Grammar matters. Each sentence must have, at minimum, subject and verb. The core of a sentence’s meaning is inseparable from the action done and the actor performing said action. Consider the implications of changing the verb in a sentence. There is a significant difference between “I will.” and “I kill.” though both are complete thoughts differing only in one letter. The same is true of changing the subject of a sentence. The sentence “I know the alphabet.” is a statement of unremarkable knowledge. One would hope I know the alphabet as I am a grown and somewhat educated adult; however, if I change the subject of the sentence so it reads “My dog knows the alphabet.” the statement becomes extraordinary (and in this case untrue. Though my dog is only a puppy, so we will see how he turns out.)
When we consider the loaded meaning that the subject/verb pairing makes in a sentence, then we must concede that the soundness of our doctrine is dependent on choosing the correct subject/verb pairs when making theological truth claims. I am concerned, however, that one of the most foundational theological failings of Evangelical Christians derives from a failure to attribute the correct subject to the most powerful verbs in our theological vocabulary. These verbs are the verbs of salvation. If you grew up in church or around church, you know them well. These are the verbs “saved,” “delivered,” “transformed,” etc.
Christians use these verbs when they share the story of their conversion. In the Evangelical tradition this is often called a believer's “testimony.” These are the right verbs for this story and I do not know that I have ever heard a testimony that does not include them. My concern, however, is that we have failed to pair these verbs with their appropriate subject. Consider how Christians often share their conversion story: “I got saved when I went forward at church.” “My life was transformed while I was at summer camp.” “I was delivered from sin after I gave my life to the Lord.” Notice all of these sentences throw the verbs of salvation into the passive voice.
This is not a discourse against using passive voice. The problem is what passive voice omits from the sentence. Consider the difference between these two sentences. “I am loved in my marriage.” “My wife loves me.” The first sentence focuses on my position in my marriage. This implies that my wife loves me, but she receives no direct credit or recognition for loving me. The second sentence places recognition for the love I receive in my marriage where it is due—my wife loves me.
“I was saved.” eliminates any mention of divine activity from the story of conversion. “I was delivered from sin.” fails to recognize the agent of deliverance. “My life was transformed.” is inexact. Children, marriage, and coffee have all transformed my life, but we are talking about something different. These sentences fail to recognize the only legitimate subject to verbs of salvation—God the Father acting through his Son Jesus in the power of the Holy Spirit. God saved me. Jesus delivered me. The Holy Spirit transformed me. Removing the Godhead as the subject of these sentences robs them of their veracity. Placing focus on the object of salvation (ourselves) and not the subject who provides salvation (God) is nothing less than elevating ourselves over our savior.
The theological issue raised by the grammar of our conversion stories ought to drive us to action. If you find that the way you tell the story of your conversion makes it a story about you, then I propose that you have three options:
1) You can accept that your story is not about Jesus at all, but a story that uses Jesus as a platform to lift up your own sense of moral and/or spiritual superiority. If this is the case, please know that your story is not about “Christian” conversion—at least not the type of Christian conversion described and prescribed in the Scriptures—but rather your story is about a step you have taken on your road to selfism, the worship and uplifting of self.
2) You can accept that you have been telling your story in a way that is inconsistent with the clear teaching of the Bible, but believe things are okay because people “know what you mean.” I think this is where many if not most Christians fall on this issue. If you choose to approach your story in this way, please know that each time you share what God has done for you through Jesus you are expecting your audience to get past the way you tell your story—making it all about you—to the message of your story which is allegedly all about Jesus. You are asking a lot of your hearers, particularly if they are not believers.
3) You can accept that the Bible makes clear that our role in our stories was that we made ourselves enemies of God by sinning (Eph 2:1–3) and that all the verbs of saving in our story must have God as their subject (Eph 2:3–10). With this in mind, you can repent of telling your conversion story in a way that glorifies you and proclaim it in a way that glorifies God. If you choose to approach your story in this way, please know that you are being biblically consistent and God glorifying in your testimony.
Cory Barnes is pursuing a PhD in Old Testament at NOBTS and serves as Assistant Professor and Chair of Christian Studies at Shorter University in Georgia.