I had an epiphany while I was reading Kurt Willem’s Red Letter Christians article on being a Christian disciple rather than doing Christianity. It’s not like it’s the first time I’ve heard people talk about being rather than doing. It was very trendy among the writers we read in seminary to talk that way. But this is the first time I thought of these two words as being analogous to works-righteousness (doing) and justification by faith (being). And so I wanted to put forward a somewhat risky proposal (which can hopefully be treated as theology-in-progress rather than heresy by my more zealous critics). What if salvation is properly understood as a perpetual process of being converted from works-righteousness to justification by faith?
I think the reason this question is preposterous to some of you reading this is because you have been shaped by a set of assumptions within American evangelical Christianity that we inherited from the camp meeting revival culture of the 19th century. In revival culture, salvation became an event rather than a process. The goal of the revival preacher was to whip up the sinner to a point of such terror and contrition that they would despair of their eternal self-sufficiency and throw themselves upon the mercy of the cross. It was a one-shot deal, because little towns didn’t have permanent preachers. Preachers could only come to town as part of a long preaching circuit. Thus, they didn’t do sermon series. The sermon had to present the entire gospel in one speech which was supposed to draw as many people out of their seats and weeping at the altar as possible, hence a need for large helpings of fire and brimstone and a God angry enough to move a confused sinner’s heart quickly. It wasn’t the time or place for thoughtful apologetic discourse or the “seeker-sensitive” Santa Claus God of today’s megachurches. God needed to be brutal enough to make the sinner’s salvation event decisive, which also meant that the sinner needed the security to feel like the exact date and time of her altar call was absolute enough to engrave her name in the Book of Life.
The revivalist ethos has cast a large shadow on the evangelical consciousness since those times. It’s part of this revivalist legacy to tell people they haven’t been “born again” unless they can give you an exact date as opposed to saying they grew up in the church and gradually took ownership of their faith over time. Evangelicals use their “born-again” date to define themselves against mainline Protestants and Catholics, but I’m not sure that this way of thinking is Biblically necessary. The Ethiopian certainly asked Philip to pull the chariot over and baptize him. Paul was thrown from a chariot on the way to Damascus.
But what about Peter and the other disciples who went through different stages of making Jesus their Lord? What about the many households of people who were baptized by Paul? What about Cornelius who feared God, then had a specific dream, then talked to Peter, and then was baptized? What about Nicodemus who must have believed something when he invited Jesus to his house but took a couple years to get over his incredulity at what Jesus said until he put his reputation on the line by going with Joseph of Arimathea to claim the body of his Savior? Is it useful to comb through all of these stories searching for a preconceived conversion moment they need to have? Or is it okay for salvation to be a process within them?
And furthermore, why couldn’t we call Paul’s conversion a process too? Does saying, “Who are you, Lord?” really constitute “accepting Jesus into your heart”?
A large part of the reason I’m a Methodist and not a Baptist is because Methodism does understand salvation to be a process rather than a one-time event. I was baptized at age 7 with all the sincerity in my heart that a 7-year old could muster, and I believed with all the sincerity that a 16-year old could muster that it hadn’t worked the first time so I prayed Jesus (back) into my heart at Young Life camp. Then at age 20 in the square of San Cristobal de las Casas, in an event that I still cannot fully understand, God made me His when my heart was broken by a little barefoot indigenous girl who tried to sell me Zapatista dolls. That’s my story. It might not work for a testimony in a Baptist church. But to me, it seems completely ludicrous to try to make one of these events or one of the many other transformative moments God has used into my “when I got saved” moment.
So now I want to make a claim that is kind of out there even for a Methodist. In Methodism, we believe that there are two parts to salvation: justification and sanctification. Justification has to do with my trust of Christ’s sacrifice on my behalf, while sanctification has to do with the transformation the Holy Spirit is able to make to my character because of the trust I have given to Christ. The standard Wesleyan teaching is that justification is the inaugural event of salvation, while sanctification is the process by which we “work out our salvation with fear and trembling.” There have been variations on this teaching before. Phoebe Palmer claimed during the Holiness movement that sanctification could be an instantaneous event that happens at the same time as justification, and a whole set of branches on the Wesleyan tree sprung up from this new Holiness tradition.
What I want to claim is in the opposite quadrant from Phoebe Palmer. I think that justification is best understood to be a process just like sanctification is. I may be somewhat repositioning the lexicography of these two terms. I would define justification as the measure of my trust in Christ while sanctification is the measure of my transformation by the Spirit. They’re two different categories of measurement for how saved I am (a way of talking which is surely maddening to a neurotic either/or “born again” dater).
The more that we are justified, the more we can be sanctified, but sanctification begins long before justification is complete. This seems to be consistent with the ordo saludis of Thomas Aquinas (as best I can remember) since Thomas writes that the three supernatural virtues faith, hope, and charity feed one another the more each one is developed, which helps explain why my Catholic friend Dan pretty much said Duh! when I shared my thought with him. But it would certainly be a new development within Wesleyan thought to say that justification and sanctification are both processes that feed off of each other. Still, I just don’t think John Wesley would be scandalized to hear someone say that engaging in a work of mercy or piety could increase your trust in Christ and cultivate the spiritual fruits (patience, gentleness, mercy, etc) in your heart at the same time. It seems ludicrous to need for there to be a linear sequence between putting our trust in Christ and receiving the Spirit’s transformation.
In any case, when Paul says in Romans 10:9, “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus Christ is Lord and believe in your heart that He was raised from the dead, you will be saved,” what in the world makes this have to be a one-time event rather than a perpetual posture of trust? What does it really accomplish to stand up in church to make a one-time confession of the Lordship of Christ (which by the way has lost its meaning in a culture that doesn’t use the word “Lord” in non-religious contexts)? Maybe being saved has to do with continually confessing Jesus as Lord in response to all the other lords who claim your allegiance: family, career, country, addictions, etc. When otherwise valid life pursuits turn you into their slave and you catch yourself worshiping an idol, you open your mouth and say, “I forgot. Jesus is Lord!”
With regard to the conversion from works-righteousness and self-justification, I don’t think we ever stop being Galatians completely (Galatia was the church Paul ripped to shreds for trying to earn their salvation through works). We are constantly needing to be reminded not to try to prove our worth to God through our works. We forget that what makes us Christian is not that we avoid premarital sex or work in the soup kitchen or lift our hands in the air and close our eyes when we sing in church or a dozen other markers that we use to show off our Christianity to others. What makes us Christian is that Jesus died to set us free from our sins. I don’t think it’s useful to pretend that we always trust in Jesus perfectly from the moment we first decide to give it a try. It seems more honest to understand it as a process that gets easier the more that we do it. We certainly have to start that process somewhere, so those who will melt away without a “born again” date could say that “being saved” happens when you’ve started the process of your salvation.
Now someone is going to say, well, it’s fine for you to talk that way about Christian discipleship, which is certainly a process, but why call this salvation? Salvation has to do with how we measure up before God, whether we have the Jesus stilts that make us tall enough to jump over heaven’s gate. Here’s my conundrum. If we are justified by trusting in Christ and not by any action that we take (which would be a work), then justification by faith definitely cannot involve proving anything to God because whatever decision or propositional assent that does the proving would in actuality be the “work” by which we are saved. If however, justification primarily involves Jesus’ convincing us to trust Him fully, then there truly is no need for a “work” that God needs to evaluate as a faithful or unfaithful response to His love. Justification would simply consist in accepting and receiving Christ’s atonement as a gift, a freedom which is undermined any time we try to prove our worth to God through our actions. I believe that every day we have to be converted by God into receiving our salvation as a gift.
Tell me what you think about this topic and whether you think it’s within the bounds of orthodoxy.