The confession we need

There is a difference between confessing Jesus Christ as Lord and accepting as Lord.

In American evangelical Christianity, some variation of “accepting” Jesus is offered as the hallmark of conversion. Getting saved is often associated with asking Jesus to be our Savior or — more commonly — accepting or receiving him as such.

I’ve always been uncomfortable with the active verbs here. It has always felt like we are doing Jesus a favor.

To confess Jesus as Lord and Savior is an entirely different thing. When we confess, we state what is true. To use a contemporary common example, we a person confesses a crime, they are simply stating the truth that they did such and such things. The things happened whether the criminal confesses it or not. To confess is to acknowledge what is already the truth, even if unknown to others. To confess Jesus Christ as Lord is to say that Jesus is Lord whether I acknowledge it or not. I am just now coming around to acknowledge that truth.

This strikes me as theologically and practically important. We Christians proclaim the good news that Jesus Christ has defeated death and broken the power of sin and that he will one day judge the world. This is not a claim that he will judge those who have accepted him. It is a claim that he will judge the world.

I believe that on the cross and in the tomb, Jesus really did save the whole world from death — including those who had already died. This is why there will be a general resurrection. All will be resurrected to eternal life. All will stand before the judge. The book of life will opened and all will be judged.*

When we confess that Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior, we are proclaiming this truth. At the risk of putting it too strongly: Jesus is not my savior. He is THE savior.

It is because of this, that I shy away from the traditional sinner’s prayer. It is not that I think new birth is unimportant, but because I think new birth is not about us “accepting” Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior. I think, rather, it is about a work of the Holy Spirit in us. It is the Spirit opening our blind eyes to the great truth of Jesus’ love and lordship. Perhaps in response to that new birth we might utter words very similar to the sinner’s prayer. Perhaps in seeking to have that new birth we might utter that prayer. But unlike Joel Osteen, I don’t believe the uttering of those words is the same as being born again.

The Spirit blows where it will.

What we need to be given is the gift that allows to confess from the depth of our very soul the great truth. Jesus is Lord. Jesus is savior. Jesus loves me, even me, and died so that I might live.


*The standard of judgment appears to be how we have lived rather than what we believe or say, which opens up for me lots of interesting questions that would derail the simple point I want to make here.

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How failure led to fruit

When Philip Spener wanted to bring renewal to the Lutheran churches of Frankfurt, Germany, he started in the way that sounds familiar to me. He started by putting a focus on catechism and church discipline. He thought these measures might stir up the passive and nominal faith of the Christians in his charge.

They did not.

Frustrated by his failures to lead renewal from the top down, Spener eventually turned to the formation of small groups in response to a request from some of his more devout laity. They wanted a means of meeting with others who were longing for the kind of spiritual conversation and building up that they never could get in their world of work and secular relationships.

The groups that were formed in response to this request would set the model for devotional and edifying small groups that would be central to Pietism and later Methodism.

In the book where I read of this bit of history, the author did not mention this explicitly, but I assume those men came to Spener because his preaching and other actions had made it clear that he was passionate about a deeper and living faith. They came to him because they saw in him a kindred spirit.

As I think on that, I recall John Wesley’s account of the beginnings of Methodism. It was his preaching that led people to come to him seeking more opportunities to learn and grow in their faith. He formed the societies and classes as a response to those requests.

I hear two lessons in these examples.

First, if I want laity to reveal their longings for a renewed and vibrant faith, I should preach as if living faith is the norm or expectation of the Christian life.

Second, I cannot herd people into wanting a living faith, but I can remain attentive and open to those who show an interest or longing for it. It is okay to be reactive.

Neither Wesley nor Spener — nor for that matter Jesus — won everyone over to their views about Christianity. Indeed, they all made a number of enemies. But they also did help some people find a true and living faith that changed their lives.

I wonder if we can’t still do that.

I see a vision of United Methodist renewal that is worked out not from the top down but from the bottom up, a renewal based on scattered pockets where men and women are seeking a living faith in Jesus Christ. I see such a movement marked by preaching aimed at transformation and renewal of the heart, small groups with a focus on devotion and accountability, and the expectation of a living faith that shows forth in the outward lives of people.

Can you be born again and not be saved?

This is one of those topics that will sound like counting angels dancing on the head of a pin to some, so please pardon me if you don’t care for these kinds of questions.

I have been reading RC Sproul’s excellent book Essential Truths of the Christian Faith. It is the kind of book that I wish Methodists could produce. In it, Sproul provides overviews of 100 important theological concepts. Each entry is brief and written for lay readers. It is clear but not at all simplistic. Being written by Sproul, of course, it is decidedly Reformed in its theology.

As an Arminian, which makes me a close sibling our Reformed brothers and sisters, much of the book speaks to me. Where I part ways with Sproul are when he writes about predestination, perfection, and the order of salvation. The last is the topic I want to consider for the balance of this post.

Sproul writes that the order of salvation goes like this:

  • Regeneration
  • Faith
  • Justification
  • Sanctification
  • Glorification

In other words, we must be born again before we can have the faith that saves us. And this regeneration has nothing to do with our own activity or action, of course. Faith is only possible once we have been regenerated or born again.

This is different than the Arminian understanding preached by John Wesley and Methodists after him.

We teach that it is not full regeneration but preventing (or prevenient) grace that comes before faith. Human beings — who would be utterly lost and hopeless without grace — have received the preventing grace that arouses in us those first desires to do good and to seek God. We often call this effect of grace our conscience. By cooperating and listening to the grace that precedes salvation, we are brought to conviction of our sin and saving faith in Jesus Christ.

We would list the stages in this way:

  • Awakening
  • Conviction
  • Justification & New Birth (regeneration)
  • Sanctification
  • Glorification

For us, faith in Jesus Christ, justification, and new birth are all distinct things that occur at the same moment. When we have faith in Jesus Christ as our savior, we are justified. When we are justified, we are born again by the Holy Spirit.

Both ways of thinking about the matter center on justification by faith. We are saved by grace when we believe in Jesus Christ, who died for us. Both would say that once we are justified, we grow into sanctification. We work out our salvation. We differ significantly, however, on what happens prior to justification.

What had not been so clear to me before reading Sproul’s book was that he would say it is possible to be born again but not be saved. For Wesleyans, the one cannot happen without the other. In the instant we are set right with God we are born again. When we are born again, we are justified.

As a pastoral matter, I am not sure how much these differences matter to the way we preach and teach and counsel. I have not worked that out yet. It does remind me, though, that just because a person uses words such as “born again” or “regenerated” does not mean they mean the same thing I do when I use those words.