I have swum in waters that were decisionistic. Decisionism is that approach to evangelism that centres less on genuine conversion and more on ‘making a decision’ to follow Christ. At its worst, it pushes individuals – often in the heat of the moment – to ‘make a decision’ and, should they do so, pronounces the person incontrovertibly saved without question.
Decisionism exists all over the place. Within the church – if we are events-driven or attractional – it might come out in the form of altar calls. Just come down to the front, pray with the pastor, mean the words and you’re saved. You’ve chosen to follow Christ now.
I am reminded of one event where the speaker was invited and, at the end of his talk, he asked everybody to close their eyes so that he could pray. He then proceeded to pray some form of sinner’s prayer. No sooner than he had done so, he asked those who really meant it in their own hearts to raise their hands. He went on to insist that all those with hands raised were now, without question, believers for whom a little bell was tolling in Heaven in response to their newfound faith. Whilst any of those people might well have become a believer, that was not the point to pronounce it with any certainty. Things became a bit clearer when none of them turn up to church the following Sunday and showed no evidence of a life changed by the Holy Spirit thereafter. The decision of the moment was all.
It comes out in street evangelism. We may present the gospel message faithfully enough and then press people to ‘say the prayer’. Once the right words have been uttered, and assurance that I definitely meant it received, that person is counted as a definite believer. Whilst, no doubt, that is the point of conversion for some, time is ultimately what tells. But decisionism pays no heed to time or evidence of saving faith. It simply takes the decision of a moment as all.
In many cases, decisionism gets wedded to one-point Calvinism. One-pointers aren’t really calvinists in any meaningful sense because the one point they adhere to isn’t really a proper rendering of any of the doctrines of grace. The point they hold to is typically a bastardised version of the perseverance of the saints that subtly changes the doctrine to ‘once saved, always saved.’ But it often goes hand in hand with decisionism such that the single profession of a moment, determining that one is most definitely saved, is the same salvation that one can never lose. Thus, no matter how far from Christ an individual wanders, no matter that the individual no longer professes that same faith, their decision means they are saved and the salvation they decided upon back then can never be lost.
I am not wild about decisionism. It is, in my view, responsible for giving false comfort to many people who never came to trust in Christ and who evidence such by how far they have wandered away from him since that one-time decision. Scripture is clear enough, ‘the one who endures to the end will be saved’ (Matt 24:13).
But with all that said, we shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bath water. We shouldn’t let the spectre of decisionism stop us calling people to make decisions to follow Christ. The error of decisionism isn’t that it calls people to make decisions. It errs because it insists that the mere decision of a moment is all. But conversion is, ultimately, the point at which the Holy Spirit has effected his work of regeneration on our hearts, changed our will and caused us to actively decide to follow Christ. At some level, conversion necessitates a decision (albeit one that we can’t generate from ourselves).
If we believe there is such a thing as the gospel call, we have to ask what, exactly, it is calling to? If it is calling us to something, it is inevitably calling us away from something else. The gospel is a call to turn away from sin and to Jesus Christ in repentance and faith. At some level, turning away from sin and toward Christ necessitates a will, a decision if you like, to do it. That decision is a product of the Holy Spirit at work in us, without which we wouldn’t will it at all, but we are converted when we do, indeed, decide to repent of our sin and turn to Christ.
Of course, whether our repentance and faith are genuine will only be revealed over time. Were we simply moved by something in a moment or was the Holy Spirit truly at work in us? Is there any evidence of a life changed by the Spirit of God? These are things that we will only see in time. But we mustn’t confuse the evidence of faith with faith itself. At the end of the day, our conversion begins with the decision of a moment and proves itself genuine as that decision of a moment becomes an ongoing reality upon which we now base our entire lives. We do, as a result of the Holy Spirit’s work in us, decide to follow Jesus and put our faith – in an ongoing sense – firmly in him alone.
So let’s have less decisionism without losing the call on people to make a decision. Let’s not allow people to rest on the decision of a single moment as definitive proof they are secure in Christ whilst, at the same time, calling people to decide that they must turn to Christ to be saved. Let’s affirm that those who are genuinely saved will never lose their salvation but that such people will persevere in Christ until the end. Let’s recognise the need to call people to decide for Christ whilst, simultaneously, recognising that such decisions to believe are only of value if they are an ongoing, Spirit-empowered reality.
Repentance and faith are ongoing realities in the life of a genuine believer, not one-off events at one point in time. We must call people to genuinely decide to repent of sin and follow Christ. We must equally recognise that a one-off decision of a moment is not evidence of genuine faith in Christ. Those who truly belong to Jesus are those who, yes, decide to trust in him, but who exhibit repentance and faith as an ongoing reality in their lives, who ultimately persevere with him though the Spirit gifted to them.