The most beneficial and harmful sentence in Christianity: “I know Jesus Christ as my personal Savior.”
The other day I met Jeff. He lives in my neighborhood, is retired from the army and owns his own lawncare/landscaping business. I found out he knew I went to seminary when he said,
“So you go to seminary, huh?”
“Yeah, I go to Reformed Theological Seminary just up the street.”
His response (“praise God”) I took as secret code for, “Hey, I’m a Christian, too. Cool.”
He asked what I wanted to do when I was done with school.
“I would love to work for a church…” etc. etc.
I asked him if he goes to a church nearby.
“No, haven’t been to church in a while”
“Yeah, the church has burned lots of people.” (I didn’t realize until now that could be taken more than one way.)
Jeff: “I just have some weird views of church.”
And then he said it: “But I know Jesus Christ as my personal Savior.”
He went on to repeat that he had some “interesting” views on church, then continued,
“I just try and be a better man each day than I have before. Some days that doesn’t work out, but most days I do pretty well with that.”
I wanted to ask him more about that comment, but I was running late for participating in a chapel service, and he had work to do, so I ended the conversation with, “I’d love to talk to you about that sometime.” He seemed genuinely interested. Maybe we will.
John and Kim
That conversation reminded me of John and Kim, two friends who started up a coffee house. They hadn’t been to church in some time, I got the feeling they had some bad experiences. They definitely had some funky biblical views and their son, whom they were worried about, was kind of off doing his own thing. They would ask me, an early twenty-something first year seminary student, what to do to help their son. They would often say the phrase that I know I’ve heard many times before, “We don’t go to church, but we know Jesus Christ as our personal Savior.”
Pros and Cons
I believe this summation of the gospel has been very beneficial, but is not without its harmful results, of which I’m sure were not originally intended.
“I know Jesus Christ as my personal Savior.”
It is a bold statement, there is no question of the affiliation with God.
It also says something about this God: he can be known, and man can know him and (maybe by induction) He knows me.
Even more than a bold statement about a vague God, it specifically identifies Jesus Christ, something even some churches are reticent to do.
“…as my personal Savior.”
There is an identification and a relationship being communicated- also, no other mediator other than Jesus is being mentioned. It is obviously a personal faith. And saying “savior” means you are saved from something, so there’s seems an inherent theology of hell.
That said, this snippet is also very harmful to the gospel, and here’s why I think that:
Ultimately and by itself, this statement makes Christianity’s validation experiential: I know, personal savior. The justification is only subjective, and not just subjective, but individualistically subjective. Especially given the equal relevance for all religions/worldviews in our current society, this can be harmful. (I’m thinking of the typical “That’s great for you, but not for me” routine.)
This statement also makes redemption seem like it’s all about us. God’s redemption does include us, but is so much bigger than just us. God’s plan of redemption has in mind the entire world, us included.
Maybe my biggest beef with this statement is there is no community aspect: I can have Jesus and do whatever I want. It’s typical American individualistic fare. Yes, our faith is a personal faith, but it is most definitely not just a personal faith. The Christian’s life is one that must be lived with others. Without going into too much theology (look here and here instead), the existence of the Trinity is a constant call to community. An individualistic Christianity is one that does not affirm the Trinity.
One other assumption inherent in this statement goes back to the first point. My assurance and sanctification is based solely on how I feel. Should I got to church or not? Doesn’t matter, Jesus is my Savior. Should I study my Bible or not? Doesn’t matter, Jesus is my Savior. How should I live? Really, it doesn’t matter, Jesus is my Savior.
There is such a flattening of the gospel, it almost makes life on earth something meaningless in itself, or at least the only purpose is to get to a point where you can recite the sinner’s prayer.
Often in statements like these, there’s no room for taking up the cross and dying to oneself. All the inconvenient parts of being a Christian get wiped away. Of course, probably any small sentence that attempts to say what the gospel is will always come short, and that’s one benefit of conversation and social interaction. Small sentences like these, though helpful at times, can be damaging to such a glorious plan of redemption.
That phrase is code, though, within our church community. If you have been through any visitation or evangelism training, you know that phrase. So it is an identifier. It is that person saying, “Hey, I’m a real Christian. Don’t make me listen to your pitch.” Think about it. “Have YOU come to the place in YOUR spiritual life where YOU know for certain that YOU will go to Heaven?” Think about invitations at church. “Do you have Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior?” Same thing with baptisms. I remember in visitation training we used to be taught that certain responses were actually negative – like “I believe in God” or “I believe in Jesus.” So if you’ve been in church or whatever, you know what to say to keep snooping seminary students from bothering you.
Interesting thoughts for sure.
Yeah, I think of it as a code. Plus it’s easier to say that than say I’m a ‘born again’ christian because if their actions aren’t fitting of a someone born again it’s easier to say He’s my personal savior.
Neat post :o)
David, thanks for the comment, yo! I definitely agree with you that all language exists in contexts and traditions for sure, and it can definitely work as a type of shorthand (kind of like when people say “good worship” they mean “good music”) to keep pesky punks like me at arms length. That can be helpful. And the focus on a personal relationship is no doubt a good thing.
What bothers me is that to be identified as a “real Christian” you have to speak the code, and that the code isn’t all that good (for the reasons above).
Also, the code is easily adopted as a creed (though not its original intention). When that happens, just like people making “worship” and “music” synonymous, many things are lost.
Lark, thanks for visiting the site and taking some time to respond! First comment, I think? Yeah, the code can be a good thing (especially to mature believers), I mean, in typical conversation we don’t have the time to go into some deep theological treatise of God’s plan of redemption and the new heavens and earth, etc. And how many people want to talk to someone like that anyway?
And there’s probably not a good and perfect way to do this, either.
I think your point on the lack of community is very interesting in retrospect, as well. There is very little concern on the part of members of most US churches to care for or about their fellow members. We don’t check on each other’s spiritual state. We don’t hold each other accountable. We don’t bear one another’s burdens. We sure as Gehenna don’t confess sins to each other. This would all be unacceptable in modern American church. We have this “well that’s your business.” The funny thing is that all four things I listed are mandated biblically. This is one of the biggest reasons WHY we have the same divorce rate as unsaved people, a huge porn problem, affairs all over the place, and church members and staff that act worse than heathens. After all, that is personal. There is actually a prominent minister in the Oviedo area who has on multiple occasions tore into members for saying that “God showed them something.” He said you shouldn’t share that because it is probably just for you to hear – if it was even him. Personal Jesus.
David, good points, man— totally agree.
Very refreshing this morning. I’d read your post earlier, but for some reason it went really well with my morning coffee and grits today. Talked it through a little with my wife, too.
Chuck, glad it matched well!