved! Have you read this? I’m saved!” The Holy Spirit had done a work in this man’s life. So, wait for the Holy Spirit to work. If it doesn’t happen at once, keep waiting and praying. If it takes several days, keep waiting and praying. If it takes a week or a month or a year, don’t lose touch with the person. They may well have to struggle through a “dark night of the soul” before faith is formed in them. I’m not saying you should sit and hold their hand every moment, but don’t lose contact and keep praying for them regularly.

Counseling with religious people

#1 Stop trying to convince people they’re saved

If I have to convince someone they are definitely saved, then there could be a problem. If I have to convince someone on an ongoing basis they are saved, there is definitely an issue. It doesn’t always mean they don’t know the Lord, but it very well could mean that. One thing is certain- something is amiss. I thank God for a brother like Paul Washer who spoke these words to me in multiple sermons: “stop telling people they’re saved- God hasn’t called us to convince people they’re saved.” If they are having doubts, there is likely some good reason. It’s likely a sin issue either way. Sometimes a person is caught in some very serious sin and won’t tell you, and this is the source of their doubt. Or it could be that the Holy Spirit is awakening them to their need for salvation.

(I’ve heard it said, “Oh, Satan is causing you to have doubts. Just tell him to leave you alone.” I’d say this might be true in some cases, when his desire is to rob your peace and joy, but it’s likely not true as a general rule. It seems this is often a cop-out of sorts. Why would Satan want people to have many doubts when those doubts often drive them to the Lord to resolve the matter? The witness of Scripture is that Satan’s attacks are often regarding God’s very existence or whether or not anything we believe is true. Long story short, I wouldn’t offer this as a valid reason for doubts until all other questions have been answered. I have heard of dear saints who hated sin so much that they seemed certain they must have lost their salvation because they don’t love God enough. They should be reassured, but this is not your run of the mill kind of doubting.)

#2 Tell the person to examine himself.

The key to examining whether or not a person is truly born from above is not found in examining a past event (Did you ever ask Jesus in your heart? Did you really mean it? Were you baptized? Did you write it down? Do you know the date?). These are useless ways of knowing anything real. If a person WAS saved, then they ARE BEING saved and they will continue in the faith. So, the key is to examine their present life. In the last few years, there was a teenage girl who came to me on several occasions doubting salvation and having trouble with assurance. By God’s grace, He had been working on me about pushing too hard. He had also been working on me about telling people they are saved, so I wouldn’t assure her. Morality is not a sign of salvation. Being a “good person” or a “kind person” is not evidence of saving grace in a person’s life. It may well be evidence of the common grace of God given to all men, but having manners isn’t salvation. Scripture tells us there will be evidence. Jesus said, “By their fruit you will know them.” Paul speaks of the fruit of the Spirit. 1 John is an excellent resource from Scripture because it offers many tests of genuine conversion. John says, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.” Believers still sin of course. They are made aware of sin by the Holy Spirit. They acknowledge it is sin. They are brought to repentance. Lost people deny their sin. They call it by other names. They blame it on others. They don’t deal with it and let it remain. This is just one test. There are many others in 1 John. I will post some others here for reference.

#3 Spiritual rebirth trumps all other relationships

It is inevitable that when a message or the Scripture causes a person to doubt salvation that others who love the person may get upset about the very idea. “Of course he’s a Christian! What do you mean? I was the one who led him to the Lord! That’s my son or daughter! I was there for her baptism! I remember when he went forward during that revival. Stop hurting my friend or family member!” These reactions may happen, but it must be explained as gently as possible that this is more important than anything else in this person’s life. If there are serious doubts or there is little or no evidence in a person’s life of being changed, then this is the most loving thing that can be done. If a message regarding the evidence of genuine conversion brings conviction, that is a good thing. Don’t be discouraged when a parent, family member, or friend reacts this way. Just lovingly explain- and it still may not help, but that’s ok.

#4 Christians sin and fail, but repentance follows

I usually get this kind of reaction from some- “Are you saying we have to be perfect? Nobody is perfect! Come on!” It’s true that Christians sin and they are fully capable of falling into grave or serious sin at times. The distinguishing characteristic is not a lack of sin (though Scripture makes it clear that there should be a growing in purity and holiness). The distinguishing characteristic in a believer’s life is their response to the sin they commit. Believers will eventually be brought to repentance. God is a perfect Father and He disciplines His children. Hebrews 12 makes that abundantly clear. If a person can continue in sin and not deal with discipline and they’re not brought to the point of repentance over it, they can have no real assurance of salvation from a biblical standpoint.

This is certainly not intended to be an exhaustive guide of any kind, but I didn’t want to leave people hanging from that previous note, telling them that evangelical churches have flaws and there are many who are not true disciples, but offering no answer to avoiding this. So, that’s what I’ve tried to do.

Above all else my friends, pray and ask for the Spirit’s guidance in dealing with matters of salvation. There is nothing wrong with saying, “I don’t know the answer to that question.” When you don’t know, you just don’t know. I can’t explain the ways of God in every case. All I can do is point people to His Word (the Gospel) and to Him and pray. I can tell them what Scripture says but I can’t make it take root. I can share with them about faith but I can’t give it to them. I can introduce them to Jesus but I can’t give them salvation. My prayer is that, by God’s grace and mercy, we will see our churches filled with true disciples. Amen.

What does it really mean to be a disciple?

Our church recently started studying a book entitled “Multiply” by Francis Chan. In one of the opening videos of this study, David Platt (who wrote the forward for the book and sat in on some teaching videos) related a story regarding George Whitefield during the Great Awakening in England. The question had been posed to Whitfield, “How many people were saved in your last revival meeting?” (many had come forward) His answer was, “We’ll see in about a year or so.”

I love that answer because I believe it is so true and biblical. In modern evangelical circles, reductionism is killing us. Perhaps some of our religious trappings ought to be reduced, but there is one thing we cannot reduce, and that is the message of the Gospel. Jesus told His disciples, “Come follow me and I will make you fishers of men.” The call is to follow. We say that the command of the Gospel is “repent and believe,” which is very true, but, again, we’ve boiled down that repenting part to an action that takes place in a matter of seconds or minutes. Come down that aisle, pray a prayer with the preacher, and then follow the Lord in baptism. Now, you’re in. You’re done. The microwave just “dinged” and voila! But what does repentance mean? It means to turn from one way of life toward another. That’s what Jesus said- come follow me- and right away they left their nets and followed Him. They left their old lives and began new ones- this is repentance and it is ongoing. When Jesus asked the 12 if they would leave Him even as others had left, they said, “We’ve left all to follow you.” This is the life of a disciple. They become like their master. That is their aim in life. Yet we have churches filled with people who not only look nothing like their supposed Master, they’re making no effort whatsoever to even imitate Him. Again, we’ve reduced it down- discipleship is now attending a church service once a week.  This is clearly not what Christ intended.

Now, some might cry “works-based salvation” at this point, but that is not the case. I love how Paul and James approach the topic of salvation and works from different perspectives. James says, “Faith without works is dead.” Paul says that salvation is “not of works, lest any man boast.” Both are true. James is speaking to a group of people who showed no outward evidence of having been converted and needed to understand that a salvation that produces no real change in them is useless and not salvation at all. Paul is speaking to a group that believed their good works played some role in their salvation, and they needed to understand that no amount of good works can earn the salvation that Jesus alone paid for with His own blood. Both are correct. Salvation is entirely a work of God’s grace, but the result will always be a radical life change which leads to God-inspired works. 

So, when Whitefield said, “We’ll know in a year or so,” he wasn’t saying that folks needed to earn salvation over the next year or that they must prove themselves in some way to be worthy of salvation. No, he is simply saying that the evidence of genuine conversion will come forth over time. Our problem today is that we like quick fixes and we like to be able to count decisions for the latest denominational report. Evangelists like to say, “50 people were saved during my last crusade and I’ll come do the same at your church!” Pastors like to say, “We baptized X number of people last year.” And so we press to “close the deal.” I was taught this as well. All of the evangelism stategies that were hot in my college and seminary days (in the 1990’s) pushed people to close the deal. And how do you close the deal? You get the person to pray a prayer to ask Jesus into their heart. We’ve been turned into used car salesmen my friends. I’ve known guys who were so adept at this that they could get an entire room full of people to repeat a prayer and “get saved” before they even knew what hit them. I’ve known evangelists who could tell some sad stories and then say some things that would even make a devout believer have doubts and then get them to all repeat a prayer. A good salesman in this instance can be a dangerous thing indeed. What is there of God in such a technique? When did “slick” and “flashy” become the best descriptors of a soul winner? God has not called us to close the deal. God closes the deal or it’s not done. Salvation is about a God-given repentance that results in a new birth and a changed life. It’s not about a one-time event or a one-time prayer. That could well be the first step in the journey, but if it’s the last step, it’s worthless.

The implication of Whitefield’s statement is that the best way to know who is truly being saved is that they will continue in the faith. I truly believe that if a person is genuinely saved, you can’t keep them away from the church, the Scriptures, times of prayer, times of worship, and so on. Like a newborn baby, they crave to be fed and to grow. This is a messy process. They are becoming disciples of Jesus Christ. They, like the disciples of Jesus’ day, follow Him. They no longer live for themselves. They live for Him. They live for the Kingdom of God. They do not live for the things and the system of this world. They live for Jesus Christ. They are not perfect. They stumble, they fall, the may even fall into grave sin, but they are disciplined, they are pruned, they are put back on their feet, and they repent once again. They are different. They are a peculiar people because they do not fit into this world’s system very well. They are not at home here. They are not comfortable in American culture. They long to be fed from God’s Word. They long for times of prayer. They are becoming conformed to the image of Jesus Christ. They have been created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God prepared beforehand that they should walk in them. This is a disciple.