I attended a day long evangelism workshop yesterday and learned quite a bit. One person was bold enough to give her testimony about when and how she accepted Jesus as her personal savior. That’s a bit unusual for us non-evangelically minded Episcopalians. I’ve known this woman for years and know her faith to be real and deeply held, and her intentions without guile. But I also know that, for many people, accepting Jesus as one’s personal savior has become a formula for the one correct way to become a Christian. Case in point; I got an e-mail just recently from an occasional reader who knows that I am an Episcopal priest and wanted to know the story of how I came to accept Jesus as my personal savior. I doubt if it occurred to her that there was any other question to ask of a Christian. I have some problems with that.
For one thing, I’m uncomfortable with the individuality of the language: it’s just me and Jesus. Don’t need anyone else. For another, I dislike the implication of ownership: “my personal savior,” as if Jesus belonged to me as something I own. Finally, the idea of accepting Jesus as my personal savior seems, at least to me, to put the burden of my salvation on my back, and I’ve got enough to carry without adding that.
When my occasional reader asked for the story of how I came to accept Jesus as my personal savior I wrote back, “I didn’t.” I was brought up in the Church. I cannot remember a time when God in Christ was not a part of my life. There was never a question of whether I accepted him as my personal savior. It’s a question that didn’t even make sense. But there were plenty of questions about whether, and to what extent, I was willing to be a part of his community of followers. Maybe that sounds like splitting hairs, but if so, I think they are hairs worthy of being split. It’s one thing to have a personal savior. It’s another to become a member of a community of disciples who faithfully trust that this Jewish carpenter is so uniquely the presence of God among us that he really is the way, the truth and the light, and that no one comes to the Father except through him. Becoming a follower of Jesus must always put us into the company of other followers. Moreover, following implies a journey. Being on that journey brings to my mind the multitude of conversations that have to be taking place among all the others walking with us. I’m in conversation with you the reader right now, but at another time I might be deep in conversation Erasmus or Augustine or some guy named Ralph. We can (but maybe are not required to) each have a very personal, even intimate, relationship with Jesus, but it can never be singular, nor can it involve any form possessiveness that might imply our ownership of that intimacy.
That leaves plenty of room for Jesus to be the one in charge of what avenues of access to God are open or closed, acceptable or unacceptable, and I don’t recall that Jesus ever asked our advice on the matter. One can most certainly be very authentic in one’s testimony about how Jesus became their personal savior. I may have my own problems with that statement, but I won’t deny it as a genuine statement of faith. What I will object to is any claim that it is the only acceptable statement of faith, the only and necessary entrance ticket required by some heavenly gate usher.
P.S. If you ever get a chance to hear Victoria Heard, Episcopal Diocese of Dallas, speak on evangelism, do it. Her workshop, “How to Share your Faith without Spooking your Friends” is excellent.
20 thoughts on “I Have Not Accepted Jesus as My Personal Savior? Have You?”
Well said! As one living in America's \”Bible belt\”, I hear the question frequently. You have enunciated my concerns with it in ways I've haven't been able to and have offered responses as well. Thanks for the insight.
You've nailed the problem with \”Jesus as personal saviour\” or \”Me and the Lord and our 50\” – to reference an old Canadian beer commercial. (Labatt's 50 used the tag line \”me and the boys and our 50.\”)The implication that faith can be only personal – or that only the personal matters – is heretical.But you also pointed me to another problem with this language. When and by whose authority did \”I accept Jesus as my personal saviour\” replace the Apostle's and Nicene Creeds?
MS, I guess you and DS will be here shortly to join us for Thanksgiving, so we'll talk some more.Malcolm, Thanks, and especially for pointing me at the same question hidden in plain sight. When did this replace the Creeds?
I think you've raised an important and difficult issue, Steve, concerning singularity and possession in relation to what it means to \”follow\” in or as \”having faith.\”Faith is not a personal possession, not about what is \”mine\” that way. And yet isn't faith the event by which singular possibility becomes available? Isn't there something intrinsically singular about how I find myself responding to this parable at this time that itself can open a new sense of possibility?My own problem here has always been what it means to follow within a community; yet I see its strength as often as I see its tendency to self-fixation.An especially thought-provoking post, Steve: thank you.
Yes, the idea of Jesus as a personal savior is a feature of the movement of Pietism, usually thought of as originally of the otherwise skeptical and rationalist 18th century! It acvually parallels similar movements in Orthodox Judaism and Islam of the same time. I am always reminded of the popular evangelical hymn \”I Came to the Garden Alone\” with its verses \”He walks with me/and He talks with me/And He tells me I am His own/ And the joys we share/ As we tarry there/ None other has ever known\”. Hearing and singing this song, I used to wonder at how self-centered it was, and how a hundred people can all sing \”None other has ever known\”!
Thanks for stating this so clearly. I remember being asked a similar question once – something along the lines of \”Have you ever prayed to be saved?\” My response was, \”Many times.\” I was trying to indicate the importance of the things that you highlight: community and journey.
Excellent post for me and obviously other commenters have enjoyed it as well. Of course, those who read and do not agree with you might be those certain that you are right on the way to hell! Sharing one's faith is so tricky isn't it – because even though we are a faith community (Jewish, Christian, Islam) we do come in and go out of this life basically by ourselves. My faith indicates to me that God/Jesus/Creator was there at my birth and will be there at my death whether I ever \”get saved\” or not – but just to make sure, I HAVE committed myself to living my life as one or I should say many that I know who would feel comfortable in asking me when I accepted Jesus as my Lord and Savior. So, there you go – maybe as often is the case, it's just a matter of semantics. Now all we need is the patience to tolerate each others' paths:)
Hi Country Parson, I am a friend of Sunrise Sister and check in here frequently. In answer to your question, yes, I have accepted Jesus as my personal savior. I did it when I was 7 years old and then again when I was 12 and then again when I was 14 or so. And each time I did it because I was terrified of a wrathful God who would send me to hell. I no longer believe that. I have now accepted the invitation from a loving God to embark on an amazing and mysterious journey, full of questions, full of doubts, but also, somehow, full of faith. Now, Jesus is truly my savior. Thanks for asking. : )
Welcome to the conversation Rebecca. Glad to know you've been checking in now and then, and that you have now lent your voice as well. I wonder how many others have had experiences like yours? And on another note, I took a quick look at your site and must go back soon to see all of the Africa photos. Thanks for posting them.CP
Well said. That's why I liked James Choung's book \”True Story: a Christianity Worth Believing in.\” Choung uses a more holistic approach to bringing people to faith. I have been asked the question about a personal Savior a number of times. I have now come up with an answer, \”No,I like to share him with others,\” but have not had a chance to use it.
I've come across this too, and I don't mind it so much. In my experience, people who use 'personal savior' language generally do understand the importance of a faith community and are active in one.Yes, there is a narrowness of vision here… an assumption that I must have had the same religious experiences as they have had. And that narrowness can be found in others parts of the church too… say in the person who things you can't properly worship God apart from a liturgy… or the one who cannot conceive of any Christian drinking anything other than fair trade coffee.It's easy for any of us to set up our own way of being Christian as the norm for all others. IMO. Peace to you today
Chris, well said. My seminary was very much enamored with fair trade coffee. I must disagree though, about the assumption that the evangelical right (broadly defined) has a sense of the importance of faithful community. The turn inward, the turn to \”personal\” experience, is anti-community. If we are merely a conglomeration of people that know Jesus personally, this is a far cry from the biblical notion of the \”body of Christ.\”This is an instance of getting the question wrong. What makes the difference is not that we accept Jesus, but that Jesus has accepted us, subsumed our sinfulness in his victory over death. We recapitulate this act through Baptism, which incorporates us into the body. For the baptized, the question is not \”Have I accepted?\” but rather – and as you point out – \”Am I following?\” The Orthodox would further point out the importance of sanctification; that is, that growth in grace through the Spirit of God – becoming more like God – is our vocations. This struggle over \”am I saved?\” is largely a Protestant problem, it stems from a lack of ecclessiology, and a modern (false) conviction that \”only my feelings determine reality.\”My great hope is that Jesus accepts me, even on days when, despite my belief, I act in ways that dishonor Him and His Kingdom.
Chris and Pastormack, thanks for wading into the conversation, enriching it with your own thoughts. We Episcopalians do love our liturgy and our incarnational theology does lead us toward ministries that include fair trade coffee. We have to be diligent about liturgy as a conduit for authentic worship and not an end in itself, and good works must be manifestations of the body of Christ bringing the kingdom of God into the lives of others rather than ends in themselves. That subtlety can sometimes get lost.CP
love it! even the word \”accept\” is a bit strange isn't it? \”i have accepted Jesus.\” isn't it Jesus who accepts, receives, invites, and calls us? it seems the Bible is pretty clear that God initiates our coming to him, but our individualistic nature loves the idea that we choose to take ownership of Jesus. as if we could own the God of the universe!!!
Flannery O'Connor said \”Most people come to faith by a means the church will not allow.\” True, that. :-)Great conversation!
Folks who say, “I have accepted Jesus as my personal savior,” are trying to tell you that they have made a commitment to be His followers. They believe that, while Christ offers salvation to everyone, he does not force anyone to accept it. They have not bought in to the Calvinist doctrine of irresistible grace. Can anyone really prove they are wrong? When you tell them that you have not accepted Jesus, they assume you have not made such a commitment. Wouldn’t it be better to try to understand one another and not require everyone to use exactly the same expressions that we do?
Thank you Larry for a clearly stated note.
Personal relationship.Personal choice.Personal accountability.Personal confession.Personal savior.Personal redemption.Personal thanksgiving.Personal relationship.Nothing personal about it, but the reality is that the foundation of community is the experience of healing in personal relationships.
Well said Roy. Nevertheless, I do object when it becomes too individualistic and downright stubborn when it becomes a litmus test. CP
Thank you Steve Woolley for putting into words many of my own misgivings with this all too common language. I grew up in the Independent Baptist Church in central North Carolina. After I went to college a new preacher was hired at my home church. The first time I met this preacher was during a school vacation after a Wednesday evening prayer service. After reconnecting with friends I was the last in line to shake the preacher's hand. I was a stranger to him. He immediately blurted out, \”Are you saved brother?\” I replied out of my new found freedoms and passions of college life, \”That all depends on your definition of saved, now, doesn't it?\” He pulled me into his office and went on about something for well over an hour that I've long since forgotten. However, I'll never forget the arrogant negative assumptions he made about me before he even knew me. I'll also never forget his total lack of hospitality towards me as he attempted to make me into another notch in his Scofield Bible cover. That was the proverbial needle that broke this young camel's back. It was the end of the beginning of my journey away from the conservative fundamentalist church. For that I can thank this well meaning preacher.