Does doctrine matter?
by Kent Philpott
Yes it does, and not just a little. Let me explain.
Suppose I believed that a person has some natural capability to become a born-again Christian — not much ability, only some. How would this belief impact my evangelistic methods?
If I believed a person needs the grace of God through Christ and his cross, but can somehow co-operate with the Holy Spirit in his or her conversion, it would certainly make a difference to how I prayed and preached.
As long as I had the idea that a person has some free will in this matter, however encumbered that will might be, I would appeal to that remnant of decision making ability — an ability presumably left undamaged by the Fall of Adam. How would I work on this element of free-will so as to get it to co-operate with the Spirit of God?
To start with, I would target the emotions. I might, for example, take care the lighting was just right, since lighting is known to affect a person’s mood and susceptibility. I might have music that would elevate the spirit and inspire the soul.
I might use appealing stories of dramatic conversions — maybe from hopeless alcoholics and drug addicts, maybe from a convict or two — to show that there is hope for the very worst among us. Very moving, these testimonies. They might perhaps give desperate folk the idea that they should get on board.
I could also employ powerful ‘personal bonding’ techniques, using small groups to create a sense of belonging and friendship. I might suggest that health — maybe even wealth, but health certainly — could be had for the asking if only a person would surrender to Jesus.
I could scare people too, by claiming that certain current world events prove that Jesus will return soon. Why not? Fear is quite a motivator.
Best show in town
I would try to have ‘the best show in town’ and attract people for the fun of it all. I would promise people anything — solutions, answers, health and so on — just to get them to hear me preach. After all, God saves people through the preaching of the gospel, but that won’t happen unless I first get them to come and listen!
And surely, with the great powers of persuasion I possess, at least some of them will use their free will to ask Jesus into their hearts. And I know how to preach too,
centering on the cross and the need to repent and believe. It works!
Yes, people do respond to all this, but whether they are truly saved is a different matter.
The Holy Spirit’s work
If, on the other hand, I believe that a person had no innate ability to become a Christian; if I believe they have no free will except perhaps to reject Christ — no free will, no ability to even co-operate with God — then I would act differently.
I would not labour to construct situations calculated to persuade, manipulate, or entice people to do something they cannot do. I would not manipulate their minds and emotions in the belief that this will somehow persuade them to follow Christ.
I would instead preach the message of Jesus Christ as clearly as I could, relying on the Holy Spirit to work — for only he can open the blind eyes of sinners and make them believe.
I would talk about holiness and breaking God’s law. I would talk about Jesus, the lamb of God, taking our sin upon himself. I would talk about his resurrection, his ascension, and his sure return as Judge and King.
Faith freely given
I would present grace in its fullness. I would explain that no one can earn God’s favour but instead God, in his rich mercy, pardons all who trust in Jesus and cleanses them from sin. And, lest some might feel afraid or hopeless because they have doubt not faith, I would preach the good news that God through his Spirit freely gives us even the repentance and faith we need.
In short, I would trust the Holy Spirit to work through the simple proclamation of the gospel to bring to life those who by nature are ‘dead in trespasses and sins’. I would take God at his word when he says, ‘faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ’ (Romans 10:17).
Only the hearing — this is what I want. And what they must hear is the word of Christ, the gospel of our salvation. I will invite them to hear but I will not tempt them to do so with the sights, sounds and inducements of the world — a world they must dare to leave if they are to follow Christ.
Instead of manipulation and psychological techniques of persuasion, I will trust in the ministry of the Holy Spirit and in the power of the gospel — regardless of the apparent result.
Though we can never be entirely sure about anyone’s conversion, I would rather rely on the work of the Holy Spirit than on my cleverness in getting people to make decisions and choices.
Doctrine DOES matter.