Monday, May 21, 2007

Blessed Assurance?

A recent example of Billy Graham's My Answer column brings out a very common question. One that I'm sure Graham himself has answered many, many times.

Here's a quick excerpt:
Q: My older brother is a Christian, and a couple of months ago he told me I needed to ask Jesus into my life. I did, but I can't tell that it's made much difference. I'm not even sure God has forgiven me. Does it work for some people but not for others? — D.M.

A: Dear D.M.,
No, Christ isn't like a medicine that works for some people but not for others. He is the universal remedy for sin for everyone who puts their trust in Him—including you. If you have sincerely turned from your sins and asked Christ to come into your life, you can be confident that He has done exactly that. And if you are unsure if you have done this, take that step of commitment right now.
This is the standard evangelical response to this kind of question: "All you have to do to secure God's forgiveness is to ask Jesus to come into your life." I've preached this message myself. I believe it. In a sense, it really is that simple.

On the other hand, in his commentaries on the Left Behind series, Slacktivist has often criticized this formula as being "magic:" Say the right words (as in an incantation), and you'll be saved. And Slacktivist rightly responds by noting that Jesus himself said "Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only those who do the will of my Father who is in heaven." (Matthew 7:21, TNIV) I don't think Billy Graham would argue against the point that Slacktivist is trying to make here. In fact, I think that this is implicit in the conditional clause that Graham inserts into his response: "If you have sincerely turned from your sins and asked Christ to come into your life...." Evangelicals (and, again, I count myself here) tend to believe that, if you're truly repentant of your sins, you will do the will of the Father. One necessarily flows out of the other.

My concern here is that Graham's response has the problem of communicating an unintended message to the new Christian: "If asking Jesus into your life hasn't made a difference, you must not have done it right (i.e. with true repentance)." While this is theologically true (according to my understanding), it puts the focus on the wrong point. It sets up the potential Christian to look for the difference within him/herself, rather than just getting on with the act of doing God's will out of a changed life. I've read Billy Graham's stuff enough to know that he would agree that such a self-focus is misleading (indeed, check out my comments on another of his columns, where he tells his readers not to put their trust in their feelings).

I think that this may be a main issue for many Evangelical Christians, both current and potential, in our day. Evangelicals have, for the past few decades, placed a lot of emphasis on the believer's "personal relationship with Christ." Graham demonstrates this in his closure to his recent column:
... becoming a Christian isn't the end of our spiritual journey, but the beginning. God wants you to grow in your relationship with Him—and you do this by spending time with Him. Take time each day to be alone with God, reading His Word, the Bible, and praying. Become active also in a church where Christ is taught and lived. Don't let your spiritual life whither, but take steps now to strengthen your faith in Christ.
Again, I do not mean to dispute the value of this in any way. But more and more people today wish to shift the emphasis. To paraphrase Matthew 7:21, Christians are to be about doing the will of God. This is how the new believer (and, more importantly, other people the believer will come in contact with) will know that he/she has been forgiven: by the empowering acts God performs through the believers actions! Far from being unsure whether accepting Christ has made any difference, the difference will be undeniable.

So, for those of you who are believers, what are you doing sitting there reading this blog (and what am I doing continuing to write it)? There's work to do!


  1. So what do you think about the importance of baptism?

  2. An interesting question, relevant to the issue at hand, if a bit tangential. I believe that anyone who becomes a Christian should be baptized, but if (to use a cliché) you happened to be hit by a truck after conversion, but before baptism, you would still be forgiven, and thus "saved."

    It may or may not be relevant here to add that I affirm infant baptism, in addition to "believers' baptism." (Although you'll here some Christians say "I believe in believer's baptism" to say that one must be baptized as an adult believer, I think that almost ALL Christians affirm that form of baptism. The question is whether or not they think that infant baptism is also viable, as I do.) Baptism is a sign of God's covenant with believers, and is expected of all believers. But I do not believe that it is "required" in the sense that, if you miss being baptized for some reason, you therefore "lose out" on getting into heaven.



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