Hamilton on the atonement

I was watching Adam Hamilton’s sermon on the meaning of Jesus’ death the other day.


Here is what I heard. First, all theories of the atonement are metaphors. Taking them as literal is an error. It is poetry not economics or juridical practice. Second, the atonement is primarily about how the cross changes us. It is God’s message to inspire and motivate us.

That is not all that was said, of course, but those were the two main ideas I heard. What about you?

Salvation = holiness

In an exchange earlier this week, I was reminded that United Methodists do not preach a “truncated” gospel concerned merely with flying away to heaven, but a full gospel of present salvation and redemption. These were words that would make John Wesley smile, I think.

For instance, here are Wesley’s on way of putting it in “A Farther Appeal to Men of Reason and Religion”:

By salvation I mean, not barely, according to the vulgar notion, deliverance from hell, or going to heaven; but a present deliverance from sin, a restoration of the soul to its primitive health, its original purity; a recovery of the divine nature; the renewal of our soul after the image of God, in righteousness and true holiness, in justice, mercy, and truth. This implies all holy and heavenly tempers, and, by consequence, all holiness of conversation.

And a few lines down:

Salvation, in this sense, and holiness, are synonymous terms.

Have I betrayed the Reformation?

From J.I. Packer’s introduction to a 1957 edition of Luther’s The Bondage of the Will:

Is our salvation wholly of God, or does it ultimately depend on something that we do for ourselves? Those who say the latter (as the Arminians later did) thereby deny man’s utter helplessness in sin, and affirm that a form of semi-Pelagianism is true after all. It is no wonder, then, that later Reformed theology condemned Arminianism as being in principle a return to Rome (because in effect it turned faith in to a meritorious work) and a betrayal of the Reformation (because it denied the sovereignty of God in saving sinners, which was the deepest religious and theological principle of the Reformers’ thought.)

The quote helps me understand why John Wesley was always being accused by Calvinists of being a secret Catholic.

John Wesley’s work “The Question ‘What is an Arminian?’ Answered by a Lover of Free Grace” has made little dent in such criticisms over the years. In that short work, Wesley asserts that Arminians embrace the doctrines of original sin and justification by faith (alone) just as zealously as John Calvin himself or any of his followers.

Where they differ is on the question of predestination, but not in the way many people think.

Wesley did not deny predestination. He denied what he called “absolute” predestination in favor of “conditional” predestination. Here are Wesley’s words:

The Calvinists hold, (1.) God has absolutely decreed, from all eternity, to save such and such persons, and no others; and that Christ died for these, and none else. The Arminians hold, God has decreed, from all eternity, touching all that have the written word, “He that believeth shall be saved: He that believeth not, shall be condemned:”* And in order to this, “Christ died for all, all that were dead in trespasses and sins;” that is, for every child of Adam, since “in Adam all died.”

For Wesley, then, God predestined the means of salvation from the creation of cosmos. God did not decree before time began that Sally would be saved and Bill would not. Or so Wesley and other Arminians have taught.

But even in teaching this, Wesley argued that without grace, no one could have the faith that saves. In our fallen state, our wills do bend only to evil and away from God. But by God’s preventing grace, the light has flickered in our darkness and we are enabled to receive and respond to that light. That preventing grace is not sufficient to save, but it does mean that the people we meet are not destitute of grace, no matter how far they seem to be from God.

In the pastoral setting, where I run into the “so what?” part of these conversations nearly always revolves around friends and loved ones.

A member of the church wonders why it is that some members of the family are Christians and others are not. There are many ways to talk about this, but one pair of options looks something like this:

A) God’s eternal will has determined who will be saved and who will not. It has nothing to do with us. So, pray for your children who don’t go to church, but know that God will bring them to Christ if that is his will. Do not be anxious for them. God is in control.

B) God has opened the way of salvation to all people everywhere. He wants everyone to be saved. But he will not force us to come to him. Instead, he gives us his grace and invites us to respond to it with repentance. That grace is in your children’s lives. Encourage them to see it for what it is, God’s loving grace. Let them know that the Father is always seeking and longing for them. He does not want them to be condemned. The door is open.

Neither answer calms the anxieties of those who fear their children or relative might be condemned to hell. But I don’t think Calvinists or Arminians are in the business of removing anxiety about hell. That is a whole different theological project.

Calvinists and Arminians are wrestling with most of the same theological and pastoral questions. They stand on the same ground in many ways. When it gets down to it, though, they do part ways on some important questions.

As I ponder all this — and apologize to you for my more rambling style than normal — I recall the final words of Wesley’s tract on Arminianism:

One word more: Is it not the duty of every Arminian Preacher, First, never, in public or in private, to use the word Calvinist as a term of reproach; seeing it is neither better nor worse than calling names? — a practice no more consistent with good sense or good manners, than it is with Christianity. Secondly. To do all that in him lies to prevent his hearers from doing it, by showing them the sin and folly of it? And is it not equally the duty of every Calvinist Preacher, First, never in public or in private, in preaching or in conversation, to use the word Arminian as a term of reproach? Secondly. To do all that in him lies to prevent his hearers from doing it, by showing them the sin and folly thereof; and that the more earnestly and diligently, if they have been accustomed so to do? perhaps encouraged therein by his own example!

*Wesley here edits Mark 16:16, removing reference to baptism. According to his note on this verse, baptism is a token of the saving faith, not a requirement for salvation.

Bishop reminds conference that Jesus saves

Recently, my bishop announced a small-grant program for churches that want to start new worship experiences to engage new people. In his weekly e-mail message to the conference today, he wrote about an unexpected response to the program:

One of the most interesting questions I have been asked about the plan to invite our churches to start 100 New Points of Light (worship opportunities to reach new people) has been the question “Why?”

I expected to hear the question “How?” asked often, and we are preparing to provide ideas, models, support, and advisors to help churches know “how” to start new worship services. That is important because we want this to be a free, Spirit-led movement, but we also want to give every opportunity for these new worship opportunities to be fruitful. I was expecting the question “How?” but I was not expecting the question “Why?”

After further reflection I realize that the issue is soteriology. That word “soteriology” is an academic way of saying that too many United Methodist people and pastors do not have a clear theology of salvation. Or to be put it even more crudely, too many of our pastors and people do not have a passionate belief that salvation is needed or that people are “lost” when they stand outside of a faith in Jesus Christ.

The absence of a clear soteriology is a weakness in many of our United Methodist congregations. Perhaps we bishops, seminary professors, clergy, Sunday School teachers, and others in the church have failed to emphasize and clearly state our understanding of salvation. If so, it is high time we did a better job of teaching, nurturing, and sharing our belief that faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior makes a difference in people’s lives.

So, let me state it clearly and plainly: I believe that all people are created for a relationship with God through Jesus Christ, and I believe that every one of us needs that relationship in order to be “whole” and “saved” and “complete.” Living without that relationship to God means that our lives are broken, lost, and incomplete. Our world today is testimony to the brokenness, pain, evil, and heartache which results from attempting to live on our own strength and direction. So many people today are lost and wandering through life without knowing their God-given purpose. Without that God-given purpose, their lives become mired in self-centeredness, immorality, and pain.

Finding faith in God through Jesus Christ causes us to yearn for everyone to know that relationship with God. Discovering the forgiveness, grace, and love of God prompts us to share that good news for everyone. No one can be a full and complete disciple of Jesus Christ without also wanting that life for everyone. Whenever any one of us finds new life in Christ, we are compelled to share that joyous opportunity for everyone.

So of course we care about those who are still “lost” – and we want to provide any new opportunity we can for persons to move into a loving, forgiving, freeing relationship with God in Jesus Christ. Why would we offer new worship opportunities for new people to be drawn to God’s love? Because we care about people, we care that they are lost, and we want to help them find their way in life.

An absence of a sound and clear soteriology causes our churches to become little religious clubs of persons who only want their own needs met, who demand their own preferences, and who are satisfied to sit by and watch other people continue to live their desperately lost lives without faith.

A joyful and robust soteriology causes our churches to focus outwardly, to reach out to others in love, and to provide any new opportunity to draw people to God.

Why start 100 New Points of Light? Because we care about persons who are lost and outside of God’s love.

I am a goat

 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. (Matthew 25:31-33, NIV)

In a conversation over on Morgan Guyton’s blog, he asked me whether I ever felt as if I deserve eternal torment.

It was a good question. Like all good questions, it brought something from my own life into clearer focus. It pointed out to me that I analyze the situation from the other side. I don’t start with the assumption that I deserve paradise and God must prove the case if he would take it from me. I don’t put God in the dock. Continue reading