I recently had the privilege of preaching at the Pastors' Conference of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). It was a historic few days among Southern Baptists (or Great Commission Baptists, if you'd prefer that title!) as we elected the first African-American president of the convention, Fred Luter. I was greatly encouraged by the spirit of unity among pastors and leaders at the convention, and I was reminded of the wonderful value of partnership together among churches for the spread of the gospel among the nations.

At the same time, I was a bit grieved by the response from an issue that I apparently helped spark regarding the "sinner's prayer." A three-minute video clip from an hour-long message I delivered at the Verge Conference in Austin earlier this year created conversation and eventually led to a resolution among Southern Baptists to defend the use of a "sinner's prayer" in evangelism. Though I had some concerns with the resolution as it was originally proposed, I was pleased with the resolution that Southern Baptists eventually adopted, and I voted in favor of it. It was encouraging to see pastors and leaders together say that we need to be wise in the way we lead people to Christ, but such wisdom doesn't necessarily warrant that everyone must throw out a "sinner's prayer" altogether.

What grieved me about this issue, though, was the way it was reported in a few particularly prominent places that seemed to imply that this issue was dividing Calvinists and non-Calvinists in the SBC, or even me personally from various leaders in the SBC. Some even suggested that as "one of the SBC's Calvinist stars," I am "against the sinner's prayer" because I "don't want the hopelessly condemned thinking they are saved or joining churches when they actually have no chance for life in Christ." In addition to how nauseous such a label makes me, words really can't describe how much a comment like this pierces my heart, for nothing (I hope and pray) could be further from the truth. Any cautions I have expressed with a "sinner's prayer" have absolutely nothing directly to do with the doctrine of election, and I definitively don't believe that certain people "actually have no chance for life in Christ." Instead, my comments about the "sinner's prayer" have been deeply motivated by a concern for authentic conversion and regenerate church membership—doctrines which many Calvinists and non-Calvinists, as well as a variety of Christians in between, would rightly value.

Article continues below

I believe without hesitation or equivocation that God loves all people in the world (John 3:16) and he desires all people's salvation (2 Peter 3:9). As followers of Jesus saved by his matchless grace (Ephesians 2:1-10), we are compelled to go with urgency to all people to tell them compassionately of God's love for them (2 Corinthians 4:5) and to call them clearly to repent and believe in Christ (Matthew 4:17; Acts 2:38). As we do this, I believe we simply need to be as biblical as possible (2 Timothy 2:15). Do I believe it is "wrong" for someone to pray a "prayer of salvation"? Certainly not. Calling out to God in prayer with repentant faith is fundamental to being saved (Romans 10:9-10). Yet as I pastor a local church and serve alongside pastors of other local churches, I sense reasonably serious concern about the relatively large number of baptisms in our churches that are "re-baptisms"—often representing people who thought they were saved because they prayed a certain prayer, but they lacked a biblical understanding of salvation and were in reality not saved. This, in addition to a rampant easy believism that marks cultural Christianity in our context (and in other parts of the world), leads me to urge us, as we go to all people among all nations with the good news of God's love, to be both evangelistically zealous and biblically clear at the same time (Matthew 28:18-20).

In the end, I believe Southern Baptists—and evangelical Christians, for that matter—embrace this together, stand on this together, and preach this together. That's part of why I preached the sermon below on Monday at the Pastor's Conference. My hope in preaching this sermon and even in sharing it now is that it will serve to clarify an issue that is extremely important not just for Southern Baptists, but also for followers of Christ from different denominations, in various streams, and with varying perspectives. May God be glorified across the globe through the faithful preaching of his gospel.

* * *

If you have a Bible, I invite you to open with me to John 2.

I am keenly aware that I am the least deserving pastor in this room to be standing before you right now preaching in this Pastors' Conference. I have so much to learn, so many ways to grow. And yet, there are some things that are heavy on my heart as a pastor that I want to share this afternoon.

Article continues below

In my youth, I know that I am prone not to be careful with my words (particularly when they can become three-minute YouTube clips!), so I want to be very careful with my words today. I want them to be tied as closely as possible to his Word, so I want to read this text, and then, based on it, I want to encourage and challenge us in three ways under the umbrella of deception, conversion, and mission. We'll start in John 2:23, and I'll read this afternoon from the Holman Christian Standard Version.

While he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Festival, many trusted in his name when they saw the signs he was doing. Jesus, however, would not entrust himself to them, since he knew them all and because he did not need anyone to testify about man; for he himself knew what was in man.
There was a man from the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to him at night and said, "Rabbi, we know that You have come from God as a teacher, for no one could perform these signs You do unless God were with him."
Jesus replied, "I assure you: Unless someone is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God."
"But how can anyone be born when he is old?" Nicodemus asked him. "Can he enter his mother's womb a second time and be born?"
Jesus answered, "I assure you: Unless someone is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. Whatever is born of the flesh is flesh, and whatever is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be amazed that I told you that you must be born again. The wind blows where it pleases, and you hear its sound, but you don't know where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit."
"How can these things be?" asked Nicodemus.
"Are you a teacher of Israel and don't know these things?" Jesus replied. "I assure you: We speak what We know and We testify to what We have seen, but you do not accept Our testimony. If I have told you about things that happen on earth and you don't believe, how will you believe if I tell you about things of heaven? No one has ascended into heaven except the One who descended from heaven —the Son of Man. Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him will have eternal life.
"For God loved the world in this way: he gave his One and Only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life," (John 2:23-3:16).
Article continues below

Let us beware of the danger of spiritual deception.

Three words of exhortation based, I pray, upon God's Word, for us in this room. Number one, brothers, pastors: Let us beware the danger of spiritual deception. Let us beware the danger of spiritual deception. Verse 23—"Many trusted in his name." Verse 24—"Jesus, however, would not entrust himself to them."

Many trusted. Many people in John 2 believed in Jesus, but Jesus did not believe them. Many people in John 2 accepted Jesus, but Jesus did not accept them. Clearly, from the beginning of the gospel of John—this gospel that revolves around the necessity and centrality of belief in Christ—John makes clear to us that there is a kind of belief, a kind of faith, that does not save.

This sets the stage for John's introduction of Nicodemus. A man who comes to Jesus and says in chapter 3, verse 2: "We know that you have come from God as a teacher"—we have seen the signs. It's the same language that's used in Chapter 2, verse 23: "Many trusted in his name when they saw the signs he was doing."

So Jesus looks back at Nicodemus and says, "Your belief, your trust is insufficient for salvation. "You must be born again" (John 3:7).

This is shocking. Here is a devout, passionate, respected, law-following, God-fearing man. He has devoted his entire life to entering the kingdom of heaven. He prays to God. He studies God's Word—he teaches it and he lives it. And he does all of this in an effort to honor God. Yet Jesus says he has no spiritual life in him whatsoever.

This man of faith who believed in Jesus was dead in sin, and at that moment he was destined for condemnation. That is frightening. It is frightening in John 2-3 to see people who would have thought that they believed in Jesus and said that they believed in Jesus, people who would have thought that they were entering the kingdom of heaven, but they had no spiritual life in them, and they would not enter the kingdom of heaven.

Is this possible? Is it possible for people to say they believe in Jesus, to say they have accepted Jesus, to say that they have received Jesus, but they are not saved and will not enter the kingdom of heaven? Is that possible? Absolutely, it's possible. It's not just possible; it is probable.

Article continues below

This is not just John 2—this is Jesus' words in Matthew 7 as he concludes his most famous sermon, and he says: "Many will say to me on that day … many! … will say, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and drive out demons and do mighty works in your name,' and I will tell them, 'I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers.'" (Matthew 7:22-23)

Jesus is not talking, in Matthew 7 or in John 3, about irreligious pagans, atheists, or agnostics. He's talking about deeply, devoutly religious people who are deluded into thinking that they are saved when they are not. He's talking about men and women who will be shocked one day to find that though they thought they were on the narrow road that leads to heaven, they were actually on the broad road that leads to hell—people who believed, but were not born again. Beware the danger of spiritual deception.

Is this applicable to us today? Consider a recent Barna study which found that 4 out of 5 Americans identify themselves as Christians. In this group of self-proclaimed Christians, less than half of them are involved in church on a regular basis. Less than half of them believe that the Bible is accurate. The overwhelming majority of them do not have a biblical view of the world around them.

But this study went deeper to identify certain men and women as "born-again Christians." This group includes people who say they have made a personal commitment to Jesus, and who believe they will go to heaven because they have accepted Jesus as their Savior. According to that definition, almost half of all Americans are classified as "born-again Christians."

But what's interesting is that out of this group of "born-again Christians," researchers found that the beliefs and lifestyles of "born again Christians" are virtually the same as the rest of the world around them. Many of these "born-again Christians" believe that their works can earn them a place in heaven. Other "born again Christians" think that Christians and Muslims worship the same God. Some "born again Christians" believe that Jesus sinned while he was on earth. And an ever-increasing number of "born-again Christians" describe themselves as nominally committed to Jesus—a trend that, by the way, is not just common in our country, but in many parts of the world where "Christian" is oftentimes more of a political or even ethnic label than it is a spiritual reality.

Article continues below

Now people have used research like this to conclude that Christians are really not that different from the rest of the world, but I am convinced that conclusion is inaccurate. The one thing that is absolutely clear from all of these statistics is that there are a whole lot of people in the world who think that they are Christians, but they are not. There are millions upon millions of people who believe in Jesus and think that they are saved, but they are dangerously deceived. And some, maybe many, of them have been deceived in the church.

I have a friend who vividly remembers watching an episode of Tom and Jerry when he was young. During one particular scene, Tom was sent to hell for something bad he had done to Jerry. This humorous cartoon suddenly turned into a hellacious nightmare, and my friend later found himself at a Southern Baptist church talking with an older man about what he'd watched.

The man looked at my friend and said, "Well, you don't want to go to hell, do you?"

"No," my friend responded.

"Okay, then," the man said, "pray this prayer after me. Dear Jesus … "

My friend paused. After some awkward silence, he realized that he was supposed to repeat after the man, and so he hesitantly responded, "Dear Jesus."

"I know I'm a sinner and I believe Jesus died on the cross for my sins," the man said.

My friend followed suit. "I ask you to come into my heart and to save me from my sin," the man said.

Again, my friend echoed what he'd heard.

"Amen," the man concluded.

Then the man looked at my friend and said, "Son, you are saved from your sins and you don't ever have to worry about hell again."

Now this may sound extreme to us, and I wish it was, but this is a similar story to ones I hear over and over and over again as we baptize people in the church I pastor. People who recited words and went through motions to put their "faith" in Jesus at a specific point in their life, yet they were not saved.

I think of Tom, a successful businessman in Birmingham who started attending our church. Tom has spent his entire life in church. He has served on just about every committee that any church has ever created. And he has served well. One of the pastors from Tom's former church called one of our pastors to tell us what a great man Tom was and how helpful Tom would be as a member of our church. The only problem is that Tom did not know Jesus. He had checked off every box—he had prayed the prayer, been baptized, signed up, served, taught, led, yet he had never come to saving faith in Christ. During his testimony when he was baptized in our church recently, he said, "For all those years, I sat in the seats of a church thinking I knew Christ when I did not."

Article continues below

I think of Jordan, a college student in our church, who in her testimony before she was baptized said:

I prayed to ask Jesus into my heart when I was younger, yet as I grew older, I knew that I had done that—and was doing all kinds of other activities in the church—in order to earn the favor of God. Until one day, I was finally confronted with the extreme tension that exists between my sinful self and God's holy nature. I realized that only Christ's work was sufficient for the favor of God, and I fell on my knees in fear and trembling and adoration and confessed my need for Jesus. Now I know that I am crucified with Christ, and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.

I don't think Tom and Jordan's stories are unique. They represent a pandemic problem across contemporary Christianity, and some of you have the same story. You made a decision, prayed a prayer, signed a card, got baptized. You were told that you were a Christian, and you know now that you were not. You were deceived.

And many others are still deceived. Scores of people—some of whom attend our churches and others of whom are far away from our churches—who today assume that they are saved simply because of a prayer they prayed or a decision they made however many years ago.

Now, I want to be clear (absolutely clear). It's not (it's absolutely not) that praying a prayer in and of itself is bad. Surely, calling out to Christ for salvation involves prayer. Surely, many of us were truly saved when we called out to God in prayer like this. Now it doesn't necessarily have to look like what we've labeled a "sinner's prayer" today. We don't necessarily see such a prayer in Scripture, but Scripture definitely exhorts us to urge people to call on the name of the Lord and be saved.

Similarly, it's not that making a decision in and of itself is wrong. Surely there is a point in time at which we are justified before God through faith in Jesus.

Article continues below

But the question that John 2-3 begs us all to ask is, "What kind of faith are we talking about?" What kind of faith are we calling people to? Are we calling people to biblical faith?

In a day of rampant easy-believism that creates cultural Christians who do not know Christ, who have never counted the cost of following Christ, we must be biblically clear about saving faith, lest any of us lead people down a very dangerous and potentially damning road of spiritual deception.

Which leads to the question, "What is the difference, then, between spurious faith that marked the crowds in John 2, and saving faith according to Christ in John 3?" What is the difference between false, superficial faith, and true, saving faith?

Let us behold the mystery of biblical conversion.

That leads us to the next exhortation. First, let us beware the danger of spiritual deception, and then second, let us behold the mystery of biblical conversion. Let us behold the mystery of biblical conversion.

So follow the progression here. Jesus begins by telling Nicodemus that despite all of his work, despite all of his effort, and despite all of his motives, Nicodemus was dead in his sin. This is the fundamental starting point of the gospel: a right understanding of man's condition before a holy God. If we don't get this right, if this is not clear, then we will deceive people.

Francis Schaeffer was once asked the question, "What would you do if you met a modern man on a train and had just one hour to talk to him about the gospel?" Schaeffer replied,

"I would spend 45-50 minutes on the negative, to really show him his dilemma—that he is morally dead—then I'd take 10-15 minutes to preach the gospel. I believe that much of our evangelistic and personal work today is not clear, simply because we are too anxious to get to the answer without having a man realize the real cause of his sickness, which is true moral guilt (and not just psychological guilt feelings) in the presence of God."

This is huge.

I remember cutting my teeth in evangelism on the streets of New Orleans when I was in seminary here. I am so grateful for all that this city taught me about evangelism. I remember the first time I came downtown after moving here. Jackson Square, located just down the street in the heart of the French Quarter, was littered with tables, just like it is today, where fortune tellers and tarot card readers sit and speak with tourists—men and women paying these street vendors to find out what their future looks like.

Article continues below

It didn't take long for some friends of mine and me to decide that we wanted in on the action. So one Saturday, we took a table, some chairs, and some candles, and we set up shop right next to the Voodoo Queen of New Orleans. We put out our table and set a sign in front of it that said, "We'll Tell Your Future For Free." And then we waited for our first customer.

People started coming up to us and asking, "You can tell me my future for free?" We said, "Yes, and it's guaranteed." So they would sit down. We thought about asking them to put out their palms, but we decided that was taking it too far. And so we would start by asking them a series of questions to establish the fact that they had sin in their lives. Once that was clearly established, we would look at them and say, "Man, your future does not look good at all. In fact, it looks very dim, eternally dim."

We would begin to share with them how the payment for their sin was death—eternal death—but then, from there, we would share with them how their future could change because of who Christ is and what Christ has done.

This is where Jesus started with Nicodemus, and it's where we must start in the gospel. The Bible is clear about the sinful deadness of man, and we cannot dumb it down. Just hear Scripture's testimony about what it means to be dead in sin: It means to be cut off from God's presence (Genesis 3), alienated from God (Colossians 1:21), and separated from Christ (Ephesians 2:12).

To be dead in sin is to be condemned by God, Jesus later says here in John 3:18. To be dead in sin is to be an enemy of God—Romans 5:10; James 4:4. To be dead in sin is to be a slave to sin. Later in John 8:34, Jesus says, "Everyone who commits sin is a slave of sin." To be dead in sin is to be dominated by Satan. 2 Timothy 2:26 says we are "in the snare of the Devil … captured by him to do his will."

In Ephesians 2:3, as Paul describes how we are dead in sin, he calls us "children of wrath." We are lovers of darkness, Jesus says in John 3:20. We run from the light. Ephesians 4:18 says we are darkened in our understanding. And it affects our whole being. Our deadness infuses every facet of who we are. Our minds are blinded (Romans 1:21; 1:28; 2 Corinthians 4:4), our emotions are disordered (Romans 1:26; 1 Peter 2:11), and our bodies are defiled (Romans 1:24). Romans 3 says,

Article continues below

"There is no one righteous, not even one. No one who understands. No one who seeks God. We've all turned away and become worthless. There is no one who does good, not even one. Our throats are open graves, our tongues practice deceit, the poison of vipers is on our lips, our mouths are full of cursing and bitterness, ruin and misery mark our ways, and the way of peace we do not know. There is no fear of God before our eyes." (Romans 3:10-18).

We are morally evil. Genesis 8:21 says every inclination of our heart is evil from childhood. We are spiritually sick, Jesus says in Matthew 19:12. We are continually perishing—2 Thessalonians 2:9, 1 Corinthians 1:18, 2 Corinthians 4:3. And we are destined for hell—Mark 9:43-48, Revelation 20-21.

This is man's problem, and we must make it clear. Our problem is not that we've messed up a few times. Our problem is not that that we've made some bad decisions. Our problem is that we are dead in sin.

So what can save us from this state—raise your hand, say these words, sign this card, walk this aisle? We all know that none of these things can save us. What we don't need is superficial religion; we need supernatural regeneration. We are dead in sin, and we need to be born again.

So how can a man be born again? Scripture resounds with a clear answer to that question. Two primary words: repent and believe.

The first words out of the mouth of both John the Baptist and Jesus in Matthew 3 and 4: "Repent." First words that Peter says in Acts 2 when the crowds ask, "What shall we do?" He doesn't say, "Bow your heads and close your eyes." He says, "Repent" (Acts 2:38). He says the same thing in Acts 3:19: "Repent … and turn, that your sins may be blotted out." Acts 8:22: "Repent of wickedness." Acts 26:20: "Repent and turn to God." Acts 17:30: "God commands all people everywhere to repent."

Repent and believe. "Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved"—Acts 16:31. The Gentiles in Cornelius' home "believed" in the Lord Jesus Christ (Acts 11:17). And that's the word that's used all over John 3 and this entire Gospel. Seven times from verses 11-21: "believe, believe, believe, believe, believe, believe, believe." Repent and believe.

Article continues below

Now certainly there is other biblical language that's used to describe salvation in Scripture. There are rich biblical terms that are used to describe how we receive Jesus, how we confess Jesus, how we call on Jesus, and rich biblical images like we have here in John 3 to describe salvation as going from darkness to light and from death to life. Yet all of them, in their essence, come back to Jesus' call to repent—to turn from sin and self—and to believe— to trust in Jesus as the Savior who died for us and the Lord who rules over us. This is how we are saved.

This is what it means to be born again, to be born of water and of the Spirit. To be cleansed of all our sins, just as God promised through Ezekiel: "I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses" (Ezekiel 36:25). And to be filled with his Spirit: "I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you … I will put my Spirit in you" (Ezekiel 36:26-27).

Oh, what a grand and glorious moment, when a dead sinner comes to life through a divine Savior!

And there is mystery to that moment, isn't there? Verse 8: "The wind blows where it pleases, and you hear its sound, but you don't know where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit" (John 3:8). How does this happen?

Think about the mystery here. One commentator said, "The operation of the Spirit is mysterious. What a lesson this was for a man who had been brought up in the belief that a person could and should save himself by perfect obedience to the Law of Moses and to a host of man-made, thoroughly analyzable, human regulations." Another said, "The point here is that the wind cannot be controlled or understood by human beings." Yet another said, "The new birth is supernatural, beyond human control or exhaustive human knowledge." And it is, isn't it?

How and when does the new birth happen, and who does what in it? Conversion, justification, regeneration—what's the order here? Does God do all the work? Does man do anything? Is belief itself a free act of man or is faith a free gift from God?

And we all, in this room, based on Scripture, have differing answers to such questions. But we differ with humility, don't we? Who among us has a market on the mind of God? Who among the finite, flawed men in this room is able to fully comprehend the infinite, flawless majesty of God in man's salvation?

Article continues below

Let us behold the mystery of biblical conversion. Let us not attempt to explain it away. And let us certainly not try to debate it away, and in the process divide ourselves among the body of Christ. Let us each one (and I include myself) humbly discuss the things we do not know—things that have been discussed among Bible-believing Christians for centuries. And at the same time, let us boldly declare the truth that we do know—truth that has been proclaimed among Bible-believing Christians throughout the centuries.

We all know and we all agree that everyone who repents and believes in Jesus will be saved. And everyone who is saved will be saved by the grace of God. We know this together, we stand on this together, and we preach this together.

We tell men and women, boys and girls everywhere: repent and believe in Christ. Whether we say, "Pray this prayer after me," is not the issue. The issue is that together we say, "By the grace of God in the cross of Christ, turn from yourself and trust in Jesus. Come from darkness to light. Come from death to life." We urge people, "Believe in Christ. Follow Christ." We tell them, in a day of rampant easy-believism, "Following Jesus will cost you everything you have, but he is worth it!" Repent and believe in him. Receive new life, eternal life. Look to him and live.

This is Charles Spurgeon's testimony. He was saved during a sermon when a preacher, in an allusion to John 3:14, urged him to believe, to look to Christ and live. Here's how Spurgeon described that day:

I sometimes think I might have been in darkness and despair until now, had it not been for the goodness of God in sending a snowstorm one Sunday morning while I was going to a certain place of worship. When I could go no further, I turned down a side street, and came to a little Primitive Methodist Chapel. In that chapel there may have been a dozen or fifteen people. I had heard of the Primitive Methodists, how they sang so loudly that they made people's heads ache; but that did not matter to me. I wanted to know how I might be saved, and if they could tell me that, I did not care how much they made my head ache. The minister did not come that morning; he was snowed up, I suppose. At last, a very thin-looking man, a shoemaker, or tailor, or something of that sort, went up into the pulpit to preach. Now, it is well that preachers should be instructed; but this man was really stupid. He was obliged to stick to his text, for the simple reason that he had little else to say. The text was, "LOOK UNTO ME, AND BE YE SAVED, ALL THE ENDS OF THE EARTH.
Article continues below
He did not even pronounce the words rightly, but that did not matter. There was, I thought, a glimpse of hope for me in that text. The preacher began thus—"My dear friends, this is a very simple text indeed. It says, 'Look.' Now lookin' don't take a deal of pains. It ain't liftin' your foot or your finger; it is just, 'Look.' Well, a man needn't go to College to learn to look. You may be the biggest fool, and yet you can look. A man needn't be worth a thousand a year to be able to look. Anyone can look; even a child can look. But then the text says, 'Look unto Me.' Ay!" said he in broad Essex, "many of you are lookin' to yourselves, but it's no use lookin' there. You'll never find any comfort in yourselves. Some look to God the Father. No, look to him by-and-by. Jesus Christ says, 'Look unto Me.' Some of you say, 'We must wait for the Spirit's workin.' You have no business with that just now. Look to Christ. The text says, 'Look unto Me.' Then the good man followed up his text in this way: "Look unto Me; I am sweatin' great drops of blood. Look unto Me; I am hangin' on the cross. Look unto Me; I am dead and buried. Look unto Me; I rise again. Look unto Me; I ascend to Heaven. Look unto Me; I am sittin' at the Father's right hand. O poor sinner, look unto Me! Look unto Me!" When he had gone to about that length, and managed to spin out ten minutes or so, he was at the end of his tether. Then he looked at me under the gallery, and I daresay, with so few present, he knew me to be a stranger. Just fixing his eyes on me, as if he knew all my heart, he said, "Young man, you look very miserable." Well, I did; but I had not been accustomed to have remarks made from the pulpit on my personal appearance before. However, it was a good blow, struck right home. He continued, "And you always will be miserable— miserable in life, and miserable in death,—if you don't obey my text; but if you obey now, this moment, you will be saved." Then, lifting up his hands, he shouted, as only a Primitive Methodist could do, "Young man, look to Jesus Christ. Look! Look! Look! You have nothin' to do but to look and live.
Article continues below

Spurgeon said:

I saw at once the way of salvation. I know not what else he said —I did not take much notice of it —I was so possessed with that one thought. Like as when the brazen serpent was lifted up, the people only looked and were healed, so it was with me. I had been waiting to do fifty things, but when I heard that word, "Look!" what a charming word it seemed to me! Oh! I looked until I could almost have looked my eyes away. There and then the cloud was gone, the darkness had rolled away, and that moment I saw the sun; and I could have risen that instant, and sung with the most enthusiastic of them, of the precious blood of Christ, and the simple faith which looks alone to him. Oh, that somebody had told me this before, "Trust Christ, and you shall be saved." Yet it was, no doubt, all wisely ordered, and now I can say,—

"Ever since by faith I saw the stream
Thy flowing wounds supply,
Redeeming love has been my theme,
and shall be till I die."

Let us behold the mystery of biblical conversion.

Let us be gripped by the urgency of global mission.

And then the third exhortation: Let us be gripped by the urgency of global mission. "God so loved the world in this way: He gave his One and Only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life" (John 3:16). The world!

John later writes, "Jesus—the Christ—is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world," (1 John 2:2). Right before that, Peter writes, "The Lord is not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance" (2 Peter 3:9).

Now we can debate all day long how these words are used in what senses, but the testimony of Scripture is absolutely, fundamentally clear: God loves the world, and everyone in the world who trusts in him will be saved.

So we go to the world—that's nearly 7 billion people today. 7 billion people. 11,477 people groups, 6,611 of them who still haven't been reached with the gospel.

I was in the Horn of Africa a couple of weeks ago with a church-planting team that we have sent there. These brothers and sisters with our International Mission Board are working among one of the most unreached, most difficult to reach, most dangerous to reach people groups in the world. 10 million people; 99.99% Muslim.

I was talking with a woman who has come to faith in Christ in that people group. She's trying to figure out how to live out her faith when the reality is, as soon as anybody in her people group finds out that she's converted to Christ, they will immediately slit her throat without hesitation or question. She is not debating some of the things that we are debating right now. She is debating how she can best risk her life to spread the gospel among her people. And I say, "Let's have that debate."

Article continues below

Let's sit around during these days, brothers and sisters, and let's discuss—back and forth, back and forth—all across this hall and all throughout these hotels and restaurants—how we can risk our lives, how we can leverage our resources in our churches and in this convention of churches for the spread of the gospel in our neighborhoods and to the nations. Because our God loves the world.

He loves the world, and he gave his One and Only Son. He sacrificed his Son. He ordained the suffering of his Son for our salvation, and not for us only, but for people and peoples all over the planet.

So, as born again men and women who have believed in Christ, we can't help but go. That's the beauty here. People who are truly born again will boldly preach the gospel. People who are truly born again will boldly preach the gospel.

I mentioned Tom earlier, the man who was born again after being in the church for 50 years. When God gave Tom new life through faith and repentance, Tom became a maniac on mission leading people to Christ, starting Bible studies in his workplace. He and his wife started making disciples specifically among younger couples in our church. His wife came up to me one day and said, "Pastor, making disciples is better than having grandkids!" Tom and his wife are spreading the gospel in Birmingham and beyond. They're doing gospel work in South America, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East.

Or Jordan, the college student I mentioned earlier. She was born again, and she started sharing the gospel all over her dorm. She saw some of her friends come to Christ. She spent a couple of months in a tough part of West Africa, a town of about 90,000 people that is 99% Muslim. She was sharing the gospel with them. Then she graduated from college, got married, and moved with her husband into a higher-crime, lower-income area of our city where we've planted a church to live out the gospel there.

So tie this with the danger of spiritual deception we were talking about earlier. As long as people have spurious faith, as long as people are engrossed in superficial religion, then we can talk all day long about making disciples in all nations, but they're not going to do it. They're not going to do it until they've been born again.

Article continues below

Could it be that one of the reasons why so many people in our churches are not praying with zeal or giving their resources away or going with the gospel into their neighborhoods or the nations, could it be because they've not been born again? Born-again believers don't have to be cajoled to obey the Great Commission. Born-again believers are compelled to accomplish the Great Commission. And born again pastors are charged with leading them on that mission.

Brothers, pastors, we have all kinds of differences and disagreements in this room. But brothers and sisters all across this room, we are men and women who all were once dead in our sin, who all were once condemned to an eternal hell. But now, by the grace of God, we have life! So together we are constrained to work against division and to throw aside distraction that we might lead our churches and give our lives—even lose them, if necessary—in order to tell the world that God loves sinners so much that he has sent his Son for their salvation.

As we go, let us beware the danger of spiritual deception. Let us behold the mystery of biblical conversion. And let us be gripped by the urgency of biblical mission until it is complete—until the day when together, as one, we see our Savior's face and with a chorus comprised of every nation, tribe, tongue, and people, we give our God the global glory that he alone is due.

David Platt is pastor of the Church at Brook Hills in Birmingham, Alabama. He is also the author of Radical: Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream and Radical Together: Unleashing the People of God for the Purpose of God. This post originally appeared on his blog, Radical.net, and is reprinted with permission.

"Speaking Out" is Christianity Today's guest opinion column and (unlike an editorial) does not necessarily represent the opinion of the magazine.