A Call for Repentance by
Gary Ray Branscome
But even if we, or an angel from heaven, preach any gospel to you other than what we have preached to you, let him be accursed (Galatians 1:8).
In a culture accustomed to post-modern ideas of tolerance, Paul’s pronouncement of a curse on those who teach a false gospel may sound harsh and intolerant. However, God is not fooling around! His Word gives us that warning because He loves us, and does not want us to end up in hell. And, believe me, the danger of ending up in hell because of a false, or perverted, “gospel” is very real.
Over the centuries, Satan has introduced false gospels time and again. And, every false gospel involves relying on something other than faith in Christ. Satan has led people to trust in works, in riches, in self inflicted pain, in saints, and in sacraments. Now, he is leading people who have never trusted in Christ to think that they are saved because they have prayed a prayer.
One of the difficulties in coming to grips with this error lies in the fact that, those who come to faith in Christ often pray to God for mercy. There is nothing wrong with crying out to God for mercy. However, it is faith in Christ, not our prayer, that brings God’s mercy (Romans 5:2). It is not absolutely necessary for us to ask God to save us, but it is absolutely necessary that we trust in Christ. It is only because He died for our sins that we can be forgiven, and without faith in Him there is no mercy! “Without faith it is impossible to please God (Hebrews 11:6).” And, that is just where the problem lies.
The people who place the stress on praying a prayer may have the best of intentions. They generally want people to trust in Christ. However, because the devil will twist and pervert everything he can, many who pray that prayer think that it is what they have done [i.e. praying a prayer] that saves them, not what Christ has done. That is why many who pray the sinner’s prayer continue living as if they had never prayed it. They perform one simple work of praying a prayer, and believe that even though they live like the devil, and never darken the door of a church, they are saved and can never lose their salvation.
In trying to compensate for the problems this causes others stress works. They lead those who have prayed the prayer to believe that they need works in order to have God’s blessing on their lives, and to be happy as Christians. And, that is just another form of works righteousness. They fail to understand what it means to be justified by faith, how the Holy Spirit works in the hearts of believers, or what the Bible means when it tells us that “Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to every one who believes (Romans 10:4).”
Those who come to faith in Christ must believe that they are sinners who deserve hell, and they must be sorry for their sins. Otherwise, they would have nothing to trust in Christ for. Our faith in Christ is the belief that He took our place, that He died the death that we deserved, that because of what He did (not what we do) we have forgiveness and eternal life.
Furthermore, one of the most important doctrines of Scripture, the doctrine of the Law and the Promises, makes it perfectly clear that faith in Christ has always been the way of salvation, and that Abraham was saved the same way we are saved, namely through believing God’s promise of forgiveness in Christ. In fact, the third chapter of Galatians is devoted to that doctrine. The words, “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness,” tell us that Abraham’s sins were forgiven the minute he believed, for it is forgiveness and forgiveness alone that makes us righteous in the sight of God (Galatians 3:6).
If you look carefully at what Paul says in the third chapter of Galatians, you will notice that he tells us that the promise that Abraham believed was the gospel, the good news that his descendant would die for his sins and rise again (compare Galatians 3:6 and 8, and 1 Corinthians 15:1-4).
Going on in the same chapter, the words, “the covenant concerning faith in Christ, that was confirmed by God at the time of Abraham, cannot be nullified by the law, which came four hundred and thirty years later,” tell us that the law did not change the fact that salvation came through God’s promise of forgiveness in Christ (Galatians 3:17). The law was only given to show us our sin and need of that forgiveness (Romans -20). And, if the law did not change the fact that those living under it were saved through faith in Christ, then the animal sacrifices required by the law were only instituted to point people to Christ. Their purpose was to lead people to trust in God’s promise of mercy, and when they put their trust in that mercy, God would assure them that His messiah was the source of that mercy (Psalm 13:5, Hosea 6:6).
Although Christ died in time, because God is not bound by time, the forgiveness Christ won for us has been available to believers from the foundation of the world (Revelation 13:8). This truth is very important, because if God’s forgiveness was limited by time, we would need another sacrifice to cover sins committed after Christ’s death.
PERVERTING THE GOSPEL
The false gospel we are dealing with rests on an assumption regarding Romans 10:13, “Whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.” It is easy for those who are new to the faith to assume that we get saved by calling on the Lord. Now, as I pointed out before, many people who come to faith do call on the Lord, there is nothing wrong with that, but it is faith in Christ, not their act of calling, which brings salvation (Romans 5:2). And, that is where the error lies.
Paul’s purpose in writing the words of Romans was not to tell us how to be saved, but to tell us that salvation is available to all men, both Jew and gentile, on an equal basis. And, he quoted those words from Joel to support what he said in the previous verse, namely that, “there is no difference between the Jew and the Greek.” In other words, this passage was not intended to tell us how to be saved, but to tell us that salvation is available to all. The truth of what I say should be obvious, because none of the sermons recorded in the book of Acts call on people to pray a prayer to be saved. Paul did not tell the Philippian Jailer to pray a prayer, on the contrary, he said, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you shall be saved,” (Acts ). Peter did not tell his listeners to pray a prayer, on the contrary, he said, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins,” (Acts ). And, to be baptized “in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins,” is to be baptized believing that He is the source of forgiveness.
Those who emphasize prayer seem blind to the fact that some churches follow a liturgy that requires worshippers to pray the “sinner’s prayer” every Sunday. In fact, every time someone prays the “Lord’s Prayer” they are praying for forgiveness. Yet many from such backgrounds tell us that they were never saved until they came to faith in Christ.
I have seen people, who could care less, pressured to pray the “sinner’s prayer”. They may do it out of curiosity, to see what will happen. Or, they may do it to get rid of the person urging them to pray. But, it is extremely rare for someone who has prayed the prayer that way to show up in church. The only times when it seems to work is when people (generally with some church background) pray the prayer when they come to faith in Christ.
Therefore, let me make myself perfectly clear. We are not saved by asking Jesus into our heart, we are saved by what He did on the cross! We are not saved by giving our life to Christ, we are saved by believing that He died for our sins! We are not saved by praying the “sinners prayer”, we are saved by our faith in Him!
The bad fruit produced by this false gospel is scandalous. Shall I mention a couple in a church youth group who were committing fornication. When they were confronted, the boy said, “When we went forward at camp and prayed to accept Christ they told us that no matter what we did we could not lose salvation.” Isn’t it obvious that those two were never repentant to begin with. Such stories are far too common. Years ago almost one hundred congregations that had been connected with Campus Crusade For Christ decided to merge with the Eastern Orthodox. One of the reasons they gave was that they had become disillusioned with the idea that praying a prayer could save someone. And, the reason they had become disillusioned, was because they had worked so hard to get people to pray the prayer, only to have them never show up in church or reform their lives.
Some of those who put all the stress on prayer, as if people are saved by praying a prayer, do so because they have a faulty understanding of the gospel. They wrongly assume that people living before the time of Christ could not receive forgiveness, and therefore could not get into heaven. I have already pointed out that God is not bound by time, and that those who lived before Christ were saved the same way that we are saved. The words, “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness,” should make that obvious. Moreover, the numerous references to forgiveness that we find in the Old Testament should also make it obvious that forgiveness was available to the people living then.
Nevertheless, in order to accommodate the Bible to their “theology”, they explain all this away, and create a bizarre mythology about the souls of believers who lived at that time being held in a hollow place deep in the earth. Of course none of that is in the Bible, but like every cult they “interpret” passage after passage to support their unbiblical ideas.
Because they assume that the thief on the cross could not be forgiven until after Christ rose from the dead, they also assume that when Jesus said to him, “Today you will be with me in paradise” He was talking about a hollow place deep in the earth (Luke 23:43). However, if they would simply let the Bible interpret itself, they would find that the Bible defines “paradise” as “Heaven” (compare verses 2 and 4 of 2 Corinthians 12). They would also find that the words “even the Son of man who is in heaven,” plainly tell us that, because Christ is God, He was not only in heaven on the day He was crucified, He was in heaven all the time he was on the earth (John 3:13).
The fact that He was in heaven while He was on earth also tells us that, when the Bible speaks of heaven being up, and hell being down, it is using the language of accommodation. In reality, heaven and hell are both in the spiritual realm. They are up and down in a spiritual sense, not in a physical sense. That is why Christ could be in heaven while He was on the earth, and why he did not have to leave the earth to communicate with Moses and Elijah (Matthew 17:3-4). [Notice that, even though Moses was buried and Elijah had been carried to heaven, spiritually they were both in the same place.]
Because those who hold these views have created a myth about saints in hades, they twist the words “When He ascended up on high, He led captivity captive,” to mean that He led those saints to freedom (Ephesians 4:8). However, that is not what the verse is saying at all. What the verse is telling us is that Christ made captives, not that He freed them. Ask yourself. Where does that passage say anything about freeing captives? It does not! The phraseology being used is of an army leading its defeated captives into captivity. If you have any questions about what I say just look at Judges 5:12. “Awake, awake, Deborah: awake, awake, utter a song: arise, Barak, and lead thy captivity captive.”
Another myth they have created is that when Christ descended into hell He preached to “Old Testament saints”. Of course the Bible says no such thing. Nevertheless they read their ideas into 1Peter 3:19, which says, “He went and preached unto the spirits in prison.” Here again, they ignore the context! A quick look at the context tells us that the “spirits” in “prison” were those that God destroyed at the time of Noah, not saints. And, the passage says nothing about the gospel. On the contrary, the word translated “preached,” is “kerusso,” a Greek word that means “to proclaim as a herald.” It is the same Greek word that would be used if a king conquered a country, and then sent out heralds to tell everyone that the country had a new ruler. Christ was proclaiming His victory to His enemies, not offering them salvation. That is why the New American Standard translates that same verse as, “He [Christ] went and made proclamation to the spirits now in prison.”
If anyone thinks that these errors are not serious, let me remind you that whenever the doctrine being taught consists of man–made explanations of God’s Word, instead of what the Bible explicitly says, people are being led away from God’s Word. And, whenever the unrepentant are being given a false assurance of salvation, instead of being warned of God’s judgement, a false gospel is being taught.
Although the danger posed by this false gospel is very real, believers often do not recognize the problem. They assume that the people praying the prayer understand what is said (about sin and Christ) in the same way that they do. What they fail to realize is that it is impossible for someone to absorb everything being said to them in two minutes. Furthermore, pushing people to pray a prayer just hardens them. It turns them off to Christianity. They wind up feeling that they tried it, and there was nothing to it. What lost people need is solid Christ centered preaching, that lifts Him up as the source of forgiveness, not descriptions of hell aimed at scaring them into praying the “sinner’s prayer”.