At 14 years old I remember lying in my bed at night praying over and over,
"Lord forgive me of my sins, and save me."
Every night I performed this ritual. There were no sins in particular that I was referring to. Instead, I was uncertain that my sins had been forgiven in general. I was only semi-confident that I was saved, and I had a fog of confusion about the whole thing.
I recall another time, as a fairly young kid, thinking that if I could come up with a new way to understand the Bible and salvation, it would make me famous. I thought that it would add interest to the bible if I could make it more complex. The question still burned.
I had an analytical mind and it seemed unlikely that salvation could be simple. As I grew, it felt like I needed to apply my mind to understand how salvation worked. The faith-alone stuff was what we told the kids, but the thinking adults all seem to agree (when the kids weren't around) that there was more to it.
I didn't tend to stress about things generally, but this subject was apparently giving me a bit of anxiety as a young teen. At some point, I talked with a mentor who I admired and looked up to. I explained that I wasn't sure of my salvation, but that I was praying for forgiveness often. However, when I would pray I didn't feel a warm feeling, or a spiritual birth, or anything at all.
My mentor gave me a bit of advice. I was in a bible study with others in our youth group. He suggested I talk with the bible study leader about it. This lead me to believe my mentor wasn't sure about salvation either.
The bible study I was in was headed up by an older leader. After bible study, I stopped him and told him about the uncertainty and doubt about salvation I was having. I explained that I was following the sinner's prayer ritual nightly, but I didn't have a way to verify that I was actually saved. The bible study leader said,
"well, the fact that you are asking these questions is a good sign."
That was it! His answer made him sound more like Yoda than a well-educated Christian. He then awkwardly walked out of the room. That was the last time I asked for advice from him. Obviously, I was not the only one confused about it, and I kept on wondering, What exactly do I have to do to be saved?
I continued to enjoy studying scripture. I read the bible every night. I didn't do this because I had to but because I wanted to. I was never pressured to do a personal Bible study or quiet time by my family. In fact, I normally did it in secret after my family had gone to bed. I liked reading my bible on the floor by the dim glow of my room's night light.
In my late teens and early twenties, I remember often asking myself, "what is my role in my salvation?" Put another way, I was still wondering What exactly do I have to do to be saved?
Now don't misunderstand me. In retrospect, I was saved, and I was even confident that I was saved, but layers of Christian jargon and too many traveling evangelists had turned my mind into Christian slogan soup. I had wanted it to be more complicated, and I was drowning in the complexity.
To make things tenser, I became a minister. On a weekly basis, I was teaching others about the bible. Whenever I would get to the end of a bible study or sermon I would often do a walk-down-the-aisle invitation much like I had heard other preacher dudes do. It made me uncomfortable, considering my confusion, but still, I did it because it was expected.
Through those years I still wrestled with the exact method of salvation. I couldn't find the sinner's prayer in the bible. Works weren't supposed to be part of the package. However, for those who had no obvious fruit in their lives, I got in the habit of telling them they probably weren't saved in the first place. I threw in a dash of predestination, and a pinch of election for good measure... So as you can see - it was a mess.
I remember a conversation with my wife, then fiancé. She asked me how I would present the gospel. I went through a very complicated, 27 step plan for what the gospel meant to me. I think I even used the word propitiation. It had layer upon layer of meaning and depth. I was proud of my representation of years of study but my wife was not as impressed. She simply said, "I don't think it's that complicated."
That moment was the beginning of a turning point. Her simple words set me on a path that changed my life. I had studied the bible for years, and even had a college degree in it. Yet, for all my fancy learning, it was her simple explanation of salvation that began to open my eyes. I couldn't quite take it all in at that time, but it planted the seed.
When the light finally came fully on for me, it was emotional. I'm kind of an emotional desert, so the fact that it was accompanied by tears of joy was something to behold I'm sure... although no one beheld it because I quickly found a bathroom stall as soon as the tears began to flow.
I was at a Christian conference in Dallas when it happened. There was a talk about the simplicity of the gospel message. Through a series of conversations, It suddenly made sense. It was like all the teeth of the gears in my mind finally snapped into place. Verses that I had not understood for years took on meaning that easily made sense. I had been re-introduced to Grace!
I had been searching for so long, thinking that I needed to learn more in order to understand. With each hour, day, and year of study I added complexity to what I thought the scripture meant. I had turned salvation into something akin to a calculus formula.
What I realized at that moment, in that bathroom stall as tears ran down my red cheeks, is that salvation is not valuable because of its complexity. Its simplicity was what was beautiful. I didn't need to learn more, I needed to throw away the complicated philosophical system I was trying to build around salvation and approach it like a child.
I had been almost embarrassed by the simplicity of the gospel. Being saved by grace alone had seemed like something we tell children, but then when the adults talked privately, we all agreed that there was much more to it. What the adults never seemed to agree on, however, was what exactly the "much more" was.
It was ultimately intellectual pride that had kept me from seeing grace for what it was. All the intellectual complexity amounted to one thing. I had slyly slide works into the equation, but you could hardly tell because the equation had gotten so complicated. It was sneaky, but I had become a legalist without even realizing it. I had added to the gospel because I had mistaken discipleship for salvation.
From that moment I abandoned the desire to complicate grace. I embraced the beautiful simplicity of salvation. I decided that if it's good enough for a child it's good enough for me. After all, Jesus said that we must have a childlike faith.
So, what exactly do I have to do to be saved?
John 3.16 tells us very clearly.
For God loved the world so much that he gave his only son, that whoever believes in him will not perish, but have eternal life.
Don't give in to the temptation to add works to this verse. There is a formula in it, but it's not a complicated one.
Because God Loved us he gave us this formula:
Believe in Jesus = Have eternal life.