On Backroom Conversions and Whether or Not God’s the “Decider”

So I guess Samuel said the “sinner’s prayer,” or something like it, last Sunday. I’m making this guess based on an email I got from the Children’s Director at the faith community we’ve been participating in. Her email mentioned a “discussion centered around dying and what to expect, and as many of the children have experienced death in some form or another, there were lots of questions and ideas about fear, heaven, and how we are certain of our salvation.” It goes on to say that they “prayed together, as some expressed a desire to ask God for forgiveness and Christ to be their Savior.” She further expresses her excitement “that some made a decision to follow Christ in their hearts and with their lives” and relates that some “of our children now have their names written in ‘The Book’ in heaven, and they are sure to be there.”

Folks who know me or have read this blog for a while will rightly guess that this raises lots of questions for me. It’s said that having children forces parents to come to terms in some way with many things, including their own faith life. Many people who have not been regular church service attenders for some time, for example, may go back for the sake of their kids, or at least send the kids. Anyway, I’m certainly experiencing something like that now. One of the issues this situation raises is a basic question of theology. I grew up, as you, dear reader, may know, in the “evangelical” milieu wherein being a “Christian” at least seems to be largely about making such a “decision” for Christ so that you don’t go to hell, and then following certain rules, like: don’t cuss, don’t drink (much), don’t watch certain movies or read certain books or listen to certain music, don’t participate in Halloween (in some circles; there’s remarkable inconsistency on this one), don’t have an abortion, don’t support social programs that would limit abortions or otherwise mitigate their impact, do support the death penalty, do support war, do “go to church” on Sunday, do be patriotic and do vote Republican, etc. That, in my experience, was basically it. There was an easy formula: say the prayer, follow the rules, recruit others to do the same, and you’re “good;” you’re otherwise free to pursue the “American dream” just like everybody else. Sure, there was some talk of being distinct or separate from “the world,” but it was a distinction with little difference because the “Christian life” as described above is little more than an affirmation of USAmerican civil religion, an amalgam of God and country that so dilutes the meaning of the former so as to make it irrelevant, if not meaningless. God, in this context, becomes a tool for serving the needs of the state. Religion is certainly an opiate, then, a drug used to keep the masses in line or whip them into a patriotic fervor, as the need may arise.

There is little in this that resembles the life of Jesus, who was crucified on a Roman cross in the ultimate act of “church”/state complicity. The religious leaders of his day saw him for the threat that he was, the ultimate threat to secular power whether wielded by the state or the “church.” Jesus spoke of a “kingdom that was not of this world” and said it was already “upon you.” He gave lip service to state authority by saying to “give to Caesar what is Caesar’s” (in that case, Caesar’s coins) but to God “what is God’s” (your heart, your soul, your life, everything that is). He further called into question state power by showcasing the injustice of state/military practices such as forcing civilians to carry soldiers’ gear for a mile by, in that case, saying that one should carry it for two. More subversion can be found in the admonition to “turn the other cheek.” As one writer has noted regarding this:

“Imagine being struck on your right cheek.  You probably get hit by the striker’s right hand, which means you get backhanded.  Backhanding does not happen in a fair face-off.  Backhanding is an insult, punishment, or just plain abuse.  Back then it represented a clear situation of oppression or dominance. So you could 1) fight back (not smart), or 2) meekly take it, maybe with ‘Yes, Sir’. Now Jesus suggests a third approach.  Offer the other cheek.  You are not fighting back, but neither are you meekly taking it.  You are asking for more.  You may get it or you may not, but either way you’ve made a point or two.  You are not exactly what they think you are, and you know it; you are a person, and deserve more equal treatment and respect as a person; you are aware of the truth behind the fraud.  You are amplifying awareness of, and insulting, their bullying behavior and the system that allows it.”

Jesus’ religious subversion was no less troubling for the powers that be. He repeatedly said, “you have heard it said…but I tell you…” and thereby either took the Bible of his day and turned it on its head or stretched “the (religious) rules” so far as to make them impossible to follow, thereby showing the ultimate impossibility of a system dependent on them. An example of the former can be found when he said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven (Matthew 5:43-45).” An example of the latter is when he spoke about adultery, saying “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:27). Moreover, he repeatedly broke the religious rules by healing (doing work) on the Sabbath, touching (or being touched by) the “unclean,” claiming the power to forgive sin, etc. The Roman overlords at the time were not so quick to call for his death, but the Jewish religious leaders could not allow him to subvert their supposed authority any longer, and saw to it that Rome would help them put him down. In short, Jesus was dangerous, and this was no small part of why he was killed, the simultaneous cosmic significance of his death notwithstanding. Obviously, then, his life and witness bears little resemblance to the “Christian life” I described above.

Perhaps obviously, it is my hope, then, that following Jesus is more about living as he did and less about living as far too many of his supposed followers do now. It’s more about loving my local and global neighbors, enemies included, and less about fully identifying with the country in which I reside, let alone with either one of its political parties, however sympathetic I may be toward one or the other of them. Jen Hatmaker says this far better than I could. This is slightly long, but worth it. She says:

Politics are rife with power-plays, hypocrisy, corruption, agendas, contradictions, good platforms, bad platforms, men and women who love their country, men and women who’ve lost their moral compass, good policy, dangerous policy…in the red and blue camps alike. That any believer imagines a political platform will either usher in or threaten the kingdom of God is worse than dramatic; it is unbelief.

 No president can take the Kingdom out of our hearts. No candidate can steal what Jesus has already won. As the Kingdom came, so will it continue – not through Empire but through radical, subversive faith. It cannot be shaken, it cannot be removed. It lives and breathes through the work of Jesus on the cross, not the position of any human on the throne. Nor can any man in the sphere of government ever represent the comprehensive gospel of Christ. Never. He may reflect elements, but rest assured, those tenets will be contradicted elsewhere in his platform.

Our faith and outrage and hope and trust is misplaced in any leadership model other than Jesus’, who resisted all earthly power and position and rejected any political identification:

The last shall be first.

The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.

My kingdom is not of this world.

The greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves.

Jesus’ subversive teaching taught his followers to shame and expose the evils of political oppression by audacious acts of humility, not through bedding down within the system. I particularly like how John Piper discussed voting in his post “Let Christians Vote As Though They Were Not Voting”, referencing 1 Corinthians 7:29-31 (by the way, do not google “John Piper election” in hopes of pulling up this article, because you will find seven hundred thousand pages of predestination sermon links):

“So it is with voting. There are losses. We mourn. But not as those who have no hope. We vote and we lose, or we vote and we win. In either case, we win or lose as if we were not winning or losing. Our expectations and frustrations are modest. The best this world can offer is short and small. The worst it can offer has been predicted in the book of Revelation. And no vote will hold it back.”

These things remain: God’s kingdom exists anywhere believers are choosing love and grace and reckless obedience; it is undeterred by a red or blue context. Sisters and brothers in Christ will vote differently, because as we all must, we simply have to choose between two platforms that each include some gospel-centric policies and others that contradict. Either way, we will swallow some ideologies that belie the message of Jesus. Regardless, God is still on His throne, and our true allegiance rests in His sovereignty. Four or eight years of an administration cannot compromise the historical work of a holy God.

If discipleship means loving the broken, then love the broken.

If following Jesus means abandoning our rights, then abandon them.

If you care about the sanctity of life, then devote yourself to its care – womb to grave.

If you worry about the vulnerable, then give your life away for them.

If Scripture tells us perfect love drives out fear, then it does.

If your trust is in a Servant Savior, then put it there and leave it there.

 

As children of God, we should be unthreatened by secular power. The Law was never able to bring redemption, and it is still insufficient to make all things new. The healing and hope and goodness we long for is realized fully in Jesus, extended through His people despite hardship or distance or the passage of time or the changing of guards. No political party can see it through or take it away. It was finished on the cross, and the discussion is over.

So may we deal kindly with one another in a manner befitting the Bride, as a people who loosely engage the system of the day, retaining our prophetic voice and refusing to malign one another for a false kingdom that will soon pass away. May we preach Jesus crucified and risen, the only hope of the world. And whether we vote red or blue, may we reach across the lines, join hands, and proclaim:

“To the only wise God be glory forever through Jesus Christ! Amen.” ~Romans 16:27

 

That, my friends, is the Christian life I hope to be a part of, someday perhaps.

Anyway, this brings us back to what happened in Sunday School with Samuel. “Evangelicals” follow a pattern in which a baby is born and then in some way “claimed” by the community on behalf of God through a “baby dedication.” A sympathetic spin on this, I think, would be to say that it’s less about the community dedicating the baby to God, though there may be some good symbolism to be mined there, and more about the community dedicating themselves to love and raise the baby in the grace of God. Nonetheless, later the child grows up and makes the faith that was claimed for them as a baby their own through baptism, after making the “decision for Christ” described above. Lutherans follow a similar pattern. For the record, though I was raised in the “evangelical” milieu as noted above (or as a “fundagelical,” as I like to call it), I went to Luther Seminary and the faith I hope to have as an adult is grounded in Lutheran theology, which is part of why- for good or ill- the faith community we now participate in is an ELCA one. The afore-mentioned Children’s Director at this Lutheran congregation, however, is a paid staff person who is not a member and in fact is part of the local “evangelical” mega-congregation, perhaps obviously.

So Lutherans follow a similar pattern to the one I just described, but I think the meaning is much, much richer. For Lutherans, a baby is also “claimed” in some way in God’s name, but in this case this occurs through infant baptism. If, for “evangelicals” baptism is the act that somehow “seals the deal” of the baptized’s identification with God, this is no less true for Lutherans. For the “evangelical,” however, the onus is put on the person. You have to make a decision to say the prayer and accept God’s forgiveness, and then you’re “saved;” you’re “in,” and you show this symbolically by getting baptized. For Lutherans, conversely, what “saves” you is so much less about you that you’re removed from the equation. It’s ALL about what God does. God does the saving; God’s “the decider.” God claims you in the waters of baptism as an infant. God, who stands at both ends of time, dies for you “while you were yet a sinner.” In Lutheran theology, and, I would argue, in Scripture, faith is a gift, fully given by God. This raises lots of other questions which are more appropriate for another time, but obviously I find this theologically much more compelling.

The second part of the pattern, then, for the Lutheran occurs when one is older through Confirmation. In Confirmation the child who has been baptized, who has been “saved” wholly by God’s grace and nothing more (or less), then takes the initiative to more fully live like someone who has received the gift of faith. They may not take “ownership” of it, I would like to think, because it’s God’s good gift, but they live much more intentionally like a beggar who has received bread and knows where to get more.

As my seminary buddy Mark said about all this:

Samuel has both been baptized and made some sort of decision for Christ now, is that right? Lutherans would say he became a Christian upon baptism, and if he had a moment of illumination in Sunday School, well, the Spirit is involved in those too I figure…but I would want Samuel to know that he has a relationship with God that will last forever because of God’s initiative in adopting him and unconditional promise through the sacrament. What (the Children’s Director) is teaching here really suggests that baptism is irrelevant, and the equating of salvation with getting into heaven is narrow and doesn’t resemble much the Bible, as N.T. Wright has probably shown best in Surprised by Hope.

I couldn’t agree more.

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