A few months ago, I came across the term “decisionism” on The Boar’s Head Tavern group blog and I thought it fit the emphasis of the Evangelicalism of my youth. While reading In the Land of Believers (by Gina Welch), I thought again about this term (although it’s not used in the book). (BTW, I’m not referring to the legal term “decisionism”.)Among the Evangelicals of my growing up (and still among many, I’ve realized) is an emphasis on “making a decision for Christ.” I will definitely agree that a person is not a Christian without some conscious choice to become so – it’s not an inherited condition or something that you can just drift into.
I grew up learning that the way to become a Christian was to pray the Sinner’s Prayer. You won’t find the Sinner’s Prayer anywhere in the Bible, but it is a reasonable distillation of what Jesus and Paul both taught about belief. (Although I still wonder about the phrase “asking Jesus into your heart” – I’m not really fond of that one – but that’s a topic for another day.) We run into trouble, though, when we focus on the Sinner’s Prayer and nothing else. There are those who would believe that no person of a denomination that doesn’t encourage and/or teach that one must pray the Sinner’s Prayer can actually be saved.
I remember being told that a person must not be a Christian if they can’t remember the exact moment of their conversion. In fact, I was so concerned about this very thing, that I prayed the Sinner’s Prayer at least a hundred times alone in my bedroom between the ages of 10 and 17. I went forward in church and was baptized when I was ten years old. I think it’s entirely possible that God considered me a Christian before that because I understood and accepted the truth of the Gospel for as long as I can remember (at least, at the level I was able, given the stage of development). But, between the ages 10 and 17, I frequently became concerned that the first time I prayed to receive Christ, it didn’t “take”. Why did I believe this? Mostly because I didn’t “feel” saved or different. I heard that I should be able to identify the moment my life changed because of Jesus, and I really couldn’t.
At age 17, I went forward again in church and was baptized – again. I was taking an Evangelism class and I didn’t think that I had been a “growing” Christian in the seven years since my first baptism. I didn’t carry my Bible with me to school like the really “holy” students. I didn’t strongly desire to read the Bible and pray. Clearly, my first conversion experience must not have been genuine!
Looking back, it’s pretty clear to me that the emphasis on the “decision” led me to believe that I didn’t really have a relationship with Jesus. Now that I’m older and have experienced more of life, I think my years between the ages of 10 and 17 were pretty much like everyone else’s: I was physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually growing. But, because I was so concerned that I had to “feel” saved, to “know” the instant of my salvation, I was sure that I really wasn’t a Christian.
There are a number of problems with “decisionism” – the focus on making (and feeling) a decision for Christ.
- The developmental stage of children significantly affects their ability to understand the Gospel. A 4 or 5 year old may have no trouble with it because they are still in a stage of “magical thinking” and they can equate Jesus and magic without any trouble. By the time the same child reaches age 10-12, the concept is more problematic because they are now very concrete thinkers. I don’t think this means that we shouldn’t teach our children about Jesus. PWM and I have been very careful to make sure that our children are growing up in a household where faith is a big deal. Rather, we shouldn’t push kids to make a decision. As Christian parents, we can’t leave the spiritual upbringing of our children completely to the church. Instead, we need to be involved with our kids and make sure that they have as much understanding as they are able and that we don’t push them to baptism until they can really understand it.
- “Decisionism” altar calls play to our emotions. The soft music, the voice of the pastor, everyone with closed eyes. It’s so easy to get caught up in the moment. Jesus tells us, though, to “count the cost” and to daily “take up our cross” (Matthew 10:28, John 15). We don’t need to “help” the Holy Spirit; He will call those whom He is going to call.
- “Decisionism” make it very easy to have an “in” group and an “out” group. We who have prayed the Sinner’s Prayer are “in”; everyone else is “out”. So now it’s very easy to see ourselves as superior, better, or more spiritual than those who are “out”. It can stifle useful dialogue with other Christians when we see them as “out”.
- “Decisionism” focuses so much on the decision for Christ and salvation, that discipleship and spiritual growth get short shrift. When our big goal is to get people to pray the prayer and get dunked, but we neglect the follow-up, we are not carrying out the Great Commission. Jesus tells us to “make disciples” – this involves living life with people who are new to Christianity, helping them to learn to study the Bible, and praying with and for them.
- “Decisionsim” makes our faith one-dimensional. We can become “so heavenly minded that we’re no earthly good”. Jesus generally met people’s physical needs in addition to their spiritual needs. He fed and healed people and then taught them. Evangelicals are getting better at trying to reach out to people on more than one level – and this is a good thing. Christianity is multi-dimensional – and we need to reach out to our communities with more than just a list of Bible verses.
- “Decisionism” borders on salvation by works. It says that, once a person has heard the words of the Gospel, he must make a decision for Jesus; thus, a person’s salvation is effected by his or her own “works” (in this case, work of the mind). This leaves out the role of the Holy Spirit. God calls us to Him. He, in the form of Jesus, paid the penalty for our sins. He sustains a Christian in his or her faith. There is nothing that happens outside of the will of God. Yes, I realize that this brings up the tension between Calvinism and Arminianism. I believe that the truth lies somewhere in between the two extremes. God calls us to Him and we must respond. Both have to happen.
As Christians, we need to avoid getting caught up in “decisionism”. As individuals, it’s important to continue our spiritual growth through the disciplines of Bible reading, prayer, meditation, and service. Groups of believers (church and denominations) need to worry less about “decisions” and more about truly serving people. People are not to be “notches on our belt of Christianity” but bearers of the image of God who need to hear and feel His love. The truth of the Gospel must come through the megaphone of serving people and God. Unbelievers are more likely to be drawn to our faith when it’s clear that our faith is making a difference in our lives, individually and collectively. Yes, it is important to help people to come to the moment of belief, but this will happen when the Holy Spirit works on a person’s heart and need not necessarily come in the form of the Sinner’s Prayer.