“Going half-way for Jesus is good enough,” affirmed the excited young minister. “If we keep demanding wholehearted commitment, our churches are going to die out. But I have the solution! Since we can’t expect people to actually follow Christ anymore, why don’t we just ask them to agree with a few key doctrines?”
An awkward silence fell over the group. At first it seemed like a preposterous suggestion. After all, who were these men, that they could modify such a central element of Christianity?
“You’re serious about this?” one of them gasped in disbelief. “Do you really think it would help church membership?”
The flash of excitement in the young minister’s eyes narrowed into a more serious gaze. He slowly reached up to adjust his spectacles, and then nodded, “Yes, Friend. I see this as the only way to salvage what is left of our churches. I call it the ‘Halfway Covenant.’ It will require people to affirm their belief in our core doctrines and ask them to abstain from scandalous living. If they will agree to this, their children can be baptized in our churches.”
Perhaps this young man had the courage to suggest what many of them had been considering for the past few years. Wouldn’t the Lord be pleased with this new initiative, designed to build His churches? It was either treason or brilliance – no one knew for sure.
“I never thought it would come to this,” grumbled an older preacher in the back of the room. “But I must concede, times have changed. People aren’t willing to make major commitments.”
The young minister raised his hands apologetically and spoke from his heart. “Brethren, I have the same desire to preach the Word of God as you. This is a way that we can get these people in the door. They’ll come, and then we can press the truths of repentance on them week-to-week. Surely God will honor this endeavor.”
In 1662, the “Halfway Covenant” became official church policy in the American colonies. And while the story of our ambitious young minister is a fictionalized (and over-simplified) account, the shocking nature of what he suggested is a dark historical reality. The plan worked; the churches grew. Thousands were baptized. Within a generation, “halfway believers” outnumbered those who were truly committed to Jesus. The light of the gospel grew so dim that unconverted ministers were being ordained.
It was upon this darkened spiritual backdrop that the ministry of Jonathan Edwards burst forth with brilliant, heavenly light. With a fiery passion and theological precision, Edwards labored hard to show halfway believers that they were really Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.
Conviction spread like wildfire throughout New England, and soon across the frontier. A recovery of the true gospel of Jesus – the gospel which had been so long ignored by the church leaders of that day – inaugurated what we have come to call the First Great Awakening.
I Don’t Have to Follow Him!
The world needs the gospel, yes; but in this case the church needed the gospel. And I fear that history’s tendency to repeat itself may have come full circle once again. Could it be that modern churches have begun to adopt their own version of the Halfway Covenant? Not in so many words, of course, but allow me to illustrate.
Again we eavesdrop on a discussion of the gospel, only this time no fictionalization is necessary. I sat among a small group of teens gathered to work on a Bible memory program, and we happened to be studying through the tenth chapter of John. After considering the amazing love of the Good Shepherd, a small verse came into view that receives much less attention than it probably deserves. “My sheep hear my voice, I know them, and they follow me.” (John 10:27)
“Wait a minute, I don’t have to follow him,” one youth blurted out adamantly. “I am a Christian because I believe in Jesus, and I don’t have to do anything else.”
There, in the seat next to me, sat the embodiment of the halfway gospel message. Any suggestion that he might need to obey God was intolerable. It didn’t occur to him that you’re not supposed to disagree with Jesus. Apparently he actually believed what he had been told by his church – that a life of obedience was completely unnecessary for entrance into heaven.
This young man’s lifestyle only made the point clearer – drugs, rebellion, anger, promiscuity – all the trappings normally associated with carnality and worldliness. The paradox of this Sunday School theologian was that he actively participated in church activities, was home-schooled by his Christian parents, and had plenty of examples of godly men to emulate. But the version of Christianity he had embraced promised him everything and required nothing in return.
It seems painfully obvious that this teenager isn’t alone. In fact, the statistics of moral decline in the church seem to indicate that with each passing year, the rate of commitment to Christ falls to new lows. Many Christian leaders, faced with these cold realities, have issued clarion calls for prayer efforts and lengthy periods of fasting. They trumpet the need for revival in the church and powerfully proclaim messages on purity, forgiveness, and brokenness. But even with the passion of their pleas, a great multitude within the church still slump lethargically back into their pews, disinterested, unmotivated, and by no means ready to forsake “the pleasures of sin for a season.”
Sounding familiar? How can we convince my teenage friend that following Jesus should be the central preoccupation of his life? What will “wake up the sleeper” so that Christ will shine through our churches once again?
Halfway Isn’t Far Enough
I believe that no matter how loud we shout or how clearly we present the revival message, we will not see a widespread movement of God in the church or in our culture until we recover the gospel of Jesus. We have to show people that halfway isn’t far enough.
– Christ called people to lay down their lives for His cause. The halfway gospel calls them to merely come down front and talk to a counselor.
– Christ called people to follow Him forever, even if it meant sacrifice and heartache. The halfway gospel promises people a wonderful life of peace and joy, with absolutely no strings attached.
– Christ asked people to reorganize their priorities around His kingdom. The halfway gospel asks nothing more of people than to pray a prayer and take a gift.
A vast majority of evangelical churches are sending the signal that living a new life is optional – a far cry from the original Good News that Jesus proclaimed.
“Just pray and sign the card. You don’t have to worry about changing your life. After all, we wouldn’t want to be guilty of preaching works-salvation, so we won’t require anything at all. Just believe . . . and the heavenly builders will get to work on your eternal mansion right away.”
Is it any wonder that my teenage friend isn’t interested in personal revival or a life of Christ-following?
Church history bears out the fact that a return to the biblical gospel – the gospel for real life – often precedes great revivals and spiritual awakenings. Could it be that our sin-sick churches need to reexamine the Great Physician’s prescription? Could it be that the renewing, healing power of His gospel is in fact the cure for comatose Christianity? Perhaps revival is reserved for a time when we rediscover the life-changing message that was so faithfully heralded by the apostles, church fathers, and reformers of old.
Churches Full of Empty Claims
The gospel has been redefined; slowly, perhaps even with good intentions, but it has resulted in churches full of empty claims. A.W. Tozer recognized this trend years ago and remarked,
[In the past] no one would ever dare to rise in a meeting and say I am a Christian if he had not surrendered his whole being to God and had taken Jesus Christ as his Lord as well as his Savior, and had brought himself under obedience to the will of the Lord. It was only then that he could say, I am saved!
Today, we let them say they are saved no matter how imperfect and incomplete the transaction, with the proviso that the deeper Christian life can be tacked on at some time in the future. Can it be that we really think we do not owe Jesus Christ our obedience?
We have owed Him our obedience ever since the second we cried out to Him for salvation, and if we do not give Him that obedience, I have reason to wonder if we are really converted! (A.W. Tozer, I Call It Heresy!)
The book of Titus gives insight into the relationship between the saving grace of God and the subsequent lifestyle of new obedience that must follow:
For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men. It teaches us to say No to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in this present age – while we wait for the blessed hope, the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good (Titus 2:11-14 NIV).
A Complete Reorganization
The gospel has always been viewed as more than a “get-to-heaven guarantee” by the great theologians and revivalists whose works span nearly two millennia of church history (source). They affirmed not only that the gospel would rescue souls from hell, not only that it would produce life-change in the believer, but that the gospel was in fact an invitation into a new life – a complete reorganization of one’s priorities, purpose, and passion around the person of Christ.
The gospel wasn’t something dealing exclusively with securing one’s eternal happiness; it was the doorway between the kingdom of darkness and the kingdom of light – a pledge of allegiance to a new King, a tumultuous revolution that would engulf every aspect of an individual’s life and future, a destiny from which there could be no turning back.
Until we are willing to join these voices from the past, echoing their call for real life-change, we will be forever stalemated in the battle for our churches and our culture.
The message of the true gospel carries with it the power of God.
It turned the first-century world upside down.
It was the message that Jesus commissioned us to take to the ends of the earth.
And I believe this gospel – reclaimed, restored, and re-infused with Holy Spirit power – will prepare the way for a sweeping revival and usher in the next Great Awakening.
I originally wrote this piece for LifeAction.org – it is posted along with other articles of the same theme here.