This was first posted in April, 2010.
I remember the day I changed my thinking about when I was “saved.”
I had grown up in a mainline Protestant denomination, was baptized and confirmed, attended worship and Sunday School, and dabbled with youth group. However, in my teen years, I was not deeply involved.
Then the big change came.
At the beginning of my senior year in high school, our family moved across the country, an event that precipitated a personal crisis in my life. The foundations were removed from beneath me. For a time, I struggled with depression, drugs and alcohol, loss of meaning, purpose, and direction.
In the midst of my wandering, God graciously brought me into contact with some fellow students who attended a local Baptist church. I saw a real difference in them, and their joy was attractive. I became part of the group, though I hesitated to come forward and confess my faith as a Christian. Eventually, however, I responded to an altar call, went forward and expressed my desire to be baptized as a new follower of Jesus. From that point on, through his gracious preserving power I have never turned back.
For many years, if you had asked me when I “became a Christian,” I would have answered, in true revivalist fashion, that the day I “went forward” was “the day of my salvation.” That was when I “met Jesus,” “got saved,” and was “transferred from darkness to light.”
Then I met Joe.
This was during my seminary days, when I pastored a Bible church in the northern suburbs of Chicago. Joe worked at the college affiliated with our seminary and started attending our church. One day in my Sunday School class he shared his testimony. To my surprise, he said he had attended a United Methodist church in one of the towns where I had lived. He shared how the pastor helped him become a Christian, enter the process of living as Jesus’ disciple, and discern God’s calling for his life.
The story shook me, because I had attended that church and had sat under that pastor in worship and confirmation classes. After my experience at the Baptist church altar, I had always looked back upon that Methodist church and its minister and considered them “liberal,” not faithfully proclaiming the Gospel. Now here was someone giving testimony to how he had met Jesus there!
As I pondered this dissonance between the narrative that Joe spoke and the one that had been running through my head for years, a few memories began to resurface. In particular, I recalled the night before our class was confirmed in front of the congregation. The pastor gathered us in a small chapel and led us in a service to prepare our hearts for the event. To this day, I don’t remember a word he said. However, I do recall that he shared a personal story of his own encounter with Jesus and that I was deeply touched. Specifically, what I remember was a sense of great weight and seriousness descending upon me as I participated in that service.
“It will also come to pass that before they call, I will answer” (Isaiah 65:24). It was several more years before I answered the Baptist invitation.
From the day I heard Joe’s story, I began to think about my “salvation” differently.
- Who knows how many times God had gotten my attention, spoken to me, touched me, blessed me, or helped me in the past?
- Who knows how many times my heart had been impressed and had responded with a form of faith consistent with my age and understanding at that point in my life?
- In the midst of all my wanderings, who knows how many times I turned in the right direction at the hidden impulse of the Spirit’s voice? God had been savingly active in my life long before I answered an altar call.
American revivalism insists that we pinpoint a date, a time, a moment of decision — “the day of your salvation.” But is the Bible this reductionistic?
- Did all the disciples have sudden conversion experiences?
- Even those believers who did — say Paul — was his a matter of a “personal decision”?
- What about many of the other extraordinary experiences of Scripture, when God meets a person and changes his or her life in an instant? Are all these stories necessarily about “salvation” being transferred in that moment from darkness to light, from one eternal destiny to another?
- You may ask, what about the Gospel preaching in the Book of Acts? Though Acts reports many “at the moment” transformational experiences, we must remember that Acts is a book of missions, dealing with first generation Christians, many of whom had no background in Biblical teaching whatsoever. Is their experience meant to be the template for everyone who comes to believe in Jesus?
- What about all the people of faith who are simply presented to us in Scripture as such, with no reference whatsoever to a moment of decision or conversion (Mary, Simeon, Anna, etc.)?
- And what do we do with the story of someone like John the Baptizer, of whom it is said he was filled with the Spirit from his mother’s womb?
The revivalist mindset wants it simple and clear. We want it black and white. We want to know who is in and who is out. We want to mark the sheep and goats now. We want to be able to define, distinguish, and properly deal with the haves and the have-nots. We want it to be as clear as the “I do” of a wedding ceremony. We want to collect the forms and know precisely who has checked the right boxes. We want to have and give assurance of salvation based on something we can see with our own eyes and measure with our own tools. We want to be able to give the clear testimony, “Yesterday I was lost, today I’m found.”
- The revivalists among us don’t like to think that God can work through infant baptism, as the pastor applies the Word of the Gospel mixed with water, to bring that child into his family and begin the process of “by grace through faith” that brings us salvation. (Infant baptism is NOT the focus of this post, so forget about it if you want to make that your issue in the comments!)
- We can’t grasp salvation as something that occurs over time, not in an identifiable “moment,” and that its workings may be entirely mysterious to us in terms of specific dates, times, and experiences.
- We don’t like to admit that a person might have several “conversions” over the course of a lifetime, and that we may not always be able to define exactly what each one entails.
One weakness of the revivalist approach is that it separates a person’s life into two distinct periods, one “without God” and one “with God”. It cannot tolerate nuances in that black/white division. God’s work before that “day of salvation” is discounted, especially if “conversion” involves moving from one form of Christian faith to another, as happened with me.
In a post on Jesus Creed, Scot McKnight writes,
Converts develop an anti-rhetoric for their former theology and faith. This anti-rhetoric denounces their old faith and forms into an apologetical defense of their new narrative.
Ask a strong evangelical who was formerly Catholic what Catholics believe and you will often hear something that has little do with what you find in the Catechism or in the official statements. Instead, you will get a powerful rhetoric that caricatures RC theology and beliefs: you will hear terms like superstition, magic and popery. You will get terms about worshiping Mary and idolatry and works salvation. Sometimes this anti-rhetoric is vile. I’ve heard it hundreds of times. You can try but you will rarely succeed at getting such folks to see the positive gospel within Catholic theology.
With me, it wasn’t Catholicism, but my mainline Protestant roots that I rejected as anti-Gospel. Of course, every branch on the Christian tree has its problems, some more serious than others, but I didn’t criticize from the standpoint of a theologian. I had developed the “anti-rhetoric” syndrome McKnight describes above. My “conversion” experience led me to denounce the whole of my life before that day as “B.C.” (before Christ). It was only upon deeper, more mature reflection later in life that I understood I had never lived a day without God, and that he was savingly active long before I recognized it, had an experience, or made a decision.
This is one reason I identify myself as a “post-evangelical” today. American evangelicalism has its roots sunk deeply into the ethos of revivalism. It’s about preaching for decision. And it’s the decision that gets it done. In a moment.
In my humble opinion, it is God that gets it done, and his ways are not our ways.