Can you be born again and not be saved?

This is one of those topics that will sound like counting angels dancing on the head of a pin to some, so please pardon me if you don’t care for these kinds of questions.

I have been reading RC Sproul’s excellent book Essential Truths of the Christian Faith. It is the kind of book that I wish Methodists could produce. In it, Sproul provides overviews of 100 important theological concepts. Each entry is brief and written for lay readers. It is clear but not at all simplistic. Being written by Sproul, of course, it is decidedly Reformed in its theology.

As an Arminian, which makes me a close sibling our Reformed brothers and sisters, much of the book speaks to me. Where I part ways with Sproul are when he writes about predestination, perfection, and the order of salvation. The last is the topic I want to consider for the balance of this post.

Sproul writes that the order of salvation goes like this:

  • Regeneration
  • Faith
  • Justification
  • Sanctification
  • Glorification

In other words, we must be born again before we can have the faith that saves us. And this regeneration has nothing to do with our own activity or action, of course. Faith is only possible once we have been regenerated or born again.

This is different than the Arminian understanding preached by John Wesley and Methodists after him.

We teach that it is not full regeneration but preventing (or prevenient) grace that comes before faith. Human beings — who would be utterly lost and hopeless without grace — have received the preventing grace that arouses in us those first desires to do good and to seek God. We often call this effect of grace our conscience. By cooperating and listening to the grace that precedes salvation, we are brought to conviction of our sin and saving faith in Jesus Christ.

We would list the stages in this way:

  • Awakening
  • Conviction
  • Justification & New Birth (regeneration)
  • Sanctification
  • Glorification

For us, faith in Jesus Christ, justification, and new birth are all distinct things that occur at the same moment. When we have faith in Jesus Christ as our savior, we are justified. When we are justified, we are born again by the Holy Spirit.

Both ways of thinking about the matter center on justification by faith. We are saved by grace when we believe in Jesus Christ, who died for us. Both would say that once we are justified, we grow into sanctification. We work out our salvation. We differ significantly, however, on what happens prior to justification.

What had not been so clear to me before reading Sproul’s book was that he would say it is possible to be born again but not be saved. For Wesleyans, the one cannot happen without the other. In the instant we are set right with God we are born again. When we are born again, we are justified.

As a pastoral matter, I am not sure how much these differences matter to the way we preach and teach and counsel. I have not worked that out yet. It does remind me, though, that just because a person uses words such as “born again” or “regenerated” does not mean they mean the same thing I do when I use those words.

Can you be born again and not be saved?

What Wesley got wrong

John Wesley’s sermon “On Faith” — the first to two by that name — is an interesting look at Wesley’s reflection on his own preaching and on questions about how God will judge non-Christians.

Indeed, nearly fifty years ago, when the Preachers, commonly called Methodists, began to preach that grand scriptural doctrine, salvation by faith, they were not sufficiently apprized of the difference between a servant and a child of God. They did not clearly understand, that even one “who feareth God, and worketh righteousness, is accepted of him.” In consequence of this, they were apt to make sad the hearts of those whom God had not made sad. For they frequently asked those who feared God, “Do you know that your sins are forgiven?” And upon their answering, “No,” immediately replied, “Then you are a child of the devil.” No; this does not follow. It might have been said, (and it is all that can be said with propriety) “Hitherto you are only a servant, you are not a child of God. You have already great reason to praise God that he has called you to his honourable service. Fear not. Continue crying unto him, ‘and you shall see greater things than these.’ “

Both regarding Christians who have not yet seen the greater things of faith and non-Christians who still seek after God according to the light they have received, the older Wesley put much more emphasis on praising what work God had already done and urging or inviting people into deeper faith. The young Wesley was more inclined to scold. The older Wesley was more apt to encourage.

At its heart, Wesley’s Methodism is a call to higher and deeper spiritual life, but it is extremely generous with regard to those forms of faith and non-Christian religion that do not share Methodism’s vision of holiness of heart and life.

This spirit is difficult to maintain if our impulse is self-aggrandizing. If we seek the full Methodist vision of holiness because we want to feel spiritually superior to others, then not only have we missed the mark, but we are defiling the very name of Christ.

This is why John Wesley always emphasized humility as the very first and essential characteristic of the Christian life. Pride of any form is incompatible with Methodism.

What Wesley got wrong

Methodism as a spiritual order?

A Christian is defined as a follower of Jesus, and reflection upon the experience of following constitutes the central theme of any solid theology.

This is how Gustavo Gutierrez’s We Drink From Our Own Wells begins. I am still trying to figure out whether I agree with him.

Is theology what emerges when we reflect on the experience of following Jesus?

In Gutierrez’s book, he describes the various schools of the Spirit within the Roman Catholic Church — Dominicans, Franciscans, Ignatians, and so on — as arising out of particular experiences that become theologized. The experience comes before the theology.

Gutierrez argues that liberation theology is the theology that emerges when people seek both to be followers of Jesus and committed workers for liberation from material and political oppression. Liberation theology is what you get when you have the experience of following Jesus in the midst of the struggle.

If I am understanding his argument, then we might conceive of Methodism as the theology and practice that emerged as followers of Jesus sought after an experience of total sanctification — perfection in love — in the context of early industrial Britain. Although John Wesley would argue that Methodism represented true Christianity, Gutierrez would argue that it represents a way of being Christian.

Here is what I find appealing in this — assuming I am understanding Gutierrez at all.

First, it helps me think through the continuing ecclesiastical and vocational problems presented to United Methodist clergy by the fact that our church emerged as a holiness movement within the Church of England.

I can envision in this a bifurcated role in which the pastor is both leader of a church body committed to the broadly ecumenical and orthodox — the small ‘c’ church catholic if you will — expression of the faith and shepherd of distinct groups within the larger body of those who wish to delve into Methodist spirituality. (I see here something of the two kinds of Christian Wesley describes in “The More Excellent Way.”)

The United Methodist pastor would not have to be so troubled or defeated by the fact that so many in our congregations do not opt to pursue Methodist spirituality, so long as they do attend to the orthodox faith, but we would continue to provide and even view our role as being guardians of a Methodist spirituality that aims at a perfection in love, a holiness of heart and life, as the Holy Spirit’s promise to all who seek it.

Second, Gutierrez’s approach puts life in front of books. Theology is usually taught and presented as a collection of ideas and concepts knit together into elegant systems by brilliant thinkers. As a rather bookish guy myself, I don’t begrudge theologians any of this, but I do find that it can lead to theology that has no connection to life as lived and experienced by people.

I also find in my own life that theology only gets developed when it becomes the focal point of some lived problem or joy. The areas where I have thought through and wrestled theology to the ground the hardest are those places where experience makes those theological questions pressing.

Now, for all that, I am wary of making experience the touch stone of theology. I’ve seen first hand how we can use experience to justify anything we want to gut the witness of Scripture and the wisdom of tradition. And so, I’m wary of the prominence Gutierrez gives to experience as the crucible of theology. Perhaps this is why it is important that all these various spiritualities and ways of being Christian remain linked under the broader umbrella of the body of Christ.

Cautions noted, I do find myself coming back to this book again and again. I keep wondering if these words are not the best way to understand the nature of Methodism within the wider church:

Every great spirituality begins with the attainment of a certain level of experience. Then follows reflection on this experience, thus making it possible to propose it to the Christian community as a way of following Christ.

Methodism as a spiritual order?

The devil’s scorecard

Have you cast out any devils recently?

This is a very Wesleyan question.

John Wesley, in his oft-cited sermon “A Caution Against Bigotry,” suggests our standard for judging the ministry of another be that question. Does the preaching of the person destroy the work of the devil?

In his sermon, Wesley points out that all the sins and evils of this world are the sign of the devil’s dominion.

Is it a small proof of his power, that common swearers, drunkards, whoremongers, adulterers, thieves, robbers, sodomites, murderers, are still found in every part of our land? How triumphant does the prince of this world reign in all these children of disobedience?

To this list, Wesley adds liars, slanderers, oppressors, extortioners, perjurers, and traitors. He even mentions the genocidal actions of his own colonizing countrymen. But the important point here is that all these manifestations of sin are signs of people under the power of Satan. A sinner is a captive. To bring a sinner to repentance is to drive the devil out. Conversion itself is a miracle of God. As Wesley writes elsewhere, it is no less a miracle to bring back to life a soul dead in sin than it is to bring back to a life a body dead in the ground.

We are locked in a spiritual war, Wesley writes in the sermon. We need all the allies we can get.

He that gathereth not men into the kingdom of God, assuredly scatters them from it. For there can be no neuter in this war. Every one is either on God’s side, or on Satan’s. Are you on God’s side? Then you will not only not forbid any man that casts out devils, but you will labour, to the uttermost of you power, to forward him in the work.

Wesley suggests a three-part test to see if a person has driven out devils.

  1. Find a person who once was an open sinner.
  2. Notice that this person is no longer such and instead is living a Christian life.
  3. Fix the impetus for this change in attending the preaching of this or that person.

If you can do all three, than you can assume that God has driven out the devil through the work of that preacher.

This is more important than any disagreements over doctrine or practice. Wesley — in the part of the sermon that tends to get quoted most often — goes on to say that even if the person doing the preaching is an Arian or a Muslim or a Jew or Deist, if the fruit of the preaching is the driving out of Satan, then we should applaud and support that preacher’s work.

Wesley does not explain exactly how a Muslim imam might lead someone to live “a Christian life,” but his point remains. Perhaps in our internal denominational conversations and our interfaith dialogue we would be served well if we asked Wesley’s question rather than got bogged down on other matters.

Have you driven out devils? Yes? Then let us praise God together for that.

The devil’s scorecard

Aiming for heaven?

I get the feeling at times that the church tries to be more than it is and tries to do more than it reasonably can do. It feels at times that we don’t know why we exist, and so we grab on to virtually anything that justifies our existence.

John Wesley — whatever his faults — did not suffer this problem. He saw the purpose of the church as getting people to heaven. He sums this attitude up no where better than in the preface to his sermons when he discusses his own attitude toward the Bible.

I am a creature of a day, passing through life as an arrow through the air. I am a spirit come from God, and returning to God: Just hovering over the great gulf; till, a few moments hence, I am no more seen; I drop into an unchangeable eternity! I want to know one thing, — the way to heaven; how to land safe on that happy shore.

Elsewhere he wrote more directly about the church, but the spirit was the same. The point of what we do is to land people in heaven.* This was Wesley’s passion and purpose for his entire ministry.

And I wonder what would change in the UMC if that was our goal. What if our mission statement was something like this: The mission of the United Methodist Church is to get people into heaven?

I have to confess that it feels like a goal with a great deal more clarity to it than “Make Disciples of Jesus Christ for the Transformation of the World.” We won’t know if we have met the goal in this life, but the goal feels like the kind of thing that could actually organize our work in a way that our current mission statement does not.


* I am aware that the idea of heaven as the goal rather than the new heaven and earth is a debated point. I find the term “heaven” a convenient place holder for whatever we understand to be the end of all things.

Aiming for heaven?

Show me, don’t beat me

In the preface to his first series of sermons, John Wesley entreated readers who thought he was in the wrong how they could most effectively persuade him of the truth.

Are you persuaded you see more clearly than me? It is not unlikely that you may. Then treat me as you would desire to be treated yourself upon a change of circumstances. Point me out a better way than I have yet known. Show me it is so, by plain proof of Scripture. And if I linger in the path I have been accustomed to tread, and am therefore unwilling to leave it, labour with me a little; take me by the hand, and lead me as I am able to bear. But be not displeased if I entreat you not to beat me down in order to quicken my pace: I can go but feebly and slowly at best; then, I should not be able to go at all. May I not request of you, further, not to give me hard names in order to bring me into the right way. Suppose I were ever so much in the wrong, I doubt this would not set me right. Rather, it would make me run so much the farther from you, and get more and more out of the way.

Wesley’s words here may have been better than his practice. I’m sure many of his debating partners found him not terribly open to persuasion on most points. But that acknowledged, I admire the spirit of this passage. It would be wonderful if we could adopt such an attitude in the midst of our disagreements.

And having written that, I feel compelled to point out that Wesley, who wrote the above, was also an absolute stickler on discipline in his societies. He would warn a wayward member and weather their backsliding for a time, but if they would not amend their ways, they were out. So, clearly, there is a distinction in his thinking between discussing points of faith and enforcing church discipline. In the United Methodist Church, we would probably do well to follow that example as well.

Show me, don’t beat me