Many people process from unbelief to faith through “mini-decisions.”
We hold to the classic teaching about the nature of the gospel: to be a Christian is to be united with Christ by faith so that the merits of his saving work become ours and his Spirit enters us and begins to change us into Christ’s likeness. You either are a Christian or you are not — you either are united to him by faith or you are not — because being a Christian is, first of all, a “standing” with God.
However, we also acknowledge that coming to this point of uniting to Christ by faith often works as a process, not only as an event. It can occur through a series of small decisions or thoughts that bring a person closer and closer to the point of saving faith. In a post-Christendom setting, more often than not, this is the case.
People simply do not have the necessary background knowledge to hear a gospel address and immediately understand who God is, what sin is, who Jesus is, and what repentance and faith are in a way that enables them to make an intelligent commitment. They often have far too many objections and beliefs for the gospel to be readily plausible to them.
Therefore, most people in the West need to be welcomed into community long enough for them to hear multiple expressions of the gospel — both formal and informal — from individuals and teachers. As this happens in community, nonbelievers come to understand the character of God, sin, and grace. Many of their objections are answered through this process. Because they are “on the inside” and involved in ongoing relationships with Christians, they can imagine themselves as Christians and see how the faith fleshes out in real life.
The process often looks something like this:
- Awareness: “I see it.” They begin to clear the ground of stereotypes and learn to distinguish the gospel from legalism or liberalism, the core from the peripheral. They make mini-decisions like these:
- “She’s religious but surprisingly open-minded.”
• “You can be a Christian and be intelligent!”
• “The Bible isn’t so hard to understand after all.”
• “A lot of things the Bible says really fit me.”
• “I see the difference between Christianity and just being moral.”
- Relevance: “I need it.” They begin to see the slavery of both religion and irreligion and are shown the transforming power of how the gospel works. Examples of mini-decisions here are as follows:
- “There must be some advantages to being a Christian.”
• “An awful lot of very normal people really like this church!”
• “It would really help if I could believe like she does.”
• “Jesus seems to be the key. I wonder who he was.”
- Credibility: “I need it because it’s true.” This is a reversal of the modern view that states, “It’s true if I need it.” If people fail to see the reasonableness of the gospel, they will lack the endurance to persevere when their faith is challenged. Examples of mini-decisions include thoughts like these:
- “I see that the Bible is historically reliable.”
• “You can’t use science to disprove the supernatural.”
• “There really were eyewitnesses to the resurrection.”
• “Jesus really is God.”
• “I see now why Jesus had to die — it is the only way.”
- Trial: “I see what it would be like.” They are involved in some form of group life, in some type of service ministry, and are effectively trying Christianity on, often talking like a Christian — even defending the faith at times.
- Commitment: “I take it.” This may be the point of genuine conversion, or sometimes a person will realize that conversion has already happened, and they just didn’t grasp it at the time. Examples of mini-decisions include these:
- “I am a sinner.”
• “I need a Savior.”
• “Though there are a lot of costs, I really must do what Jesus says.”
• “I will believe in Jesus and live for him.”
- Reinforcement: “Now I get it.” Typically, this is the place where the penny drops and the gospel becomes even clearer and more real.
For this dynamic to occur, at least three factors must be in place: believers with relational integrity, pastoral support, and safe venues.
—by Timothy Keller, adapted from his new book Serving a Movement: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City. This book contains section three of Tim Keller’s classic, Center Church, along with new contributions by Tim Chester, Daniel Montgomery, Mike Cosper, and Alan Hirsch – plus new reflections by Timothy Keller.
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