Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Unsaved Christians (Taking a Spiritual Mulligan)

This past Sunday morning, someone at church was talking with me about a situation in which a married couple had recently been saved after hearing a sermon (by whom, I know not). The couple's mother/mother-in-law was quite upset by their sudden conversion. The reason for her distress was the fact that both the husband and wife had grown up in church and had purported for some time to be saved. This mother was unsure of how to react to their surprising salvation decision. Although I don't know for sure, my guess is that she was asking herself questions like--Was this most recent decision the "real thing"? Had they really just been "playing the game" all these years? What was it about this particular sermon that made them "see the light"? Those are questions I would be asking if I were in her position.

The truth is--situations like the one described above are not that uncommon. In fact, my personal story follows a similar plot line. I expressed interest in salvation as a five-year old boy (even to the point of "making a decision") and operated under the assumption that I was saved until I was 14. It was at that point that I understood the Gospel truths (for the first time, really) and was saved. Doubtless, there are others who have grown up in church or have attended church for many years who could give similar testimony. I have even heard stories of visiting evangelists coming to a church, preaching rather forcefully, and seeing dozens of church members (including deacons and other leaders) saved as a result.

This concept of "Unsaved Christians" (that is--those who claim to be and even believe themselves to be saved but may or may not be) is an intriguing one to me. What are we to make of scenarios like the ones I have already mentioned? Obviously, if someone has been deceiving others and/or themselves about their spiritual condition, then I rejoice with them in the fact that they are now justified before God. If someone thought they were saved but were not because they did not truly understand the facts of salvation (as was the case in my life), their salvation decision is most assuredly a wonderful thing.

On the other hand, what if a person was not confused? What if they were not living a lie? What if they were truly, genuinely saved before they "got saved" (the most recent time)? What if, beforehand, they understood the Gospel, had already "made a decision", and believed themselves to be a child of God? What are we to make of a situation like that?

As you might have guessed, I have several thoughts on this subject.

The first question I would ask someone in this situation is this, "What was it that brought you to the conclusion that you weren't really saved all this time?" Their answer to this question is critical. If their answer indicates that they did not understand or believe the Gospel truths, then I say, "Praise God! You are now a Christian!" However, I believe there is cause for concern if they answer something along these lines--"Well, I thought I was saved, but when I heard that message tonight, I just knew I needed to 'really' get saved!" or "Well, I thought I was saved, but I haven't really been acting like it much in my life, so I realized I needed to 'really' become a Christian." In my opinion, conversion decisions for "Unsaved Christians" based upon fear-inducing preaching or a lack of "fruit" in one's life are built upon a shaky foundation, and I will explain why as quickly as I can.

Although the Gospel deals in part with fearful concepts (hell, death, eternity, punishment, etc...), I question the wisdom of using fear as our primary means of persuading people to be saved--especially when dealing with a group of people who already think they are saved. The truth is, this is the preferred M.O. of many a preacher and evangelist, and it does produce results, but...I am still uncomfortable with this philosophy. Is it really a healthy habit to scare Christians into "really" getting saved? "What if they aren't Christians?" someone might argue, "What if they really do need to be saved? Shouldn't a preacher present the Gospel as powerfully as possible in order to convince the lost to accept Christ?" My answer to that line of argument is this. If someone is not saved, the thing that needs to bring them to a point of conversion is the true drawing and conviction of the Holy Spirit of God not fear and intimidation. If someone is saved, the last thing I want to do is convince them that they are not. Many evangelistic sermons do that very thing, and cause a great deal of confusion and doubt in the process. There is a fine-line between powerful preaching and "fear-mongering", and it seems to me that the negative consequences of the latter should cause many preachers to adjust their approach. Don't forget, the Gospel is, at its core, "good news."

In the situation of someone getting saved because of a lack of evidence in their lives, I also have reservations. (Coincidentally, many of the fear-inducing sermons mentioned in the previous paragraph use this "lack of fruit" idea as the basis of their Gospel appeal.) I know that the conventional wisdom in many Christian circles stipulates that those who are "truly" saved will, inevitably, demonstrate this in their lives, but I don't buy it. The New Testament is replete with examples of individuals who were saved but did not act like it. (Have you read I Corinthians lately?) Many of the New Testament Epistles were written to convince those who were already saved to act accordingly (Ephesians 4:1). Does this not imply the possibility that a Christian can be a true Christian but act in a very un-Christian way? To resolve the problem of carnal Christianity by simply declaring one's salvation to be invalid and basically starting over is, in my mind, a lazy and faithless approach. It's the equivalent of a "mulligan" in a round of golf. This term refers to a golfer taking a "do-over" when they aren't doing particularly well on a hole. It's not officially a part of the rules, and true golfing purists aren't likely to advocate the use of "mulligans". Part of playing the game of golf is to play the ball where it lies, no matter how difficult it might be. The fact is, the Christian life is one of constant contradictions--victories and defeats, ups and downs, growth and backsliding, progression and regression. The solution for a defeated Christian is not to take a "mulligan" and start over, thinking that somehow it will be different this time. The solution is to "play it where it lies"--to come to God as a Christian, admit your weakness, and implore Him for His help. This is a request God is more than willing to grant.

The biggest problem with these scenarios that I have mentioned is that the individual's assurance of salvation is based on shaky ground--feelings and actions--when it should be based on the unchanging, unwavering truth of God's Word concerning salvation. That is why I am a bit wary when I hear of "Unsaved Christians" getting saved.

For what it's worth...

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Wet Cement

Last weekend was a busy one for our family as we celebrated my son Eldan's 4th birthday. I know it sounds cliche, but I really do find it hard to believe that 4 years have passed already. It seems like only yesterday that I was watching him....Okay, okay. I'll stop with the nostalgic reverie.

As his birthday approached, I was struck with a unique thought--Most likely, we have reached a point in Eldan's life where he will begin to remember things. I mean, really remember things. As in--remembering them 30 years from now. Think about it. What and when are your earliest memories? I can distinctly remember life before kindergarten, which would put my earliest remembrances around 4 years old. If my experience is at all typical (Based on my informal survey of my Sunday School class this morning--it is), then from this point on Eldan will be able to look back as an adult and grasp various scenes from our lives together.

This fact intrigues me on several levels. In a way, it's a bit sad to think that he will remember very little (if any) of what we have experienced as a family thus far in his life. On the other hand, it's a bit comforting to think that he will remember very little (if any) of what we have experienced as a family thus far in his life! (Think about the preceding statement for a minute if you need to.) On a totally different level, it is quite sobering to think that my wife and I are officially beginning the process of formulating and influencing our son's thinking, his personality, his very view of the world around him. His mind is like a slate of wet cement, and for the next 12-15 years we will be the primary source of impression on that slate. Wow! Happy Birthday to us!

To really grasp the significance of what I just wrote, think for a moment about your own upbringing. How much of who you are (whether positive aspects or negative aspects) is the result of the influence of parents, grandparents, teachers, and others in positions of influence? If we are honest, the answer is, "A great deal of it." It makes sense why God has instructed us in the Bible to teach our children in His way and His truth. He hasn't commanded us to teach or influence our children, for we will do that whether we want to or not. He has, however, commanded us to teach and influence our children in righteousness. The fact is, we will leave our mark on the cement of our children's lives. The question is, what kind of mark will we leave?

With that in mind, I would like to postulate four principles by which Danielle and I will try to abide as we carry out our parental mandate. I offer them here for your consideration and comment as you feel so inclined.

1. There are certain essential, non-negotiable, core elements of our faith that we must transmit to our children in order to be successful as parents. I believe that one of our main responsibilities as parents is to disciple our children. I believe that we should do this primarily by inculcating the heart of Christianity into their minds. This should be our focus. "What exactly is the heart of Christianity?" you might ask, "What are those essential core elements of our faith to be transmitted, and just how do you plan to transmit them?" Those, my friend, are excellent questions--ones on which Danielle and I have already been ruminating. My purpose here is not to give an answer (I don't know that I have one), but to simply establish the fact that, as parents, we must consider what is most important (the sine qua non) in the training of our children.

2. There are certain non-essential, negotiable elements of our faith that we should be willing to allow our children to decide for themselves. Modern Christianity is a big proverbial forest with a lot of proverbial trees in it. I think it is unrealistic and unwise to approach the parenting process with the insistence that our children end up in the same "neck of the woods" as we are. The fact is, our kids are not us. As much as they are like us--they aren't us. As they mature and begin to think through the myriad of choices that each Christian must make about their personal standards of living and personal beliefs, I believe we must allow them the freedom to do so for themselves. Our job as parents is not to clone ourselves in our children, but to bring them to a point of knowing, loving, and serving God for themselves. If they choose a different "campsite" than us in areas of personal preference, this is...okay. This is acceptable. I would even argue that it is preferable because our children will be living and believing purposefully as opposed to habitually.

3. In the transmission of our faith to our children, we as parents must find the delicate balance between requirement and encouragement. I believe it is foolhardy to simply force your children to "do Christian things" (i.e.-pray, read the Bible, witness, go to church, memorize scripture, etc...) and expect them to understand the point of such activities and truly put their heart into it. On the other hand, I believe it is just as foolhardy to place no requirements on your children in things relating to Christianity and simply encourage them to "find God for themselves." There is a balance to be found here--especially as they get into the teen years. (I say that, not because I have a teen but because I work with them as a teacher.) Where is that balance? How can it be achieved? I don't know exactly. What I do know is that every Christian parent ought to be asking themselves these questions and praying earnestly for the wisdom to find the answers to them.

4. I can only truly transmit my faith to my children to the extent that it is real and genuine in me. Jesus said, "The disciple is not above his teacher." (Luke 6:40) Although this should not be taken as an absolute statement, it is true that, to a large extent, my children will progress no further in their walk with God than I have progressed myself--at least while they are still in their formative years. Perhaps one of the greatest things I can ever do for my kids is to seek God with all of my heart and strive to find a true, genuine walk with Him. If they see the genuine in me, I believe they will want the genuine for themselves.

There you have it--just a few of the thoughts about parenting that have been buzzing my brain in recent weeks. This post is by no means an exhaustive authority on the subject, but it may serve to get us thinking about our parental strategy. That, in my opinion, is a good thing about which to be thinking.

Sorry for going so long...

So long!