It's not enough to say a prayer.
One of the disturbing trends I see in parts of the Christian church in America today is what I call the cheapening of the Gospel, by which I mean a gospel that says, if someone prays a specific prayer, they now have fire insurance, even if no transformation takes place in their lives.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer saw a similar cheapening of the gospel in Nazi Germany of the 1930s, which prompted him to write The Cost of Discipleship. He referred to this condition as “cheap grace.”
We see “cheap grace” in decision-based evangelism, which offers only a partial gospel and promises that, if one prays a sinner’s prayer, one is now automatically a Christian. This is akin to a bowl of M&Ms, and one selects only the red ones.
I am not saying that some don’t come to the Lord through this type of evangelism. But this form of evangelism is relatively new in the history of the Church. The early Church spent up to three years of intensive discipleship before a new convert could partake of the Lord’s Supper. Catechumens had to fully understand that they were now citizens of the Celestial City, the New Jerusalem, and they had a new and resplendent Caesar who reigned over them in a very real Kingdom. In the process, those who would join the fellowship of believers had to renounce Satan, the world, and the flesh, and commit themselves totally to Jesus. Only then did the early Church consider that they were truly Christians.
This leads to the question, “What, then, is the true and complete Gospel one must believe to become a Christian?”
The old apostle John tells us in his gospel. In John 20:30-31, John explains why he wrote his gospel: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name (this and all quotations are from ESV). John states that he selected specific signs in his gospel among many that Jesus did to show that Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of God, and that it is this we must believe if we are to be called a “child of God”: “But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (Jn. 1.12, 13). Note the word “receive.” It means we reach out and grasp what is offered. Salvation is being offered not by any human, but by God himself. And we are born into the faith not by our praying the sinner’s prayer, but by the work of God himself.
What then are we receiving?
John answers this question in John 1:1-8. Verse 1 tells us we first receive the Word who is Jesus, the Son of God. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” We receive the fact that before Jesus became a man, He has always existed – as the Word of God – and that He, along with the Father and the Holy Spirit, is God.
In verse 14, John explains that the Word became “flesh and dwelt among us”, and that by doing so, the Word revealed the glory, “glory as the only Son of God, full of grace and truth.” Jesus gave up His exalted place in the Godhead to be a servant and to walk in our midst. By doing so, He died on the cross for our sins, rose on the third day, and now reigns at His Father’s right hand over a very real Kingdom.
We thus receive One Who existed from eternity past, became flesh and as such was sinless, performed miracles to authenticate his bona fides, died on the cross for our sins, rose from the dead, and now reigns in glory. If we truly receive this One, then we become a child of God and are citizens of heaven, citizens of the New Jerusalem as described in Hebrews 12:22-24.
This is the Gospel in its fullness. Receiving this is what makes us a Christian. Receiving this will be the first step in a life-long transformation process that will make us ever more like Jesus (2 Cor. 3:12-18).