Today, the New York Times reported that Donald Trump–the presumptive Republican nominee for the U.S. presidency in this November’s presidential election–has reportedly become a born again Christian recently. Michael Antony, a church pastor in Pennsylvania, claimed this in a post on his blog this week. He says he recorded an interview he had with evangelical Christian leader Dr. James Dobson, president of Focus on the Family. Dr. Dobson says of Donald Trump that he knows the “person who led him to Christ.” To “lead someone to Christ” is common language among evangelical Christians that means a “born again” person had prayer with another person, and that person verbally “accepted Christ.” Dobson therefore described Mr. Trump as “a baby Christian.” (On the meaning of “born again,” and Jesus’ origination of that term, see my last post.)
During Donald Trump’s political campaign for U.S. president, he has been courting the evangelical vote. He supposedly won over a significant number of evangelicals in winning the Republican primaries. Because of this, in a televised interview he was asked if he had any religious convictions himself. He said he attends a Presbyterian church. He added that he likes to ingest the grape juice and “cracker,” referring to the communion service at church. The thrice-married Donald, who has been known at times as a “ladies man,” was then asked if he had ever asked God for forgiveness. He stumbled about in his answer and then admitted “no,” explaining that he didn’t see any need to do so. Mr. Trump has said repeatedly during his political campaign that he like Evangelical Christians and the “his favorite book is the Bible.” Good for him. But I hope he’s not just saying such things to get votes. He’s a crafty character. Yet throughout world history, Almighty God has sometimes reached the hearts of the gravest of sinners.
Evangelicals are somewhat of a diverse group, but on forgiveness and spiritual conversion, that are pretty much united. They all agree that every human being needs to personally and spiritually experience God and thereby be converted, even if they don’t know any specific instance in their life when that happens. Evangelicals call this a conversion experience in which a person is spiritually “born again.” But Evangelicals also agree that admitting to God that they are a sinner and asking God to forgive them of their sins is a necessary prerequisite, or at least part of it, to receive God’s salvation. They equate being “born again” and “being saved” with “accepting Christ.”
I myself had such an encounter happen to me when I was thirteen years old with my Sunday school teacher. But later in life I came to believe that although such an experience can be helpful to people in their so-called “assurance of salvation,” it is only necessary to genuinely believe in your heart in Jesus as your personal Savior.
Billy Graham used to frequently make this clear in his gospel message. When he spoke to about 100 of us PGA Tour pro golfers at a banquet at the Marriott hotel in Atlanta during the 1970s, Billy called his message to us “the ABC’s of the Gospel:” A=acknowledge your sinfulness to God; B=believe in Jesus as your savior from sin; C=confess your faith in Jesus to others. Of course, acknowledging personal sinfulness to God is what Mr. Trump was being asked about.
Throughout Donald Trump’s political campaign, I have posted several times about it and him, and it has usually been strongly negative. Nevertheless, I hope Dr. Dobson is right about Donald Trump, that he had a real Christian conversion experience that will make a positive difference in his life.It needs to be explained, however, that having an experience in which a person claims to have “accepted Christ” does not necessarily make that person a genuine Christian. Evangelicals have tended to criticize Catholic and Protestant churches for their criterion for receiving Christian salvation, which is faith plus water baptism, and in the case of the Roman Catholic Church, also their church membership. But many Evangelicals put too much credence on someone “accepting Christ in prayer” with an Evangelical.
Billy Graham has acknowledged this repeatedly. He says early in his career, he began to notice that sometimes there were people who “went forward” in his crusades to “receive Christ” with one of the staff members or Christian volunteers, and years later it became evident to Billy that such an experience had not changed that person to live a more righteous life. Thus, Mr. Graham has always made it clear that people need to believe in Jesus as Savior, but also allow Jesus thereafter to become “Lord” of their lives to some extent.
Dr. Dobson also said that Mr. Trump still uses words like “hell” a lot in his public speech, a word that most Evangelicals avoid. Dobson said of Trump, “he doesn’t know our language.” Thus James Dobson mercifully cautioned, “You got to cut him some slack.” I agree.
But I don’t agree with pastor Anthony’s reported, minor comment about the Apostle Paul and his dramatic conversion experience while traveling on the road from Jerusalem to Damascus, which is recorded in Acts 9 in the New Testament. Mr. Anthony said of Paul, who at that time was named Saul, “He didn’t know that language either.” Dobson reportedly agreed.
Saul was a young man of perhaps almost thirty years of age from a family of Pharisees. They were one of the two main sects in the Jewish religion then, the other being the Sadducees. Saul was then undergoing theological education and training in Jerusalem for the purpose of undertaking a career as a leading Torah teacher among the Pharisees. His theological acumen even at that time becomes obvious in his supposedly ten New Testament letters he wrote years later to churches and ministry associates. Thus, when Saul became Paul the Christian, he certainly did know the language and knew what the early Jewish disciples of Jesus believed. (They were not then called Christians, but Nazarenes.) According to the New Testament gospels, Jesus had many encounters with Pharisees in which they discussed theological topics.
In fact, when Saul had his conversion experience on the road to Damascus, he had been commissioned by the high priest at Jerusalem to carry with him “letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way [the name then for what we call Christianity], men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem” (Acts 9.2). And when the evangelist Stephen had earlier become the first martyred Nazarene by stoning, “the witnesses” who did the stoning “laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. . . . who approved of their killing him” (Acts 7.58; 8.1). So, Saul would have known a lot about their language and its meaning.
Interestingly, Donald Trump’s pretty daughter Ivanka is married to a Jewish man who works in The Donald’s political campaign. She says she has converted to Judaism and that the two of them are “pretty observant” regarding mostly Jewish dietary laws and “keeping the Sabbath” holy.