When we are attracted to Jesus and want to follow him, how do we go about doing that? Many believers would answer, “Get saved by responding to a salvation presentation and praying some form of the sinner’s prayer admitting you are a sinner, asking for forgiveness, and inviting Jesus into your life as your personal savior.” Often this is presented within the framework of the misguided theory of penal substitutionary atonement.
Billy Graham used this version:
Dear Lord Jesus, I know that I am a sinner, and I ask for Your forgiveness. I believe You died for my sins and rose from the dead. I turn from my sins and invite You to come into my heart and life. I want to trust and follow You as my Lord and Savior. In Your Name. Amen.
The thought is that, if you meant what you said, you are now ‘saved’ and no longer on your way to eternal hell. This pattern of following Jesus is found nowhere in the teaching of Jesus nor in the writings of his followers. In fact it conflicts with the examples of following Jesus that we do find.
Responding to the Good News of the Kingdom
Jesus never suggests that we should ask for forgiveness or pray a ritual prayer to be ‘saved’; all we must do to participate in the kingdom is to respond to the good news and identify with it. Any forgiveness needed is automatic for those who choose Jesus. In the New Testament, those who identified with the good news of the kingdom indicated their identification by being baptized.
We get a pretty good picture of how this worked from Jesus’ early preaching in Mark 1:
After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!”
Jesus proclaimed the very same message John the Baptist had preached. And for both John and Jesus the symbol indicating that a person has identified with the good news of the kingdom is that they are baptized—usually immediately. There is no additional ritual at all: no asking for forgiveness, no asking Jesus to come into their life, and no sinner’s prayer. They simply heard the message, identified with it, and indicated their identification by being baptized.
‘But wait! Doesn’t Jesus say to REPENT?’ Yes he does, but the word ‘repent’ has taken on new meaning for some of today’s believers: they think it means to ‘confess your sins and ask for forgiveness.’ But the word ‘repent’ in the New Testament doesn’t mean that. Repent simply means to ‘change your mind or direction’, and this is exactly what these people did in response to the message of the good news: they changed from their previous perspective to embrace the good news of the kingdom.
Jesus Invites Us to Simply Accept His Invitation
The simplicity of beginning to follow Jesus is reinforced by his invitation in Matthew 11:
Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.
Following Jesus is a response to an invitation, and the appropriate response to an invitation is either Yes or No. Jesus does not require anything but that we decide to accept his invitation. No confession, no asking for forgiveness, and no prayer is necessary. All we need to do is accept; it is simple as that. If someone were to invite you to go with them to Disney World, would you ask them to please let you go with them? No! They have already invited you—all you need to do is accept.
There are no requirement to following Jesus except the desire and the decision to follow him. Once we do that we can begin to learn from him and to mature as we internalize his message.
The Idea of Getting ‘Saved’ Distorts and Replaces Jesus’ Good News Message
Jesus preaches the good news. Is being ‘saved’ from ‘hell’ good news? No! It is bad news! The bad news begins when we think God is angry, harsh, and vindictive, and when we think that we can imagine an eternal torture in a burning hell that the Bible does not teach. This also means that even if we are ‘saved’ from ‘hell’ other people will be tortured there forever, which is contrary to God’s love.
Focusing on being ‘saved’ to avoid imaginary hell and go to heaven when we die distorts the genuine good news which is central to Jesus teaching. The good news of Jesus is multifaceted but contains at least these five elements:
God is not Angry and Harsh with Us as Many of Us Thought
God’s Love for Us Takes Away Our Fear, Guilt, and Self-Condemnation
We are not to Follow Burdensome Religious Rules
We are Agents for Expanding God’s Kingdom on Earth
Death is Not the End because Jesus Offers Us Eternal Life and Happiness
Thinking that the important point in following Jesus is to become ‘saved’ not only distorts Jesus’ good news message of the kingdom but replaces it as Jesus’ central focus. This is not good! This is a harmful, misguided belief, and it robs believers of the essence of Jesus’ real teaching.
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