Monday, June 01, 2020

Anonymous Asks (95)

“Do you have to say certain words to become a Christian?”

Entering into a relationship with God is not like signing up to play for a ball team, getting initiated into a college fraternity or joining MENSA. There are no tests to pass, no dotted lines to sign on, no secret handshakes and no code words like “Open, Sesame” which must be spoken to allow access to God.

Making the Good Confession

There is certainly a confession to be made, but that confession may be made in your own words, not by reciting a formula. The apostle Paul puts it this way: “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”

The acknowledgement that Jesus is Lord is really first and foremost an attitude, a conviction, a condition of the heart. Simply mouthing the words “Jesus is Lord” does not make them a reality in your personal experience. A religious creed or formula is only as real as the heart that recites it, and the extent to which it is lived out in practice.

In fact, there are many ways we may acknowledge Jesus as Lord, some verbal and others symbolic. If this were not the case, then nobody who is inarticulate or speech-impaired could be saved.

Into the Waters of Baptism

One way to acknowledge Jesus as Lord is through a public baptism. Water baptism is the symbolic declaration that I have died with Christ and been raised with him. There are no instructions in scripture about what Christians ought to say when they are being baptized. There is only the Lord’s directive to baptize new disciples “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (though that is really an instruction to the person doing the baptizing, not to the person undergoing it), and the example of the apostles baptizing and commanding baptism “in the name of Jesus Christ”.

Baptism speaks for me even if I am not sufficiently versed theologically to explain clearly what I believe to others. In going under the waters of baptism, I am submitting to the orders of my Master. I am declaring him my Lord, and asserting that I intend to follow his direction. I am acknowledging that I am no longer the “captain of my soul”, as William Ernest Henley put it. Jesus is Lord.

Thieves and Revilers

The thief on the cross acknowledged this, didn’t he. He first publicly declared, “This man has done nothing wrong,” then said to Jesus, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.” What was the Lord’s answer? “Today you will be with me in paradise.” No particular formula was required. The word “Lord” was not even spoken. But the spirit of that declaration was present in the heart of the dying thief. By asking for help, he was recognizing his own inability to save himself, and putting himself in the Lord’s hands. Who asks a dying man for help, nailed to a cross through his hands and feet? The very idea would be ridiculous ... except the thief was convinced this was an unjust and very temporary state of affairs which God would shortly overthrow. In this he was correct.

Saul’s conversion experience was almost as unusual. He saw a light from heaven and heard a voice, and he knew enough to say “Lord” even before he was able to identify the speaker. We do not read that he recited any formula. We cannot even be sure at what precise moment he crossed over that line from death to life. And yet he was certainly saved. Everything about his conduct from that moment on declared that he had recognized Jesus as his master and commander. He took orders from nobody else.

No Magic Formula

So, no, there is no magic word-formula to salvation. What counts is the conviction that God has made a way for me into his presence by acknowledging the supremacy of Jesus of Nazareth. God has made him both Lord and Christ.

As long as I genuinely believe that truth and give evidence of it in the things I say and do, how I express it verbally is comparatively unimportant. That said, assuming my lips, tongue, brain and lungs operate properly, if I really believe Jesus is Lord, I will have no reluctance to say the words out loud. They will trip lightly off my tongue. I may not always live up to them perfectly, but the issue of his lordship in my life is settled once and for all. There is no going back.

In fact, if you call yourself a Christian but can’t bring yourself to say those words when the occasion calls for it, you need to ask yourself whether you have really entered into a relationship with God at all.

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