A 13-Year-Old Asked Me A Better Question Than Any 20-Year-Old Has

The Context

I was working a youth retreat this weekend and I was one of the leaders for 7th grade men. I say men, and not boys, because these men acted more like men than many Millennial boys I know. I believe in credit where it is due, and these men deserve credit.

One in particular asked a question that should be asked by far more Christians.

When discussing the gospel, the fact that people are saved from eternal torment in hell by believing in the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, we were making the point of what we get out of our faith. Specifically, I was saying that we Christians get resurrection on a new earth. We get to avoid immense, immeasurable pain for all eternity. We very literally escape something terrible by believing the gospel.

The Question

And so, this 13-year-old man very rightly asked, “Then why isn’t my faith selfish?”

I was shocked and pleased to hear him ask the question.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“Why isn’t it selfish to be a Christian if you do it to escape hell?”

His question was absolutely right and valid! Don’t pretend it’s not.

The Common Response

Many, many Christians would answer this question in the following way: You don’t choose to believe in Jesus in order to escape from hell; you choose to believe in Jesus because you love God!

That is almost the right answer, but it doesn’t actually answer the question and falls flat on its face.

Here’s the problem: That answer, the way it’s phrased, is a big ole lie to both the asker, and to the answerer. You and he both know you’re full of rather pungent material when that answer exits your mouth. Because the reality is, if you choose to follow God, if you choose to believe in Jesus, then you, of course, do it to avoid hell. Plain and simple. It’s foolish to pretend otherwise.

You’re just kidding yourself if you think your “choice to become a Christian” was not, at least partially, motivated by your innately selfish desire to avoid eternal damnation. And you won’t be able to fool a 13-year-old with your answer either.

My Answer

Here’s how I went about answering the question. I said to the man: “How do you get your salvation?”

“I get it by repenting and believing the gospel,” he said. A technically true answer, but not what I was trying to get him to see.

“I would agree that that is the means by which you come to understand your salvation before God, but who actually does the work and allows you to repent in the first place?”

“God,” he said.

“Yes. And, is He required in any sense to let you repent? Does he have to accept your apology? Does he have to do the work to save you?” I asked.

“No.”

“Exactly,” I said. “God does the entire work of saving you, and it’s purely because he wants to do it.” In my mind I went ahead and quoted Calvin after that: You contribute nothing to your salvation but the sin that made it necessary.

“If you did anything to save yourself, then yes it would be selfish. But you don’t! God does everything to save you. He starts the process, he continues the process, and he finishes the process. So how can you be selfish about something you have nothing to do with? You can’t! There’s nothing you can do, but fall on your face and say thank you, THANK YOU, for saving me!”

I’m sure I wasn’t that eloquent, but the main points are the same. And that’s where I left our interaction. He seemed genuinely pleased with the answer.

The Difference Between the Answers

Do you see the difference between my answer and the one that many Christians would give?

The roots of the answers are the same: Christian faith is about gratitude. Indeed it is. But in my answer, that gratitude is the only rational response. Not so with the other.

In the “common Christian” answer the gratitude is actually just a thin layer of humility sprinkled over a big helping of selfishness, hoping it masks the taste.

The difference is a matter of choice. If you choose God, then your Christianity is necessarily selfish, to some extent. If not, if God chooses you, then selfishness doesn’t enter the picture.

The more I study the Bible, the further away from Armenian soteriology I’ve gotten. In non-theology lingo: The more I study the Bible, the more convinced I’ve become that God does the entire work of salvation, and my “free choice” doesn’t really enter into the picture.

I didn’t choose God; God chose me. Gratitude, selfless service, humble submission to a master are not the first responses of a person who “chooses to follow God.” They might come down the line, but they aren’t the initial response.

However, they are the responses of a person who was chosen by God’s will to be spared from the wrath he so justly deserved, and those responses make less and less sense the more you try to make yourself part of the salvation equation.

My dad likes to poke fun at me because I’ve become more of a Calvinist over the years, and, in my Soteriology, I do not deny the charge. However, I think it more accurate to simply say, “I’ve formed my conclusions from reading the Bible… and Calvin claims to have done the same. Whaddoya know? We agree!”

Yes, I’m a Calvinist when it comes to the question “How are people saved?”

To those who disagree: I don’t see how you can hold to the doctrines of total depravity, the reality of hell AND free choice salvation, and then say you’ve honestly believed the gospel with pure motives. To that I simply ask you what that 13-year-old man asked me: Why isn’t your faith selfish?

1 thought on “A 13-Year-Old Asked Me A Better Question Than Any 20-Year-Old Has”

  1. Appreciate the article, Stephen. I’ve learned, through study (understanding more of God and about me) as well that it is God doing the work of salvation. Because we tend to use our senses to gauge whether someone is saved or not – vocalized confession, walked the aisle, said a prayer – we think we contribute something called choice. When it’s become clearer to me that my choice is really my response to God’s grace (powerful affection for me) in His salvation. It’s something of an agreement that comes to the surface and is then visible or audible.

    Thank you for your leadership in the lives of those young men.

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