It’s a scene that has played out millions of times over hundreds of years. A spiritual seeker hears a religious message that stirs up feelings of guilt and shame. They walk down the aisle of a local church building to kneel and pray. Maybe they shake the preacher’s hand. He or she offers to lead them in some version of the “sinner’s prayer” in which they acknowledge their own default setting toward sinfulness, cry out to God for mercy, and ask Jesus to forgive their sins and save their soul from hell. There’s only one problem with this all too familiar scene. There is literally nothing in the Gospels that suggests that God actually wants us to do any of it.
When Jesus called people to repentance, He wasn’t talking about renouncing sin. He was talking about opening our minds to the good news that the Kingdom of God had come near. Jesus came to a Jewish culture that had been crying out to God in prayer for a new King–a Messiah–to come and set them free from Roman oppression. Jesus called the people of His day to repent (literally, “learn to think differently”) because they were expecting the Messiah to come as a military leader to conquer their enemies with violence. As a non-violent Messiah, Jesus knew that many in His culture would miss the reality of His present kingdom. He called them to repent of their expectations rooted in fear and reset their expectations around the heart of God.
Jesus taught his followers to renounce their fear and violence. He taught them to love and care for their neighbors, including those who would consider themselves enemies. By calling humanity to feed the hungry, heal the sick, and visit those in prison, Jesus reset His disciples’ focus onto loving others.
Didn’t Peter Tell Folks to Get Saved?
When debating the validity of having a conversion experience, theologians will often point to a passage in the book of Acts, chapter two. Peter tells the assembled crowd on the day of Pentecost that they had murdered God’s chosen Messiah, Jesus. Struck with fear, the people asked Peter what they could do to be saved from God’s vengeance. Peter told them to put their faith in the way of Jesus as a way to save themselves from their generation headed toward destruction.
Jesus knew that anyone who challenged the supremacy of Rome through violent means would meet a bloody end. He warned His followers that when they saw the armies surrounding Jerusalem they should flee to the mountains for safety. In 70 A.D., Rome destroyed Jerusalem destroying the temple and slaughtering over one million people. The followers of Jesus did as Jesus instructed and fled to the mountains. They survived.
This tragic event is what Peter tells those gathered at Pentecost to save themselves from. By putting their faith in the teachings of Jesus, they would flee to the mountains and escape destruction. It had nothing to do with eternal salvation.
The Reality of Salvation
The Greek word used in the New Testament for “salvation” literally means “wholeness”. The good news of the Gospel is that we have been made whole. The Gospel is not an invitation or proposition. It’s an announcement. We have nothing to fear from God. Christ’s death side by side with those religion deemed unworthy broke the power of the greatest lie of all-the lie of separation. Love keeps no record of wrongs. God isn’t keeping score. God isn’t in the religion business. As Julian of Norwich so beautifully wrote, “All is well. All will be well. All manner of things will be well.”
Jesus told the pharisee Nicodemus that we must be born from above. In our default state, we believe the lie that we are separated from God and that we must earn God’s approval and blessing. We are lacking awareness of our union with God. As we are born of the Spirit, we become aware of the beautiful reality that God has been with us–and for us–all along.
When we put our faith in a one time spiritual experience to make us right with God, many of us will never grow beyond that point. We pray the prayer accepting Jesus and then think that it was our choice or our prayer that saved us. The responsibility for keeping us saved (or whole) shifts to our own ability to follow the rules. This keeps the focus on us and our own effort rather than on the goodness of God. Apart from a major work of deconstruction, we could be stuck in that self-centered state for the rest of our lives.
For many, it is a huge relief to know that God is no longer holding their sins against them after their conversion experience. What could be better than being set free from your guilt and shame? How about knowing that God never held those sins against you in the first place? God has always loved us. God has always been working in our favor. There is no effort required on our part. We can simply live our lives knowing how loved we are. As a result, we will love others more fully by default.
The religion of “try harder and do better” has had thousands of years to change the world and it has failed to do so. Love has never been the central human virtue. It’s long past time that we take the teachings of Jesus seriously and let love lead. Living loved sets us on a lifelong journey of ever deepening intimacy with God that no religious experience can replicate.