Theology

straight and narrow paths, and how I left mine

My experiences with the “moment of salvation,” were, I discovered later, fairly typical among children who grow up in evangelicalism. Many of us grow up pretty familiar with the concepts of Christianity and the principles of the gospel– at least, the Protestant rendering of the gospel. While I am still fairly Protestant in my theology, I can honestly admit that the faith systems of Catholicism and orthodoxy have components that I find attractive– and helpful to understanding my own faith.

However, for kids growing up in an Protestant/evangelical environment, there’s a standard script for us. We pray a prayer, with the help of our parents, usually, somewhere between the ages of 4-7. At some point when we’re slightly older, and we’re more capable of understanding, we look back at the “fuzziness” of what happened when we were 5 and start wondering. Did I actually “get saved”? Did that count? This usually leads into a re-dedication of some type, usually a public announcement that we’re going to commit to God in some way, to serving him more faithfully.

In my experience, the question was articulated to my pastor’s wife as “was I sorry enough?” Did I repent enough? Do I feel bad enough about my sin? I don’t actually remember her response, but I remember not being comforted by it.

I was still plagued by this question when I entered college. Was my repentance genuine? Did I merely say the words because I was afraid of the Rapture, afraid of Hell? Was I foolishly believing in a child’s prayer that really didn’t mean anything?

It took me a long time to realize where these doubts sprang from– they all came from the phrase: “you should check up on your salvation, then!”

These words were repeated to me, from the pulpit, practically every Sunday, and they were always accompanied by a sermon on temptation and sin. The abuser who led our church* would rain down from the pulpit (an area of the stage he called the Holy of Holies, and where no one else in the church was allowed to stand) a vitriolic barrage. He would rage against sin, corruption, unholiness, and temptation, to an extreme so profound it would be impossible to really articulate.

But if you struggled with any kind of continual temptation– if you were addicted to anything, or if you were constantly discontent, or if you couldn’t maintain constant rejoicing, if you were depressed, or if you constantly disobeyed your parents . . . anything in your life that strayed from his conception of a “holy Christian life,” well, then, you should “check up” on your salvation, because you couldn’t possibly be a real Christian if you struggled. Being a Christian meant “conquering” our sin, of being reborn as a “new man,” of “putting off the old man.” If we still had an ongoing battle with “sin,” then, well, Jesus couldn’t be dwelling in your hearts, then, could he?

This constant battering was not limited to my church, either. I went to two separate Christian universities, and people struggling with “doubt” over their salvation, specifically, was a consistent experience. Especially as we got older, because, as adults, we start encountering serious ideas. Calvinism. Arminianism. Molinism. Universalism. Lordship. A lot of terms get thrown around, and when we get confronted with them, it’s usually troubling. We’ve usually been told, quite harshly, that to question anything about our particular system or approach to the gospel is inherently sinful. It’s simply not to be done. This sometimes results in the kids I knew clinging even tighter to their particular brand of a salvation experience.

In graduate school, I somehow ended up in an intense conversation with a young man who was . . . well, an intense adherent to Reformed theology. He asserted that if God is truly sovereign, the reality of our world is one that fits better with Determinism than anything else. It was the first time I had really, honestly tried to understand a different perspective from the mostly-Arminian view I’d grown up with.

The psychological dissonance was so bad I ended up sobbing, hysterically, for three hours.

My point isn’t to make some claim about a “true methodology of Salvation” because I’ve realized that’s… a teensy bit ridiculous. Sorry, Calvin. And Luther. And… basically everyone else who’s ever taught anything about soteriology. I’ve decided that whatever road brings you to God is the road you needed to take, and it doesn’t matter what philosophical word you could apply to it.

My point is that in IFB, in evangelicalism, in most of our different denominations, the human need for questions and answers frequently leads us to where I ended up– in a place so narrowly defined, in a methodology so constricted, that your approach to faith simply can’t be flexible. You’re right, everyone else is just wrong.

At Liberty University, there’s a video that makes fun of the Calvinist-Arminian debates that happen everywhere (not an exaggeration). The video has the two debaters arguing:

Calvinist: You are just quite obviously pre-destined to be wrong!

Arminian: And you have the free will to be stupid!

And . . . that is where most of the debates end up. Because nearly everyone I’ve heard is terrified of being wrong, because, if they’re wrong, then maybe they’re not “saved,” and maybe they’re not going to heaven, and maybe (*gulp*) they’re going to hell. And that’s a “reality” that can’t be faced easily.

A truer reality, I think, is one where you can realize that God loves us all, unconditionally, and that what he most wants from all of us it to have a relationship with him. It’s a “got milk?” question without a whole lot of baggage.

*to this day, I have a difficult time with the word “pastor.” I can use preacher, minister, evangelist, father, reverend . . . but not pastor. “Pastor,” to me, was this man only. He exerted so much control and domination over my life that his demands for absolute loyalty were accompanied by the “right,” he claimed, to call him “Pastor.” That was his identity, and I still can’t break away from it. It causes some psychological tension for me, whenever I mentally think of my church’s leader now, who I simply call “Matt,” although everyone else refers to him as “Pastor Matt.”

Photo by Tim Green
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  • Your message is helping me a lot. I listened to Rejoice radio for years and found the music very beautiful, comforting and soothing. I want to say that first of all, after my ex-wife died in 2005 I listened to Rejoice, and some of the songs literally helped to save my sanity and I know that they were chosen by God for me to listen to. They used to play Don Moen “If you could see me now”, and the song “When you don’t understand, When you don’t see His plan, When you can’t trace His hand, Trust His heart” I know God chose those and other songs at that particular time on Rejoice to help me through that awful period.
    I am also thinking of looking for a church that holds to a more sacramental view of salvation to more or less “cement” my relationship with Christ. I’ve answered many alter calls over the years and still also have doubts about being “saved” too, especially when I fail to live up to God’s standards. I am tired of going to a pep rally at church and then having a motivational lecture instead of feeling like I have been in the presence of a Holy God who has reached down to save me. I’m tired of trying to “reach” God all the time. Perhaps the sacraments would be a way of receiving a God Who is reaching down to save me. Sometimes when I leave church I don’t even feel like I’ve been to church.
    By the way, I’m not a young man, but many of the things you are writing about are very relevant for me.
    God bless you.

  • I want to add one thing. God loves us. John 3:16 gives the essence of salvation. My relationship with God is based on trust in HIs word. It says He loves me and gave His son to be the propitiation for my sins. I have accepted that. That is my salvation right there, the death, burial and resurrection of Christ for me. That faith in the blood of the passover lamb is what gets me into heaven. I believe that with all of my heart. Then I go and share that love with all of creation; with people, with animals, through tending the garden that God has placed me in, and in returning that love to God through thanks and praise. Amen.