A promise is not the same as the thing promised. That rather self-evident statement is not so self-evident when it comes to the typical evangelical understanding of the conversion event. In such an understanding, “praying the sinner’s prayer,” “accepting Jesus as personal savior,” “surrendering my life to Jesus” becomes the all-encompassing event of salvation. It’s treated almost as a magical incantation. If you’ve said the words (and really, really meant them—however this is determined), this somehow magically “saves” you and magically transforms you, if not now in this life then certainly in the next life.
Why, then, is there so little transformation occurring in the lives of Christians? Why, when surveyed, do American Christians show so little difference in terms of values and lifestyles than non-Christian Americans? Why do American Christians look more American than they do Christian?
Author and pastor Greg Boyd puts it this way: “Your pledge to surrender your life wasn’t itself the life you pledged to surrender. The actual life you pledged to surrender was the life you’ve lived every moment after you made the pledge. For the only life you had to surrender was the life you live moment-by-moment.”
That’s a profound thought. I can pledge the future rest-of-my- life to Jesus, but the only life I can live is the one lived today, right now, moment by moment. I can pledge to surrender my not-yet-arrived-life to Jesus, but the only life I can actually surrender is my right-at-this-moment-life.
The problem, Boyd says, is that we treat the pledge to surrender as the surrender itself. “Unfortunately, because of our magical view of Christianity, we tend to mistake the pledge of our life to Christ for the life that we pledge to Christ. We assume that our lives are in fact surrendered because we once pledged to surrender them.”
We assume that our lives are in fact surrendered because we once pledged to surrender them. It sounds silly when you read it like this, but I am convinced that he’s right—that’s exactly what we do. When we “accepted Christ” we pledged to surrender our lives, and then acted like the pledging accomplished all that needed to be accomplished—forgiveness of sins, life everlasting, etc. regardless of whether or to what degree we actually followed through on the surrendering.
In some ways this is a result of treating the grace that justifies and the grace that sanctifies as two different graces that take place one after another. Justifying grace results in the forgiveness of sins and a status of righteousness, after which sanctifying grace takes over, resulting in the gradual surrendering of our lives to Christ and ongoing work of transformation. But there are not two graces (or three, some also distinguishing prevenient grace, the grace that comes before salvation, from the others.) There’s just grace, God’s grace. Period.
God’s grace is always at work in a person’s life, before, during, and after any conversion experience, always wooing, always justifying, always sanctifying. That’s what grace is, and you can’t spin it in a centrifuge and separate its component parts.
By treating sanctifying grace as subsequent to and dependent upon justifying grace, we treat spiritual transformation as separate from and subsequent to salvation itself, and that reduces it to an ancillary act that is good but not necessary. In this line of thinking, the important thing is to get saved; transformation makes life this side of death better, but has no bearing on what happens on the other side of death.
That’s like saying that an alcoholic is saved because he made a pledge to change his life. No, the salvation comes when the alcoholic faces up to his addiction and the destruction it is wreaking on his life and makes the changes necessary to build a new life, i.e. stop drinking, get a sponsor, go to AA meetings, stop hanging around drinking buddies, etc. In other words, transformation doesn’t come after salvation, transformation is salvation.
What we need to be saved from is not this sin that I committed yesterday and that sin I committed an hour ago—no more than an alcoholic just needs to be saved from that drink he had yesterday. No, what we need to be saved from is an addiction to a destructive way of life, and that’s what Christ came for. He came to show that there is a different way to live, and that new, transformed life—what he called life in the Kingdom of God—is not only a life finally worth living for, it’s a life worth dying for. That new, transformed life is our salvation. It is eternal life, and it begins now, because right now is the only life anyone can live.
So it’s good, even necessary, to pledge to surrender your life to Christ and submit to his transformational grace, but it’s even more necessary to actually follow through on the pledge and submit to his transformational grace.
As again Boyd writes: “Kingdom life isn’t a theoretical reality, it’s a real reality—and reality is always found in the now. If we are going to experience and manifest the life of the Kingdom, therefore, we will have to completely alter the way we consciously live moment-by-moment. We will have to wake up to the now.”
You have only one life to surrender to God: the one you are living right now.
Moment by moment.