While walking into the grocery store one day I happened to see a young woman who I volunteer with in a “parachurch” youth evangelism organization. I knew that she had gone to summer camp with many of the students we worked with all school year, so I asked her “how did camp go?” She responded with a smile “It went great… three of our kids got saved… so-and-so accepted Christ… and remember so-and-so the atheist? He accepted Christ too!” I smiled, congratulated her, thanked God, and exchanged a few pleasantries, and then departed. Then a recurring thought hit me: Did they really get “saved”?
For those unfamiliar to Evangelical subculture, getting “saved” is code for: 1. Making a personal commitment to Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. 2. Receiving Christ personally and internally through a conversion experience that may or may not include lots of emotion. 3. Ensuring one’s eternal destiny as heaven in the presence of Christ, rather than eternal torment in Hell. Being saved is seen primarily as being delivered from the effects of one’s sins through the atonement (death and resurrection) of Jesus. This deliverance is seen almost entirely in post-mortem terms: where you go after you die.
Now, I feel quite odd in being at odds with someone “getting saved”, because I agree that the Christian life must include personal commitment to Christ, inward experience of His reality, and eternity spent with Him as a result of what He has done for us. I am an Evangelical… but a skeptical Evangelical who has done far too much reading in Scripture and the Church history to be satisfied that someone is “saved” by a one-time experience at summer camp.
Don’t get me wrong. I believe that there is a line of no return that we cross over at some time in our lives that takes us out of orbit around sin and death and puts us in orbit around Jesus Christ. There is a “conversion moment” when we go from being “lost” to being “found”. It’s just that I’m extremely uncomfortable with us humans defining when that moment is. There are some people, maybe even many people, who can pinpoint this moment. They know exactly when Jesus became a reality for them. But there lots of other people who are not so sure. Some people were baptized as infants and grew up in Christian families and can’t remember a time when Jesus was not a living reality for them. Sure, they have times of deeper conversion and deeper commitment to Christ as they get older, but they don’t remember a time they were not “saved”.
Then there are people like me. I made a childhood commitment to Christ and was baptized around age 8. Was I saved then? I later “backslid” and completely disavowed faith in God or Christ as a teen. Then, my life came crashing down around me and I prayed “Jesus, if you are real, get me out of this mess and I will live my life for you.” That is hardly a conversion prayer (but it is still a prayer). But was this selfish manipulation of God my “salvation moment”? After that prayer, my life did turn around, and I read the entire Bible in about six months. After that, I know I “got it”. I knew Christ. I knew what the Bible meant (at least preliminarily). I could preach and teach the Gospel found in Scripture. I think that it was sometime in that six months that I got “saved”, but I can’t tell you when. Similar to CS Lewis and his walk through the woods, I went into that six months having severe doubts about God, and came out of it a sincerely devoted follower of Christ.
It just seems to me that the whole process of one human declaring that another human is “saved” is highly flawed for a number of reasons. First, the diversity of human experience screams out against it. Christ desires disciples, not merely converts (although you must first be converted to become a disciple). For some people the commitment to true discipleship is instant: they hear a sermon, are moved to tears, give their lives to Christ, and live for Him ever afterward. For most people, the commitment to discipleship is gradual. Total conversion may take weeks, months, or even years. Possibly this was one of the reasons why the early Church did not Baptize an adult convert into the Church until they had been instructed and tested for one to three years. They wanted to make sure their conversion “stuck” before making them part of the family of God and declaring them to be “disciples”.
The second reason I think it is severely flawed to pronounce someone saved is because it puts mere humans in the place of God. I only see one person in Scripture declaring someone to be saved: Jesus Christ, the just Judge of all Creation. He separates the wheat from the chaff, the sheep from the goats, and the saints from the sinners (see Mat 25, Rev 20). We cannot and should not put ourselves in His place, both for our own spiritual health and for the spiritual health of those we minister to. It is pride to put ourselves in the place of God, and quite dangerous as well (just ask Adam and Eve: Gen 3). We cannot look into someone’s soul and discern if they are “true” believers. Only God can do that.
But wait, aren’t we told to judge people’s fruit? Doesn’t Paul judge Christians as “spiritual” versus “worldly” (see 1Co 2-3)? Doesn’t Paul even put people out of the Church so that “their flesh may be destroyed and their souls may be saved” (1Co 5:5)? Yes, this is all true. But notice who is judged and what is judged. Who is judged? People who are Christians by virtue of their Baptism and confession of Christ as Lord. He is not judging whether someone is saved. He is judging whether someone is part of the community that has as its hallmarks the outward signs of baptism and confession. Secondly, notice what is being judged: outward actions. We are told to judge whether someone’s actions are in accord with the standards of Christ’s community. If those actions are not in accord, then counsel and discipline are in order. There is still only One who can judge salvation, and we are not Him.
The third problem with counting someone’s salvation is that it is just spiritually harmful to everyone involved. When you’ve seen as many people get “saved” as I have, then you see how many walk away from Christ months or years after their conversion experience, no matter how well they were cared for and discipled, it raises a lot of issues for you. Was their salvation a fake? Is God not strong enough to hold on to them? Am I just a lousy minister? It also causes lots of problems for those who get “saved”. If someone gets “saved” just for fire insurance to get out of hell, and then walks away from Christ with the attitude that they can do anything they want since they are heaven bound, doesn’t that put them in a deadly situation with the Lord? Even worse, can such “conversion experiences” serve as an inoculation to the real Gospel? Can someone, on the basis of a failed or insincere salvation experience, say “I’ve tried Christ. He didn’t help me. There’s no need to go to Him again.” It’s just a bad idea to pronounce someone is “saved”.
I think that the desire to “count the saved” comes from two non-Christian sources. The first is from American industry, marketing, and practicality. We want to judge things in numbers. Numbers mean success. Numbers mean efficiency and effectiveness. Numbers validate our worth. Therefore, we desire numbers so that we can pat ourselves on the back. Sometimes we say that we count conversions so that we can praise God, but I wonder if this motivation is just an excuse to pat ourselves on the back while “giving glory to God”.
The second reason we like to count conversions is because it helps us define our world and put down black and white lines. We can neatly categorize the world in terms of the “saved” and the “unsaved”, and then target our evangelism and rhetoric appropriately. I just don’t think the world is that black and white. Blame this on Jesus. He told us that the wheat would grow together with the weeds and that only He could separate them at the end of the Age (Mat 13:24-30). If it is all the same to you, I want to let Him do His job. Let us sow seed and water the plants. He can grow and harvest (see 1Co 3).
I’ve got an idea for Evangelicals: why don’t we just drop “getting saved” from our vocabulary and focus instead on encouraging people to participate in the salvation that is in Christ alone. Why don’t we start thinking in terms of many conversions during the Christian life instead of “The Conversion”. We tend to preach for a one-time salvation experience that is the pinnacle of the Christian life (funny, I thought heaven was the pinnacle, and accepting Christ was merely the beginning). Instead, let us preach for continual conversions, daily conversions, in which we gradually yield control of our whole lives in big and small ways to Christ. If we must count numbers, let us count things like Baptisms, and weekly attendance in worship, in Bible studies, and in social outreach to the community. Let us count the number of homeless we feed and clothe, or the number of third world children and missionaries our Church supports. Let us not count salvations like notches on the bedpost. Let us not count fleeting experiences that may or may not result in genuine discipleship over the long haul. Instead, let us count behaviors that indicate true Christ likeness.