This past Monday on my way to class, I happened to catch the Michael Vick press conference where he asked for forgiveness while admitting his guilt. The next thing I heard was,
“I’m upset with myself, and, you know, through this situation I found Jesus and asked him for forgiveness and turned my life over to God. And I think that’s the right thing to do as of right now.”
For the rest of the afternoon, I kept on reflecting on what Vick had said. In our culture, it has become an all too common thing for rock stars, professional athletes, actors/actresses, and even WWF wrestlers profess that they had “found Jesus” during a crisis in their lives (recent examples include Paris Hilton and Anna Nicole Smith). As expected, numerous articles have been written on Vick’s confession of guilt and profession of Jesus from all angles–animal rights activists, sports analysts, legal analysts, celebrity gossip and magazine columns, and Christian media. The last time a singular issue dominated media to this extent was the death of Anna Nicole Smith. I made the attempt to share my thoughts on the gospel and the life and death of Anna Nicole Smith in hopes to redeem that brief moment in history. In that same sense, I hope to share a few gospel reflections on Michael Vick, and in particular, his profession of “finding Jesus.”
Whether we like it or not, the reality is that Michael Vick is the most famous or most popular professing Christian in the world this week. What are we to do with this reality? Three questions come to my mind as I work through this week’s developments.
1. What does it mean when someone says “I Found Jesus?”
2. When a popular figure professes Christ, as in the case of Michael Vick, how is Christianity being communicated to popular culture?
3. How should Christians react or respond to Michael Vick’s “turning his life over to God?”
There are at least three possible conclusions one can make when someone says they have “found Jesus.” First, it is possible that the person has sought the Christian faith as a therapeutic answer to the trauma and difficulty they are going through. In this case, it is not so much find Jesus as much it is finding a religion to devote oneself for self-betterment. Second, it is possible that the person has indeed sought to turn their lives over to God, only to later find that such turning was a temporary disposition that changed when the circumstances got better. In other words, they are like the seed that fellow among shallow ground that brought forth fruit for a season but quickly withered away. Finally, it is possible that God has used these circumstances to reveal their sin in order to draw them to repentance and faith in Jesus Christ. Having been regenerated by the Holy Spirit, God brings new life into the sinners who professes Christ and continues to walk in obedience as a mark of genuine transformation. This transformation is seen in one’s mind (attitude), heart (affections), and will (decisions). In the case of Michael Vick, we have no idea which of these possibilities is an actual reality in his life (at least not right now). While it is often the case for celebrities and star figures to reflect the first possibility (therapeutic, self-help response), we cannot thereby automatically conclude that Vick is just the same.
The second question also continues to be played out in popular discourse, namely that of how Christianity is being seen and understood in light of popular/celebrity figures “finding Jesus.” It goes without saying that our culture trivializing Jesus on a grand scale. For instance, I can go to my hometown Wal-Mart and buy Jesus action figures and dolls. I can go to the teenage t-shirt shop and pick up a “Jesus is my homeboy” t-shirt. Or, I can go to the bookstore and find various books such as What Would Jesus Drive, Buy, Eat? Are these professions just another contribution to the triviality and incredulity of the Christian faith? Unfortunately, Christians don’t get to pick and choose who represents us in popular culture, on television talk shows and public commentary. Be that as it may, in our attempts to communicate the gospel of Jesus Christ, we have to consider the lens by which popular culture understand and views Christianity so that they can have a clear, biblical, and full picture of Jesus Christ. So long as culture can define and describe Jesus, people can wind up finding a “Jesus” made in their own image, not the Jesus of Nazareth known through Scriptures.
The third question is probably the question on the surface of the discussion and on the minds of most Christians today. So how should Christians respond to someone in dire straights who, for instance, just having plead guilty of gambling and dog fighting, professes Jesus and turned their life over to God? The secular response typically is that of sarcasm or satire as they see it just another opportunity to make fun of Christianity while fueling their disdain toward the individual. The press/media response generally sees the “I Found Jesus” card play as a strategy or public relations scheme to have folks feeling sympathetic or sorry. Christians generally respond with a measured level of skepticism, knowing that such professions have often fallen short of authentic change in a sinner’s heart and life. Allow me to offer a few suggestions of what Christians should not think and do followed by some gospel-centered conclusions.
Christians should not assume that when someone like Michael Vick “finds Jesus” that they are to immediately walk, talk, and act just like Jesus. While it is tempting to juxtapose Vick with mature, developed Christians, this would be entirely unfair. If God has saved him, he is a new Christian, an infant in Christ. More importantly, Christians should not see Michael Vick’s profession as an opportunity to have him as a guest speaker at a youth rally, conference, or evangelistic service. While some would see the prostitution of Vick’s popularity a praiseworthy church growth technique, Christ does not build His Church or advance His kingdom this way. Thirdly, Christians must not be conformed to the pattern of this world’s thinking and join them in the sarcasm and suspicion. Rather than speculation and gossip, Vick needs our prayers.
Contrariwise, Christians should respond with the gospel in view. First, Scripture tells us that mercy triumphs over judgment (James 2:13). Jesus pronounced, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy” (Matt. 5:7). What the merciful will receive is the very thing they give, and it is also the very thing we so desperately need as sinners! It is such a temptation to adopt the Pharisaical mindset when the sins of Michael Vick are exposed and condemned by the world. We so often forget about our own sins; moreover, we forget that our Savior is the one who enjoys the fellowship of “sinners and tax collectors” because he desire mercy, not sacrifice and welcomes sinners, not the righteous (Matt. 9:9-13). Secondly, we should examine our own hearts and lives, looking for incredulity or inconsistency in our words and witness. Are we living in such a way that Jesus is not seen and savored, trusted and treasured? Thirdly, we should see this as an incredible opportunity to share with the world that no one can “find Jesus” on their own. Everyone is talking about Vick’s profession of finding Jesus, from the locker room to the break room to the living room. Why don’t you share with them that it is not that we can find God, but that God seeks us out and finds us? Indeed, it is a trustworthy statement that Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners (1 Tim. 1:15), to seek and to save the lost (Luke 19:10). But our world does not know and understand this! What an incredible opportunity and platform to communicate the gospel in our culture! I pray that we seize this opportunity for the sake of the gospel and the glory of Christ.
In conclusion, when we think about understanding the popular confession “I Found Jesus” in our culture, we must ask whether the gospel is operative in our everyday lives. Is the gospel the lens through which we understand the world around us or not? A beautiful example of gospel-centeredness can be found in the ministry of Barnabas. When God found Saul (not Saul finding God!) on the Damascus road, his life was radically changed. Shortly thereafter, he began to preach Jesus in the synagogues and in the streets so that the responses came back:
“Is this not the man who made havoc in Jerusalem of those who called upon this name? And has he not come here for this purpose, to bring them bound before the chief priests?” (Acts 9:21)
“He who used to persecute us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy.” (Gal. 1:23)
As he came to Jerusalem, Saul was not welcomed by the disciples because they were afraid and “did not believe he was a disciple.” I guess you could say there was a great deal of skepticism and suspicion about Saul. After all, he persecuted, imprisoned, and killed many of their family members and friends, and who knows, he could be plotting to do the same to them! The next words are just wonderful:
“But Barnabas took him and brought him to the apostles and declared to them how on the road he had seen the Lord, who spoke to him, and how at Damascus, he had preached boldly in the name of Jesus.” (Acts 9:27)
Barnabas took Saul when nobody wanted to take him. He believed in the grace of God upon Saul’s life and the work of the Spirit who indwelt him. Love demanded that of him, and hope led him to believe it to be true. Every Saul needs a Barnabas, and I suspect that every Michael Vick needs one too.
Saul’s conversion was attested by the change that turned the persecutor into a preacher and a murder into a missionary. And all this because he “received mercy” (1 Tim. 1:16). This Saul did not just gamble and kill dogs. He brutally persecuted and killed Christians. And yet, just think of it, this man goes on to say that he is in danger every hour, faces death on a daily basis, and “fought wild beasts at Ephesus” (1 Cor. 15:30-32) all for the sake of the gospel and because of the resurrection of Jesus Christ! Paul did not find Jesus, but he found suffering. And in that suffering he found joy (Col. 1:24) and fellowship with his Savior (Phil. 3:10).
So what do I think about when I think about a gambler and dog killer who says “I Found Jesus?” I think about wild beasts at Ephesus attacking a man who once attacked and killed Christians. I think about brandmarks on a man (Gal. 6:17) who once branded Christians with beatings of a whip. And yes, I think about the man behind these words whose entire life is summed in the words, “a debtor to sovereign mercy.”
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