Even a superficial survey of today’s evangelical landscape will reveal the numerous instances of apostasy of one’s faith or “deconstruction” as it is now frequently called. We are continually surprised to hear of one well-known professing Christian after another renouncing the Christian faith that he or she had previously espoused and promoted publicly. Many who are apostatizing today, or at least moving in that direction, do so because of the growing pressure and cultural hostility toward Christianity. This was obviously less likely when Christianity was culturally acceptable, as it was for most of this country’s existence.
I would like to suggest that there is an even more basic reason for this increasing apostasy: For generations, evangelicals have predominantly engaged in a type of evangelism that produces false converts in large numbers. J. I. Packer writes, “We have during the past century bartered . . . [the biblical] gospel for a substitute product which, though it looks similar enough in points of detail, is as a whole a decidedly different thing” (A Quest for Godliness, Crossway, 1990, p. 126).
The Requirement for Full Apostasy
The Bible teaches that only a false convert, someone who professes to be a Christian but isn’t truly born again, will apostatize fully and finally. This can be seen in the apostle John’s words in 1 John 2:18-19: “Children, it is the last hour; and just as you heard that antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have appeared; from this we know that it is the last hour. They went out from us, but they were not really of us; for if they had been of us, they would have remained with us; but they went out, so that it would be shown that they all are not of us” (NASB). This suggests that those who fully and finally abandon the faith were never true and living members of the church. They appeared to be Christians, but they had never become new creatures in Christ Jesus (2 Cor. 5:17).
A true believer cannot fully and finally apostatize. An apostate is not and never was a true Christian. The Bible is clear that a true believer cannot lose his salvation (John 10:28-29). Therefore, neither can he completely apostatize from the faith.
Since there are so many today in the evangelical church who are completely abandoning the faith, and since only those who have never been truly saved can fully apostatize, the inevitable conclusion must be that there are significantly large numbers of lost people in evangelical churches. What are the characteristics of the method of evangelism that has resulted in massive numbers of false converts and many apostates? I would suggest three such characteristics.
Shallow Definition of the Sinfulness of the Unbeliever
First, it is based on an inadequate understanding of the depravity of man. In this unbiblical approach to evangelism, the problem of sin is dealt with very superficially. Of course, sometimes it is hardly mentioned at all, but when it is in view, it is presented primarily as a matter of acts of disobedience to God’s commands. While such transgressions are most assuredly sin, that is only a partial description of the sinfulness of the lost person. It is inadequate to describe the depraved, sinful nature that must be faced and dealt with if the individual is to be truly saved.
The specific sins that a lost person commits are only the expression and fruit of the sinful nature which he inherits at birth. The London Baptist Confession of 1689 expresses it this way: “From this original corruption, whereby we are utterly indisposed, disabled, and made opposite to all good, and wholly inclined to all evil, do proceed all actual transgressions” (Ch. 6, Par. 4). This reveals that our problem is not just that we’ve committed sins, but that our nature is sinful. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones said that modern evangelistic preaching “does not preach the glory and the majesty of God, the law, the depths of sin, and man’s complete helplessness and hopelessness.”
Every part of our being is affected by sin, including our minds, affections, wills, hearts, thoughts, feelings, choices, decisions, and motivations. As the book of Ephesians says, prior to conversion we are “dead in our trespasses and sins,” in captivity to Satan, living in conformity to the rebellious world system, fulfilling the lusts of the flesh and of the mind, are deserving of the wrath of God, and are unable to respond to the gospel in repentance and faith. When the depth of our depravity is seen in the light of Scripture, it becomes clear that our conversion must involve the miracle-working power of God. A simple human decision arising from the supposed free will of the spiritually dead lost person will be grossly insufficient for salvation.
The Absence of Conviction of Sin
Second, this method of evangelism ignores or minimizes the need for conviction of sin. This approach holds that a person can exercise true faith and repentance without conviction of sin. It may call for mental assent to the fact that one has sinned, but admitting on that level that one is a sinner does not necessarily or usually include heartfelt conviction of one’s sinfulness.
Conviction of sin that is necessary for salvation is the sense of being alienated from God, of being His enemy, of being in rebellion against Him and His law, of deserving hell because of one’s thorough sinfulness and depravity, and of being helpless in the hands of a sovereign God Who is also a consuming fire. An important word in the above definition is the word “sense.” This means the sinner under conviction senses these things. He is not just intellectually aware of them. His heart is impacted; he feels this conviction of sin and trembles (e.g., Acts 2:37, 16:29, 9:6 [NKJV]).
This faulty approach, however, downplays feelings. It is always a matter of concern to hear a testimony of conversion in which a person says he asked Christ to save him, and though he never felt anything, he is quite certain he is saved. Of course, there is a superficial emotionalism that can accompany a false conversion, but the solution to that problem is not conversions that are void of all emotion. In the 1700s, Augustus Toplady, author of the hymn, Rock of Ages, expressed his concern about this issue: “I know it is growing very fashionable to talk against spiritual feelings. . . . God forbid that we should ever think lightly of religious feelings! For if we do not in some degree feel ourselves sinners, and feel that Christ is precious, I doubt the Spirit of God has ever been savingly at work upon our souls.”
Human Decision Prioritized over the Work of the Holy Spirit
Third, this problematic approach to evangelism makes a decision of the will of man the ultimate cause of salvation rather than the sovereign work of the Holy Spirit. It is man-centered rather than God-centered. Martin Luther wrote, “If any man doth ascribe aught of salvation, even the very least, to the free-will of man, he knoweth nothing of grace, and he hath not learnt Jesus Christ aright.” J. I. Packer states that in this modern approach “we appeal to men as if they all had the ability to receive Christ at any time. . . , and we depict the Father and the Son, not as sovereignly active in drawing sinners to themselves, but as waiting in quiet impotence ‘at the door of our hearts’ for us to let them in.” Indeed, it is almost an inviolable principle of this method of evangelism that man has a free will and can savingly believe whenever he chooses.
This approach says that the sinner has the ability to bring about his own new birth. The lost person is told that if he will simply exercise his will and accept Christ, then because of that decision, he is born again. But John 3:1-8 says that the new birth is the sovereign work of the Holy Spirit. The sinner can no more bring about his new birth by a decision or act of his will than he could bring about his physical birth.
The sinner’s will is free in the sense that he is free to choose whatever is in line with what his sinful nature desires. He is not free to choose submission and trust in Jesus Christ. Therefore, if he makes a decision to accept Christ without feeling the conviction of sin and without the renewing of the Holy Spirit, his decision is simply an activity of his fleshly nature, and though he and others may believe he is now saved, he is not. And once a false profession of faith is made, it becomes extremely unlikely that the person who has made it will ever be brought to see his true condition. He now becomes a candidate somewhere down the line for full and final apostasy.
Augustus Toplady, “Free-Will and Merit Fairy Examined,” p. 12, monergism.com
A Quest for Godliness, Crossway, 1990, pp. 126-27