I was standing on the corner of Powell and Market Streets at the top of the escalator leading to the subway in downtown San Francisco. It was hot. I had been standing there for nearly two hours and it was nearly time to go, but I stayed just a few minutes more. That’s when Sam” came up the elevator and walked toward me with a warm grin that told me, “Here is a friendly person.”
“Jews for Jesus,” he exclaimed, “I’m Jewish!” “Great. Me, too,” I answered. “But what do you think about Jesus?” “Well, I’ve always been interested in Jesus,” he replied, “but I never could understand the savior part.”
What missionary doesn’t dream of an entrée like that?! Sam, who came from a Jewish family in a section of Brooklyn called Canarsie, was genuinely searching.
“Did you celebrate the Passover when you were growing up?” I asked.
“Every year,” he answered with a touch of pride.
“Do you remember how the Jewish people escaped the plague of death of the firstborn when it came upon the Egyptians?”
“Sure,” he replied. “They sacrificed a lamb and put the blood on the doorposts of their houses. Every house where there was blood on the door was spared.”
“Exactly!” I nearly shouted out. “Well, when Jesus was on the earth, there was a prophet named John. When John saw Jesus, he announced, ‘Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.’ Just as the blood of the lamb saved the Jewish people in Egypt from the plague of death, so Jesus is our Lamb. Through His sacrifice, Jesus is our Savior if we are willing, in a sense, to put His blood on the doorposts of our hearts. Does that make sense to you?” I asked.
“Wow, that’s beautiful,” Sam responded. He understood exactly what I was saying. I spent a few more minutes explaining the plan of salvation, and within a short time Sam prayed with me to receive Jesus as his Lamb and Messiah.
Several years have passed. One of our local missionaries did his best to reach out to and disciple Sam. I’ve personally urged Sam to join a local congregation and get baptized, but he still hasn’t. He occasionally comes to Jews for Jesus holiday events. I have seen some change in his life since he prayed with me that day, but not to the extent one would hope. Is he truly a disciple? The Lord knows.
It is important to remember that Jesus told us to make disciples, not just pray with people to receive the Lord. Some who like to remind evangelists of that fact speak derisively of what they call “decision theology.” In other words, evangelists often lead a person in a prayer of salvation, whether or not they will be present to help the new Christian live a life of obedience and discipleship afterwards. Whether it is calling people forward at a Billy Graham crusade or praying with someone on a street corner, the idea is that such an encounter does not fulfill the mandate of making disciples. Salvation is not the automatic result of mouthing a particular prayer. But the Bible does tell us, “If you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9). So we explain the gospel. If people believe it is true and they desire a relationship with God on that basis, we encourage them to take the visible step of confession through what is often called a “sinner’s prayer.”
What we can’t insure is the “heart” part. That is the mystery. We must do all we can, when possible, to help those who pray to receive the Lord become His disciples. Yet there is no methodology or follow-up plan that can guarantee that someone will become a disciple. Salvation is always a work of God’s Holy Spirit. God’s grace remains a wonderful, powerful and astounding mystery. And His grace is not only to those whose hearts He transforms, but also to those of us He allows to be part of the process, whether our efforts have been brief or sustained in a given person’s life.
This past January I was with our London staff, handing out tracts at a location called Oxford Circus. It was late afternoon and winter’s cold darkness had already settled over the city. Commuters rushed past me, eager for the warm cheer of home. But suddenly someone stopped short and stuck out his hand to shake mine. “David Brickner?” he asked.
“Yes,” I replied, somewhat puzzled.
“I’m Leo,” he responded. Suddenly something clicked and I recognized his face.
“The Leo I met in San Francisco?” I exclaimed.
“Eleven years ago,” he assured me.
It all came back in a flash. I had been standing on the corner of Powell and Market, when Leo approached me. He was “down on his luck,” his tourist visa had expired and he could not get it renewed. Without a visa he couldn’t work. He was out of money and had just been evicted from his apartment. I assured Leo that despite his circumstances God cared for him and had a plan and purpose for his life.
As I shared the good news of Jesus with Leo, he responded with amazing openness, praying to receive the Lord right there on the corner—just across the street from the escalator where I would one day pray a similar prayer with Sam.
There wasn’t much more I could do for Leo. I gave him a pocket edition of the New Testament and wrote down the address and phone number of our office in San Francisco. He had no address or phone number to give me in return. I did not report this as a conversion, not because I disbelieved Leo’s genuineness, but because there was no opportunity to verify or follow up. It was the type of encounter that some of today’s “experts” would disparage. Not surprisingly, I never heard from Leo again. Not until 11 years later, that is.
“How are you, Leo?” I asked.
“Praise the Lord!” he exclaimed. He went on to say how after we had met, he returned to London. He began attending a great church where he remains an active member. Leo is full of praise to God, serving Him faithfully and walking as a true disciple of Jesus.
Two people prayed on two sides of the same street. One whom we’ve reached out to many times does not appear much further along than when he first prayed. Another, whom we were not able to contact at all, has blossomed and grown. Does that mean we don’t need to do our best to follow up? May it never be! I don’t know what God may yet have in store for Sam, or what unseen effects our efforts on his behalf may have. But I stand in awe of the saving work of Jesus Christ, and I am so thankful to have a part in the mystery of His grace. Aren’t you?
Who can know or explain to what extent God will use us in a person’s life? For that matter, do we need to know? All we need to do is explain His gospel as much as we are able, and leave the results to our great and loving Lord.