Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Did Jesus Ever Come into My Heart?

I Asked Jesus into My Heart Many Times

If you want joy, real joy, wonderful joy,
Let Jesus come into your heart.
If you want joy, real joy, wonderful joy,
Let Jesus come into your heart.
Your sins He'll take away, 
Your night He'll turn to day.
Your heart He'll make over anew 
And then come into stay.
If you want joy, real joy, wonderful joy,
Let Jesus come into your heart.

Growing up I had many opportunities to ask Jesus into my heart – at church, school, and camp. And, I did – quite a few times.

The church in which I grew up was an interesting place. The minister when my parents became members was a dispensationalist. He was succeeded by the first minister I remember, a Westminster Seminary graduate and Calvinist who came to us from an independent church. He was succeeded by an evangelistic, higher life son of the Presbyterian manse. He was succeeded (by this time I had married and moved so was there infrequently) by a revivalist Martyn-Lloyd Jones wannabe.

At a conference hosted annually by the church, I heard a remarkable variety of Reformed ministers and scholars including John Murray, Henry Bast, Peter Eldersveld, William Hendriksen, Cornelius VanTil, J.I. Packer, Philip Hughes, Edmund Clowney, Robert Strong, Joel Nederhood,  P.Y. DeYoung, to name only some. I also attended an annual youth conference where the invitation system was much used. Also during the tenures of the second and third ministers we got chances to raise our hands while our heads were bowed and sometimes to go forward, for salvation, rededication, making sure, or commitment to Christian service. I have a clear memory of, as a very young child, attending some kind of weekday class at church, and raising my hand as one who wanted Jesus to come into my heart. (I also remember Santa Claus coming to that very same room after a Christmas Eve service.) When I was a teen, one night during the youth conference a movie was shown after the preaching which caused me not a little angst as to whether or not I “really had it.” I sought out the minister who, along with a seminary intern, met with me in the study for a long time to try determine if I really did. I made the mistake of saying something about my father which was followed by close questioning as to whether I was relying on my father’s faith rather than having Jesus as my personal Savior. You asked Jesus to come into your heart, but did he? Did you really mean it?

I also attended Christian school. My first teacher was a Belhaven College graduate (the last Belhaven graduate to teach there) who ended up marrying a sailor who ended up being a Presbyterian minister. At school we sat up straight, memorized poems short and long, stood to recite, swore solmenly not to dance or act boisterously on public transportation, and, when we got to Junior High, though we were warned and watched carefully, thought about sex a lot. We also learned the virtue and duty of tattling. In chapel-Bible class we sang “Ye Must Be Born Again (and again)”, learned hundreds of Bible verses, studied Revelation (it was then I first learned to draw the chart of the church age, rapture, tribulation, Armageddon, Christ on the throne in Jerusalem for 1000 years, etc.), and got urged to ask Jesus into our hearts. I almost escaped the school for the ninth grade, but I was caught by my mother with some worldly kids in the church parlor after VBS. They had brought, and I was holding, some playing cards, so that day it was determined I would be sent back for more “education.”

Then there was camp in the pinewoods. At camp girls and boys had separate swim times (though this did not stop us from thinking about girls, girls, girls). We played games rode horses, took naps, and did the usual camp stuff. But most important we met every night in a pavilion for an evangelistic meeting. The pavilion ground was covered with sawdust (literally), and at the front was a concrete block enclosure where kids who came forward were taken to ask Jesus into their hearts. Two things I remember especially. One evangelist told the story of a man who, when urged to ask Jesus into his heart, kept saying, “I’ve got plenty of time,” including at last on his death bed. The other memory is of two girls I did not know who one night before the meeting told me, “We’re going forward tonight. We do it every year.”

I emerged from all of this a five-point Calvinist and a doubting Thomas. Then I went to seminary where I found from visiting speakers like Al Martin and Ernie Reisinger that there was a Calvinist version of the same thing. The questions were whether the new birth had happened and whether you had “closed with Christ.” The difference was that, if you had not been born again, or had not closed with Christ, there was not a dadgum think you could do about it. Well, that is not quite the case. There were two things you might try. You could pray for it. (Don’t ask me to tell you how one who is not born again and has not closed with Christ can ask for the new birth.) Or, you might prepare for it by being “plowing a straight furrow” and going to church. (Oh, and by the way, during seminary there was also an opportunity in chapel with a visiting Australian Presbyterian, to go forward to make a full surrender and move to a higher plain of spiritual life. I was in a handful who did not walk the aisle that day.)

A few observations and comments:

(1)   For some, this may provide information and insight. I think especially of those who grew up in traditions where the approach to the faith was more catechetical and less crisis-oriented. You may be greatly concerned about “nominalism”, “false professions”, and the like, and perhaps with some justification. But, what I describe above, while perhaps more extreme than most stories, is nevertheless much like the spiritual experience of many who grew up in fundamentalist Presbyterianism. It’s grace that we did not join Franky Schaeffer and become “crazy for God.”

(2)   I am not ungrateful for many of the experiences of my youth. I still have at my disposal a lot of KJV Bible verses. The second and third ministers of my church had a lot of positive and formative influence on me, and, different as they were, both served as role models. Both became friends, and the third one and I became close. Out of the ministries of those two men can a bunch of Presbyterian ministers. I am thankful for my church and her pastors. I am not, however grateful for school or camp. I refer to getting out of school getting paroled. And I still hate that camp.

(3)   I wonder if some of what I describe above could not be right labeled “covenantal child abuse.” Its negative impact on me was sufficient to make a positive impact on the way I brought up my kids. I made a great number of mistakes, but we taught them the gospel, expected and did not question their professions, and did not use occasions of misbehavior to question whether they had just “head knowledge” instead of “heart knowledge.”

(4)   The gospel is not, “Ask Jesus into your heart,” or, “Close with Christ,” or, “Accept Jesus as your personal Savior,” but, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you shall be saved, you and your house.” Experience is not the gospel. The gospel is about faith.

(5)   Use this for psychoanalysis if you will. But I know for certain that my beliefs are not the result of my introspective personality or the experiences of my youth in any sense that is different from your beliefs being the result of your genetic personality and life experiences. And you will not convince me that my disillusionment with “experimentalism” is  any more the result of what I experienced than your embrace of “experimentalism” is the result of what you didn’t experience. We should refrain from saying about one another, “The reason he thinks that is because of XYZ about him and his life.” Surely all of us are shaped by many things, but we owe each other respect for one another’s views. We should take views seriously and address them rationally in terms of truth and error.

And to think, except for my mother’s aversion to the common cup, I might have grown up Episcopalian!



Stegokitty said...

Good stuff.
I grew up with the "Ask Jesus into your heart" mentality as well, only it was coupled with Arminian Pentecostalism of the Holiness stripe. So basically I "got saved" and lost my salvation so many times that today when people ask me when I "got saved" I say "I have no idea, but I know I am now."
The Lord bless you and keep you.

Andy said...

Great post!

Also grew up around a decision-ism type of Christianity and often ended up questioning the validity/genuineness of my conversion because of it.

Looking within is a sure course toward despair and doubt. Looking without (looking to Christ) is the way of faith, assurance, and salvation.

- Andy