John 3:16 Pre-conference Interview with Steve Gaines

SteveGainesIn the weeks preceding this year’s John 3.16 Conference (see ad to right), SBCToday will post interviews with each person scheduled to speak at the Conference. The following interview is with Dr. Steve Gaines — pastor of the famed Bellevue Baptist Church outside of Memphis, Tenn., — who succeeded Dr. Adrian Rogers in 2005. To learn more about Dr. Gaines and Bellevue, go to www.bellevue.org. 


1. How has the invitation to speak at the conference impacted you?

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak at the conference. Regardless of where a person lines up concerning Calvinism, we should all seek to be biblical in our convictions. I am hopeful that the popular inclination on the part of some within the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) to recoil from the concept of praying a “sinner’s prayer” can be alleviated as we analyze and understand what Scriptures say about: 1) God’s desire to transform the sinful heart of man, 2) God’s desire to indwell our bodies with the Holy Spirit, and 3) man’s need to repent of sin, believe in Jesus, and receive Jesus as Lord and Savior by calling on His name in prayer.

2. How important is this conference in light of the current climate within the SBC, and what result(s) do you hope to see from the Conference?

I am grateful for the concern that exists today regarding the present and eternal dangers associated with anyone mindlessly praying any sort of “sinner’s prayer” in an insincere manner without simultaneously repenting of sin and believing in Jesus. No doubt there have been abuses in this regard. When overly zealous Christians tell someone to “just pray this prayer and you will be saved,” and that person neither understands the Gospel nor knows what’s at stake, then an indescribable tragedy has occurred.

When we share the Gospel, we must focus not only on the blessings and benefits of knowing Christ but also on the demands of the Gospel and the biblical requirements for salvation. Hopefully, we can all agree on that.

However, just because there have been some who have intentionally or unintentionally encouraged non-Christians to pray a “sinner’s prayer” prematurely does not mean that there is anything wrong or unbiblical about encouraging an unbeliever who does understand the demands of the Gospel to call on the name of Lord in prayer for salvation.

Can a person mindlessly repeat a “sinner’s prayer” without experiencing regeneration? Absolutely, just as someone can mindlessly repeat their wedding vows and not mean them. It is also possible for a person to mindlessly repeat a scripted prayer.

Thus, it is possible for someone to mindlessly voice a “sinner’s prayer,” but with no salvific results. If someone does that and does not mean it or understand it, he will not experience regeneration. Isaiah 29:13 states: “These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship of me is made up only of rules taught by men.” Though God is speaking about his children in that text, I believe the biblical principle applies to any prayer. God hears prayers from the heart. And according to Scripture, no one can be saved or experience regeneration without sincerely calling on the name of the Lord in prayer for salvation.

3. How important is your assigned topic — “Is The Sinner’s Prayer Biblical?” — to the total content of the Conference?

It is very important because it closely relates to how we do evangelism – how we lead a lost person to receive Christ as Savior and Lord. I am very concerned when I hear well-meaning brothers in Christ, whom I know and dearly love, go too far in criticizing phrases such as “asking Jesus into your heart” or “inviting Christ into your life.” They say that the Bible never mentions such prayers and that nowhere in Scripture is anyone ever told to ask Jesus into their heart. In my opinion, this is a “straw man” argument.

While those exact words or phrases do not appear in the New Testament, the concepts of “asking Jesus into your heart” and “inviting Christ into your life” do appear. Most of us recognize the fact that just because a specific word does not appear in Scripture does not mean the idea doesn’t. The words “inerrancy” and “Trinity” are not found in the New Testament, but the ideas are. Both the Old and New Testaments reveal God’s desire to give people new hearts and to indwell their physical bodies with His Holy Spirit (Who represents Christ in us). With that understanding, the phrase “asking Jesus to come and live in your heart” is biblical after all. In fact, that phrase might just be one of the most accurate ways to delineate one of the fundamental differences between the Old and New Covenants.

Any thoughtful Christian will desire to avoid “easy believism.” But some have unwisely chosen to jettison calling on the name of the Lord utilizing a sinner’s prayer in the process. They often try to prove the danger of such a prayer by highlighting testimonies of people who earlier in life prayed such a prayer, only to be convinced years later that they were not genuinely saved/regenerated at that time. But do such testimonies really prove that praying a certain prayer caused the problem? Could not the real problem have been something else, such as poor evangelism that did not emphasize the demands of the Gospel? Such subjective testimonies denigrating the sinner’s prayer do not prove anything except perhaps a theological bias on the part of anyone who presents them as irrefutable evidence.

As a senior pastor for 30 years, I have talked with many who thought they were saved when they were young, but in retrospect came to believe that they were not genuine followers of Jesus. They needed to repent of their sin, believe in Jesus and call on His name for salvation. I’ve led many to do just that in order to experience genuine conversion. But never once did I belittle the method of calling on the name of the Lord as being the reason they were not originally saved at an early age.

It has also been my observation that many people in our Baptist churches who doubt their salvation were actually genuinely converted at an early age. However, because they did not get involved immediately in an appropriate discipleship setting, they doubted their conversion experience.

Dr. Roy Fish used to tell us that sometimes Baptists are guilty of majoring in spiritual obstetrics while minoring in spiritual pediatrics. He was noting that we often give more attention to leading people to Christ than we do to following up with them after they are saved to help them mature spiritually. Newborn believers are spiritual babies. A baby cannot grow and mature without help from others. A babe in Christ needs mature believers to encourage and stimulate Christian maturity. Nevertheless, poor discipleship practices are not valid reasons to question whether calling upon the name of the Lord in prayer to be saved is a valid, scriptural practice.

4. Regarding your assigned topic, what do you hope your paper will accomplish?

I hope that at the end of the day, whether we are Calvinists or not (I am not), we will stop denigrating biblical concepts that do not fit our theological or philosophical grids. I believe the heart of this issue in the SBC is this: the New Testament teaches that in order to experience regeneration, a person must be exposed to the Gospel, repent of sin, believe in Jesus, surrender totally to His Lordship, and call on His name in prayer. While there is no exact wording of a sinner’s prayer prescribed precisely in Scripture, a “sinner’s prayer” is a valid expression of calling upon the name of the Lord for salvation.

According to Romans 10:9-13, before anyone can be saved his heart and mouth must come into agreement. Again, God rejects those who draw near to Him with their lips while their hearts are far from Him. But when our mouth and heart are in sync and we come to God for salvation, good things happen! When we confess with our mouth Jesus as Lord, and simultaneously believe in our heart that God raised Him from the dead, we are saved. That’s because with our heart we believe, resulting in righteousness, and with our mouth we confess, resulting in salvation. God will save any person when his mouth and heart are in unison and agreement when he calls on the name of the Lord Jesus.

5. How important is your assigned topic within the broader SBC conversation regarding Calvinism?

A person is saved when he hears the Gospel, repents of his sin, believes in Jesus, and calls upon the name of the Lord for salvation. That pattern is clearly set forth in Ephesians 1:13, which says, “In Him, you also, after listening to the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation– having also believed, you were sealed in Him with the Holy Spirit of promise.” The Gospel is preached, the lost person hears it, the lost person believes (and repents), and God regenerates him and seals him with the Holy Spirit.  That means that salvation occurs at a specific point in time (i.e. it is punctiliar in nature). No one has “always been saved.” Rather, there is a nanosecond at which a person repents, believes and calls on Jesus and is regenerated. Before that nanosecond of repentance, faith, and calling on Jesus, a person is lost and on his way to hell. After it, he is saved and on his way to heaven.

Whether a person is a non-Calvinist or a Calvinist, evangelism should be based on solid scriptural ground. I believe that some in our Convention, in a well-meaning effort to avoid easy believism, have gone too far by denigrating the use of a “sinner’s prayer” to help a lost person express repentance, faith, and calling on Jesus for salvation. Even though the New Testament does not use the exact words “ask Jesus into your heart” does not mean that the concept of doing so isn’t Scriptural. When we confess with our mouths that Jesus is Lord, and simultaneously repent of our sin and believe in Jesus with our hearts, it results in Him imputing His righteousness to us and saving (regenerating) us. Our words indicate what is in our hearts. Our believing hearts result in righteousness. Our confessing mouths result in salvation (Romans 10:8-9).  This is biblical, and we should ALL be able to agree on this!

6. Is there anything else that is a concern to you?

I serve Jesus in Memphis alongside many evangelical pastors of churches from various denominational backgrounds. Our congregations enjoy amazing harmony as we fellowship and do ministry together. We witness/evangelize, fellowship, and participate in service projects to “the least of these.” Yet we have a healthy, realistic understanding that, while we love and respect each other as brothers and sisters in Jesus, we probably cannot plant churches together, primarily because of our theological differences. Yet, for the sake of the Gospel of Jesus, we willingly work together.

I see similarities regarding the SBC. Most Non-Calvinists have Calvinistic friends (and vice versa). They genuinely love each other and are able and willing to cooperate with each other in most areas. Nevertheless, many (if not most) on either side of Calvinism in the SBC would not be comfortable planting churches together. Just as most Southern Baptists do not want to plant Presbyterian or Pentecostal churches (and vice versa), many (if not most) Calvinistic Baptists would not want to plant a non-Calvinistic church (and vice versa). The Calvinists probably wouldn’t want to help start a church that did not teach forthrightly their version of “the doctrines of grace.” Similarly, many others and I would not want to plant churches that did emphasize their version of those doctrines.

In saying this, I am not trying to be divisive. Rather, I am seeking to be realistic. Calvinistic and non-Calvinistic theology simply does not mix very well. We have genuine theological disagreements in the SBC that should be addressed. Sentimental platitudes along the line of, “Well, let’s all just love each other, be gracious, and do missions together. Then all will be well,” will solve nothing. It will take real action to prevent further division. We must be loving and gracious, but we must also be plainspoken. We need to honestly and lovingly deal with the theological dissimilarities that exist among us.

So how will we address these theological differences? Will we revert to a “Calvinist Resurgence” fighting against a “Traditionalist Resurgence”? Will both sides seek overtly or covertly to elect SBC presidents that will only appoint trustees to SBC entity boards that embrace their theological “points” so that in time all of our seminaries and agencies will operate from their theological view? I certainly hope not.

Why not come together and acknowledge the obvious: Southern Baptists are theologically diverse regarding Calvinism. Thus, why not be proactive and develop different curriculum tracks at LifeWay – Calvinistic and non-Calvinistic?  Why not go on to amiably agree that some of our seminaries will be Calvinistic while others will not. Why not openly appoint trustees to our entity boards that will hire presidents, professors, and other employees accordingly?

I make these suggestions (and that is all they are) not as an exact blueprint for what needs to take place in the SBC. But I do believe that these are the types of solutions that should be seriously considered by our SBC leaders. I certainly do not claim to have all the answers. But those who disagree with my ideas should be prepared to openly present their own to help us get past the present impasse. The SBC needs more than a little “pep talk.” “Let’s all just be sweet, agree to disagree, and get along” won’t cut it anymore. We need decisive action with a definitive plan, and we need it now.

When I was growing up, my older brother and I would sometimes fuss and fight. But when someone else came against either of us, we immediately became a united team, making us a force to be reckoned with. Even though we disagreed with each other, when threatened by others, we stuck together.

In case you haven’t noticed, our world is becoming increasingly anti-Christian. We are going to need each other as we face the spiritual battles and obstacles ahead. Whether or not we agree with each other on every point of Calvinism, both Calvinists and non-Calvinists in the SBC need one another. We may not see everything eye-to-eye. We may not even be able to plant churches together. But we can serve together, pray together, and evangelize the lost together. And that will please the heart of our heavenly Father, as well as help us in our efforts to evangelize lost people.

I don’t want a split in the SBC. But neither do I want an overt or covert takeover, where one side of the Calvinistic argument “wins” and everyone loses. The way I see it, we need to set some boundaries and make room for each other if we’re going to continue to live in the same house. Otherwise, we will become a house divided. And Jesus said such a house will not stand.

I’ll make room for both sides in the SBC house. Will you?

One last thought. On a grander scale, there is a greater need. The SBC needs a major outpouring of God’s Spirit. We need to honestly, earnestly, and desperately seek God in fervent prayer for revival so we can operate in the power of the Holy Spirit at the level we should and could. I’m convinced that our churches are spiritually weak, not because of the theologies we hold, the sermons we preach, or the methods we use (e.g., “the sinner’s prayer”). I believe that our spiritual weakness is rooted in the fact that we pray frivolously, not fervently. I yearn for the day when we unite and pray in faith for a major outpouring of God’s Spirit on our lives, our churches, and our denomination.

Surely that is something that we can all agree on. May that revival begin in you and me today.