An article was recently posted on my friend Darrell Pursifel's blog. which got me thinking about the nature of "salvation" and how different groups who call themselves "Christian" view it.
It used to be easy. In the church in which I grew up, salvation was being "born again." See John 3.. How one did that was simple. You walked up front, usually, and told the preacher you wanted Jesus in your heart, and you prayed with him what we called "a sinner's prayer." Something like, "Jesus, please forgive my sins and come into my life." Or perhaps you prayed at a Billy Graham crusade. Or maybe, like me, you prayed at home.
Now, I'm not dissing a sinner's prayer. I John 1:9 says that if we confess our sin God is faithful and will forgive and cleanse us. Praise God! I remember very clearly the day I knelt by my living room couch with my mother beside me as I, with very simple faith, asked Jesus to come into my heart. I believe I was "born again" or "born from above" at that time. I was baptized a couple of years later. Since our denomination baptized by "immersion" I paddled out into the baptistry with the help of my beloved pastor, Brother Stanley Polk. I stood on a couple of cement blocks, since my six-year old legs were too short to reach the bottom of the baptistry. And since the front wall of the baptistry was partly glass, all the congregates viewed my paddling feet as I exited the water after being "dunked." I would not, however, be turned aside. I was determined to be obedient to what I had learned from the Bible. I was getting baptized and that was that. I do believe my spirit was hungry for God, and as I reached out to Jesus (who I knew loved me) I became a child of the light, as the Apostle Paul puts it.
However, I had to grow in my faith. I did. I always wanted to please God, and from an early age I loved the Bible, loved church, loved prayer and loved Jesus Christ. I knew that obedience was important, and once in a while this led me to legalistic thinking and behavior. This is still a tough balancing act!
My life was certainly sad and confusing in many ways, and it was sometimes painful. But I held on to my faith for dear life. Even in dark times of deep doubt when I found myself unable to pray, unable to read scripture and unable even to sing (for me, that's bad) I held on in total desperation to the awareness that I was born from above, was God's child, and I would somehow come through it by God's grace.
Only in my 20s did I stretch my boundaries in terms of questioning what I had been taught. It started at a secular college and continued; this partly came about because I was married, a new mother, had moved across the country from one coast to the other, sought unsuccessfully for a church home...much change. I attended a Catholic charismatic prayer meeting and found myself very much at home. A priest spoke at my church, and he talked about the importance of an encounter with God. I agreed with everything he said. There were many more changes, too many to talk about here. I broadened my horizons and grew to appreciate other denominations for many things. I no longer think being born from above is quite so easy to understand or predict. Aha! That is exactly what Jesus said in John 3. Oh my!
Darrell Pursifel is pondering the nature of relationship with God. So am I. Especially lately. I am saddened by the Catholics around me in my community who seem to check their faith at the church door after the Mass is over. (Many have told me this.) Last week I spoke with a young woman with a Catholic background who admitted to me that she never learned anything about Jesus Christ...she just was baptized and went through confirmation and all that "stuff" and figured that was enough--but now she knows that her church experience has made not one whit of difference in her spiritual life. She is now beginning to explore the scriptures and I pray she will encounter the living God!
On the other hand, I also see that both my childhood church and my present one sometimes seem to think that a sinner's prayer is all that is needed. Just get someone to say that magic prayer and all is well. They escape Hell and head for Heaven and the rest is gravy. Something is very wrong with this.
There is also something wrong with our current emphasis on Jesus as our best friend. Is he? Oh yes. He is a "friend that sticks closer than a brother." But in our hurry to get people "saved" I wonder if we have not seriously changed what Jesus said. Jesus said that to remain in his love we must obey what he says. Obey? Huh! He did not ask the disciples to come be his friends and buddies and talk to him when they felt like it, and ignore him when it was convenient, and expect that all would be well either way. Yes, just before the end of his time on earth he did say that they were his friends. How wonderful! But what did he say when he first encountered the disciples? He said, "FOLLOW ME." He also said to count the cost before becoming his follower. Count the cost? My friend and deacon, Pat, says that we have no idea what that means when we first come to faith in Christ. She is right, of course. But at least Jesus warns us that while his yoke is easy and his burden light, being his follower will cost us everything. BEING JESUS FOLLOWER IS ABOUT OBEDIENCE, among other things, and it will cost us our all. What do we make of statements like "Keep your life for yourself and you will lose it; lose your life and you'll find it." Do we ignore them? Ah, I fear that all too often we do just that. While there are Catholics who do not know God, are there not Evangelicals who once said a sinner's prayer and who attend church and know how to find scripture verses and can sing all the hymns -- who do not know God either? And who check their faith at the door?
As I type this my mother is listening to a Christian program on TV. Ironically, the preacher, who shall remain nameless, just said, "It is simple. Just pray this prayer: Jesus, forgive my sins and make me your child. Did you do that? Then you are a Christian now...." etc.
Not one word about counting the cost. Not one word about following or obeying.
The Catholic church, and some mainline denominations, may be lacking in an awareness of relationship with God and not just religious ritual. But evangelicals have, to an alarming degree, lost any sense of the holiness of God We seem to have totally lost any real awareness and respect, what the King James Version of the Bible calls fear of God.
I do believe, and always will, that knowing about Jesus is not the same as knowing him. Being baptized is just getting wet if it is not about something that must happen in our spirits. Being "born from above" is radical! But how and when this happens is becoming more and more of a mystery to me. And I think I will soon be preaching (once again) about what it means to count the cost and follow Jesus.
That is, once I feel that I can do so with some degree of accuracy and direction from the Holy Spirit...who blows where he will...and we can't predict it.