Monday, March 17, 2014

Sermon: “Have You Been Saved?” - A Lutheran Response

The Rev. Dr. Leah D. Schade, PhD
March 16, 2014
United in Christ Lutheran Church, Lewisburg, PA
Texts: Romans 4:1-5, 13-17; John 3:1-17

"Have you been saved?  Are you born again?" 

Has anyone ever asked you that question?

It’s not a question you’ll often hear in a Lutheran church.  It’s not a Lutheran question.  But it is a question that you’ll hear in other churches and denominations.  "Have you been saved?  Are you born again?  Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal savior?"

I bring this up this morning because questions such as these are derived in large part from the reading we have today in the Gospel of John.  John 3:16 is probably the most often-quoted verse of scripture regarding Christianity.  "For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that all those who believe in him would not perish, but would have eternal life."

This verse comes toward the end of a discourse between Jesus and Nicodemus, a leader within the Jewish community.  And there are other verses in that passage that are important for the theological understanding of these churches.  There is the idea of being "born again" or "born from on high," and the notion of being born "of water and the Spirit."

You may not have been asked these kinds of questions before.  But I know of many people who have.  And they’re never quite sure how to answer them.  This can be a point of contention between Christians who have different understandings of this text and the issue of salvation, particularly in certain churches.  In some churches, the question of whether a person has been saved and born again is a central part of their theology.

I know people who attend these churches.  Members of my extended family attend these churches.  And I’ve asked them, "What is the motivation behind these kinds of questions?"  They’ve explained to me that in these churches there is a particular emphasis on the individual’s relationship with God and Jesus.  And if you interpret this text from John and other particular passages in the Bible in a certain way, it would seem to indicate that all those who do not believe in Jesus will perish, will go to hell.  So there is genuine concern on the part of these people for the soul of another person.

The difficulty, however, comes when we try to measure or find evidence of a person’s faith.  In these churches there are certain practices and rituals designed to give evidence of this inward faith in an outward way.  There are certain words you have to say and prayers you must utter. You must make public profession of your belief in Jesus and participate in what’s known as the "believer’s baptism."

What becomes problematic, however, is when these questions and practices are used to draw a circle around one group of people over and against another.  Those people within the circle who do what the church says is necessary are "saved."  Those on the outside are not saved.  What can result is a sort of spiritual superiority, the belief that one group is better than another.  It’s all about me getting saved and me getting others saved, and bringing people to Christ, as if God is keeping score and adding gold stars to your heavenly bank account.  But drawing these kinds of lines can actually lead to divisions among people, discrimination, and even violence in extreme cases.

Lutherans are uncomfortable with these kinds of questions and practices because they remind us of another time in history when certain religious leaders put forth a set of requirements for people to be acceptable to the church and to God.  Anyone who has been through Confirmation class will probably remember these words:  "As soon as the coin in the money box rings, another soul from purgatory springs."  What was the practice of the church that Luther protested against?  Yes, indulgences.

Luther said that no church can dictate what is required of a person in order to be accepted by God.  No one can earn their way into God’s grace through their works, whether that work is making the personal decision to declare Jesus as your Lord and Savior, or whether it’s giving millions of dollars to charity.  Grace is a gift, a promise from God.  And Luther based this on his reading of the Bible, particularly the passage we had in our second lesson from Paul’s letter to the Romans: “To one who without works trusts him who justifies the ungodly, such faith is reckoned as righteousness . . . for this reason it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace.” (Romans 4:5, 16) There it is – grace, faith, trust.  Those are the key words that Luther wanted to emphasize.

Christians who hold personal salvation as a defining theological issue would say, "Yes, of course it depends on faith.  But you have to demonstrate that you have this faith.  God is trying to give you a gift, but if you’re not willing to make the choice for Jesus, then you will go to hell."  

That, my friends, is what we might call "spiritual indulgences." And it doesn’t really make sense, does it?  Any more than a parent saying to a child, “You must make the decision to accept me as your parent.  I love you, but if you don’t declare your love for me, I’m kicking you out of the family.  Love me, or I’ll kill you.”  Love me, or go to hell. Is that really the kind of God we believe in?

Luther said that there is nothing you can do to earn God’s grace or salvation.  Faith is created in you by the promise itself.  The promise of God creates trust in you toward God.  Not the other way around. 

And that’s all fine and good.  But there is, of course, another question: "What about those people who aren’t coming to church?  What about those people who are not baptized?  What about those who do not believe in Jesus?"  I’ve had people in my office over the years who have asked, "What about my grandchild?  My son/daughter refuses to bring them to church to be baptized."  "What about my spouse who will not come to church with me, no matter how many times I ask?"  And we could expand the question even further.  What about the Jews who do not believe in Jesus?  What about the Hindus and Buddhists?  What about the Muslims?  What’s going to happen to them?

Now that is a Lutheran question.  And it’s a good question.  And in order for us to deal with that question, we need to go back to the man who led us to that question in the first place.  We need to go back to Nicodemus. 

Nicodemus, as I mentioned earlier, was a leader among the Jewish people.  He was well-respected and powerful.  He knew the Jewish law and followed it religiously.  But he saw Jesus.  He heard his preaching and teaching.  He saw Jesus reaching out to people across all lines of gender, race, culture, age, and religion, healing them, casting out their demons, performing miracles for them.  And something within Nicodemus was moved.  Perhaps he looked at his own religious system and saw the way a circle was drawn around a certain group of people, and the ones inside that circle were deemed acceptable to God, and the ones outside that circle were not, and were treated accordingly.  And maybe Nicodemus began to feel uncomfortable with this. 

In any case, he sought out Jesus.  His first words were not a question, but an observation.  "Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” (John 3:2)  He simply acknowledges what he had observed about Jesus.  Then there is a dialogue between Jesus and Nicodemus.  Jesus is talking in very abstract terms, Nicodemus is thinking in very concrete terms.  They discuss this idea of being "born from on high."  Jesus tries to expand Nicodemus’ thinking about what it means to be part of God’s kingdom.  Then he says, "No one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit."

Now some Christians would say that this means baptism.  But scholars point to another interpretation.  Being born of water is what happens with all human beings.  We’re all born of water - we all come through amniotic fluid.  But Jesus is saying that something happens within a person’s soul - there is a movement of the Spirit that gives birth to something new.  And this Spirit is like the wind - it surrounds all of us.  Each person has this Spirit.  We all breathe air.  And this Spirit moves like the air around us and through us.  We don’t know where it comes from or where it’s going.  But we know it when we feel it.  And this movement of the Spirit is what gives birth to this newness inside of each person.

Now when Nicodemus hears this, he does not fall on his knees and declare Jesus to be his personal savior.  He does not ask to be baptized.  In fact, we don’t hear from Nicodemus again until the trial of Jesus before his crucifixion.  Nicodemus is the only one who takes a stand against his fellow religious leaders and says, "Wait a minute.  We can’t convict a person without any evidence.  This is wrong.  We can’t do this."  He is, of course, overruled.  But he did the right thing.

And the last time we see Nicodemus is after the crucifixion when he and Joseph of Arimethea take Jesus’ body, tenderly care for him, and gently lay him in the tomb.  There is no public profession of his faith.  There is no baptism.  But I daresay that the Spirit was moving within Nicodemus.  God’s promise did something to Nicodemus.  And that was enough.

Is it enough for us?  Is it enough for us to trust God’s promise to be working within people’s souls, blowing them in the direction the Spirit is guiding them?  

Can we look at each person who is not within our circle of belief and say, I trust that God is working on them, even if I can’t see what’s going on. 

I’ll give you an example of a modern-day Nicodemus.  A pastor friend of mine once told me about a woman who started going to her church.  The woman did not believe in God.  But her partner did, and attended this pastor’s church.  The woman came with her partner to the church sometimes.   One day this pastor came to the hospital to pray with the partner before surgery, and the woman was there.  A few days later, the pastor received a letter from the woman.  The letter began, "I used to be a happy atheist.  Now I am a miserable atheist.  I could kick you." 

She went on to recount her life’s journey.  Like Nicodemus, she was a respected member of her religious community.  She was a member of a church that interpreted the Bible literally and emphasized personal salvation.  Her father was a pastor.  She attended a Bible college.  She was intent on being a missionary.  But a series of events happened to her that put her outside the circle.  First, she realized that she was a lesbian.  That immediately ousted her from the church’s circle.  Then in college she was gang-raped by four men.  And that pushed her outside the spiritual circle.  She could no longer believe in God.  To her it was all just a fairy tale.  It was not true for her anymore.

But one thing led to another, and her partner convinced her to attend this pastor’s church.  And when the pastor went to pray with them before the surgery, the woman said in her letter, "For the first time I encountered a Christian who knew what she believed and why she believed it.  A Christian who was totally grounded in her faith, but was non-judgmental toward me.  A Christian who was compassionate, and willing to accept me as I was.  I don’t know where this came from or where this is going, but I know I need to start seeking again.  I can feel my spirit struggling against my mind."  You see, the Spirit was moving within her.  And, I daresay, that is enough.

Here’s the thing: we just don’t know what a person has been through in their life and their faith.  We don’t know their struggles.  And we cannot stand in judgment of them. But we trust that God is working on them, even when all evidence points to the contrary.  And no matter what others may say about a person or what we think about them, we can treat them with respect and honor them in Jesus’ name.

So if you encounter this question, "Have you been saved?" remember the text from Ephesians 4:2, "For by grace you have been saved through faith.  And it is not your own doing, it is the gift of God." There is no secret formula, no magical words to say, no one thing you can do to achieve salvation.  Baptism is not some kind of potion that grants you entrance into heaven.  It is simply God’s gift to you – a tangible sign of God’s love that creates faith and trust in you.

When someone asks you if you’ve been saved, simply respond, "I am a child of God and I have faith in God.  So you’ll have to ask God that question."

And if we find ourselves questioning the eternal salvation of those people on the outside of our circle, maybe we can remember to be compassionate toward them.  They may be a Nicodemus and we don’t even know it.

Maybe this church is one place where we can say, "You know, if the Spirit is moving you to come here, then we welcome you.  And if the Spirit is blowing you in another direction, God bless you on your journey." 
It’s enough for us to trust God’s promise to be working within each individual, no matter what their gender, their skin color, or their religion.  Instead of obsessing about the status of our eternal salvation, we can relax into God’s promise, be free of that worry, and concentrate on what Jesus has asked us to do in this life – serve others, advocate for justice, and be generous and compassionate towards all.  Because the Spirit is, indeed, blowing through the soul of every person. 

And we can trust that, by the grace of God, that is enough.  



  1. Good commentary on many levels. Just to share a recent experience, I moderated a 12-step meeting on step 11, which is about God "as we understood Him" and I mentioned the fact that there are atheists working the 12 steps and wondered how that can work. A meeting attendee shared that her sponsor had told her, "Just work the steps and the Higher Power stuff will take care of itself." That statement was a "light bulb moment" for me, an agnostic who doesn't know and isn't concerned that he doesn't know. Reading your blog, I sensed an iteration of the same idea. I think if we follow the teachings of Jesus in all of our dealings with our fellow human beings, we are able to both experience and show grace, even if we are not too sure about whether or not the biblical stories of Jesus are fact, allegory or mythology.

  2. There is much wisdom in your words, Ed. Thank you!


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