Theology 101: Is Decision Theology Biblical?

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I used to attend Monday nights with Greg Laurie at Calvary Chapel when I was a kid. At the end of every service Greg used to invite people in the front to make a decision to accept Christ and become born-again after repeating a one minute “sinner’s prayer.”

This practice became more pompous at the yearly Harvest Crusades when after reciting the sinner’s prayer, fireworks went off and Greg would declare: “welcome to the family of God.

Is the personal decision to become born again unto eternal life grounded in the Bible? And is it ok to label a person born again after reciting the sinner’s prayer?

Billy Graham has been applying decision theology throughout his evangelistic career, and he famously declared that only 5% or less of those making a profession of faith at his crusades eventually make their way into the Body of Christ by joining a church.

It then follows that a huge number of people who make a decision to believe, make a profession that is NOT of faith. That is just the tip of a nefarious iceberg. These folks leave the crusade thinking they are saved and they continue to live unchanged lives. They are left with an empty decision, a profession, and a false declaration of salvation by a celebrity evangelist.

This problem invariably gets into the monergism vs synergism debate. Monergism holds to the supreme sovereignty of God in matters of salvation, and states that a human decision is not involved in becoming born again, while synergism claims that a human decision for salvation is necessary and synergistic with the work of the Holy Spirit.

But I argue that when it comes to conversion, philosophy can muddy the waters. Let us go to the Scriptures to highlight the fact that salvation belongs to God and it is the work of the Holy Spirit. The only thing that humans can do is abandon salvation.

First, a confession of true faith stems in the gift of faith given by God, NOT in a human decision:

Ephesians 2:8 “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God”

Second, this faith cannot be activated by a human decision because such an action is contrary to fallen human nature:

1 Corinthians 2:14 “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.”

It becomes clear that in order to make an authentic confession of faith one has to be regenerated by the Holy Spirit because the unregenerated natural man is not able to do this.

Even repentance is not the result of human decision but something that is granted by God:

Acts 11:18 “When they heard these things they fell silent. And they glorified God, saying, “Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life.””

I need to stress that human participation in salvation is not robotic. But also, it is not a man initiated event by decisions and sinner’s prayers. It is the result of the quickening of the Holy Spirit.

An appropriate altar call should include the presentation of gospel facts and gospel terms followed by an invitation to repent and surrender to God. Decisions to become born again have no place in a biblical understanding of salvation. Neither do declarations of eternal salvation for those who make professions of faith.

Evangelism at the End of Life

What are the odds that someone who has rejected Christ their entire life will be quickened by the Holy Spirit to accept Him in the last few weeks or days of their life when the finality of death becomes evident?

The honest answer is I do not know, but I do know that God works in mysterious ways for the conversion of the sinner.  Here is an example from my own experience.

During my Critical Care clerkship in med school I had the opportunity to observe an extremely puzzling sight.  In an ICU full of critically ill, sedated, intubated, ventilated, continuous-dialysis patients, I came across a patient in his 60’s who was fully awake and coherent.  He was sitting up with an oxygen mask on his face, a stark contrast when compared to the other patients.

Great was my shock when I heard the team talking about placing this man on comfort care to ease his respiratory difficulties stemming from his weak heart.

It turns out he was suffering from end-stage heart failure and was a “frequent-flier” in that particular ICU. He was not a heart transplant candidate, so his life was spent in the hospital with frequent decompensations and ICU admissions.  His heart failure was so severe that getting out of bed and walking was out of the question.

That day, after a conference with him, we agreed to place him in a comfort care suite aimed at relieving his “air-hunger” and allowing the disease to take its course.

My immediate concern was whether this man came to know Christ or not.  I knew that in a matter of days or sooner he will die.

I found the opportunity to speak to him privately that day.

“What do you think will happen to you when you get comfortable and pass away?” I asked.

“I don’t know” he said.

When I pressed him on the concept of life after death he labored to say that he believes he will go to heaven because he was a “good person” and because he was born Catholic. It became clear that he was not a born-again Christian.

I now was faced with a critical decision.

Should I evangelize him in this coherent but vulnerable emotional and physical state?  Should I tell him about salvation by grace through faith in Jesus?

I probably could have gotten in trouble if caught “taking advantage” of a dying man and sharing my faith, but I decided to give him a synopsis of the Gospel.  I did not know too much theology back then… but I presented the depravity of man as best I could, and told him how Jesus was the only solution as a substitutionary atonement for his sins.

He confessed he believed in Jesus.

Unaware of the problems of “decision theology” back then, I did what I saw Greg Laurie do at the Harvest Crusades when I used to attend as a kid.  I had him recite the sinner’s prayer after me and told him to thank God for saving him.

I had to cut our meeting short because my pager which had been silent the whole day rang three times in three minutes.  I told him to pray to God and thank him for Jesus, and I will visit him in the upcoming days to talk to him.

The next time I went to see him, he had passed away.

Was my approach the correct one?  Did I take advantage of a vulnerable person to get a “decision” out of him?

I think ultimately we are responsible to spread the good news no matter what the circumstance.  However, we are not responsible to worry about the work of conversion of the Holy Spirit.  God can and will save souls if He so desires, even at the end of life after a lifetime of sin and depravity.  Our duty is to preach the message of salvation because it is “the Son of Man [who] came to seek and to save the lost.” Luke 19:10