This week, there was a rumor going around that Donald Trump had accepted Christ. One source said that he was led to the faith by James Dobson. Another said that it was Paula White who brought him to Christ. Still another source said that his heart was open and tender to the message of the Cross. The Christian right in America are swooning over the potential President-to-be. They have gravitated to this man whose proposed values are completely opposed to the teachings of Jesus. And it appears that he is not going to change them whether for good sense or for religion.
Of course, Jesus discriminated no one as salvation is an unearned gift. And if Trump were the one who was hanged on the Cross with the son of man, and pleaded earnestly for remembrance of him with Jesus, I am sure Jesus would have uttered the same assurance to him as he’d given to the thief – “Today you will be with me in paradise.” That is a big “if” I know, and underscore “earnestly”.
But the question is this if the news is to be believed, Is Donald Trump really saved? Even if the news were all a farce, can anyone imagine Donald Trump to be genuinely saved? Or is it all a theatrical act for the predominant purpose of winning the Christian evangelical votes, which numbers in the millions?
I guess we can speculate here till the cow comes home about intention and motive and would still be none the wiser. But more pertinently, this rumination led me to a deeper question: What does being saved means to a believer in the first place?
I was conducting my cell group last Friday and the question of “Once saved always saved” cropped up in our discussion. Most of us are uncomfortable with that promise of eternal salvation. It just seemed too good to be true. It just seemed to be liable for abuse more than it seeks to reassure or empowered. Telling a believer that once he is saved, he is always saved somehow gives him the license to sin since what is inevitable after the altar call is his fallibility. And this vulnerability only tempts the struggling believer to ride on that promise of eternal security as an free pass in the same way a welfare bum would depend on the government for welfare cheques and food stamps and thus shun work.
If I had to bet my bottom dollar on humanity, I would place it all on the box that is marked as “sin-prone” rather than the box that is marked as “sinless”. Even the sincerest of believers, who utters the sinner’s prayer at the altar with the surest of convictions, is given a lifetime to fall, and without fail, he will. The Christian journey is therefore a perilously fraught one, and the struggles are seemingly monumental.
So, what does it mean to be saved then?
One author wrote this: “The message of Christianity is about leaving an illusion and joining a reality. It is not about leaving things that are secular to embrace things that the church has deemed sacred and safe to use. The message of Christianity is about leaving a lie to embrace the truth. To leave darkness to embrace light. This is the journey that Jesus – the light of the world – takes us on. To cross from death to life. Christianity is about leaving things that aren’t true to understand things that are.” (Jared Herd “More lost than found”)
What is true about us then?
Now, in my view, what is true about us is that we are “a troubled guest on the dark earth.” Goethe said, “And so long as you haven’t experienced this: to die and so to grow, you are only a troubled guest on the dark earth.” Most times, we think that the Christian walk is about struggling with life, making the most of our choices to be faithful to our calling. But that is not the full story of faith. In fact, it is not the living that is difficult. It is the dying to self that challenges us the most, and it is the challenge of a lifetime.
For this reason, I am never convinced by what some of the preachers out there are saying about simply declaring yourself righteous in Christ and presto! it is done. There is just some elements of misappropriation in that universal appropriation of personal righteousness. I do not think that these preachers are presenting the full gospel of the Cross.
When Apostle Paul said that “for me to live is Christ and to die is gain,” that is the stellar words of a dead man walking. He had - as Goethe puts it - experienced what is death (to self) and growth (in God) to have come to that point of unshakeable confession. And Paul’s life demonstrated that prevailing truth as he gave himself to the object of his faith.
Henri Nouwen once said, “There is such a thing as a good death. We are responsible for the way we die. We have to choose between clinging to life in such a way that death becomes nothing but a failure, or letting go of life in freedom so that we can be given to others as a source of hope.”
In fact, if that honorable moniker of “once saved always saved” is ever applicable to anyone I know, Apostle Paul (and the many disciples who lived and died for God) fits the bill hands down. They were saved by the Cross, and they put themselves to death at the foot of the Cross, and in between, they lived out their humanity, their brokenness, and their failures, by following the selfless trail of the victory of the Cross. They made it not so much because they were living their life to the fullest. But they made it because they had given their life away so that they may live in the fullness of their Savior’s life. To them, this exchange is the most soul-breaking, but it is also the most rewarding.
In the cell group, I shared that God doesn’t expect us to take leaps of faith at every turn in our life. Christianity is not a stunt-man movie where we are expected to meet danger, trial and furnace fire head on, and then emerge as the last man standing to rousing applause.
Christianity is not about standing before a crowd and boasting about how God has changed us for His glory. In other words, it is not about being amazed at the altar call. It is not about being loud about our faith, striving to be prominent, outstanding and conspicuous. It is on the contrary about standing in awe, in brokenness, in gratitude, silent and humbled, and allowing oneself to be deeply ministered. It is a lifetime transformation through personal sacrifice, unconditional love and unwavering commitment, and not one engaged in for the novelty of the sentiment. Neither is it an openly pious act which expects something secretly self-profiting in return. Christianity is most un-rewarding if you are looking for attention.
I think George Carlin puts it best about his perennial distrust for those Christians who claim to be “born again”. He said, “They talk too much, pure and simple. When I was born, I was so stunned that I couldn’t speak for two years! If someone has a religious experience and shuts up for a couple of years, I will take him seriously.” Curiously, I am reminded of the words of TS Eliot here and I will leave you to connect the dots: “The last temptation is the greatest treason, to do the right deed for the wrong reason.”
I also shared at the cell group that our Christian walk is often in the faithfulness of the little things. Like marriage, we love even when we do not see any reason to love or at a time when we feel the least in love. And like being a parent, we wake up to bring our kids to school even when waking up everyday is an immense struggle for us. It is our unwavering commitment to the little things, the things no one sees or hears, that truly sustain and build us up over the years to remain faithful to our calling, even unto death. That is how we close the gap between being saved at the altar and remaining saved at our deathbed.
So, seen in this perspective, it is often for the lack of imagination and humility that the promise of eternal security can be abused for our own selfish gains (or taken for granted). For if we can imagine a love so compelling and live our life in humble submission to this unfailing compulsion without drawing attention to ourselves in ways that feeds our ego, our cravings for personal greatness, or as one theologian puts it, to pander to “the insubstantiality of me”, wouldn’t we experience the empowering reality in Goethe’s words of death to self and alive in Christ?
So, I guess the early disciples had never debated about or doubted the assurance of their salvation. They were never unsure about it anyway. They don’t need any assurance by repeatedly telling others that they will never lose their salvation. “Once saved always saved” was to them a silent anchorage in their heart. Their life and deeds driven by gratitude and conviction was all the assurance they needed, and that was more than enough for them. For it is said that to be holy is to be grateful, always.
And going back to the Republican Presidential nominee, is Donald Trump a Christian? Is he saved? I guess if we apply George Carlin’s test, I can’t be too sure. It would be almost impossible for the Donald Trump I read about to keep mum about his conversion at first light, especially when it would swing millions of votes in his direction this November. And let's not forget TS Eliot’s greatest treason, that is, to do right for the wrong reason.
But then, alas, I may be wrong – because what is impossible for Trump is not impossible for God. Cheerz.