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A Review of Allen S. Nelson IV’s
From Death to Life: How Salvation Works
by Katy B.
The most agonizing, frustrating experience in my ministry to women is the woman who claims to be “saved” but gives no evidence of it. No interest in talking about Jesus, no interest in holiness, reading the Bible, going to church, serving God’s people. She has a salvation testimony (often dramatic and self-glorifying) that is superficial, shallow, and devoid of any real repentance for her sin. I suspect she’s a false convert. And I find it exceptionally difficult to talk to false converts.
In From Death to Life, Pastor Allen Nelson confronts the disaster of false conversions, linking them to a false understanding of salvation: what it is, what it does, and how it works. He writes, “Ask fifteen people what it takes to be saved and it’s not out of the realm of possibility that you’ll get twenty different answers.” (Loc 173)¹
He makes the bold statement that “there is no spiritual life in many who claim to be Christians in America.” (Loc 247) He calls them the “walking dead”.
How does that happen? What would cause a person to wrongly believe he or she is a Christian? He lays some of the responsibility at the feet of churches that use methods such as external manipulation, diluted gospel presentations, the altar call, and the sinner’s prayer to lead the walking dead to their false professions of faith and their false assurances of salvation. He blisters easy-believism practices that, even if well-intentioned, have done damage to churches more influenced by a fallen culture than by God’s own Word.
So how does salvation work? The author has narrowed the answer down to five main points:
1. The gospel must be proclaimed.
2. God must move.
3. The sinner must respond in faith and repentance.
4. God justifies the sinner.
5. The sinner grows in the Lord over a lifetime.
Pastor Nelson not only unpacks, but folds, hangs up, and neatly puts away each of these main points in a few short chapters. In doing so, he poses and then answers questions such as, “What is the true gospel?”, “What is biblical repentance?”, “What is saving faith?”, and “What exactly is justification?” His answers are delivered in a direct, engaging, accessible style with plenty of biblical illustrations and scriptural references. No theological dictionary needed.
The book includes “how–to’s” but doesn’t read like a “how–to” manual. The tone is pastoral, sometimes comfortable, sometimes convicting, but never harsh. At times, the reading felt like sitting over coffee with Pastor Nelson, asking questions about various evangelistic situations, and receiving useful advice on how to respond.
A destitute woman in a homeless shelter, eyes pallid, needle tracks running down her arms, naturally incites my heart instinct to put my arms around her, tell her Jesus loves her, and give her some money. But Pastor Nelson reminds us:
“People need to hear more than “Jesus loves you,” What they need to hear today is what they’ve always needed: to know that they are sinners, that they need a Savior, that Jesus is that Savior, and until and unless they come to Him in faith, they will justly spend an eternity facing the punishment of their sins.” (Loc 2413)
He points out that it is vital that we all (not just the “trained professionals”) know what to say when the time comes to share the gospel of Christ. And while there is no formula, it is essential that the facts of the gospel are understood. The book helpfully guides the reader in a biblical understanding of how salvation happens and presents realistic examples of responses that can be used with unbelievers/false converts in evangelistic conversations.
The chapter “Plant, Water, Trust God, Repeat” is a compelling warning to stick to a biblical approach to evangelizing the lost. (Throughout the book he gives examples of unbiblical approaches.) In this encouraging chapter, he discusses applying how salvation works in real life scenarios, acknowledging that it is not always easy. He doesn’t present himself as a superhero evangelist.
This is a serious book, but the author can also be funny. I got a laugh out of his response to the command to “ask Jesus into your heart”. His tone, however, is utterly serious when discussing repentance:
“God doesn’t beg people to repent so they can be the star player on His team. He demands repentance. He owes mankind nothing. What a fearful and insolent game we play by making repentance an optional feature to becoming a Christian, refusing to properly define it in hopes of sneaking people into the kingdom, or by flat out dismissing it altogether.” (Loc 1164)
He spends a good bit of time parked on repentance, emphasizing that biblical repentance is necessary for any person to become a Christian. He asserts, “Remorse does not equal repentance” and goes on to give what he calls the bare necessities of repentance.
Is it possible to know if a person has actually been converted? In the chapter on sanctification, the author acknowledges that while we can’t see the heart, we can use the discernment God gives us to see evidence of true conversion. He provides a practical alliteration method to assist in discerning whether or not the gospel has actually taken root in a person’s heart and the changes we would expect to see in a truly converted person.
He warns the church against haphazardly affirming people as Christians without exercising grace-filled discernment:
“Often, we claim that the problem in our churches is that too many people are immature believers when the real problem is that many we call immature, actually have no life in Christ at all. They aren’t growing because they aren’t living.” (Loc 1878)
The sanctification chapter, my favorite, thrust me to a fresh examination of my own life using his alliteration template. What evidence of salvation would others see in me? What would they discern as my motivation for life? There is plenty of self-application for the reader.
The book has three appendices. Appendix 1: The Sinner’s Prayer, Appendix 2: Acts 2 is Not an Altar Call, Appendix 3: Putting “Baptist” Back in Your Church. In these appendices, the author makes some “say whaaaat?!?” observations that will rock your world if your church endorses these practices.
This is a short book. Although the print version is only 200 pages, there is nothing shallow about the content. The reader will step into a deep pool. Did I know how salvation works before I read the book? Yes. Have I been guilty of using unbiblical methods to try to bring about a conversion? Yes. I finished the book with an unanticipated, heart wrenching reorientation to the gospel as the power of God unto salvation. I bet I’m not the only reader who closed the book and repented.
I began by saying I find it exceptionally difficult to talk to false converts. What do you say to someone who believes she is saved when it is clear that she is not? Pastor Nelson is immeasurably supportive in reinforcing that “we must proclaim the gospel. Without it, people will go to hell. It’s as simple as that.” (Loc 441)
The book left me feeling hopeful, energized, looking forward to my next evangelistic encounter. God saves sinners. God saves sinners. And he uses sinners like me to do so.
Pastor Nelson writes, “Every single one of us is charged with sharing the gospel with those God providentially places in our life.” What a calling, what a staggering privilege. God could sovereignly call His own to Himself without us, but He has chosen to work through us. This book will certainly help us in our evangelism. I recommend it for everyone.
¹Katy reviewed the Kindle edition of the book and used Kindle location numbers rather than page numbers.
Allen “Cuatro” Nelson, IV, author of From Death to Life, is the pastor of Perryville Second Baptist Church in Perryville, Arkansas, and co-host of The Rural Church Podcast. Contact Him directly via Twitter to receive a free study guide with your order of From Death to Life or a discount on bulk orders. You can also order from Amazon.
Katy can’t remember when she became a Christian but is assured that, by the grace of God alone, she is a Christian. She ministers to women in her OPC church, in homeless shelters, in a prison, and sometimes at the grocery store. She is an executive with a United States health care corporation and enjoys her work, although she would rather be reading. You can find Katy on Twitter at @KatyvonBora.