Sunday, May 14, 2006

Some thoughts about evangelism and salvation

This was something I wrote nearly two years ago, and I thought I had posted it before. Better late than never.

How can I keep from singing?
Some thoughts about evangelism and salvation

SN July 04

When I was twelve years old, I had the first of a long sequence of vigorous discussions with a school friend who was an evangelical Christian (before his tragically early death he was a youth worker with the Icthus fellowship). We were arguing about the possibility of access to heaven, and my friend was telling me that only those who called on the name of Christ would be saved. I asked whether this meant that Gandhi was doomed, and was told that yes, unless Gandhi had confessed Christ as Lord and believed in his heart that Jesus was raised from the dead then he would be damned. This was significant for me, for it was following that conversation that I became an atheist.

Since that time, despite what seems to have been a long journey in faith, I have never had to properly engage with the evangelical understandings of Christian life. At University there was a distinct division between 'chapel' and 'CU'; when I was in London I was part of a very Anglo-Catholic church; similarly at Westcott and then my training parish, evangelicals were semi-mythical beasts who were somewhere over the edge of known territory - 'here there be dragons'. My formation as a priest has been rooted in the catholic side of the Church, with authority given to the orthodox creeds, the church fathers and the Anglican Divines like Richard Hooker. Then the Lord in His infinite wisdom and mercy sent me to Mersea, where I have had to engage with what it means to be an evangelical, not least because I was concerned that I was becoming a bull in a China shop, and imposing extreme beliefs on vulnerable sheep - that I was the wolf, not the shepherd. I've been reassured by what I've discovered, which can be summarised quite simply: there are two sorts of evangelical, and I'd like to describe them.

Sola gratia
One of the fundamental principles of the Reformation was 'grace alone' - that we are creatures embedded in sin and incapable of making our own salvation. This still leaves a little wriggle-room for interpretation, so let's use an example. The Fall can be understood graphically as a transition from walking gladly in the garden to being plunged to the bottom of a dark pit. Grace is what enables us to come out from that pit, but there are three ways in which grace can work:

a) Option 1: the grace of God is the light that shines in the darkness; our true condition is revealed; and in the light of Christ we are enabled to crawl out of the pit into which we have fallen;
b) Option 2: the grace of God not only reveals our condition, the hand of God reaches down to us and we grasp it, thereby allowing God to haul us out of the pit;
c) Option 3: the grace of God sees that we are at the bottom of the pit with broken arms and legs, and so comes down into the pit to pick us up and carry us out.

Although those three accounts of grace all have contemporary echoes in different churches, only one is orthodox: Option 3. Options 1 and 2 (which in fact collapse into each other) go by various names in the different traditions, but are versions of Pelagianism, the heresy which Augustine strove against. Each of the first two options ultimately undermines the sovereignty of God's grace in the drama of salvation, that, as Paul puts it in Ephesians, "because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions:­ it is by grace you have been saved."

Two sorts of evangelical
What I have discovered in my reading is that, although evangelicals (as with catholics) come in all varieties of shape and size, the underlying theological stance tends to fall into two categories, which I will call 'Reformed evangelicalism' and 'Revival evangelicalism'.

The Reformed evangelicals come across as the more conservative, and at first I had thought I wouldn't find their thinking congenial (thinking of Reform as the pressure group in the Church of England) - and I would certainly wish to interpret the authority of Scripture in a less literalistic fashion. However what I have been surprised by is the level of theological agreement that I have with this tradition. Specifically, the emphasis in the Westminster Confession on grace alone, and especially its first article relating to worship, I find profoundly congenial. Specifically, it is this 'conservative' evangelical tradition which maintains the orthodox beliefs of the Church relating to the sovereignty of God's grace. I have always believed the Church of England to be 'Catholic and Reformed' and in many ways my ongoing engagement with this side of evangelicalism has been putting flesh onto the bones of that belief. I now have a much clearer understanding of what it means to be a 'Reformed' Christian.

However, the alternative tradition of evangelicalism is founded upon a denial of sola gratia, and is - as a matter of both history and current practice - closely tied in with the culture of the United States. The key thinker is Charles Grandison Finney, who pioneered the use of 'new techniques' in evangelism in the nineteenth century. I quote from a paper by Kim Riddlebarger (available here)

Finney is the father of revivalism, characterized by the frontier revival tent meeting and the sawdust trail. Finney's revivalist legacy is most clearly seen today in a stadium filled with Promise Keepers. Finney is the father of the altar call and the "evangelistic meeting" that takes place apart from the normal preaching and sacramental ministry of the local church. It was the stress upon the "new measures," as Finney called them that largely served to displace the sacramental and preaching ministry of the church for technique-oriented evangelism. The entire church growth movement, which seeks to entice so-called "seekers" to church by removing those things from the church service which offend them (in other words, anything distinctly Christian), can be traced back to Finney's new measures; only the new measures now come to us couched in the language of marketing and sales, target groups and demographics. Whether it be Chuck Smith, Bill Bright, or Billy Graham, there is no doubt that one branch of each of their respective intellectual family trees traces itself back to Charles Finney, and even if another branch in that same family tree can be traced back to Protestant forbears, these traits are now most certainly recessive. For Finney's family characteristics are now dominant in the American church. And sola gratia is no longer a doctrine to be defended, it is an offence and an embarrassment. Who needs God when man is quite capable on his own?

Strong stuff. The theological roots do need to be made explicit, however. Finney wrote in his Systematic Theology "Regeneration consists in the sinner changing his ultimate choice, intention, preference; or in changing from selfishness to love and benevolence; or, in other words, in turning from the supreme choice of self-gratification, to the supreme love of God and the equal love of his neighbor. Of course the subject of regeneration must be an agent in the work" [Sam's underlining]. In other words, the decision of the believer is the key step in salvation; this is a doctrine known as decisional regeneration and it underlies all that I have ever found problematic in evangelicalism - from that first conversation about Gandhi onwards.

The problem with this mode of evangelism is not simply that it is unorthodox - although it is that - it is that there are significant implications for how the Church acts in the world. These can be summarised in the following way:

a) Worship: in a traditional Reformed service, preaching is given a central place, along with 'right administration of the sacraments'; in a Revival service, personal choice is given a central place, and the elements of the service are geared to either generating that decision or recapitulating it;
b) Evangelism: in traditional Reformed evangelism, Scripture and the gospel are central, and these are proclaimed directly, especially through a 'provocative' life, without concern for how they are received; in Revival evangelism the issue is 'what will work' and the emphasis upon the conversion of souls;
c) Church: in traditional Reformed evangelism the Church is seen as a necessary part of the Christian life; in Revival evangelism the Church is an optional extra as it is the individual who is saved;
d) World: in traditional Reformed evangelism, growth in faith is tied in with growth in good works, which are seen as the fruit; in Revival evangelism, good works are seen as evidence of salvation, and there is therefore a drive to demonstrate 'perseverance in faith' through social activism.

One church, one faith, one Lord
The above is, of course, a very hasty sketch, but I hope the main points are clear. It seems to me that at a point when our own wider church is threatened with schism, there is a duty placed upon all Christians to seek common ground and affirm those things which bind us together rather than focussing on things which drive us apart. As I understand it, it is the confession that Jesus is Lord which makes someone a Christian, and that confession is the basis of baptism into the Church and progression in discipleship, as the implications of Christ's Lordship flow out into a life. However, whilst the Church of England has very broad boundaries there are still places where it is possible to 'fall off the edge', and I think that 'Revival evangelism' (the denial of sola gratia and the emphasis upon personal decision making) does fall off the edge of traditional Anglican teaching.

Our calling is surely to affirm the sovereignty of God's grace in our salvation. That means honouring our inheritance as Anglicans, for that heritage is profoundly orthodox, both Catholic and Reformed. In particular, I believe that it means allowing God space to work his grace in our lives and in the lives of those whom we care for. There is a particular neurosis attached to Revival evangelicalism whereby the gospel becomes a burden not a liberation - which is odd, for Christ set us free for freedom. What I mean is that God is in charge of whether a particular person is saved or not, and He is both just and merciful. Our calling is to be faithful, to dwell in grace, and to give thanks.

One aspect of Option 3 above which I didn't emphasise is what we do as we are carried up out of the pit. Before the Fall, we wandered in the garden, and we were constantly giving praise to God, enjoying His presence. Like the birds in the trees, I am sure we gave glory to God in our singing. All that we can do as we are carried up out of the pit is to sing in praise and thanksgiving - a singing that we are enabled to do, through the grace of God. It is not something that earns our salvation, but it is the appropriate response to our salvation. And I believe it is the only true witness to Christian faith that we are capable of; the only authentic provocation. Which allows us to sing:

My life flows on in endless song;
Above earth’s lamentation
I hear the sweet though far off hymn
That hails a new creation:
Through all the tumult and the strife
I hear the music ringing;
It finds an echo in my soul—
How can I keep from singing?

What though my joys and comforts die?
The Lord my Savior liveth;
What though the darkness gather round!
Songs in the night He giveth:
No storm can shake my inmost calm
While to that refuge clinging;
Since Christ is Lord of heaven and earth,
How can I keep from singing?

I lift mine eyes; the cloud grows thin;
I see the blue above it;
And day by day this pathway smoothes
Since first I learned to love it:
The peace of Christ makes fresh my heart,
A fountain ever springing:
All things are mine since I am His—
How can I keep from singing?

How can I keep from singing?
Words: Robert Lowry, 1860

"Gratitude (eucharistia) follows grace as thunder follows lightning." (Karl Barth)

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