Evangelicals have traditionally talked about one’s conversion, often using the term “saved” as in “When were you saved?” Over against that the monastic tradition and the Catholic and Orthodox churches in general have talked about continual repentance and continual conversion. I think that this is why the Book of Common Prayer has a confession of sin as part of morning and evening prayer, i.e. twice in the daily office. Of course it is also part of the Eucharist.
The Evangelical tradition does have a point in that there is often a particular time when a person chooses to follow Jesus. But not all have this specific time of decision, especially if they grew up in the church, although some churches manufacture it, manipulating children who are already committed to Jesus into having the proper experience. Still, there are those who grow up even in Christian families without any real commitment and they need to make one. Their song could be, “I have decided to follow Jesus . . .”
Yet the emphasis on a past point fails to note several things. First, the one event did not totally perfect us. We made the basic decision to follow Jesus, perhaps, but we need to work that out in daily life. There is truth in the Shaker song that has in one line, “‘Till by turning, turning, we come out right.” There is a process that follows any conversion. Second, we may have made a basic decision, but we are often in need of saving. Our vice may be greed, anger, or any of a number of other vices, or even fear of death (as Hebrews notes), but we still live in bondage. John Michael Talbot in The Universal Monk cites an old monk on Mt. Athos who used to ask all he met, “What do you think, are we being saved today?” (pg. 155) This is not some lack of “assurance of salvation,” but a reality check. It is not that Jesus was my Savior once, but that he is my Savior and deliverer now. As I continue to live into his teaching and meditate in the presence of God, more and more layers of bondage are revealed in my life and I repent and seek deliverance over and over. The layers of the onion are peeled back, so to speak. What sad shape I would be in had I not allowed this process to happen, had I been content with my experience of Jesus of, say, 40 or 45 years ago! No, the older I get, the more important this process seems and the deeper I want to go. Last night I unfriended someone on Facebook. Whether or not his positions were wrong or right, I discovered that his frequent postings were hooking something in me, perhaps something rooted in my high school years, perhaps a type of righteous anger, but that was still anger. Whatever it was, I need to deal with that. There are areas in which I am not yet free. And one step towards freedom was not pouring fuel on the fire, so to speak. There is still too much fear, anger, self-pity, and all sorts of other stuff in my life. There is too much clutter in my life both physically and spiritually. I have too much stuff and depend on my stuff too much. I still need to be saved, and hopefully tomorrow I will be more saved than I am today.
So I love it when people meet Jesus for the first time, give him their allegiance, and seem transformed overnight. But I also know that I except in some miraculous situations that is just the start. They may be “saved” but still need to be saved. The New Testament does use salvation in the past tense, but it more often uses it in the present and future tenses. And it is those tenses that I need, for the past is already behind me. And it is those tenses that will transform the church, for resting in the past is the way to spiritual stagnation and the ignoring of vices, while seeking continual repentance is the way to growth and life.
Thank you, John Michael Talbot, for again stimulating my thinking. I have gone beyond your chapter in some ways and I have paraphrased you in others. Some of what you said I already knew, but I needed to be reminded again. Some of what you said was new. I too need to grow continually.