“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.

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