Delmar’s baptism and Phil Robertson’s repentance

One of my favorite scenes in O Brother, Where Art Thou? is Delmar’s baptism:

Delmar comes up out of the water and declares his sins washed away to the point that neither God nor man has any claim on him any longer.

I thought of the scene while reading one of the less newsworthy parts of the GQ interview with Duck Dynasty star Phil Robertson.

During Phil’s darkest days, in the early 1970s, he had to flee the state of Arkansas after he badly beat up a bar owner and the guy’s wife. Kay Robertson persuaded the bar owner not to press charges in exchange for most of the Robertsons’ life savings. (“A hefty price,” he notes in his memoir.) I ask Phil if he ever repented for that, as he wants America to repent—if he ever tracked down the bar owner and his wife to apologize for the assault. He shakes his head.

“I didn’t dredge anything back up. I just put it behind me.”

As far as Phil is concerned, he was literally born again. Old Phil—the guy with the booze and the pills—died a long time ago, and New Phil sees no need to apologize for him: “We never, ever judge someone on who’s going to heaven, hell. That’s the Almighty’s job.

Robertson may not follow in the church of Delmar, but it sounds quite similar to me.

And that got me thinking. Is this correct? Doesn’t repentance require an effort to make right the damage we have caused others?

For some folks that could be an impossible task, of course. We cause so many hurts and wounds that we cannot even count them all, much less repair each injury. But there is still something here that sounds wrong to me. Even if we hold to a strong reading of Paul’s words that we die to the old self and rise as a new self, it seems to me that repentance toward God does not mean we have truly repented of the harm we have caused other humans. It feels to me, rather, that using our baptism as a way to absolve ourselves of wrongs we have done to other people is trading on God’s grace in ways God did not intend.

This is a complicated, pastoral question that probably does not lend itself to absolute rules. But I wonder how others understand it. To what extent does repentance require seeking to undo or heal the damage we have done to other people?

Before LeBron James, we had ‘the decision’

John Stott sums up the evangelical case for the need to make a “decision” for Christ in his classic little book Basic Christianity:

I myself used to think that because Jesus had died on the cross, everyone in the world had been put right with God by some kind of rather mechanical transaction. I remember how puzzled, even offended, I was when it was first suggested to me that I needed to take hold of Christ and his salvation for myself. I thank God that he later opened my eyes to see that I must do more than face up to the fact that I needed a Savior, more even than admit that Jesus Christ was the Savior I needed; it was necessary to accept him as my Savior.

Stott uses the image of Christ waiting at the door, pictured here, to explain the need and the process by which a person receives Christ as Lord and Savior. He ends the chapter with one of the nicer versions of the sinner’s prayer that I have read.

As I read this chapter, two sets of questions that emerge.

First, as a Wesleyan, it still feels pretty mechanical — to use Stott’s word above. The prayer — which I have prayed myself — is treated in some ways like an incantation. If it is prayed, it is done. Stott even goes so far as to warn us not to worry about how we feel after we pray that prayer. Just be know that it is done and be grateful.

This runs directly in the face of Wesleyan assurance. The old Methodist teaching was that we would have a perceptible awareness of the Holy Spirit speaking to our spirit that we are children of God. It was not about feelings, so much, but it was about a palpable spiritual sensation. It is what Wesley referred to when he described his heart being strangely warmed.

The Methodists were also known for the tarrying that often happened between crying out for Jesus and receiving this assurance. The crying out was not conversion. It was not a sign of justification. The sign of justification was the faith that God gave to sinners that Jesus Christ had died for them and pardoned them. It was this faith and assurance that also marked the moment of pardon. I do not believe the old Methodists would tell a sinner that a single prayer without any sense of assurance should be taken as a token of salvation.

Whether we should side with the Methodists or with Stott — or neither — of course is not a settled question. But it helps to be aware of the differences.

Second, I find myself asking about those who cannot respond in the way Stott prescribes. This system of his is built upon a stack of cognitions and the use of language. What about those for whom such things are difficult to impossible? What about people with mental disabilities?

This is a place where I find Scripture does not help immensely. This troubles me at times. At other times, I am aware that Scripture was written for people who are literate — or in communities of literacy — and is mostly addressed to adults with what we call normal mental faculties. It is a means of grace for those who can receive it. But I’m not convinced that means it maps out the ways of grace for those who are not equipped to operate in the cognitive and literacy-based world of Scripture.

Interestingly, for me at least, in a Wesleyan context, it may not be that those with cognitive disabilities need to hear Jesus knocking at the door. It may be that they never shut the door. John Wesley, famously and controversially, argued that we are not condemned for Original Sin but only for actual sins. And for Wesley, actual sins were willful breaches of the law of God. Although Leviticus speaks of unintentional sins, Wesley argued that only intentional sins were actually sins.

In other words, those who cannot understand what they do in terms of God’s commands, are by definition not sinning.

Now, I know this opens a whole can of worms and is not easily dealt with in a simple blog post. Wesley’s notion has been criticized and dismissed by many learned Christians.

But I am not ready to dismiss him. Not, at least, while I struggle to understand what may, in the end, be too high for me to understand.

‘Do you know Jesus Christ?’

An exchange between a young John Wesley and Moravian August Spangenberg in 1736:

[Spangenberg] said, “My brother, I must first ask you one or two questions. Have you the witness within yourself? Does the Spirit of God bear witness with your spirit that you are a child of God?” I was surprised, and knew not what to answer. He observed it, and asked, “Do you know Jesus Christ?” I paused, and said, “I know he is the Saviour of the world.” “True,” he replied, “but do you know he has saved you?” I answered, “I hope he has died to save me.” He only added, “Do you know yourself?” I said, “I do.” But I fear they were vain words. (From Wesley journal’s but quoted from this book.)

It would be two more years before Wesley could answer such questions without halting uncertainty.

Edwards: Breaking the darkness

Jonathan Edward’s account of the revival that broke out in Northampton, Mass., in the 1730s is an interesting and careful account of the variety of ways that the Holy Spirit worked conversions in his community. He is a great antidote for anyone who argues that there is only one way for a person to be converted to God. That is not the book’s only virtue by far, but it is one that struck me while reading it recently.

Here is one passage that I particularly liked in which he described the way saving grace breaks through the darkness.

In some, converting light is like a glorious brightness suddenly shining upon a person, and all around him: they are in a remarkable manner brought out of darkness into marvelous light. In many others it has been like the dawning of the day, when at first but a little light appears, and it may be presently hid with a cloud; and then it appears again, and shines a little brighter, and gradually increases, with intervening darkness, till at length it breaks forth more clearly from behind the clouds.