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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ANSWERED PRAYERS – St. Nicholas – Part 2

He went on a little farther and bowed with his face to the ground, praying, “My Father! If it is possible, let this cup of suffering be taken away from me. Yet I want your will to be done, not mine.” [Matthew 26:39 (NLT)]

Sometime near the end of the 3rd century, the Bishop of Myra died and a conclave was held to elect his replacement. St. NicholasLegend has it that the bishops kept praying and voting but could not come to an agreement. In a stalemate, they prayed all night for God’s guidance and He revealed how they should make their selection. They were told that the first person to walk into the church that morning would be the one God wanted to shepherd His flock. A young man was the first to come in the door and, when asked his name, he replied, “Nicholas, the sinner.” He was brought into the sanctuary and placed on the bishop’s seat. Nicholas, who would eventually become both saint and Santa Claus, was then consecrated the new Bishop of Myra. In spite of the odd manner of his selection, from what we know of Nicholas—his good deeds, wisdom, generosity, and deep faith—God seemed to know what He was doing.

When those bishops first got together to select the new bishop, I suspect each man had his favorite candidate and his prayers probably were that the other bishops would see the light and vote for his man. Busy telling God the outcome they desired rather than asking Him to reveal who He wanted, it’s no surprise the bishops came to an impasse. Once they agreed to ask God for His divine wisdom, their prayers were answered.

There’s no point asking God for His guidance, however, if we’re unwilling to accept His answer. Granted, selecting the first man into church seems rather strange but God knew who that would be. While there are variations in the story’s details, most agree that Nicholas was quite young and, while he was devout and well versed in Scripture and may have been a monk, he was unknown to the bishops and not a priest. Could some of the bishops have had second thoughts at that point? Here was an unknown entity: someone who’d never been deacon or priest, inexperienced in the church and its politics, who would now be in charge of deacons and priests, and on an equal footing with the other bishops. And what of young Nicholas? Many stories mention his hesitation at taking on such an undeserved honor. Nevertheless, both the young man and the bishops were obedient to God’s plan; Nicholas became the Bishop of Myra and history tells us he was the right man for the job.

Do we really think God needs our advice in running the world and our lives? When we pray, do we tell Him what we want Him to do and the outcome we desire or are our prayers open-ended, leaving the end result up to God’s will? God is not a cosmic vending machine and even He can’t please all the people all of the time. If I get every green light, then someone else is getting all the reds! We all can’t get what we want but we all can get what God wants for us! In Gethsemane, Jesus asked for release but He finished His prayer with acquiescence to God’s will. We must do the same in our prayers. When we say, “Thy will be done,” however, we can’t have the unspoken proviso of, “as long as I like Your answer.”

For me, the story of his ordination is the best part of the St. Nicholas legend and yet the saint plays a minor role in it. It’s a story of faith—faith in a loving and wise God, a God who answers the right prayers and a story of submission—submission to God’s will and the willing acceptance of His answer, strange as that answer may seem.

If you need wisdom, ask our generous God, and he will give it to you. He will not rebuke you for asking. But when you ask him, be sure that your faith is in God alone. Do not waver, for a person with divided loyalty is as unsettled as a wave of the sea that is blown and tossed by the wind. Such people should not expect to receive anything from the Lord. [James 1:5-7 (NLT)]

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THANK YOU NOTES

Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good! His faithful love endures forever. [Psalm 107:1 (NLT)]

wild turkeyWhen I was a girl (back in the days of pen, paper and postage stamps), my mother insisted that I write a thank you note for any gifts I received. Whether birthday or Christmas, I was not allowed to enjoy my gifts until the necessary notes had been written. Moreover, each note had to be personal. I couldn’t just write a generic, “Thank you for the nice present.” I had to say something specific about the gift and, if it was money, I had to say how I planned on using it. Even if the present was something I really didn’t like or want (and we’ve all had those kinds of gifts), I had to express gratitude. My mother reminded me that, while I might not value the gift, someone else’s time, thought, love and money had gone into getting it for me. Therefore, I should take the time to properly acknowledge and show my appreciation for the giver’s generosity. The thank you note rule also applied whenever someone did something special for me. If a family took me to an event or I’d spent the night at a friend’s house, a note of thanks had to be written.

Eventually, once I was old enough to buy the gifts, do the good turns, and host the guests, I appreciated the time, energy, money, thought, and love that goes into those things. My mind set changed from “I have to write a note” to “I want to write a note.” Rather than an obligation, thanking someone became a privilege.

Whenever I get a note of thanks, I relish it, especially when it’s from a grand. Misspellings and poor penmanship don’t matter to me; I love knowing that they (and their parents) appreciate the gift and the love that came with it. Unfortunately, nowadays, people rarely write thank you notes or even thank you emails. We seem to take people, their gifts and kindness to us, quite for granted.

As rare as hand-written notes are today, how much rarer is it for us to remember to send our thanks regularly to our Father in Heaven? What if we couldn’t play with our toys, enjoy our health, use our talents, spend our money, live in our homes, hug our family, eat our food, use our intellect or accept God’s grace until we had properly thanked him? Thanksgiving is our national day of thanks but every day should be a day of thanksgiving. That means seriously thinking about our many blessings, specifying the gifts for which we are grateful, and then actually giving God our thanks and praise.

Tomorrow, when you take that walk in a vain attempt to work off those extra 2,000 or more calories, try listing your blessings and offering your thanks as you walk. You just might find you’re still thanking God for his gifts by the time you return home.

It’s one thing to be grateful. It’s another to give thanks. Gratitude is what you feel. Thanksgiving is what you do. [Tim Keller] 

Silent gratitude isn’t very much use to anyone. [Gertrude Stein]

Enter his gates with thanksgiving; go into his courts with praise. Give thanks to him and praise his name. For the Lord is good. His unfailing love continues forever, and his faithfulness continues to each generation. [Psalm 100:4-5 (NLT)]

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A HEAVY LOAD

And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them. [Romans 8:28 (NLT)]

When troubles of any kind come your way, consider it an opportunity for great joy. For you know that when your faith is tested, your endurance has a chance to grow. [James 1:3b-3 (NLT)]

viceroy butterfly“He will deliver us from our troubles or carry us through them. Either way, we will be free of them eventually.” How easily these words can be uttered until, of course, those troubles apply to us. Had Job’s friends been Christian and said those words, I don’t think they would have been any more comforting than what was said. While true, they won’t bring back the amputated limb or cancerous breast, pay the staggering medical bills, tuck the motherless child in bed at night, change the diagnosis of Parkinson’s or schizophrenia, or bring back an abused child’s innocence. While true, those words can’t wipe the tears of a mother holding her stillborn baby, the husband watching his wife vanish into dementia, or the man whose body is in mutiny because of ALS.

The valleys I have traversed have been neither as deep nor as dark as those others are traveling. I’ve never climbed mountains as steep as the mountains they face daily. The storms that battered my soul pale in comparison to the tempests others endure. They grow weary from carrying burdens heavier that I can imagine. It’s not just the victims of life’s afflictions and misfortune that bear a burden. Everyone who loves and cares for them becomes part of their arduous journey; they shoulder heavy loads, as well. I cannot fathom the emotional and physical weight they carry nor the exhaustion they must experience on a daily basis.

I know enough not to say, “I know what you’re going through,” because I truly don’t. Even with the same diagnosis, no two people share the same circumstances. Reminding someone that God works all things for good or that we grow through suffering may be of little comfort to those who are in anguish and pain. Suffering isn’t a riddle that needs to be solved and it won’t end once we know what it is God is teaching us or what good will come from it. No matter how well meant our words may be, they can sound trite and hollow.

The kindest thing Job’s friends did was sit quietly with him for seven days; perhaps, we should follow their example. Rather than words, we can offer love: our presence, support, sympathy, compassion, patience, encouragement, ears, or even food. Rather than telling people to rejoice in all circumstances, we could find ways to bring joy into their lives. Most of all, we can offer our faithful and heartfelt prayers.

Lord, we offer prayers for the ill and infirm, the troubled, weak and helpless and for those brave souls who love, comfort and care for them. Reassure them of your loving presence. Endow them with courage and faith as they pass through dark valleys, scale steep mountains, and endure powerful squalls. Strengthen them and give them hope. Give us wisdom and show us how to lighten their burdens, lift their spirits, relieve their pain, and ease their fears. Let us know when to remain silent and what to say when we should speak.

When we honestly ask ourselves which person in our lives means the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand. The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares. [Henri Nouwen]

Share each other’s burdens, and in this way obey the law of Christ. [Galatians 6:2 (NLT)]

I urge you, first of all, to pray for all people. Ask God to help them; intercede on their behalf, and give thanks for them. [1 Timothy 2:1 (NLT)]

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DEVOTIONAL MOODS

Devote yourselves to prayer with an alert mind and a thankful heart. [Colossians 4:2 (NLT)]

Ghost Ranch NMIn his classic satire The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis gives the reader a series of letters from a senior devil, Screwtape, to his nephew, Wormwood, advising the novice demon on ways to secure the damnation of his “patient,” an ordinary young man. Warning that the demons are defeated whenever man directs his gaze toward God, Screwtape encourages his nephew to keep the patient (a new Christian) from praying. If prayer can’t be prevented, he advises getting the fellow into a “devotional mood… since it bears a superficial resemblance to the prayer of silence as practiced by those who are very far advanced in the Enemy’s [God’s] service.” Screwtape reassures Wormwood that “lazy patients can be taken in by it for quite a long time.” It won’t be difficult to redirect the patient’s attention, he tells his nephew, since humans aren’t really as desirous of “the real nakedness of the soul in prayer” as they suppose.

We know that Jesus prayed frequently and fervently. Luke, who was a physician, tells us Jesus prayed so hard in Gethsemane that He sweat blood. This rare condition, called hematohidrosis, was reported by both Aristotle and Theophrastus more than 300 years before Christ. Under conditions of extreme physical or emotional stress, the tiny blood vessels surrounding the sweat glands can constrict and then dilate to the point of rupture; blood then flows into the sweat glands and a person can literally sweat blood. That night in Gethsemane, as Jesus agonized in the garden, there was nothing superficial or lazy about His prayer.

After reading Screwtape’s counsel to his nephew, I thought about my morning devotional time. By 5:30 AM, I am in a comfy chair, sipping a latte, and surrounded by iPad, Bibles, books, notebook and pen. During the next 90 minutes or so, I read assorted devotions and Bible commentaries, get through a few chapters in the Bible and whatever book I’m studying in small group, journal, and pray. Unfortunately, with prayer being last, it often is least and, while sincere, it can be rather generic and hurried. Screwtape’s devilish words helped me see how easy it is to mistake my “devotional mood” for prayer. Thinking about God, even spending time in His word, is no substitute for talking with the Big Guy Himself! I don’t think God expects us to pray so passionately that we sweat blood; nevertheless, I do think He expects us to bare our souls in His presence.

Establishing and reinforcing our connection with God, prayer is far more than study and reflection or telling God what it is we want. It is a concentrated, purposeful and deliberate time of worship, praise, thanksgiving, self-examination, confession, repentance, acceptance, intercession, and petition. Rather than being in a “devotional mood,” prayer is attending to God and His voice with undivided attention and submitting to His will with an undivided heart.

Satan dreads nothing but prayer. His one concern is to keep the saints from praying. He fears nothing from prayerless studies, prayerless work, prayerless religion. He laughs at our toil, he mocks our wisdom, but he trembles when we pray. [Samuel Chadwick]

Pray in the Spirit at all times and on every occasion. Stay alert and be persistent in your prayers for all believers everywhere. [Ephesians 6:18 (NLT)]

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DON’T DRAW STRAWS! – Election Day 2018

Wise men and women are always learning, always listening for fresh insights. A gift gets attention; it buys the attention of eminent people. The first speech in a court case is always convincing—until the cross-examination starts! You may have to draw straws when faced with a tough decision. [Proverbs 18:15-18 (MSG)]

The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing. [Edmund Burke]

scarecrowHere in the United States, we enjoy political freedom. We have free and fair elections, competitive political parties, and the candidates we elect actually do govern. The opposition isn’t powerless and plays an important role in government while the interests of minority groups are represented. That level of freedom is not enjoyed by most of the world. According to the independent watchdog organization Freedom House, only 45% of the world’s nations are considered “free,” 30% are “partially free,” and 25% are “not free” at all. Tomorrow we have an opportunity to exercise our freedom by voting. In less than a week, we will honor those who fought for us so that we can have this priceless opportunity. Let them not have fought in vain.

Regardless of how you stand on the issues, I suspect many of us are disillusioned by the whole political process. The amount of money spent on advertising has been astronomical. $244 million has been spent on the Illinois governor’s race alone! It’s not just TV ads; both our snail mail and email mailboxes are filled with propaganda and we’re hesitant to answer our phones because of all the political robocalls! I have yet to see or read any ad, from either party, that hasn’t been negative, accusatory, and misleading. The issues on both sides have been blurred and distorted and it’s not easy to find the truth.

Some people may have clear ideas about the many candidates and issues on the ballot while others may still be confused. Here in Florida, with multiple county, state, and federal candidates and twelve proposed amendments, we have the longest ballot our voters have seen in twenty years. Throughout our nation, many voters may feel like their choice of candidates is between dumb and dumber, bad and worse, or crook and crookeder! Nevertheless, our vote matters. The people we elect and the decisions we make today will have an impact on our environment, economics, health, education, safety and quality of life for years to come.

Some choices we have to make are so tough that we may be tempted to take Solomon’s suggestion in Proverbs 18 and draw straws. Nevertheless, while easier, simply drawing straws or flipping a coin is not the way to preserve our nation. I would hope that, instead of letting luck guide us, we prayerfully will ask our Father in Heaven for some much needed political wisdom. Come Wednesday morning, regardless of who is elected, let us all start praying for our leaders.

Father, guide us as we cast our ballots. Help us see through the slick advertising and empty promises to the truth. Let your Holy Spirit show us how to apply our Christian principles when making choices in the voting booth tomorrow.

Let us never forget that government is ourselves and not an alien power over us. The ultimate rulers of our democracy are not a President and senators and congressman and government officials, but the voters of this country. [Martin Luther King, Jr.]

Be a good citizen. All governments are under God. Insofar as there is peace and order, it’s God’s order. So live responsibly as a citizen. If you’re irresponsible to the state, then you’re irresponsible with God, and God will hold you responsible. [Romans 13:1-2 (MSG)]

Blessed be the name of God, forever and ever. He knows all, does all: He changes the seasons and guides history, He raises up kings and also brings them down, He provides both intelligence and discernment, He opens up the depths, tells secrets, sees in the dark—light spills out of him! [Daniel 2:20-22 (MSG)]

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