From the Letter to the Romans:
But what does it say? “The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved. The scripture says, “No one who believes in him will be put to shame.” For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. For, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Romans 10:8-13 (NRSV) – March 19, 2013.)
In my opinion there is probably no more misused piece of writing in all of Holy Scripture, unless perhaps it is Paul’s other toss-off line (in this same epistle): “For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law.” (Rom. 3:28 NRSV) Both of them have led people to a religion that is all talk and no walk, which I am quite sure was not Paul’s intention at all!
I went to high school pretty much in the absolute middle of the United States. The geographic center of the U.S. is just outside the small town of Lebanon, Kansas. I went to high school in Salina, Kansas, about 100 miles away. At the time, and probably to this day, it is pretty much conservative, evangelical Christian territory. There are a few nutty Episcopalians, but not many; a few more good German Lutherans and just about as many good German Catholics. But the conservative, evangelical traditions rule the roost.
One of the things I most remember about my high school years in the center of the country are the evangelical Christian pamphlets that one would find distributed in, of all places, the public restrooms of filling stations and coffee shops. I know that sounds weird, and frankly it is weird! But almost without fail, anytime I would make use of such public facilities in the late 1960s I would find a small pamphlet on the wash basin counter, on the back of the toilet, or on top of the urinal telling me that all I needed to do to be saved and escaped the fires of Hell was “confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead.” That’s all. Nothing more.
That always struck me as nonsense. Even to a 14-year-old high school freshman, it just seemed like there ought to be more to it than the five-step outline for salvation set out in the public restroom pamphlet (and which I’ve subsequently seen enumerated elsewhere):
- Hear the Gospel (Romans 10:17)
- Believe the Gospel (Mark 16:16)
- Repent of sins (Luke 13:3)
- Confess Christ. (Matthew 10:32)
- Be Baptized for the remission of sins (Acts 2:38).
It seemed like poppycock because pretty regularly the priest in my church would recite other passages of Scripture: “Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven.” (Matt. 7:21 KJV) was his favorite offertory sentence. And I recall more than one sermon in which he made reference to the Letter of James with its (to me, at least) cogent reasoning:
What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith.
The leaflet in the lou seemed not even to require faith. I know it says that one step is to “Believe the Gospel” and another to “Confess Christ,” but those only require intellectual ascent, not faith. Just because one accepts the factuality of the Jesus story, and possibly even tells others about it, doesn’t mean that one trusts in Jesus as Lord and Savior. So even though it might have been parroting Paul in the 10th chapter of Romans, it seemed to have overlooked the 3rd chapter. And it’s authors had clearly dismissed James’s conclusion that “faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.”
It’s not that the five steps in the bathroom broadside are wrong. It’s that they are incomplete. There are so many more steps – feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, caring for the ill, visiting the prisoners, housing the homeless, selling everything you own and giving the money to the poor, not being a stumbling block to others, loving your neighbor, and many many more. One can’t just talk the talk; one must walk the walk; one must take the journey.
Salvation is a journey of many steps through many places doing many things. Salvation is not achieved with five simple steps communicated through a community water closet!
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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.