Exactly When Does a Person’s Relationship with God Begin?
(Adapted from my book The Prodigal Paradigm)
Is the child who kneels by his bed and prays the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9-13) in relationship with God even if he has had no single initial faith event, conversion event or a walking of the aisle?
What about the child who kneels and prays a rhyming prayer like this one:
“Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray the Lord my soul to keep.
If I should die before I wake,
I pray the Lord my soul to take.”
Can a child who believes in God and prays, whatever prayer he/she knows, yet has had no conversion experience, no knowledge of the gospel or of Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection, be in right standing with God?
Christian orthodoxy says that justification is related to a person’s initial faith and without that initial faith all are unjustified and therefore out of relationship with God.
Is this biblical?
What about that child?
Well…I was that child. Let me share my own experience.
Before you think it or say it. I know. I know. You shouldn’t go from experience to truth, but from truth to experience. With that sentiment I am in hearty approval. But before any of us start throwing stones, let’s be sure that we have the truth and that we are applying it properly and that the experiences in question don’t illumine us to the absence of truth (which we thought we had in the first place).
When I was very, very young (I don’t even remember how old I was), I remember saying my prayers as I knelt beside my bed. The only prayers I knew were the Lord’s Prayer (Matt. 6:9-13) and that little rhyme Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep given above. Since the rhyme seemed most appropriate at bedtime, it was the prayer I repeated nightly.
But one night while I was praying that little rhyme, which I took to heart and meant with every fiber of my being, something very different happened. I had a vision. There was a beautiful angel that suddenly appeared to my mind. I don’t know if it was male or female. But the angel was strong enough to pick me up and carry me away in his/her arms, taking me upward to heaven (this I supposed to be the point since I was praying for that very thing). The angel didn’t actually pick me up in my vision. But rather it appeared so suddenly to my mind that I was already in its arms. The peaceful and compassionate countenance on the angel’s face assured me that everything (about which I was praying) would be taken care of. I crawled into bed and instantly fell asleep.
Fast forward a bit. When I was about twelve years old, I had been urged by my Sunday school teacher to trust in Jesus and join the church. She made it sound like some big crisis event without which I was sure to go to hell. The interesting thing was I already believed in Jesus. I mean how could I live in the culture that I was in and not do that? I lived in Alabama; I went to a Southern Baptist Church whose pastor gave everyone an opportunity to trust in Jesus every single Sunday. In fact, it was the same theme every Sunday. It just arose from different texts. But this joining the church was a little overwhelming to a twelve year old. In order to do this I was supposed to walk down this long aisle (I always sat on the last row or as near to it as I could) and then do who knows what down in front of the church. Well, I finally got up the courage to walk down that aisle. I really can’t remember the questions that I was asked at that point. But I do remember sensing that everything seemed to be so settled for everyone watching over my life that I thought I must have done all that was needed.
But nothing really seemed different to me. I wasn’t closer to Jesus than I was before; I wasn’t any more assured of going to heaven than I had become the night of my vision. I didn’t know a lot about what the Bible taught because I was not a great reader at the time, and I certainly was not going to take time out of my play-day to read my Bible. I don’t think it was being taught that well in my church. But it could have been. The fault may have been all my own: I just wasn’t listening too much to know what was being said or what was going on.
Fast forward again. Many years later I went to college. My brother took me to a meeting of college students on Sunday night. The meeting was called College Life. After that meeting was over, a student came up to me and shared with me a booklet called The Four Spiritual Laws. It was the clearest presentation of Scriptural verses that I had heard up to that point in my life. The student asked me if I’d like to trust Jesus. But this time I saw that trusting Jesus was about His ministry to and within me. And I was quite at awe at such a possibility. So I again trusted Jesus. This time my growth took off like a rocket as I met with other students who had done the same thing. It was the beginning of the most exciting adventure I’ve ever been on. And it hasn’t slowed down fifty years later.
So, if you were me, when would you say my relationship with God began?
It is taught in many different ways that a person can’t have a relationship with God unless he first believes in Jesus. Some soften that a bit by admitting that if a person has a relationship with God he will be led straightaway to believe in Jesus because these two issues, a relationship with God and a belief in Jesus, cannot really be separated (by much but no one knows exactly by how much). But my life contradicts this in several ways. I had a relationship with the Lord/God/Jesus before I formally trusted in Jesus and His work on my behalf. When I did formally trust in Jesus, my relationship did not get any better than it already was. But then I trusted in Jesus a second time; this time for the life that He was promising. And Pow! Everything seemed to be different.
Interestingly enough, after searching the Scriptures on the topic of justification, I realized that I had been taught a viewpoint of the Scriptures that men had developed instead of the viewpoint that the Scriptures actually made about justification. Justification, as is traditionally taught, happens at a point in time, the moment we first trust in Jesus. In the OT, it would have been the moment a person first trusted in God and in the coming Messiah (who would be named Jesus of course). The primary proof offered for this view starts with Abraham who in Genesis 15:6 “…believed in the Lord, and He reckoned it to him as righteousness.”
The problem with this theory is that Abraham clearly had a relationship with the Lord long before this moment in time. God talked to Abram many years before (see Genesis 12:1-3). The Lord even “appeared to Abram” and spoke to him again (Genesis 12:7). And Abram worshipped the Lord, even building an altar to Lord (Genesis 12:8). The Lord intervened to protect Abram from Pharaoh in Egypt (Genesis 12:17). And years later the Lord spoke again to Abram (Genesis 13:14ff), and Abram built another altar to the Lord (Genesis 13:18). Even Melchizedek the king of Salem and priest of God Most High (Genesis 14:18) assumes Abram’s connection to God (Genesis 14:19). It might be safe to assume that Abram spent many a night kneeling next to his bed praying a childlike prayer of his own…albeit probably not, Now I lay me down to sleep…. So it seems clear that Abram’s trust in God, recorded as righteousness in Genesis 15:6, is not an account of his initial faith, nor of his initial justification in the traditional orthodox perspective. In fact Abram’s initial faith event is never isolated or recorded for us.
And after searching further, to my astonishment, I discovered that there is not one example of initial faith in God or in Jesus in all of the Scriptures. By initial faith I refer to a person’s first movement, his first exercise, of faith. Whether it be in God or in Jesus is irrelevant. There simply is no example of a person exercising faith for the first time in the Scriptures. It is certainly, therefore, never the focus, and if it is not the focus, it must not be that important. As a result the Bible never relates justification to a person’s initial faith since his initial faith is never recorded. That fact ought to lead us to review and rework our theology on justification and to stop looking for some initial momentous faith event…it is not the point! God is illumining each man through the creation that He has made and through the conscience that He has given to him. Even a child, kneeling beside his bed, praying his nightly prayers, throughout most parts of the world, knows that there is a God to whom he is responsible.
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