On this day, 28 years ago in ’95, I sat in the lounge room of a youth pastor’s humble home and said a prayer commonly known as The Sinner’s Prayer. That day felt like a remarkable moment, and the 10 other teens in that little Bible study on Bribie Island affirmed and celebrated my decision to be a Christian and follow Jesus.
Like many people I’ve met over the years, I was somewhat scared into my faith decision. I was genuinely afraid that if I didn’t pray that special prayer and instead simply lived a good moral life, I wouldn’t go to heaven. Why was 17-year-old Dave having an existential crisis? I don’t recall, but I do recall being told Jesus was returning soon (isn’t He always!?), that the devil wanted to mark you with a barcode, and that you better ensure your eternal future is in heaven and not hell.
Thankfully, in the years that have followed, I have been able to experience and gain what I consider a healthier, more sound idea of what salvation is. I’ve also found healing from the fear-bonded religious view of salvation I had, and today I embrace theology and practice that are more love-centric and less trauma- and anxiety-inducing. (Yes, they exist, and most of them have been around for centuries.)
Yesterday, a good friend asked how I now make sense of the terms and doctrines of salvation. Well, after nearly 30 years since praying that prayer and many of those years in active ministry vocational roles, I would basically say the idea of salvation I hold to now is more loving, sustainable, and healthier.
I used to see the day I prayed the sinner’s prayer as the day my eternal destination changed from hell to heaven. E.g. On Monday 4th, I was destined for hell, but on Tuesday 5th, after praying that special prayer, I was assured of heaven when I die. I was told that I needed to keep short accounts with God from that day forward so that if I were to suddenly die, I would stand before God with a clean slate.
Today, however, I see salvation as an ongoing event, an event of patient, loving integration. I now see that significant day in 1995 as a kind of marriage proposal from God, which I said yes to. Like an invitation from a great teacher to spend my days following them. I see that day as a milestone, much like a birthday, a wedding day, or the birth of a child. It’s a large marker in my very becoming.
I shudder at the thought of having had to maintain a kind of fear-based, dualistic, exclusive, and cruel notion of what salvation was for 28 years. When I look back at all the other kids in the youth group, there really aren’t that many people who have continued to live out their religious practice, and I don’t blame them! What a tough and mean direction to maintain with moral obedience and the conjuring of some kind of mental assent labeled as faith!
Today, as much as I don’t deny there is a kind of afterlife, my existential angst has given way to the idea that God’s offer and commitment to working in and through me to be more loving of everything and everyone, (including my own shameful and disconnected parts,) lies at the heart of the gospel. Salvation for me now can be found in God’s universal and eternal commitment to express God’s triune essence in and through creation to transform the world with that essence, and that essence is love. Pure, unconditional, transformational, healing, abundant, uncontrolling, relentless, patient love.
“But Dave, what of the commonly quoted 7 elements of salvation, being repentance, faith, regeneration, justification, adoption, sanctification, and glorification?” Do you just throw them aside for this wishy-washy notion of love? No way, I think they are absolutely important and are evident in the life of many pursuing what Dr M. Bussey calls ‘the creative spiritual journey’. In fact, I think any healthy relationship and spiritual pursuit expresses these elements in some way; including marriages, friendships and parenting.
“But Dave, aren’t you worried about your unsaved neighbours going to hell if they aren’t following Jesus? And if not, why even follow Jesus?” No, I’m not worried for their salvation or eternal placement… I think Christ has all that covered (2Cor 5:19). The question for me is less about insuring their eternal future and more about my capacity to love and be friendly – and if there is opportunity to share about Jesus, it would be so that they too might get to personally know and encounter Him in this life, like I have – because that alone is a reason to share the gospel. That IS eternal life (Jn 17:3).
* A final note to those concerned or triggered by my thoughts👆🏻: Let’s remember, this is a personal reflection on Facebook and not a theological essay on soteriology. You are welcome to ask questions or even quote scripture in the comments, but believe me, I could write a large book with pre-emptive answers addressing different theological objections with my rather vague 600 words above. Fortunately for me, I am happy for you to be working out your own salvation with fear and trembling, just as I do mine; so do as you feel you must, I respect that because I have been where you are, defending the doctrine of my tribe – I simply may not reply.
Love and becoming,