Saturday, June 11, 2011

Saved Liberals?

One of the questions that has persistently pecked at me these last few years is whether those from mainline traditions that have tended to reject the infallibility of the Bible and at least tolerated a rejection of doctrines involving the supernatural, i.e. the virgin birth, miracles of Jesus and resurrection to name a few, might in fact be "saved"?

Well, if I start with the premise that: 1) God saves and that 2) even the rather undeveloped faith of a child is the necessary prerequisite for entrance into the Kingdom God (as Jesus said), then I must conclude that it is certainly possible, right? Well, ... hold on a second.

J. Gresham Machen, Reformed giant and Presbyterian father of the faith wrote in his classic 1946 work, Christianity and Liberalism, that theological liberalism embraces a belief structure that is outside the pale of historical orthodoxy and therefore essentially "nonChristian." So this all confuses the matter somewhat doesn't it? After all, didn't the Apostle Paul himself say that if Christ isn't raised, then our faith is in vain? What if someone doesn't believe that Jesus has indeed been raised? Is their faith therefore in vain? Or what if someone believes it's OK to believe that Jesus hasn't indeed been raised but that he himself believes it? Is that person saved? Maybe that individual is in serious error but still saved? Can people in serious error be saved? I think I'm in serious error much of the time but that God in His graciousness reveals to me these things on His timetable (see the prayer of David in Psalm 139:23,24). Yes, but one can only be in serious error on some things, not the core doctrines though, right (as if in our finitude somehow we believe ourselves to have actually grasped these core doctrines in the present)? Also, what if someone isn't outwardly hostile or seeking to deceive others but simply has a particular question in his mind regarding whether Jesus was indeed raised? Might this guy not necessarily be a false teacher or even in serious error but simply a bit confused? Is he saved? And remember, people grappling in these places still use the Bible and "Jesus language" speaking perhaps of how the story of the resurrection inspires faith, despite not necessarily being historical as far as we can tell (so the argument goes).

So which is it? Saved or not saved?

Well, Richard Lovelace has helped me in his classic 1979 work Dynamics of Spiritual Life: An Evangelical Theology of Renewal. In his work Lovelace challenges both the traditional evangelical as well as the traditional liberal and he does so by looking for particular marks of renewal that have always accompanied the authentic work of God in the lives of true believers as well as in the world. The role of sanctification in the life of the believer and Church is the evaluation tool Lovelace uses. Lovelace speaks of being theonomous which simply means being "controlled by God." Lovelace says both Evangelicals as well as non-Evangelicals can exhibit patterns of "dead conformity or angry resistance." What these patterns reveal is the absence of the authentic work of God's Spirit in both cases:

"Thus some Evangelicals are encased in a Spiritless orthodoxy while resisting conviction of their social apathy, and some non-Evangelicals are engaged in Spiritless expressions of social activism while avoiding the sanctification of their minds in theonomous perception of biblical truth" (p. 112).

What Lovelace is getting at here is one can have right belief and doctrine, yet still be missing the authentic work of the Spirit who convicts us deeply of our sin and need for Christ (Rom. 7:14-16, 22-23). Yet others can have right practice and concern but still be missing the authentic work of God who renews the heart and mind ultimately so that the work of concern flows from within the renewed heart of concern. Lovelace continues to write:

"For the Evangelical a breakthrough into theonomous perception of the flesh would involve a Spirit-illuminated insight into the biblical grounding and divine reality of orthodox doctrines previously received only by tradition and advocated out of party spirit. There would also be a humbled recognition that many non-Evangelical thrusts against social injustice and Pharisaism are not meaningless heresy but a prophetic expression of the mind of God" (p. 113)

Wow! Lovelace points out that right belief, without the "control" of the Holy Spirit who brings about God-centered concerns, is a deficient faith. Also, he pushes evangelical people to see the goodness of much work that comes from the hands of non-Evangelical people, goodness that involves a "prophetic expression of the mind of God." But Lovelace doesn't end there rather continues to extend the critique to "non-evangelicals" as well:

"For the non-Evangelical a theonomous perception of the flesh would involve a quickened awareness of the extent to which the theory and motivation behind many initiatives of the social gospel have been graceless echoes of the self-righteous and guilt-motivated concerns of secular humanism, a regrounding of social compassion in God-centered concern for Christ's redemptive mission and an awakening of the fact that the Evangelical call for consistently biblical thinking is also a prophetic voice of God to the church" (p. 113).

Lovelace is preaching repentance to both the Evangelicals and Liberals, ... wow! He concludes this section by saying:

"If a widespread mutual movement toward sanctification in these two sectors would occur, the result would be an immense release of spiritual power within Western Christianity and the recovery of the stature and initiative lost by the church in the division of its forces in the late nineteenth century" (p. 113).

So Lovelace has a concern for both the mainline and the evangelical church and reserves a place within his paradigm to see both brought renewal and strength, to participate in the Missio Dei. He evaluates both "movements" by simply looking at the fruit of a theonomous (God-controlled, Spirit-led) corporate and individual life in the Church. Lovelace also says that if this happens, ... an "immense release of spiritual power within Western Christianity and recovery of the stature and initiative lost by the church..." happens as well: what a humongous hope!

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