It’s always interesting when someone comes close to treading on a sacred cow doctrine that folks have believed for years whether or not it is entirely biblical. That seems to be the case with many popular doctrines nowadays and perhaps one of the most common and certainly one of the most important is what salvation is and how it really occurs.
Contrary to popular opinion, I’m not so sure salvation can be broken down into a 2 or 3 or 4 or 5 step process. When I look at scripture and consider my own life experiences as well as those of others, it just doesn’t seem to be a thing that can so easily be quantified. One teacher puts it this way, “It’s not the words you use that are important, it’s the meaning you pack into them.”
So what do you mean exactly when you say someone “got saved” at such and such a time and place? The bible makes it clear that we are to “believe” and “repent” and “be baptized” but what do you mean when you say those words? More importantly, what do they really mean regardless of what you think they mean?
Take the word “repent” for example. Is that a one-time transaction? Is it feeling sorry for your sins? Is it the act of asking God for forgiveness? Well, to repent really means to change your thinking and to turn and go in an entirely different direction with your life—towards God and away from everything else that once held the idolatrous parts of your heart and life. The sin that used to give you pleasure now brings you sorrow and grief.
How about the word “believe”? Does it mean to think that something or someone exists? Does it mean to agree that something is true? Is believing marked by a specific day and time? That is all part of it but it cannot be all of it because the bible tells us that even the demons believe and yet they tremble (James 2:19).
To believe in the salvation sense is to put your trust in what you believe and it is a term involving action. You may look at a chair and say, “I know that is a chair, it really is. And it could hold me up if I were to sit in it, I’m sure it would.” But until you trust it enough to actually sit in it you have not yet really believed.
And what about the idea of “altar calls” or giving an “invitation” or “the sinner’s prayer”? You won’t find any of these in the bible. Why not? Because they never happened in all of church history until the last 150 or so years. The apostles never asked someone to, “Just repeat this prayer after me.” Never once did Jesus, after He was done teaching, say “Whoever would like to believe in Me and accept Me as their Savior please come forward.” And He never asked everyone to close their eyes so anyone who wanted to give their heart to Him could simply raise their hand.
Does it really matter? I truly believe it does. Once you give someone a formula or a three step process you take away that person’s need to follow the Holy Spirit’s guidance. If you tell them what to say then they are repeating your words, not speaking out of the vulnerability and sincerity of their own heart. The way we often give altar calls or invitations it almost seems like this is their one chance—as if they couldn’t get alone with God and it all work out. But can it really work out any other way?
I’m not saying that people who respond to an altar call or repeat the sinner’s prayer never get saved. But I’m suggesting that if they do it may be in spite of it all and not because it. Salvation is not a transaction. It’s not like going through McDonald’s drive-thru and saying that you think you’ll actually try the chicken sandwich instead for a change and see how you like it, then drive off and continue to live your same old life. That’s often what happens when we try to layout these modern-day, easy, efficient and streamlined ways to get saved. “Just try Jesus for a change, you’ll like Him, you really will…” and so the pleading goes.
But where does love come into all of these salvation transactions we offer folks? Where does actually knowing God come in? How about obedience? Matthew 7:21-23 should be all we need in order to understand that true salvation involves far more than what some refer to as believing and repenting. It also involves a lot more than any amount of words you can say.
Paul tells all of us, even in the professing Christian church, to examine ourselves daily to see whether or not we are in the faith (2 Corinthians 13:5). My friend, I cannot do that for you and you cannot do that for me. And I have no salvation formulas to give you, only guidelines. It truly is a matter of the heart, and it is entirely between you and God. Seek Him.