As the debate over evangelistic methods continues among fellow evangelicals, important theological questions are sometimes ignored in favor of pragmatic concerns. When it comes to the actual practice of evangelism, however, there are some theological questions that will have immediate influence on our approach to gospel proclamation—whether we realize it or not. One question over which I have mused for many years is the question of whether or not we should encourage an unbeliever to ask God for saving faith.
I was first provoked to think about this question several years ago after hearing a well-known preacher suggest to his audience that they should, if they were lacking in assurance, ask God for saving faith. He was confident that if they asked sincerely, God would grant their request and give them true faith in Jesus Christ. Because I was lacking assurance, I heeded the preacher’s counsel: I prayed and asked God for faith.
My troubles with assurance, however, did not subside. Through most of my college years I struggled with the question of whether or not I really knew Christ, and I found myself often asking God for saving faith. Yet, despite this preacher’s sincerity and his desire to see struggling college students find some spiritual comfort, I’m not sure his counsel was biblical, or even helpful.
Only a Reformed Problem?
It seems to me that this quandary of whether or not it is right to encourage an unbeliever to ask for saving faith is a problem with which only a Reformed Christian could trouble himself. If one is a consistent Arminian, then asking God for saving faith is, at best, unnecessary, for God has already given all people the grace to choose Christ; this particular person just needs to exercise her free will and place her faith in Jesus, not ask for God’s help to do so.
The Reformed Christian, on the other hand, is convinced that the unbeliever is wholly unable to exercise saving faith and repentance in his own power. The will is free in that it can choose what it most desires; unfortunately, its desires are always for self and never for God in any saving sense. Thus, the unbeliever is in need of a sovereign act the Holy Spirit whereby God grants new life and enables the unbeliever to do something he could never do on his own: turn from his sin and trust in Jesus Christ.
If you have a heart for the lost, you will have a genuine desire to see unbelievers come to Jesus; and not just come to a point where they profess Christ, but actually possess a true salvation. So, from the standpoint of compassion, I can understand this preacher’s pleas to his audience. Even as I have talked with unbelievers in the past I admit that there have times when I have instructed them to ask God to “open their eyes,” “give them saving faith,” or, “make them born again.” I’ve become convinced, however, that this is neither wise nor warranted by Scripture. Here’s why.
To ask God for repentance and saving faith is much easier than actually repenting and exercising saving faith. When you instruct an unbeliever to ask God for repentance and saving faith, you are giving them something they can accomplish in their own strength. It is easy for a person to merely say to God, “please give me saving faith” or “make me be born again.” On the other hand, to genuinely turn away from sin, feel appropriate remorse over one’s sin, and place whole-hearted faith in a crucified and risen Savior is difficult and requires a supernatural work of God.
The unbeliever can blame God for his unbelief. An unbelieving heart will find every excuse to not believe the gospel. If an unbeliever heeds our counsel to ask God for saving faith but continues in his unbelief, he is now able to pin his refusal to believe the gospel on God, thus relieving him of his responsibility to respond to the call to faith and repentance.
In Scripture, those who ask for faith, or eyes to see, or for the filling of the Spirit, etc. are believers. One might object to my argument that we should not instruct unbelievers to ask for saving faith because there are instances in Scripture where we find people doing this very thing. The man with the demon-possessed boy in the gospel of Mark, for example, asks Jesus to help his unbelief (Mark 9:24). The disciples ask Jesus to increase their faith (Luke 17:5). The Psalmist prays that God would, “open his eyes” (Ps. 119:18). In each case, however, those who are asking for faith are already believers. Prior to asking Jesus for faith, the father of the demon-possessed boy said that he did believe but needed Jesus to fill in the gaps of his unbelief. The disciples were already followers of Jesus and had exhibited that they really believed in him—although their faith was often weak and inconsistent (“The disciples request that Jesus ‘add’ to their faith, not give a gift of faith.” – Bock, Luke, 2:1389). It is clear that the Psalmist is a hearty believer and a lover of God’s Word who wants more and more spiritual insight and nourishment; he is not an unbeliever asking for God to open his eyes for the first time. We simply do not find any example of an unbeliever asking God for faith anywhere in the Bible.
The unbeliever may ground his hope in his request for faith rather than in Jesus Christ. A person is not saved by asking for salvation, by believing in Jesus Christ. By encouraging a person to ask for saving faith, we may helping them ground their hope in their act of asking for salvation rather than in the Savior himself.
So What Should We Tell Unbelievers to Do?
I contend that the testimony of Scripture does not give us warrant to encourage unbelievers to ask God for saving repentance and faith. Rather, we are to command them, on Christ’s behalf, to repent and believe. Again, one might object and say that it is impossible to repent and believe in Christ on one’s own; because we are dead in our sins and trespasses, God must raise us from spiritual death and enable us to exercise saving faith. Point granted. But the reality that God must do a work in us does not suggest that we must wait upon that work in order to obey the command to believe. In writing about the ministry of Charles Spurgeon, Iain Murray notes a tendency among the hyper-Calvinists of Spurgeon’s day to draw people’s attention away from the external command to believe to Spirit’s internal work on their hearts. This was a mistake, however.
That a work of God in the heart is necessary in order that a sinner comes to faith Spurgeon never doubted, on the contrary he preached it clearly [,] but it is not with that work that the sinner is to be concerned; his attention is to be fixed upon the warrant. God has much to do in us but requires nothing of us before we come to Christ. . . .Sinners, says Owen, ‘are not directed first to secure their souls that they are born again, and then afterwards to believe; but they are first to believe that the remission of sin is tendered to them in the blood of Christ . . . nor is it the duty of men to question whether they have faith or no, but actually to believe; and faith in its operation will evidence itself'” (Spurgeon vs. Hyper-Calvinism, 72).
Rather than worrying about God granting them saving faith or making them born again, a sinner is called by Scripture to repent and believe in the free gift of the gospel. As they repent and believe, they will find “evidence” of God’s work in their hearts. To leave people waiting upon the Spirit’s work in their hearts before they believe may only lead to their damnation. At the very least, it will greatly hinder a sinner’s assurance.
Impact on Evangelism
There’s a good chance that what I have argued for here will have immediate impact on how you witness to unbelievers. Indeed, you may not, for that very reason, like what I have said. Yet, we must ask why we are encouraging unbelievers to ask for saving faith in the first place. One reason may be that we desire them to be saved. That’s a wonderful and godly motive. But another reason may be that it is simply easier to tell someone to ask for saving faith than it is to command them to repent of their sins and believe in Jesus. If we leave a person with a choice–you can ask God for saving faith or not–then we are less likely to meet with hostile resistance. If, however, we leave a person with no choice–you must repent and believe in Christ or face eternal judgment–we increase the chances of offending our neighbor and becoming the object of their anger and ridicule. Let’s not be naive to think that our love for relational peace may not be influencing, in some measure, our doctrine and practice of evangelism.
As we offer the gospel to unbelievers, let’s trust God for the courage to call sinners to repentance and faith. Rather than encouraging them to ask God for saving faith, let’s follow the pattern of Scripture by commanding them–with humility and compassion–to turn from their sin and trust in Jesus Christ.
Photo Credit: Chris Yarzab