THE SINNER’S PRAYER

And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. [Acts 2:38 (ESV)]

anenome - Canada or meadowIn a book about evangelism I read, the author wrote of bringing a new believer into his office and the two of them saying the Sinner’s Prayer. After the new believer repeated the Pastor’s words, he was pronounced saved. While there is no official version, the prayer probably went something like this: “God, I know that I am a sinner and that I deserve to go to hell. I believe that Jesus Christ died on the cross for my sins. I do now receive Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and Savior. Thank you, Lord, for saving me and forgiving me! Amen.” Since many evangelical Christians speak of saying some sort of prayer like this at the moment of conversion, I wondered if a specific “Sinner’s Prayer” is a requirement for salvation.

If a special prayer is required, we should find it in the Bible yet, while we find lots of prayers, there doesn’t appear to be a prayer prerequisite for salvation. Jesus told the sinful woman who kissed and anointed his feet that her faith had saved her, the woman with the bleeding disorder that her faith made her well, and the blind men that their faith gave them sight. When the 3,000 were converted at Pentecost, Peter told the people to repent of their sins, turn to God, and be baptized in the name of Jesus for the forgiveness of sins. After hearing the gospel from Philip, the Ethiopian eunuch was baptized. After speaking with Ananias, Saul regained his sight and was baptized. While Peter preached the gospel to the Roman centurion Cornelius and his Gentile friends, the Holy Spirit descended upon them and they all were baptized. In none of these cases is there mention of a special prayer before conversion, asking for salvation or taking Jesus as a personal Lord and Savior. The people believed, repented, and were baptized. If a special prayer is required for Christ’s salvation, I’m pretty sure it would have been included in Scripture and it isn’t.

Nevertheless, it is Biblical to repentantly pray and ask for forgiveness; what’s not Biblical is to say salvation comes because of a prayer. Salvation comes by God’s grace through faith. We are justified by faith, not by works and certainly not by words. Even so, there’s nothing inherently wrong with praying some sort of sinner’s prayer at conversion—unless, of course, the person praying isn’t called by the Holy Spirit and genuinely repentant. When empty of faith, that prayer is meaningless and gives the person praying it a false (and dangerous) sense of security. Merely saying a version of the Sinner’s Prayer isn’t like purchasing an insurance policy guaranteeing salvation and eternal life. Even repeating dozens of prayers can’t save us. We’re not saved by the words of a prayer but by the genuine repentance and faith behind the prayer. As Christians, we don’t put our trust in words but in the body and blood of Jesus Christ.

In actuality, since we’re all sinners, every prayer we say is a sinner’s prayer. Nevertheless, our faith, hope and assurance should not be in the prayers we say but rather in the God who hears our prayers.

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God. [Ephesians 2:8 (ESV)]

Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls. [1 Peter 1:8-10 (ESV)]

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GRIEVING HIM

In all their suffering he also suffered, and he personally rescued them. In his love and mercy he redeemed them. He lifted them up and carried them through all the years. But they rebelled against him and grieved his Holy Spirit. So he became their enemy and fought against them. [Isaiah 63:9-10 (NLT)]

SQUIRRELMany years ago, my two boys were playing at their grandparents’ house. While Grandpa worked in the garden, the brothers climbed high up the apple tree and started to throw apples at him. A patient man, their grandfather told them to stop and, when more apples came whizzing at him, he offered a sterner warning. After briefly stopping their barrage, the rascals were unable to resist the temptation and chucked more apples at their grandpa. To their surprise, this gentle and loving man turned around, picked up some apples, and returned fire. Having played ball as a boy, Gramps had a strong throwing arm and excellent aim. He didn’t pull any punches as he pitched those apples back at his grandsons. The boys, unable to maneuver easily in the tree, quickly learned the meaning of “as easy as shooting fish in a barrel.” When they called, “Stop, Grandpa, it hurts!” he replied, “Yes, I know it does, but you needed to learn that!” It wasn’t until those hard apples hit their bodies that the boys understood how much their disobedience hurt their grandfather (both physically and emotionally).

This is one of my boys’ favorite stories about their Grandpa. They aren’t mad that he hurled those apples back at them; they’re proud of him for loving them enough to discipline them. They learned a variety of lessons that day and not just that being hit by an apple hurts or never to be caught up a tree. They learned to listen to and obey their grandfather, that disobedience brings reckoning, and that obedience brings rewards (like apple pies). They also learned that their naughtiness grieved their grandfather as much as their punishment hurt them.

We know that Jesus experienced both physical and emotional pain when He walked the earth but what does God the Father experience? As a spirit, without a nervous system, I doubt that He feels physical pain, but what about emotional pain? Does God have feelings? There are two opposing theological schools of thought about this question (the doctrine of impassibility vs. the passibility of God) and a whole lot of middle ground in-between. Not being a theologian, I’m not addressing doctrine. Nevertheless, throughout the Bible, we find examples of God expressing emotions like love, joy, compassion, hate, jealousy, anger and even grief. Like any parent, God’s heart is touched by His children; it seems that He can feel our pain and that we can cause Him pain.

Although Scripture tells us that God is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in love, like the boys’ grandfather, God eventually will get angry. Moreover, Scripture shows us that disobedience aggrieves our heavenly Father as much as an apple on the noggin and my boys’ defiance hurt their grandpa. When we disobey God, disgrace His name, doubt His love, forsake our faith, reject His guidance, choose hate over love or callousness over compassion, we bring sorrow, grief and pain to God. Scripture tells us that God can grieve and the parables of the missing coin, prodigal son, and lost sheep also tell us that God can rejoice. Rather than bringing grief to God, let us always do what pleases Him, for it is in the joy of the Lord that we find strength.

And do not bring sorrow to God’s Holy Spirit by the way you live. … Get rid of all bitterness, rage, anger, harsh words, and slander, as well as all types of evil behavior. Instead, be kind to each other, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God through Christ has forgiven you. … Carefully determine what pleases the Lord. [Ephesians 4:30a, 31-23; 5:10 (NLT)]

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BLOOD AND GUTS

For the life of the body is in its blood. I have given you the blood on the altar to purify you, making you right with the Lord. It is the blood, given in exchange for a life, that makes purification possible. [Leviticus 17:11-12 (NLT)]

sacred daturaFor most of us, the meat we purchase arrives at the grocery store prepackaged. We’re not used to seeing animals slaughtered, skinned or butchered and, unless we’re phlebotomists, rarely see large amounts of blood. As a result, much of Leviticus makes for rather gory reading since the temple, a place of worship, also served as a ritual slaughterhouse. Perhaps it’s my vegetarian sensibilities but, when the Bible refers to the pleasing aroma of sacrifice, I wince when thinking of the stench of dried blood and burnt meat.

Biblical sacrifices go as far back as Cain and Abel but it is in Leviticus that we read of the sacrifices God required of the Israelites. The book gives complicated instructions for each of the sacrificial rituals: everything from the kind of animal offered and the draining of its blood to splashing that blood around the altar and what to do with the meat. Nowadays, these bizarre rites seem sickening and gruesome. Then again, perhaps that is exactly what they were supposed to be even back then. Watching one’s best lamb have its throat slit and seeing its blood pour out was probably as awful 3,400 years ago as it seems today. Seeing the animal’s life offered as a substitute for the sinner’s symbolized the high cost of sin and could not have been taken lightly. Moreover, as offensive as all that blood and butchering seems, think of how offended God is by our sins! Sin is far uglier and more repugnant than any abattoir.

My 21st century self has difficulty understanding why blood had to be shed in the first place and how blood—something that stains—could ever be considered cleansing. Caught up in picturing all of that blood, gore and smell, it’s easy to forget that the reason for those sacrifices was atonement. The Israelites sacrificed what was precious to them to satisfy God as atonement for their sins. A price had to be paid for mankind’s sins and, without blood, there could be no forgiveness. For God, the aroma was not that of blood and seared meat but of repentance. Those bloody offerings, however, were temporary substitutes. Even though the animal died rather than the sinner, the sacrifice had to be repeated again and again. It is those sacrifices, however, that foreshadowed the one true and everlasting sacrifice that took place on Calvary. Our sins against a holy and infinite God required a holy and infinite sacrifice: the flawless lamb, Jesus Christ. Our atonement is now found in our faith in Christ—the one perfect and final sacrifice.

With his own blood—not the blood of goats and calves—he entered the Most Holy Place once for all time and secured our redemption forever. Under the old system, the blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer could cleanse people’s bodies from ceremonial impurity. Just think how much more the blood of Christ will purify our consciences from sinful deeds so that we can worship the living God. For by the power of the eternal Spirit, Christ offered himself to God as a perfect sacrifice for our sins. [Hebrews 9:12-14 (NLT)]

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SPINNING

Finally, I confessed all my sins to you and stopped trying to hide my guilt. I said to myself, “I will confess my rebellion to the Lord.” And you forgave me! All my guilt is gone. [Psalm 32:5 (NLT)]

great blue heronHaving just returned from the East Coast, I had a lengthy “to do” list and thought I could fit in a few errands before picking up my mother-in-law for her doctor’s appointment. As I pushed the cart through the store, I glanced down at my watch to check the time and gasped. To my dismay, I’d lost an hour! I should have been picking her up right then; there was no way we would make it to the doctor’s on time. Leaving the cart in the aisle, I rushed to my car. Rather than think how to save the situation, my first thought was how to spin it! Other than my own carelessness and stupidity, what valid excuse could I have for my tardiness? As I started the car, I glanced at the clock on the dash and realized that hour hadn’t disappeared; I’d left it back East. While my watch was still on EST, my car, mother-in-law, the doctor and I were in CST and there was still plenty of time.;

Rather than a complete fabrication, spinning is selectively gathering facts, omitting relevant truths, and then shaping them to support our version of the story. Spinning reshapes people and events with half-truths, diversions, exaggeration, inaccuracies, emotion-laden words, attacks and euphemisms. Spinning gives us “alternative facts.” It calls bombs “lethal defensive weapons,” cheating on emissions tests “possible non-compliance,” adultery an “inappropriate relationship,” embezzlement a “personal failing,” and information we don’t like “fake news.”

Although spinning is just a nicer way of saying deceiving, we all do it. Sometimes, we spin to save someone’s feelings but, far more often, we do it to save ourselves from a reprimand, consequences, embarrassment, or humiliation. The first spinners, of course, were Eve and Adam who spun the apple story to shift the blame. Eve said it was the serpent’s fault and Adam placed the blame on both Eve and God (for giving him the woman in the first place)! Detouring around a troublesome question, Cain spun when he answered God’s question as to the whereabouts of his brother with a question of his own. We spin so we don’t have to admit our failings. Aaron spun the golden calf incident by blaming the evil Israelites rather than his weak leadership.

When we can’t make an accusation disappear, we spin it to explain that what we did wasn’t really that wrong. Told to completely destroy everything in the Amalekite nation, Saul disobeyed by sparing the king’s life. His troops destroyed only what was worthless and took the rest for themselves. When confronted by Samuel, rather than admitting his greed and disobedience, Saul spun the story. Making no mention of the monument he’d set up for himself, he claimed the prohibited plunder was to be a sacrifice to God. Sometimes, we spin when it isn’t even necessary. When Jesus asked the crippled man at Bethesda if he wanted to get well, rather than a simple yes or no, the man blamed his disability on those who wouldn’t help him to the pool.

David had a perfect opportunity to put a spin on his adultery with Bathsheba. When confronted by Nathan, the king easily could have blamed the beauty for seducing him or Joab for misunderstanding his directions regarding Uriah’s fate. Instead, David did what all of us are expected to do: confessed and said, “I have sinned against the Lord.” Although we prefer making excuses and laying the blame for our failures elsewhere, let us never forget that we, like David, must always take full responsibility for our actions.

But the tax collector stood at a distance and dared not even lift his eyes to heaven as he prayed. Instead, he beat his chest in sorrow, saying, “O God, be merciful to me, for I am a sinner.” I tell you, this sinner, not the Pharisee, returned home justified before God. For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted. [Luke 18:13-14 (NLT)]

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NOT REMEMBERING

Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven. [Matthew 18:21-22 (RSV)]

Several authors tell the story of a friend of Clara Barton who reminded the nursing pioneer and Red Cross founder of a spiteful act someone had done to her years earlier. When Barton acted as if it had never happened, her friend asked, “Don’t you remember it?” She vehemently replied, “No! I distinctly remember forgetting it.” Forgiveness isn’t easy and it requires real (and continued) determination on our part. Sadly, without our deliberate effort to put the offense aside, it’s easy for past hurts to weasel their way right back into our hearts and minds.

When Moravian missionaries first came to the Arctic, they found no word in the Inuit language that properly captured the Christian concept of forgiveness. Using Inuit words, they came up with issumagijoujunnainermik meaning “not-being-able-to-think-about-it-anymore.” That’s what forgiveness is; it’s choosing not to let the thoughts of that harmful person or their harmful deeds consume our thinking. Forgiveness isn’t forgetting; it’s deciding not to remember.

In writing about forgiveness today, I came across another interesting word: ilunga.  Found in the Tshiluba language spoken by the Bantu of the Congo, it is considered by linguists to be the most difficult word to translate. Ilunga describes a person who is ready to forgive and forget any first offense, will tolerate it a second time, but will neither forgive nor tolerate it a third time. It’s a three-strikes-and-you’re-out kind of person whose attitude changes with each offense. Jesus, however, didn’t tell us to forgive only once; He said to forgive seventy times seven times (or endlessly)!

When asked if she was ever troubled by past offenses, either hers of those of others, an elderly Christian lady is said to have replied, “Never!” She explained that if Satan troubled her about her sins or other people’s offenses, she simply sent him east. If he returned, she sent him to the west. Recalling the psalmist’s words that God “has removed our sins as far from us as the east is from the west,” [103:12] she explained that by sending Satan back and forth, from east to west and back again, she never allowed him to stop at her house.

The choice is ours. Will we choose to be like an ilunga or like that Christian lady and Clara Barton, people who practice issumagijoujunnainermik?

Forgiving does not erase the bitter past. A healed memory is not a deleted memory. Instead, forgiving what we cannot forget creates a new way to remember. We change the memory of our past into a hope for our future. [Lewis B. Smedes]

Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. [Ephesians 4:31-32 (RSV)]

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COULD IT BE TODAY?

Teach us to realize the brevity of life, so that we may grow in wisdom. [Psalm 90:12 (NLT)]

black vultureA few years ago, unaware of what the day would bring, a family friend kissed her new husband good-bye as he left for work. While riding the train that morning, the young man collapsed; he died of sudden cardiac arrest less than an hour after that tender kiss. That same year, another friend, whose wife’s body was ravaged by cancer, knew how short the time was he had with her. “While watching TV,” he confided downheartedly, “I looked over at Maureen and realized that next year her chair will be empty and I’ll be alone!” Today is Patriot Day, an annual remembrance of those who died or were injured during the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. Thinking about that tragic morning seventeen years ago when so many lost their loved ones unexpectedly, I remembered these two widowed friends. Which is worse: watching the one you love deteriorate and knowing that you’re running out of time for kisses or kissing a loved one in the morning and not knowing that will be the last kiss you’ll ever share?

I can’t imagine the anguish of either scenario and am thankful that God doesn’t give us a choice in this matter. But, I do know what would be more heartbreaking than either scenario. Instead of kissing one another when parting, it would be worse if our last words were angry or harsh ones. How tragic if, instead of sharing a few loving words, we spent our last moments together in heated discussion or spiteful silence. What if we squandered our last opportunity to say “I love you,” to apologize or forgive, to pray together, to laugh with one another, or to share a kiss?

Whenever we say good-bye to my mother-in-law, we always give her a kiss and express our love. Since she’s nearing her 102nd birthday, we understand that each time we see her might be the last. This day of remembrance, however, is a powerful reminder that we can’t see what the next day will bring. There is no guarantee of tomorrow or even the next hour. We don’t know when our last moments with someone may be, whether they are 102 or only 12, dying of cancer or in the prime of life. We mustn’t waste the time with which we’re blessed. Let’s fill our lives, and the lives of others, with love, peace, and joy.

Father in Heaven, may we all learn to live each day as if it is our last. Remind us, O Lord, that this could be the final day, not just for us, but for those we love. May your Spirit guide us so that we truly appreciate the time and people you’ve given us. Let us leave no forgiveness denied, no love unexpressed, no apologies unoffered, no conflicts unresolved, and no thanks unspoken.

I expect to pass this way but once; any good therefore that I can do, or any kindness that I can show to any fellow creature, let me do it now. Let me not defer or neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again. [Stephen Grellet]

Look here, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we are going to a certain town and will stay there a year. We will do business there and make a profit.” How do you know what your life will be like tomorrow? Your life is like the morning fog—it’s here a little while, then it’s gone. [James 4:13-14 (NLT)]

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