A Wedding Parable
Imagine you are officiating a wedding. The flowers and decorations have been set out; the guests arrive to fill out the pews dressed in their finest; and you stand next to the anxious groom, who is awaiting the big moment. Finally, it's time, and you lead him to the altar where he awaits his bride. The wedding party marches out, but everyone really is waiting to see the bride in her finest.
Finally the mother of the bride stands, followed by the rest of the congregation. Then everyone sees the bride, beautifully dressed for her husband. They meet at the altar. You preach your carefully crafted sermon, pronounce them husband and wife, and send them down the aisle. Although everything has gone according to the script so far, you are shocked to see the bride get into the limo, which peels out, leaving the groom standing there in disbelief.
Hours go by without any word from the bride. Hours turn into days, and finally you give the bride a call to see what happened. You find out she has not seen or spoken to the groom since the ceremony—no honeymoon, no setting up of a home together, no common life at all—so you ask why she has abandoned her husband and get the perplexed response, "Abandoned? No, we're married! You preached the sermon, I felt moved and said I do. How dare you question my love for him?"
A Wedding Parable Explained
It might seem to be a strange story for a wedding. Unfortunately it's a common tale related to the altar call. The congregation gathers. You preach the sermon you've labored over all week, and then you give an altar call. You might ask the congregation to repeat after you a prayer similar to "Dear God, I know I'm a sinner. I know I am not where I want to be, and I want Your forgiveness! I believe Jesus died on the cross to pay the price for my sins. Please wash me clean from all sin, shame and guilt. Come into my life, Jesus, to be my Lord and Savior. Amen!" Everyone walks out the church doors with a smile on their faces, and you rejoice that there is another soul bound for heaven.
Yet if you were to check up on this person later in the week, you might be surprised to find that despite a verbal claim that Jesus as his or her Lord, the person seems to be living exactly as before. Similar to the woman who said "I do," continued to live the way she did before she married her groom, many people continue to live the way they did before they prayed for salvation. His or her prayer life does not change. He or she doesn't pick up a Bible. Views and practices of morality do not change.
He or she is not serving in the local church. The person certainly is not living as a radical disciple of Jesus who has picked up a personal cross to follow Him. If you were to question such a person's Christian commitment, he or she might be shocked and appalled that you would question the commitment. After all, you were standing right there and heard an "I do" issue forth!
Where Did We Go Wrong?
There is nothing wrong with praying to welcome people into the faith. However, we often err in failing to explain the commitment that's being made. We have not unpacked what the terms mean or how life in the kingdom looks after asking Jesus to be Lord and Savior. Therefore, they end up saying, "I do," with little comprehension of what and to whom they are pledging themselves. We need to explain what Lord andSavior really mean, as well as how life after conversion looks.
Explaining Lord and Savior
We seem to understand what it means for Jesus to be Savior. People generally understand they need Jesus to save them. Yet if this is the lesser of two misunderstandings, we still need to be diligent in letting people know that because of original sin we gain at conception, we justly deserve to bear the wrath of God. God's wrath is for all of us; but because God loved us, and we could not escape His wrath by our own merits, He sent Jesus as a substitutionary atonement who bore the wrath on the cross that His people deserved. Praying for salvation is asking that His death stand in for our own, thereby extending salvation to a sinner. We are saved from eternal separation from Him. We are saved from a life of rebellion against God, to a life of obedience to Him.
This is the segue between Jesus as Savior and Jesus as Lord. Too many people have a cultural conception of heaven as a place of unmitigated luxury, where they get everything they want. They do not understand that citizenship in heaven is about following God as our Lord and our Savior. So the idea of following Him as Lord here on earth is entirely foreign. We must not neglect to explain that if we are to become Christians, it means we live out the oldest of Christian creeds: "Jesus is Lord." We follow Him as Lord the moment we become Christian, and though that never works out perfectly in this age with our stumbling and repenting, in the age to come He will change us to be able to follow Him perfectly. This is precisely what is so appealing about the Christian faith.
Explaining Life After "I Do"
We need to explain that following Him as Lord means a daily following after Him, not because it is a work that gets us into heaven, but because we desperately want to follow Him as our Lord. We can turn to Acts 2:42-47 to help display the true marks of the church. We need to explain the necessity of following the teaching of the church, as well as learn how to learn on our own through daily Bible study to understand His commandments more clearly so we can continue to live a lifestyle of repentance. We do not repent one time and move on; we go every day to repent of what we have done and what we have left undone.
We must explain how fellowship with other believers in the local church is critical, and something we do optionally when our schedules allow. We must teach about the breaking of bread we take together as a community, as well as our corporate and personal prayer lives. Teach Matthew 8:19-22, "And a scribe came up and said to Him, 'Teacher, I will follow You wherever You go.' And Jesus said to him, 'Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head.' Another of the disciples said to Him, 'Lord, let me first go and bury my father.' And Jesus said to him, 'Follow Me, and leave the dead to bury their own dead.'" They need to know that when they commit to following a persecuted Lord, they join in His persecution.
I know you may be thinking a lot of things. One may be, "That's an awful lot to preach when I could give a two-sentence altar call." However, when you consider the gravity of the situation, the difference between someone being eternally saved and someone thinking he or she is eternally saved is worth the effort.
You may also be thinking, "Wouldn't that kind of a commitment scare a lot of people away from the faith?" Yes and no. Yes, it will scare a lot of people away who think they are making a commitment to Jesus when really it's their own version of the gospel to which they are pledging. No, preaching the gospel as it actually is will not scare off anyone God has called to believe the one, true gospel.
Finally you may be thinking, "What do I do about those who already have bought the easy believism lie?" Unfortunately, you're going to have to offend them, because the gospel is offensive to all of us. It calls us out as sinners and tells us that we are hopeless without Jesus as our Lord and Savior. You are going to have to explain that even though they went to a youth camp or concert, listened to a particular minister's sermon, or responded to an altar call from a legitimate and well-meaning Christian, they might have believed a lie if what was presented was anything other than God's truth.
The gospel is not a matter of declaring repentance and believing but is a matter of actually repenting and believing. Remember, not everyone who says "Lord, Lord," will enter the kingdom of heaven. The good news is that it's not too late. While we still have breath in our lungs, we can repent from the false gospel of easy believism and thankfully accept the true gospel which Jesus Himself preached.