By Seth Vopat
When I was a child and the senior pastor of my church asked me during one of several meetings, “Do you accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and personal savior?” it was a no-brainer. I said, “I do.”
This question has been the holy grail of ministry. The reality is I cannot even tell you the date, nor what grade I was in when I said I do and went forward to be baptized. I just remember the happiness it brought my mom, the senior pastor and the adults in our congregation as I went underneath the water and came up supposedly a new creation. Whatever that means. I was in elementary school; I really had no idea what I was getting in too.
But I can tell you the question the senior pastor asked me in the office that day in preparation for baptism because it’s the same question I have heard numerous times over the years. It’s the same question I use to ask. However, I confess over the past decade of youth ministry I have begun to use the question less and less to the point the question now makes me uncomfortable.
I find the question uncomfortable because for a great many of us the question is more sacred than what is actually found in Scripture. The reality is this question does not even exist in Scripture. Not once does Jesus ask, “Do you accept me as your personal savior?” We recite the Lord’s Prayer. We point to the Great Commission as central to our mission in the world as Baptists. Somewhere along the line, though, we inserted a question into the heart of our theological vision which never had a home in the message of the gospels to begin with.
I’m not outright opposed to the question. Rather, it seems to be very limited in scope and leaves out a great deal of what is said about salvation. And the results of the question speak for themselves. For years now we have heard about how people are continually leaving the church. Youth graduate from high school and church at the same time. As a youth minister I know there is some truth to this claim.
I am convinced part of the reason is due to us asking a theological question which doesn’t really speak to what we are committing too. Instead of asking whether they have accepted Jesus as their personal savior, I want to ask them whether or not they have considered the cost of following Jesus (Luke 14:25-33)?
Have they considered the cost of committing to this Jesus-following community? The call and expectation to not only receive grace and forgiveness, but to offer it as well? Are they willing to put the needs of others above their own wants?
We like receiving forgiveness in church, but when conflict erupts and we are called to forgive someone else too often we would rather find a new church — or leave church altogether — rather than try and work through it.
What Eugene H. Peterson writes in reflecting on prayer in his book, Answering God: The Psalms as Tools for Prayer, is true for salvation as well. He writes, “Individuals don’t ‘make up’ the community, they are produced by it.” Salvation is not a purely personal event.
When I accept Jesus as savior I am entering into a relationship with God and I am also committing myself to a life in rooted in community — a community which walks a little differently than the rest of the society. It’s a community which welcomes the stranger without any expectations. It’s a community committed to the benefit of one another rather than our own egos, material objects and brands.
Forgiveness and grace are not ideals to strive for. They are the balm by which the community of Jesus’ followers thrives.
When we ask someone whether or not they accept Jesus as their personal savior we are asking them to follow Jesus without any of the risks and costs that decision places on our lives in the here and now — those claims to live life at its deepest rooted in a community of God’s love.