The Gospel is the main theme and most important message of the Bible, so as Christians we need to be able to recite it in our sleep. We need to hear it constantly because it truly is the good news and will encourage us through the tough times. For example, the apostle Paul wrote to a Christian church in Rome, “That is why I am so eager to preach the Gospel also to you who are in Rome.” (Romans 1:15)
However, there is a common misconception that the Bible is only for non-believers and new Christians. As a result, many Christians are unable to effectively communicate the Gospel when witnessing to someone. The sad news is that an improper Gospel presentation will lead to false conversions.
I have already posted a short and effective Gospel presentation, so now I’d like to post some less than perfect versions for contrast.
Gospel Fail #1 – Meaningless words
We should avoid using phrases that sound pious but don’t actually mean anything. For example, here are some popular phrases:
- Make Jesus the Lord of your life.
- Accept Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior.
- Ask Jesus into your heart.
- Make a decision to follow Jesus.
It seems that Christians are afraid of turning off unbelievers by using strong Biblical language like “repent and trust in Jesus for the forgiveness of sins,” so instead we try to come up with softer language that doesn’t sound too churchy. However, God Himself chose the exact words in the Bible, and “the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword.” (Hebrews 4:12) Our attempts to improve God’s word by inserting politically correct phrases only serve to emasculate it.
Non-Christians are unable to accept Jesus or make Him lord of their lives. They cannot make the right decision to ask Jesus into their hearts because “the mind governed by the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so.” (Hebrews 8:7) It is only after being convicted of our sins and experiencing genuine repentance that we can have a relationship with God through Jesus Christ.
Just to illustrate how silly these phrases are, let’s see how they sound coming from the mouth of Jesus:
- “‘I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to [make Jesus Lord of their lives].'” (Luke 5:32)
- “‘But unless you [ask Jesus into your heart], you too will all perish.'” (Luke 13:5)
- “‘Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have [accepted Jesus as their personal Lord and savior] long ago, sitting in sackcloth and ashes. But it will be more bearable for Tyre and Sidon at the judgment than for you.'” (Luke 10:13-14)
Gospel Fail #2 – A solution without a problem
We should avoid giving someone the solution before they agree that they have a problem. For example:
- You need to become a Christian because God loves you and sent Jesus to die for you.
The non-Christians will respond, “So what? I didn’t ask Him to do that for me. If God loves me then He will let me into Heaven whether I believe in him or not.”
We have to start with the bad news by using the Ten Commandments to show people that they are sinners. It is only when someone has been humbled by God’s holiness that they are ready to understand why Jesus had to die for them. It’s no coincidence that God gave Israel the law in the Old Testament before He gave them the Gospel in the New Testament.
Gospel Fail #3 – Wrong motives
We should avoid scaring someone into becoming a Christian to avoid Hell, and we should avoid tempting someone into becoming a Christian to get into Heaven. For example, don’t spend 2 hours describing how awful Hell is. A simple reference to a couple of brief Bible descriptions is enough. Also, the more time you spend describing Hell, the more likely you are to say something that may not be true. Sinners must recognize that God is just in sending us to Hell, and when you overemphasize how horrible Hell is then people may think that God sits around inventing new ways to torture people for eternity. A true conversion should start with the person’s sorrow over offending God and end with their gratitude towards God for His mercy.
Similarly, don’t spend too much time talking about Heaven because the Bible’s description is vague, and you’re likely to say something that may not be true. If someone becomes a Christian simply to get rewarded in Heaven, then they have selfish motives and they most likely have not humbled themselves before a holy God. Even if there were no Heaven, we should still worship and obey God because He is the one true God and is worthy of all glory and honor.
Most importantly, never stress to someone that becoming a Christian will somehow lead to a perfect and stress-free life. For example, don’t use the phrase “You have a God-shaped hole in your heart.” First, it’s not true because rather than seeking after God to fill a void in their lives, they are probably enjoying “the fleeting pleasures of sin.” (Hebrews 11:25) Second, when we convince unbelievers that the life of a Christian is more fulfilling than drugs and alcohol and they decide to give it a try, we only succeed in producing false converts. Certainly if someone is living a lifestyle of addiction or habitual sin, then becoming a Christian will help them break that cycle of sin and bad consequences. However, the Bible never promises Christians an abundant life; only that our faith in Jesus will give us joy and peace to withstand the trials we will surely face: persecution, poverty, torture, imprisonment, and death. (Hebrews 11:35-37) So what happens when these false converts decide it’s too hard to follow Jesus?
“‘But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away.’” (Matthew 13:21)
Gospel Fail #4 – Sinner’s prayer
After sharing the Gospel with someone, we should not invite them to repeat after us as we recite a sinner’s prayer. First, if that person is truly sorry for offending God, then their prayer of apology should come from the heart. If they aren’t willing or able to put thought into the right words to pray to God, then most likely they have not repented. How insincere would a cheating husband sound if his buddy had to lead him in an apology to his wife?
Second, it’s natural after leading someone in a sinner’s prayer to want to congratulate them on becoming a Christian. However, that kind of reaction may give a sinner the false impression that they have been born again. Instead we should wait to see whether they begin to bear fruit worthy of repentance. If their lifestyle and attitude doesn’t begin to change, then they are a false convert.
Gospel Fail #5 – Emotional manipulation
Personal testimony is often a key part of sharing the Gospel, and in many cases that testimony can be a very moving and emotional story. The manipulation comes in when that same testimony is combined with sappy music as many church services often do. Or sometimes the testimony is delivered during a late night bonfire on the last night of a week-long youth camp, and the extreme fatigue and emotional bonding leading up to it puts the kids in a more sensitive and emotionally vulnerable state.
I’m not saying that churches or youth camps are doing anything intentionally manipulative. In fact, they probably believe that they are simply lowering defenses and preparing a hard heart to receive the Gospel message. However, someone who makes an emotional decision to follow Jesus may not fully understand what they are doing or why they are doing it. Just because 50 people joined in during an emotional altar call doesn’t mean that all 50 are born again Christians, and what we don’t want is to end up with 50 false converts.
Gospel Fail #6 – Bad analogy
Using analogies to help illuminate the Gospel is a good idea, especially when trying to explain it to younger kids. However, if we’re not careful, the analogy can actually communicate the wrong idea and detract from the Gospel. For example, in Mary Manz Simon’s book “The Pumpkin Gospel,” she tries to make the analogy that God taking away our sins is like scooping out the “mushy gushies” from inside a pumpkin. She writes, “He will forgive our mess-ups. He offers a new start.”
When God gave Moses the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai, He didn’t say, “Thou shalt not commit mess-ups or else the Lord your God will have to scoop out the mushy gushies.” When we use cutesy phrases instead of the Biblical terms for sin, we minimize how offensive our sins are against a holy God. Also, God isn’t “the God of second chances,” and thankfully He doesn’t offer to give us a new start. God could give us a million chances, and we still wouldn’t get it right.
A better analogy to use with young children is to explain that Mom and Dad put them in time-out for lying, being disrespectful, or taking things without asking. We can explain that those actions are called sin, that sins make God angry, and that God will put us in time-out for sinning. However, God sent his son Jesus to be punished so that God doesn’t have to punish us. We need to apologize to God for sinning, and ask Jesus to save us from God’s punishment.
We don’t want to frighten a child that is too young, but as they get older we should replace the concept of time-out with the Biblical description of Hell. The idea of a lake of fire will cause them develop a deeper sense of awe and reverence for God, and “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” (Psalm 111:10)
I’d like to provide a second, even more egregious example of a poor analogy from Max Lucado’s post entitled “Prayer: A Heavenly Invitation”:
“If God had a refrigerator, your picture would be on it. If he had a wallet, your photo would be in it. He sends you flowers every spring and a sunrise every morning. Whenever you want to talk, he’ll listen. He can live anywhere in the universe, and he chose your heart. And the Christmas gift he sent you in Bethlehem? Face it, friend. He’s crazy about you.”
Wow, this is breathtakingly blasphemous. A person with this mindset will think that the universe revolves around him or her and will never approach God with humility and gratitude. This is a clear example of breaking the second commandment by creating an idol to worship, and there is simply no way to rescue this text.