Reflections on How a Baptist Follows Jesus

I appreciated learning about how Professor David Gushee was led to accept Jesus Christ as the Son of God and our Savior. It really is quite impressive how young people are able to preach sermons by how they live and what they focus on. Very often their enthusiasm for Christ touches others who are searching for answers and deeper fulfillment. Our Latter-day Saint congregation just north of Baton Rouge was blessed was a very large group of youth, and quite often their friends came with them to basketball and volleyball games, church dances, and youth conferences. Before long they began to come to church with us, and a surprising number of those young visitors joined our church. They are among some of my oldest friends.

Since May of 2000 I have been engaged in dialogue with a marvelous group of Evangelical professors. We meet semi-annually and have discussed such matters as the nature of faith, scripture and revelation, the plight of fallen humanity, the Atonement of Jesus Christ and how salvation comes, the delicate balance between free grace and righteous works, the Trinity/Godhead, theosis (deification), and several other topics. It has been one of the greatest experiences of my life, an endeavor that has been both mind-expanding and spiritually enriching. I love my Evangelical colleagues, who have become much more like brothers and sisters than dialogue partners.

I mention my long and treasured association with Evangelicals in order to pose a question I have had for many years, one that is far more personal than intellectual. Let me state the question by referring to an experience with an Evangelical (Conservative Baptist) friend with whom I have spent hundreds of hours and have travelled thousands of miles since 1997. Several years ago this Evangelical friend invited my wife and me to accompany him and his wife to a celebration of the retirement of a very prominent pastor in Salt Lake City. I had met the man being celebrated and was very impressed with his goodness and the power of his sermons, and so my wife and I agreed to go. The meeting consisted mostly of one minister after another paying tribute to this beloved servant of God and expressing their love and gratitude to him for his marvelous example. My pastor friend (and we’ll call him Bill) was the last one to speak. He indicated that our honored guest had requested that he preach the gospel, which he did. It was an impressive message.

It was, however, at the end of his message that things got “interesting.” He said (and I can remember his words quite well): “I feel like there are some in this room who have not yet come unto Christ. I’m going to ask that anyone here who has not yet given his or her life to Jesus, but wants now to do so, to come forward.” It was an altar call! Of course, no one moved. My wife and I glanced around the room, and we could see that the room was filled with full-time Evangelical pastors and their spouses. They seemed as perplexed as we were. Bill then spoke up: “Come on, now. Don’t be shy. Jesus is calling out to you. Come forward and receive him as your Lord and Savior!” Not a soul even budged in their chair, and so, after a terribly uncomfortable pause, the meeting was brought to an end.

On the drive back to our home, about forty miles from the church, the silence in the car was deafening. After about ten minutes, I asked: “Bill, did you expect that anyone in attendance at that gathering would stand up and walk to the pulpit?” He replied that there might have been someone there who had not found Jesus. At this point I was pretty upset and asked: “Bill, what do you have that I don’t have? What insight or perspective or life or relationship with the Lord do you enjoy that my wife Shauna and I do not enjoy?” [That’s my question.] Then I added: “That altar call was clearly for the two of us. So tell me, I’m dying to know: What am I missing in life? And don’t tell me you have Jesus to offer, because I’ve had him a whole lot longer than you have [he’s 56 years old].” I explained that I regularly call upon God in prayer, am eager to repent of my sins, and know something about what it means to be changed and renewed by the power of the blood of Jesus Christ. I have studied his life, ministry, miracles, atoning sacrifice, and resurrection for forty years. I have spent my entire professional life teaching, testifying, and writing about him. I have given my whole life to him! I asked: “So, once again, tell me what you have that I do not have.”

He replied quietly, “Well, you see, I have an intimate relationship with the Lord?” I asked: “What does that mean? Has he appeared to you in person? Do you see him on a regular basis? Do you have frequent visions of him?” Bill replied: “I have accepted him as my personal Savior.” “Well so have I,” I responded, “and so has my wife, but we are perfectly happy to allow other people to enjoy him as their Savior, too. Let me ask you this: Do you own Jesus Christ? Do you have a patent on him that no other people in the world possess? Is it impossible for someone who doesn’t know about or follow the ‘four spiritual laws’ to be able to come to Christ or perhaps even go to heaven?” My friend went quiet for a few moments then apologized for embarrassing my wife and me.

Believe it or not, Bill and I are best friends. We usually go to lunch together at our favorite restaurant once per month. Two weeks ago our lunch lasted for five hours! We talk about substantive things, things that pertain to our souls and the souls of those we love most in this world. We often discuss scriptural passages and various theological points. We have our differences, to be sure, but we always manage to settle our disputes and paste our relationship back together. Does he wish that I would drop all of the “extras” that members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints believe in and accept? Absolutely. Would I like him to accept what we Latter-day Saints call the “restored gospel”? You’d better believe it. I think at this point in our relationship we would agree that we both love and serve the same Person. Perhaps we are looking at Him from a different angle, a different vantage point. Latter-day Saints do not worship a “different Jesus,” as I have heard from counter-cultists for forty years. Once after speaking to an Evangelical group, I asked if there were any questions. One woman said, “You can’t be a Christian. You don’t believe Jesus died on the cross!” I tried to be polite but followed up with: “Well, where do you think we believe he died? Of course we believe he died on the cross of Calvary and that he was crucified for the sins of the world.” There is a great deal of misunderstanding out there.

I agree wholeheartedly with David’s statement that “The good news, God’s good gift, should not simply be reduced to Christ’s atoning sacrifice for our sins. The mission of God in the world should be broadened to include a cosmic redemption that goes beyond individual souls.” And I concur with N. T. Wright that the Christian life must be more than an obsession with “going to heaven.” He observed that “to see evangelism in terms of the announcement of God’s kingdom, of Jesus’s lordship and of the consequent new creation, avoids from the start any suggestion that the main or central thing that has happened is that the new Christian has entered into a private relationship with God or with Jesus and that this relationship is the main or only thing that matters. . . . Seeing evangelism and any result in conversions in terms of new creation means that the new convert knows from the start that he or she is part of God’s kingdom project, which stretches out beyond ‘me and my salvation’ to embrace, or rather to be embraced by, God’s worldwide purposes.” (Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church [New York: Harper One, 2008], 229; emphasis added.)

I also identify, painfully, with Professor Gushee’s concerns that in many ways his vote may well be quite different from many of his Baptist friends. There are times (too many) when my wife and I feel embarrassed by some within the political party with which we have been associated for many years. If somehow religious values and eternal truths—including what is right and what is wrong, what is lawful and what is unlawful—do not begin to dawn upon some who represent us in congress, I fear for the world in which my grandchildren will live out their lives.

It’s certainly a different world today than it was when I walked the streets of Massachusetts or rode the subways of Manhattan as a 19-year old missionary in 1968. Back then, when we spoke with people of various faiths who asked us what we had to offer, we would often reply with: “We believe we have answers to some of life’s greatest questions: Where did I come from? Why am I here? Where am I going when I die?” A surprising number of people in the 1960s had indeed asked themselves those or related questions, and once in a great while we were allowed to share our message. I’m not persuaded that many people, certainly not the bulk of people, are particularly interested in such questions or possible answers in 2022. Perhaps my message might appeal to them today if I said, “We’re here with a message about Jesus Christ. In fact, we are here to tell you how you can help to change the world!” Hopefully there are enough people out there for whom that desire burns brightly in their souls, because our world is certainly in need of a mighty change.