What’s Your Marathon?

I watched a marathon once. My niece Monique was running. We set up our cheering section at Mile 23. We clapped and cheered for everyone who went by: “Go, number 1347!” “Woot Woot, Team U-Haul!” “You rock, Blue Shorts!” and so on, but when we saw Monique, we went bananas! She was going to make it!

Marathoning is exhausting. You run uphill. You run downhill. Sometimes you get injured. People pass you. People pass out. Some people have long, lean legs, 5% body fat, and endless, boundless energy. Maybe you’re not like them. Maybe you’re a plodder—you’re going to finish, but it isn’t going to be pretty. You might have to walk across the finish line. You might have to crawl.

Or maybe you can’t finish. No matter how hard you’ve trained, if you come down wrong on your ankle in your tenth mile and you hear it pop, you’re done. Maybe it pours rain that day, you slip in a puddle and break your leg. Maybe you got no sleep the night before, or you got bad news and you simply can’t concentrate. Maybe you cramp up or go numb. Maybe when it comes down to putting one foot in front of the other, you simply cannot do it. Maybe, around Mile 20, you run smack into The Wall, your legs are on fire, your will to finish has evaporated, and you are absolutely convinced you will not make it. Maybe you don’t.

I was thinking about this today because I’m at Mile 8.25, and my energy which was popping all over the place 8 miles ago, has dwindled into the one-foot-in-front-of-the-other stage. I have to keep this up for 17.95 more miles, or, to be exact, 31 more months.

I’m in Law School. In California, students attending correspondence schools have to log 864 hours each year for four years. I did the math, and you can trust me when I tell you, each hour works out to about 40 feet. It takes a lot of 40-foot increments to make 26.2 miles, but I’m slugging away at it, day by day, step by step. Some days I love the work. Some days I can’t stand it. Many days I want to quit. What keeps me going is what keeps any Marathoner going—there’s a finish line. The banner over mine reads: Juris Doctor. Call me nuts, but I have to do this. I was made to do this. This is who I am. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt sometimes.

In another marathon I’m doing simultaneously, I’m at Mile 18. The Finish Line isn’t in sight; in fact, it’s twelve years away. The name of this marathon: Parenting. Our eldest was 18 when our youngest arrived. That’s 36 years of parenting when Brian and I break the tape and cross that line. The first 11 years were a nice, steady, easy downhill. After that, things got a bit more hilly. The last “mile” or two have been almost straight uphill. Last year, I spent a great part of this particular marathon dragging myself along, crawling, crying. It wasn’t a pretty sight. If you’d been watching from your cozy spot on the sidewalk, you would have thought, “This lady has no business in this race.” But I do. I was made to do this. This is who I am. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt sometimes.

So, what’s your Marathon?

Is it your marriage? If you’re looking at 50 years of this, in marathon measurement, every year is 0.524 miles. If the marriage is difficult, this could seem crazy daunting, even impossible. If you’re hitting The Wall or running straight uphill, you might be thinking there’s no way you can finish. You might want to walk right off the road and into the arms of any stranger you see. Strangers can be so nice, they don’t criticize how you’re running, they cheer for you, and they’re way prettier than that sweaty, weary person running next to you.

Is it your job? The mere fact that you have to get up in the morning to go to work might depress you, and thinking there are 20 “miles” to go in the 40-year career you envision might be overwhelming.

I know a homeschooling mother who told me that she wakes up every morning and bursts into tears. She has six children, from kindergarten through high school. She was called to be a homeschooler, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt sometimes. Sometimes it hurts a lot.

In a marathon, people line the sidewalks and cheer. There are water stations and snack stations. People hand you power bars. People hand you Gatorade. Sometimes strangers hold you up.

Look around. Do you see someone who is in the third mile of a 26.2 that goes straight up? That meanders through the desert? That slogs through water, over stones, under thundershowers? Could you maybe pass a power bar? Give a drink of water? Lend a hand? Lend a shoulder? This person needs you cheering, “You can do it!”

Look around. Do you see someone who is simply not going to make it? Do you see a teenager who simply will not finish high school? Do you see a man who cannot salvage his marriage? Do you see someone who is sick, depressed, fallen, lost? Maybe the time for “You can do it!” is over and it’s time to be that person who helps a wounded runner off the course and into the medic’s tent: “You did the best you could. Come on over here and lie down. Let me get you some help.”

Look around. Do you see someone standing at the starting line of a race he or she simply should not attempt? Is it your place to stop the race from starting? Probably not, so have the sweetness to cheer your head off once the running starts. When the race itself overwhelms your runner and he calls to say, “Can I quit now?” you’ll need to be wise in your answer. Some races aren’t meant to be quit half-way. Some are. You have to exercise wisdom.

Monique finished her marathon, but her husband had to carry her into the house, and she slept the rest of the day. So why do we think we can run marathon after marathon—some of them simultaneously—without a little cheering, without a little carrying, without a little rest? Without stopping to take stones out of our shoes? Evaluate the races you are running. Where are you? Do you need a power bar? Do you need new shoes? Or is it time to change races, walk off the course, stop running?

I’ve avoided making spiritual connections because the races are different and not every race should be finished. At least I hope you will stop boo-ing other runners. Very likely, they are running as fast as they can.

Forgiveness and Life (Mark 2)

Jesus returned to Capernaum. After some days, it was reported that he was home. So many people crowded the house, there wasn’t even room at the door. Jesus preached the word to them. Four men brought a paralyzed man to see Jesus. When they couldn’t get near to Jesus because of the crowd, they made an opening in the roof above him and let down the bed on which the paralyzed man lay.

I can just see Jesus grinning as he hears the deconstruction going on up there on the roof while he teaches. He knows what’s going on and he can’t wait to see the look on everyone’s face when it all happens.

The paralyzed man is let down right in front of Jesus. The paralyzed man is suffering great anxiety. This is his last hope to receive forgiveness for that thing he did.

We don’t know what it is, but Jesus knows. Jesus knows this man has come—not for physical healing—but for spiritual cleansing. This man is overwhelmed with repentance, with sorrow for the sin in his life. Maybe the man is paralyzed because he was out racing chariots in a drunken stupor. There was an accident that left him paralyzed and his friend dead. Maybe he was riding a horse too fast down the street, the horse got spooked, trampled someone to death, threw this rider who is now paralyzed. Maybe he got his 14-year-old girlfriend pregnant. She was so ashamed, she didn’t tell anyone, hid the whole pregnancy, then hemorrhaged in childbirth and died. Her brothers beat him within an inch of his life. He can’t move anymore, but the girl and the baby are dead, and it was his fault.

We don’t know what happened, but we know the man is overcome with grief for his sin.

Jesus looks right to the man’s need and says, “Son, your sins are forgiven.”

Tears wash over his face. It’s over. The agony. The sleepless nights. The aching emptiness of guilt. The fear of going to hell. Forgiven.

It’s enough for the man—this is why he came. But it’s not enough for the scribes. You can’t help wondering why they’re there taking up seats when so many people really wanted to hear Jesus. They don’t say anything, but they’re thinking it: “Who does this guy think he is? No one but God can forgive sins.” Maybe they know the man on the floor, whose face is awash with tears. Maybe they’re thinking, “Right. Forgiveness for that? No way!”

Jesus is so gracious here. He knows that as much as the paralyzed man is going to live and breathe in the knowledge that he’s been forgiven, other people are still not going to let it go. They’re still going to bring it up: “Yeah, you say you’re forgiven, but how can we know that?”

Jesus smiles at the man on the floor, maybe gets down there and hugs him, maybe looks up to the men on the roof and smiles at them too.

Then, the Lord Jesus looks over at the scribes and says, “You don’t believe I can forgive sins? You think that’s easy to say? Actually, it’s easier for me to say, ‘Get up, take your mat and go home.’ He smiles at the formerly paralyzed man who doesn’t yet realize he’s healed, and Jesus nods at him. “Go ahead.”

The men on the roof are still there. They expected Jesus to forgive their friend-–we know they had faith—but they thought they’d have to pull him back up through the hole in the roof. Nothing doing—the man gets up, rolls up his mat, shoves his way through the crowd (I’m thinking there’s a long hug with Jesus before that, and a lot of tears and laughing) and meets his friends outside!

That proves it!

This is a wonderful example of forgiveness preceding the miracle. Usually, the miracle is given first as a foretaste of the forgiveness, but here, the man already believes. He’s heard enough and seen enough to know that Jesus is the Christ, the Savior of the world, and he wants some of that. He needs a Savior and he goes to Jesus for forgiveness.

Afterwards, to prove that the forgiveness happened—that even that wasn’t too much for Jesus Christ to overcome—the healing. The miraculous as a stamp of authenticity instead of the usual order of the miraculous as the invitation to grace.

This miracle was for the benefit of the crowd gathered there. The man on the mat knew he had received the forgiveness he came for, the relief of that overwhelming guilt he had lived with since it happened. He probably believed he deserved the paralysis—maybe even embraced it as a type of penance for what he’d done. He would have lived with it happily—perhaps it made him feel a bit less guilty even: no, I didn’t die, but I am at least suffering.

We do this, don’t we? We come to Jesus for forgiveness and he gives it, but we don’t think that he will also remove that consequence that we know we deserve. Maybe there’s a divorce in our background, so we don’t think we’ll ever fully shed the shame. Maybe we physically injured someone. Maybe you’ve had an affair. Maybe you’ve had (or paid for) an abortion, and you feel that the agony you live with is part of your repentance.

Maybe Jesus can take that away too. Maybe he can say to you, “Get up, roll up that mat, and walk.”

My sister, have you had an abortion? Once you receive God’s forgiveness, “Rise, take up your bed and walk”—walk away from that guilt. Embrace your new life. Live in joy.

My brother, have you had an affair? Once you have received God’s forgiveness, “Rise, take up your wife and live in great joy with her.”

My friend, have you suffered divorce that left you covered in shame? A bankruptcy that left you humiliated? A foreclosure that devastated your family? Did you lose a job through your own bad choices? Doctor, did you lose a patient through your carelessness? Lawyer, did you get a client off whom Justice demanded should pay? Officer, did you look the other way? Captain, did you lead your men negligently? Teacher, did you shame a student? Pastor, did you fail to love your people? Mother, did you allow your husband to hurt your children while you sat back and said nothing? Father, did you fail to protect your daughter? Teenager, did you sneak out, do drugs, get drunk, have sex?

Jesus says, once you have been forgiven: “Rise. Take up your life. Live.”

Of course, years after we know we’re forgiven, we can lapse back into the guilt, the shame, the humiliation of things that happened long ago. If this ever happened to the Formerly Paralyzed Man, he could look down at his healthy legs and say, “Get thee behind me,” to the guilt, because he had the present, tangible proof of his forgiveness: his legs worked! For those of us who have sinned greatly and been greatly forgiven, but don’t have a healing miracle to go with it to remind us, what are we to do when those old feelings return?

Look to the Resurrection of Jesus. Remember that he who looked on you as you lay on the mat begging in repentance for your sins to be forgiven is the same one who paid the Unthinkable Price to free you.

Look to the Smile of Jesus. Remember when he smiled down to you and embraced you in his love as he said, “Daughter, your sins are forgiven. Rise, take up your bed, and walk.” Can you feel that love? Can you remember?

Look to the Intercession of Jesus. Today—now—He is your Advocate with the Father. He is rooting for you to live in holiness, and that holiness includes joy and peace.

When Jesus asks the scribes, “Which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven’ or to say, ‘Rise, take up your bed, and walk’?” he knows that they are going to give the wrong answer.

The scribes are going to say, “Well, it’s easy to say that sins are forgiven, because after all, no one can really tell when sins are forgiven, but saying that someone should get up and walk who actually can’t walk, now that’s hard.”

Jesus knows the truth that the man on the mat knew. It is way harder to forgive sins. It requires the Blood of God. Jesus knows what it is going to cost him. It is going to cost him his life. He is going to die a barbaric death by torture. But he gives out forgiveness lavishly, extravagantly to those who ask. I’m thinking Jesus—having paid that price—doesn’t want us to go around lying on our mats. He wants us up and living.

In the end, the people in the house were amazed and glorified God, saying, “We never saw anything like this!”

Because it’s an amazing, beautiful thing to see a person who is crushed by his sins rise in newness of life and make his way through the crowd out to the world—to live.

Laying Up Treasure vs. Giving To the Church (Dollars, part 2)

This is an add-on to the thoughts I wrote yesterday, that the amount of money you throw at Kingdom projects is irrelevant.

What do we do, then, with Matthew 6?

“ Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal: but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal: for where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”

This passage is often given to us as a message on giving. We are taught that we should not give our money to our own projects so much as we should give it to the church. We are often told, “Where your dollars are, your heart is,” and we are to prove this by giving lots of dollars to the church.

But, again, it’s not about money at all. You can’t lay up money in heaven, even if you launder it through the church first and turn it into good works. Jesus is not telling us to give more money to the church.

As discussed in the previous post, money does not equal treasure in the Kingdom of God. Expending it in great amounts doesn’t impress God, make our way easier, impact our sanctification. Jesus is not saying, “Where your dollars are, there is your heart also.”

If this were true, my heart would belong to Wells Fargo Home Mortgage.

As discussed in the previous post, the currency of the Kingdom is agape—Holy Spirit Love. So let’s turn the Matthew phrase around: “Where your heart is, your agape is.”

Jesus tells us where to put our agape. He says, “Agape the Lord your God with all your heart.” God Himself is to be our treasure. He is saying to us, “Don’t worry about dollars. Your Father—your treasure—is in heaven, and where He is, that is where your love should be focused.”

This passage is not about giving at all, so don’t allow yourself to be guilted into giving more than you can cheerfully, joyfully give. God is going to fund His projects, and you gain no sanctification or “part of the ministry” by giving grudgingly. Paul tells us not to give if we don’t want to (grudgingly) or because we’re guilted into it (of necessity). He says, give what you can cheerfully give. Give what it gives you joy to give. In fact, he tells us in First Corinthians, chapter 13, that giving is a big fat nothing if done without agape.

Paul doesn’t lay any charts, graphs, or budgets on us. The old way of living by rules, regulations, and percentages was wadded up at Calvary. The New Way is to live by faith, empowered by the Holy Spirit.

Not to belabor the point, but Paul is not telling us to behave as if we were cheerful (“Give until you want to!” or “Give until it hurts—only then will you know faith!”), to grin and bear it, because after all, you know you have to take ten percent off the top, before you pay the government, before you provide housing, food, clothing, electricity, and education for your ten children, before you pay for your mother’s hip replacement, your brother’s rent (he promises he won’t ever ask you again), and the lady who begs in the Wal-Mart parking lot (she’s so sweet and simple). In fact, Jesus tears into the person who leaves his parent unprovisioned and then says, “Sorry, Mom, can’t do it—it’s my tithe.”

Paul just says, give cheerfully. Be excited about what you are giving. Be thrilled.

But don’t think this money you’re giving is piling up in heaven. Dollars don’t pile there. Good works don’t pile up there. Listen: Your treasure in heaven is already there. His name is Father, and He longs for you, because, as He is your treasure, so you are His.

Dollars and the Kingdom of God

A friend posted on Facebook: “Could you do more for God if you had more money?”

The intuitive answer is “well, yes,” but the correct answer is, “duh, no,” and the reason for this is that the currency of the Kingdom of God is not dollars.

Dollars are irrelevant to the Kingdom of God. Throw one, throw a million, it doesn’t matter. They have no value.

Remember the old story about the man in the desert who’s dragging himself on from one mirage to the next in a vain search for water? If you come across this man and rain gold dust down on him, he will choke to death on it. Gold is not what he needs. The reverse is also true. All the water in the world won’t help you pay your mortgage. You need dollars for that.

You need to find the correct currency. Then you can do more.

The man in the desert needs water. As soon as his thirst is slaked, he can move along to his destination. He can remember what he was doing, where he was going, why he wanted to cross the desert in the first place. Because the body needs water to live.

The man with the mortgage needs dollars. When he has enough, he can move on. With a lot of dollars, he can pay off his entire mortgage. Then he will be free to impact the world in new and productive ways. Because America runs on dollars.

The trick is to determine what currency is needed. The more you have of that currency the more you can impact that Kingdom.

The currency of the Kingdom of God is Agape—Holy Spirit love that has filled you up, made you feel entirely, wholly, and deeply Loved By God that you can then expend in His service.

We don’t like this, because we want to believe that the Kingdom is powered by ministry, by gifts, by devotion to Christ, by inner-city shelters, by homeschooling nine children, by studying the Original Languages, by memorizing Scripture.

As always, we default to works. We know we aren’t saved by works of righteousness which we have done, but that we are saved according to His mighty power working in us, but we can’t help ourselves. Going forward, we somehow believe that our sanctification (becoming like Christ) can be done by sheer willpower, and that our service in the Kingdom—most usually seen as missions, church ministry,
homeschooling, and so forth, is powered by charts, graphs, tithing, and a lot of Bible reading (once a year clear through!), memorization (hide it in your heart!), and prayer.

First Corinthians, chapter 13 is nothing if not a club hitting us on the head over and over again that none of these things has any value without Agape: ministry, gifts, knowledge, learning, giving, and even martyrdom. All are eternally valueless without Holy Spirit Infilling, Indwelling, Empowering Love.

That’s why you can throw millions of dollars into a ministry and eventually have to abandon it as failed, but when an Adoniram Judson or a Hudson Taylor abandons himself to the people of a nation and relies wholly on the Spirit of God to power him, something eternal results. That’s why you can build rockets and bombs and fleets of stealthy aircraft—all necessary for temporal power—but the eternal work is done heart-to-heart by unknown-to-us Chinese and Russian believers, whose eternally-valuable results we will one day see arrayed in their millions. In their hundreds of millions.

Dollars are irrelevant. Agape—Holy Spirit Love—is everything. Here’s the best part: when you spend a dollar, it’s gone. You have to go to work to get another one. But agape when expended is renewed.

I don’t know why we can’t get through our thick skulls that the Bible is not about what God is going to give us during this life, but what is coming to us eternally. And what Paul is saying is that all the knowledge in the world, all the martyrdom in the world, all the dollars, pounds, euros, rubles, rupees, yen, and yuan in the world are not going to get us any closer to God, nor make our service to Him any more effective than throwing gold dust on the thirsty man or water on your lender.

God Himself—in the Person of the Holy Spirit—must be the Agape that Energizes us, Whom we draw on, Whom we expend in Kingdom service, or nothing of eternal value is done.

Remember my friend who asked the question about dollars? This man has a healing ministry. Now, I’m an old Fundamentalist (more specifically, a Calvinistic-Fundy-with-Edges), but I don’t think he’s making his stories up. Let’s take him at face value and say that (imagine this!) God is still healing people in America today. Fine. But, if this is done without the energizing power of the Holy Spirit Himself indwelling these men in ministry, it is valuable only temporally, in that people are getting out of wheelchairs. People getting out of wheelchairs is great news, but it’s not eternal news—that’s why Chris and his friends say, “Now that you’ve seen this miracle, let me tell you about something really great!” And they lay bare the clear Gospel of Jesus to open hearts.

Other friends of mine are in other ministries—often the ministry of homeschooling their children. No amount of worksheets pleases God. No amount of computer programs pleases God. No amount of classically educated children are enough for God to look upon a woman and say, “Well done.” There is no eternal value in classical education. Homeschooling done without Holy Spirit Love has only temporal value. Homeschooling done with agape—that is, Powered by the Overflowing Love of the Holy Spirit—will yield eternal results, may God forgive me for thinking neato bulletin boards do anything other than perk up the schoolroom. May God forgive me for thinking that sheltering equals sanctifying, that obedience to me equals a heart submitted to the Savior, that my work has any eternal value when all I did was throw dollars and works all over everything I ever attempted to do for the Kingdom.

Holy Spirit—Almighty God within my being.
I do not absorb You, but You absorb me.
I do not use You as a light switch to turn on when I need power,
But You use me as Your instrument to do those things You ask me to do.
What You are, what You ask, what You give are all one:
God is agape, You are God, You are agape—
When You fill me with Yourself, You fill me with Agape.

My friend, let us be filled, and let us expend agape all over the place, all over the world to the glory and praise of Jesus.

Waging War on the Salvation Incantation

Christians everywhere would rise up in anger were someone to teach the little children that the way to be saved was to sink into a trance and recite a spell.

“Come on now, children,” says the teacher, “Let’s say: hocus pocus, Jesus focus! Of sin I repent, my guilt is all spent, take me now to heaven, for now I’m forgiven!” The children chant along, and the teacher says, “Praise the Lord, you’re all saved!” The kids run around with their coloring papers and the teacher rushes to the parent and says, “Johnny got saved in Sunday School today!” Parent later asks Johnny about it, who has no idea what is going on. “Did you say the Salvation Incantation?” Johnny nods. Sure did.

Sadly, later, when Johnny is a teenager, involved in who-knows-what, he announces he isn’t even a Christian anymore, but Mother has “assurance,” because “once saved, always saved.” Johnny’s backslidden. Johnny’s carnal.

Johnny’s going to hell. He didn’t repent, seek forgiveness, come to Jesus. He said a Saving Spell.

We would never stand for that, you say. So you say.

Instead of that, we have the children bow their heads. We have the children close their eyes. No looking around! Now, remember, you have to “really mean it.” The children bow and fold. They don’t look around. “Now, repeat after me,” and once again the teacher has the children recite the words to the Salvation Incantation: “Dear Jesus, I know I am a sinner. Forgive me of my sins and come into my heart. Save me, for Jesus’ sake, Amen.”

Same song, second verse. Even more pious. Much worse.

We can be sure that in a vast percentage of cases, the children reciting this spell are not saved. We know this because when they grow up and join our churches, they testify that they “said the Sinner’s Prayer” when they were young, but didn’t truly become children of God until they were older.

In fact, many of them had the experience that Johnny had. In their teenage years, when they were actually experiencing conviction of sin and need of a Savior, they were pooh-poohed by those well-meaning adults into believing they were simply “struggling with assurance,” and that they had been saved back in first grade when they Chanted the Charm, aka the Sinner’s Prayer.

I recently heard a preacher say that these “words have power.” No, actually they don’t. They have no more power to save you than would reading aloud the headlines of the newspaper.

Words don’t save anyone. Words said in response to a request by a preacher to “give your heart to Jesus” mean nothing. There is no power in words.

The mother who begs her little child to “ask Jesus into your heart” is fooling herself that her child’s soul is safe if in fact the child has no idea what the woman is speaking about. Even if the child can answer the doctrinal questions (“Honey, you know Jesus died for you, right?”), it is often the case that the child is simply answering with memorized answers. This may be true even if the child has memorized the entire shorter catechism.

If the child is not seeking his soul’s salvation from hell by trusting simply and trusting only the blood of Jesus Christ given for him on Calvary, the child is not saved. The child who is trusting in the fact that he has prayed the Salvation Incantation is not saved. The child who is trusting his mother’s reminder that he has prayed the Salvation Incantation is not saved.

How many messages have you heard that do not even touch on Christ, and yet at the end of the service, sinners are prompted to “come forward” to “trust in Christ”? Too many to count, if you’ve sat in the pews I’ve sat in.

Degrees in systematic theology are not required, but some understanding of essential Gospel facts is required for a person to be saved. An understanding that one has offended God and that God has made a way through Jesus Christ is not enough. The God-ness of Jesus Christ must be confronted, understood, believed, and embraced.

The understanding that one is a sinner—“You’ve stolen a cookie, haven’t you?” is the perennial favorite of well-meaning Sunday School teachers—is not sufficient repentance. Modern-day “repentance” is no repentance. It’s a “turning from” sin. (Nor is there any hell, but a “separation from God.”) It’s a recognition that one has at one time or another veered from The Path of Righteousness.

This is all nonsense.

The sinfullness of which we must repent is not a stolen cookies, or even a stolen lover. It is the systematic badness of our hearts. The full-orbed evil that pervades our selves. The fact that you stole a cookie has nothing to do with it. The fact that you beat your wife has nothing to do with it. Friend, you are not a sinner because you hate your brother. You hate your brother because you are a sinner. Your sinner-ness is who you are.

Repentance is that horror at the realization, at the undeniability, that your entire being is fully sinful. That every motivation of your heart is selfish, every act—even those that are good—is motivated by unrighteousness. You could no more turn away from sin than a drunk can turn away from the proffered glass. Repentance is that fear and dread that comes upon you when you realize you can’t wash off the sin. There is nothing you can do with the guilt.

People whom God is pursuing don’t have to be convinced of their guilt. They know they are guilty before God because when they lie awake at night and ponder eternity, they tremble in fear of death and of what follows. They know. They need a Savior.

His name is Jesus.

There is no incantation here. There is a running to God for forgiveness. There is a clinging to Jesus.

That’s still not enough information. The sinner coming to Jesus Christ must know that Jesus Christ lived sinlessly, and took our guilt upon Himself. The Bible teaches us that the consequence of sin is death. That is, because we are sinners, we owe our lives. We will give them up in death. We sin—we die, end of story.

God has made a way of Salvation from the eternal death of Hell. Jesus Christ gave His Own Life in place of ours. Then, in a Greatest Moment of All Time, Jesus Christ was resurrected—in one moment of stunning God-Power, death was defeated. A way was made to reconcile man to God. Jesus is that way. He said, “I am the way, the truth, the life. No man comes to the Father, except through Me.”

We need to hang onto that substitution with everything we have. We need to reject our sinful lives, throw ourselves on Jesus, beg Him for forgiveness, for grace, for eternal life, and then—according to the promise of God—God Himself will give us the “earnest,” that is, the downpayment, the engagement ring of that Eternal Life. He gives us the Holy Spirit. (The Holy Spirit is another post I am going to write in a day or two, be patient, please.) It is the Holy Spirit’s presence in our lives that convinces us that we have indeed been saved.

And by the way, this probably isn’t done too often with your heads bowed and your eyes closed and no one looking around. Why is no one to look around? Are people really that embarrassed of choosing Jesus? Is it really that shameful? Lots of effort goes into not embarrassing people who have “just gotten saved.” Why?

One reason may be that no one else is talking. What if the Pastor asked for anyone who had made any decision whatever to stand and testify. What would happen if someone stood up and said, “God convicted me of disrespecting my wife and right here I want to beg her forgiveness and promise all of you that it will never happen again. Sally, will you forgive me?” What if someone said, “God has shown me I should look into missions. Pray for me.” What if someone said, “I have sinned by putting into my retirement account what should have gone for my daughter’s braces, and I want to tell her we are going to the orthodontist tomorrow, and I’ll trust God for my later years.” Perhaps in an atmosphere of open spiritual growth, one would dare to say, “I need to be saved. Help me come to Jesus.”

I think we should be more like Adoniram Judson. For six or seven years, he sat in the preaching house in Burma every day. Some days no one would come, but some days someone would come. Judson didn’t pressure people to chant little mantras and prayers. He engaged them in heart-to-heart discussions of the Scripture. He heard their questions. He spoke clearly to their need. He was dogmatic about Jesus, no holds barred. No making it easy. It’s all or nothing. You have to give up your entire life and live entirely for Jesus. Jesus has a right to you. You owe Him everything.

When one wanted to become a Christian, Judson would ask whether the seeker would now be baptized. If the person was afraid to be baptized—because he might lose his job or be killed—Judson would say, “You are not ready for Jesus if you are not willing to die for Him.” This is in sharp contrast to our idea that Sinner’s Prayers are repeated silently in one’s mind while everyone around is ignorant of it, that people “come to Christ” without telling anyone, and that someone “slips out to the back” and prays with a man he’s never met before, who simply prays with him and doesn’t seek first to instruct him in the full-blown Gospel of Jesus Christ.

All of this of course begs all those questions about how much faith is necessary, how much grief must be expressed upon turning from sin, how much theology must be grasped, and so on, for a Sinner to come from darkness to light. And those are intense, necessary discussion. So much hangs on them. Life and death hang on them.

But I believe we can at least agree on this: a person who simply agrees that he is a sinner and chants a little prayer (even if he “really means it”) is no more saved that the chair he is sitting on when he prays it. Prayers don’t save. Words have no power. Jesus saves. Jesus alone. Come to Him—but you must know who He is, what He has done, why it matters, who you are, what you’ve done, why that matters, what eternity is, and that without the sacrifice, death, and blood of Christ being precious to you in your abject guilt and lostness, you are yet lost. You are not His.

Parents, you must have faith that your faithful teaching will bear fruit. Rushing into the Sinner’s Prayer “just in case he dies” when he doesn’t understand the Gospel will only muddy the waters. You give yourself a softer pillow to sleep on, but your child is no nearer to being reconciled to God than he was before. Faithfully, consistently, give your child the Gospel. Lead him surely, carefully, and really to Jesus for the saving of his soul. “Unless a man is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”

SKI BALL and PREACHING

I took the kids to Chuck E. Cheese’s today. Whenever we go, I always announce, “I’m going to play ski-ball until my arm falls off!” Today I played ski-ball until I couldn’t straighten up. And I learned something.

I learned how to hit the little 10,000 points cup in the upper corner consistently. I started sinking 10,000 pointers all over the place, at least one or two in every game I played, and I played a lot of games. In one game of 9 balls, I got 45,000 points! That’s when all the bells and whistles start going off, major high-fives happen, and tickets flow out of the machine in a beautiful stream.

Of course, you can’t hit 10,000 points all the time, but you can try. I stopped aiming for the center. I focused on the 10,000 point cup every time. Lots of times, my ball did not go in, but I was touching it almost every time. Many, many times my ball popped in and out. Lots of times it circled around the outside, wobbled, and fell back out. But many times–oh joy–the ball went up and down perfectly, right into the target. Sweet.

Now, of course, when you aim for the 10,000, you either get it, or you get 1,000. There’s no in-between with this approach. You’ve got to put it all out there. You’re aiming for the Big One and everyone who is watching you can see this. You’ve just about announced, “I can succeed! I have the power to do this!”

You want to know, of course. How, after years of playing ski-ball, did I suddenly find the freedom to throw 10,000s? It was math, really. I looked at what I was doing, saw that my angle was not right and could not be right because of where I was standing.

I moved.

I moved my whole self to the left one good-sized step. I was no longer standing in front of the alley, but off to the side a bit. I did not expect the cup to move for me, nor did I expect the ball to fly further or faster or slower than I threw it.

I noticed that when one of my children started to play a lane or two away from me, I got distracted. I watched him throw. I urged him to be like Mom. We both did worse. Anytime I was not completely focused on my stance, staying clear, throwing straight, aiming true, I didn’t do so hot.

You’re wondering if I really thought about preaching while I was doing this. Duh, yes. How could I not? What else could possibly have riveted my mind as I moved to accommodate myself to my message, as I stopped to help a mother with a baby, as I took a break when my success rate was poor, as I stopped when my back started to hurt?

What else could I possibly have thought about as I realized I had to shoot for the mark, not off to the side for lesser-goals, that I had to be consistently straight and always follow through, and as the time passed and my tickets piled up on the floor, I had to move these tokens of my success out of my way so that the piled-up treasures of my work didn’t distract me or get in the way of my making straight shots?

It was a very spiritual couple of hours, alone at Chuck E’s with my children. We homeschool, so when we go there on a school day, there is usually no one else there. Good thing, or all these people would have been wondering why the lady with all the kids is crying over at the ski-ball. Must be all those tickets on the ground.