Who Acts in Our Salvation? Jesus!

When we’re initially saved, who makes it happen? If you’re not familiar with many aspects of the traditional Calvinist/Arminian debate, you may be wondering what quite this question is getting at. If you are, you may recognize the doctrinal point involved. The question at hand is the debate of monergism vs. synergism. If you don’t know what those mean, they are actually fairly simple to understand.

When we are first saved, how does it happen? Who does what? Obviously there are at minimum two persons in involved: God and you. But how do your roles relate? In the traditional forms of Calvinism and Arminianism, the answers are like this:

Calvinism affirms monergism, which means “one working.” In Calvinism, the only person who actually acts in bringing about your salvation (usually specified as regeneration) is God Himself. Your repentance and faith are altogether secondary and only happen because God first gives you a new birth which enables (and guarantees) your response to Him. God alone acts by the Holy Spirit to save you, and from this saved ground you can repent and believe in the Gospel. R. C. Sproul put it this way:

We also believe that regeneration is monergistic. Now that’s a three-dollar word. It means essentially that the divine operation called rebirth or regeneration is the work of God alone. An erg is a unit of labor, a unit of work. The word energy comes from that idea. The prefix mono– means “one.” So monergism means “one working.” It means that the work of regeneration in the human heart is something that God does by His power alone—not by 50 percent His power and 50 percent man’s power, or even 99 percent His power and 1 percent man’s power. It is 100 percent the work of God.

Arminianism, along with many Catholic view and Eastern Orthodoxy, counter with synergism, which essentially means “working together.” In synergism, God initiates and offers grace, and man must cooperate with his free will. Salvation essentiallly occurs by the acts of both parties, God in giving and man in receiving, with the idea of man’s reception being conceived of as an act of a human free will. In this view, repentance and faith are integral to the beginning of salvation, rather than a result of a beginning accomplished simpy by God alone. Some would characterize synergism as being a 50-50 view, although most synergists would disagree. In any case, synergism relies on man cooperating with God’s grace, so that God does part (certainly the superior part) and man does part (an inferior, receptive part). Eric Landstrom of the Society of Evangelical Arminians gives this explanation:

So important is it that God monergistically works that Calvinists have effectively written out and forgotten that all relationships are in point of fact synergistic. If any “relationship” isn’t synergistic, then it is said to be one-sided, and one-sided relationships are both sad and unhealthy.

But God is personable and so too are we also personable. As such, we should expect that, as a person, God interacts with us on a personal level and in a personal way…[W]hen God reaches out to us, we can respond—but just like any healthy relationship, we needn’t respond to God by necessity. But if we respond to God’s reconciling ministry of grace, and our response is theocentric and sustained by continuously drawing upon the strength of grace received by God, then God continues to augment the process with more grace; and by augmenting the process the relationship between the creature and God grows.

Now, if you don’t already have a settled opinion on this matter, which view will ring true to you probably largely depends on the preaching you’ve heard and the reading you’ve done. But before you consider making any conclusions, I would like to present an alternative.

See, my problems with both monergism and syngerism in their traditional forms are two: (1) they assume a competitive relationship between divine and human agency, and (2) they don’t take Jesus into account.

What do I mean by these? For (1), the problem is that Scripture does not assume any view of the relationship between God’s will and man’s will which must simply add up to 100%. Traditional monergism and synergism do. For monergism, the 100% of action must belong entirely to God, leaving man with 0%. In synergism, the numbers must be divided up some way, perhaps 50-50 or 90-10, or even 99-1. But there is no Biblical evidence for this kind of zero-sum game. All of God does not mean none of man, and neither does God and man mean only some of each.

But to make my (1) make sense, I have to explain (2). Neither traditional monergism nor traditional synergism make any explicit use of Christology, the doctrine of Jesus, instead either talking of God generally or specifiying the Father or the Holy Spirit. And yet, if we are trying to understand the relationship between God and man, we can’t bypass the one place in all reality where God and man are truly and fully one, hypostatically united as a single person named Jesus.

I follow, then, the Evangelical Calvinist tradition in focusing on what is called the vicarious humanity of Christ (posts related to this can be found here, and Martin M. Davis has a good series on it beginning here). Jesus did not simply die in our place; He was and is human in our place. Our true humanity is based in Him. Everything that needed to be done for our salvation, both on God’s part and on man’s part, has already been done in His own Person and work.

So how does this affect monergism and synergism? I look at it through Christ. Contrary to synergism, the only true cooperation between free human will and divine grace is found in Jesus, where He lived a whole human life in obedience to the Father, even unto death. If we are to respond to God at all, our reponse will have to begin with the human response of Jesus to His Father, not with our free will. Contrary to monergism, though, this does not somehow remove our response from the equation. On the contrary, our response plays a decisive role in our receiving salvation precisely because it is not our own response but rather the response of Jesus in which we participate by the Holy Spirit.

If you’re lost a bit, I’ll step back. For humanity to have a saving relationship to God, we need faithfulness and holiness. For sinful humanity to return to God, we need faith and repentance. We fallen men, however, could never offer God any of this. So Jesus offered it in our place. He gave God on our behalf perfect faithfulness, perfect holiness, perfect faith, and even perfect repentance.1 This perfect human response to God could only be given by Jesus who was Himself God. Jesus is both the Word of God who calls for repentance and faith as well as the true Human who responds to God’s word in repentance and faith.

With this in mind, perhaps I could call my view Christological monergism. In one sense, it is God alone who acts to bring us to salvation. The Father sent the Son, the Son gave the Father the necessary human response for salvaiton, and by the Holy Spirit we are brought into saving union with Jesus. The true actor in our salvation is Jesus for us, and He is God. But on the other hand, we are also involved. By our union with Christ through the Holy Spirit, we do truly and really repent and believe to be saved. I respond to God, yet it is not I but Christ in me, and the response I offer to the Father, I offer by the response of the Son of God who loved me and gave Himself for me.2 And God accepts this response, and me, because what He is really accepting in Jesus, who is in me, and I in Him, and His response.

So it is not simply 100% God and 0% man, nor is it part God and part man. In Jesus salvation comes as 100% God and, albeit in a secondary sense, 100% man. Yet even man’s part is not just man in and of himself, not any natural human free will, but the part of Jesus as a man for us. It is only through, in, and by Him—us united to Him by the Holy Spirit—that we can be free for God, and in this freedom choose life by choosing what Jesus has already chosen for us and in our place.

I’ll conclude, then, with an editor’s summary of T. F. Torrance’s view in his book Incarnation:

[F]or Torrance, the Christian life is one of union with Christ in which in faith we live out of his faith and his righteousness. Having no righteousness in ourselves, we arc united to him so that we may live out of his. Our faith is the knowledge, given to us in the Spirit, that he has accomplished our salvation in his person and work and that we are saved purely by his unconditional grace.

This does not mean that we do nothing although it does mean that we do nothing for our salvation. For Torrance, there is an analogy here with the person of Christ. The fart that the humanity of Christ owes its being entirely to the action of God in the incarnation, does not mean It is not real. The fact that Christ is all of God, or that all of God is in Christ, does not mean that there is nothing of man in him, but the opposite, that all of man is in him. Torrance used to explain that in the logic of grace, ‘All of grace does not mean nothing of man. All of grace means all of man.’ The knowledge that forgiveness and salvation is all of grace liberates us out of ourselves into union with Christ, freeing on to live fully and freely out of him. All of grace means all of man, just as the action of God in Christ means all of man in Christ.

Who Acts in Our Salvation? Jesus!

Arms Open, Altars Closed: Thoughts on Conversion

[This is a post I wrote quite some time ago but which has not been published here.]

I just finished reading the behemoth that is The Deliverance of God: An Apocalyptic Rereading of Justification in Paul by Douglas Campbell. The book is quite interesting, even if some of its major ideas are rather unconvincing in the final analysis. In this case, it seems to me that the redemption is in the details, while the devil is in the big picture.

All of that is rather tangential to the point of this post, though. I mainly want to address something that came to mind for me while reading a section in TDOG about conversion. Campbell was pointing out the characteristics of conversion experiences as studied by sociologists. He explained that, contrary to ideal evangelical imagination, but rather like the actual experiences of evangelicals if we thought about it, conversions usually take place as the result of gradual shift from one community to another. The basic progression, according to research on people who convert between religions, seems to be something like this:

  1. Person introduced to (or has attention brought to) new religion by friends, family, or other persistent relationships.
  2. Person interacts more and more with new group, developing new relationships and connections.
  3. Gradually, the connections to this new group begin to outweigh connections to the old, and loyalties begin to shift.
  4. Person, according to the manner learned from the new group, makes a decisive change of association and identifies with the new group. Conversion is complete.

As far as I can tell, this appears to be about right. Certainly, I’ve watched it happen myself within Christianity, with denominations and individual churches. While of course there are exceptions, these do not seem to be particularly normative, and many (though by no means all!) of the people who make less progressive and more instantaneous “conversions” tend to be like the rocky soil, and they wither in no time. If we only count conversions that “stick,” this would seem to be an even more accurate account.

So reading this about conversion got me to thinking just how useful it really can be to invite people into our churches and welcome them with love and kindness. If someone is brought into a community of people worshipping Jesus Christ in faith, hope, and love, and those people actually do treat them in a radically gracious and genuinely invested way, this display of the Spirit through love really can do wonders, and can fill people’s natural social interactions with God’s power unto salvation. Nothing can make people want to follow Christ more than to see Christ’s life being truly embodied before their eyes by a community of His people proclaiming His Word.

Yet there is, it seems to me, a danger latent in this strategy. Welcoming the unbeliever into our association and love is certainly good, but appears to carry with it the danger of mere assimilation instead of conversion on its own. When we simply fellowship with and love and befriend the visiting unbeliever, we might run the risk of them eventually just thinking as though they are one of us, a true Christian and member of the Body, despite having never repented of their sins, responded to Christ in faith, or submitted to accountability within the Church as legitimate member. We might lose them one day to realize that we have lost a friend, but that this friend fell through the cracks of our love and acceptance without ever joining in the new and eternal life found in Christ.

So what can we do about this? How do we leverage the power of Spirit-filled community to draw people to Christ while simultaneously ensuring that people aren’t just silently absorbed without any defining encounter with Christ resulting in a conversion to faith and repentance? I think the proper answer to this potential difficulty lies in the proper use of the sacraments. I am a firm believer in weekly Communion, despite being immersed in a Baptist world where such practice is rare. One day I hope to remedy that. But that is rather beside the point.

Setting up baptism and Communion as strict distinguishing marks, I believe, provides the necessary protection against mere assimilation. Weekly Communion where only those who have been baptized may participate provides a constant and, depending on how Communion is performed, potentially quite conspicuous reminder of the difference between being in Christ, part of His Body, and outside Christ, still part of the world. Even when the unbeliever is loved and welcomed and finds himself deeply wanting to be one of these people and share in their (Spirit-filled) life, the dividing line of Eucharistic separation is bound to create a tension which will have to be resolved at some point, either by abandoning the community he has grown attached to or by converting and joining that community. Arms wide open and altars narrowly restricted, a powerful love and a burning awareness of distinction, should act as the opposite pressures driving the potential convert in one of two directions: join the Body and its Christ or flee from both.

As another thought, I suspect the impact of this could be further enhanced by weekly fellowship meals, with Communion taking place immediately prior to the general eating. If you want to stay and eat with all of the people you are growing to love but must first watch only those committed to union with one Christ participate in a celebration of Him, I expect the decision-driving tension would only grow more powerful. In the end, the idea is to create a fellowship so attractive, virtuous, welcoming, and gracious that all want to become a part, but to make a public commitment to Christ in baptism the only path to truly do so. I suspect this will weed out many who are not truly concerned, but will provide opportunity for strengthening for those who might find themselves being drawn. May this be what happens, no matter what we actually do.

Arms Open, Altars Closed: Thoughts on Conversion

A Quick Thought from Russell Moore: Something to Remember about People

Here’s something worth keeping in mind from Russell Moore’s new book, Onward:

The next Billy Graham might be drunk right now. That’s a sentence I remind myself of almost every day, every time I feel myself growing discouraged about the future…That’s what the elderly theologian taught me, as I stood there and wrung my hands over the pragmatism, the hucksterism, the liberalizing tendencies I saw in the Christianity around me, and wondered, “Does gospel Christianity have a future in this country at all?” He looked at me as though I were crazy. Of course gospel Christianity had, and has, a future. But the gospel Christians who will lead it may well still be pagans. He was right. Christianity is not like politics, rife with the dynasties of ruling families. God builds his church a different way.

The next Jonathan Edwards might be the man driving in front of you with the Darwin Fish bumper decal. The next Charles Wesley might be a misogynistic, profanity-spewing hip-hop artist right now. The next Charles Spurgeon might be managing an abortion clinic right now. The next Mother Teresa might be a heroin-addicted porn star right now. The next Augustine of Hippo might be a sexually promiscuous cult member right now, just like, come to think of it, the first Augustine of Hippo was.

But the Spirit of God can turn all that around, and seems to delight to do so. The new birth doesn’t just transform lives, creating repentance and faith; it also provides new leadership to the church, and fulfills Jesus’ promise to gift his church with everything needed for her onward march through space and time (Eph. 4:8–16).

Remember this next time you have a problem with anyone, and next time you fear for the future of Christianity.

A Quick Thought from Russell Moore: Something to Remember about People

Every Eye Open If You Want to Get Saved

“Now none of this matters if you don’t already have a relationship with Jesus Christ,” the preacher says with a shift of tone. “Without Him, you can’t live an abundant life. So here’s what I want you to do. With eye head bowed and every eye closed, if you want to accept Jesus Christ into your heart tonight and be saved from your sins, please raise your hands. No one looking around; it’s just me. It’s okay if you’re shy, just raise your hand since everyone else has their eyes closed. Now repeat after me…”

Ever heard anything like this? I’m quite sure that you have. This is, in a way, the climax of most special Christian events. After music and shenanigans and finally a sermon, the preacher seeks for people who want to accept Jesus. Of course, sometimes making such a public statement is a bit embarrassing. Who wants to admit they need Jesus tonight? So, in the interest of making sure people aren’t scare off at the invitation of the Gospel, it is only natural that we would ask everyone to close their eyes and give potential converts their privacy to make this personal decision of faith. Right?

I think this is dangerous, actually. Despite the good intentions, I am confident that this method of encouraging people to convert actually has very harmful side effects. The main problem is the creation of false believers. In fact, this method of invitation does away with the very call of the Jesus in the Gospel in favor of a seeker-sensitive, pandering call. Where the Gospel demands self-sacrifice, asking everyone to close their eyes for potential believers protects them from any need to sacrifice at moment one.

See, the true conversion which results from genuine encounter with Jesus through the Holy Spirit and a yielding of the soul to His grace should never take timid form. The major verse about becoming a believer, Romans 10:9, says this: “If you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved.” But where is the confession when the new believer is told he can come in secret, with no one else watching? Likewise, in Mark 8:38 Jesus promises this: “For whoever is ashamed of Me and of My words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will also be ashamed of him when He comes in the glory of His Father with the holy angels.” There are lots of verses with this same theme. If you would come to Christ, you are not given the option of doing it covertly.

altar-call-1

This requirement should be no shock, anyway. How can someone who is actually coming to know the grace of Jesus refuse to make it known that they love Him? All such refusals are sinful. When we pander to them, we are saying, “It’s okay to let your pride get in the way of your Savior.” The motivations for keeping quiet cannot be good. It may be you’re too proud to admit you’re still a sinner in need of grace. It may be people think you’re already saved and you’re scared to show them otherwise. Perhaps you simply fear what people will think about you if you become a follower of Jesus. But to all this, the Scripture says that “if we deny Him, He will also deny us.”

So what should we do? When we open the invitation, we must make it clear that the call to follow Jesus is not easy, and involves self-denial all the way through. Instead of “everyone will close their eyes for you,” we should tell them, “If you wish to follow Jesus, crucify your pride, take up your cross, and follow Him.” But what if this means fewer people raise their hands? What if less people decide to accept Jesus because of this? Then I daresay we have lost nothing. For if someone is clinging so much to their pride that they won’t even sacrifice an initial confession of faith, then surely that person is not actually being led by the Spirit of God to salvation! If the Spirit is working in them at all, they must be resisting that work. Making it easy will only encourage people to think they are saved, to think they’ve been secured and converted and will make it to the resurrection, even when they have no faith beyond mental facts. This is what Jesus showed us in His ministry. He did not provide an easy call, but time after time said controversial and scary things, sometimes apparently trying to get rid of anyone not serious about following Him.

Honestly, I think part of the problem may lie in the pride of people performing such events. Not all are like this, but there are many who love the numbers more than the fruit, even without realizing it. The more tally marks they can make for people who raised their hands to accept Jesus, the more impressive their events will seem. Easy invitations make for large numbers of “salvations” which in turn bring attention to the ministry doing these things. But we must be willing to sacrifice even the image of our works for God if we wish to do right in leading people to the truth.

The real danger here, by the way, is not only adding to our lists more saved people than there really are, but creating people who believe they are secure and saved when they are still in their sins, never more to worry about their spiritual state because of one misleading event.  Their chance at salvation in the future may be seriously hindered because they think they have already found the life in Jesus, even though they only accepted an easy and impotent form of the Gospel. It is like a cancer patient who dies before his time, all because an incompetent doctor told him that he was cured when he really wasn’t, so he stopped seeking treatment. May God never let this happen!

So what do I propose, again? Let’s tell people the truth: you must die to yourself if you wish to follow Christ. In the simplest and first way, just don’t pander to their self-consciousness by giving them a moment of secrecy to make their “confession.” Make them confess Christ publicly or not at all. This the example of Jesus. In fact, if I were to have it my way, I would yank open a baptismal at the invitation and tell people, “Sacrifice your pride and your dry clothes if you truly believe. Confess Christ as Lord, repent, and be baptized in the name of the Jesus for your forgiveness!” This kind of radical call will not only keep people from falsely and shallowly converting to their soul’s detriment, but may even embolden and inspire those who the Spirit is working in, giving them a concrete way to express their new faith. In this way, we together with our new brothers and sisters can honor Christ as those who need not be ashamed.

Every Eye Open If You Want to Get Saved

Pray This after Me: Is the Sinner’s Prayer Biblical?

If you’ve ever been to an Evangelical church, you’ve probably heard something along these lines:

If you want to get saved, if you want to accept Jesus as your Savior tonight, I want you to bow your heads, close your eyes, and repeat after me: 

Dear Lord Jesus, I know that I am a sinner, and I ask for Your forgiveness. I believe You died for my sins and rose from the dead. I turn from my sins and invite You to come into my heart and life. I want to trust and follow You as my Lord and Savior. In Your Name, Amen.

If you prayed that prayer and meant it with all your heart, now you’re saved.

Such an invitation is so common that many people would not even give it a second thought. However, there are potential problems with this approach. First, let’s consider a question: what exactly is going on here?

Continue reading “Pray This after Me: Is the Sinner’s Prayer Biblical?”

Pray This after Me: Is the Sinner’s Prayer Biblical?