Sunday, February 19, 2012

That's NOT in the Bible! "Once saved; always saved" (Hebrews 10:19-26, 2 Peter 2:20-21)

Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh), and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering for he who has promised is faithful. And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching. For if we willingly persist in sin after having received the knowledge of truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins.

For if, after they have escaped the defilements of the world through the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and overpowered, the last state has become worse for them than the first. For it would have been better for them to have never known the way of righteousness than, after knowing it, to turn back from the holy commandment that was passed on to them.

Perhaps some of you are familiar with YouTube personality Betty Butterfield. She shares thoughts and wisdom on various aspects of life, and she devotes a pretty significant series to her experience visiting churches of various denominations. Her response to each is a little bit parody, a little bit caricature, but also eerily accurate to how we inside churches are often viewed by outsiders, and perhaps, even, how we sometimes view ourselves.

In her visit to the Methodist church, she says, “All I ever really knew about the Methodist Church is that . . . somewhere, in the middle of all the churches, is the Methodist Church. If you don’t fit in anywhere else or you’re not real extreme on nuthin,’ then you can be a Methodist.”

Have you ever heard anything like that, or thought something similar? That Methodists aren’t real extreme on nuthin’ or that we’re sort of in the middle? Indeed, Methodists have been called “reasonable enthusiasts,” or “extreme centrists.”

This map shows each county of the US by religious groups with a plurality of the population. Methodists, shown in green, are not the dominant religious voice in any region, but we are second in most places. We are often defining ourselves against the dominant denomination, but also find ourselves soaking up its characteristics. In the Northeast and West, Methodists both look and sound an awful lot like Catholics, but are also quick to point out how they are different from the Catholics. In the upper Midwest, we do the same thing with Lutherans.

I have a friend who serves in a rural United Methodist Church about seventy miles from here, and when asking one of his long-time members about the religious diversity of their community, the old-timer looked at him and said, “Preacher, we got both kinds of religion here - Baptist and Methodist.”

Here we are, in the middle of this sea of red Baptists, most particularly the Southern Baptists. Here in the buckle of the Bible Belt, where the roll of some churches leads us to believe that certain counties have a higher population of Baptists than they do people; Baptists have obviously been the dominant voice of religious influence, and so Methodists here look and sound an awful lot like Baptists even as we often define ourselves in the ways that are different from how Southern Baptists believe and behave.

Let me say at the outset here that Baptists and Methodists hold a lot more in common than we do in difference. Indeed, we have more common ground with all Christian groups than we do places of disagreement - and unity should be the basis of our relationship with those in other Christian groups.

At the same time, I don’t want to gloss over the differences in understanding and emphasis too quickly. While it is true that we, as United Methodists, don’t hold the corner on the market, nevertheless we do hold a particular and unique corner, and I happen to think where we live provides something that is both special and necessary. It’s one of the reasons I am a United Methodist and not something else - the particularity of our identity is a good and helpful thing.

Here in the Bible Belt, one of the key differences between Methodists and Southern Baptists is in how we understand and speak about the experience of God’s salvation for us in Jesus Christ. I have heard the accusation advanced that we Methodists don’t care about salvation or even that we don’t believe in salvation, simply because the way we speak about it is different than those in the dominant religious culture around us. That accusation is just nonsense, and I hope you’ll see that, in fact, we speak about salvation differently precisely because we care so much about it!

Think of a couple preparing for marriage, who places all of their emphasis and preparation on the day of the wedding itself - a beautiful service, the perfect reception - but no thought goes into the actual marriage. This is something I really try to underscore with the couples with whom I am working in preparation for their marriages. Yes, we’re certainly going to plan a wedding and make it as perfect a day as we can, but my real role, the important role I play with them, is in the preparation for marriage and the relationship of a life together. The wedding itself is vitally important, but the thing that really matters is the day-to-day ins and outs of the marriage. The wedding day is important - it’s a big deal! But so is every day beyond that.

Similarly, John Wesley taught that coming to faith is not the goal of the religious journey. It is important. It is critical. It is necessary. But it is not the goal. In the Wesleyan tradition, the end of the road is not an altar where one has knelt in deep repentance and accepted Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. Hooray when that happens - but it is not the end of the road (Belton Joyner, Being United Methodist in the Bible Belt, p 3).

Hooray for the wedding day and the rightful cause for celebration that it is, but the cause for greater celebration is when the vows made are lived out in the day-to-day of life together. And so, Hooray when we come to faith, but the cause for greater celebration is when we continue to live as faith-filled people.

It is no coincidence that one of the metaphors used to describe the relationship between Christ and the Church is that of a marriage, with Christ as the groom and we, all of us, the Church, as his bride. This is one metaphor of many that helps us reclaim a Scriptural definition and understanding of salvation. For one thing, the initiative is always, always, always God’s. Christ, the groom, asks us to be his bride. We certainly choose whether or not to accept the invitation, but the salvation relationship was God’s idea and extended at God’s initiative.

Further, too much emphasis on that moment of getting saved, particularly when it is coupled with the slogan, “Once saved, always saved” cheats us of the fullness of an unfolding relationship with God. It also places the start line of our faith journey in the wrong place, allowing us to think that we choose the starting point, when in reality, the story of God’s salvation and our participation in it begins long before. Indeed, our loving God of reconciliation has been reaching toward us and offering us salvation and eternal life since the very beginning.

The phrase “Once saved, always saved” is a slogan that originally applied to the classical Calvinist doctrine of “Perseverance of the Saints,” the basic premise of which is that those whom God calls and saves by grace, God will grant a measure of grace sufficient to continue as a disciple of Jesus. A person desiring to continue as a disciple of Jesus will evidence their desire for salvation and do such things as are consistent with following Jesus, such as praying, reading Scripture, attending public worship, sharing their resources, and committing themselves to works of piety and works of mercy.

Honestly, I don’t take much of an issue here. As a Methodist, I certainly nuance it a bit more and add that we have free choice and always have the option to accept or reject God’s grace and therefore can choose whether or not to practice these holy habits, but at the end of the day, I’d agree that these are the habits and practices of one who has experienced and continues to experience the cleansing, transformative power of the Holy Spirit that accompanies salvation.

However, this is a far cry from how the phrase “Once saved, always saved” is commonly used. Typically, it implies that once one has made an honest, genuine, uncoerced commitment of one’s life to Christ, that’s all there is to it. The danger in this is that it glosses over the hard, day-to-day work of discipleship required for being a Christ-follower, similar to how placing too much emphasis on the wedding itself can gloss over the work required to build the marriage relationship.

In Bible Belt culture, “getting saved” is a socially-expected rite-of-passage, apparently bonus points are awarded if one can name the date, time, and place of salvation. It is expected that one has a dramatic story of the moment they turned the corner from sinner to saint, a moment they can point to when they accepted Jesus into their heart, and that moment in which a personal decision was made is forever emblazoned in their faith story as the moment they were saved.

However, as we United Methodists understand salvation,it is not so much a singular moment as it is a lifetime journey of following and walking with Jesus. Moments like what we just described are a vitally important part of that faith journey for many, but they do not represent the entirety of the experience of salvation. Those moments of clarity, when we feel our hearts strangely warmed, when we aware of God’s presence like never before, when we make a conscious choice to turn away from self-centered living and devote ourselves to Christlike God-centered living - all of those moments are vitally important and should be celebrated as milestones in every person’s faith journey, but we must also realize that none of those moments, in and of themselves, represents the totality of salvation.

Further our reconciliation with God is already a reality. Everything necessary for our salvation is already accomplished in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. God has already extended the invitation, and when we grab onto the grace extended toward us, we are saying “Yes” to all the ways God has already said “Yes” to each of us.

But “Yes” is not a response we give to God only once in our lives. I know I must be incredibly frustrating to folks who are trying to save my soul in the parking lot at the mall or the grocery store or Caribou Coffee, because the first question they usually ask is, “Are you saved?” and I respond with an enthusiastic “Yes.” Then they ask, “When?” and I say “2000 years ago in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, and by the grace of God, most recently, today.” That response is usually enough to throw them off script and send them away mumbling something to themselves about smart-aleck Methodists.

Buying into the slogan “Once saved, always saved” could very well be the thing that keeps us from growing in our relationship with God, for it comes with the implication that once we’ve repented and experienced that initial forgiveness, that’s all there is to it. One of the worst things for us would be to be people who claim to be followers of Christ, yet who have no fruit in our lives that would suggest we are in a relationship with Christ. Talk about a death sentence - to have said “Yes” to Christ a long time ago and convinced ourselves that we are just fine, perhaps preventing ourselves from having said “Yes” to Christ lately; it’s no different to having made vows to our partner at our wedding, but having done very little to uphold them lately.

As the bride of Christ, we are called to say “Yes” to Christ daily. “Once saved, always saved” is a slogan that doesn’t work because it ignores the day-to-day call to follow Christ and grow in his love and example. Every day, we have choices. Salvation is an accomplished reality in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, but each day, we choose whether or not we will participate in that reality.

Salvation is not only a matter of where we will spend eternity, it’s also a matter of ushering in the reign of God in the here and now, that God’s kingdom shall come and God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven. It’s not only a matter of us getting into heaven when we die, it’s about getting heaven into us while we live! Friends, that is something that, like a marriage, takes dedication and commitment, a lifetime of saying “Yes” to God, of turning ourselves over to God, of constantly choosing to participate in the salvation which God is freely offering to each and every one of us.

The slogan “Once saved, always saved” cheapens the experience of salvation by collapsing into a single moment a relationship that is to be enjoyed with God over a lifetime. Having said “Yes” to Christ once does not suffice for never saying “Yes” to Christ again. On the contrary, saying “Yes” to Christ starts us on the journey of continuing to renew that “Yes” all through our lives. If you get married, you don’t merely say “yes” to your partner on the wedding day, it’s about each and every day beyond that. If you come to faith, it’s not about saying “yes” to God just once and that being the end of it. It’s not “Yes, once and always.” It’s “Yes, again and again, a thousand times, YES!”

Today, I want to extend an opportunity for you to say “Yes” to God. Maybe that’s something you’ve never really done before, maybe it’s been an awful long time since you have, maybe it’s something you do constantly - in any case, it’s something we all need to do. Whatever your circumstance, if you truly, in the depths of your heart, desire to say “Yes” to God today and every day, in a moment, I’m going to invite you to stand as your way of saying “Yes.” Maybe you even want to come and kneel at the altar rail, or gather around the altar rail with others, or reach toward heaven or those around you - whatever the Spirit leads you to do, you just go right ahead and do that. I’m going to be here at the altar rail to pray with those who’d like to. We’re in no rush today - this is too important to rush through it, and as long as you and God have business to do, however long that takes, that’s how long we’re going to take. The important thing isn’t so much how you say “Yes” to God today, it just matters that you do. And, if today is the first time you’ve ever said “Yes” to God, would you do me a favor and just me know - maybe quietly on the way out, or shoot me an email or text later today? I’d like to pray for you, and help you on this lifetime journey of continuing to say “Yes” to God. And so, if you’re ready to say “Yes” to God today, whether that’s for the first time ever or this is something you already do daily, would you please stand?

O God, look upon these, your beautiful and beloved people, who stand this day to say “Yes” to you. They are saying “Yes” to your offer of salvation, they are saying “Yes” to being your disciple, they are saying “Yes” to walking in your ways. They aren’t standing because they’re perfect or they have everything together or figured out. They’re standing because they realize how much you love them, and they love you, too, and according to the grace you pour upon them, they want to continue saying “Yes” to you all through their lives. Holy God, pour out your Holy Spirit upon all gathered here today, give them the strength to continue to stand strong in you, transform them from glory into glory, and use them to transform all the places they find themselves, and the heart of every person they encounter. Help us, now and always, to say “Yes” to you. In the name of Jesus, who was and is your “Yes” to us - Amen.

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