I knew, as soon as I saw her standing there with a handful of tracts, what her intentions were. But when I didn't break eye contact soon enough, she started the conversation.
She: Do you have a few moments to take a survey?
Me: I guess so. [thinking: I know this whole script. There was a time in my life when I was the one handing out tracts. It shouldn't take long.]
She: Great! Do you live around here?
Me: Yeah. [I'm going to keep close. I don't feel like getting into a theological fight today.]
She: Do you have a church that you attend?
She: Oh really? Which one?
Me: Grace United Methodist.
She: Oh. Well, I go to We're More Christian Church [or something like that], and I'd like to invite you to join us if you're ever interested in visiting.
[She hands me the tract.]
She: And one more question…If you died today, are you certain of where you'd spend eternity?
[I pause, thinking: I wouldn't word it exactly that way, but I really don't want to get into an argument over semantics like I did the last time.]
She, after seeing that I'm not going to elaborate without further prompting: And where is that?
She: And if God asked you, "Why should I let you into heaven? What have you done to deserve it?" How would you answer?
Me: God's not going to ask me that. Ultimately it's God's decision, not mine. [Oh no, I am going to get into a theological argument after all.]
She, opening one of the tracts: Well, if you'll say this prayer with me, you can be sure of getting into heaven. Just repeat after me, "Heavenly Father…" [pause] "Heavenly Father…"
Me: Yeah, I've said one of those before. [That'll throw her off her script!]
She: But I thought you said you weren't sure? Didn't you just say it's not your decision? But if you've said this prayer, you can be sure. So next time someone asks, say you're certain. Don't let the devil tell you you're not.
Me: Yeah, OK. Bye. [Whew, that was close.]
Here's my problem with her type of theology: It turns prayer into a magical incantation, and God into a genie who must do our bidding if we get the words right. We earn our way into heaven by casting a spell that forces God to overlook our sinfulness.
That's why I had to tell her it's God's decision, not ours. I'm not denying that we do make decisions to follow the will of God. In fact, as a good Methodist I believe we must in some way respond to God's call on our lives if we want to claim to be followers of Christ.
But ultimately, it's up to God. We don't get into heaven by our own merits, and we can't recite a magical formula to force God to turn a blind eye to our shortcomings. If we can't absolutely know the mind of God, we can't be absolutely certain that we've got a free pass.
On the other hand, if we know God and have a strong relationship, we've got something even better: trust. We can trust God to make the right decision, because God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. What could a magical incantation give us that could possibly compare to that?