Ask most Americans what it means to be a Christian, or even what the Gospel of Jesus is, and they will likely respond with a phrase to the effect of, “Jesus died on the cross for your sins so you can go to heaven.” The problem is simple: people are sinful. The solution is simple as well: ask Jesus to forgive you. The effect is said to be remarkable. Jesus decides, after your prayer, not to send you to hell.
Could eternal salvation be so simple? Certainly the details of faith are slightly more complicated than this. However, this prayer can be a starting point. Indeed, many powerful people of God have begun in such a fashion; they prayed a simple I-need-you-Jesus prayer, then followed him.
The difficulty arises when ministry centers entirely on attempting to get people to make decisions to follow Jesus. This may sound counterintuitive, but I have witnessed this very strategy. Most recently, I was present at a winter retreat for junior high students. The retreat was held at a small Christian camp in West Michigan. A couple times per day, we rounded up the tweens for an hour of formation. Essentially, the message was that everyone needs to escape the fires of hell via the I-need-Jesus prayer. The aging yet passionate camp director vividly described the death of Jesus at every gathering. The problem was that this is as far as they got. They touched on the resurrection of Jesus just once. There was nothing about the great cost of discipleship. There was nothing about the kingdom of God [a subject Jesus seemed to emphasize – see the synoptic Gospels]. There was nothing about sanctification, the long Christian word for how God slowly transforms people from the inside out. No, everything was about escaping hell. After all, people could die at any time. And it is scary to imagine what it would be like to die as a rebel from God.
Salvation is absolutely an important message. And it is a lot easier to talk about salvation than discipleship. But maybe the problem lies in the difficulty of letting go of old habits. Everyone, it seems, has heard about the sinner’s prayer. But have they heard about God’s kingdom? Have they heard about the Holy Spirit that was sent at Pentecost to comfort, empower, and guide the church? Have they imagined what the world might be like if the church was truly a forgiving, restoring, loving, generous, honest community?
Sadly, the message of salvation seems to have sanctioned off the work of Jesus to the next world. It is only when we die that we reap the benefits of salvation, the story goes. But this does not appear to be the case for members of the early church. For them, following the risen Christ meant radical life-change. In Acts 2:45 Luke records what following Jesus meant for the earliest believers: “And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need.” They also ate together, prayed together, and worshiped God. They had a common life together. I doubt if there was a guy telling everyone to accept Jesus into their heart at these meetings. All they knew was that a change should be made.
To be clear, I do believe our relationship with God is personal. I John 3:1a speaks of this: “See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are.” Saint Paul tells us in Ephesians 1:5 about how God has literally adopted us: “[in love] he predestined us for adoption as sons [it should go without saying that women are part of this in an equal manner] through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will…” And since God is personal, we can follow relationally. The late Robert E. Webber said this: “When someone asks me the question, “Do you have a personal relationship with God?” I always answer, “You’re asking the wrong question. What is important here is not that I in and of myself achieve or create a personal relationship with God, but that God has a personal relationship with me through Jesus Christ, which I affirm and nourish.”
I also believe that belief is important. John’s Gospel brings this into crystal clear perspective. But James tells us the result of life in Jesus: real change. He does not equivocate: “…faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead [2:17].” Jesus is interested in eternity. But eternity began millennia ago, and time races forward whilst unnamed people are dying without hearing about Jesus. Famines wrack the planet even as human casualties mount from wars and genocide. Christians, I believe, should cease worrying about how God will judge those who have never heard his name, and embody a faith that the world will find peculiar.
Pope Francis is helping to animate this kind of faith. Washing the feet of imprisoned Muslims was certainly an act of humility and love, an act that forces one to ask, “why would he ever do that?” I am not advocating that followers of Jesus cease sharing their faith. I am only suggesting that their sharing should point toward God’s kingdom reality. Individual lives are transformed, as is the church as a corporeal unit.
See, the problem with inviting Jesus into your heart is that he stays there. He stays, instigating change, reminding you of your calling, listening to your cries for hope, helping you to grow deep roots of life changing faith, and spurring you on toward love and good deeds.
Robert E. Webber, The Divine Embrace: Recovering the Passionate Spiritual Life (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2006), 89.