Monday, October 15, 2007

"What Must I Do To Be Saved?"

Growing up, I heard the standard, Protestant Christianese from pastors, youth workers, Sunday School teachers and church leaders. Repeat it with me:

You need a personal relationship with Jesus Christ... You need to accept him into your heart. Recite this prayer with me...

As much as this sounds like Standard Operating Procedure for the lifelong protestant evangelical, an unbiased look at scriptures and the words of Jesus might make us rethink that paradigm.

Still, to me, everything in that formula sounds good. A personal relationship with the Son of God. "Accept" him into my life, surrender to him. Sure, sounds fine, maybe even theologically sound. What's not to like? All that is exactly what must be done to become a "Christian," right?

But where do we find any of that language in the Bible?

In Matthew 19, when Jesus was done telling the rich young man that he must sell all of his possessions and give to the poor, the disciples asked, "Who then can be saved?"

Jesus' initial answer was cryptic, but in verse 29, he says,
    And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life.
In Mark 16:16 (which, incidentally, was not in the earliest and most reliable manuscripts), Jesus tells the disciples after his resurrection:
    Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.
Of course, this is also the same passage that he said,
    And these signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well.
That could get us into a whole 'nother discussion, but for now, we'll leave it be.

When Peter addressed the crowd at Pentecost, he said,
    ... everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.
One would be hard pressed to find the entire notion of a "personal relationship with Jesus Christ" and "accepting him into my heart" in the scriptures. We could say it's inferred, and that it's just current language for the same basic scriptural concepts that have been there all along.

My guess would be that the "accepting him into our heart" and "personal relationship" language is a fairly recept concept, perhaps even a 19th or 20th century evangelical construct.

Am I wrong?

I have no idea. Someone with more knowledge will correct me anyways, so there's no point in me doing the research.

A lot of this goes back to our evangelical eschatological focus -- the Only Important Thing is what we must do to escape the fires of hell, after all. Giving people an easy-to-understand formula to get into heaven is the key. People want a personable God. People want relationships. Matters of the heart are important to people.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not necessarily saying that all of the ideas I've heard my whole life are necessarily wrong. Even if there isn't specific Biblical language to match, I have no doubt that our God IS a God that desires a relationship with us. It's called love.

But really... What must I do to be saved? And were the original people that asked that question using that language in an entirely different way than we do today? When we say "saved," our minds automatically think of fiery pits of hell.

Were first century Jews really thinking along those same lines?


Macca said...

Okay, everybody´s ignoring Scott´s thoughtful post here, so I´ll start the fracas.

I think that the basic concept that many have argued over for centuries is what I MUST DO to win God´s favor for eternity. We´ve couched them in terminologies and analogies that appeal to our culture, but the truth is, that we are basically trying to make a connection with God so that we can enjoy Him in this life and the next.

Whether we call it "Getting saved, accepting Christ (I hate that one- it´s as if it´s a disgusting matter), Becoming a Christian," or whatever, the basic concept is that we realize that we have a need for this connection with God.

As Christians, we recognize that the only way to make that connection is through aligning our life by identifying ourselves with Jesus Christ, submitting our lives to Him.

The fundamental flaw in the question, "what must I do to be saved" lies in the perception that we must DO something. The truth is that it is a partnership that requires us to submit ourselves to Christ in exchange for spiritual regeneration. It´s more like a 1% us, 99% God work in us.

And truthfully, I don´t think that God demands a formula for "salvation." Oops, there, you didn´t pray the Sinner´s Prayer! Off to damnation with you! No, in my liberal mind, much more important to Him is a humble heart that reaches out to Him in the name of Christ. Is repentance necessary? Yes, it´s a daily act of Christianity. Is baptism necessary? (dodging blows by the Christian Church guys here) It seems to be a normal rite of passage into the body of believers, but nowhere in scripture do I see it as a necessary act for salvation. I see it as an important act of obedience, sort of a ceremony celebrating a spiritual transformation that has already taken place.

I think that the early Christians recognized a hell and torment for those who did not submit to God. This line of belief goes back to the OT, and spills out into the pages of the NT.

Good thought-provoking questions, Scott!

Bethany said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bethany said...

Dang it, I was going to blog about this!! Before I would have been original, now I'd just be like a copy copy copy cat.

I'm confused about this. And what could be more basic?!? Honestly.

Kierkegaard says to be saved you must "be related to God as a single person." As far as I can tell, he states it very well. "Being related to God" seems more like what we see in the Bible than our 19th and 20th century "personal relationship" and "accepting him into your heart."

Maybe it is simply submission. Bowing before God because he is God. Submission to do anything he says. I don't think the rich man selling his possessions would actually be of any worth, it was that he had not entirely surrendered. Jesus knew he was holding out and brought it to light. Abandoning everything to run to him could be the "leaving houses or brothers or sisters, etc."

Don't know where else this shows up, but the concept of "knowing" God is here:

Matthew 7:21"Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who DOES the WILL of my Father who is in heaven. 22 On that day many will say to me, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?' 23 And then will I declare to them, 'I never KNEW YOU; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.'

Here doing the will of the Father is necessary. Obedience. So it is not merely a relationship, it's an act.

What must I do to be saved? Maybe the answer is "come before God on His terms."

scott said...

This could easily get into a discussion that focuses on baptism, and we spent a good hour at small group last week debating whether baptism was a requirement for salvation. (And regardless of how I feel about the subject personally, I *DO* think one could find quite a bit of scripture that would state that it is a requirement, even if I don't understand that.)

There are a number of different verses where different things seem to be mentioned as "what is needed." It is hard to cohesively pull them all together, quite honestly, without looking at it with a "bigger picture" mentality (the aforementioned narrative theology).

Again, we try to separate faith from works, when they are oh-so-very intertwined. Plus, we do like our formulas! Something simple and easy to present in Powerpoint fashion.

Brother of Joe said...

Hi Coffee guys. My bro Joe invited me to join if I promise to wax neither loquacious nor grandiloquent. So due to the difficulty of this challenge, I shall just pop in now and then for hit and run pontification (which runs in our family).

Scott, you said:
"One would be hard pressed to find the entire notion of a "personal relationship with Jesus Christ" and "accepting him into my heart" in the scriptures. We could say it's inferred, and that it's just current language for the same basic scriptural concepts that have been there all along."

I believe you hit it on the head.

Your post prompted me to do a deep dive into the Gospel of John this morning to explore this question in the most “relationship” oriented of the 4 gospels. How eye-opening. I have affirmed in my mind that this concept of a personal relationship with Jesus is indeed a central focus of Jesus and is a useful metaphor for “how one gets in” with God.

Granted, it is but one picture of how one becomes accepted by the Almighty. I think it is nonetheless an indispensable facet as we try to understand God and how he relates to people.

In my study, I noted the various ways Jesus explains how to be saved (he actually uses that term once - John 5:34). Here is a list of the ways that I have categorized. Most are actual words he employed (NIV), some are my adaptation in order to categorize.

13 times – about 4 of these are clearly referring to believing Jesus’ claims or his words. (“Whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life.” – 5:24)

The other 9 seem to imply placing our trust in him and the one who sent him (confidence, belief, faith). Example: “Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.” 1:12

The Other 19 clear references to how to become his (my term):
I’ve lumped these into one category as there seems to be coherence, and they appear to infer a “personal relationship” with Jesus and the Father:

Partake of or Receive from me: “eat” “drink”, 6 times
Know me: 4 times
Come to me: 2 times
Follow: 1 time
Love and obey me: 4 times, equated

Miscellaneous (2):
Born again – the most mysterious characterization of how to become his
Humble submission (which Bethany had called out in her comment)

My conclusion is that Jesus’ focus, from John’s perspective, was calling people to believe that he was God’s anointed, the sent one, his words were the Father’s (and you must therefore believe them). Further, when one believes one submits, receives, accepts love, and becomes one with (as Jesus is with the Father, chapter 17). Wow.

Sounds like an invitation to a personal relationship to me. Not a relationship of equals, but an asymmetrical yet loving communion.

Do our forebears tend to use this shorthand metaphor to the exclusion of a full treatment of what it means to become His? Sure. Do I think it is misleading to employ this picture of entrance into his kingdom (John 3:3)? In no way.

Is it a fair question to ask? Yes, and it would seem beneficial that, when we use this as a formula for inviting initiates to become His, we would be circumspect and cautious as to what that means (“Are you willing to drink the cup I drink?” Mark 10:38).

Could it be that I am falling prey to my modernistic, evangelical framework and am unable to release myself from its blinding clutches? Yep, it’s possible I suppose. But if that’s true, I suspect I’ll have plenty of help from the coffee klatch to point that out and help me get re-programmed.

I’m glad I resisted the temptation of loquaciousness.

Bro of Joe

Brother of Joe B. said...

And furthermore!

During my Gospel of John study I referenced in my adjacent post, I found some interesting info in regards to Part 2 of Scott's post: What do we and the 1st century Jew mean when we say "saved"? Here are the Goals or Outcomes Jesus defined as he spoke of how one becomes His, or saved, etc.

Eternal life – 16 times
Love relationship – 6
Forgiveness/Justification/Freed from sin’s slavery – 4
Become a child of God or son of light – 2
Enter the kingdom of God – 1
Saved / Salvation – 1
Go with where He is – 1

I’m not qualified to suggest what was in the mind of a 1st century Jew in relation to these concepts. However, I will say that unlike in the Synoptic gospels where the Jewish concepts of national salvation and forgiveness are the topics of frequent study and comment – a la NT Wright and Joe B – the tone of John appears to be strikingly individual, mystical, and experiential. It's hard for me to comprehend Jesus' invitations and challenges in a way that confronts evangelical frameworks.

Is it just me, or do the NT Wright’s and Rob Bell’s of the world tend to omit discussion of John’s gospel from their commentary? And - does John's view of How to be Saved mirror a Velvet Elvis or Blue like Jazz'er? An Emergy? Does anyone talk about how these should be reconciled (if reconciliation is indeed required).

Joe B said...

They definitely do omit John from their schema. And no doubt john IS the "personal relationship" book. It mentions the Kingdom far less than, though in quite the same manner as the synoptics.

That was a great deep dive Bro. It's wierd that you do your study just the way I do -- and I don't think we've ever done a study together.

Macca said...

What an uncanny similitude in word choice and approach! I´ll just start calling you guys Boanerges.

I bet you both are quizzically pulling at your goatee hairs at the moment, too.

Bro o' Joe said...

Yes, perhaps I am really Joe posting to add mass to my already irresistible arguments. We may never know...

Actually, you'll see my logic to be more porous and my style less flamboyant than my li'l bro's.

Picture me, Macca, breaking up laughing as I read your comment while quizzically pulling at my goatee, as I am prone to do (2000 miles away from Joe).

Joe B said...

Yes indeed, Broe o' Joe.

Reconciling these two perspectives of salvation is a project I've eyed but avoided. "Personal Relationship" & "Eschatalogical Relationship", indeed. And perhaps a third perspective would be an "Atonement Only" position that centralizes the satisfaction of God's demand for blood, and gaining an "imputed righteousness" thereby.

I always say that most heresies are not errors of fact, but of emphasis. To lock into any of those three at the expense of the others is to misrepresent God, the believer, and the church.

Okay guys, you heard it. It's okay to have a personal relationship with Jesus again. But don't get carried away!