I was four years old when I led my first person to Christ. I know I was four because I couldn’t read yet (I explained the gospel by offering commentary on the Jesus pictures in my Children’s Bible), and she wasn’t in diapers, though she was younger than me. That was a very narrow window of time.
I asked her if she believed that Jesus died to take away her sins. She said she did.
I asked her if she wanted to ask Jesus into her heart. She said she did.
I led her in a simple prayer, and that was it.
For years I believed it was–that a Christian was someone who had prayed The Sinner’s Prayer. Of course you were SUPPOSED to invest more in your relationship with God than that, but as long as you had prayed the magic prayer, you were good. Raised in Youth for Christ and educated by missionaries, I came by this understanding honestly.
Now, I think there’s more too it than that. Not because there has to be (following Jesus is, at its core, quite simple), and not because I get peeved about “cheap grace” (is there such a thing? The phrase makes me feel slightly ill), but because I believe being a follower of Christ has more to do with the orientation of a person’s heart than their declaration of belief.
You can believe without following. You can’t follow without believing on some level, but you CAN follow without completely understanding. (Luckily for us imperfect humans.)
Take Abraham. He had no Bible. He had no religious tradition (beyond the pagan one he left). He knew almost nothing about God, by our standards. But he knew God. And he embraced and took action on what God, in God’s mercy, wisdom, and goodness, revealed to him.
He had faith, and he followed. And it was credited to him as righteousness. (Romans 4)
At the core, I believe that is what God wants from us.
Simple. But not easy.
Soteriology vs. Theology
Let’s be honest. A lot of times when we’re debating theology, it’s actually soteriology, or salvation, that’s on our mind. We want to know if this person who disagrees with us is “right enough” to go to heaven. If they will pass their spiritual SAT’s and be admitted into a good afterlife.
I honestly remember hearing a radio program when I was a little girl explaining why Lutherans aren’t Christians.
I also remember the first time someone told me I wasn’t a Christian. There were “evangelists” lining the street corners during Youth For Christ’s DC ’94 event, explaining that even if you believed in Jesus and trusted him as your Lord and Savior, if you hadn’t been baptized, you weren’t a Christian. (They weren’t affiliated with YFC, obviously.) I was shocked, offended, and (since I wasn’t baptized until I was 21) distinctly uncomfortable.
But does doctrine (or external signs of faith) save us?
Sound Doctrine According to John
1 John talks a lot about false teaching, false teachers, and salvation. Amazingly, it says very little about doctrine.
John’s basic perameters for whether a person is echoing God’s truth are:
-They affirm that God is good, that in him there is no darkness.
-They affirm that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, sent from God.
-They affirm that Jesus took on flesh–that he became an actual human being.
-They accept fact that God gives us eternal life, and this life is in the Son.
Pretty basic, right? John is obviously countering Gnosticism, the great heresy of his day. But even in the face of false teachers, he is keeping things simple. He refuses to give into the temptation of setting up rules and regulations, of drawing unneccessary boundaries to keep his beloved flock safe, like the Pharisees of his youth.
No, John doesn’t talk a lot about doctrine. But he does talk a lot about abiding.
Seriously. I counted, and came up with at least 29 times the word “abide” (or variations therof) were used in this tiny book. “Abiding” is of primary importance, not only for “nurturing your spiritual life” or “drawing you closer to Jesus,” but in assuring you of your salvation and learning and safeguarding good doctrine!
According to John, being a Christian isn’t so much about what you say you believe–about praying the Sinner’s Prayer or affirming the Apostles Creed, as good and important as those things are. It is about abiding in Christ.
According to Paul, Abraham wasn’t justified by the law–by the information he possessed about God, or his adherence to religious regulations. He was justified by trusting God–by believing and acting on the (very limited) revelation God gave him. Abraham didn’t know much. But the dude abides.
Relying on Religion?
Let’s turn the tables for a minute.
We are unbelievably blessed. We have the Bible in written form–in our personal houses! We have access to all sorts of resources that help us understand it better. Most of us (over age 4, at least) are literate, and can read it for ourselves.
We should take full advantage of these unprecedented blessings, and steward them wisely. But we should do it with a good dose of humility, remembering that historically speaking, this puts us in an extreme, privileged minority.
It’s great that we know so much ABOUT God. But is it possible that at times we rely too much on our knowledge to save us? Is it possible that God’s primary concern is not how well our puny human brains comprehend his mysteries, but whether or not we are willing to abide in him? (Because goodness knows, we poor scattered sheep can’t make it on our own!) Is it possible that we could be intellectual Christians without being abiding Christians?
I, for one, think it’s a distinct possibility.
But what do you think?
How are we, or are we not, abiding in Christ? And what would it look like if we did?
(Note: I am a little nervous publishing this post, because I think there’s room for misunderstanding. This is not my most eloquent work, and it would take a lot more words to give the topic fair treatment. But still, I think these are important things to talk about! So let’s talk!)