How do I lead someone to Christ? I love this question. It comes from a listener named Brooke. “Pastor John, hello! For our online church services during the coronavirus season, I volunteered to reach out to people who have contacted us to let us know that they want to trust in Christ, yet I don’t really know how to do this. I’ve grown up seeing people walked through a written prayer. But I wrestle with the doctrine behind the idea that you can simply ‘pray this prayer,’ and you’re good. When someone says they’re ready to accept Christ, how do you lead them?”
Great question. Oh, great question. Oh, that every Christian were ready and eager to declare the good news and to lead people into saving faith! So, thanks for the question. It’s very good for John Piper to go back and rehearse the basics of the gospel and the practicalities of a phone call like this or a Zoom chat or sitting across the table six feet apart, maybe, to share the gospel.
It’s helpful to have a simple plan. If we were all God, we wouldn’t need to have a simple plan; we could just overflow spontaneously. But we’re not God. The picture I would like to use for my simple plan is that we all need four treasure chests, and I call them treasure chests because they’re just packed with more than we could share at any given time, and that’s good. We don’t need to share everything in every treasure chest all the time. The reason I choose the term treasure chest is because Jesus said bumping into the kingdom and being ready to walk into the kingdom and be saved is like a man who stumbles across a treasure chest hidden in a field (Matthew 13:44). Our job as shepherds that lead new sheep into the fold is to unpack treasures.
Hard and Happy Way
Before I give you my four treasure chests that you put in front of you on the table when you’re talking or on the phone, the first thing I would say to a person — a total stranger, say, that I’ve just called to follow up with — would be something like this: “I am so excited, because you are about to enter into the hardest and happiest way of life that there is.” Now, they might be puzzled by that statement, and it might issue in a little conversation, but I think it strikes a very crucial balance: hard and happy, hard and happy.
You could explain from Psalm 37:4 that it’s a happy way: “Delight yourself in the Lord.” The Lord is worthy of our joy; he wants us to be happy in him. “In [his] presence there is fullness of joy; at [his] right hand are pleasures forevermore” (Psalm 16:11). And from Matthew 16:24, you might explain that Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” And you might say a few words about how taking up the cross is not a vacation. It’s where you die; it’s where you suffer. In other words, you will say to them, “Jesus will lead you through some very hard things.” “Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22).
“This is spectacular news: no more guilt, no more punishment, no more wrath, no more condemnation.”
Now, the reason for starting that way is the double truth — and they’re both so crucial — that the gospel is spectacularly good news. I mean, it’s good news, news, news, news — really good, good, good news. It’s the best news in the world. And we need to strike that note loud and clear: “I am about to tell you the best news in the world.” And Jesus said in Luke 14:28–33 to be sure to count the cost. You don’t want to go out against an army you can’t beat, and you don’t want to build a tower you can’t finish. You need to tell everybody this involves total devotion to Jesus Christ who was crucified.
So, that’s one possible way of starting the conversation: happy and hard. And you can follow up later with lots more about what that means, because I think so many people are drawn into the Christian life with some naïve prosperity notion that things are going to get better for them, when in fact they might get worse in many ways — even though the joy’s going to go down deeper than they ever imagined.
Four Treasure Chests of Truth
Then I would begin to unpack my four treasure chests of biblical truth. There are four great realities that you need to know in order to be saved by Jesus Christ. And that’s what you want: you want to close with Christ: receive Christ, believe Christ, engage with Christ, have Christ. And there are four things you need to know. And you can name your four chests with four words, and here’s the basic, simple plan:
I’ve remembered those for decades. Oh, how they have served me so well: God, sin, Christ, faith. Those are my four chests of truth, and I call them treasure chests because every chest has dozens of passages of Scripture and dozens of ways to talk about God and sin and Christ and faith. And I don’t want to give the impression that there’s a one-size-fits-all presentation of the gospel. You have four chests there, full of Bible truth, and our job is to trust the Spirit to guide us, and then take out of each chest one or two Scriptures to show those riches to your new friend. So, let’s just walk through them real quick.
1. Begin with truth about God.
Everything starts with God. Everything starts with the greatness of God, the glory of God. You might start with his holiness or his justice, because what we need to clarify here in this first treasure chest is that everything else is not going to make any sense if we don’t have some sense of who God is and what he’s like, and how sin, which we’re going to talk about in treasure chest #2, is against God — not just against people. And we can’t do that if we don’t know who God is.
I like to start with God’s glory because Paul’s going to define sin as a falling short of God’s glory (Romans 3:23). So, I would like to say to my friend Isaiah 43:6–7:
Bring my sons from afar
and my daughters from the end of the earth,
everyone who is called by my name,
whom I created for my glory,
whom I formed and made.
“Our job as shepherds that lead new sheep into the fold is to unpack treasures.”
And I would say to them, “You were created, you exist, to glorify God — to make God look glorious. You were created to show God’s glory, his greatness, his beauty, his worth. That’s our duty.” First Corinthians 10:31: “Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.”
That’s treasure chest #1.
2. Explain truth about sin.
All of us have failed to live for the glory of God. You have, I have, everybody has. Romans 3:23: “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” — which I think means we have exchanged the glory of God for images (Romans 1:23). All of us have preferred other things to God, and so we’ve made the glory of God look worthless. We’ve dishonored God in so many ways, which means we’ve chosen the way of death. Romans 6:23: “The wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
And sin isn’t just things we do; it’s the way we are. We are “by nature,” Paul said in Ephesians 2:3, “children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.” None of us escapes this condition; none of us escapes the penalty of death and judgment and hell. Jesus said in John 3:36, “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.”
So, without salvation we’re all sinful by nature, and we’re all under God’s wrath. That’s treasure chest #2.
3. Proclaim truth about Christ.
The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. (1 Timothy 1:15)
That’s why this phone call is happening. Everything up until now is designed to make Christ and his way of salvation appear as great and beautiful and wonderful as they really are. God sent his Son, his divine, eternal Son, to bear the punishment we deserve. This is the heart of everything. This is the most glorious news in the world. There’s no way we can save ourselves from our sin and from his wrath.
So, here’s the wonder. Romans 8:3: “God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh.” God condemned sin; he punished sin. The death of Jesus, his Son, is our punishment. All the sins of all those who would ever be united to Christ by faith were punished in Jesus. So, he says, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1). This is spectacular news: no more guilt, no more punishment, no more wrath, no more condemnation. Eternal life, peace with God forever. Romans 6:23: “The free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
That’s treasure chest #3: Christ.
4. Finish with truth about faith.
I think it helps at every point, by the way, to make these as personal as possible from your own experience. I might say, “My favorite verse in the Bible to help explain how to receive all of this is Ephesians 2:8–9: ‘By grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.’”
In other words, you can’t work for your salvation. You can’t earn it; it’s a free gift. You can’t deserve it; it comes from God’s grace or God’s love. Just a few verses earlier, it says, “God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ — by grace you have been saved” (Ephesians 2:4–5).
That means that even your faith is a gift of God right now in this moment. If you are reaching out to take Christ, if you are ready to have him as your Savior and Lord and the Treasure of your life, you are a miracle. God has made you alive; it’s called new birth. Trust him, speak to him, tell him all your heart. Declare your faith to him, welcome him as your friend.
Prayer and the Word
And you might ask at this point, “Do you have any questions?” Of course, they’re going to have questions. You have to decide how long you’re going to talk, and you might draw things to a close either by inviting them to pray or giving them the option of dealing with God in private. I’ve done it both ways. Send them away to pray: I’ve said, “You need to get alone with God and deal with him on the basis of everything you’ve heard, so that I don’t do any manipulating here.” And I remember one wonderful night, at about eleven o’clock in my office, a man who was just so ready, and I was not about to send him away because he was just saying, “Oh, I want to get this over.” And oh my, it was glorious the way it went over. But I didn’t put words in his mouth. I mean, I’ve already put a hundred words in his mouth by sharing the gospel.
“All the sins of all those who would ever be united to Christ by faith were punished in Jesus.”
You’ll suggest some texts that they should read when they hang up, maybe some places to go in the Bible, giving them particular Scriptures. You may welcome them into a discipling relationship with yourself or with somebody else your church has arranged or invite them to a class. You’ll want to encourage them to think about baptism and prepare for baptism in due time. And you’re going to warn them that the devil is real and will put them to the test. You’re going to say, “Resist him, firm in your faith” (1 Peter 5:9).
And you’re going to leave them with a promise. And oh my, there are so many you could choose. Maybe you’ll leave them like this. Hebrews 13:5–6:
“I will never leave you nor forsake you.” So we can confidently say,
“The Lord is my helper;
I will not fear;
what can man do to me?”