In spite of the clear teaching in the Bible about being baptized as a necessary part of the miracle of regeneration, how do you explain people’s denominational experience of a changed life when they “prayed Jesus into their heart?”
First of all, I have made it a practice for many years not to deny the experiences of other people. Anecdotes of this sort are neither evidence for anything, not can they generally be refuted. In any case. for many people, belief in such experiences is highly emotional. As Jonathan Swift wisely said, “You cannot reason a person out of something they were not reasoned into in the first place.” I will admit that there are things which I personally believe based on my own personal experiences. Such evidence may be quite convincing to me, but I understand intellectually that anecdotes of this sort are not reliable and do not really prove anything, even if they prove something to me personally.
As a related example, I am sure that you know many Charismatic believers who will report to you experiences such as speaking in tongues, miracles, God speaking to them and the like for which you are very skeptical. Many such believers have not even been baptized into Christ and are therefore not saved, and besides, the biblical case for the receiving of miraculous gifts only by the laying on of hands of apostles is quite solid, making their testimony almost certainly not valid. If true, then many or most of such charismatic experiences may be due to bias and not true spiritual experiences. Yet, as stated above, I almost never try to disprove such believers of their experience, simply because it will generally be ineffective. I prefer to call such people to repentance and leave the judging to God, as this is his job.
As for the testimonies of changed lives by those who claim to be saved but are not, it is not our role to explain such subjective experiences. There is no statement in the Bible that proves people cannot change their lives on some level based on their own strength. Many Muslims have dramatic stories of changes in their lives. Many Hindus and Buddhists do as well, as do Mormons and others. Mother Theresa did amazing things and all the evidence tells me that she was sincere and a remarkable woman. This does not make her saved, as we are not saved by works.
Here is the bottom line. Experiences do not prove salvation. Sincere people who put the principles of the Bible into practice will see changes in their lives. Some will have quite significant changes. In the gospels we have an example of people apparently actually performing healings who were not, in the context, followers of Jesus. Luke 9:50 is such an example. Is significant life-change possible outside of Christ? Absolutely yes. In Acts 19:1-7 we have the story of a group of followers who were not saved, yet had been believing they were OK all along. When confronted with the truth, their sincerity was put on the line. They accepted the truth, were baptized into Christ and, presumably were saved at that time. Had their lives shown signs of change before this? I am sure they did.
Of course, this has implications for believers who are in fact saved–who have been baptized in to Christ and received the Holy Spirit. For many of us, our faith is based on experiences and changes in our lives. We often hear and give testimonies of changed lives and receive this as evidence for God working. I believe that this kind of evidence can in fact be legitimate. It obviously can encourage and increase our faith. Paul used his changed life as evidence for God working. Jesus even told some skeptical potential followers to try acting like disciples, assuring them that the changes which result in their lives would show them that his message is from God (John 7:17) Many people we study with start to see rather dramatic changes in their lives before they are baptized. However, we need to bear in mind that even our own testimonies and experiences should not be the ultimate basis of our faith. Otherwise, when we see dramatically changed lives in people who are, biblically, almost certainly not saved, it can be confusing. Also, when we go through struggles, we will be sorely tempted to lose our faith if it is based first and foremost on experiences.
So, our faith needs to be based secondarily on how God has changed us, but primarily on the facts of the Bible. Such facts include the resurrection of Jesus, the miracles of Jesus, the fulfilled prophecies of Jesus, the historical accuracy of the Bible and such concrete things. In Acts 2:22-24, Peter used facts “that you yourselves know” with regard to fulfilled prophecy, miracles and the resurrection to prove that Jesus is who he claims to be. The same pattern is found in Acts 3:12-18. In fact, in all the recorded sermons in Acts, Peter and Paul used facts rather than personal experience to convince people of the gospel. We should follow this pattern and in our discussions with people who be are convinced need to be taught more accurately, we should also apply this pattern. It is not our place to ridicule their experiences and prove they are somehow not legitimate, but it is our job to do what the Christians did in Ephesus in Acts 19.
In conclusion, personal experience of a changed life does not prove a person is a Christian. We should apply that to those we believe are lost and, to some extent, even to those we believe are saved. Testimonies can support and increase faith, but they should not form the bedrock basis for faith. Such evidence is subject to erosion over time, but no matter our experiences, Jesus was raised from the dead.