That became evident to me not long ago in a memorial service for one of our former residents in the home for the elderly.
Tom had been a resident for a few years. Several members of his family are currently serving as pastors and church leaders in various ministries. Over the years they and we have made several unsuccessful attempts to bring him to an understanding of his need for a savior. He was an intelligent, educated man but, to the frustration of his family, Tom had rejected the gospel his whole life.
Then I heard the news that, in his last few days, he “accepted the Lord.” At the memorial service there was much celebrating as everyone comforted themselves with the assurance that their beloved patriarch “slipped peacefully into the loving arms of Jesus” as he expired his final breath and that they would all see him again in that great “reunion in the sky by and by.”
It was during that service that I was suddenly shocked by the accounting of his alleged bedside “profession of faith.” One of the family members described how he appealed to Tom to consider his late wife and others in the family who had gone on before and who would follow him. They were all Christians and were all going to heaven. “Tom,” he said, “this is your last chance. Don’t you want to see your wife again when you die?” Don’t you want to spend eternity with your family in heaven?”
“Yes, I do,” Tom replied.
“Then why don’t you just ask Jesus into your life right now? Would you like to do that?” he asked.
“Yes,” said Tom.
Then he invited Tom to repeat this prayer. “Dear Jesus, I believe in you. Thank you for dying for me. I accept you into my life. Amen.”
That was it. On the basis of that prayer, Tom slipped into eternity with a false hope.
During this Christmas season, in another place, I heard a similar “gospel invitation” described like this;
Salvation is a decision that each one of us must make and it is as simple as saying a simple prayer. Then, in a typical Rick Warrenesque style prayer the pastor led the congregation in a similar version of “the sinners prayer.”
“Dear Lord Jesus, Come into my life; forgive me of my sins. Thank you for forgiving me of my sins. I want to make you Lord of my life.”
At that point, he asked his audience if anyone had prayed that simple prayer for the first time, to let him know so that he could welcome them into the family of God.
I thought about the gospel appeal as described at Tom's memorial service. What was the object? What was the compelling argument for faith? It was just the hope of heaven and the reunion of the family. There was nothing about Jesus or the forgiveness of sin or his need for a savior. As I looked around the room, I noticed that there were several who had never heard the gospel and this memorial service was a lost opportunity.
Note: In the interest of accuracy, I am uncertain about the origin of the quote above that I attributed to John MacArthur. Josh at Truth Matters has informed me that he has often heard Paul Washer say, "Everyone wants to go to heaven, they just don't want God to be there when they get there."