In light of the “Baptist Catholicism” discussion, I would humbly recommend Walt Chantry’s small book entitled Today’s Gospel (Banner: 1970). In it Chantry exegetes Jesus’ evangelistic “strategy” with the rich young ruler in Mark 10.17-31. He minces no words in confronting what he calls “neo-traditionalism” that resembles Tetzel more than Jesus (p12).
“Products of modern evangelism are often sad examples of Christianity. They make a profession of faith, and then continue to live like the world. ‘Decisions for Christ’ [which he defines as the mere “outward procedure of going forward, verbally confessing sin and publicly asking Christ to be one’s Savior”] mean very little. Only a small proportion of those who ‘make decisions’ evidence the grace of God in a transformed life….There has been a great deal of noise and dramatic excitement, but God has not come down with His frightful power and converting grace.” (pp13-14)
The result according to Chantry is:
“Evangelicals are swelling the ranks of the deluded with a perverted Gospel. Many who have ‘made decisions’ in modern churches and been told in the inquiry rooms that their sins have been forgiven, will be surprised as Tetzel’s customers to hear, ‘I never knew you; depart from me’ (Matthew 7:23).” (pp 14-15)
In other words, the ends don’t justify the means because the ends are not that promising.
Let’s be gracious, though. As surely as not all “aisle walkers” are necessarily converted, not all are necessarily unconverted either. However, we must be careful not to confuse substance and accidents (used in the Aristotelian sense). The substance of conversion consists in regeneration, repentance and faith. The accidents of conversion consist in the varied circumstances that surround conversion (time, circumstances, etc.).
Modern preaching has confused the two, creating this logic: My conversion was occasioned by my going forward; therefore, going forward must play some part in conversion. In this situation, “going forward” is an accident that has become substance.
Another example of this confusion is “invitation hymns.” Modern church history allegedly demonstrates that certain hymns seem to excite response (i.e. coming forward for salvation). Having already assumed that such response plays some part in conversion (above) we must then conclude that the right hymns must play some part in it, too. Accidents have become substance. Therefore, The Baptist Hymnal (Convention Press: 1991) contains a section entitled “Invitation and Acceptance” with 16 hymns considered conducive for exciting response. (By comparison, here are only 3 hymns related to baptism, Scripture’s public profession).
We could make the same connections with “Sinner’s Prayers,” mood lighting, language/vocabulary used (i.e., “leave your seat, leave your sin”), etc., etc., etc.
It’s certainly not wrong to reflect on the circumstances surrounding our conversion (see Acts 22.1-21; 26.1-20). But, we must not confuse them with our conversion. I did this for 15 years before God opened my heart to my lostness. At 6, I walked the aisle and was baptized. As a senior in college the Holy Spirit began his uncomfortable, convicting work.
I revolted at the thought that I might not be converted. What was my reasoning to assure myself that I was saved? I retreated to the circumstances of that supposed converting experience some 15 years earlier. The more details I could remember about that night the more I convinced myself I was God’s. Accidents had become substance. I was more Roman Catholic (Tetzelian?) than Baptist at that point. As soon as a foot in the aisle steps, the soul by God is kept.
By his free and sovereign grace, God did not let me drown in my perverted logic. I remember the sermon on repentance by which God convinced me that my faith was in the details of some night 15 years earlier, not in Jesus Christ who saves sinners. I was banking my eternity on what I did for Jesus, not on what Jesus did for me. God gave me repentance (the substance of conversion), not a better memory (the accidents).
The writer of Hebrews gives us the best place to look for assurance of God’s grace: Today (Heb 3-4). He warned the congregation to guard one another from “an evil, unbelieving heart that falls away from the living God” (3.12; cf. 4.1). How were they to do that? Were they to get in a circle and have everyone tell their “testimony” of when God saved them? Was remembering that experience enough to stave off an evil, unbelieving heart? No.
His remedy for fending off hell was to encourage one another “Today” from hardening their heart. Am I hearing and responding to the Shepherd’s voice today? Am I diligently striving to enter the rest Christ has purchased today (4.11)? Am I holding fast the confession of faith today (4.14)? Do I recognize the depth of my sin and need for a High Priest to stand in my stead today (4.15)? Do I draw near with confidence to the throne of grace for help today (4.16)? Can I not wait to gather with the saints around the Lord’s Table?
It’s great to reflect and reminisce about the occasion of our conversion. But, that is not enough for assurance. What happened then is only as real as what is happening now. For example, suppose you ask me about my marriage. I answered you by describing what happened on August 16, 1997. That’s great, but it doesn’t tell you anything about my marriage, only about my wedding. The health of my marriage depends what’s happening today. Did I wake up enthralled with my wife today? Do I currently model Christian manhood so that my daughter knows what to look for in a husband? Can I not wait to see Amy when I go home for lunch today?
So, friend, stop looking back to determine if you are God’s child, hoping he will grandfather you into heaven. We’re not born again into a shallow memory that lives in the past, but to a living hope that looks forward (1 Pt 1.3-5). Today, do you hope in Christ for all things? Today, don’t harden your heart. Repent and believe today. Then read this again tomorrow.