Sunday, January 19, 2014

After the Sinner's Prayer, Then What?

At church this morning, we sang the old Charles Wesley hymn, “O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing.”  One line in particular stood out to me: “He breaks the power of cancelled sin, He sets the prisoner free…”

God not only came to cancel the penalty for our sins, Charles Wesley was saying, but to break the power of sin itself.

I was recently watching a Christian documentary recently, Beware of Christians.  It is about four Christian young men who reflect on faith and ask people questions about it.  There was some annoying silliness in the documentary, but I appreciated most of what the young men had to say, for I detected a certain humility behind it.  I especially appreciated their conversations about poverty, as they put to rest the myth of the undeserving poor, asking each other what they did to deserve the privileges, advantages, and opportunities with which they were born.

Near the end of the documentary, one of the young men was bemoaning cheap grace: people who reduce Christianity to saying a prayer that gets them out of hell.  This young man was saying that Christianity was a way of life, requiring us to say “no” to some of the things that we may want to do and “yes” to what Jesus wants.

I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t care about attempts to determine whether I or anyone else is a “true” Christian, or instead one who is self-deceived about one’s salvation.  But I do believe that Christianity has to be about more than saying a sinner’s prayer, that faith should make a difference in one’s life.  I’m leery about describing that as self-sacrifice, or portraying the Christian life as nebulous bars that I should be reaching.  Maybe I am wrong about this, but I just find myself screaming when people talk about surrender in the Christian life, “What the do you want from me?!  When will I be good enough?”

I was thinking some about my religious upbringing.  I grew up in a form of Christianity that criticized other branches of Christianity as antinomian: we believed in doing good works and observing the Old Testament laws, whereas the other branches thought all one had to do was say a prayer and that would get him or her into heaven.  I doubt that our characterization of other branches of Christianity was particularly fair, for there are many Protestants who believe in doing good works.  But I don’t believe that we were pulling our caricature out of the clear blue sky, either.  On the few occasions when I as a child was exposed to mainstream Christianity, I noticed that Christians were placing a lot of emphasis on getting people to say some prayer, as if that was the gateway to heaven.  I wondered what was supposed to come next: Did mainstream Christians reduce Christianity to saying a sinner’s prayer, or was there more?  What was supposed to happen after the sinner’s prayer?  The answer should have been “a lot”: it is after saying the sinner’s prayer that one should supposedly live in a different way, resting one’s faith and sense of identity continually in God’s love, participating in a journey towards becoming more like Christ.  Unfortunately, that seemed to me to be eclipsed by all of the focus I saw in mainstream Christianity on getting people to say the sinner’s prayer.

I said that my church when I was growing up believed in doing good works.  My impression was that it defined these good works in reference to observance of Old Testament rituals: Sabbaths, holy days, avoiding pork, etc.  I don’t recall much emphasis on helping the poor.  There were times when I heard something about that, and there was a belief that we should try to be loving.  But it just seemed to me that my church was reacting to the antinomianism that it believed was in mainstream Christianity by focusing on law, particularly the Old Testament law.

Anyway, those are my wandering, stream-of consciousness ramblings for the day!

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