I have been teaching on discernment and as I was reading today I was struck by how the subtleties of universalism in salvation have crept into the average church. Some might not agree that universalism is an issue but I would hold that it is for a variety of reasons which I will attempt to show. In fact, taken at face value it may be one of the largest problems facing the part of God’s church we call Southern Baptist’s if we were honest as to some of its symptoms.
The issue facing us today is the issue of universalism, or more bluntly, inclusivism. The academic framework for this teaching can be found in the writings of N.T. Wright and various others. Their standard call is that Paul was not writing about the justification of an individual but rather a more corporate justification; the justification of the church, if you will. Just how is the church justified? Well, according to Wright and his compadres, the church is justified through its social equality, and inclusion of all.
To make a complex issue somewhat simple is difficult to do but I will attempt. Wright is arguing that Paul saw the Jewish religious leaders as opposing the Gentile “converts” (it is difficult to imagine Wright using the term convert) because they did not carry the, “badges of Jewish law observance.” In other words, Paul, according to Wright, is battering the religious Jews because they are unwilling to accept the Gentiles as opposed to battering them because they still believed their works were enough to allow them salvation.
Ultimately Wright’s conclusion is pointing us towards a view of Salvation that is corporate and not individual. Taken at face value, where we can easily begin, Wright’s teaching points towards salvation coming from a simple hearing, a desire, an effort etc. In fact, Phil Johnson interprets Wright’s teaching as a works-based salvation. You listen, you learn, you apply, and you might be OK. This would seem to be true as it leaves the “ability” of salvation up to the individual. When salvation is made a corporate event and not an individual response we leave the door open for works to be measured as part of our salvation.
What does Scripture say? Galatians 2:11-21
It is absolutely true that there was a problem between Jewish believers and Gentile believers as Wright attests. It is also true that this was based upon the Jewish law and the inability of the Gentiles to ever keep this or fulfill this law, as those born Jews did and could. However, Paul uses this problem not to point out that we should all hold hands and sing Kumbaya, but rather that they would put these differences aside if they correctly understood salvation.
Paul rebukes Peter for his actions in this area as he has confused the Gentile believers by genuflecting back to the Jewish law in the presence of other Jews. Paul points out that Peter had accepted the freedom from the law that Christ had offered and seemed to not see it as wrongdoing. Peter also knew that keeping of the law was impossible and yet his attempts to do so put the point of emphasis on the law and not the work of Christ. Peter, Paul and every other believer can only find their hope in the person of Jesus Christ and in their admission of this need and willing submission to him. No works, no self-flagellation, or any other attempt will ever be enough.
Paul continues his discussion of justification by faith in chapter 3. He culminates his argument when he points out the damning consequence of one who desires to be justified by their works. Later he gives the purpose of the law as having been given to point men to Christ, not to aid themselves in an endeavor of self-promotion.
The overarching point that I am attempting to make is that Salvation is an individual decision. It is made by an individual in response to the Redeeming work of an Individual Savior, Jesus, who came to offer himself freely as God’s Son on our behalf. Some might believe that a typical Baptist church, such as the one I pastor, would completely agree with such a truth. I, however, would disagree as I see some signs that we believe salvation is much more corporate and see it much more through the eyes of N.T. Wright than Martin Luther:
“When God’s righteousness is mentioned in the gospel, it is God’s action of declaring righteous the unrighteous sinner who has faith in Jesus Christ. The righteousness by which a person is justified (declared righteous) is not his own but that of another, Christ.”
How, “we’ve bought it”
I like watching some of the auction/antique/Americana shows that are on television now. They tell us some history, show us cool items, and display people who dream they will one day find something big. In one show the auctioneer closes the bidding on each item by stating, “you bought it.” Did you know that those words are what intimidate me a little bit about auctions? The idea that I might pay too much for an item or possibly inadvertently find myself bidding on an item I have no interest in. I’m afraid that in focusing too much on other things and incorrectly educating ourselves on the work of God’s Spirit in salvation that we have bought into Mr. Wright’s teachings far more than we realize.
We put a greater emphasis on the speaker than we do the message of Truth and the work of the Spirit. Jesus told Nicodemus that the Spirit of God moves like the wind in that it’s moving is unseen and unknown until the moment we are impacted by it. In typical evangelical churches today we eschew this teaching and rely more on the Spirit moving through a particular speaker. If we can just get ____________ , or ___________ , then we will surely see people saved, are unfortunately phrases that I have heard far too often from within the church. This certainly buys into a works based salvation as now someone may or may not be saved based upon what I am able to do on their behalf or they are willing to respond to.
The usual response to such criticism is that the church is going to pray for that speaker, that speaker has a “special” “touch” from God or some other non-Biblical statement. If the truth were known, outside of a church corporately praying for a speaker who is scheduled to come I would imagine that there is very little prayer happening, unless it is within the life of just a few people, hopefully the speaker. We have come to rely more on the speaker – a corporate event – than we have the Spirit of God. This is the same faulty reasoning on which Wright bases his beliefs – good intent, etc. I confess that some of my own praying for speakers has been less than the amount of water in the bottle pictured above.
The second issue goes hand in hand with the first; the event has become the most important thing on the church calendar. We are a church that loves events. We love having them, we love enrolling people to work them, and we certainly love promoting them in our community, and reporting (the successful ones) to our other churches. In fact by most church measurements you aren’t a good active member unless you have participated in making an event possible.
Once again we have treated the work of the Spirit in salvation as if it is a direct result of our works and our efforts. Yet when pastors gather to talk you often hear talk of dismay that so few members are consistently engaging people in their daily lives with concern for their need for salvation. Why should they? We have told them, through our actions and emphasis that if they will simply bring those people to enough church events then certainly something should happen.
Lastly, we have neglected praying for people individually. Certainly there are many in the pews that do pray for individuals but in the circles which I have been people almost react with shock when you begin to speak about an individual’s spiritual need. Instead of addressing their need for a realization of who they are before Christ and a subsequent act of repentance on their part we hear appeals for people to “return to church” or even worse, “become active in the church community.”
Correcting our behavior
Begin to pray for the work of the Holy Spirit to interfere with your life daily. Don’t wait for the special speaker; begin praying for God to intervene in the needs of a church during committee meetings, workdays, etc. By the way if you think I’m off my rocker look back at the circumstances surrounding many who were saved in prior centuries and even many who are saved today.
I love events. I love the fellowship, the fun, the food, the speaker, and everything about an event. However, it must not become the thing upon which the church lives or dies. Our prayer for God’s grace and movement should be upon the weekly schedule long before we turn our attention to a special event.
We, beginning with me, must pray for individuals. Families, friends, and anyone else who passes our mind should be prayed for as an individual instead of attempting to throw some blanket out there to cover them all. Do we have a desire for the individuals that we know? If we do, and I believe we do, then let’s tell our Heavenly Father, who is able to provide far more than we ask, to intervene in their lives.