church bell from below

No Other Foundation

Reflections from Fr. Lawrence Farley

Quiet confession just between us:  nostalgic freak that I am, I still like listening to old songs from the Christian folk group “Children of the Day”.  The group was one of the earliest Jesus People music groups, and consisted of four young people, headed by Marsha Carter.  They were most famous for the song “For Those Tears I Died” (also known as “Come to the Waters”) written by Marsha shortly after her conversion to Christ at the age of sixteen.  The song contains the sort of emotionalism that often characterizes young sixteen-year old Evangelical girls (with tears cried in the dark), as well as a bit of latent Calvinism which often characterizes Evangelicals.  The song begins with the lines:

“You said You’d come and share all my sorrows.
You said You’d be there for all my tomorrows.
I came so close to sending You away,
but just like You promised
You came here to stay.
I just had to pray.”

I just had to pray.”  Here we see the Evangelicalism and its theology which formed the context for her conversion.  In those circles back then (has it changed that much?) it was understood that conversion consisted of praying and “asking Jesus into your heart” (or, as some more theological types would say, accepting a doctrine, such as “the finished work of Christ”).  When one said the prayer  and sincerely asked Jesus into one’s heart (the so-called “sinner’s prayer”), then one was born again, forgiven one’s sins, and made a child of God—i.e. one was now saved and was assured of going to heaven after death instead of going to hell.   Nothing else was required—not works or sacraments or church membership.  You just had to pray and accept a doctrine, that’s all.  Nothing could be simpler.

Evangelicals were divided over the question of whether or not a person who was saved like this could later apostasize and fall away, and whether or not the saved person had been chosen from all eternity to be saved.  Carter’s brand of Evangelicalism evidently thought the latter, hence the lines of the second stanza:

“Your goodness so great I can’t understand,/ and dear Lord I know that all this was planned./ I know You’re here now and always will be./ Your love loosed my chains and in You I’m free./ But Jesus why me?”

We see here the subtle shadows of Calvinism, whereby one is mysteriously chosen for salvation before time began in a way no one can understand, and that the believer’s response to the Gospel had been planned from all eternity.  Jesus had come into the believer’s heart as He was predestined to do, and He would stay there forever.  Marsha therefore could never fall away and Jesus would never leave her.  The stanza ends with a note of grateful perplexity:  “Jesus, why me?”

Given her ecclesiastical context, it is unlikely that Marsha was aware that the lines of her song represented the choice of one theology over another, or in fact that any other theology was possible.  She was, after all, only about sixteen years old, and her views were entirely formed by her limited Evangelical experience.

She could not have known, therefore, that the notion of becoming “saved” by “asking Jesus into your heart” had no real Biblical backing or long historical precedent, but that it represented the practice of a comparatively recent Evangelicalism.   On the first day of Pentecost, when the penitent hearers of the Gospel asked Peter what they should do to be saved, Peter did not say, “Just pray with me and ask Jesus into your hearts”.  Instead he said, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38).  One became a Christian through the act of accepting baptism.  It was in this act of baptism that one expressed one’s faith and “confessed with the lips that Jesus is Lord” (Romans 10:9).  The saving confession of faith was sacramentally expressed so that “believing in Jesus” meant being baptized.

We see this salvific aspect of baptism everywhere throughout the New Testament (to say nothing of the early Fathers).  Christ spoke of being born again through water and the Spirit (John 3:5)—a clear reference to the water of baptism, since this passage occurs in a longer section about the baptism of John and Jesus (John 1-4).

Paul pairs being justified and sanctified with the baptismal washing in 1 Corinthians 6:11.  He says that baptism involves putting on Christ in Galatians 3:27.  He speaks of Christians being cleansed by the washing of water in baptism with the preached Word of the Gospel in Ephesians 5:26.  In Titus 3:5 he refers to saving baptism as “the washing of rebirth”.  This saving understanding of baptism began at the very beginning of Paul’s Christian experience.  When he was being converted, Ananias said to him, “Why do you wait?  Rise and be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on His name” (Acts 22:16).

And this understanding of baptism not just Paul’s alone:  Peter says plainly “baptism now saves you”—not because of the physical properties of water as if the baptismal waters were magical, but because baptism represents an appeal to God for a clear conscience (1 Peter 3:21).

The New Testament evidence is clear and unanimous:  one becomes a disciple of Christ by being baptized.  It is through this act that one’s sins are washed away and one is born again.  One is saved by faith, because faith leads to baptism and is expressed in baptism.

Moreover, this baptism leads to inclusion in the Church, the Body of Christ.  It is this abiding membership which finally saves one, because it is in the Church that the powers of sonship, forgiveness, healing, and transformation are working and available.  That is what it means to be “in Christ”—i.e. in the body of Christ, His Church.  That is also why St. Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 12:13 that in the one Spirit one was baptized “into one body” (Greek εἰς ἓν σῶμα/ eis en soma):  it was through baptism that one entered the Body of Christ and became “in Christ”.

Thus it is not true that one “just needs to pray”.  One needs to be baptized into the Church as well and abide there as a part of the Body, living as a part of that Body with the Eucharist at the center of one’s life.

But what happens to a person if they just pray and ask Jesus into the heart?  What happens to those who respond to the Gospel by saying the sinner’s prayer?  Well, the Bible doesn’t actually say.  It does not specify what happens if someone with the best of intentions does something other than the Bible says they should do.  My personal opinion, for whatever it’s worth, is that because Christ is merciful, He begins to work in the person’s heart and leads them on the way to salvation.  The Lord said, “To whom much is given, much is required” (Luke 12:48), which presumably means that less is required from those to whom less was given.  And when I was an Evangelical Protestant, theologically speaking, I wasn’t given much.  But I believe that the Lord who desires the salvation of all is merciful, and that He gives all that He can to those He finds sincerely seeking Him.  But at the end of the day, it’s really not any of my business.  Nor, may I politely add, is it any of yours.

What is our business is doing all we can with the light and truth we have received.  We should rejoice that people like Marsha Carter and her young friends found the Lord when they were teenagers.  And we should strive to share the good news of Christ with as many people as we can.  In this regard I remember the wisecrack offered by a priest when he was asked if Jesus was his personal Saviour.  He replied, “Nope.  I like to share Him.”

Fr. Lawrence Farley

About Fr. Lawrence Farley

Fr. Lawrence serves as pastor of St. Herman's Orthodox Church in Langley, BC. He is also author of the Orthodox Bible Companion Series along with a number of other publications.