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December 10, 2014Leadership

Salvation and the Mission of God: Fred Sanders Part 2

In part two of his thoughts on salvation, Dr. Fred Sanders focuses on evangelism and ministry.
Salvation and the Mission of God: Fred Sanders Part 2

Salvation and Evangelism

It is entirely conceivable that a major difference over the order of salvation could lead to different styles of evangelism, and maybe even to incompatible practices of mission. But if the question is whether evangelical Calvinists of various kinds and evangelical Wesleyans of various kinds can share a common approach to evangelism, I would say they definitely can. The differences in the order of salvation tend to be underground or behind the scenes, rather than out in front as the focus of attention.

But the differences do sometimes surface in interesting ways. Specifically, we may present the gospel the same way, but if we then ask ourselves how an unconverted person can be expected to respond to the offer of the gospel, we give very different answers.

Perhaps, just perhaps, evangelists can learn from each other’s practice even when they disagree on the theory.

One of the classic Reformed answers is that when the gospel goes out and is received, the person who accepts it shows thereby that God has already regenerated them. It is in fact the new person within them, made alive by the Spirit, who is able to hear the good news as good. On this view, it is the born again person who repents and has faith; the unregenerate person by definition cannot behave as God’s friend by believing God’s promise. The evangelist confronts some listeners who are already born again and just waiting for the external call to draw them out.

Wesleyans, on the other hand, while agreeing that fallen man is at enmity with God and that the unregenerate person cannot be expected to greet God’s word as good news, believe that they are never encountering fallen, unregenerate humanity in an unassisted state. Grace, purchased by the atonement of Christ, has always gone before to boost the listener’s fallen faculties and give them a real opportunity to respond to the call. On this view, the evangelist confronts some listeners who have been the object of God’s preparatory work in numerous ways, whether specifiable or unguessed.

Whether regeneration comes before or after faith and repentance, therefore, evangelism happens in much the same way. Neither order of salvation lets us ignore our obligation to speak clearly and sensitively. And neither lets us imagine ourselves as the prime movers causing someone’s conversion. On the other hand, it may be that evangelists with different orders of salvation in the backs of their minds may be equipped to see different opportunities for communication of the gospel as they emerge. Perhaps the Calvinist will have more patience, based on quiet confidence that the miracle has already happened if it’s to happen at all; and perhaps the Wesleyan will have a keener ear for the story of God’s work in the life of the unbeliever and a greater ability to draw out latent connections. And perhaps, just perhaps, evangelists can learn from each other’s practice even when they disagree on the theory.

Compromise and Cooperation

One of the main things Christians disagree about is what it’s okay to disagree about. So behind any question about differences in the theology of salvation is a prior question about how churches and affiliated ministries approach the issue of putting up with differences of any kind. If an evangelical Calvinist and an evangelical Wesleyan have come to an understanding about their differences, and are satisfied that their interlocutors (Friends? Opponents? Friendly opponents? Oppositional friends?) hold their positions for biblical reasons and with a good conscience, then they can agree to work together on a very wide field of ministry. What is crucial is the qualifier “evangelical.”

One of the main things Christians disagree about is what it’s okay to disagree about.

Unevangelical Calvinists tend to grow rigidly deterministic or limply latitudinarian; only the gospel delivers their theology from these evils. Unevangelical Arminians tend to exalt human potential or deny every uncomfortable doctrine; only the gospel leads them out of these temptations. Centered on the gospel, and agreeing about its character, people with disagreements about particular sections of the order of salvation can cooperate without compromise.

On the question of whether, in the order of salvation, regeneration precedes or follows faith, there is another famous alternative to consider: the Roman Catholic argument that what comes first of all is a sacramental or baptismal infusion of sanctifying grace, which implants the principle of grace whereby God moves the will to do meritorious works that sanctify and finally justify the believer. Contrasted to this view, the Calvinist and Wesleyan views look very similar to each other indeed. And of course they are: they have Protestant soteriology in common, which is an important distinction further back in the decision tree. Their difference from each other is minor enough to permit vast cooperation; their divergence from Catholicism vast enough to permit only minor cooperation with it. And with modernist liberalism, as J. Gresham Machen famously pointed out, all three have even less in common.

Partnership Amidst Disagreement

If the disagreement about soteriology is too sharp, then the resulting views of salvation will diverge too much to permit any kind of partnership in ministry. In my opinion, though, the divergence between evangelical Calvinists and evangelical Wesleyans is not that large. That is why I believe that Christians at various places along the spectrum of disagreement on these issues can collaborate in many kinds of ministry. Evangelism and mission in particular are ministries where they will not be likely to find any serious obstacles.

As they seek to disciple new believers, bringing them to a mature theological understanding and biblical comprehension, the doctrinal differences are bound to arise. Even in a fairly deep catechesis, however, there is no absolute need for the breaking of fellowship. It is not always a sign of weak conviction to teach that there are two or three different views of a subject, especially if the subject is as complex, detailed, and ingrained in a web of inferences as the order of salvation is. A church could exist that did not need to break fellowship at all along the Calvinist-Wesleyan fault line; sharing full communion and membership with diverse positions on these issues.

This is of course a judgment call, and not an uncontroversial one. I’m a happy member of the Evangelical Free Church of America, a denomination with a tradition of remaining significantly silent on some of these very points of divergence. If I were theologically convinced that I should be not only non-Calvinist but actually anti-Calvinist, or if on the contrary I wanted to fellowship in an explicitly and confessionally Reformed congregation, then I couldn’t continue membership in such a denomination. Of course I could still seek cooperation with other churches, but I would do so knowing that we were cooperating across an important dividing line.

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