Forget the War on Christmas.
Do you really want to know a red-blooded, traditional, American-Christian practice that is being destroyed in front of our eyes? The sinner’s prayer.
For so many, this has been seen as (and still is seen as) the first step into Christianity. The moment of decision. It’s a simple prayer that one is often led through and involves the acknowledgement of one’s status as a sinner, asking Jesus for forgiveness, and possibly asking Jesus to “come into one’s heart.” The sinner’s prayer (or something similar) has been and continues to be the standard Evangelical answer to the question: “How do I become a Christian?”
For my part, I’ve always thought the answer to the above question should be less individualistic and belief-oriented and more communal and action-oriented. How would I answer? Find a church to join and start obeying Jesus’ commands with that community.
Nevertheless, for many the sinner’s prayer is untouchable. Or, at the very least, was.
Allow me to add one more critique to the mix from the viewpoint of historical theology:
The Second Council of Orange (no, they didn’t invent pulp-free orange juice, they condemned Pelagian teachings in 529) made 25 statements to protect the doctrine of God’s grace. I’d like to quote the third such statement:
“If anyone says that the grace of God can be conferred as a result of human prayer, but that it is not grace itself which makes us pray to God, he contradicts the prophet Isaiah, or the Apostle Paul who says the same thing, ‘I have been found by those who did not seek me; I have shown myself to those who did not as for me’ (Romans 10:20; Isaiah 65:1).”
It’s time to give a verdict on the Sinner’s Prayer: Biblical or Unbiblical? Wise or Foolish? Theologically sound or heretical?
What do you think?
Comment below with your verdict!
Two days ago I was able to attend a live reading of the Gospel of Mark.* The goal was to experience the Gospel in a way similar to an early Christian community – orally. As Michael Bird correctly notes,
“Our earliest Christian literature is the textual product of the oral activities of the early church, including proclamation, apologetics, exhortations, prayers, debates, hymns, creeds, and storytelling… Several scholars have drawn attention to the Gospel of Mark as a text designed to be orally performed and to be aurally penetrating.”
Some observations after hearing Mark performed:
1: I’m irreversibly textual.
I’m not sure it’s possible to “go back in time” and make-believe that we are an illiterate community. While listening to Mark, it was obviously clear to me that I am a textual person. Part of this is my personality (I learn better that way … I’m not an “oral learner”) but I believe that in a large way all of the developed world is irreversibly textual. In other words: I think textually… I process information textually… I organize material textually. I found myself consistently fighting the temptation to “see the words” in my mind or to place the story to a chapter or verse (chapters and verses are a separate problem: “Have We Ruined the Bible?”).
2: Mark is a genuinely good story.
Bird, and other New Testament scholars, are correct to identify Mark as a legitimately engaging oral narrative. It keeps one’s attention with its pace, it has more than enough humor, and it contains a good amount of dramatic tension. Many of the “themes of Mark” that I knew intellectually, such as the Messianic Secret, had even more of an impact when I heard the entire text at once.
3: The cumulative effect of a story is greater than the sum of its parts.
There’s something wise about keeping a story together instead of breaking it into pieces. A narrative seems to have a “cumulative meaning” – a powerful impression left on the mind when it is told all at once. There are many confusing events in Mark that make me want to stop and ask questions, but with the story continuing on one is forced to accept these elements as they are and keep following the narrative. In fact, having these questions unanswered and lingering in the back on one’s mind actually brings out the overall meaning of the story.
4: I’m often as confused as the disciples, but I want to follow Jesus.
Jesus is an attractive, mysterious, and powerful figure. I want to know him, I want to be like him, and I want to follow him. I’m often afraid. At times I have denied him. But I’ve never been able to shake this haunting feeling that he has risen and I am called to follow him into the future.
“As a faithful child of the Enlightenment, I must admit that just the thought of adopting a theological hermeneutic makes me nervous. However, perhaps it is time for me (and ultimately us – the Church) to embrace our rightful identities as children of promise. Children who once again let the word be near us, in our mouths, and in our hearts.”
I wrote these sentences as the conclusion to one of my first graduate school papers – a review of Richard Hays’ The Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul. Little did I know that these words would be a strangely prophetic description of the theological formation that I would receive during my graduate education. I walked with a M.A. in Theological Studies from Houston Baptist University on May 19, 2014 and I could not be more thankful for my time there. I was blessed financially with various grants and with the Sharon E. Saunders Endowed Graduate Scholarship, I was fortunate to study under an amazing group of professors (such as Dr. Ben Blackwell and Dr. Randy Hatchett, picture above) that stretched, loved, challenged, and encouraged me, and I now recognize that I am a more faithful Christian thinker because of my studies.
As I reflect on the many ways in which my thinking has been transformed over the past few years, I continually return to the image of “rebellion.” That is to say, my graduate studies taught me to rebel against the Enlightenment and its strangle-hold over much of Christian thinking. The Enlightenment taught me to read Scripture scientifically, skeptically, surgically, and objectively. It also groomed me to reject tradition, look arrogantly at the past, and stand alone as an individual. Now, however, I find myself leaving my graduate studies as a “child of promise” – committed to reading theologically, embracing & exploring the heritage of the church, and living and learning as a distinctively Christian person.
A few of the lessons I learned:
 The Importance of the Church: The House that God Built
I once accepted the Enlightenment’s assumption that exegesis and theology could be (and sometimes were best) done outside of the church. I now accept the limitations of the pursuit of pure objectivity and even believe, like the Fathers, that only as a Spirit-filled Christian can I do proper and faithful exegetical and theological work. Before my graduate studies, I hoped to work in the academic world far away from the messiness of the church. Now, I’m enslaved to the conviction that Christian academics must be immersed in and useful to the local church. I entered my graduate studies knowing little about church history and caring even less. Who cared about how Origen translated a certain passage when I’ve got the best Hebrew & Greek tools in history available to me and am free of his cultural limitations? However, I now know how important church history is and indeed have found myself with a deep love for the study of patristics. In fact, I wrote my master’s thesis on Cyril of Alexandria’s Interpretation of Romans 5:12-21 and his use of the Adam-Christ Typology. If you told me that would be my topic as an exegetically-focused undergrad, I would have called you crazy. Now, I can’t imagine anything more worthwhile than studying all the depths, contours, and messiness of the Church Fathers’ lives and works.
 The Beautiful Necessity of Theology: Working with Spirit-Filled Words
My undergrad major was in Biblical Languages – Hebrew and Greek. This meant that I largely focused on and valued biblical studies. Actually, I often thought theological studies were pointless – why make these big conclusions when there are so many debatable issues surrounding the exegetical decisions on which they rest? I thought that systematic theologies were good for nothing except misinterpreting biblical passages. I was focused on the trees (exegesis), finding so much ambiguity/excitement there that I couldn’t understand the need or ability to debate or expound upon theological ideas (the forest) which were often foreign to the biblical text. Now, I am immersed in theology. I think theologically, I pray theologically, and I even read the Bible theologically. (Go figure!) I think terms like “the hypostatic union” and “perichoresis” are hugely important to grasping the depth of the beauty of God and his work in Christ. Once again, the Spirit-given words of the Church have opened my eyes up to a bigger and better faith, as well as a better means of reading the Scripture.
 An Invitation to the Vocation of Scholarship: The Mind As A Means To Worship
My graduate studies continued to instill in me a lesson which began during my undergraduate work: the truth that loving God with all of your mind is an extremely important call to an incredibly difficult task. Too many in the Evangelical church (and even in seminaries) treat the pursuit of academic excellence with shallowness and immaturity. HBU does a fine job of exemplifying a commitment to Christian excellenc (see their 10 Pillars Vision). Not only was I deeply challenged to engage with the best thinkers of history and of our day, I was also encouraged to put my voice alongside them. Thus, through the help of professor Ben Blackwell, I submitted and presented my first paper at an SBL/AAR conference. This, and other opportunities like it, were only possible because of the standard of excellence required and the personal mentorship provided to ensure that I could meet it.
I’ll end this post by saying thanks and offering some encouragement.
First: Thank you, Houston Baptist University. Thank you, as well, Dr. Ben Blackwell, Dr. Randy Hatchett, Dr. David Capes, Dr. Peter Davids, Dr. Joseph Blair, Dr. Felisi Sorgwe, Dr. Jamie Johns, and all of the many others who shared their passion and knowledge of the Scriptures and theology.
Second: No matter who you are, no matter how old you are, no matter how much time you have, & no matter how “smart” you think you are – avail yourself of the many resources all around you so that you might further learn how to think and live faithfully. Who knows, we might run into each other one day on the other side of the Enlightenment. 🙂
I find it strange to hear others speak freely about an addiction. The world of an addict is a world without the freedom of speech. A memoir about addiction makes even less sense to me. Addictions create warped realities devoid of honest reflections. How would I classify my relationship with that pill? That little white pill. I’m not sure. But it wasn’t an addiction.
Okay. Technically I couldn’t stop taking it. Suffocating under an unyielding panic and its accompanying depression, I couldn’t function without it’s calming and euphoric touch. This powerful, little white pill. It started as a prescription – a medical effort aimed at meeting the challenges posed by my failing health. It wasn’t long until my Rx number transformed into my prisoner identification. This was a one-sided relationship, because I could no longer stand to be awake without it’s powerful presence. Without her powerful presence. She possessed me in a way that only an intoxicating lover could. Dilated eyes and slow, steady breathing became a staple of my consciousness. One pill became three, and three became six, and all the while the ticking of the clock served as a continual reminder to be prepared for my next dose. I wasn’t an addict. I was a survivor. Such a subtle difference can only be appreciated inside of such a painful reality. My father was right when he accused me of being unable to live without it. But it wasn’t an addiction.
Sure. Technically I had withdrawal symptoms when I was eventually forced off of it. But that was strictly a physiological phenomenon. My brain simply wasn’t used to the decreased levels and efficiency of gamma aminobutyric acid which I was now abandoned to. The cold sweats and insomnia were nothing more than a re-adjustment to a different sort of mental life. The inability to self-mediate would sometimes smother me. But it wasn’t an addiction.
Of course there are times when I am still tempted.These moments force me to work creatively, desperate for a way to distract myself. Distract myself from thinking about that beautiful, little white pill. The soft powder that would cascade off of it like snow from the mountainside. The swallow of relief. The surge of relaxation. The flood of peace. The steadying of my pulse. Yes, often I must stop myself from being consumed with the thoughts. There are days that my ghosts begin crying out to me again. Days when the only option to my suffering seems to be my never-forgotten friend. Days when I wonder if I will ever have an immediate reaction to pain that doesn’t involve her. Still, it wasn’t an addiction.
I reflect on our relationship like a husband dwells on his shattered marriage. A curious mixture of nostalgia and disgust. A peculiar combination of longing and resentment. Words remain outside my grasp. I fumble over sentences like a young boy explaining his first kiss. I don’t think a memoir about an addiction can be written with integrity. But then again, I’ve never had one.
*This is an essay I wrote a few years ago for a creative writing class. It’s a bit different from the normal content here at Cataclysmic -but no worries, we’ll be back to our regularly scheduled programming soon. If you enjoyed it and/or would like more, let me know!
I have the immense pleasure each year of teaching the four Gospels to 14 & 15 year olds at a fairly large Christian high school. Almost all of these students have grown up in the evangelical Bible Belt and many have been immersed in a “Christian” culture through private schooling and church involvement. However, each year I find my work most identifiable with the work of an evangelist or a missionary.
I say this because for the vast majority of my students, my class is the first time they will hear of the Kingdom of God, the resurrection of the dead, and the Trinity. My students are generally only familiar with a watered-down flavor of the faith which hardily continues on in our increasingly Post-Christendom society like algae on the bottom of a fish tank. This Christianity majors on justification by grace through faith – saying the sinner’s prayer, receiving eternal assurance of salvation, and being shamed into not having sex, using drugs, or saying bad words (as an aside, they continue to regularly do all three of these things, despite the pleas of their parents and youth pastors).
As a Christian teacher, my goal is clear, public, and unmitigated: for my students to know and follow Christ. However, there are many different reactions to my teaching, some of them unexpected and disappointing. One of those reactions: unbelief. Some students come to a point where they agree with me that much of what is around them is not biblical or Christlike. Unfortunately, for some students this discovery is not accompanied by a desire to follow the Jesus revealed in the Gospels and the demands laid out in the Sermon on the Mount. (Fortunately, this has been a very rare occurrence over my four years of teaching). This creates in me a true spiritual and moral dilemma: do I keep the status-quo and maintain the commitment of “nominal Christians” or continue to proclaim the truth even if some of those previously identified as “believers” now choose to not believe.
I was reminded of this dilemma while reading Yoder’s recently released Theology of Mission. In a passage defending group conversions in communitarian cultures, he states:
“Based on anecdotes from anthropologically conscious missionaries, once a group started hearing more about Jesus – his promises and his demands, including the moral content of discipleship – the divisions in the community that were not previously there would come to the surface. They were not there before because the Jesus message was not there to provoke them. Some individuals, sometimes many, broke out of the tribal group in order to fall back into the old life, into unbelief and nonconformity to the new norms. The freedom not to believe had become real, in fact, more real than before, because before there were no other options than the traditional tribal one. The initial group decision opened the door to Christian belief. Before that decision, unbelief had been a prison; afterwards it was an option. It was the novelty of the gospel that created the freedom not to believe.”
The observations Yoder notes of certain missionary contexts reminds me of my teaching context. When a foreign group/family/community converts to Christianity, it is not unusual for individuals to begin rejecting Christ as they learn more about him. In a different but similar way, my students come to me (mass) baptized into a nominal Christianity. The introduction of the “Jesus message” – including the moral content of discipleship – now “provokes” the students, until now only exposed to a shallow Christianity, in a new way. Their a priori commitment to Christ leads to a crisis when the previously cheap Christ is challenged and exposed by the Living Christ – leading some to no longer believe. A wise man once said that the truth would set you free – and it seems that this form of unbelief is the result of a new freedom made available by the truth.
I fear my dilemma is ultimately one of truth and commitment vs. numbers and assurance. But as I read (and teach) the Gospels, it doesn’t appear that Jesus is after large numbers or is afraid of people turning their back on him when confronted with the truth. Indeed, in a haunting passage at the end of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus predicts a time in which he will turn away from those who thought they were on his team but were not truly committed. I’ve humbly come to believe that it is better to face that crisis now, with time to think and reflect, than when one is on their knees in front Jesus himself.
What do you think?
Does this resonate with the experience of other Bible teachers?
Does the Gospel necessarily open a door for unbelief to “Nominal” Christians?