Man’s crafty and theatrical methods can repackage the gospel in terms that are appealing to unbelievers, they can coerce and manipulate a profession, they can emotionally sway someone into saying a prayer, but they cannot change a heart. A profession and a prayer is not God’s salvation, and confusing the two has resulted in millions who are persuaded they are Christians, despite the lack of any visible fruit, to the extent that the church is now dominated by people who have no love for God’s Word, no desire to do His will, yet cling to a false hope. They are persuaded they belong to God because they, at one time, made a profession of faith. They will never be persuaded to give up this false hope until death rips it from them. Their salvation was not God’s salvation but a product of human methods, and as a result, their heart remains unchanged. As J. Gresham Machen observed over eighty-years ago:
“The fundamental fault of the modern Church is that she is busily engaged in an absolutely impossible task–she is busily engaged in calling the righteous to repentance. Modern preachers are trying to bring men into the Church without requiring them to relinquish their pride; they are trying to help men avoid the conviction of sin…Such is modern preaching. It is heard every Sunday in thousands of pulpits. But it is entirely futile. Even our Lord did not call the righteous to repentance, and probably we shall be no more successful than He.” Christianity and Liberalism, 68.
From beginning to end, salvation is a work of God (cf. Philippians 1:6), not a product of man’s manipulative methods or his own free choice. Only the salvation that God works will bear any fruit, and we must wait for the tree to bear fruit to see if it is good or bad. “By this the children of God and the children of the devil are obvious: anyone who does not practice righteousness (i.e. the habitual pattern of their life) is not of God, nor the one who does not love his brother” (1 John 3:10). Why is something that is supposed to be so obvious beset with so much confusion? Because man has redefined God’s salvation to conform to his own result-oriented objectives. People do make false professions of faith, and those who do often have their profession of faith affirmed too quickly.
We give the gospel, we pray, and we wait. Our primary duty in evangelism is not to press for a decision or to coerce a response, but to have enough confidence in the power of the gospel to wait for God’s salvation and to realize that every aspect of salvation is a work of God. For God to give us a role in being the propagator of His means is the greatest privilege and mercy He could bestow. God does not ask us to do His work, but He does expect us to do the work He has given us to do–which is sow and wait. In Mark chapter 4 Jesus tells a parable to illustrate this truth, “The kingdom of God is like a man who casts seed upon the soil; and goes to bed at night and gets up by day, and the seed sprouts up and grows – how he himself does not know. The soil produces crops by itself…(Mark 4:26-28). This man sowed the seed, then over a period of time he goes to bed and gets up (the verb tense for both verbs “goes to bed” and “gets up” is present tense indicating something that occurs over and over), but he has no idea how or when the seed will sprout and grow. The soil produces the crop “by itself.” The Greek word is automatos, where we get our English word “automatic.” All the man did was sow and wait.
If our assumptions are wrong, then everything based on those assumptions will be wrong. For decades the majority of evangelistic activity has been based on the assumption that the natural man does not hate the gospel, and that a person has the capacity in and of themselves to respond favorably to the gospel, especially if it is presented in a persuasive and attractive package. They assume that if unbelievers can just be convinced of their guilt before God, or persuaded of God’s love for them, they would want to give their life to Christ. But such people will only come to Jesus on their own terms and for some promised or perceived temporal and self-serving benefit. And the only reason there is any semblance of continued interest in religion on the part of these people is for fear of losing the same self-serving benefits. Such people will immerse themselves in religious activity to stifle the voice of conscience and preserve their self-deception that their faith is true saving faith, but they will not immerse themselves in Scripture, because Scripture would expose the spuriousness of their faith (cf. John 3:20).
Regeneration, the new birth, conversion, and justification are instantaneous, but the proof that they are genuine bears itself out over time. Seed springs up and begins to grow but withers away when exposed to persecution, trials, and temptations, or is choked out by worldliness, materialism, greed, and the desire for a certain lifestyle. How a person responds to divine truth, how they respond to Jesus’ demands of discipleship, is a key test of genuine saving faith. Most people who make a profession of faith are given assurance of their salvation even before they have their actions and attitudes confronted with God’s Word. They would rather ignore or reinterpret divine truth than admit their profession was false, and that they are self-deceived. They refuse to submit their mind and life to the demands of Jesus. During His earthly ministry, many people professed a belief in Jesus (cf. John 2:23; 7:31; 8:30) until He started teaching, detailing the demands of discipleship, and what it meant to truly follow Him. Then, their professed belief turned into hostility and rejection (John 6:66; 7:59). Most of what we sow will either fall on the path and be snatched away by Satan or fall on stony ground or among thorns and thistles and never bear fruit, but some will fall on hearts prepared by God. We wait for the seed to germinate, grow, and bear fruit.
The only reason we are impatient, why we will not wait, why we devise our own methods, why we want demonstrable results is because ultimately we do not have confidence in the gospel. We want to puff up our own spiritual pride by taking at least partial credit for someone else’s salvation and publish the number of “decisions” as proof of the success of our ministry. If we must wait for salvation, then the numbers disappear and become meaningless, and we have no results in which to boast and hold up as evidence of our success or use for fund raising purposes. For some reason, being faithful is not success enough–people want to see results. Results become the measure of success, not faithfulness.
The Pharisees also had their own standard of success. They also defined success in worldly terms, but Jesus had to remind them “that which is highly esteemed among men is detestable in the sight of God” (Luke 16:15). God’s definition of success is diametrically opposed to how we measure success. The things which are alluring to our fallen nature and human pride, everything on which the world places a premium and “highly esteems,” are in fact detestable–literally, an abomination–in the sight of God. Man values what is visible and tangible; he values the outcome, what he can track and graph and measure and count, and what he can attribute to his own ideas and efforts. He wants to see a cause and effect relationship and results that are proportional to his labors, and if the results are not forthcoming, then there must be something wrong with the process. So, he alters the ways and means until he alights on one that achieves the desired results.
If nothing else, this principle expressed by Jesus should cause us to stop and do some serious self-examination of why we are doing what we do. Why are the numbers so important? Does the church measure its success by biblical or worldly standards? What does the church today “highly esteem”? Biblical fidelity or popularity, fun, activities, social life, and commercial success? It is safe to say that what the overwhelming majority of the church today highly prizes is, in the sight of God, an abomination. All of man’s artificial methods turn salvation into a work of man. Instead we should realize that one sows, another waters, but it is God who causes the growth (1 Corinthians 3:5, 6). We sow in complete submission to God, in humble dependence on His means, and we wait with a confident expectation that His means will accomplish His work in His time–and God gets all the glory.
Waiting on God is so much more difficult than concocting our own methods. For the faithful pastor and Christian worker, waiting for God’s salvation is often an agonizing time, as the apostle Paul describes in Colossians 2:1, 2. John Newton expresses the faithful pastor’s anguish in his hymn “Travailing in Birth of Souls”:
What contradictions meet in minsters employ!
It is a bitter sweet, a sorrow full of joy;
No other post affords a place, for equal honor or disgrace!
Who can describe the pain which faithful preachers feel,
Constrained to speak in vain, to hearts as hard as steel?
Or who can tell the pleasures felt, when stubborn hearts begin to melt?
The Savior’s dying love, the soul’s amazing worth,
Their utmost efforts move, and draw their bowels forth;
They pray, and strive, their rest departs, till Christ is formed in sinners’ hearts.
If some small hope appear, they still are not content;
But with a jealous fear, they watch for the event.
Too oft they find their hopes deceived, then how their inmost souls are grieved!
But when their pains succeed, and from the tender blade,
The ripening ears proceed, their toils are overpaid.
No harvest-joy can equal theirs, to find the fruit of all their cares.
On what has now been sown, Thy blessing, Lord, bestow
The power is Thine alone, to make it spring and grow.
Do Thou the gracious harvest raise, and Thou alone shalt have the praise.
Waiting for God’s salvation is not done with an apathetic or indifferent spirit. Like Paul, the faithful worker does not content himself with getting someone to pray a prayer. He does not boast in, nor measure his success by the number of “decisions” he is able to generate nor the size of the crowd he can attract. Rather, he grieves over the apathy and indifference to biblical truth among professing Christians, he mourns the self-satisfied shallowness of the professing church, he laments the worldliness and superficial teaching that permeates the church, he is outraged by the trivialization and desecration of God’s worship, he agonizes over those entrusted to his care until Christ is formed in sinners’ hearts, he entrusts all his efforts to God, and he waits for God’s salvation. In this one phrase is combined our complete helplessness and inability, our entire dependence, and our perfect confidence that our God will work all according to His wise plan, His infinite power, and His eternal goodness, “For Thy salvation I wait, O LORD.”