Fall is in the air: days are getting shorter, temperatures are dropping, and everyone is ready to break out the long pants and pumpkin-spice everything. For many, it’s a relief from a long, hot summer; for others, it’s the first hint of another long, cold winter.
But fall is also the start of something else (say it with me, now): flu season! And with the start of flu season comes the yearly reminder from all quarters that everyone who is able to do so should get a flu vaccine.
The basic idea behind a vaccine, of course, is simple, if brilliant: give your body an inactive or weakened dose of something that could cause disease, letting your body learn how to fight it without actually having to suffer its consequences (an oversimplification, but hopefully good enough). You receive a vaccine because the lesser version of the disease enables you to ward off the dangers of the full one.
The purpose of a vaccine is noble: to help people fight disease. But there is another type of vaccine that is just the opposite. And not only the opposite, but actually much more potent, with much farther-reaching consequences when it is used effectively: vaccination against the gospel of Christ.
Many people have received this gospel vaccine. It is widely available. It is relatively easy to take. And it is, in many places, the popular thing to do.
As with a disease vaccine, the idea of a gospel vaccine is quite simple: a dead or weakened form of the gospel message that enables a person to fight off the real thing.
And as with the various application methods of a medical vaccine, so also the gospel vaccine comes in many forms:
- “I go to church.”
This one may be a bit less scary if someone said “I’m a church member,” as that would mean that someone, somewhere in church leadership, had actually affirmed your Christianity. But, in any case, the idea that you go to church means nothing in and of itself. Someone can go to church his entire life and not even profess to know Christ, much less actually demonstrate saving faith in Him.
- “I did that when I was ___ years old.”
Such vague language that speaks of becoming a Christian at a point in the past does not align with the New Testament idea of saving faith. Salvation comes at the moment of initial faith, but Christians are those who “call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 1:2) – present tense – not those who did that at one point in their past.
- “I made a decision for Christ.”
A decision for Christ can be a good thing, but only if it’s a biblical decision. Just making a decision with respect to Christ does nothing. Only repentance (Acts 17:30) and faith (Acts 16:31), calling upon the name of the Lord (Romans 10:13), do anything. This form of the vaccine comes with other variations: “Asking Jesus in your heart,” “Inviting Christ to come into your life,” and other such extra-biblical phrases that may or may not reflect the true heart responses to the gospel that are commanded by Scripture.
- “I’ve been baptized.”
Baptism is a command to believers in Christ and should be done. There is nothing bad about baptism. But it does nothing to save someone!
If by a reference to baptism someone means that he made a profession of faith in Christ, it still is merely that: a profession. And a profession can be as empty as an outright rejection (Titus 1:16).
- “My father/grandfather/______ was a preacher.”
It is a wonderful thing to have a Christian family heritage – what a blessing to know the Scriptures from one’s youth (2 Timothy 3:15)!
But no Christian heritage makes up for a lack of true spiritual vitality in one’s own life. We must never lean on the religion of our ancestors, unless it is one we have come to own ourselves.
- “I try to be a good person.”
The least biblical objection of all, this form of gospel vaccine actually runs directly counter to the Scriptural idea that good works come only after salvation, not before (Ephesians 2:8-10).
These are just some of the forms the vaccine can take. Many of these can be combined with multiple others, making them even more potent. The true gospel and the message about how to partake of it can try to get home, but it is met with acquired and long-developed resistance.
The result of all of this is that evangelism often becomes devastatingly difficult, both for the gospel preacher and for the hearer. I have knocked on many doors in the area where I live, and nearly everyone has had their vaccine. How I would rejoice to say, “Everyone was already a Christian”! But I see infrequent evidence of gospel permeation, and instead it is typically nothing but catch-phrases and vaccine-language.
To suggest to someone that he might examine the reality of his faith is often met with less patience than if you had insulted his mother or his children. To successfully get him to do it is even harder. It would not be surprising if even simply writing these things is automatically labeled as “judgmental” by some readers.
But should you not be open to the loving concern of people who care about your eternal soul?
Many people like to bemoan the hostility that some in our nation have toward Christianity and the gospel in general; I understand that. But what does far more damage to the spread of the gospel is the spiritual immunity possessed by tens of millions of people who have become inoculated against the gospel of Jesus Christ.
What makes these gospel vaccines so potent is this: unlike a physical vaccine, most people who have it aren’t aware that they have received something other than the real thing. They don’t know they have received a weakened form, and they don’t know when they hear the true message.
I know firsthand the potency of such a gospel vaccination. Mine lasted 8 1/2 years.
It was a deadly combination: a “decision” to “ask Jesus into my heart” at church camp so I could avoid going to hell, combined later with baptism and joining a church. But this weakened gospel didn’t have the power to kill the flesh and transform the heart – it only made me resistant to further efforts for gospel infiltration.
I distinctly remember speaking with a would-be evangelist outside my first-year college dormitory, telling him that I had become a Christian years earlier and didn’t need him to make the extra effort to persuade me to become one.
I even worried about people who didn’t identify themselves as Christians, thinking that they were not safe from the coming judgment.
But the whole time I was deceived, kept away from seeking God, because I had a cheap substitute – an impotent, weak, part-gospel mix of spiritual vaccinations that was good only to keep me from seeking God in earnest.
Thankfully, it wasn’t strong enough to fight off the real thing. God broke through my hard heart by a hearty diet of hearing God’s word being taught. But I grieve for people who may be in the same condition I once was.
So what can you do if you suspect you’ve received a gospel vaccine? Here’s my recommendation:
- See if the gospel that you are clinging to reflects the “vaccine” versions listed above.
- If it does at all, pray and ask God to help you see from the Bible what the gospel truly is.
- Read the Scriptures to see for yourself what the Bible says about the nature of the gospel of Christ and about how to truly become a Christian. A few places you might begin:
- The Gospel of John
- Romans 4:4-8, 10:9-13
- 1 Thessalonians 1:9, 2:13
- 1 John
- Luke 9:23-26, 14:25-33
Don’t get caught with a powerless gospel, especially one that prevents the real one from taking root. The Lord is willing to save all who come to him, but by his message in his way. For that, there is no substitute.