American Christian culture is revivalistic and pietistic, and when we mix those prevailing elements with the Free Grace gospel message as it is commonly presented, the results are spiritually debilitating, if not fatal.
Revivalism teaches us that the individual conversion experience is by far the most important spiritual experience of a person’s life. You’ll hear a man telling the story of how he met his wife say something like “…and then I asked her to marry me, and amazingly, she said yes. It was the most important day of my life — except for when I came to Christ, of course.”
Pietism teaches us that it is not the externals that matter, but the internal condition of the heart before God.
Combined, these two teach that an internal, heart conversion is the quintessence of spiritual experience, and everything else comes in a distant second.
That’s already all kinds of wrong, but let it pass for now.
Add to that already dangerous mix the biblical gospel message: being born into God’s family is a free gift, not dependent in any way on your own works before, during, or after the new birth. Once you’re in, you’re in forever.
The sum is this: the quintessence of all spiritual experience is a totally free, internal, heart conversion that delivers you from hell and unchangeably guarantees you a place in heaven. That is by far the most important moment of your life; nothing else even comes close. Of course you’re supposed to do good works and all that, but that’s very secondary to having the conversion experience itself, which is given to you and to which you can contribute nothing.
What sort of life does that teaching produce?
Let’s ask it a different way. Suppose someone really believed that physical birth was the high point of his whole life. Being squeezed out through the birth canal was as good as it was ever going to get, and everything else was downhill from there. Isn’t that a twisted way to look at life?
What sort of life do you think that person is likely to have?
Would you be surprised if that person became suicidal?
Believing that spiritual birth is the high-water mark of the whole Christian life induces spiritual suicide.
FG believers need to understand that until we root out the underlying culture of revivalism and pietism among us, people will come to Christ based on a clear, correct gospel message, and then immediately get confused because at a deep, deep level, they can’t face believing that the high-water mark of their spiritual experience is already behind them. Revivalism does that already without a FG gospel message, but our clarity on the place of discipleship vis-a-vis the new birth forces the issue into high relief.
People need to believe that the rest of their life matters, and that “further up, and further in” there are glorious heights that await them. We have allowed them to think that getting into heaven is by far the most important thing, so in a move as unpredictable as sunrise, they begin to think that getting into heaven depends on how they live the rest of their lives.
That is a fatal mistake for an unbeliever. For someone who’s already believed, it’s still a dangerous, terribly unhealthy mistake to become confused on this point. But it is not nearly as unhealthy, not nearly as suicide-inducing, as believing that the best and most important spiritual experience of their lives is already behind them.
Which is to say that the Free Grace theology commonly presented fails to win a hearing because its end product, taken as a whole, is often more spiritually destructive to the life of a believer than the end product of, say, Reformed or Arminian theologies — which at least give some motivation to keep moving — and at some deep level, people seem to recognize it.
So what do we do?
We go back to the text of Scripture. Where, pray tell, do we see Scripture supporting the idea that conversion is the most important spiritual experience you’ll ever have?
Nowhere I know of. If you’ve got a passage, by all means let me know. I’d love to see it.
As far as I can tell, Scripture is not a revivalistic document. Imagine Moses telling the Exodus Generation, “All right, you’ve just been delivered from bondage and passed through the Red Sea, and that is the most important event that will ever happen to you as a nation. Nothing else will even come close.” Imagine Joshua telling the Conquest Generation, “All right, you’ve crossed the Jordan and entered into the Land. This is the most important thing that will ever happen to you.” Ridiculous, yes? There was more to do, further heights to be attained. True, they could never have reached those further heights without the initial step, but that doesn’t mean that all the focus should be on the initial step.
In fact, of those two generations, one committed suicide by refusing to keep moving forward. The other pressed on, and achieved everything God had planned for them. The initial experience, while important, was neither most important, nor did it complete God’s agenda.
We see the same pattern in the New Testament. Jesus commissions His disciples to “go therefore, and disciple the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” Note where the focus is: not on the initial evangelism, although certainly it’s not possible to fulfill the Great Commission without that, but on making disciples. That means continuing to learn and grow and develop into all that Christ intended each person to be. And this is the focus of Christ’s parables as well. Scholars dispute about whether the thorny ground and stony ground represent truly regenerate people, and about whether the servant who buried his one talent in the ground represents someone who goes to heaven or hell. (Yes, and heaven, but that’s another post.) The point here is that no matter which side of that debate an interpreter might take, nobody thinks starting well and finishing badly is the goal. Everyone understands that the goal is to be the good ground, the servants with five or ten talents — that is, to be a believer who goes on to maturity and becomes all that a believer should be.
So just for giggles, let me make a modest proposal. I’m not saying it’s true, and I’m certainly not attached to it. I can’t prove it. I don’t know of anywhere in the Bible that says anything like this. (Have I put in enough disclaimers yet?) However, I think it will be good exercise to see if you can prove it wrong.
Here it is: The day you came to Christ might be the most important day of your life up to that point, but it is the least important day of your life as a Christian. Who you will be as a Christian depends on every day after that, and every one of them is more important than the day of your birth — today being the most important of all.