The apologetical style I exhibited in recent sermons and developed in a series of posts (1, 2, 3, 4, and 5) is not designed to be aggressive. That is, my argument is not intended to close the sale with unbelievers, but to supply what is appropriate for a season. I think the stance of evangelists has been too rigid about procedure. There is a moment in which you become a Christian, the moment when you pray the sinner's prayer. When you pray the prayer you pass from darkness to light. The appeals of evangelists and the arguments of apologists have often been designed to drive a person to that moment.
Many Christians are rethinking this stance, wondering if important decisions are really settled by a single prayer. Two theological truths are relevant.
First, there is no middle ground between those who are in Christ and those who are not. The two heads of household in the world, Jesus and Satan, are at war, and a person is in one house or the other. "[The Father] has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins." (Colossians 1.13-14)
The purpose of the sinner's prayer, to articulate a moment of transfer, is important.
Still, secondly, the Bible prescribes no spiritual pitocin for inducing the new birth. The sinner's prayer is not found in any conversion in the New Testament. Baptism declares a faith that already exists, and is not a means of belonging to Christ. The gospels show many individuals engaging with Jesus in a process of transfer (e.g. John 3.1-21; 7.45-52; 19.38-42) that is slower than the moment of praying the prayer. This process is under the direct management of the Holy Spirit (John 16.7-11).
While there is nothing inherently wrong with the sinner's prayer, then, it is only one possible means of coming to Christ, and I know many people who have shown the fruits of the new birth without it. Biblically, the radical change that moves a person into Christ's household has a process behind it. The change does not occur in a moment, but perhaps may become apparent in a moment.
The aggressive style of apologetics that claims positively to prove Christ's claims, and to disprove competing claims, has been too focused on The Moment of conversion, and not focused enough on the process in which people find themselves dealing with Christ.
I am trying to develop a style to bring clarity to that process, a style that frames choices instead of driving points. It involves several assumptions about audience.
For starters, I assume that no one needs me to drive them to Christ. Christ is driving them to Himself through his Holy Spirit. If the Spirit is at work in a person, then I need to assume the honesty of the person's intentions. If the Spirit is not motivating the person, then no argument from heaven or earth will work.
In other words, I am talking to people who are well and rightly motivated in their decision-making. They will be moved by words that are in harmony with the Spirit's voice (1 Corinthians 2).
Furthermore, I accept that someone investigating Christ is uncertain. He or she is weighing claims, and is trying to find the best basis for deciding between them. That uncertainty is not a spiritual problem, but is, in fact, the Spirit's goad. The evangelist who tries to force certitude before the individual has genuinely found it is making the disastrous error of being disrespectful. In accepting people's uncertainties, I am not compromising with "relativism," but am recognizing that their questioning is what God will use to draw them to himself.
Where the Spirit is involved, a person's doubts are an ally, not an adversary.
Finally, I recognize that there are many factors involved in making life decisions, and each of these factors has to be treated with its own ethic.
Intellectual factors are significant in such decisions, and these must be addressed with rigor. But people also make spiritual decisions in response to pain. It is not appropriate to intellectualize someone's pain, as if suffering can be "answered." Even further, people make life decisions out of their sense of who they are: can they see themselves on a particular course with a particular group? Facts and logic often have little to do with this issue, since it turns more on culture and experience.
To treat all of these factors appropriately and biblically is to treat the process of conversion with the respect it deserves.
In other words, there is a time to reason, and a time to react; a time to think, and a time to feel. There is a time to analyze and a time to synthesize.
In the process of life-change, there is a season for every kind of word.