- On the flawed soteriology of the “sinner’s prayer”(published )
Recently, Daniel Heck made this statement: My problem with the sinner’s prayer really is that it is functionally super-Pelagian, even though it acts all anti-Pelagian. Funny the way we tend to become what we hate. When I’ve heard people use the sinner’s prayer for evangelism, they usually say a bunch of anti-Pelagian stuff about how nothing you do can set you right with God, etc etc etc, and then they say, actually, you know, there is exactly one thing you can do. Say this prayer. I responded thus: Regarding the sinner’s prayer and its associated problems, the underlying issue is the warped concept of salvation that it rests on. If one thinks that “being saved” means God saying “OK, when you die you’ll get to go to heaven,” and therefore that one “gets saved” in some punctiliar event—whether that is saying a certain prayer, or being baptized, or whatever—then this problem inevitably arises. Either we are in some irreducible sense responsible for causing that all-important event to occur, or else we have no role or responsibility because God just does it all himself. (Evangelicals are used to thinking of this dilemma as Arminianism vs Calvinism, but that is just one among the many permutations it has taken.) In contrast, things get much better when one recognizes that salvation means “everything being made good.” In one real sense we are still looking forward to our salvation, when Jesus returns to raise the dead and renew all things. In another real sense our salvation has already been won for us, because everything Jesus did the first time he came has enabled and initiated the salvation we are looking forward to. And in another real sense, we are in the midst of being saved now as the Holy Spirit acts among us today bringing specific instantiations of transformation and renewal into life now on the way toward the final transformation. In this past-present-future structure, there is no single moment when a person moves from a state of being unsaved to a state of being saved. There may be moments of conscious decision, of course. But those are moments where one decides to become an active participant in God’s ongoing project of saving the world and therefore becomes part of that group of people who reasonably expect to see salvation coming to pass in their lives and world now and ultimately in the future. They are moments of consciously entering into the ongoing salvation story. But if this is the case, then no one event is the cause of anyone’s salvation. What Jesus did is the cause, what Jesus will do is the cause, and what the Spirit is doing now is the cause. Our actions are caught up into this process and contribute in real ways to the result as he weaves them in, but our actions do not cause the process to occur any more than the threads cause the weaving to occur.
- Evangelical theological method and the loss of charismatic experience, updated (published )
Evangelical theological method is so concerned to root revelation in the Bible because most of them in theory, and virtually all of them in practice, have lost any sense of the Holy Spirit doing anything beyond illuminating their reading of the text. Without any space in their theology for the idea that the Holy Spirit might say anything to them directly, evangelicals only have the Bible left as a locus for supernatural revelation. Yet since it is a text, the Bible is therefore suitable for rational investigation (thus the dominance of the historical-grammatical hermeneutic in Evangelical thought). Thus exegesis becomes the mode of divine communication today, and the role of the Holy Spirit is to guide and guarantee the correctness of that exegesis and the subsequent application. This fundamental shift to cessationism (whether doctrinal or merely practical) sets Evangelical thought into a very different situation from that of the patristic church. Both Evangelicalism and the early church saw the Bible (from which the early creeds and formulae were derived) as providing the rule of faith. However, the early church used this rule to guard against misguided readings that claimed to come from some kind of new, supernatural revelation of otherworldly wisdom, whereas Evangelicalism uses this rule to guard against encroachments of modern secularism. The former is guarding against heresy and syncretism, the latter is guarding against unbelief. The early church did not use the Rule of Faith (i.e. the creedal statements derived from and summarizing the Bible) to combat pagan religions, since it was completely inapplicable to them. It was no use to say to a worshipper of Mithras “Mithraism violates our Rule of Faith, so it must be rejected,” because he would not listen to such a claim. First he had to encounter Jesus and be converted before the Rule of Faith would have any claim on him. Only once he was a Christian could the Rule of Faith be applied to him and his theology. Evangelicals, on the other hand, seem to want to use the Rule of Faith (i.e. the Bible and statements derived from and summarizing it) to fight against secularism. They protest that secular culture does not conform to the Bible and insist that Western civilization needs to return the Bible to its proper place so that the truth of the Bible can be heard and thus people can encounter Jesus. This is, of course, madness and doomed to failure, since the modern non-Christian has no more reason to accept the Bible’s authority than the ancient Mithraite. The essential difference here is that the early church and the heretics it fought had in common a supernatural faith that included the ongoing speech of the Spirit, whereas the evangelical church has boiled all supernatural revelation down into Scripture and its interpretation and relies on this over against the naturalist assumptions of its opponents. The early church’s use of the regulating function of Scripture and creed was aimed to judge purported Spirit revelations to determine their true source. The Evangelical church’s use of this regulating function is conflated with the revelatory function (which itself has been constricted only to Scripture) and is used to resist and counter beliefs that do not claim the same source at all.