This is a question you’ll often hear Christians ask one another. Sometimes the question is different: “Have you been saved?”
This often results in the respondent giving a variety of answers from something as brief as saying they prayed a special prayer they were taught in a Sunday school class to a major life-changing event when they were so deeply inspired by the presence of God they found faith.
These stories can be wonderful to hear and I love to see the excitement people have and the expression of their faith as they tell them.
Quite often, not always, but often, there’s a common theme, and it might sound like the following:
– “I made the decision…”
– “I decided…”
– “I became…”
The focus is often on “I,” or “me,” the sinner, not on God.
This is a delicate topic because these events are real, spiritual events. They are, for many people, the point in their lives when they recognized God’s saving grace.
I say the “the point when they recognized God’s saving grace” rather than “when they were saved” (I know, it’s subtle) because God’s power to save is independent of any individual. While we may appear or feel like we are making a decision, we as humans do not have the ability on our own to have faith. Rather, faith itself is a gift from God, inspired in us by the Holy Spirit.
I realize this may seem like a minor difference, but it is actually larger than that. Does it make a difference in how that person felt at the time of their ‘saving story’ or does understanding this make anyone more or less ‘saved?’ Of course not.
It’s really just recognizing that the first chapter in all of humanity’s saving story is about actions taken and decisions made by God. It’s a slight change in the understanding of how God’s saving grace works and the fact that our participation in it is significantly less than we often think.
Additionally, it is crucial that Christians do not use the “saving story” as some sort of litmus test to try to tell people “whether they’re going to heaven or not.” The fact of the matter is, God is the only one who knows the answer to that question we often see on church billboards: “Where are YOU going?” God is the only one who gets to make that decision–period.
Here’s an example of what I mean. Below is a generic ‘saving story.’ You may have one similar or have heard one similar to this.
“I was at Sunday school and we were talking about Jesus. Our teacher told us we have to accept Jesus into our hearts in order to be saved. I knew this was what I wanted because I wanted to go to heaven. Our teacher told us a prayer to say to ask Jesus into our hearts. I repeated the lines along with her. It was then I was saved and I felt good knowing that when I die I’ll be in heaven with Jesus.”
Here’s that same story again with the first chapter:
“I was listening to the lesson my Sunday school teacher was telling us. It was about how Jesus died on a cross as a substitute for us and our sins. He did this because God loves us unconditionally. The Holy Spirit worked in my teacher as she told us this story and the Spirit moved in me, and my heart was opened to this understanding that God’s love and saving grace was also for me. It made me feel different–I had a sense of peace and love, and I knew that what I had learned was the truth–that God sent Jesus to die for my sins.”
Now obviously, if this were actually a story retold by a child in Sunday school, there’s little chance it would sound like the second example. When we are first teaching the young people or anyone who is new to the faith, it’s difficult to explain concepts like substitution, grace, and the movement or inspiration of the Holy Spirit. The “saving story” concept is easier than the larger, impractical, theological discussion
It is important to be careful not to pressure people with terror and fear of eternal damnation. Don’t claim, “if you don’t do X, Y, and Z you’re going to hell.” God is not looking for people to run to God in terror, fearing eternal punishment. God is looking for us to recognize God’s love for us and, in turn, love God and others. Like a parent can coerce a child into compliance through threats of punishment or encourage a child in love to get the same result, only the latter establishes a relationship that is healthy and mutually loving. God is not a scorekeeper or an auditor checking boxes. God is mercy and love.
As our faith matures, it is important to be able to look back on our “saving stories” with new eyes. When we do, we realize that our being saved is much bigger than a decision we made or a prayer we prayed. It wasn’t at the time that we were actually saved–it’s when we realized it.
We were destined to be saved by grace in Christ before creation came into existence. As the Gospel of John tells us:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him, nothing was made that has been made.
Jesus Christ’s death on the cross was the pivotal moment when God’s grace was fulfilled for all people–those who had come before, those who were alive then, and all those who came after (including us). As Paul tells us in 1 Timothy:
[God] wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all people.
Two key things to note in this passage. First, what God “wants.” It is safe to say, if God wants something, God will have it. If God wants something done, it will be done. Second, it states that Jesus was a ransom for “all” people–not some, not those who were worthy, not a select group–All.
Ultimately, it is God who makes the decision for the salvation of humanity, not us. “Saving stories” are “recognizing that we have been saved stories” rather than stories of “being saved at that particular point in time.”
Salvation is achieved not through human will, but though God acting in us through the faith that is God-given.
(When was I saved? About 2,000 years ago, but it had been decided before the universe was made. When did I come to truly realize it? I knew it as fact since I was a kid, but I learned it as faith at East Bay Methodist Church Camp during the summer of 1996 when I was 15. And I rediscover it each day.)