“hell’s best kept secret”

In case you haven’t heard of it, Hell’s Best Kept Secret is a book by Ray Comfort, a New Zealander who lives in California. It was written in 1989 and it tackles the problem of the large numbers of people who “make decisions for Jesus” then fall away: within the first few pages he reports estimates of an 80-90% drop-off in the number of people who “make decisions” in evangelistic campaigns. In other words, going by his (presumably American?) figures, less than 20% of people who claim to have “given their lives to Jesus” persist with a Christian lifestyle, without falling away, or “backsliding”.

Comfort is rightly concerned about this, and offers a solution which his book calls radical. The solution is to preach the law to sinners as well as the gospel. He gives the famous parachute analogy: people in planes think of parachutes as irrelevant, until they realise the plane is going to crash. So, people who are offered peace and love from the gospel will find these things irrelevant, unless they realise that they are things that they need. Although you can manipulate people into “making decisions”, you can’t get them to really appreciate the gospel unless you tell them, from the ten commandments, that they’re sinners.

All this is very true and important, and it’s a solution which evangelists should embrace, even though it’s pretty depressing to think of all the people out there who find the idea “radical”, or think they’re already “winning souls” without mentioning the concept of sin.

However, I do have a quibble with this book, because while it’s quite right on this point, there are other areas where I think it’s misguided. And the reason why I think it’s important enough to say so here is because I recently heard it recommended in the same breath as the teachings of Reformed, Calvinistic writers such as RC Sproul and WJ Chantry. It was in the context of how calvinism can be implemented in practice in outreach and evangelism, and specifically in the context of using the law to show people their sin. Since that’s the main point of the book, that was fair enough, but I don’t think you can really justify recommending the book overall.

The most significant reason why I say this comes out, for example, in chapter 13. Here he talks about Christians telling non-Christians about their sin and the need to believe. Supposing the non-Christian then accepts the offer of salvation, having been “led to Christ” by the believer. Comfort’s suggestion now is for the Christian to offer to lead the new believer in prayer, a prayer such as this:

Dear God, I acknowledge that You are holy, righteous, and just. I confess my sinfulness to You; I have repeatedly broken Your Law and deserve eternal punishment. Forgive me for my sin and give me the grace to turn from my selfishness and rebellion.
Thank You for taking my place on the cross as punishment for my sin. I receive You as Lord and Saviour. Please give me the grace to live the kind of life that will glorify You in all that I say and do. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Focusing on that second paragraph, I feel uncomfortable about putting words like these into the mouth of someone whose conscience has been pricked at the thought of their sin. This is because on the cross the Saviour was taking the place of people who will certainly be saved: he took the punishment for the sins of all-and-only his own people, true believers, who can never finally fall away with those 80% of seeming-believers. However, in the situation which he pictures in the run-up to that prayer, I’m not convinced that the Christian who’s doing the counselling has entirely safe grounds for thinking that the person s/he’s talking to was in fact one of the people whose place was taken on the cross by the Saviour. In the next sub-section, Comfort says, “suppress the urge to tell him that he’s saved. If God has saved him, let God tell him. Show him the promises of assurance, of course, but allow his assurance to come from God alone.” Again, this is good advice, but, from what I understand, telling someone that Jesus took their place on the cross is telling them that they’re saved. It gives them the assurance that they’re one of God’s children, because it was only his children whose place the Saviour took. But a person can have their conscience stirred up in the light of the ten commandments, without truly repenting or believing in the Saviour. So while it might be true that this person with a troubled conscience has believed or has repented or has been forgiven, you don’t know for sure, and if you give them prayers like that to pray, you’re making them say something which is not necessarily true. What a person can always do is pray, “Forgive me for my sin and give me the grace to turn from my selfishness and rebellion,” but you need good grounds for going on to say, “Thank You for taking my place on the cross …”

Ray Comfort certainly isn’t unique in providing prayer templates like this. There are many many outreach attempts, and I’m thinking especially of gospel tracts for example, which come recommended as reformed in their theology – and indeed they are reformed, until the last page, when they suggest that you pray something like, “thank you for dying for me on the cross”. It’s never presumptuous to pray for forgiveness, but until that prayer has been answered, I don’t think that people have grounds to assume that they were definitely represented on the cross, or to pray as if that was certainly the case.

Your comments on this, as well as everything else, are very welcome.


the death of christian britain

I’ve already talked about Dennis and Erdos’s book Families Without Fatherhood, the one that says it’s better for children to be brought up in the traditional two-parent family. The second thesis of this book was that this breakdown in traditional family arrangements is what has caused the growth of crime and general incivility which has been seen in Britain since the 1960s.

A book which I’ve been revisiting since then is Callum Brown’s Death of Christian Britain (2001). He argues that national religion hasn’t so much been declining as that it’s been abruptly rejected – since the 1960s Britain has suddenly abandoned the Christian morals and values which had characterised it for centuries. It only took us forty years to forsake Christianity, he says in the introduction, compared to the thousand or so years of practicing it [sic].

Quote: “The generation that grew up in the sixties was more dissimilar to the generation of its parents than in any previous century. The moral metamorphosis directly affected the churches’ domain: the decline of marriage, the rise of divorce and remarriage, the rise of cohabitation in place of marriage … decreasing stigmatisation of illegitimacy, homosexuality and sexual licence, the growing recourse to birth control and abortion, and the irresistible social pressures for government liberalisation of restrictions on drinking, Sunday closing and recreation. The range of the changes in demography, personal relationships, political debate and moral concerns was so enormous that it did not so much challenge the Christian churches as bypass them,” p190.

Both these books are rich sources of comment.

  • if the churches were bypassed by these changes, it isn’t because they had nothing to say on things like marriage or drinking, but because they weren’t being listened to any more
  • the decline in respect for what was traditionally thought of as morality seems to have gone hand in hand with what you might call selfish behaviour, prioritising your own perceived benefit over that of other people’s, to their disadvantage
  • even though people have rejected Christianity, they’re still religious; non-Christian religions seem to be growing, eg
  • if the churches were so decisively rejected when their message they were preaching was the orthodox gospel (or by and large, and to a much greater extent than today), what implications does that have for the future of orthodox churches now?
  • if the introduction of user-friendly gimmics in churches now still isn’t halting the decline, what implications does that have for the future of the nice and cosy reincarnations of churches?

Maybe I’ll come back to some of those things later, but there was one other thing which I ‘ve been wondering about, and which I’d very much like to hear other people’s opinions on. That’s the question of whether we should look at the 1960s as the ultimate source of all these changes, or whether instead there were trends in society in the run-up to the 60s which only surfaced then. If religiosity started its inexorable decline in 1956, as Callum Brown’s graphs show, and if crime rates started their inexorable rise in 1958, as Dennis and Erdos show, then what laid the foundations prior to the 60s or late 50s in order for this disintegration to take place? I wonder how much can we blame the war, for example, or both the wars – or maybe it started earlier than that, say with Victorian doubt filtering into the church itself rather than being rebuffed and kept firmly out of the pulpits. I’ll keep thinking, but if you’ve any ideas, there’s a comments section for accessing directly below, and you know how to use it …

[Edited 20 March 06]