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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