When I was 10 years old, I made a profession of faith and was baptized in the church that was the “Family of God” in my life at that time. The circumstances might help us answer the question posed in the title of today’s post.
The church held a spring revival with a visiting evangelist. On the final Sunday morning of the revival, an evangelistic service was held for children and youth in the church auditorium during the Sunday School hour. As I recall, the evangelists did a chalk talk about “sin,” using each letter in the word to represent a kind of sin that would condemn us to hell. The letter “S” was turned into a Sherlock Holmes-style pipe and represented the sin of smoking. That wasn’t one of my particular weaknesses, but the “warning” was issued loud and clear for those who did, who were thinking about it, or who might someday think about it. The letter “I” was expanded with a curved top and became a champagne glass. This was accompanied by a corresponding warning of the evils of alcohol, which also wasn’t on my radar; but I understood the warning. By the time the evangelist got to the letter “N,” I must have tuned him out. I never can remember what he did with that letter, unless he said something about sex. That must not have been an issue for me either—since I obviously was drifting by this point in his chalk talk.
At the end of the chalk talk, the evangelist began his invitation to “accept Jesus Christ as your personal Savior.” Now before I get to that, I need to set the context in which I found myself. For some reason when I came into the auditorium, I had separated from my fellow ten-year-olds and had taken a seat right in the middle of a group of “intermediates,” who were sitting on the third or fourth row from the front of the auditorium. These were “good” seats because we could see the chalk talk well. I still remember that on my left was David Costner, one of the tallest guys I knew all the way through my years in school. David must have been 14 or 15 years old, and he probably wasn’t yet to his full adult height; but he was plenty tall to me.
In his invitation, the evangelist had each of us to close our eyes (so that we were focusing on ourselves and God exclusively). Then, to get things rolling and to see the true needs in the group, the evangelist had everyone who already was a Christian to stand. If you had made a public profession of your faith and been baptized, you obviously were past the concerns of S-I-N and were already A-OK with God. So all of the “saved” stood up and symbolically said so. Now I know I was supposed to have my eyes shut, but I sneaked a peek anyway. Everyone on my row and everyone on the row in front of me was standing! I remember looking way up at tall David Costner; and maybe I’m just imagining it now, but I think he took a little disdainful peek at me. While S-I-N might not have convicted me of my breach with God, I certainly sensed a breach with everyone standing around me. They were in fact my family of God, but I now realized that I wasn’t really a part of them.
Next the evangelist asked that those who would like to accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior to stand. In my 10-year-old mind, I really had no doubt that someday I would like to accept Jesus as my Savior. That’s what “would like” meant to me—“would like at some appropriate time in the future.” And so I stood up. Immediately the evangelist told all of us who had stood up to come down front and sit on the first row in the middle. We had just been “saved.” I couldn’t very well sit back down. All those intermediates sitting around me would know what I had done; and the evangelist might even see me sit back down and embarrass me by calling me to get back up and come forward. In a quandary about my “decision,” I joined a group of six or seven who made their way down front.
Our counseling about our decisions consisted of telling us to come forward at the invitation during the worship service that would follow. Then we were dismissed. I knew something was awry about what I had done. I had been tricked; and in my mind, I could see no way to undo the deed. When the service was over, I immediately sought the comfort and counsel of my mother, making my way back to the regular place where she and my dad regularly sat during worship services. I was weeping when I saw her. She may have misunderstood my weeping. Maybe she thought I was under conviction for my sin, when I really was confused because I had been manipulated into making a decision that I recognized was subtly coerced. Mom hugged me, sat me down beside her, and encouraged me that everything was OK. I had done a “good” thing. If Mom thought it was “good,” who was I to argue? So when the invitation was given at the end of the morning worship service, the Spirit had a great outpouring as six or seven came forward to accept Christ as their Savior—and I was one of them.
When I was baptized a few weeks later, I was back in the “Family of God.” I was a part of something “good.” I did not yet have a sense of being a “Child of God,” and I certainly wasn’t yet a disciple of Jesus Christ. Unfortunately, too many of us grow static at just this very point in our spiritual development. We’ve moved into a “status” where we are “saved,” but we haven’t perceived a call into a relationship with Jesus Christ. We are in the “family,” but we are not yet fully “children of God” whose identities have been changed by grace, redemption, the work of the Spirit, and a personal relationship with God that enables committed service as a disciple. It took three or so years before I began to recognize that there was more to this business of being saved than I had realized.