On 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?”