In the lead-up to the Truth Matters conference in October, we will be focusing our attention on the sufficiency, authority, and clarity of Scripture. Of our previous blog series, none better embodies that emphasis than Frequently Abused Verses. The following entry from that series originally appeared on February 17, 2016. -ed.
Imagine living your whole life thinking you were saved from the penalty of your sins, only to discover that your assurance was false. It would be a tragic revelation with horrific eternal consequences. And I fear that many professing believers are in for that severe shock when they enter into eternity.
Self-deception is at epidemic levels in the church today. Countless men and women have gone through the motions of “accepting Christ” or “asking Jesus into their hearts”—they’ve walked the aisle, prayed the prayer, and written the date in their Bibles—but they remain lost in their sins. And their false assurance only serves to inoculate them to the gospel and blind them to their need for the Savior.
Weak pastors, church leaders, and evangelists don’t help the situation when they regularly over-simplify the call of the gospel and overlook the importance of true repentance and faith. Their dumbed-down gospel for a dumbed-down culture is only fanning the flames of spiritual ignorance, which is already sweeping through the church like a wildfire.
One of the verses that’s routinely overused—and under-exegeted—in gospel ministry is Romans 10:13, “For whoever will call on the name of the Lord will be saved.”
That verse has been a go-to text for evangelists like Billy Graham. But excerpted out of its context, it’s a recipe for shallow faith and false assurance. And the rampant, easy abuse of Romans 10:13 and similar verses is the reason for the widespread easy-believism and false assurance that plagues the church today.
To understand Paul’s true intent in Romans 10:13, we need to consider the surrounding verses. In Romans 10, Paul is explaining that the Jews have no spiritual advantage over the Gentiles—they both require salvation through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. But his words in verse 13 aren’t an isolated statement about how to access that salvation. As he had previously explained, “If you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9). Paul’s point is clear—salvation is not a birth right, nor is it a momentary decision. True faith is active and ongoing.
That point is further emphasized when you consider that Paul is paraphrasing from Joel 2:32, and that this familiar phrase would have rich meaning for his Jewish readers. In his commentary on the passage, John MacArthur explains:
In the Old Testament, the phrase “call upon the name of the Lord” was especially associated with right worship of the true God. It carried the connotations of worship, adoration, and praise and extolled God’s majesty, power, and holiness. Emphasizing the negative side of that phrase, the imprecatory psalmist cried to God, “How long, O Lord? Wilt Thou be angry forever? Will Thy jealousy burn like fire? Pour out Thy wrath upon the nations which do not know Thee, and upon the kingdoms which do not call upon Thy name” (Psalm 79:5-6, emphasis added). Again the psalmist exulted, “Oh give thanks to the Lord, call upon His name; make known His deeds among the peoples” (Psalm 105:1, emphasis added). Still another time in the Psalms we read that he “called upon the name of the Lord,” praying, “‘O Lord, I beseech Thee, save my life!’ Gracious is the Lord, and righteous; yes, our God is compassionate” (Psalm 116:4-5, emphasis added).
In the four references just cited from Joel and the Psalms, the word Lord represents God’s covenant name, Yahweh, or Jehovah. . . . Therefore to “call upon the name of the Lord” was not a desperate cry to just any deity—whoever, whatever, and wherever he or she might be—but a cry to the one true God, the Creator-Lord of all men and all things. As Paul has just stated, it is by the confession of “Jesus as Lord” and belief in one’s “heart that God raised Him from the dead” that any person “shall be saved” (Romans 10:9). He is the one true Lord on whom faithful Jews had always called in penitence, adoration, and worship. To “call upon the name” of Jesus as Lord is to recognize and submit to His deity, His authority, His sovereignty, His power, His majesty, His Word, and His grace.  John MacArthur, The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: Romans 9-16 (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 1994) 82-83.
True, saving faith is not merely a moment of verbal or mental assent to Christ’s deity—as James writes, “the demons also believe, and shudder” (James 2:19). Paul referenced calling on the name of the Lord to depict a lifestyle of faith, not a fleeting moment.
And yet, many in the church today put their faith in—and draw their assurance from—a single moment when they experienced deep conviction or made an emotional decision. Some return to their sinful lifestyles, counting on God’s grace to cover their rebellious indulgences. Others try to live pious lives, but their behavior is more legalism than legitimate righteousness—in fact, it’s of no more value than the hypocrisy of the Pharisees.
Both groups are headed for the harsh spiritual awakening of Matthew 7:21-23.
Not everyone who says to Me, “Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter. Many will say to Me on that day, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?” And then I will declare to them, “I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness.”
With as much as Christ and His apostles repeatedly warned about the dangers of self-deception and spiritual hypocrisy, it’s shocking that we hear so little about it in the church today. In The Gospel According to Jesus, John MacArthur describes how the church has insulated itself from the kind of careful spiritual self-examination each believer ought to routinely perform.
Contemporary Christians have been conditioned to believe that because they recited a prayer, signed on a dotted line, walked an aisle, or had some other experience, they are saved and should never question their salvation. I have attended evangelism training seminars where counselors were taught to tell “converts” that any doubt about their salvation is satanic and should be dismissed. It is a widely held misconception that anyone who questions whether he is saved is challenging the integrity of God’s Word.
What misguided thinking that is! Scripture encourages us to examine ourselves to determine if we are in the faith (2 Corinthians 13:5). Peter wrote, “Be all the more diligent to make certain about His calling and choosing you” (2 Peter 1:10). It is right to examine our lives and evaluate the fruit we bear, for “each tree is known by its own fruit” (Luke 6:44).
The Bible teaches clearly that the evidence of God’s work in a life is the inevitable fruit of transformed behavior (1 John 3:10). Faith that does not result in righteous living is dead and cannot save (James 2:14-17). Professing Christians utterly lacking the fruit of true righteousness will find no biblical basis for assurance of salvation (1 John 2:4). . . . Genuine assurance comes from seeing the Holy Spirit’s transforming work in one’s life, not from clinging to the memory of some experience.  John MacArthur, The Gospel According to Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2008) 38-39.
The epidemic of self-deception in the church is real. And the legion of unsaved men and women has a corrupting influence on the Body of Christ—the evidence is plentiful. We’ll keep digging into the issues of false faith and assurance, spiritual hypocrisy, true sanctification, and the Lordship of Christ throughout the year—we’re already prepping a series for next month.
But for now, let me remind you that a lot of the self-deception we see begins with the way we carelessly talk about the gospel. Instead of reducing the call of God on the life of a sinner to a few pithy phrases and some verses ripped from their context, let’s be sure to get the message right. Forget the soundbites and buzzwords—let’s focus on being thorough, direct, and clear when it comes to the gospel.
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