A number of times in my life I have been asked to write my testimony. “Tell the story of how you accepted Jesus,” they ask. Sometimes I am even asked for a date. It is assumed that such an important event, moment, and decision in my life should be forever etched in my memory.
I know many people who have incredibly inspiring stories of conversion. Some even celebrate the date each year as a second birthday. That is beautiful, but it has not been my experience. I have always had a tough time answering the date question. I don’t remember a date. I don’t remember one specific, eye opening moment of realization, clarity, and decision-making.
What I remember is being eight-years-old, sitting on my father’s knee, and trusting him when he told me that I needed to accept Jesus. I suppose in some sense I understood what he was saying, but I have to wonder if I prayed that prayer more out of trust and respect for my father than a trust-filled leap into the redeeming arms of God. But from that day on, I did consider myself a Christian.
Some time later, after years of professing faith, reading Scripture, and attending church, I was at a Christian concert where alter calls were in vogue, and I had a deep sense somewhere in my heart that I needed to answer the call. I was a bit embarrassed because my family (to whom I professed to be a Christian) was there, so I snuck away to where those soon to be sanctified souls gathered. I prayed the prayer and snuck back. I don’t remember the date. In fact, I didn’t feel like I was making a momentous decision. I actually felt that I was confirming, to God and myself, that the life I had been living for the last five years was genuine.
My senior year of high school I became active in a church. This was the first time in my life I experienced a consistent community of Christians. It was there I began to realize that my faith was more than a set of intellectual beliefs. I realized that my faith was pointless if my relationship with Jesus was just one part of a segregated life. I realized that my relationship with Jesus was the center of my life and everything else flowed from that.
This experience deeply impacted my life. Later that year I was sitting with one of my best friends, when he asked me an odd question. It’s important to know that he and I would fight often. We were both stubborn, and a typical evening included an argument that ended in me throwing him out of my house. We were third degree black belts in knucklehead fu. The question he asked as we sat on the stairs outside the gym was if I had been seeing a psychologist. I responded that I hadn’t and could not understand at the time why he asked. Looking back, I realize that he saw a change in my life, and the only way he could explain it was that I had been seeing a psychologist.
So help me out. Which of these moments was my moment of salvation? Is it the first, because this story began there? Is it the moment at the concert? That was, after all, a response to God and not my father. Or was it the realization that Christ must be the center, because this was the moment that brought on the most obvious change in my life? It is a tough question to answer, and I honestly don’t know if there is one.
I don’t know that I could point to a single date and say that was the moment. Rather, I get the sense that my date is an ongoing one. These three stories paint a picture of my salvation, and sometimes I wonder if that picture is still being painted.
So why do we ask for a date? Why do we assume that everyone must have this seminal conversion experience? What if our assumption is wrong? What if this assumption has caused us to elevate the conversion experience to such a level that it enables the alarming lack of disciples in the church today? What if our view of salvation has become so influenced by the idea of a moment that we have communicated that the moment is the pinnacle, and everything that comes next is an after thought? I think we have.
I think we have communicated a view of salvation that says, “Believe in Jesus and say a prayer. Then your eternity is set, and you can get back to your life.” No one is intentionally communicating this (at least I hope not), but I think that unintentionally we are producing a church that views salvation as holy fire insurance. We believe in Jesus, say a prayer, and purchase a policy. We may feel the need to keep the policy paid current, so we go to church, give a tithe once in a while, and maybe even serve those in need from time to time. But these are not the actions of a life transformed. They are the actions of men and women looking to make sure their eternal destinations are secure.
In defining salvation solely by an intellectual belief, we have robbed the Gospel of its power in our actual lives. We effectively stick the stallion that was meant to run in a cramped stall. The Gospel, whose purpose is to give life, becomes a set of right beliefs that we hold to serve our own purposes and pull out when it is convenient.
I believe that we have missed essential elements of the Gospel, and if we are going to experience abundant life, something has to change. We are going to have to see the conversion experience for what it is, a beginning, not an end. We are going to have to become disciples.