Of Wedding Vows and Sinner’s Prayers

KissOn my recent visit to Whitcomb Court with members of the police department and the “faith community” there was a woman in my group who insisted on asking everyone we visited, “If you were to die right now do you know for a fact you would go to heaven?” Usually the answer wasn’t yes or no: it was, “I think so.”

“You think so?” the woman asked. “Do you want to know how you can be sure?” And then she quoted Romans 10:9: “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus Christ is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead you will be saved.” And then she would ask the frightened young woman standing at the door to repeat after her as she led her through a version of “the sinner’s prayer,” similar to the one below:

Dear Lord Jesus, I know that I am a sinner, and I ask for Your forgiveness. I believe You died for my sins and rose from the dead. I turn from my sins and invite You to come into my heart and life. I want to trust and follow You as my Lord and Savior. In Your Name. Amen.

At the end of one such prayer she said to the young woman standing there, “Now you’re not a sinner anymore; you’re saved.” And I wondered: does it really happen like that? Are there “magic words” that can save you?

Later I thought about how I do a wedding. At some point I ask the groom to repeat after me, and I lead him through his vows. Afterward I do the same with the bride. And at the end of the service I say, “I now pronounce you husband and wife.” When I sign the marriage license after the ceremony I attest to the fact that these two—who used to be single—are now married.

In some ways it seems like magic.

But I don’t think I would be there if I weren’t convinced that they wanted to be married, that they were doing because they loved each other.

Let me give you an example:

Two years ago my daughter and her fiancé were married before a magistrate at New York’s City Hall. I saw the 45-second video. The magistrate asked Nick if he would be willing to take Ellie as his wife and he said yes. And then he asked Ellie if she would take Nick and she said yes. And then the magistrate (who was clearly enjoying his role) drew himself up to his full height and by the authority vested in him by “the great state of New York” pronounced them husband and wife. And that was it; they were married.

But there’s more to the story.

Nick and Ellie had known each other in high school in Washington when Nick was an exchange student from Australia. When he decided to come to New York to see if he could make it there as a chef (because if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere) he got in touch with Ellie. They began to send e-mail back and forth, and then text messages, and then long (expensive) phone calls until Nick finally invited Ellie to come see him in Australia. She did, met his family, did some sightseeing, and when she was getting ready to leave Nick said, “If I come to New York do you reckon I could be your boyfriend?”

That’s what happened.

He came to New York and they began dating and at the end of a year he found out that his visa—which he had thought was a two-year visa—was about to expire. He was going to have to go back to Australia. But Ellie didn’t want him to go back to Australia, not without her. She loved him. And he loved her. And that’s when they began to talk about getting married. Three weeks later they stood in front of that self-important magistrate at City Hall and exchanged their vows and seven months after that—to the day—we had a “real” wedding ceremony on the banks of the Rappahannock River right here in Virginia. I did the wedding, and when I asked the groom to repeat after me I heard his voice break. When I asked Ellie to do the same I saw the tear slide down her cheek. I was convinced that they weren’t just going through the motions, that this wedding—which had gotten its start under such unusual circumstances—was the real thing.

That’s not the feeling I had at Whitcomb Court.

I believe the decision to follow Jesus is every bit as personal as the decision to get married, and twice as important. It’s not something you can force somebody to do. When we stand before the Lord someday I don’t think he’s going to ask us if we’ve said the sinner’s prayer. But he might ask us what he asked Peter that day by the seashore, the kind of thing people have been asking each other for centuries before taking the plunge of marriage:

“Do you love me?”

15 thoughts on “Of Wedding Vows and Sinner’s Prayers

  1. This is beautiful story. I have never heard this approach to marriage, but it puts a very different, but wonderful spin on the traditional ceremony. I have to admit it has always rubbed me the wrong way to hear an officiant say “by the power vested in me by the State of ….”. To me that is immaterial. It can be left out. “Do you love me?” says it all. Thanks

  2. If only everyone in the ministry could share their beliefs in this remarkably simple and understandable way. I loved your thoughts and the picture! Thank you, Jim. I hope I am sharing your post on Facebook right now, but since FB has changed the way they share, I am not sure this is going to work! Here goes!

  3. Yep! Even if someone *does* utter the magic words “voluntarily” under these somewhat constrained circumstances, how meaningful is it? For me it seems like a less valid commitment for being based on two one-liners about why He died and what happened afterwards than it would be if the new convert knew a few things about what He said and did whilst alive. So I’d liken this sort of vow to a Las Vegas quickie marriage to someone you just met, possibly whilst under the haze of one influence or another…

  4. Having been brought up in the Pentecostal faith, I am very familiar with the type of scene that unfolded at Whitcomb Court. I also believe that the scene is carried out sometimes as much for the benefit of the person asking the question about another person’s salvation as it is for the person being asked. I am not saying that the person asking the question is not concerned about the soul of the person being asked, but sometimes I feel that the person asking the question might be more concerned, maybe unconsciously, with the fact that they feel the need to ask the question so that they can get a gold star next to their name in the Lamb’s Book of Life or to make sure that the other person’s blood will not be on their hands on the Day of Judgement. In other words, I think sometimes people ask about the state of another person’s soul in order to put their own mind at ease that they have done what they were supposed to do as the Christian that they perceive themselves to be. Not to make the act of salvation anymore complicated than it needs to be and I am certainly no expert on salvation, but I believe that the act of salvation is a little more involved than a person being accosted and put on the spot by a believer asking them about the state of their soul.

    I do not know if any of this has made any sense, but the scene that you described at Whitcomb Court struck a chord with me and I felt the need to address what happened between these two people. As far as weddings go, I am sure that you get to know the couple that you are planning on marrying. By the time you pronounce them husband and wife, I am sure you have a pretty good idea about how sincere the couple is about their vows. When it comes to a person’s eternal soul, the process of salvation should not be any less involved than the process of a man and woman getting married. In other words, If you have not figured it out by now, I am not a fan of “drive by” salvation as practiced by some people.

  5. Thanks for this…what a clear and simple metaphor for something that is so often made unclear and complicated. Looking forward to seeing you this weekend at the Mabewell wedding!

  6. Pastor Jim, thanks for sharing the little details about your daughter’s marriage.

    My step-daughter, who was engaged to a finance who was stationed in England – well, for certain reasons they had to bump up their wedding plans and this summer they had a “paper wedding” so she could go and be with him.
    She is hoping to have a “real” wedding later – and
    I am going to share this post with her because I think it will encourage her to hear about the awesome way your daughter was able to have two weddings – and I bet the river party was awesome.

    And you know, I bet a delayed celebration has perks for the bride and groom because most couples are so exhausted from wedding festivities that they find their honeymoon is filled with needing some major sleep. So it almost seems like a gift to NOT have it all at one time – or at least it has a few advantages….

  7. also have a quick question – is that your daughter in the picture with this post – or is it a stock photo? The reason I ask is because the bride in the picture looks like a lady named Kelly that we know from FL. Just curious….

  8. I attended the funeral of a 30-year-old mother of two young boys who had lost her 2nd battle with colon cancer. It was incredibly heartbreaking to be there. The majority of family and friends were Buddhist and there were monks helping with the funeral as well as members from the church that helped this young woman come to know Christ while she was in the hospital. The family had agreed to certain songs and messages but with a large group of non-believers, the church members decided to go their own way at the funeral. The pastor stood before these mourners and said “she didn’t die of cancer, she died because she was a sinner” and a few minutes later had some of the crowd repeating the sinner’s prayer with him. I wanted to stand up and yell! Those that knew English better and understood what he was saying were turned off by what happened and I found myself going from friend to friend saying “That’s not really what Christianity and Christ are all about.” Christ is more than a saved soul and an eternity in heaven. I find the comfort, peace, and love in Christ more powerful than the fear of hell and death – but I know not everyone is that way.

  9. I believe that we are saved by God’s grace, which is free and abundant, and that we witness God’s love in our every day lives. To answer the question about where I will spend eternity, all I have to say is that I have faith that the death thing has been taken care of by Jesus. In the mean time I will try to love kindness, do justice and walk humbly with my God.

  10. If a pertinent question or the pertinent question we’ll be asked by Jesus is whether we love him or not, what about the folks that weren’t born again, but loved him (or claimed to love Him I guess). What happens to them? The apostles certainly preached in such a way to put people on the spot, so to speak, about the condition of their soul. They weren’t always in contact with people long enough to see them fall in love with Jesus or demonstrate the love of Christ in a way fully agreeable to many of the readers of this blog before they spoke of matters of sin, righteousness and judgment. Actually, if warning people about the reason Christ died isn’t demonstrating love, I don’t know what is. How can someone fall in love with Jesus before being born again anyway, the Scriptures testify to us being at enmity with a holy God who embodies love, but will also judge righteously and demonstrate all His attributes including His wrath against sin. Our sin separates us from Him and is the reason for human death, and being in the flesh we cannot please God, at least if we believe Romans 5, 8, etc. I am not in favor of false professions either, but based on what I’ve read here it seems there is a fair amount of assuming about what was going on in the mind and intentions of the person giving the gospel as well as the reaction of the person receiving it. Maybe she was offended. Maybe it was the approach or the perceived approach. But maybe it was the message. To be told that we are all hopelessly lost and in desperate need of a Savior is a hard message to believe, for most, if not offensive, to our modern day mindset. Maybe the recipient of the gospel wasn’t offended after all because she did believe or reflected on it later and, believing, called on the name of the Lord to be saved. I’m not getting the sense that anyone praised this woman’s efforts in bringing the gospel to people, but I do perceive criticism. Are we rejoicing like Paul that even if the woman spoke from selfish ambition or improper motive, Christ is preached (cf. Phil. 1)? Pastor it sounds to me like you could have had an opportunity to address your concerns with the lady afterwards and in person, did you? I would have loved to hear her perspective too.

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