A Participation Award Means Something Different to Jesus

I have often heard it said in the church before: Once Saved, Always Saved. But this doesn’t mean what many people often think it does.

Confessing Christ as Lord and Savior is not a one-time fix. Christians still have to concern themselves with the teachings of Christ. Following Jesus is a choice that we have to choose day by day, moment by moment.

The actual intention behind the flawed verbiage of Once Saved, Always Saved is an acknowledgement that Jesus offers us salvation, but that gift comes with a responsibility to continue being a disciple of Christ after we accept it. The main sentiment behind the phraseology is that if we do our part, Jesus will keep his promise to rescue us.

Why I bring this up is because there are a lot of people in the church today that misunderstand this theological idea. And frankly, they misunderstand it because the church has, in many places, throughout many generations, been a purveyor of poor theology.  

But we need to be clear now. There are no magic words that you can say that keep you from having to follow the teachings of Jesus if you want the promises of Jesus.

Jesus has started a redemptive process in the world. He invites humanity to be part of that process. As far as we know, he didn’t have to invite us. He invites us because he loves us in God’s love. It is a love freely given. 

What that means, though, is that we then get to choose whether to accept it or not. Not to accept it means that we are choosing to separate ourselves from the love of God which is the source of all goodness and, ultimately, life eternal. If we choose to accept this gift, then we are choosing to turn from evil and death and instead choosing to turn toward God.  

Put like that, it seems like a pretty simple choice. But it is not as easy in practice as it sounds to do what God commands. For instance, the command to “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:39) is not as easy as it sounds. Actually, it’s usually downright complicated. 

Or to “Love the Lord with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind (Matthew 22:37) – at times, this feels downright impossible. 

But the Good News is that our salvation – or our rescue from death and evil – is not dependent on our ability. As long as we genuinely try, our limitations do not disqualify us from redemption. This is Grace. Ironically, it is kind of like the ultimate participation trophy. 

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And why that is ironic is that many people argue that participation trophies for children’s sporting events promote narcissism and entitlement among the children to whom they are given. People claim that participation trophies teach children that mediocrity is okay.  

But that is only because it is assumed that the children will get the trophies no matter what.

There is no scenario where the child won’t get a trophy. If the child is playing soccer, for instance, all they have to do is be on the team. They technically don’t even have to try. As long as they are on the team, they can kind of do whatever they want, and they are going to get a trophy.

They can run the wrong direction. They still get the trophy. They can just be on the bench and look cute. They still get the trophy. Heck, they can just be on the bench and NOT look cute. They still get the trophy. They can score a goal for the other team. They still get the trophy. They can pick their nose and run in circles. They still get the trophy. They can stand there and stare into space. They still get the trophy.

And people get frustrated by this because they argue that some kids are getting a trophy for not even trying, which doesn’t genuinely honor the effort of kids who do try.

The problem is that participation trophies have become more of an attendance award than a participation award.

But in order to follow Jesus you have to do more than just show up. You have to actually, genuinely try. You don’t have to score. But you do have to try. You might not be that good. But you have to try. You might be the worst player on the team.  It’s okay – as long as you genuinely try.

You won’t get kicked off the team. And the Good News is that Jesus has already sealed the win.  But to get the trophy, you have to genuinely participate. 

The gift to you is that you get to win. And losing the sports metaphor for a moment, it is important, because the stakes are eternal. 

Beyond that, the misunderstanding behind Once Saved, Always Saved – that all you have to do is confess Christ once and you don’t have to do anything else – is just a hangover from works righteousness. It is an intellectual attempt by humans to strip Jesus of his authority by inventing a way that we can somehow “win” eternal life for ourselves.  

The problem is that participation trophies have become more of an attendance award than a participation award. But in order to follow Jesus, you have to do more than just show up. 

Now, why is understanding that we have to try to continually strive to uphold and embody the teachings of Christ important? Well, for a couple of reasons.

Reason #1: 

First, it motivates us because it indicates that currently there are people in the institution of the church that will not receive eternal life and there are people outside of the institution of the church that will. And the people who don’t make the cut, won’t make it because they didn’t try to follow Jesus’ commands.

In Matthew 25: 31-46, Jesus makes this abundantly clear.  He says that those of us who do not welcome the stranger, feed the hungry, refresh the thirsty, cloth the naked, care for the sick, and visit the imprisoned will be separated from those who do. Those who do those things will go into eternal life, and those who don’t will experience eternal punishment – I believe – of their own design. 

And that is because we either become good in God or we are effectively creating our own personalized Hell. And frankly, there are many people in the world outside the institution of the church that follow the teachings of Jesus far better than some inside of it.

Reason #2 

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This leads to the next reason why it’s important to understand that we have to try to continually strive to uphold and embody the teachings of Christ: because it means that we can’t get rest on our laurels. In other words, we can’t become so satisfied with what we’ve already done as to make no further effort. Participation does not mean attendance. There are plenty of people who claim the church community and claim Jesus, yet do nothing to back up that claim. 

But that is not the way of Christ. The way of Christ is one of transformation. And transformation is generally uncomfortable. Transformation is also rewarding, but it’s difficult.  In short, our participation trophies aren’t coming cheap. We have to genuinely try.

It never ceases to amaze me how many self-proclaimed Christians want the church to be exactly as they want it. But if it was exactly as they wanted it, then it wouldn’t be Christ’s church.

Reason #3

And this implies that we need to continue to not just learn what Jesus’s commands are, but we need to discern how to enact them.

Usually, this is where people get hung up. To welcome the stranger, feed the hungry, refresh the thirsty, cloth the naked, care for the sick, and visit the imprisoned can feel like an overwhelming mandate. The obvious global need for this kind of care can seem so daunting that sometimes we don’t even know where to start, so we simply don’t. It is like we are a fearful child on the soccer field and we don’t know a thing about the nuances of what is trying to be accomplished. So instead of trying, we just become paralyzed in fear.

I can empathize with this fear. But, what I have learned about church folks is that we tend to overthink these types of things as well. For many of us, Jesus’ commands don’t mean that we have to make some grand gesture. And his teachings aren’t legalistic insofar as it means that we have to try and check a bunch of boxes. It just means that we have to be present enough to see the needs right in front of us and then try to meet them. Because that is what love looks like. 

The best example of this kind of care that I can think of happened to me when I was in seminary. Max Stackhouse, who was my mentor for nearly 21 years before he died, showed me care in one of the most encouraging and compassionate ways anyone ever had.

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I was supposed to have been working on my senior thesis. But, truth be told, I hadn’t even begun. There were many reasons for this, but they had piled up, and I had become paralyzed in fear that I wouldn’t graduate because I couldn’t finish on time. 

I had a scheduled appointment with Max and I was dreading it. I had nothing to show him. I was way behind schedule. I was full of shame as I entered his office. I dreaded the embarrassment that I would feel if I didn’t graduate. I felt less-than. I felt like I had let him down.  

When I entered his office, which was in his home on campus, I felt like my future was coming to an end. This was how I viewed myself.

Fortunately, this is not how Max viewed me. Initially, he didn’t even talk about my paper. First, he showed me the work he was working on. He was amidst the editing of one of his four books in his God and Globalization series. He told me about how slow and difficult the editing process was for him. He was vulnerable with me and was willing to show me his limitations. In so doing, he simultaneously was demonstrating his willingness to press on and modeling his drive to finish his work. Max would later go on to win an academic prize for that series. 

When we eventually pivoted to my project, he asked me where I was with it. I was honest. I felt shame for who I was in that moment. 

But Max chose to see who I could be. He chose to see the potential in me. He chose to be Christ for me in that moment. 

He then gave me some suggestion regarding direction, and then, without judgement, said that now all I had to do was go write it. He spoke with confidence like he assumed that I just would do it, and he told me how he was looking forward to it and how it would be great. It was only encouragement from him.  

I left feeling like a different person. The weight was lifted. I had been welcomed. I had been fed and I had been refreshed. I had been clothed, I had been cared for, I had been visited, I had even been set free.

I left feeling like a different person. The weight was lifted. I had been welcomed. I had been fed and I had been refreshed. I had been clothed, I had been cared for, I had been visited, I had even been set free.

I went and wrote the 80 pages and submitted it in record time. Max later submitted my work for an academic prize and I won.

If you would have asked me when I first walked into his office if that could have ever happened, I would have never believed it. But he saw what I needed most in my moment of need, and he provided it. And he did it right from the comfort of his own home. 

You see, most of the time, the need is right in front of us. We just don’t have eyes to see it. 

So, who are the people around you that need you to show them the love of Jesus? How do they need to be welcomed? How do they need to be fed? How do they need to be refreshed? How do they need to be clothed and cared for? How do they need to be visited and set free?

Now go do what Christ commands of you in that context:  

Try.

Reality Changing Observations:

  1. When was a time when you needed someone to be Jesus incarnate for you?
  2. How is Jesus specifically calling you to try to better follow his commands to love others?
  3. What do you think could generally increase active participation among church members globally?

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