Who would have thought that Pascal’s Wager from the seventeenth century would trickle down to a twenty-first-century Sunday School class? Alas! Here’s what happened.
I had breakfast recently with a 28-year-old man who grew up under my preaching and rejected all of it until four weeks ago. He was converted watching the documentary The American Gospel. The changes that have happened in his heart and life already are remarkable. He is now re-listening to sermons he heard fifteen years ago. “It’s all there,” he said.
I asked him what I could have done differently in my preaching that might have helped him hear what he couldn’t hear. He said two things. The second one surprised me.
The first was: “Better to tell it like it is than to soften things unrealistically. But if you’re going to say hard things in the first part of the message, maybe give a heads up that good news is on the way at the end — which it was, if I could have heard it.” That didn’t surprise me, and it’s good counsel.
The Wager for Students
What surprised me was this: “Make sure that what you say in the pulpit is taught in Sunday School.” “Like what?” I asked. “Like never saying to young people (he was talking about high schoolers), ‘Don’t you think you should accept Christ just in case it’s all true?’”
“Really?” I said, “They said that?”
Well, that is not what was preached in the pulpit! And my young friend knew it, even when his heart was not yet ready to embrace the truth. He knew something was really wrong with that Sunday School counsel: “Accept Jesus just in case Christianity is true.” He said that it threw the whole thing into question — the whole Christianity and church thing.
Now I am virtually certain that this counsel was not standard Sunday School practice and teaching. But some teacher must have thought that was a good strategy to get students to trust Christ.
So what’s the problem with saying, “Accept Jesus just in case Christianity is true”?
Gain All, Lose Nothing?
What’s wrong is this: It’s a Sunday School version of Pascal’s Wager. One is designed for kids. The other is designed for philosophers. Both are badly designed for awakening genuine saving faith. My breakfast conversation was Exhibit A.
Four years ago, I was so concerned about this approach to evangelism that I wrote a whole chapter on it in A Peculiar Glory titled “Pondering Pascal’s Wager.” Here’s the version of the wager for philosophers. It’s found in Pascal’s Pensées, #233.
God is, or He is not. But to which side shall we incline? Reason can decide nothing here. . . . A game is being played at the extremity of this infinite distance where heads or tails will turn up. What will you wager? According to reason . . . you can defend neither of the propositions. . . .
You must wager. It is not optional. You are embarked. Which will you choose then? . . . Your reason is no more shocked in choosing one rather than the other, since you must of necessity choose. . . . But your happiness? Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is. . . .
If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. Wager, then, without hesitation that He is.
The trickledown, Sunday School version is, “Accept Jesus just in case Christianity is true.”
So I ask again, What’s wrong with this? Why did my young friend shake his head and say to himself, “If that’s the way you become a Christian, the whole thing is a charade”?
Bad Way to Wager
Teaching students to wager like this is deadly because it communicates a falsehood about the nature of saving faith. It gives the impression that faith in Christ is a choice we make without seeing him as true and compellingly beautiful and valuable. The wager says to the high-school student, “You don’t know if Christ is who he says he is. And you are not drawn to trust him by his greatness or beauty or worth. So just . . .”
Just what?! Accept him? Trust him? Believe on him? Receive him? What would any of this mean?
Accept him as what? Believe on him as what? Receive him as what? True? Beautiful? Supremely valuable? How could that be anything but mere words? The reality is that the teenager does not see Jesus as true and beautiful and precious beyond words. He cannot accept Jesus as beautiful and precious, when he does not see him as beautiful and precious.
The Sunday School Wager treats faith as a choice the student would make while standing before two options, with one offering short-term pleasure (self and sin) and the other offering long-term pleasure (Christ and heaven). The wager says: “Though you find neither option to be compellingly true or beautiful, choose one.” And then it calls that choice faith. It’s not.
Faith is an effect of a heart-miracle called the new birth, as the apostle John said, “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God” (1 John 5:1). The new birth changes what the heart sees as true and beautiful and valuable. Then faith embraces what it sees as real.
That change is a work of God, as Paul says in 2 Corinthians 4:6, “God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” That God-given sight of glory is the basis of saving faith.
If faith is a decision made without a sight of Christ’s glory, it does not honor him. In fact, it dishonors him. It says, “I do not see you as real or as beautiful or as more valuable than my sin, but to save my skin, I will sign up for heaven.” This is not saving faith.
Here’s the silver lining around the cloud of Sunday School confusion. This young man could smell the difference between what was preached and Pascal’s Sunday School Wager. The preaching was not in vain. It could have been better. But it was not in vain. Fifteen years later, God is bringing it all home.
So, pastors, take heart. Preach the glories of Christ. And train your Sunday School teachers in the whole counsel of God.
Credit: John Piper