Some Christians seem to bank on salvation as the spiritual equivalent of a catastrophic health insurance policy: good for the future disaster called death but hardly related to the small matters of life in the here and now.
This, I suspect, is the fruit of an approach that drew many people to profess a Christian faith in the first place. The gospel was cooked down to a questionable minimum that went something like this: we face an angry God who is ready to punish us eternally for our sins. And all of us are sinners. The follow-up is that a simple act of saying “I believe in Jesus” gives us eternal anti-wrath insurance. And then if we want some other benefits from God after saying “I believe in Jesus” we are encouraged to take full advantage, but that part isn’t crucial.
The problem, of course, is that we don’t see much support for this sort of disaffected and mainly utilitarian faith in the Bible. It’s true, of course, that the Bible declares that all of us are sinners—yet we all pretty much knew that was true even without the Bible.
But the question for most people—whether they carry the insurance policy or not—seems to be, “Which sins bother God the most? I’ll be sure to avoid those! If it’s the sexual stuff then the question is, how bad does it have to be before we’re really in trouble? Are serial marriages really such a problem? God might be stuck with a pretty small crowd in heaven if he’s too fussy on that issue. Or what of an abortion or two—everyone else does it. Same with pornography and a lust for wealth—it’s just what men do! And isn’t Jesus famous for his grace? And the same benefits of grace must apply, too, when a bit of lying or cheating is uncovered, right?”
Grace is, indeed, wonderful and amazing! So let’s agree that all of us are sinners in need of God’s grace, and that in his mercy he takes care of our sins when we come to him in faith. That’s certainly my status, and he’s been rich with mercy to me! But is a lifestyle of spiritual presumption what God has mind when he calls us to believe in his Son and invites us to enter into his own eternal life?
Paul seems to have had a different view of things when he was converted. In his testimony before King Agrippa in Acts 26 Paul spoke of how Jesus first confronted him: “Quit persecuting me, Saul!” Which was to say that Paul (then called Saul), in his zeal to do the right things, had actually gotten God’s most basic requirement wrong by dismissing Jesus as God’s beloved Son.
What came next for Paul is particularly intriguing. The message Jesus wanted Paul to offer to others—with all of us included by extension—was stark: Go to unbelievers and open their eyes “so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are made holy by faith in me.”
Paul then interpreted what Jesus told him by sharing this message with anyone who would listen: “repent and turn to God, performing deeds in keeping with . . . repentance.”
So the missing piece in the logic-based faith of many seems to be the word “repentance”. “Repent” was the first word used by John the Baptist and by Jesus himself, so it can hardly be viewed as optional.
How, then, does someone turn away from the “power of Satan to God”? It sure isn’t by saying a magic formula “I believe in Jesus” while living a life that ignores him for the most part. Repentance, instead, is a turning away from the old by turning to the new. It’s life-changing.
What Paul went on to say elsewhere points to a real faith: “For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; and he died for all that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised” (2 Corinthians 5:14-15).
The bottom line for Paul’s version of the gospel? Love. It changes the way we live. So a true faith is a faith working through love—a love for God in Christ, and then a love for our neighbors.
So it should cause a stir to ask Christians who are spiritually indifferent but still hold their spiritual health insurance cards: “Do you love Jesus? Are you now living for him rather than for yourself?” Maybe their answer would tell us how saved they really are.
Maybe, too, a moment of repentance and some sorrow is in order for many of us. God loves that sort of heart because he’s the one who shapes it within us—creating a new heart that is actively drawn towards him. And such an authentic salvation might even attract others to see what salvation in Christ is really all about!