Monday, December 24, 2018

Anonymous Asks (19)

“I keep praying the sinner’s prayer. I’m so anxious. Am I saved or not?”

I have some bad news: I’m probably the worst person to answer the question of whether or not you are really saved. In fact, I suspect nobody else can tell you that either, since salvation is a byproduct of faith. Faith is not something we human beings are particularly good at measuring, either in ourselves or in others, since we cannot see into the heart, very often even our own.

As for me, I actually had to look up the “sinner’s prayer” to see what it is. I’m pretty sure there’s no such thing to be found in the Bible, at least not under that name.

The Sinner’s Prayer

Fortunately there is Wikipedia, for better or worse, so here goes:
“The Sinner’s Prayer is an evangelical Christian term referring to any prayer of repentance, prayed by individuals who feel convicted of the presence of sin in their lives and have the desire to form or renew a personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ. While some Christians see reciting the sinner’s prayer as the moment defining one’s salvation, others see it as a beginning step of one’s lifelong faith journey. It also may be prayed as an act of ‘re-commitment’ for those who are already believers in the faith.”
Aha. I might have guessed. But I’m not sure a secular definition of an extra-scriptural term is much help to an insecure new believer. It sounds like a “thing evangelicals do” rather than a command of God. Let’s stick with what we do know.

What We Do Know

The book of Hebrews says this:
“Without faith it is impossible to please [God], for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.”
Now, I’m quite sure you believe God exists. If you did not, there would be no reason to be anxious. So your faith goes that far. The question is really this: do you believe God rewards people who seek him? Because it seems to me this issue is really about the character of God, not about your sins, however bad and however frequent they may be.

After all, we are all sinners, both before and after we are saved. The Bible makes this clear repeatedly: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” Christians sin like everyone else, and while ongoing sin affects our enjoyment of fellowship with God, it does not change the fact that we are his children.

Issues of Size and Frequency

Furthermore, Christian or non-Christian, the size of our sin is not an issue for God either. Jesus said, “Every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven people” (and then went on to make a single exception to that forgiveness principle, which is a sin you cannot possibly have committed since you would have to have lived in the first century to commit it). Paul spoke of Christians who had been homosexuals, adulterers, idolaters and thieves, but he also spoke about a professing Christian brother who had relapsed into outrageous sexual sin. Rather than writing him off as a useless pagan and a waste of grace, he promptly told his fellow believers how to confront their brother’s sin in order to bring him back into fellowship with God and with themselves.

Moreover, the frequency of our sin is not an issue. Jesus said, “If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him, and if he sins against you seven in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.” If God expects this sort of near-limitless forgiveness from fallen men and women, then surely his own generosity and capacity to forgive the sins of mankind more than exceeds it.

It is impossible to sin too often or too awfully for God.

Where the Real Problem Lies

Speaking generally, I think it is true that Christians sin less than we used to, and hopefully in most cases less badly than we used to. All the same, reading the Bible and being around other believers tends to make us much more sensitive and alert to the sin in our own lives than we were before we came to know the Lord Jesus, and therefore more concerned about why it keeps on happening.

It’s a small step from noticing how frequently we sin to “Maybe I wasn’t really saved in the first place”, and a continuous, miserable cycle of “getting saved”, sinning and coming under conviction again. Not a happy place to live.

But the problem is not our sins, big or small, venial or even “mortal”. If we believe what the Bible teaches about forgiveness, God has that covered.

Perhaps the problem is in your view of God.

The Right Things, the Right Order, the Right Attitude

Do you think God needs to be approached mechanistically, by way of rituals or by reciting speeches? Do you worry that you need to say the right words in the right order to get God to forgive you — or is it perhaps that you worry you need to say those same old words with greater sincerity? If you do either of these things, then your God is too small. He is, dare I say it, petty. His forgiveness depends on our ability to conjure up the right emotions or word-sequences, like sad little magicians mumbling their abracadabras over pots of boiling entrails in forlorn hope of getting an influx of arcane power from another plane of reality. Ugh. That’s too small for me, and too small for the scriptures.

Let me say this with great confidence: the God of the Bible is NOT petty.

The God of the Bible is “patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.” The God of the Bible has “no pleasure in the death of anyone,” says Ezekiel. The God of the Bible spreads out his hands “all the day to a rebellious people, who walk in a way that is not good, following their own devices.”

Does this sound like someone who demands you get all your emotional and linguistic ducks in a row before he will receive you? Surely not.

Rejecting you because you have asked for God’s forgiveness with inadequate pleading technique would be like me refusing to feed my cat until she asks me for dinner politely in English. Petty. In reality, it is enough for me that I know she is hungry and that she recognizes she cannot feed herself and needs my help. That will do just fine, even if she only speaks Cat and gives me the occasional prompting headbutt.

The Open Door

If it is the quality of our repentance that matters to our salvation, then we are really coming to God by works, not by faith at all.

Our salvation does not depend on our ability to repent to our own satisfaction. It depends on the steadfastness of our Father’s love, the generosity of his heart and the fact that he has permanently opened a way for us into his own presence through the perfect atoning work of his Son.

All we have to do is walk through that open door.

1 comment :

  1. I suggest that just as the "Our
    Father..." is a somewhat formulaic prayer that there is really no reason not to pray in such a manner if it helps you better express yourself and, in your opinion, better gets the point across. For example, I sometimes use:

    "A Prayer for Daily Neglects"

    "Father, I offer Thee the Sacred Heart of Jesus, with all its love, all its sufferings and all its merits.
    First --- To expiate all the sins I have committed this day and during all my life. Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit. As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.
    Second --- To purify the good I have done poorly this day and during all my life. Glory Be, etc.
    Third --- To supply for the good I ought to have done, and that I have neglected this day and all my life. Glory Be, etc."

    I might shorten it by saying the Glory be... only once, at the very end. It should also be noted that in the Catholic tradition this prayer is not intended to replace confession

    In my opinion, if I petition a king or someone of stature I find it appropriate to put my best foot forward. This does not prevent me, however, from also using more frequent and intimate, colloquial and short, daily spontaneous prayers as the circumstances move me. I belief in the effectiveness of both.