There is a Thai Christian with whom I've done evangelism and visitation several times and the way that he shares the Gospel worries me. His Gospel presentation is quite brief, consisting of only a few points, namely - 1) There is a God 2) You're a sinner and God sends sinners to hell 3) You want to go to heaven and not hell, right? 3) So, if you want to go to heaven, believe in Jesus because he died for your sins so you don't have to go to hell 4) God healed my ankle and he can help you too if you pray to him. This is the gist of his Gospel presentation and it is my friend's belief that as long as someone consents to say "the prayer of faith" (or "the sinner's prayer"), then that person is good to go, as it were. He would love for that person to come to church and grow in their new faith but even if that doesn't happen, at least he is saved from hell.
While my friend's desire for people to be saved from hell is a commendable one, I am concerned that his evangelistic method leaves out some important elements of the Biblical evangelism (helping people see the severity of their sin in light of God's wrath, the necessity of repentance, the Lordship of Christ, and cost of discipleship). The preaching of this kind of truncated Gospel is not a phenomenon unique to Thailand, but is quite common in evangelicalism in America (and in much of the world, I imagine). This morning as I was reading about John the Baptist in Luke 3, I was struck by how radically different John's evangelism was from my friend's all-too-common modern way of evangelism. In Luke 3:7, we see crowds of Jews coming out to John to be baptized. In modern parlance, we might call them "seekers" (I actually have a problem with the term "seekers" but that discussion can be left for another time). These are Jews who would seem to have a spiritual interest in the preaching of John the Baptist but instead of welcoming them with open arms and encouraging them to believe his message, read their Bibles, go to synagogue, and to rely on faith and not feelings, this is what John says to them, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee the wrath to come? Bear fruits in keeping with repentance. And do not say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our father.' For I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the roots of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire." (Luke 3:7-9). Wow! John really lays into them, doesn't he? No encouragement there! Only rebuke is to be had for those who claim to be believers but aren't bearing any evidence of being believers. John wants to shake them out of their reliance on external factors (lineage, being religious, etc) and get them to see that true faith and true heart change always results in a changed life. If someone doesn't have a changed life, then that person needs to be shaken out of their false assurance of salvation and helped to see that he is not really saved because he does not have a life that reflects true faith. This is the same point that James makes when he says, "So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead." (James 2:17)
To come back to my Thai friend who thinks that people who have prayed to receive Christ are "good to go" to heaven even if their lives don't change, I think that we need to take a page from the preaching of John the Baptist and risk making some people unhappy. Thai culture despises open confrontation and public conflict, and often times situations are left vague and unresolved because nobody wants to upset the superficial surface harmony that exists in uneasy and unreconciled relationships between people. This is especially true if people who have issues with each other have to see each other regularly, either at home, at work, at school, at the temple, or at church. However, John the Baptist thought it was worth upsetting the boat if he could help people with a false assurance of faith to see the true state of their souls and their lives. Obedience to Christ is not an optional extra in the Christian life but rather, it is part and parcel of true saving faith. And no one should ever rely on a particular prayer said at a particular time to give them an assurance that they are right before God. We are saved by grace alone through faith alone, not by any external action - even the prayer of faith. All prayers and external religious actions can be easily done for the wrong reasons and with the wrong motivations.
I am convinced that getting to say “the prayer of faith” as a way of helping them to become Christians is actually counter-productive, and often times produces a false assurance of faith. I would rather invite the person to church, offer to study Scripture with them, and try to ask good questions to help them see the their sin in light of God’s wrath, and point them to the cross of Christ. There must be an urgency in telling people to repent and believe but also a reliance upon God’s working in people’s hearts. If God’s has truly called them for salvation, then in His good time, He will work salvation in their hearts and their lives will show it. The book of 1 John was written to help believers have assurance of faith (1 John 5:13) and the bulk of the book consists of telling believers what changes to look for in their lives and their hearts so that they can see for themselves how God is working in their lives. Assurance of salvation should always come from God, not man. The human role in helping new believers receive assurance of faith is to point them to the Scriptures and to counsel them to be really honest about the true state of their hearts before God. God himself will assure believers of their salvation: “And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit whom he has given us.” (1 John 3:24).
Discipleship is often a long process and I try to discuss with my Thai friend some of my concerns about his evangelism, and to point him back to the Scriptures but we still have a way to go. Please pray for him and for our conversations together. A wrong understanding of conversion has consequences not only for how we share the Gospel with others but for our own lives as well. This is not about preferences in evangelistic method but about the heart of the Gospel and what real life Christian living should look like. I am concerned that his view that obedience to Christ is of secondary importance to "getting saved" is having a negative impact upon the importance which he puts upon obedience and heart change in his own life. Please pray that a right understanding of the Gospel and evangelism, and right living that honors God would be a living and present reality in the lives of Thai Christians.