"As he passed by, he saw Levi the son of Alphaeus sitting at the place of toll, and he saith, 'Follow me.' And he arose and followed him." (Mark 2:14)
S. M. Shoemaker: We shall think together about the Christian decision. We shall begin with this refreshingly clear encounter between Jesus and Matthew (or Levi). In the world Jesus had a tremendous task to accomplish. Here was a man He felt sure could help. So our Lord called him, and the man responded with his life. How very different from the sometimes hesitant efforts we put forth to arrive at a religious conviction! It is much like a man's jumping at a job that his mouth has been watering for, a job with the National City Bank, or with Alcoa. It is still more like the spirit in which he sets out to visit the girl of his heart when she has crooked an interested finger in his direction.
Emotional? You'd better have some emotion in the enthusiasm with which you undertake a new job, and certainly in relation to your heart's intended! But there is much more than emotion. The whole of your personality - reason, emotion, imagination, and will - the whole of your being is involved in a decision like this.
Before the conversation, this man surely had known something of Jesus and His purposes. He must have heard the Master speak, and have seen Him at work. Jesus must have observed Matthew and decided that he was the sort of man He wanted to call. Like many another passage in the New Testament, this study is surely foreshortened. But there cannot have been a very long exposure, only enough to give the man a basis for such a commitment of himself. The incident illustrates the basic necessity for Christian decision. As Paul Tillich says, "The Christian Gospel is a matter of decision. It is to be accepted, or rejected. All that we who communicate this Gospel can do is to make possible a genuine decision."
I. A Response to Christ
In this record we see that the Christian decision is a response. We ourselves do not create the Christian encounter. We do not go out looking for God, and stumble on Christ. If the Christian Gospel is true, in Christ God has made the first step in our direction. Through Christ God seeks us. You may not believe that a man is "lost," in the sense of his being damned, but you must accept this belief in the sense that he does not know the meaning of his life, or what to make of his own existence. As Gilbert K. Chesterton said, man has always lost his way, but now he has lost his address!
It is well for us to accumulate all the findings we can about life and existence, but there still remains the question whether or not it means anything, and if so, what. Christ claims to be the Way, the Truth, and the Life. He claims to have a unique relation to God. He healed men's bodies and He healed their minds. He even pronounced on individuals the forgiveness of sins. So we have a far better opportunity than Matthew to form our opinion of who this is that asks from us the response of faith and obedience. But the same encounter that took place between Him and Matthew is taking place at this moment, in this house of worship, between Him and ourselves, with exactly the same issues involved.
II. A Gamble of Faith
The Christian decision is a gamble of faith. We consider the claims of this Person: His effect upon history and upon human lives; His views and values over against those of other seers and sages. Then we decide. It is a gamble of faith. So is choosing a job, or taking a wife. So is all living that is not purely academic. You will never know whether or not the object of your faith is worthy of it until you risk the gamble. Such a gamble requires all our powers, including our emotions. As William James said, in the Will to Believe, "Our passional nature not only lawfully may, but must, decide an option between propositions, whenever it is an option that cannot by its nature be decided on intellectual grounds; for to say under such circumstances, 'Do not decide, but leave the question open,' is itself a passional decision, just like deciding yes or no, and is attended with the same risk of losing the truth."
And Blaise Pascal said, "There is a necessity to wager; the thing is placed beyond your will. . . . By not laying that God is, you in effect say that He is not." This kind of thinking, I believe, is characterized not so much by pure reason as by the reasonableness of common sense. Is there not a great deal of the gamble of faith in the hypotheses that science must assume to be true till further experiment proves them true or false? In religion, also, we shall need the gamble of experimentation. Some of the illumination that you want on this side of a decision, before you make it, will come to you only on the other side of the decision, after you have made it.
III. A Combination of Qualities
The Christian decision involves a combination of personal loyalty to Christ and of dedication to His task in the world. There is much danger that people who think themselves Christians will remain content with a theologically reasonable and satisfying view of Christ. I judge that He cares very little about this. "If ye love me, keep my commandments." "Not every one that saith to me, 'Lord, Lord,' shall enter into the kingdom of heaven, but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven." Really we shall never truly know who He is until we let Him call us into the kind of life that is impossible without living faith, which means faith in action.
In Pittsburgh a while ago a remarkable missionary named Donald McClure was speaking about his wonderful work with the Anuak tribe in Africa. He was also asking for helpers. A young engineer in the city asked him how you knew when you were called to be a missionary. McClure replied: "We have orders from the Commander-in-Chief. He told us to go into all the world. Are You 4F (incapacitated)?" Today the young engineer is with McClure in Africa, laying out airstrips and helping to erect new buildings. Call this impulsive, if you will. I judge that it is a good deal less so than many of our calculated and prudential decisions, with self-regard as their real basis. The young engineer's experience certainly sounds like the encounter between Jesus and Matthew.
IV. A Factor in Conversion
Christian decision, I believe, is the most important factor in Christian conversion. In conversion there are two parts. There is God's part, which consists in His approach to us through Christ, and in His dealings with each of us as an individual with particular needs and possibilities. Here the initiative is on God's side. Then there is our part, which consists in our initial dedication of ourselves to Him, with our acceptance of Christ and His forgiveness, in an act of will that is as complete and wholehearted as we can make it.
Sometimes we think of conversion as so overwhelming an experience that we can do nothing about it. We think that it is either for the very bad, or else for the very good, and that we are not in either class. So we do not feel eligible. Now the gift of redemption which Christ offers us is there already. It has been extended to us. But it takes two to create a gift, both a giver and a receiver. Our decision does not convert us, but it puts us in the way of being converted. I have never seen anyone fail of being converted because God withheld conversion from him, but I have seen many fail of it because they withheld themselves. When we come in need, in honesty, and in openness, offering ourselves in a definite decision, God acts. He accepts us, forgives us, and begins dealing with us. He can do all this without trespassing upon our freedom. "Our wills are ours to make them Thine."
V. The Surrender to Christ
Christian decision therefore means the personal surrender of ourselves to Christ. We should begin our discipleship with the same undivided wholeheartedness that we have toward marriage. No one of us does a perfect job of giving an undivided and selfless love to a wife, or a husband; but we begin by promising to "keep ourselves wholly unto her [or to him] as long as we both shall live." We spend the rest of our lives trying to fulfill the vows we took the day we were married. Surely the initial completeness and wholeheartedness of the transaction is of the utmost importance.
I know a marriage that is going on the rocks today because the initial wholeheartedness was wanting. Many a nominal Christian, also, is dull and lackluster because he has never even tried to surrender himself to Christ completely. We begin by surrendering to Christ as much of ourselves as we can, to as much of Christ as we understand. But our pride resists surrender to anybody, even to God. William James called self-surrender "the vital turning point of the religious life." Our performance will never come up to our promise, but we need the initial promise as the lasting guide for our subsequent living.
A certain psychiatrist has for years been very close to the movement called Alcoholics Anonymous. He believes that the reason the A.A. succeeds in so many cases where medicine and psychiatry fail is to be found in the alcoholic's surrender to a "higher power." Alcoholics generally are self-centered and defiant people who develop expansive egos. This psychiatrist thinks that the usual therapy of building up the patient's ego and self-confidence is misplaced.
But if an alcoholic first admits that he is powerless against strong drink, and then surrenders himself to whatever he considers to be the Higher Power, his ego gives way. Says this psychiatrist, "Surrender means cessation of fight. . . . logically to be followed by internal peace and quiet. Loss of self is basic. And when the individual surrenders his ego, God automatically steps in." But what about the rest of us whose egos are just as expansive as theirs, and who constantly get "tight," not on whiskey and gin, but on self-inflationary ideas, on dreams of success, on feelings of resentment, and even on intellectual pride?
VI. The Missing Factor
Christian decision, I feel sure, is the missing factor in the spiritual pilgrimage of many a decent but powerless nominal Christian. Such people have beliefs and convictions, but they do not have power. They may worship in Christian churches. They may work for good and Christian causes. These things may bring them within the reach of deep Christian conversion, or may provide a substitute that keeps them from knowing in their lives the power of Jesus Christ. You can rub your arm rapidly with a smooth stick, and produce an abrasion that will admit of a vaccination, or else you can rub it slowly with the same stick, and merely produce a callus. That's what often happens in churches.
Recently I have been in touch with a man who bears one of the great names in American business, a graduate of one of our foremost schools and universities. Some years ago he was confirmed in one of our educated, well-established churches. What I believe to have been the objective grace offered to him in that ceremony did not reach in to his personal problems and enable him to solve them - such problems as drink, nerves, and a feeling of futility. Later on he came in touch with some of Billy Graham's people, and made a life-changing decision.
There are many of us who through our membership in one of the standard-brand churches do not find a decisive Christian experience. I was one of them, and in the churches I sense a lack that needs to be met. For the last five years this businessman has been growing in his faith, learning to pray, studying his Bible, deepening his relation to Christ. He used to be a personable playboy, living a selfish, useless life. Today he is searching after the right place to invest his life for Christ. He says that to him nothing else is so important. He is a privileged man whom Christ has confronted. He is responding with his whole life, and if I may say so, he is getting a terrific bang out of it.
VII. The How of Decision
How does one make the Christian decision? The "how" is wrapped up with the "who" and the "what." Christ confronts you and me, and asks of us the commitment of ourselves to Him in faith as His disciples. Christ - and you! These are the persons in the play. I know, and you do, that the closer we come to knowing Him, the more insistent becomes the decision that this confrontation involves. It is because of our simple human need for redemption from ourselves and from our meaninglessness without faith. Because of something deep within us, somehow we know that He is the Truth. We may fear this decision because of its consequences, but we cannot forget His claims upon us.
It will help if we now begin honestly to face what there is in us that He does not want. Someone has said that we take hold of God with the handle of our sins, and in the saying there is a real truth. God can transform all of our instincts, but in the raw many of them are His rivals. Everyone is more or less beset by a desire for money, for sex, and for power. We all want security, we want affection, we want prestige. All of them may rival Christ till we have given them to Him, that they may serve Him, as all of them can when they are surrendered. But be specific. Make a list of the things in you that you know Christ does not want to see in you. Such a list will give you something to go to work on. Like a doctor, Christ comes to us at the point of our need.
In all of this you may want some human help, some other Christian whom you know; it may be a minister, or someone else to whom you feel drawn, and to whom you think you can talk. This person may help to answer some question, and to nail down the decision as a kind of witness. Or maybe you want to make the decision by yourself.
In whatever circumstances seem to you right, make the decision. Tell Jesus that you want to say "Yes" to Him, to accept the redemption that He offers you, to receive His forgiveness, to become His disciple, and to let Him be your Lord. He is not a logical proposition, or a theological problem, or the head of an ecclesiastical system. He is a living Person, alive in this world, alive in this church, alive in your heart, and waiting to be more alive through your conscious decision and acceptance. Make the decision now, and do not endlessly delay.
Every man who dares to appear in this pulpit stands here in Christ's name and by His commission. We are recreant to our calling if we try to preach to you only little religious essays that do not offend your intellectual and aesthetic sensibilities.
We speak in His name. His cause in the world still needs disciples and recruits. To this He calls you. You will not be a perfect disciple, for no one of us is. But give Him your heart, your loyalty, and your life. This is where it all begins. Let Him take on from here.
Samuel M. Shoemaker, Yale University, 1958
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