The idea of being saved was continually pounded into my brain for as long as I can remember. Getting saved was considered the most important thing that could ever happen in your life. It was more important than who you marry, how you live, where you live, how long you live or how you die, or any other thing you could possibly accomplish. Any book you wrote or artistic endeavor was considered worthless if you were not saved. You could discover the cure for cancer or the secret to world peace, but still fall short of success if you were not saved. Even the President of the United States, considered by many to be the most powerful person in the world, is not admirable if not saved.
I was taught that getting saved is not difficult. It requires saying a prayer. For Christians in certain denominations it also requires being baptized, but I was raised to believe that, although important, baptism is not necessary for salvation. In other words, you should be baptized, but if it doesn’t happen for some reason, you are still saved.
Baptism was not really optional in my house. My father led me through the Sinner’s Prayer of asking Jesus into my heart on Sunday afternoon, and that night at church I was baptized. I am pretty confident no one ever asked; it was simply assumed I wanted to be baptized.
In our particular tradition, reciting the Sinner’s Prayer” (or something similar) is also known as a profession of faith. It is how to fulfill the words of Paul recorded in Romans, “…that if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved; for with the heart a person believes, resulting in righteousness, and with the mouth he confesses, resulting in salvation” (10:9-10). It is not enough to simply say the words, but you must also believe the words. And that is where the problem begins.
We were always taught that these words meant there must be a moment in time when you actually confessed, spoke out loud, the words, “Jesus is Lord.” It was usually stashed within the Sinner’s Pray, which goes something like this – “Dear Lord Jesus, I know I am a sinner, and I ask for your forgiveness. I believe you died for my sins and rose from the dead. I trust and follow you as my Lord and Savior. Guide my life and help me to do your will. In your name, amen.”
Once you say that prayer and mean it with all your heart then you are saved. In addition, the amazing thing about the tradition where I was raised, once you have been saved then it can’t be taken away from you. We use the phrase, “once saved, always saved” to describe those who genuinely prayed the prayer. There are Christians with other positions on this matter of losing your salvation. Some say that you can renounce it with your words or actions, but once you do it is lost forever. Others say you might lapse, but then you can be resaved, kind of like a revolving door, moving in and out of eternal security.
All of this theology allowed us to have a pretty good idea about who is saved and who is not. If you grew up in a tradition that did not teach the Sinner’s Prayer it is still possible to be saved, but it was almost by accident. The thought is that somewhere in the midst of all the catechisms and rituals you made a profession that Jesus is Lord.
I must admit there was a lot of confusing terminology floating around in my youth when we gathered in the church basement for Bible study and Kool-Aid. A synonym for “being saved,” especially for children, was the phrase, “ask Jesus into your heart.” I never understood what that means. I still don’t understand.
For a child, the first image of a heart is that red valentine shaped object that sometimes has an arrow stuck in it. As you get a little older, you realize the heart is something in your chest that beats. The idea of asking someone to get into my heart is mind-boggling. How does that happen? Compounding the difficulty of this image is that the person I am asking into my heart is someone I have never seen. When we expect children to comprehend this concept we are really asking them to grasp some very abstract ideas, way beyond their intellectual capabilities.
Yet, even though they have no way of actually understanding, we have been comforting people that they are ok because they were saved as a child.
To be saved in the biblical sense means first of all saved from death, or the more common expression, we have eternal life. This does not mean our physical body will not die, but that our spirit will live on in eternity. We will neither experience spiritual death nor be separated from God.
To be saved also means that we are saved from sin. In other words, we are forgiven. We no longer have to pay the penalty for our sin and we are also in a position to live victoriously over the power of sin in our current lives. Being saved is a marvelous thing, which not only has ramifications for eternity, but also for our everyday lives.
Within the framework I had as a child it was pretty easy to calculate who would and who would not be in heaven. Those who had confessed Jesus as Lord, which also meant they needed to be able to identify a specific place and definite point in time when it first happened. If you could not do that then it was unlikely you would be enjoying eternity alongside the rest of us behind the pearly gates.
However, all this began to unravel as I aged. Perhaps it started with my children. I watched them grasp the faith, the same faith that I took from my parents, and make it their own. But I saw in them stutter steps. As very young children they would recite the prayer and lay claim to salvation. As they grew older they would sometimes question, not their faith, but the efficacy of reciting the prayer. Perhaps they did not understand or perhaps they did not mean it enough. Anyway, they had enough doubts that they would sometimes feel the need to do it again, even to the point of being baptized once again.
I looked back at my own salvation experience. I remember tearing up at the conclusion of a Sunday morning worship service, the time when folks were invited to come to the altar to receive Christ. I needed my mother’s help to get into my wheelchair so I could respond, but she ignored my tugs on her dress.
Sitting at the dinner table I began to cry once again. My father asked what was wrong so I explained my desire to be saved. To be honest, the only other thing I remember is being baptized that night at church. I don’t recall reciting a prayer or actually confessing Jesus is Lord. (When I stated earlier that my father led me in reciting the Sinner’s Pray, it is because I am sure that is what he did because it would be what he always did with someone wanting to be saved.)
I am confident nothing dramatic happened in my life. I was the same kid in school on Monday that I had been when we left on Friday. My love for Jesus and my understanding of myself was not any different. It was an experience and I can’t possibly imagine how it changed the eternal destiny of my life.
Does that mean I was not saved? What about my children, did they need to be saved more than once or were they just not capable of being saved the first time?
In addition, I think about all those people from other Christian traditions; the ones who are not expected to recite the Sinner’s Prayer. I have a hard time believing they have not been saved. I have moved well beyond my tribalistic notion that Baptists will be the only ones in heaven. I will not be surprised to run into a Methodist or two or perhaps even a Presbyterian (I don’t expect to see any Episcopalians, though).
Consequently, I have had to do away with the standards I had for determining who will and who will not be in heaven. When I turn to the words of Jesus, I read that He said something about caring for the poor and outcasts and doing the will of the Father. He did say that we need to enter through the narrow gate, and I presume that gate is a reference to Jesus Himself. I am confident there will not be folks in heaven who got there any way other than through Jesus.
But, my point is that there may be multiple ways of getting to Jesus; at least more than I originally thought. That is why I say there will be more people in heaven than I ever imagined. A meaningful declaration of the Sinner’s Pray will work, but there are, no doubt, other ways that are just as successful. I am certainly happy that it is not up to me to be the judge of who is in and who it out.