These days I’m noticing a lot of friends who are turning from the faith. These are people with apparent, even convincing previous commitments to Christianity who now welcome the label of unbelief.
I’ve been thinking about the phenomenon. Why so many? Why now?
One possibility, I suppose, is a culturally driven one–that the apparent increase in deconversions is an optical illusion, that there are no more today than there have been in the past. The illusion comes because most of my friends now have and use a personal publishing platform, and they live in a culture that encourages “authenticity” in the form of controversial public pronouncements and the consequent wave of affirmation, in the form of “likes,” from fellow travelers. In that environment, deconversions that in another time would have been kept relatively private are now out there for all the world to see.
Possible, I suppose. Though survey data seem to show that the number of professing evangelicals is indeed shrinking.
Another possibility is theologically driven. For those of us who find—with all due respect to our Arminian brothers and sisters—the Bible to be teaching that a genuine believer cannot finally be lost, the conclusion that someone who deconverts—and persists—was never genuinely a believer to begin with is pretty much unavoidable. And if that’s the case, what could explain all those false professions?
I offer a possibility.
For my increasingly lengthening lifetime, American evangelicalism has prioritized evangelism; it’s one of Bebbington’s four essentials of the movement. In a culture that values efficiency and effectiveness, after the model of Henry Ford, we want to make the process of evangelism fool-proof, so that any believer of any experience can successfully carry out the Great Commission. So we develop methods, and we teach them in little pamphlets in simple language. The Romans Road. The Wordless Book. Sunday school. And lots of others.
And Christian parents, who more than anything want their children to live without the noxiousness of sinful decisions and eventually to go to heaven, lay that simple process on their beloved ones from the earliest ages.
Now, at the age of 4 or 5, any child is going to follow the instructions of an authority figure that he loves and trusts, particularly if there’s no real cost to it.
“Do you want to burn in hell forever?”
“Well, um, no, I’d rather not.”
What sane person would answer any other way?
“Then you need to pray this prayer.”
And the “Amen” is followed by the fervent statement, “You’ve asked Jesus into your heart! Don’t ever let anyone tell you that you’re not going to heaven!”
Scripture tells us that salvation is a divine work. The Spirit convicts of sin (Jn 16.8) and illumines the mind; the Father draws the convert to the Son (Jn 6.44). Unless God is acting on this convert, he’s not a convert at all.
Is it possible that we have a generation of people who grew up in Christian homes and made a “decision” that you’d have to be an idiot to say no to, but have never felt the convicting work of the Holy Spirit and the drawing (and keeping) power of the Father, the covenant-keeping God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob? A generation that today sees professing “evangelicals” by the thousands engaging in behavior that they find deeply disgusting—most notably abusive sexual behavior, hypocrisy, lack of empathy, and the apotheoses of celebrities with prominent character flaws—and they say to themselves, and to their social circles, “Why am I associating with these people? What reason do I have to stay in a relationship to which I’ve never had any commitment beyond an intellectual one, and in my immature years at that?”
Of course it’s possible.
Maybe we should watch for evidence of God’s working in a young person before encouraging him to “pray the prayer.” Maybe we should show our devotion to carrying out the Great Commission by seeking genuine, not facile, conversions. Maybe we should be God’s servants, rather than his pushy facilitators, in this important work. Maybe we should be less frantic, less desperate, and more trusting and confident.
Good intentions don’t seem to be good enough.
Great article! I have had the same concerns. What is hard, is working with your children without undue pressure. I am a pastor with four children from ages 1-10 and am constantly concerned. I have seen so many- too many- pastor’s kids “fall away.” I don’t want them to make a decision to please me or get me “off their back” so to speak. I want them to respond to God’s calling. And so working with your children and the gospel can be tough- giving them accurate information with out pushing them into a false profession. Anyhow, thank you for your thoughts. i would love to see you develop this more.
Lois Moosey says
I would like to respond as one of those children who accepted Christ at an early age. My father, now deceased, was a pastor. One weekend he was preaching at a tent meeting where he was invited to speak. I was sitting on my mother’s lap, quite a distance away from the platform. There were many people there. I could not see him, but I could hear his voice. As I listened to him, I felt a strong drawing to the message of salvation. He spoke of God’s love and our need to have sins forgiven so we could one day be with our Savior and family in heaven. He explained how Christ paid for our sins by his painful death on the cross, and that we needed to ask Him for forgiveness, and invite Him into our hearts.
I was 5 years old.
After the meeting, our family had dinner at the home of a Christian family who had graciously invited us to their home. While there, the drawing of my heart to the message continued, and I remember tugging on my mom’s skirt and asking her if I could ask Jesus in my heart. She took me upstairs to one of the bedrooms. We knelt on a braided rug beside the bed. My mother helped me to pray and ask for forgiveness for my sins, and for Jesus to come into my heart. I can still see all of these events as though they happened yesterday.
Though I was only five years old, and didn’t understand all the doctrinal tenets of scripture, the Lord worked in my heart that day through my father. He allowed that memory to be etched in my mind so I would always remember the day of my salvation. I was not baptized until I was 8 years old. My parents wisely let me realize my need to be baptized when I could understand the significance of being identified with Christ in His death, burial and resurrection, thus being immersed in baptismal waters by my father.
One of the reasons I believe that my salvation has given me a lifetime of walking with the Lord, is that my parents were genuine believers. They lived what they taught. They had caring hearts for people and those who needed Christ, and never lost the joy of their salvation. I remember long conversations around the dinner table between my parents and people seeking God, fellow ministers and missionaries, and friends who just had questions. I saw the christian life lived out in my parents. I miss them dearly, but look forward to our reunion in heaven one day. The consistent, daily real walk with the Lord by dedicated parents can be a strong incentive for children and young adults to keep their faith and walk with God in the same way. Our lives were not perfect, but the overreaching truth of God’s Word working in our lives, helped redirect any areas that caused a need for the grace of God, redirecting our frailties and misdeeds.
This is just my story. I realize that there are those dedicated parents, who regardless of their faithfulness, may have children who choose their own way. The Bible has examples of that very scenario, but I wanted to encourage parents whose young children want to trust Christ, that it can be a lifelong commitment for them.
Thank you for your years of faithfulness to God’s Word, and the wisdom you share in your blogs.
Pastor Brian Rebert says
Hello Bro., Great post. I have wondered if some have “renounced” the Faith because of an unwillingness to submit to Scriptural Spiritual authority (particularly church discipline, etc.) therefore they say they are not a believer to avoid the accountability. BUT, the words of Matt. 10:33 about denying Christ before men give a very strong warning.
God bless. Keep up the good work
Thank you so much for this article. This is a topic that has been weighing very heavily on me for a few years now. I know and know of so many who have turned from God. Particularly many who were previously in full time ministry of different sorts (pastor, missionary, counselor, musician, to name some) and have now turned completely against everything they had been preaching and sharing with others. I have been burdened to pray for those individuals, but I must admit that it seems hopeless. It’s one thing for a person who has never been told about God to be living a life of sin. There is the hope that he or she will hear the Gospel and turn to God. It’s a completely different story for someone who knows all of the answers and deliberately chooses to turn away from all that is right. It makes me so very sad. And as a mother with young children it both scares me and motivates me to pray for my children and so everything in my power to equip them with everything they need to know God and develop a relationship with him.
Rick Paton says
Of course, there’s always more than one reason for failure. If the church is waining in new converts or in lifestyle discipleship, it’s because fewer and fewer are equipped to reach the lost and then appropriately disciple them. “He that wins souls is wise.” Proverbs 11:30. “Train up a child in the way that he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it.” Proverbs 22:6. Departure from the faith surely has as one of its causes a lack of training / mentoring.
Easy-believism has always been anathema. The sinner’s prayer is NOT an incantation. But you will not be saved without such a prayer. There are only two individuals in the entirety of the NT for whom we find the Savior’s personal affirmation of genuine saving faith. One was the thief on the cross: “this day you will be with Me in paradise.” The other was the penitent tax collector: “I tell you this man went down to his house justified….”. Both cried out for mercy – the sinner’s prayer. It never happens any other way.
I submit that one reason we see fewer converts and committed disciples is because our theology has shifted. When’s the last time you attended a genuine Holy Ghost revival, saw an altar call, a saw dust trail, listened to a clear, unabridged presentation of the gospel. Jesus spoke more about hell than heaven. We do very little of that these days. We do very little at teaching young believers what it is to walk with Jesus experientially, intimately, personally. There’s little “ginosko” going on in discipleship. There is, however, way too much “eido” going on, and they are not nearly the same. It’s a recipe for failure.
Tom C Wheeler says
Good article, Dan!
BRIAN D PARRISH says
I use the term “hyper-arminianism” in my church when talking about what we used to call “easy believism.” Looking not just for a contrasting term for hyper-calvinism but something to describe the notion that saving faith can be the merest whim.
Correction and contradiction welcomed.
Dan Olinger says
Nice to hear from you!
If I were to hear the term “hyper-Arminianism,” I would assume it meant that a believer loses his salvation every time he sins. I don’t recall ever hearing the term before, but I did find this.
I do recall Clark Pinnock describing his road to Open Theism as “extreme Arminianism.”
Fred Creason says
Great article, Dan. I was saved at an early age. But I felt the Holy Spirit’s convicting power, telling me that I was a sinner in desperate need of a Savior. I truly believe that an understanding of sin is essential for salvation. My mother led me to Christ on my bed when I was 5 years old. But I was ready. Jesus changed me that day, nearly 60 years ago. And he’s still changing me today.
Dan Olinger says
Good to hear from you, Fred. And good testimony.
I, too, have noticed and been alarmed by pronouncements from some of their departures from the faith. I was wondering if they were living out the line from a song in a Broadway musical “there’s no one more celebrated than the rehabilitated.”