One of the conversations that Comment seeks to encourage is between neopuritans and neocalvinists. Another conversation we seek to encourage is about the relationship between evangelism and cultural renewal. In the responses we have seen to Ray Pennings’s article in our December 2008 print issue, “Can we hope for a neocalvinist-neopuritan dialogue?” and to Rob Joustra’s article in the March 2009 print issue, “Knee-deep in Hot Fuzz,” it is clear that these two conversations intersect.
To continue the conversation at this intersection, we invited contributions to an online symposium on these questions: “Does an emphasis on cultural renewal (common to neocalvinists, among others) allow for or encourage an under-emphasis on evangelism (common to neopuritans, among others)? Can these two emphases be integrated or balanced? Should one or the other enjoy priority? In particular, how are these emphases appropriately worked out in the context of the interaction between the church and the city?” We will invite a second round of contributions from the current contributors, as well as from Messrs Pennings and Joustra, for online publication later in 2009.
The March print issue of Comment underscored, to my mind, both the promise and the pitfalls of trying to engage an alliance between neocalvinists and neopuritans. As a neopuritan (I think) trying to grasp and better appropriate neocalvinist insights into my pastoral ministry, I have gained much insight into ministry from Comment magazine. Your March issue was no exception.
However, a major article in the issue was Robert Joustra’s “Knee Deep in Hot Fuzz.” And sprinkled throughout that article were a number of comments about evangelism that left me frustrated, confused, disheartened and disappointed.
I understand the distinctive insight of neocalvinism to be this: to help us see that every square inch of this universe, including all of the natural world, is subject to Christ’s Lordship.
I do not want neocalvinists to lose their distinctive and needed voice. But what they offer is complementary to the understanding of the kingdom as the spiritual reign of Jesus over regenerated hearts, not competitive with it. The two—robust common grace engagement with the city, and robust evangelistic proclamation to the city—go hand in hand.
So while I want to celebrate the holistic rounding out of our theology that neocalvinism offers to the Christian world, I want to take a few moments and remind us of two things: first, the centrality of evangelism, and conversion, to the biblical notion of the kingdom of God; second, the context we find ourselves in today, which makes this centrality so important to celebrate and articulate.
Finally, I want to challenge neocalvinists to find a way to weave the proclamation of the Gospel into their writing, thinking and articulation of a Christian worldview, so that in the midst of focusing on neocalvinist insights, they do not unintentionally neglect or diminish the importance of evangelism, conversion, missions and regeneration.
Frankly, I feel a little silly having to do this. However, Mr. Joustra’s article raised this very issue with some of the comments he made, one of which in particular stands out: “If our activities as people of faith are consistently predicated on conversion we shall quickly become very bad neighbours. I think of this as a kind of spiritual narcissism which grows out of spiritual insecurity about our own faith and life” (emphases and italics mine).
If these startling words from Mr. Joustra are true, then the apostle Paul is, by Mr. Joustra’s definition, one very narcissistic cat. Paul, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit and for the church in all ages and all contexts, wrote these words in 1 Corinthians 9:19-23: “For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.”
The apostle Paul, and God speaking through him, could not be clearer. To become a servant of all—for the sake of their conversion—is at the heart of kingdom living. Unless Mr. Joustra can limit Paul’s words here to Paul himself, and say that these words are normative to Paul but not to us, because Paul is an apostle and evangelist, Joustra is wrong and we must say that, not only is it not “spiritual narcissism,” but indeed it is of the essence of gospel compassion for the lost to predicate our activities on their conversion.
I believe we cannot so limit Paul’s words to himself. Paul constantly, throughout his letters in the New Testament, gives us insight into his motivations as a servant of Christ. These are not given simply as insights into Paul’s mind. They are given to the church as models, examples of how we should act, think, feel, relate. In the particular instance of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, Paul is defending his freedom from having to work for a living, so that he might be free to preach the gospel. While defending his integrity as an apostle, he is setting an example for the Corinthians to follow. Paul is saying, in effect, “Use your freedom for the sake of the progress of the gospel (as I have done and do), not for your own self-interest. “That is the point of this part of 1 Corinthians. That is the reason he expresses his own motivations—as an example to follow.
Paul does it again in Philippians, where he is trying to encourage the Philippians to stand firm in the face of persecution, using his own motivations as an example for them to emulate: “Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from good will. The latter do it out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. The former proclaim Christ out of rivalry, not sincerely but thinking to afflict me in my imprisonment. What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice.”
Here, Paul is cutting the heart out of our objections to the gospel being preached. Paul does not care what motive lies behind our preaching; even “being bad neighbours” would make Paul rejoice if it entailed us preaching the gospel. Why does he do this? Because of the nature of the kingdom.
However neocalvinists and neopuritans understand the nature of the kingdom, we all agree with Jesus when he said, “My kingdom is not of this world.” Neocalvinists and neopuritans see this world as both beautiful and broken. Both see the need for re-creation. It is the pre-eminence of personal, spiritual regeneration that seems to create the tension between these two tendencies. The question is this: To what extent is spiritual regeneration foundational to the building of God’s kingdom that the church is called to undertake?
Some brief points to ponder:
- The kingdom is entered into by personal regeneration. Jesus is quoted in the Gospel of John 3:5 as saying, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.”
- The kingdom is presently spiritual, albeit with physical and temporal implications. Paul tells us in Colossians 1:13-14 that the transfer from one kingdom to the other is by spiritual redemption through forgiveness of sins: “He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.”
- The apostles understood, and Jesus taught, that the way the kingdom was going to progress and the eschaton ushered in was primarily by the preaching of the gospel. Jesus is quoted in the Gospel of Matthew 24:14 as saying, “And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.
From these and many other verses, I conclude that how the kingdom expands is by the progress of the gospel. The work of evangelism and conversion is primary and preeminent. Rob Joustra’s denigration of it is regrettable and sub-biblical.
Our context needs to be considered when evaluating this conversation. Neocalvinism’s insights into the Christian life are prescient and powerful. But in our context today, almost every Christian I minister with and to is timid about sharing their faith. I do not know who Mr. Joustra is referring to when he discusses people whose only thought is for the conversion of their neighbours. In my city, getting Christians to even add evangelism and conversion to their view of their neighbours and co-workers is a massive task.
A final challenge: If you love the gospel, let others know about it. Let the Christians who read your magazine hear a fully articulated, robust endorsement of the urgent need for clear, relevant, prophetic, evangelism. Round out your view of Christian living by championing bold gospel proclamation as well as thoughtful gospel living.
—Dan MacDonald is the minister of Grace Toronto church (PCA), a city-centre church in the heart of Toronto.
I was introduced to weight lifting in my late teens and soon found a passion for the gym with all its rows of weights, machines and other contraptions designed to produce power and strength. It was not just the changes I saw in my own body that kept me going back to the difficult work of training my muscles; it was curiosity about the people who sweated alongside me.
One individual was a source of puzzlement, as he resembled a comic book action figure with sharply defined muscles in his arms and chest that rippled with even the smallest of movements. His impressively sculpted massive upper body was offset, however, by its precarious balance on rickety, thin legs camouflaged in ballooning sweat pants. One could not help but wonder if he would be better off spending more time on his lower body to gain some symmetry with his upper body.
The same is true of Christians. We often discover a natural passion for one part of the Christian life and then work on it to the exclusion of other parts. In some Christian circles, talk of the city and cultural renewal is hip, while the practice of evangelism is downplayed. But this is a truncated version of Christianity that lacks the symmetry, power, and beauty that God intends. Furthermore, it will not lead to the desired result of city transformation.
Evangelism and working towards city transformation belong together. To separate them is to paint a picture as sad as the half-body builder. However, sequence is important: “Distinctively, the Church proclaims the changed world as the consequence of changed men,” writes Paul Stromberg Rees in the introduction to Robert E. Coleman’s The Master Plan of Evangelism (1963). The pattern in Scripture is to work out the “all of life” implications of the gospel that come as a result of people hearing and believing in the crucified and risen Jesus. For example, in Romans 12 and following, transformation and renewal in thinking, worship, communities and political relationships are a product and process of God’s grace, laid out in the previous chapters of the epistle. It is because people experience the personal, saving transformation of the proclaimed gospel that they are given hearts, heads, and hands to follow Jesus into their city and to pray for and seek its cultural renewal.
The implication is that if we are serious about worldview and city transformation, we have to be at least as committed to gospel proclamation and evangelism. What would it profit people to live in the most just, politically, economically, and socially sound city in the whole history of the world . . . and yet lose their souls? Truth be told, most of us North American Christians find sharing our faith with others scary and uncomfortable.
However, discovering our security in God’s love and acceptance through the gospel propels us into both evangelism and loving service in the city. An authentic experience of the gospel and the Spirit instills a love in us that desires that our neighbours should experience the transformation of being made fully human—”to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.” There is no way for people to fully experience true love, peace, and justice apart from faith in the saving grace of God—and this faith comes by hearing the Word of God proclaimed to them.
Of course, city transformation is not as simple as saving souls and all the rest will follow. We need the long, hard work of individuals, institutions and churches committed to working in all areas of life, encouraging change and being agents for the common good. We need disciples maturing and becoming skilful in the articulation of the gospel and in working out its implications in such a way that they contribute personally and corporately to the wholeness and renewal of our cities. We need the Spirit to grow in us a more fully-orbed and vibrant faith, where we know and participate in Bible-learning, prayer, evangelism, theology, church life, city life and so forth. Moreover, we are to be God’s people and do all of this even if those in the city respond only with rejection or hostility.
The last time I saw Bodybuilder Man, his legs were still proportionately small, but he had begun to exercise them and they looked like they could at least support the rest of his body. Our story is not over either. The Holy Spirit can strengthen us in our weakness as well and develop a healthy intersection between evangelistic proclamation and city transformation.
—Connan Kublik is pastor at New City Church, a PCA church plant in Hamilton, Ontario.
How does the neocalvinist emphasis on cultural renewal fit with the neopuritan emphasis on spiritual redemption?
There has been much debate and discussion around these two movements, with much ink spilled defending one or attacking the other. Is societal renewal more important than heart transformation? Or should the Great Commission take precedence over the Cultural Mandate? Is there a unifying principle that would enable Christians to uphold both causes in their theological framework? In a word, the answer I would like to propose is: Love.
Now, immediately this may appear too simplistic, even individualistic, to the socially-minded neocalvinist. Am I here espousing neopuritanism under pseudo-conciliatory cover? Our concern must not be about who is right, but about what is true, and the biblical argument for the unifying principle of love is as follows.
Love is of God, and only those who love are His children. Love is the essence of the whole moral law; it is the greatest of all spiritual gifts, the first fruit of the Spirit, the goal of Scripture’s exhortations, the cause and result of Christ’s atoning death and the very essence of God Himself. If there is any command that can be agreed upon as most basic to the Christian religion, it is the command to love. Thus far, I think we are all agreed.
But what is the evidence of this love? What does this love do? It is my conviction that we need to hear the message of James 2. In the context of discerning true religion that God our Father accepts, James writes, “If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.”
In other words, a Christian without active love that meets tangible, temporal needs does not have true, living, saving, Christian, divinely acceptable faith. This is serious stuff. There are hundreds and thousands of people in our cities and billions across the world who are without clothes and daily food. They are without jobs and homes. They are treated unfairly, they are beaten, they are sold; they are denied justice by those who have been put in charge precisely for the wellbeing of their people. Societal shepherds devour their flocks and exploit human beings for selfish gain. God’s clear admonition comes bellowing through James to those who call themselves Christians: “Where is your love?!”
In the West, love has no shortage of opportunities. Not only do we have needs, but we have incredible resources and institutions in place to carry out our deeds of love. Not only can we bring bread to someone on the street, but in the context of democracy, affluence, and (quasi-)religious freedom, Christian love can go corporate: massive mercy organizations, international policies to protect human rights, economic safety nets, political action and involvement to lovingly bring justice to suffering image-bearers of God. Any neopuritan who downplays the importance of socio-political love would be chastised by their 17th-century mentors, as well as by the God of love and his apostle James.
In passing, while we have seen that societal renewal fits securely under the second table of God’s law (love of neighbour), creation care fits just as securely under the first table (love of God). “Whoever oppresses a poor man insults his Maker,” and he who destroys a masterpiece shows contempt for its Artist. Can a bride love her husband and despise his gifts to her? Or would the husband of an artist deface his wife’s work? Love for God is more than enough reason to treat his creation with the utmost care and respect.
While neocalvinists do well to emphasize societal renewal, this same love must go further. In recent decades, one of the most assaulted teachings of Scripture has been that about eternity. In a world of temporal pleasure and immediate gratification, Scripture’s teaching on hell and God’s eternal judgment have been neglected and even despised. Nevertheless, the honest Bible reader cannot get past texts such as Luke 12:4-5, where Jesus makes a clear statement about the priority of eternal over temporal life: “I tell you, my friends, do not fear those who kill the body, and after that have nothing more that they can do. But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him!”
Hell is real, judgment is real, and Jesus thought that the emotion of fear should be influenced by that fact. “Fear has to do with punishment,” says John, and the heart of the gospel is the good news that “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” The terrible fate of those who do not trust Christ is made clear: “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not a see life, but the wrath of God remains on him” (emphasis mine).
If this is true—if eternal punishment is promised to those who have not embraced the gospel—then it is impossible to love and remain silent. Certainly there is a time to speak and time to remain silent, but when all is said and done, will we deny our fellow sinners the greatest good that we have to offer? In a list of practical exhortations to love, it is no wonder that Jude commands us to “save others by a snatching them out of the fire.” In the mind of God’s spokesmen, eternity weighs more than this life: “So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.”
According to Jesus, the suffering of eternity far outweighs the sufferings of this life, and according to Paul, the joy of eternity far outweighs the joys of this life. Christian love, therefore, desires the other’s weightiest good, his everlasting good, his eternal fullness, pleasure, safety, fellowship and delight. It will not rest in offering only temporary joys and comforts, but will pursue the other’s good beyond this momentary life. To love is to find joy in the joy of another, and only everlasting joy will do. Any neocalvinist who downplays eternity-oriented love has committed a weightier error, and has come very close to denying the bulk of the gospel message. Calvin and his Lord would certainly be ashamed.
Understanding love as the unifying principle at the root of both temporal and eternal redemption allows the Christian to uphold both cultural and spiritual emphases as important elements of the Christian walk, without falling into an either/or mentality. It also allows the individual Christian to discern his gifts and specific calling, giving his all in the vocation to which God has called him, while still acknowledging, supporting and promoting the cause of his fellow labourers in different spheres. It is false to conclude that such talk of weightier matters implies that every Christian leave his or her workplace to evangelize the unreached people groups of the world. While God would certainly have some do so, I believe this general conclusion to be a mistake. God has given a peculiar gifting to each member of His Body, the church, and it would be a destructive error to command hands to function as hearts, though one may be more vital than the other. This requires great humility, which is in fact a characteristic of the love we have discussed.
Evangelism and cultural renewal are two fruit that grow on the tree of Christian love. While the latter only directly satisfies temporal hunger, and while the ratio between the two may vary from tree to tree, both must be evident to distinguish a root of faith that is acceptable and pleasing to God in Christ Jesus.
—Adam Harris is a pre-seminary graduate dreaming of being a pastor. He lives in Hamilton, Ontario.
I have heard Tim Keller mention our need to “get the Gospel deep into us and to get deep into the Gospel.” To use the nomenclature provided here, he is speaking first of the neopuritan’s evangelism and second of the neocalvinist’s cultural renewal. These are indeed balanced and integrated, but I would argue that evangelism does not happen in secular, urban centers if it is not preceded by acts of cultural renewal.
And here is why: The way that we usually evangelize only addresses our need for freedom, but most everyone today already assumes that they are free. However, the way that we bring about cultural renewal can breathe fulfillment into stale life, and fulfillment is something for which most urban dwellers long. A good systematic theology speaks of salvation by using these traditional categories: God, Sin, Christ and Faith. (1) God made us good. (2) We sinned and made ourselves and everything else bad. (3) Christ died to forgive us of our sin. (4) In faith, we are now free. There is nothing wrong with this. In fact, it is very good, it is very true and it is very beautiful.
The problem is that most people have no desire to be free because they already feel free. Guilt doesn’t seem to leave much of a mark today, and even shame doesn’t bruise like it used to. However, most everyone is after fulfillment. There is a clipboard bearer on every street corner in my neighbourhood of Berkeley—sign up for this, spare 60 seconds for that, give us a signature here, fight for your right over there—everyone is passionately attached to their cause, their quest for fulfillment.
Well, when one reads the Bible with redemptive-historical lenses, then the traditional categories change, or better stated, the story unfolds in four chapters: Creation, Fall, Redemption, Restoration. The Gospel becomes a story that is less about freedom (“My chains fell off, my heart was free, I rose, went forth and followed thee“) and more about fulfillment (“God isn’t blowing the place up to make all new things, but he is going to make all things new. Join God in his restoration project; his plot to restore peace (Shalom) to the entire Cosmos.”). Tell someone that they need to be forgiven so that their chains will fall off and they will look at you funny. Show someone that their cause can be attached to a grander cause and they will say, “Oh, so I can find fulfillment?”
One could argue that this is simply changing the order or the tenor of evangelism rather than advocating for cultural renewal, but, to quote Graham Tomlin: “Proclamation is the explanation of the deeds of the kingdom.” Or, to use a tired cliché, “You can’t talk the talk unless you walk the walk.” It has usually been through cultural renewal projects that most unchurched types have begun to sniff around our church to see what we are up to. Do they then begin to hear about their bondage and sin, their need for forgiveness and freedom? Absolutely. But their quest for Jesus usually starts in a quest for fulfillment, and that quest often has its genesis in joint cultural renewal projects.
—Bart Garrett planted Christ Church in Berkeley, California in 2006.
A few years ago I preached the movie The Matrix. The film was one of my Sunday morning texts. While other outreaching preachers and teachers were using this picture in a more illustrative and typological way (Morpheus is like John the Baptist, Neo is like Christ, and Trinity is like … you get the point), I took a slightly different approach and posed a different exegetical question. Instead of naming and claiming the Christ-like elements within the film—and then baptizing them because of their moral or anecdotal equivalence—I asked, “What are you saying through this narrative, God? Right now, to all of us Matrix-loving fans, via this huge Hollywood phenomenon? What’s the word?”
Of course I’d ask those questions. I believe in a sovereign, speaking God—one whose Spirit moves in surprisingly common and incredibly gracious ways. The way I see things, all good Hollywood truths are God’s good Hollywood truths, and all genuine Matrix meanings are God’s genuine Matrix meanings. Surely this modern day parable—re-telling the creation/fall/redemption story and exposing the deceptive matrices that cloud our view of what a real kingdom life is like—has some Godly intent and purpose in behind it.
While I’m not certain I preached The Matrix perfectly that Sunday morning (what preacher can ever claim that kind of inerrancy?), I’m convinced our congregation was introduced and invited into a new understanding of how to both reach and transform their culture. Reaching and transforming came together with the belief that Christ was already moving in their world.
Instead of believing that we bring Christ to the broader culture (via the evangelism route or the cultural renewal route), we need to accept that he’s already there, ahead of us. When we do this, we find ourselves, not so surprisingly, walking the same road. As both the evangelist and the cultural renewer adopt a more listening and following stance—letting God’s Spirit lead in ways that are evangelistic and transformative at the same time—they realize that they’re not far apart at all.
I’m not sure that I fully understand how the two become one here, but certainly they must. When Christ’s Spirit is leading the way, the one Spirit who both saves and renews, how can we not be one? God already gets how neocalvinism and neopuritanism fit together. He sees the bigger picture and has been working out the synergies between personal and cultural salvation for millennia. Maybe all we need to do is follow more and re-engage the humility that following necessitates.
We also need to realize that by moving the Christ locus in this way, everything else changes.
Evangelism and cultural renewal become synonymous when we understand that God’s Spirit is already at work in his culture, moving in the Matrix‘s image bearing, co-creating, story-telling, directing and producing Wachowski brothers (whether they knew it or not). These are people that God made. They belong to him. They and the culture they create belong to him. And God can speak however he wants through them or through the things that they made.
When we engage the broader culture from this perspective, we serendipitously discover that we’re evangelizing both society and soul at the same time. To renew an individual’s understanding of the truth, beauty or goodness that they experience is to renew their world. And to re-claim the truth, beauty and goodness of a cultural product like a Hollywood film (or a work of art, a business concept, a scientific theory, a relational model, a city’s official plan or a sporting event) is to renew the individual who is experiencing it.
In a very humble, culture-honouring, see-the-good-in-others-first way, while wearing our spectacles of faith, we can show others where God is already at work in real ways in their lives. And perhaps, if the moment is right, this can lead to a personal epiphany.
But not just a personal epiphany. When you “re-deem” the products of our culture you are also well on the way to transforming that culture. When we exegete creational texts in this Jesus-is-already-moving-there way, we’re beginning the process of re-interpreting and re-framing reality for our world. We’re re-claiming for God what already is his. We’re lovingly helping our neighbours move past their misperceptions about what’s real, what’s true and what matters in their world.
By revealing these prevenient moves of the Spirit in this way, we expose the deceptive reality of sin’s matrix for what it really is.
And a little more heaven comes down to earth.
—John Van Sloten is Preaching Pastor at New Hope Church in Calgary, Alberta.
Ray Pennings in the December 2008 print issue of Comment suggests that this conversation is taking place primarily in Calvinist circles, defining both neopuritans and neocalvinists as “a single Calvinist sub-grouping.” However, similar and parallel sub-groupings also exist outside the Calvinist context. My roots are Wesleyan-Arminian and my personal views push the envelope of Wesley’s free will theism further, finding much that jazzes me in the Open Theism movement, particularly the writings of Hamilton’s own Clark Pinnock.
I wear lightly the cloak of “evangelical,” am theologically a minimalist and weary of the conversation on “God’s transcendence” but would like to hear more about his “condescendence.” I instinctively flinch from the “strong immutability” and “all-controlling sovereignty” so central to the Calvinist worldview. According to Mr. Pennings, Abraham Kuyper’s “almost defining summary credo of neocalvinism” was: “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of human existence over which Christ, who is sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!’.” It reminds me of a small child with fists clenched, stomping his foot on the ground, petulantly insisting on the return of a toy that some other kid stole. Kuyper’s credo may reveal more about the (nineteenth-century) Dutch than it does about God!
Having staked out my position, I actually want to suggest that the conversation about an adequate public theology is a really important one and is taking place in all quarters of the church. If I switch Mr. Pennings’ labels to ones that hold meaning in my camp—from, say “neopuritan” to “fundamentalist/charismatic” and “neocalvinist” to “liberal”—then my people would understand that they have a horse in this race, too.
Earlier this week I spoke with a friend of mine from Australia. Like me, he is a Salvation Army officer. He runs a faith community with strong social involvement in Melbourne among the homeless, as well as several government housing projects. The Army’s College for Officers recently sent him two groups of cadets (officers-in-training) for some practical experience. The head of the College is a strongly charismatic (religiously, rather than in personality) fundamentalist—a kind of turbo-charged “neopuritan.” He instructed the cadets to focus exclusively on evangelism and requires them to complete statistical forms, reporting back to him on how many “souls were saved” after each outing.
The two groups sent to my friend were each placed in housing projects in which his team already operated. One of these communities has a large Muslim population. The other neighbourhood is a predominantly white Australian community characterized by high-crime, generational-poverty etc. In the latter community is an ex-Catholic priest who has lived and worked there for years and with whom my friend’s people partner on projects benefitting the community. His theology would be considered liberal by standard evangelicals and he focuses more on issues of justice and quality of life in the neighbourhood than on traditional evangelistic endeavours.
The group sent to work in this community are more uniformly neocharismatic and so duly focused on getting “souls saved” and reporting back on their successes. They are highly critical of the ex-priest’s ministry and that of my friend, feeling that neither has much measurable impact in the community. The cadets working in the Muslim community are more moderate—neocalvinistarminians, as it were. Uncomfortable with the evangelistic expectations of the College, they spoke with my friend and expressed their fear that if they start “evangelizing” as directed, they might “be killed” (their words). They decided to make up some stories and statistics for the benefit of the College.
As I listened to my friend’s exasperation, I realized that this is essentially the same conversation as Ray Pennings and Rob Joustra reference in their essays, that it is about hammering out a public theology which gives shape to the transformational power of God in individual lives and the transformational presence of the church in public life.
The core issue is not the sovereignty of God, I believe. Partisan considerations aside, I believe we can profitably shift the conversation from centering on God’s sovereignty to focus on understandings of God’s salvation.
In my part of church-land, many people live with narrowly defined understanding of salvation. It ranges from a purely private spiritual transaction between the soul of a person and God to, well, a purely private spiritual transaction between . . . you get the picture. To allow for a deeper redemption that would include the salvaging and saving of systems and structures and indeed, societies—this is a stretch for them. It smacks of compromise and dilution, of a flirtation with universalism and general accommodation with “The World” (a catch-all term employed in much the same manner as parts of the Islamic world employ “The Great Satan”).
Other members of my team consider the redemption purchased by Christ on the cross to be so “deep and wide” that they unwittingly become “soteriological Marxists.” Their praxis reflects a belief that if God’s people can help rearrange the circumstances of people’s lives and the contexts of society, then humanity’s essential goodness will out, the “day of salvation” will dawn and we’ll all be busy as beavers building the New Jerusalem. For them social justice is largely a proxy term for salvation and social action and evangelism merge into an indistinguishable whole.
But what if these seemingly opposing views of God’s salvation are actually two ends of the same piece of string? When Calvin wrote about “total depravity” (with meanings gleaned from the word’s French and Latin derivations) he meant “warped” and “distorted.” Does that not equally apply to the world in general as well as the human soul in specific?
The third and fourth chapters of the Book of Acts recount an incident of Peter and John healing a crippled man outside a Temple. Hauled up before the usual suspect (priests, Sadducees, neopuritans, neocalvinists, neoarminians, neocharismatics, neofundamentalists, neoliberals, and so forth) and questioned on it, Peter replies thus: “Rulers of the people and elders, if we are being examined today concerning a good deed done to a crippled man, by what means this man has been healed, let it be known to all of you and to all the people of Israel that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead—by him this man is standing before you well. This Jesus is the stone that was rejected by you, the builders, which has become the cornerstone. And there is a salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.”
This last statement is one of the definitive New Testament statements about the preeminence of Christ’s salvation offer. In verse 9, when Peter refers to the man’s “healing,” and in verse 12 speaking of Christ’s “salvation,” he uses the same (Greek) word for both actions: “sozo,” which translates as “made whole.” It gets more complicated. Our English word for holiness comes from the old English word: “Halig/Halignes,” which means “wholeness” and also has roots in the German word “Heilig/Heil,” which mean “hail” and also “wholeness.” Holiness, salvation, healing—are we talking about the same piece of string?
Does the apostolic understanding of salvation perhaps have more to do with restoration and healing than it does with justification and existential positioning? Is it actually more a wave of redemption equally washing over soul and society, our inner and outer lives, through the city and the church, seeking to “reverse the works of the Devil” whatever the battleground—from the mind and the soul to the boardroom and the bedroom, from the street to the studio?
The physical healing brought to the man affected his status in society and his economic situation, as well as his body. All these were linked in with his spiritual transformation. Thus the word “sozo” could be employed by Peter interchangeably because he didn’t deconstruct or compartmentalize into sacred and spiritual, the world and the kingdom, God’s will and man’s free will. God’s sovereignty in the situation, if you like, was self-evident in the mere mention of his name which could physically heal a man who had been crippled from birth, thereby immediately impacting his social status, economic opportunities and spiritual state.
The Salvation Army’s founder, William Booth, penned a hymn in 1893 entitled “Boundless Salvation”. It too is a summary credo, but for salvationists. The first stanza says:
Boundless salvation! deep ocean of love,
Fullness of mercy, Christ brought from above.
The whole world redeeming, so rich and so free,
Now flowing for all men, come, roll over me!
If we could all hold such a theology of a “boundless salvation,” then this conversation would end amicably and we could move forward together and be the “dealers in hope” that our world so desperately longs for.
—Geoff Ryan is a Research Fellow with Cardus, and a Major in The Salvation Army, Toronto.