I Will Return to the Fold, but I Have Some Conditions…
Part 1: Come to Jesus or Confessions of a 9 year old reprobate
Christianity has been part of my life, for better or worse, since the cradle. It has never been an easy relationship. I grew up Southern Baptist. It was a very oppressive Christianity, based on how bad you were. The point seemed to be keeping us uncertain about our status with God.
The question was always, “if you died today, where would you end up?” During lengthy “invitations” we were admonished to search diligently. If you had any doubt, that was probably a sign your salvation didn’t take. Somewhere between the “sinners prayer” and your adult baptism, adult being relative, based on something known as “the age of accountability”, you didn’t truly become a Christian.
The idea of the age of accountability has always fascinated me. What this meant was that you would be in danger of hell fire when you were able to distinguish right from wrong, arbitrarily set at around nine years of age. Eight years old, hit your sister, you’re safe. Nine years old, hit your sister, you’re going to hell.
And we were warned that baptism was no guarantee of salvation. It was not a sacrament, rather an ordinance meaning, baptism was a symbol of salvation. It carried no confirmation of status. It carried no grace in and of itself. It’s all very technical, but suffice it to say, if your heart was not truly touched at the time you said the sinners prayer you were not saved. There is so much wrong with this idea of salvation.
- The criteria is confusing. If I say a prayer and it is sincere, is that enough? Or is there some mystical thing you’re supposed to feel? At least the Charismatics had a more concrete answer. To show you’re saved you must be slain in the spirit, which to my eyes involved having a gran mal seizure. But that wasn’t a definition available to “good” baptists.
- Because of this uncertainty, I spent a lot of my childhood trying not to get hit by a bus and trying not to catch the plague for fear that, as I thought in my darkest moments, I had only said my prayer because my dad was the preacher. In reality, that moment was bound to my desire for my father to love me and be proud of me much more than any John Wesley feeling of warmth. I went to Dad’s office, said the prayer and went back home. I was a Christian now. My friends and I played in the back yard at dusk as usual. I eventually told them I got saved. There was a pause, then I got hit in the chest with a kickball.
- Salvation was based on one decision. It was singular. It was not a process. It was an ultimatum. Turn or burn. And it had absolutely nothing to do with love. The preachers of my youth screamed, God is love. He will accept you if you accept him. A hymn of my youth was “oh how he loves you and me…he gave his life, what more could he give?” There was a disconnect. God loves unconditionally and is willing to prove that through his sacrifice and by sending you to hell for all eternity should you reject that, but really it’s your choice, but you have no choice or at least a choice of an equal positive outcome. Turn or burn.
- Another criterion was to “witness”. This meant sharing my “testimony” with people. A testimony was the story of your salvation consisting of three parts:
- A statement, with detail, of what a lousy hellbound sinner I was.
- A detailed account of the moment of my salvation
- A detailed description of how you too could avoid hell.
This was required for everyone no matter your age. First off there were the details of my past sins. I was born a sinner. I couldn’t help it. But what had I done to deserve hell? I was nine fucking years old! The worst thing I had done to that point was walking in on my mom and dad having sex and not being able to unsee it. Ok Maybe, just maybe, I looked up a few skirts and gave myself a stiffy. Fortunately, there was no video of that.
The next problem I ran into was explaining how I got saved and set aside my wicked ways. Again, I was 9 fucking years old! My experience of salvation was pretty perfunctory and bound up with the need for my father’s love. I was in a catch twenty two: on one hand, if I told the truth, there was little to tell. On the other hand, If I embellished, I wasn’t really saved.
Finally, the sales pitch. Explaining how to be saved required a lot of memorization. You had to take them down the “Roman Road.” This was a set of scriptures in the book of Romans that laid out this process in crystal clear detail. The facts were cherry picked and left out needed context.
For example, the first stone in the road is Romans 3:23 “since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” This small insight is spoken in the larger argument of the chapter, which is that Jews and Greeks are equal in God’s sight and as such, justified through the Christ’s sacrificing himself. In theological terms this is a statement of substitutionary atonement, the lamb in place of the sinner.
Taken apart from context, this saying is stating the obvious. But within the context of the chapter, the emphasis is on how unified in grace we are. No matter who we are, we receive equal justification. Placed back in context:
23 since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; 24 they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement[e] by his blood, effective through faith. He did this to show his righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed; 26 it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies the one who has faith in Jesus.[f]
In short, this a message of God choosing us rather than we choosing God.
These verses that paved the Roman road were supposed to be put to memory so that you wouldn’t have to rely on your Bible should you not have it with you God forbid. Problem is, I have a terrible memory and that, for a young disciple, was a major character flaw. They told me that you’re supposed to keep the word in your heart. If you do, scripture will pour out your mouth like vomit and splash the sinner in holiness. A bad memory became a sign of unfaithfulness, a lack of discipline and further evidence you remained unredeemed.
I was and still am, to some extent, socially awkward. Witnessing required knocking on doors, leading worship at recess, and just basically spouting off your faith wherever you had opportunity. But the thought of trying to convince a hell bound sinner to change their ways filled me with a fear usually reserved for trips to the dentist. I was terrified about approaching a stranger’s home, knocking on the door and asking to be let in so that I could share the love of Jesus.
But If you’re saved, you witness. It is supposed to fill you with unspeakable joy. You confess before men so that Jesus would confess you before the Father. If you’re saved, you carry your Bible everywhere you go, refrain from listening to rock music, stop watching All in the Family, and above all avoid touching yourself. The last one was almost a deal breaker.
I spent most of my childhood feeling like a fraud. More later. This is gonna take a while.