He began to speak boldly in the synagogue, but when Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they took him aside and explained to him the way of God more accurately. -Acts 18:26
“I got saved” is without question the most popular way that Christians today choose to communicate their conversion experience. It’s usually followed by a preposition of some kind, like “at camp my freshman year” or “when I was fifteen.” Believe it or not, you can tell a lot about someone’s view of salvation (and of God) from his or her testimony. Words are important. If we listen closely, modern testimonies generally include the passive voice instead of the active. For example, “I was saved” and “Jesus saved me” are two ways of describing the same event, however, you’re far less likely to hear someone describe their salvation experience in the latter’s active voice. To be clear, this isn’t necessarily an indication of unbelief or backsliding. In Scripture there are plenty of instances of men and women who recount Christian conversions in the passive voice. (Acts 2:21, 16:30) However, the prevalence of the passive voice in personal conversion narratives should prompt churches and pastors everywhere to press deeper into a new converts’ basic understanding of of salvation and faith.
While the passive voice isn’t necessarily a poor way of describing one’s conversion, one important element is noticeably lacking: the subject of the verb. Jesus. Over time, when churches allow testimonies that don’t include God as the primary actor in the work of one’s salvation, they risk implicitly replacing Jesus as the sole responsible party in that very work. If left unaddressed and undiscipled with the explicit Gospel, “I got saved” can unconsciously reveal the sinner’s self-identification as the subject of this miracle rather than as its object. When a new convert remarks, “I got saved,” there is the hidden potential to see this event in terms of a work performed instead of a gift received. Conversely, when he or she boasts, “Jesus saved me,” grace is unequivocal.
The Apostle Paul recounts his short conversion story in these terms: “But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately consult with anyone.” (Gal. 1:15-16) In Paul’s mind, there was no confusion between the subject and the object of this salvation. God (1) sets Paul apart, (2) calls him, (3) and reveals his Son to him. At no point is Paul ever the subject of any of these three clauses. There’s an abiding humility in the heart of a believer who unambiguously presents God as the active participant in conversion and the sinner as the clear recipient of His mercy. Pastors have a responsibility to look for and cultivate that humility from the very beginning. And it often begins with the way we explain our salvation.
One of the ways to challenge new Christians to grow in their faith and to remedy a Jesus-less conversion story is to reply with a single question after a convert tells you “they got saved.” “From what?” I usually ask, not tritely but curiously. Initially it comes as a shock to hear such a simple yet significant question. Understandably so. After all, in the American church today, more often than not the problem isn’t that people don’t know Jesus offers salvation; they simply don’t know what they’re being saved from. In a generation of teaching that shies away from themes of Hell and judgment, this is the burden for the pastor and the parent. However, this kind of quick discipleship doesn’t stop there. Generally, the first answer from the new convert is that they were saved from their sins. Again, this isn’t an unbiblical response. (Matt. 1:21) But very often latent underneath this reply is the misconception that human sin is its own punishment. In Christ, God does far more than simply save us from our sins per se. He’s saving us from the Father’s punishment, from the white-hot, everlasting wrath of a just and holy God mocked and offended by our sin. (Matt. 26:42, Rom. 1:18) In order for the Gospel to be adequately conveyed and for God to be biblically and properly worshipped, Christians everywhere must live with the joyful knowledge that the “good news” of the Gospel is the simple message that sinners in Christ don’t have to go to Hell. These clear, concise, unequivocal terms are what sinners need in their spiritual development. Otherwise the church is left with unrepentant sinners clinging to an ambiguous and innocuous Gospel, ignorant of the offense of their own sin and the glory and grace of Jesus Christ.
Through the lens of the Gospel, “I got saved” isn’t a testimony. The main character is completely missing! But when pastors teach new Christians that “Jesus saved them,” they’re not teaching grammar; they’re bringing sinners to recognize the centrality and supremacy of God in the Gospel. If we desire to exalt Him above all things, perhaps the first place to start is with our own story. Jesus saves us. And from so much more than we could ever possibly imagine.