I find the energy of evangelicalism to be one of its most endearing characteristics. While experiences can vary widely, it’s among evangelicals that I’ve found the greatest number of people willing and striving to persistently think creatively about how to live the Christian life. It’s my opinion that a lot of these creative attempts to push back towards a more pristine Christianity ended up resulting in ideas or practices that were able to “prefigure” my later discovery of Catholic ideas and practices. I place “prefigure” in quotes because although in my case, they came prior to my discovery of Catholicism, the Catholic practices were of course older.
For example, I think the interesting concept of “rededicating” one’s life to Jesus possesses a lot of interesting parallels with what Catholics call the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
In many but not all evangelical Churches, the paradigmatic way to become a Christian (synonymous with “getting” or “being” saved) is by praying some form of a “sinner’s prayer”. The content of the prayer varies but usually involves an admission of sin, a statement of faith in Jesus and His saving work (the incarnation and crucifixion), and a stated desire to somehow act on this (often vaguely worded in language about inviting Jesus or accepting Jesus into one’s life). In some Churches an appeal to pray this prayer may be given every week in Church. It’s even more common at retreats or special meetings of any sort.
Here’s the interesting thing: appeals for people to raise their hands and/or pray this prayer are often accompanied by the opportunity to pray a similar (or identical) prayer with the intent of rededicating one’s life to Jesus. This is usually aimed at people who have “been saved” but who, in the most common language I’ve experienced have since “fallen away”. What does it mean to fall away?
A precise definition is probably non-existent, but I really think the distinction is a valid one that comes from an honest experience of living the Christian faith. Certainly everyone agrees you don’t have to rededicate your life if you lost your temper and swore at someone while driving, although that would still be considered a sin. It has to be something bigger: something that amounts to a rejection of the grace of God that had been working in your life. For some people that means they rejected friends and family for drugs. For others it means they consistently chose to neglect prayer, church, community, Scripture---any of the means of grace that were available to them in their day to day lives. Thus in my opinion, the fact that it’s hard to define does not mean that “falling away” does not refer to a very real part of Christian experience.
And people need the rededication. There has to be a way that God reaches out to us, even when we’ve “fallen away”. I’ve heard so many appeals for it that they all meld together in my mind. There’s a lot of room for improvisation, though, and if a pastor thinks someone needs healing, he or she can really work up their delivery to address those people. I have memories of hearing the speaker say again and again things like,
“God loves you…He forgives you…He welcomes you back—say these words with me now, if that’s you who’s been walking away from the Lord for a while now, if that’s you who has felt lost and alone because you’ve been pushing God out of Your life. He’ll always take you back, though, because our God is a loving God, and so I invite you to just lift your hands up right now…and say this prayer with me.”
Ok, for evangelicals reading this, you really may not see where I’m going with this. Here it is:
“Rededicating your life to Jesus” is really really similar to what Catholics call the sacrament of reconciliation or confession. Like evangelicals, we distinguish between types of sin. Here’s what the Catechism of the Catholic Church says about the distinction:
“1855 Mortal sin destroys charity in the heart of man by a grave violation of God's law; it turns man away from God, who is his ultimate end and his beatitude, by preferring an inferior good to him.
Venial sin allows charity to subsist, even though it offends and wounds it.
1856 Mortal sin, by attacking the vital principle within us - that is, charity - necessitates a new initiative of God's mercy and a conversion of heart which is normally accomplished within the setting of the sacrament of reconciliation:”
I won’t at this point make an apology for the history of the development of Catholic thought concerning mortal and venial sin (starting perhaps with 1 John talking about "sin that is unto death"), or look at how the Sacrament has developed over time (a long story involving persecutions, martyrs, and Irish monks). The point I want to make in this post is that I think this Catholic practice is ultimately trying to respond to the same reality that evangelicals experience, albeit with what I think is more thorough theological reflection.
As Catholics, we too acknowledge that we must rededicate our lives to Christ, and as we’ve thought about what it means to “fall away”, we’ve come to realize that we all need to rededicate our lives (at least once a year according to current Church discipline!) and that it’s actually quite good for our soul to do so quite often.
In praying that prayer of rededication people who need forgiveness find Christ’s healing power. Given Christianity’s sacramental worldview, Catholics believe that Christ is mysteriously but truly present in reconciliation. That’s why when we confess we confess to a priest who not only then prays with us but also represents Christ to us by speaking in the person of Christ saying the words of absolution, “I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” It’s powerful, and one of my favorite parts of being Catholic now is the ability to receive this Sacrament. In it I find Christ and healing for my soul. It reinforces the scandal of God’s love for us in an incarnated way.
And it feels like it’s a natural step, a progression, an answer to the sort of questions we wrestled with in evangelical churches. This is one of the many reasons why moving from being evangelical to Catholic feels more like a natural progression than a conversion. I don’t think back to last year or the years before that with regret or chagrin. But I’m also quite glad to be where I’m at, and thank God that He’s led me here, to be able to start over again without ever having to change directions.