Late one night when I was sitting in front of my computer randomly surfing the Net, I imagined I was a non-believer who suddenly got the urge to "get saved". What would I do first? I went to a search engine and typed in the phrase "how to get saved", and my search results contained many links to Christian sites with pages titled "How to get saved", or something similar to that.
What amazed me is that, with very few exceptions, they all said basically the same thing. There is, in mainstream American Christianity, an "orthodox" doctrinal formula for "getting saved". You see this in tracts (like the one in front of me on my desk) and on countless web sites. The variations are as innumerable as the tracts and web sites themselves, but the basic progression of thought goes like this.
First. I am introduced to the topic of "how to get saved", or "how to go to heaven", or something similar.
Second. I am confronted with the fact that I am a sinner, like it says in Romans 3:23 "Öfor all have sinned and fall short of the glory of GodÖ" (NIV)
Third. it is explained to me that my sin has separated me from God, and that there is nothing I can do of my own effort to save myself. I canít earn a place in heaven by being religious or by performing good deeds. Ephesians 2:8 is sometimes quoted : "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith--and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of GodÖ" (NIV)
Fourth. I am introduced to the fact that Jesus died on the cross to pay the penalty for my sin, and He rose from the grave. I need to believe this and turn from my sin to get saved.
Fifth. Now that I believe, I need to receive. As Romans 10:13 says "ÖEveryone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved." (NIV) Another often cited passage is Romans 10:9 "ÖThat if you confess with your mouth, "Jesus is Lord," and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved." (NIV)
Sixth. I receive Jesus by praying a prayer, and a prayer is conveniently provided for me to repeat. This type of prayer is commonly known as a "sinners prayer".
Thatís it. Iím saved! Now I need to "go to church".
Isnít it wonderful to live in an age when everything has been made so easy for us? Brilliant theological minds have plucked from the New Testament just the scripture-bytes we need to know, and just the words we need to repeat, to shift our eternal destiny from hell to heaven. Anyone who doubts or even feels uneasy about this doctrinal formula must not have real faith, or at least not enough of it.
Personally, these "get saved" web pages and tracts do make me feel a bit uneasy. Itís like Iím on the receiving end of a sales pitch, but Iím not allowed to ask questions. Why would I ask questions?
First, these tracts, both in print and on the Internet, tend to begin and end with scripture fragments from the book of Romans. Now, I have nothing against the book of Romans, but I canít help but wonder how people managed to "get saved" before Paul wrote his letter to Rome. I have two different references that both say that Paul wrote his letter to Rome from Corinth in 58AD.
Assuming that the first Gospel sermon on the day of Pentecost was preached in 33AD, that leaves about 25 years of the Gospel being preached with no book of Romans. How were "get saved" tracts written back then? In fact, thousands of people came to faith in Jesus before Saul (Paul) did, and long before any of Paulís letters existed. What was preached to them?
Second, there is the almost universal editing of Paulís thought in Ephesians 2:8-10. These tracts typically show Ephesians 2:8-9 as a way to prove that there is nothing I can do on my own to "get to heaven" or "get saved". I canít work my way to heaven.
However, what happens when we allow Paul to complete his thought and include Ephesians 2:10? Then we get: "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith--and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God-- not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do." (NIV)
So, although our meritorious or religious works cannot earn us salvation, our salvation brings with it good works that God has already prepared for us to do. To me, this means that the life of a "saved" person is more than just holding doctrinally correct beliefs and "going to church". It means being about Godís work. It means I canít spend my life being "always right" in my intellectual beliefs while spending all my energy chasing money or indulging in any and every pastime that strikes my fancy. God has something prepared for us to do; not just sit through, but do. If there was a "hall of fame" for verses taken out of context, I would nominate Ephesians 2:8-9 first.
Up to this point, Iím still pretty much "on board" with this typical tract train of thought. I have minor reservations, but Iím OK.
Now I am introduced to the Gospel. Jesus died to pay for my sin and rose from the grave. So far so good; Iím still OK.
The next step is where I start biting fingernails. Given that my sin has separated me from God and any chance of "going to heaven", and given that there is nothing I can do to work my way out of this situation, what am I to do? Iím supposed to "receive" by praying a suggested prayer. There are many variations on what has come to be known as the "sinners prayer."
Now, this is certainly easy enough. There is very little chance of "working" here, so itís not like weíre trying to "work our way to heaven". I also canít fault anything Iíve read in the many versions of the "sinnerís prayer" Iíve encountered. Iím not saying that God canít or wonít hear such a prayer, and I know there are people who say their lives changed by praying such a prayer. I simply donít know, and Iím not going to argue with someoneís personal experience.
There is one disturbing fact, however, that I cannot put out of my mind when I read web pages or tracts like this. That is, nowhere in the New Testament is there written a "sinners prayer." Nowhere in the New Testament is there taught that a person can "get saved" by praying a certain prayer. Jesus never taught this, and there is no record in the New Testament of anyone doing this.
There are a number of accounts in the book of Acts of people obeying the Gospel, but none of them prayed a "sinnerís prayer." In the second chapter of Acts we have the first Gospel sermon. Peter preached to a large crowd, and many were "cut to the heart" and asked "What shall we do?" Peter did not say "Now you need to say this prayer to receive Jesus." What Peter did say was, "ÖRepent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off--for all whom the Lord our God will call." (Acts 2:38-39 NIV)
Not only that, but Peter had just quoted (Acts 2:21), the same passage in Joel 2:32 that Paul quotes later in Romans 10:13, "Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved".
Did Peter believe that we are saved by grace? Of course! Peter is quoted in Acts 15:11 as saying, "We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are." (NIV) (In this reference Peter, a Jew, was speaking of the Gentiles.)
What about Paul? Paul did write Romans 10:9 "ÖThat if you confess with your mouth, "Jesus is Lord," and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved." (Romans 10:9 NIV) Is Paul giving the non-believer a plan of salvation here? After 25 years of the Gospel spreading, and people becoming Christians, has Paul for the first time written down the salvation formula for non-believers? Was Paul even writing or speaking to non-believers? It looks like he was writing to the Christians in Rome. Was he telling the "saved" how to "get saved" or how to "stay saved"?
(Interestingly, when Paul recounts his own conversion in Acts 22:12-16, he does not recount praying a "sinners prayer". I might assume he prayed a lot during that entire experience, though!)
Here are two other passages where Paul writes about how to "get saved". "Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers." (1 Tim 4:16 NIV) Here is a plan, if I want to save myself, and those I speak to, I should watch my life and doctrine closely. It sounds like work! Iíve never seen this on a "get saved" tract.
Here in another "get saved" passage. "But women will be saved through childbearing--if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety." (1 Tim 2:15 NIV) Does this mean that women have to bear children to "get to heaven"? Have you seen this on a tract lately?
Does every occurrence of "save" or "saved" in the New Testament give us a license to create a doctrinal formula for non-believers? Or, is it possible that Paul wrote his letters to be read from start to finish, not to be shredded into scripture-bytes and recombined in any way that is convenient for us.
Even if we look ahead two hundred years, through the writings of the Church Fathers of the 2nd and 3rd centuries, we do not see these passages from Romans 3, Romans 10, and Ephesians 2 used the way they are today in "get saved" tracts. The Church that persevered through the savage persecutions of the Roman Empire seemed to know nothing of a "sinnerís prayer". In fact, if you went around in the 2nd and 3rd centuries teaching that a person could "get to heaven" by believing and saying a "sinnerís prayer", you yourself would risk being considered a heretic.
So what wild hare got into me? Why the rant about the "sinnerís prayer"? Itís the sheer irony, I guess. Here is a teaching that has become almost universal in mainstream American Christianity, and itís teaching that concerns what should be the most important thing in the universe to anyone. That is, what I must do to "get saved", "get to heaven", or to put another way "not go to hell". Yet, I canít find this explicitly taught in the New Testament, nor can I find a record of anyone doing this. The "get saved" tract is a combination of small scripture fragments leading one through a series of logical steps, none particularly wrong in and of themselves. But, the final step that answers the question "what shall I do?" is something that was devised by man, not commanded by God. I wonder why more people donít question this.
Finally, behind this approach to evangelism there seems to be an implicit assumption that the "unsaved" person already has some Christian-type values. If you start a tract with "How to get to heaven", you are already assuming that your audience believes that heaven exists. If a person doesnít believe God exists, they arenít likely to worry about "getting saved". Many of these tracts seem to assume that the reader has already got some sort of system in their mind that they are trusting in for salvation, such as "being religious" or "performing good deeds." The problem is that the person has not "accepted Jesus".
What about the generation that is being raised with no values except what they pick up in public education and through entertainment? What about the ones who donít believe that God even exists and could care less about eternity? I donít know for sure, but there seems to be an increasing segment of our population that follows nothing but their own brutal selfishness. Theyíre not trusting in "religion" and theyíre not trying to "work their way to heaven." Theyíre just doing what people naturally do when they have no god but themselves. Who will write the one page tracts for them?
I canít wait.