Yesterday, I listened to a sermon from a preacher of a church in Georgia, a church that could be defined as ‘seeker-sensitive,’ and the central theme of the message was stated as thus: Jesus Christ came to earth to do away with religion and to talk about and engage us in a relationship. I have heard this man, Gary Lamb,  speak at a church I once attended.

In keeping with the anti-religion theme of the sermon, a major portion of the sermon concerned itself with expounding against the error of legalism and our inability to please God by our adherence to ‘religious’ rules. In general principle, I could not agree more. The call against legalism was contrasted with the call to have a relationship with Jesus. The pastor stated that Jesus wants us to be His friend rather than a slave. I agree, but as an aside, I think of the apostle Paul describing himself as a bond servant to the Messiah. Semantics and definitions…..

Given the pastor’s admirable distaste of legalistic religion, it is interesting that he constantly reinforced the idea that this relationship with Jesus requires an initiating action on our part. The pastor’s flock was told that all we have to decide to enter in to a relationship with Him; it’s a free invitation. Jesus is just standing there waiting patiently for us to do something. He misquoted John 3:16 as “For God so loved the world that who ever believes, who ever decides, who ever makes the action, makes the decision for Him will have eternal life.” This is a verbatim quote from the sermon.

Romans 10:13 was misquoted as “Who ever calls, whoever makes a decision, on the Lord will be saved.”

Revelation 3:20 was misquoted as, and I paraphrase fairly closely, “that Jesus stands at the door of our heart and we must make a decision to open the door. Jesus is not going to kick in the door.” One, this is a verse that is so often and with good intention taken out of context and used evangelically. However, Christ is talking to the tepid church of Laodicea, not to the unregenerate as an invitation to a saving ‘relationship.’ Two, he intentionally misquoted scripture again.

However, in all the talk about entering into some rather ill-defined ‘relationship’ with Jesus, I do not recall hearing a word about despair over sin, about repentance. That is an absolutely breath-taking omission in presenting the Gospel. Perhaps such was inferred, was understood on the part of the pastor, but the biblical call to repent and believe was not verbally presented as the invitation to a relationship with Christ. To give credit where credit is perhaps due, he did mention towards the beginning of his sermon, thought, that he was quite a hellion before he became a Christian. I am not sure if I am to infer a call to repentance from that.

Among the pastor’s numerous personal anecdotes the he used to punctuate the sermon’s main points, there was a long rant about a legalistic ‘King James Only’ type church the pastor once attended. There was another church he spoke against in the course of the sermon, one that he planted and pastored (if I recall correctly), and after calling it by name, inferred it would be welcomed in hell. Following a bit later was a diatribe against sprinkling verses dunking.

While listening to the sermon, I had to remind myself that the pastor is a human being who apparently feels he has been hurt by individuals in the church. Sometimes, and sadly, such happens. There was some real, though veiled, bitterness exhibited in his descriptions of previous churches he had be involved with, and I have to temper my thoughts and words in regards to this man and his church. I have some empathy for him.

Towards the end of the sermon, he presented the ever so ubiquitous and unbiblical refrain of the seeker-sensitive church, the all too common proclamation of how it is not his job as pastor to feed the flock, that it is the flocks fault when they complain about not getting fed at church. His spin on those who want to ‘go deeper’ was that they want the pastor to ‘confuse them’. He stated such cannot handle practical teaching because they would have to do something. These seeker-sensitive preachers and entertainment-driven churches seem to all be reading from the same script. At the risk of sounding judgmental while perhaps speaking from the burden of my personal baggage, arrogance and disdain for the real ‘seekers’ seems to have stepped in to fill the gaping void left by the absence of overt legalism.

In the last few minutes of the sermon, Jesus was presented as a marriage fixer, a relationship healer, but overall, I actually heard very little about Christ the Redeemer.

In all the pastors admirable concern about legalism, what I picked up from the sermon, with all its calls to decide, with all the calls to perform an action both in initiating this relationship with Christ and the call to self-feed, was an ironic invitation to a works-driven legalism-lite. What I picked up, too, was a not-so-subtle ‘thank God I am/we are not like those Pharisees attitude. For brevities sake, I will refrain from further exploring this theme of minor league legalism. I think it could be stated with a high degree of confidence that all who are in Christ are, to some degree, recovering Pharisees.

What I was left with after listening to this sermon was an odd mix of muted anger at and profound sadness for the pastor. I felt only deep sadness for the flock as they clapped in approval. In all honesty, two or three years ago, if I were in that audience, I would have probably nodded my head in agreement and put my hands together along with the rest of the flock. In closure, what grieves me so very, very deeply is that this is probably not an uncommon sermon in many churches. With good intentions from well-meaning pastors, the evangel is reduced to an invitation to an ill-defined relationship with buddy Jesus, a relationship that carries some vague promises to fix our marriages, to fix our money, to fix our psychology. He just wants you to get out there and do something to fill the church seats so other people can meet Him just as you did. And you know what, despite the error being expounded from the stage, I believe some may actually have a saving encounter with Christ in such services, but I also fear many others will be filled with false assurance.

There are some preachers who will tell you salvation is free, that it’s easy, but it’s ultimately up to you to decide, to act, to initiate. I do not think it was without cost for Jesus. I do not think it will be without cost to me, but I have counted them as best I can. I did not initiate this relationship, my Messiah did. I do not think it will be easy, but I will follow Him knowing that I will stumble along the way. Jesus does look after and love His flock with tender care, but He never promised a ‘wonderful plan for your life’ as many would define wonderful. I know, too, that no one can snatch me from His grip.

  • Matt. 22:14 (ESV)
    For many are called, but few are chosen.
  • John 15:16 (ESV)
    You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you.
  • John 6:44 (ESV)
    No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day.
  • John 6:37 (ESV)
    All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out.
  • Romans 9:15-16 (ESV)
    For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy.
  • Ephesians 1:4-5 (ESV)
    ..even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will,
  • Acts 13:48 (ESV)
    And when the Gentiles heard this, the began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the lord, and as many as were appointed to eternal life believed
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2 thoughts on “On the sometimes ill-defined evangelical metaphor of a relationship and the subtle error of decisional regeneration

  1. Here’s another one from the gospel of John, “who were born not of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.”

    “…nor of the will of man.”

    What part of that is so hard to understand? For Evangelicals…ALL OF IT!

  2. May i just ask what religion are you? are you non-denominational or what? no disrespect against your work but you said ” The pastor’s flock was told that all we have to decide to enter in to a relationship with Him; it’s a free invitation. Jesus is just standing there waiting patiently for us to do something.” so what did you mean by this? are you saying that we have no chose then to follow christ or have no choice to develop a relationship with christ? i was just wondering and a matter very curious because i think we have a chose to follow whatever we want. I am a follower of Christ and i am very passionate of what i believe in but i am interested on your comment about this. it’s like if you want to hear God’s work you need to open your ears to listen he’s at the door but he i just waiting for you to open it. we have a chose. if you have any time whatsoever please contact me on my email because i would very much like a reply. thank you for your time.

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