After Church – On “Being Saved”

There’s a lot of different theories on how salvation works. Though I’m not going to establish a theory right here and now, I had some interesting thoughts about the whole process.

I grew up in an evangelical Baptist setting. Thus, the primary association for “salvation” was the so-called “conversion” – that is, a person asks God to enter their heart and life, and by result are transformed into a new being, a Christian, a fuller human life, etc. I’m not sure I subscribe to this universally because of my own unique circumstances.

You know how Christian churches always say that you should raise your children AS Christians from birth in a Godly manner and all that sort of thing? Well, that happened to me. In about the same way as Israel was given the idea in Deuteronomy to that affect – to recall and teach one’s children what happened to them, and by association what happens to those who became Christians – I haven’t had a “before” and “after” moment like so many of my peers. For me, I have been the very model of Proverbs 22:6:

Train up a child in the way he should go,
Even when he is old he will not depart from it.

We find something similar in Ephesians 6:

Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. Honor your father and mother (which is the first commandment with a promise), so that it may be well with you, and that you may live long on the earth.

Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.

I’m sorry that I was raised according to the same Biblical principles that every pastor I seem to watch tries to emphasize. I guess that makes most of the sermonizing on that note wholly irrelevant to me…until I have children. I have never NOT been a Christian because, well, that was just the paradigm by which I was raised. There was a moment of belief, sure, but that was just a stepping stone on the road to discipleship. There was no “eureka!” because Jesus was always there, and Scripture was always the authority. In Deuteronomy 4, the ideas is a kind of conveyance, to remember, record, and recite the things that happened before and pass onto your children:

“Now, O Israel, listen to the statutes and the judgments which I am teaching you to perform, so that you may live and go in and take possession of the land which the Lord, the God of your fathers, is giving you. You shall not add to the word which I am commanding you, nor take away from it, that you may keep the commandments of the Lord your God which I command you. Your eyes have seen what the Lord has done in the case of Baal-peor, for all the men who followed Baal-peor, the Lord your God has destroyed them from among you. But you who held fast to the Lord your God are alive today, every one of you.

“See, I have taught you statutes and judgments just as the Lord my God commanded me, that you should do thus in the land where you are entering to possess it. So keep and do them, for that is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples who will hear all these statutes and say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’ For what great nation is there that has a god so near to it as is the Lord our God whenever we call on Him? Or what great nation is there that has statutes and judgments as righteous as this whole law which I am setting before you today?

“Only give heed to yourself and keep your soul diligently, so that you do not forget the things which your eyes have seen and they do not depart from your heart all the days of your life; but make them known to your sons and your grandsons. 10 Remember the day you stood before the Lord your God at Horeb, when the Lord said to me, ‘Assemble the people to Me, that I may let them hear My words so they may learn to fear Me all the days they live on the earth, and that they may teach their children.’

Not that I regret it or anything – I have certainly seen the wisdom of that decision through my life, no doubt – but it’s difficult for me to relate to this “conversion” notion in any way, shape, or form. Of course I relate to the sola fide most emphasized by my comrades in the denomination, but I can’t for the life of me say I converted from one mindset to another. I have always been a Christian in some form. so how does that relate to the Christian experience? Conversion can’t be this ultimate moment in a person’s life; otherwise, what exactly did I do wrong? This is the same kind of thoughts that motivated Stanley Hauerwas to his work in theology: he couldn’t get “saved”, and by God he was going to force God to do it by serving Him. “I became a theologian because I could not get ‘saved’…I wanted to be saved, but did not think you should fake it”, as he says in his memoirs.

And why should we force people into that mold? Everyone knows John 3:16, right?

16 “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.

Does it say anywhere that we need a special prayer to induct people into Church? Or that there’s some magical experience that happens to a person and that this is the long and the short of it? What we see only strikes one who looks at it closely: “belief” remains the heart of the matter. If you’re a Protestant, I imagine this will resonate with you. Furthermore, take a look at the following verses in John 3:

17 For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him. 18 He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. 19 This is the judgment, that the Light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil. 20 For everyone who does evil hates the Light, and does not come to the Light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. 21 But he whopractices the truth comes to the Light, so that his deeds may be manifested as having been wrought in God.”

Again, beliefs becomes the distinguishing element between those in Christ and those not with Christ. If you take a cursory look at the Gospels, you can see the disciples believed. They had their times of failure and doubt, but by no means did their transformation occurs in some instaneous form. One becomes new, but by becoming new we re-enter a child-like state of spiritual awareness. We must start over from the beginning.

Or, you might say, conversion isn’t something to be envied in the way we do. Rather, it’s something to which we rejoice that another person has understood, felt, and accepted the Good News wholly and utterly, tranforming their past and giving hope to their future. We celebrate conversions because they show the grace of a loving God, not because they’re the primary event and the most defining moment in a person’s life. It’s better off to have a “head start”, so to speak, then to be blindsided half way through a race, finding out you’ve actually been running the wrong way. Perhaps my elaborate metaphor didn’t make it clear, so here’s a Bible verse:

 Beloved, I pray that in all respects you may prosper and be in good health, just as your soul prospers. For I was very glad when brethren came and testified to your truth, that is, how you are walking in truth. I have no greater joy than this, to hear of my children walking in the truth.

3 John 2-4

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.
  • Over here, there is a significant number of “2nd generation Christians”, i.e. folks who grew up in Christian homes and never had a “conversion” experience, and are often doubting their own salvation.  A book which I find helpful for such folks is Mike McKinley’s “Am I Really A Christian?”.
     
    From church history, I’ve learned that this whole emphasis of a “conversion experience” only emerged from American Revivalism in the 19th century (Charles Finney’s work in particular), and as much as we want to acknowledge the good work done during that era, from my Calvinist point of view, the “conversion experience” is a rather unhelpful way of understanding soteriology, particularly when people start using that “conversion experience” as a PROOF of salvation.  I think a more helpful way of understanding salvation is not focusing on the point of conversion itself, but rather the fruit of conversion (which can only be revealed after some time walking together with the brother/sister) – i.e, a mind which is continually being transformed, and evidence of fruit of the spirit.
     
    Even in my own salvation experience – I did say the sinner’s prayer in 2001, but it was only in 2006 did I truly understand what it means to “die to myself” and to live for God.  Does that mean I wasn’t a Christian between 2001 and 2006? I don’t know for sure – but for a Calvinist like me, it doesn’t matter.  
     
    That said, the folks in my tradition sometimes swing dangerously to the other side, being quick to tag other folks in church as “nominal” or “not regenerate”, and refusing to co-operate or love them.

    • @wongyann It’s an interesting situation, almost like historical baggage at times. I’m writing this because I see it in my own church. After that “salvation” experience, it’s assumed they’ll be “on fire” for God. But really, one can only keep that energy level for so long without a fundamental understanding of what they believe. It’s why I started teaching classes at my church a few years ago – people have questions, and want to go deeper. Many congregations of the evangelical stripe, though, tend to exclude those people purely by their focus on evangelicalism.
       
      I grew up in this environment; hence, my questioning of that focus as ultimate. Works/faith work in a weird paradoxical tension that I’m not sure we are meant to resolve (although grace obviously reigns supreme in some sense).
       
      While I’m not sure if I am a pure predestination/free will sort of guy (I’m still thinking deeply about this question), the focus on either/or always becomes unhelpful. To emphasize one removes the other and leaves issues in its wake. I’m certainly not accusing Calvinism of being this way, as that’s just the pejorative way of describing it. I’ve been slowly working my way through Calvin’s Institutes, and it’s surely more nuanced (I think it comes from later Calvinists who emphasized the “double predestination” doctrine).
       
      Interesting that Singapore has this problem – it’s almost the opposite in America (or at least it’s starting to become that way)!

      • @Zachery Oliver  Agree with you that there are some tensions about work/faith which will never be truly resolved.  Every Calvinist still needs to answer the question “Why does God hold man responsible for his actions?”
         
        A quick clarification though, when I say that folks in my tradition swing dangerously to the other side, I wasn’t referring so much to folks in Singapore, but folks in the reformed tradition in general, including Calvinists in the US.  In fact, majority of the Christians in Singapore are Methodists, which are Arminian.

        • @wongyann Didn’t mean to make a rash generalization there! I honestly don’t know the demographics in either country, denomination wise. But yeah, in general denominations can tend to focus on one issue at the exclusion of others. I kinda like it that we disagree on things – just not when that hampers Christian ministry and service.