Whom did God consult when Pope John Paul II died?
I grew up in rural, Baptist, Fundamentalist churches of Alabama, USA, with everything that upbringing implies: dinner outside (because it was a sin to have a kitchen in the church), outhouses behind the cemetery (because it was a sin to have a restroom in the church), fervent revivals, impassioned sermons, and urgent altar calls closing every service. Every sermon was evangelistic, because every service was revivalistic. The fact that most of us were already born-again Christians in the Fundamentalist sense never dampened the ministers’ enthusiasm for winning souls.
Being “born again” in these churches was not an easy task. My father, like all the pastors in the area, implored us to “come to the altar” to make things right with the Lord. The process was as elaborate as any formal confirmation service: the penitent sinner (you) would walk down the aisle (no luck trying to talk to God at your pew), ask Jesus to come into your heart to forgive you of your sins (accompanied with begging and pleading to escape the fires of hell), all to the strains of the invitation song (usually “Just As I Am”). And by the way, this was expected to be a very emotional process, replete with tears and wails; if you didn’t cry hard enough, someone might think you didn’t really mean it. Once done, you were assured you were “born again.” Everyone would come around and shake your hand on the way out the door. People measured the presence of the Spirit in the service by the presence of tears in their eyes as they stood for the closing prayer. A conversion was certain to please everyone.
Over the years, I saw many people walk the aisles to be “born again” in this fashion. Many, to their credit, are still fervent, devoted believers who seek to demonstrate their salvation by their lives. However, I was always puzzled by those who did the right things, said the right words, showed enough remorse — and then fell back into their old lives as if nothing happened. The old timers would chalk it up to “backsliding” and carry on as if the person had never been to church at all. Unfortunately, I’ve always been a thinker, and I’ve often wondered what really happened when the “backsliders” prayed to Christ for salvation. Did Jesus fail them? Was there something missing on their part?
This last question caused me great anguish for years regarding my own salvation. I wasn’t born again in a church; I didn’t answer an altar call. I didn’t pray the “Sinner’s Prayer.” Instead, I was dramatically drawn to Christ at my parents’ home, and all I could say to Him was, “Jesus, I’m sorry.” Was that enough?
This question came back to me this week with the death of John Paul II. Immediately after the announcement of his death, those of the Church who believed John Paul II to be a born-again Christian thanked God for his leadership and expressed complete confidence that we will meet him again. The Fundamentalist camp immediately retaliated, stubbornly refusing to believe that any prominent Roman Catholic – or any Roman Catholic, actually – could be “born again.” Even worse, the Fundamentalists immediately and vociferously proclaimed their assurance that this successor to St. Peter never met St. Peter at the gates. The resulting flame wars scorched plenty of earth and electrons, but I doubt God read any e-mails before deciding the pope’s eternal fate.
Now that the dust has settled, I think we should re-visit our pre-conceived notions of salvation.
First, we should consider the words of our Lord Himself. Jesus says in John 6:37, “All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out.” Note that Jesus does not mention the Sinner’s Prayer; He doesn’t mention responding to an altar call. He simply says that “whoever comes” will find acceptance. C.S. Lewis writes in Surprised by Joy of his own conversion:
“You must picture me alone in that room in Magdalen, night after night, feeling… the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me. In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England. I did not then see what is now the most shining and obvious thing: the Divine humility which will accept a convert even on such terms.”
Our Lord could have told Nicodemus the complete, definitive, clear answer for what to do, how to stand (or kneel), and the exact words to say to insure salvation. Instead, He told him that “…God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.” Whoever believes. How much simpler can it get? As Lewis discovered, Jesus accepts all who come, regardless of reluctance or relish, regardless of emotion or lack thereof. Jesus accepts all who come in faith.
Secondly, we should remember that nowhere does Scripture teach that our spiritual birth will be consistently accompanied by dramatic emotional experiences. Many of us betray our Pietistic heritage in this regard. Yes, my spiritual birth was emotional, but I assure you my experience was far from normal. Scriptural witness does not support the necessity of an emotional experience. St. Paul simply says that “if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” St. John the Apostle says that “whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God.” Both apostles consistently speak of confession. This may be uncomfortable to those of the faith who instinctively recoil from confessions and creeds, but we cannot ignore Scripture.
And this brings me to the issue of John Paul II specifically and those of the creedal confessions generally. Since I left my rural upbringing, I have met many devoted Roman Catholic, Anglican, and Orthodox believers who have fulfilled the teachings of St. Paul and St. John. These people demonstrate their spiritual vitality through their works, as St. James commands in his epistle. Furthermore, I’ve found many believers of these traditions who lack the emotional experience of the “backsliders” but possess graciousness, devotion, and spiritual endurance that doesn’t exist in many Fundamentalists I know. These people also lack the theological, soteriological arrogance to believe that everyone must be born again according to their own experience. They possess what the “backsliders” lacked: faith. When these people spoke the words at their confirmation, they took Jesus at His word that He would accept them.
I’ve wondered why the question even arose about John Paul’s salvation in the first place. Why do people care so passionately about the process of someone’s salvation? Is it because they seek desperately to validate their own experience? If life has taught me anything, it’s that I cannot trust experience and emotion alone in my faith. Scripture defines our faith, and we must interpret our experiences through Scripture, not vice versa. And, like it or not, Scripture gives very few guidelines on the process of salvation other than what the Apostles recorded. God preferred to speak more about the evidence of the inward change than on the process of the change itself.
When I saw John Paul II in action, I saw someone who knew the doctrines of the faith once delivered to the saints and who consistently defended them. In this week’s “Newsweek,” Kenneth L. Woodward wrote that “from his first appearance on the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica, [John Paul II] proclaimed to a worldwide audience that ‘Christ, Christ is the answer.’” I don’t know about you, but that sounds like someone who knew Jesus. For 26 years, we saw a devoted man demonstrate commitment to the cross, even in his own suffering. We saw a man who eloquently and firmly espoused orthodox doctrine in areas of sexuality, morality, and social justice. We saw a man who inspired the youth of nations to come to Christ and the Church for eternal salvation rather than try to seek temporary gratification in the materialism of Western society.
Frankly, it never occurred to me that my opinion regarding the Holy Father’s salvation mattered at all. As long as Karol Wojtyla met the standard set by Divine love reinforced with Divine humility, our standards don’t count.
I think it’s time for some of us to realize that our salvation experience isn’t required of everyone. If Jesus loved us enough to die for us, He loves us enough to accept us where we are and use us as He will. He accepts all who come to Him in faith, believing He will save them. Baptist or Roman Catholic, Methodist or Anglican, independent or Orthodox; Jesus looks on the heart, not on the church sign. And He doesn’t count the tears shed in the process.
All scriptures are from the English Standard Version, copyright 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Scriptures quoted are John 6:37, John 3:16, Romans 10:9, and 1 John 4:15.
C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy, quoted in The Essential C.S. Lewis, Lyle W. Dorsett, Editor. New York: Touchstone, 1988, p. 50.
Kenneth L. Woodward, “Beloved and Brave,” Newsweek, April 11, 2005, Volume CXLV, No. 15. Harlan, IA.