Salvation: the (really) big picture
Over the years I’ve been involved in some evangelical work across the country – reaching out through work in the community and on the streets especially in York (where I studied between 2004 and 2007) and London (where I have lived the rest of the time); I’ve also done bits overseas, notably in Norway.
I’ve had a problem. I mean, everyone can find it difficult to actually get out there and ‘do evangelism’ – we’d all far rather be pleasing ourselves in some other way. But steadily that has not become my problem. If an opportunity arises to do something with church, I’ll go. I’ll face the strange people and the random situations that can arise. We once had a bag of rubbish thrown at us from some height. I’ve got over that.
The problem has come in another form. It’s what we do once we get into a conversation. The problem is typified for me by an experience we had while in Norway on mission. We were hosted by some lovely Christians, bless them. We have respect for them and their heart for church and mission. But most of us who were there underwent a bit of a cringey experience…
Before we went out into the town square, they sat us down in the church and played us a video over their system. It was some passionate American woman explaining how effective this particular Gospel tract had been all over the world. Or it wasn’t even a tract so much; it was a method of making sure someone gets to heaven. It involved something like stopping someone in their tracks, asking them if they were going to heaven or not, and telling them to pray after you.
Now first of all, when you think about it, that method isn’t at core anything new at all, so it was a bit cheeky to suggest that this was THE best method of evangelism. Secondly, for many of us Englishmen gathered there, this whole approach had come to embody something with which we were not entirely comfortable.
‘Ticket to heaven’ preaching.
If I were to be provocative I would suggest that in the worst cases this kind of preaching can do more harm to the Great Commission than good, but I don’t want to be rash. And of course many of us have come into the kingdom this way, and learnt and grown from there. But for a long time I thought it unusual that while reading the Scriptures daily, especially the New Testament, the kind of approach I was being assured was the only way to do evangelism seemed incredibly narrow compared to what I was reading on the pages of the Bible. Furthermore if this whole approach was so crucial to God’s heart, why was it given such relatively low press in the Scripture? Sure enough I knew there were a few verses: “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Acts 2:21); “if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved” (Rom 10:9) and so on. But these singular verses, constituting of course part of a flow of argument for Peter and Paul, were given to us as authority to send us out to preach a message not really having anything exactly to do with what Peter or Paul were talking about.
Another way to describe the problem is to mention a friend of mine who came onto the streets with us on one occasion, armed with a Bible, and a load of post-it notes in the book of Romans so that he could go systematically through the book of Romans with someone on the street and show them the progress of a few isolated verses to show them that they were sinners, but that they could be saved and go to heaven. (I don’t know if they found a verse for heaven in Romans though.)
I don’t know where to begin with the problems with this. First of all Romans could not be more wonderful for the topic I want to address, namely, the theme of redemption: for Israel, for the Gentiles, for all of creation – with us as individuals falling in different places in this picture. In no way is this recognised by such a scatter-gun, selective ‘evangelical’ approach to Romans. Just find the verses to show an individual that they are bad and they need to pray the sinner’s prayer.
It surprises me above all that as (generally Reformed) evangelical Christians there are such a number of us who really think that we can show any non-believer a few verses in our most-beloved book of Romans and that they will fall down at our feet declaring that God is with us. Did God make such a formulaic humanity that He would prescribe such a deathly, formulaic approach to the Gospel? I remember that in these days when I assumed this was the way you had to do it, I showed a little ‘Gospel tract’ of this sort written around a fake dollar note (of course it was American) to someone from my home church, and he just burst out laughing. I was offended at the time. I would now join him.
I’m sure I sound deeply heretical, but though I have become tired of offering disclaimers, I must obviously state that I am in favour of direct evangelism, preaching of the Good News (preferring that unequivocal term to the Old English word ‘Gospel’ which is generally more associated with a musical genre), and of seeking that people be saved. Those verses to which ‘ticket to heaven’ preachers go are true – the Son of Man did come to seek and save the lost; those who call on the name of the Lord will be saved, and so on. But what does it mean to be saved? How does it happen? How did the New Testament writers really think of and do evangelism, and moreover, what was their theological context for doing so?
These are important questions not least for the people that we become once we are saved, and that those who have been newly ‘saved’ ought to be welcomed into. This was one of my other initial struggles. A friend and I often went onto the streets because he felt passionately that if we’re obeying God, we ought to be going onto the streets and doing this sort of outreach. He wasn’t wrong, but we didn’t have any particular church base to support us, per se, nor any particular idea of what to do if someone did become a Christian and wanted to find a church. We knew the churches that were around and went to one ourselves; but it wasn’t part of our mindset when we were reaching out.
My discomfort at the time I think was a natural reaction due to a decent church upbringing; now I feel I have a little more of the theology to ground it as a concern. God is forming a people, not just people as individuals. The thrust of the New Testament really is about the people that He is drawing together, and so again I felt it grated with my reading of Scripture whenever I heard someone really driving down an individualistic-salvation route. What on earth is the church necessary for? Indeed, I feel like unfortunately some of my friends who have heard this message don’t always understand what the church is there for, other than to minister to individuals.
In short, my understanding of the Bible (most helped mainly by other people and the Holy Spirit) has, I feel, informed me of the following things:
- God created everything with and for a purpose.
- The Son of God, Jesus Christ, is the beginning and end, cause and goal of that creation; it is a gift in Him, through Him and for Him.
- Humanity is the climax of the Father’s great gift to the Son. As the Son was involved in the creation of a race of beings who through free will could choose to freely love God, He became willing to the pay the price of the deep defection that could take place in humanity should they choose to turn away from God – He became ‘the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world’ (Rev 13:8).
- God worked with a people beginning, in a sense, with Abraham, to create a context into which He could come in the flesh in His Son, in order to carry out the great act of redemption for all of creation, especially humanity.
- The cross and resurrection are the story of the end of one age and the beginning of a new one, played out supposedly right in the middle of an age, so that God’s new age of Messianic rule began on Easter Sunday and continues today so that we are those ‘upon whom the ends of the ages have come’ (says Paul).
- Those who entrust themselves to God through Jesus (ie. have faith) because of His faithfulness begin a participation in this new life and new age, along with all who have believed forming a people with a fresh, new identity as God’s people, God’s priesthood on earth, His new humanity.
- Ultimately all of His people will be raised bodily as Jesus was, in some way in conjunction with Jesus’ own return to earth which will be manifest not just by His re-appearance but also by His being glorified in His saints.
- There will be a great ‘Sabbath rest’ for God’s creation, a great 7th day in which Christ will rule and reign with His saints for 1,000 years, whether that figure is symbolic or literal. This will be the summation of all that has been longed for since Genesis – for the 7th day of rest, the Sabbath, the Jubilee, the redemption of Israel – God’s people – and creation.
I realise there are some holes: where is Satan in all this? He was obviously involved in the defection described and has a place of punishment assigned to which also will go those who have followed his rebellious way. Whether those who have been clueless either way all their lives go that way I think is seriously open to debate – I certainly feel that Romans 2 and other Scriptural passages and precedents warrant otherwise.
But hopefully you get a sense of the thrust of what I’m trying to say is important: There is far more to the Good News than simply that God wants to save people from guilt and give them a ticket to heaven when they die. I do not deny the need for our guilt to be dealt with, but there is so much more that our God is dealing with through the work of the cross that makes this really, really, really good news that we have to preach! God sees all the parts of the earth that are going down the plughole – He wants to save them!
The preaching of the Good News could never be more important than at a time like ours. But let’s please not make it so narrow as what we’ve always been taught. Let’s meet people where they’re at. There was once a man named Philip who simply went to where he knew he needed to be; it ended up with a conversation with a man from Ethiopia, a conversation about Jesus in the book of Isaiah – because that was what the Ethiopian wanted to know about. It ended with a desire to be saved on his part; Philip willingly obliged by baptising him in water.
This issue can be further examined in books like Tom Wright’s recently-released How God Became King – a book that springs from years of thought since he was asked to teach about ‘the Gospel in the Gospels’ – where, after all, is that great message of justification by faith in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John? When Jesus came, the Gospel He pronounced was the Gospel of the Kingdom. If we start talking about this again, I think we may start getting back on the right track.
One last thought, indeed an afterthought, a postscript. I was speaking to a gentleman who himself has only heard about this idea of going out and trying to tell people that they need to pray the sinner’s prayer so that they can go to heaven. My head buzzing with these kinds of thoughts, I suggested to him that God had made him, a bit like me, to be a quiet, introspective person, a good listener perhaps, and that listening as much as speaking can be instrumental in the preaching of the Good News. Philip first listened, to the Holy Spirit and then also to the eunuch, and responded to what he heard. Would this have happened if we had all been taught that ‘preaching the Gospel’ means giving the same watered-down possibly-theologically-inaccurate formula to everyone just to make sure we’ve done our bit? Surely it’s worth doing our bit well, and doing it right!