Over at Pastors.com, one of Rick Warren’s ministry sites, I saw the following headline, 4,000 saved during Saddleback’s Easter services. I clicked on the article and read the following, “For the past 25 years, Easter services at Saddleback have been a time dedicated to changing lives. This year was no different as more than 4,000 people, the highest one-weekend total in the church’s history, checked boxes indicating they were committing their life to Christ.”
In November I wrote an article about “Decisional Regeneration,” the teaching that people are regenerated, or saved, when they make a decision for Christ. At that time I wrote in response to a Billy Graham crusade where some 12,000 people had stormed the altar to make decisions for Christ. In that article I showed that the concept of making a decision for Christ is a recent development within Christianity that became popular through the teachings of Charles Finney. Finney emphasized the need for a physical action, such as raising a hand or coming forward to the altar, as a first step of proof or obedience following conversion. In a sense, this action sealed the conversion.
I also outlined three predominant views of regeneration. I would like to look briefly at each of these again.
The first is known as baptismal regeneration. The Roman Catholic tradition, as well as that held by Anglican, and Lutheran groups, believe that regeneration occurs at the moment of baptism. When a child is baptized, the Holy Spirit immediately regenerates that person. The Catholic Catechism typifies this view: “Baptism not only purifies from all sins, but also makes the neophyte ‘a new creature,’ an adopted son of God, who has become a ‘partaker of the divine nature,’ member of Christ and co-heir with him, and a temple of the Holy Spirit.” (Pg.354, #1265) This view has been deemed false by the vast majority of Protestants who believe it undermines the plain teaching of Scripture.
The second view is that the Holy Spirit regenerates a person at a time of His choosing. I suppose we could call it monergistic regeneration to indicate that it depends solely on God. This regeneration does not depend on man or on any desire or decision on his part. The Spirit moves in the person, giving him a new nature and allowing him the capacity to express faith and a desire to know and trust God. This view is closely associated with Calvinism and the Reformed faith and its high view of God’s sovereignty.
The third view is the one we are concerned with and it emphasizes a decision, hence the term decisional regeneration. In this view man has been wooed by the Spirit to the point that is now able to have faith in God and he then expresses that faith in a decision to follow the Lord. When he makes this decision he is immediately regenerated. While the decision is internal, it is often expressed in a prayer, a physical action such as raising a hand or walking to an altar or even in something as simple as marking a decision card.
And that brings us to the article at Pastors.com. I was struck by the clear identification of salvation with ticking a box. After all, the headline proclaimed “4,000 saved during Saddleback’s Easter services” and the very first paragraph of the article indicated that all of these people “checked boxes indicating they were committing their life to Christ.”
In a statement that seems to border on blasphemy, Rick Warren told Saddleback staff, “We just had a Pentecost, where God came down, God showed up and God worked” as he reminded them that on Pentecost God saved 3,000 men and women.
There is something exceedingly absurd about equating checking boxes with salvation. It is really beyond absurd. Lest this seem like a rant against Rick Warren or Saddleback, let me assure you that I bear no malice towards them in this. The deeper issue is that of how many Christians equate a human act, whether it be raising a hand, moving to the front or ticking a box, with an act of God! If it is God who saves, how can we quantify His work on the basis of human actions?
Perhaps the more serious problem is that the 4000 people who checked a box can read this article and gain assurance that they are now believers. After all, the article says that on the basis of 4000 check marks, 4000 people were saved. But they may not have been. There is little doubt that even the Saddleback staff would admit that. I am sure that all of the people who ticked the boxes did so with sincerity. I am sure that they meant it in their hearts. But without the presence and prior work of the Spirit, that is not enough. These people may now have false confidence that they are Christians, when in fact they are not. Their assurance is in the fact that they made a decision.
When we speak of men and women who have become believers, we are treading on sacred ground. We are in the realm of the miraculous, for only a miracle of God can breathe life into a sinful, dead human. “For as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, so also the Son gives life to whom he will” (John 5:21). We need to be careful that we do not confuse human action with Divine, and that we do not provide human assurance for an act that only God can do.