Soteriology, the theological category related to “salvation,” is one that theologians still dispute over. Actually, pastors and lots of other Christians debate about it too. In addition to the ordo salutis (order of salvation) and nature of salvation (Calvinism vs. Arminianism), many of the discussions I have are related to a shift that has happened in American Evangelicalism within the last one hundred years.
In today’s post-modern and post-Christian America, it seems like many people come to Christ in a smooth and easy way. As I’m hearing testimonies from people both within and outside of the church I serve, I often hear stories of how people started attending a church and slowly, over time, came to believe that Jesus is Lord and that he died for their sins. There appears to be less “struggle” and more of a gradual awareness of the gospel that goes from being a foreign concept to being personally applied and lived out. For these people there doesn’t appear to be an experience of conversion-out-of-crisis.
This wasn’t always the case. When reading or hearing testimonies from the past, it would seem that conversion to Christ was a deep struggle. A crisis of eternal proportions. People were standing on the brink of eternity and were in need of making an immediate decision or forfeit their souls to hell. As an example, in Thomas Kidd’s fantastic new biography George Whitefield, he writes:
“In Whitefield’s world, conversion to faith in Christ was no polite, simple affair. You did not just walk an aisle and ask Jesus to come into your heart. It was a titanic spiritual struggle – the defining struggle of one’s life – to find out whether God or the devil would ultimately command your soul’s allegiance.” (p. 20)
That doesn’t sound very smooth or easy of a conversion story! In fact, compared to many of the personal testimonies I have heard from people recently, it is almost entirely different than what happens commonly.
Why is this?
I have several working theories that need some more reflection before being publicized. Though a purpose of ThinkTheology.org is to foster theological reflection and we often are simply “thinking out loud” in what we write, I am concerned my current reflections may be either dangerous or so ignorant that I’d be embarrassed in a couple years to have written them!
I bet you really want to know what they are now, right?
Too bad. For now I’m going to skip some working thoughts concerning the nature of Justification and how I’m currently integrating both Wright and Piper’s views via my love and appreciation for Michael Bird and simply say this: as a pastor I find it extremely important that we listen to the stories of the people we are serving. While I’m convinced that Scripture certainly does paint a picture of forensic Justification, I’m equally convinced that this model can’t be held without appreciation for other crucial aspects and approaches to salvation.
So when I hear people’s stories, I try and listen, even if I’m not sure I’d describe their experience in the same way. Often this leads to some really great conversations where I can humbly respond with some thoughts and get their feedback, but the point isn’t to be “right” (or is it Wright?) versus being “wrong.”
Of course, and absolutely important to this conversation, I still do meet people and even help people who have come into the kingdom of God through deep spiritual crisis. So the post-modern post-Christianity that many of us are trying to faithfully navigate in certainly doesn’t have exclusivity to conversion experiences.
Hence my thoughts here.
What do you think? I’d love your opinions…
Luke is a pastor-theologian living in northern California, serving as a co-lead pastor with his life, Dawn, at the Red Bluff Vineyard. Father of five amazing kids, when Luke isn’t hanging with his family, reading or writing theology, he moonlights as a fly fishing guide for Confluence Outfitters. He blogs regularly at LukeGeraty.com and regularly contributes to his YouTube channel.