Are unbelievers ‘lost’?

Before you came to faith, were you ‘lost’? Many Christians, and particularly evangelicals, would answer ‘yes’ for a range of reasons. Most often this question is answered in relation to theological categories, and the ‘objective’ sense of the term: being ‘lost’ can mean that we are lost to God, or that (in Pauline terms) we are still living according to our sinful human nature rather than walking by the Spirit. If we think that Jesus’ death on the cross paid a great price for us, it must have been to save us from something serious, and that includes whatever our destiny would have been had we not come to faith and discovered God’s love for us. In this sense, the opposite of being lost is being saved.

But ‘lost’ can also have a subjective sense to it, describing how we felt before and after coming to faith. I have been writing about evangelical spirituality for a Grove booklet (due out at the end of this month) and it was interesting to reflect on the language of the experience of coming to faith within the evangelical tradition. Jesus’ death is often described in the gospels in terms of being the paschal lamb, sacrificed as a Passover offering to initiate a new exodus and renewed covenant, which would suggest a primary understanding for spirituality of salvation as freedom from slavery, but evangelical spirituality has tended to focus elsewhere. Jesus dying ‘for our sins’ suggests our estrangement from a holy God, and this sense of being ‘lost’ has often been prominent in evangelical devotion.

I was lost and Jesus found me, Found the sheep that went astray,
Threw His loving arms around me, Drew me back into His way. (Francis Rowley)

Although this was written in a Victorian hymn, I remember singing it in the late 1970s incorporated into a chorus. Here we see the language of Is 53, which is behind some key passages in the NT about Jesus’ death, ‘all we like sheep have gone astray’, become the basis not simply of doctrine but of the experience of being saved. In its most common use, these two sense of ‘being lost’ become quite blurred; because we know (theologically) that we were lost before we were saved, we also look back and see how we felt we were lost before we were found by God.

And for some people, the sense of being lost was very real indeed. We recently stayed with friends, a couple one of whom had been a lifelong Christian, but the other of whom had had a dramatic conversion experience. He had been brought up in an alcoholic home, had left to travel the world, and was himself addicted to drugs when he stumbled into a small evangelical church and been confronted by God in a most dramatic way. His sense of being lost was quite tangible, and he had no difficulty in identifying the moment of change. I heard of a similar story in church last week, where a member of the congregation talked about her father, who has been aggressive and unpleasant until his own dramatic conversion which then led her (and other members of the family) to faith for themselves.

This sense of radical change is something distinctive to evangelical spirituality. As David Gillett highlights (in his excellent study Trust and Obey), evangelical spirituality is a ‘twice-born spirituality’ (using the language of John 3.3 ‘you must be born again’), that is, it focusses on the radical difference between the new life of faith and the old life of unbelief.

Evangelical belief gives pride of place to the teaching of St Paul about the radical discontinuity between the life before and after the transforming work of Christ in the individual: ‘So if anyone is in Christ, there is new creation: everything old has passed away, see everything has become new!’ (2 Cor 5.17). (p 25)

Paul is here expounding something similar to Jesus’ proclaiming that the ‘kingdom of God is at hand’; the anticipated age to come is here, and in Jesus’ death and resurrection the future eschatological age has broken into the present. The only appropriate response is a radical change of direction in life, hence his call to ‘repent’. But as Paul takes this message into the pagan world, the sharp distinction between Jewish belief and practice and the pagan world becomes the sharp distinction between life before and after our encounter with Jesus. For many evangelicals, even if there is not a single moment of conversion, this sense of radical difference is a key part of their spirituality.

Alister McGrath has complained that there is not enough written about the distinctive of evangelical spirituality, and laments the way that evangelicals borrow from other traditions rather than the riches of their own. In part to address this, he wrote his own book on evangelical spirituality, Beyond the Quiet Time. It is a reflective exploration of the key themes in this tradition—and what is really fascinating is that he starts with a chapter on ‘Being Lost’. In it, he tells stories of his own experience of being lost, and what it was like both to be lost and then to be found. He then asks the reader to imagine vividly the experience of being lost, what that feels like, and then the experience of being found and all the emotions that that involves. This opens the way to theological understanding.

This is a central theme of the question. Without Christ, we are hopelessly lost in a dark world. We long to find our way home, but we have no idea where that home is, or how to get there. But in his great love for us, God sent his son Jesus Christ to bring us home. Christ does not show us the way – through his cross and resurrection he opens up the road to heaven was not there before. And he does not simply pointed to that road, and tell us to walk down it. Instead, he makes the journey with us. (p 27)

He goes on to explore the idea of being in debt, and having our debts written off, and being trapped and then being released. This leads into a reflection on the parables of Jesus in each of these areas, and focussing particular on the ‘parables of the lost’ in Luke 15. These parables have become paradigmatic for evangelical experiences of salvation, particularly the parable of the ‘prodigal son’ (really the parable of the loving father). So I can remember as a student listening to an exposition of this parable in a university mission when I was a student. After all, what other parable would you turn to in talking to non-Christians about their lostness and God’s love?

But this focus on ‘lost then found’ does create some challenges for evangelicals. The first is a challenge in reading these scriptural texts. The experience of being lost then found is often associated with the move from being irreligious to become religious. But Jesus was preaching to those who already thought of themselves as the people of God, even if they were on the margins of that identity—he was speaking to Jews, and not to pagan gentiles. (The theme because reworked of course in Paul’s theology, where he is talking largely to those who were formerly pagans.) This has meant that evangelicals have had to work hard to make sense of the saving work of Jesus as being part of a continuous narrative of God’s interaction with his people (as argued by Tom Wright and others) rather than as immediately relevant to unbelievers without the historical context that it comes in.

But there is also an experiential challenge: unlike when as a child I lost my parents in the supermarket and knew I was looking for them, the recognition of being spiritually lost is a retrospective one, not a prospective one. In the supermarket, I already knew what it was to have been accompanied by my parents, so the sense of losing them and being lost was clear and tangible. But that was not the case for me spiritually: whatever the theological reality, the experiential reality was not one of have known God and then ‘lost’ God in a biographical sense. Though Paul, in retrospect, calls himself ‘the chief of sinners’, there is little indication that he was secretly agonising about his own sin and failure whilst persecuting Jesus’ followers. He only realised his mistake once he encountered Jesus, and for many people their sense of being lost only comes into focus when they realise they have been found. The narrative of the experiential move from lostness to foundness therefore often does not resonate for those who have not yet had this experience.

In fact, I suspect that for most people outside of the church in contemporary British culture, when they are confronted by the claim that they are lost and Christians are found, they simply struggle to relate to it. They don’t feel lost, whatever we might claim to be true spiritually. They might be quite content with the life they are leading, and the suggestion that they are ‘lost’ just confirms for them that the Christian message has no relevance to their lives.

Thinking about the examples of preaching and proclamation in the New Testament, particularly in Acts, it is hard to find an example of the appeal to the sense of being lost. Most preaching focusses on what God has done in Jesus, which provokes the need for decision, and alongside that is the theme of the distinctive lives lived by Jesus’ followers, including miracles which themselves provoke questions and raise the need for response. Perhaps it is time to recognise that the language of ‘lost’ and ‘found’ is for a celebration of what God has done for us in the community of faith, rather than (primarily) the shape of proclamation for those outside?

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12 thoughts on “Are unbelievers ‘lost’?”

  1. Thanks for this Ian. However I’m pondering how this evangelical language of lostness is experienced by those (like my wife) who grew up in a Christian home and never knew herself to be not part of the kingdom?
    Also language of sin frequently does not resonate with non believers. We may say it should, but more commonly the experience is of failure. To achieve their goals. To bring up a family. To sustain a relationship etc. “I tried so hard, but it all went wrong”.
    We start the liturgy usually with a confession as if we turn up already knowing we are failures, whereas surely it is so often the the grace of God mediated through word and sacrament that leads to realisation of our status as forgiven sinners. Cranmer may have got it right with the confession after the ministry of the word!

    • When I lead informal worship, I often put the confession after the teaching, precisely because teaching often shows us how things are in retrospect in our own lives. This post is a relief for me because I am somebody interested in the way the gospel is mediated in different cultures, and we first need to be informed and honest about our surrounding culture before we are able to be heralds of the gospel. Otherwise we will continue to run the danger of being thought irrelevant.

  2. I came to faith a month after I turned thirteen. When encouraged to give my testimony on various occasions, I found I often exaggerated the ‘bad’ in my ‘pre-Christian’ life – all twelve years of it! – in order to make the reasons for my conversion more dramatic than they actually were. Now I’m in my early forties, I have to say that these days, even as a practising Christian, I often feel more lost than ever!

  3. In Matthew 15:24 it is interesting to note that, as you suggest Ian, when Jesus speaks of the lost he was referring to the lost sheep ‘of the house of Israel’. In Matthew 10:6 he instructs his disciples to go only to the lost sheep of Israel. When he speaks to a wider audience it seems that Jesus’ focus is more often on the issue of life and death (“I have come that they may have life … “). So is it perhaps more helpful to talk in terms of becoming alive to God or, conversely, prior to conversion being dead to, or cut off from, the life of God? Just a thought from a non theologian!

  4. Many of us don’t realise just how lost we were until we have been found. I think the lost/found language has always connected with how many feel: consider the longest running and successful of the multi series dramas in recent years called LOST. I think of Dante’s opener “I came to myself in a dark wood where the path was lost”… Coldplay lyrics “I was lost I was lost”. A while ago I watched a programme in which the famous 3* Michelin chef, Marco Pierre White bought an old railway sign that said “Lost Property” – he commented: “I think I’ll put that over my study – I’ve been lost all my life”.

    But I am intrigued how often, lately, I come across non-church folk saying or writing or singing about an existential sense not of being lost but of being “homesick”, and for some, not knowing where home is.

  5. Rather as is the case with the doctrines of atonement, when discussed as discrete doctrines. any account of what it is to be redeemed, saved, found, born again, or simply Christian, must be understood as only a partial description of the richness of the spiritual experience. Each metaphor seems to add a dimension.
    A feeling of being “lost” may be the experience of anyone in the west in C21; it is quite likely that each one who feels this may de fine it or describe it differently.
    Jesus did say he had come to seek and to save the “lost”. The folk to whom Jesus spoke about the lost sheep, the lost coin or the lost son probably didn’t feel lost, may be they were lost to God (The older son of Luke 15 was also “lost” to his father and probably didn’t know or care.

  6. Author Wm Paul Young interprets Luke 15 as primarily a revelation of God’s triune response to ‘lostness’ rather than an iterative analysis of the human experience being lost which is often the focus of our evangelical Luke 15 sermons. (Forgive me if he nicked the idea from somewhere else – I don;t read widely enough!) The Prodigal father reveals the Fathers passionate and merciful heart. The Lost Sheep reveals the heart of the son who is prepared to risk all to rescue those outside the flock. The Lost Coin reveals the heart of the Spirit who pours light into darkness and sweeps and cleans the home tirelessly until the integrity of the coin collection is restored. Together the 3 parables encapsulate the full scope of God’s pursuing heart.
    That said, I agree it is a helpful insight to remind ourselves that the concept of lostness tends to be a post-rationalised metaphor for those who regard themselves as found. You only have to sit with non-Christian friends or family when they have accidentally strayed into the line of evangelical fire – I’m thinking of those well-meaning but opportunistic sermons delivered at weddings, baptisms, funerals – to realise it is not the best gambit for building rapport!

  7. The Bible provides us with the language and concept of our being lost-
    It was Jesus who said all of the following:

    Go to the lost sheep of Israel
    What benefit is it if a man gain the world but loses his soul
    The son of man came to seek and save what was lost
    Rejoice with me for I have found my sheep which was lost
    For my son was dead and is alive, he was lost and is found.

    If this is how God says we are, whether we know it or not, then it is an absolute kindness to direct the lost to their home. It is not opportunistic to make mention of the gospel at a wedding, baptism or funeral – it is responsible and part of the duty of a priest and minister. Plumbers plumb, dentists drill, chefs cook, and ministers preach the gospel which includes being found.

  8. Simon I agree 100% with every word you have said but the point I am making is that in our eagerness to be kind we consider the most effective means of highlighting someone’s need for directions before shoving our map in their hands. From personal experience whether one-to-one or to a wider audience it may be truthful, it may even be loving, depending on how it is done but it is rarely an effective or persuasive metaphor unless perhaps that person (as Ian says above referring to people struggling with addiction) has a very tangible sense of moral or emotional lostness already. And I’m not knocking opportunistic talks per se (though reading my post again I can see it might look like that). In fact I am preparing to give one at a funeral next week – but telling a room full of grieving people they have a lot more to be sad about than they realise might be truthful but is likely to be a waste of that opportunity. Plus, as Ian observes in his final paragraph, appealing to a sense of lostness is not a strategy you see much of in the sermons to the public in the New Testament. The emphasis seems to be more on what God has done in Jesus and the witness of His people’s distinctive lives.

  9. Thanks Nigel – to be clear, I’m not suggesting ‘shoving our map in their hands’ but I think shepherds have a responsibility to share where the ancient path and good path is. Even as a doctor telling a patient about their health is not opportunistic, a soul doctor sharing the good news is not opportunistic – its certainly what I believe I was ordained to do. Whilst I agree in part with Ian that the NT apostolic recorded sermons carry an emphasis on what God has done in Jesus, nevertheless in light of what God has done in Jesus, these sermons all call for a response – to Repent. Repent implies in Hebrew a directional lostness and in Greek concept an intellectual lostness. As for lost ‘rarely being an effective or persuasive metaphor’ says who? As per my earlier post, I think it is a Biblical theme, and an existentially relevant one that connects with people today more than ever. This week there has been another tragic suicide of a gifted rock musician. Kyrie eleison. Many of his songs and even an album title refer to being lost. I truly think this is an urgent theme for today. People are lost and we need to find culturally relevant and appropriate contexts and means of pointing them to Jesus the Pole Star.


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