I regularly visit a website titled “Act 3: Advancing the Christian Tradition in the Third Millennium,” which is the website of John Armstrong, a former pastor, church-planter, and an author of a number of books as well as being an adjunct professor at a few colleges in the Chicagoland area. A few years ago, when a friend of mine, John Espino, recommend that I read Dr. Armstrong’s blog, whom he referred to as the head of Reformation and Revival ministries, I honestly wasn’t interested, as I had been processing ideas from the Reformed tradition in light of what I was learning about the theology of the Early Church, and I also had some issues with what seemed to be the authoritarianism of some Reformed scholars.
A number of months ago, under circumstances, and for reasons I cannot quite recall, I visited Act 3, and was deeply impressed with Dr. Armstrong’s theological reflection on various cultural issues. Though he affirmed his Reformed roots, he clearly had a more comprehensive vision of the Xian faith, and was passionate about the Missional Movement, which places an emphasis on the Church as being the sent people of God who know that proclamation of the Gospel requires an authentic embodiment of Jesus’ message. John expresses this ethos time and again in his blog as he consistently draws upon the larger Xian tradition when he reflects upon such diverse issues of discipleship, racism in America, the current campaign for the Presidency, and a host of other spiritual, socio-cultural, economic and political issues. All of this to say that I recommend you read Dr. Armstrong’s blog.
This endorsement, however, is not the purpose of this post. Instead, I recently read a series of posts by Dr. Armstrong’s about A.W. Tozer and the question of whether there are conditions to salvation. This was, to say the least, challenging. I have always had feelings toward A.W. Tozer similar to what one might feel toward an O.T. prophet: respect mixed with the sense that you might not want to hear what is coming because it is likely to be challenging. In short, Mr. Tozer’s conviction is that there are conditions to salvation, which are as follows: repentance and an acknowledgment of our inability to save ourselves, commitment to following Christ, a progressive growth in Christ likeness, a turn from idolatry and the false consolations of the world, an embrace of prayer and worship, an increasing desire to serve others, active involvement in the Church. In reading and processing this post I gave the following responses to Mr. Armstrong’s blog.
I have read Tozer and been prompted by awe to praise God, and I have read Tozer and been driven to my knees for fear that I hardly know Him. Off hand, I would say that this indicates that Tozer is a prophetic figure, as any encounter with God’s word is apt be a disorienting and reorienting experience, and Tozer has that effect.
As far as conditions of salvation are concerned, I think it is helpful to acknowledge the distinction that systematic theologians mark between objective and subjective soteriology, wherein the former focuses on the ministry and person of Jesus Christ as the ground and embodiment of salvation, and the latter has to do with how each person appropriates the reality of salvation that is in Christ. Regarding subjective soteriology various traditions and denominations have worked out an “ordo salutis” or “an order of salvation” wherein the steps to salvation are named and arranged. In reflecting on all this, however, I find it interesting that the Catholic Church during the Seven Ecumenical Councils (the Councils prior to the split between East and West, and the manifold splits of the West) never articulated how one lays hold of the salvation that is in Jesus Christ. I know I am being speculative, but it seems to me that though we can assert that no one comes to the Father but through Jesus, we cannot establish a formula for how one genuinely comes to Jesus. The bondage of humanity to sin is universal, but how each person is broken as a result of that bondage is perhaps as unique as our thumbprint. If this is so, then maybe how we come to faith, and begin to genuinely follow Christ is just as unique.
I know that this is perhaps too open ended, and perhaps intellectually sloppy for some, but it seems to me that mystery is an inherent part of the Christian faith, and if it is, then there will always be something we cannot give an account for in our schemas and doctrines, as helpful and important as they are.
To give a little personal context to my previous comment, there have been times in my life where I have wondered if I ever really knew the Lord, and this is exacerbated by having a degree in theology where the tendency is that the head outpaces the heart in knowledge. In the midst of processing this matter, I have often read books about genuine faith and salvation often trying to find where I plot out in the schema of that particular book. Through this, however, I began to sense the Lord saying to me that such endeavors were more about me trying to work out a formula, as opposed to genuinely trusting in him. This may be simplistic, but as I thought about this it seemed to me that genuine trust and obedience are organically related, as disobedience is what happens when we don’t really trust God’s wisdom and goodness, and thereby take a course of action according to the limits of our own understanding.
If I may be permitted, I would like to interject some words from another evangelical mystic, George MacDonald.
“The Lord never came to deliver men from the consequences of their sins while those sins yet remained. That would be to cast out the window the medicine of cure while still the man lay sick. Yet, feeling nothing of the dread hatefulness of their sin, men have constantly taken this word that the Lord came to deliver us from our sins to mean that he came to save them from the punishment of their sins.
This idea has terribly corrupted the preaching of the Gospel. The message of the Good News has not been truly communicated… The mission of Jesus was from the same source and with the same object as the punishment of our sins. He came to do more than take the punishment for our sins. He came as well to set us free from our sin.
No man is safe from hell until he is free from his sin. But a man to whom his sins are a burden, while he may indeed sometimes feel as if he were in hell, will soon have forgotten that he ever had any other hell to think of than that of his sinful condition. For to him his sin is hell. He would go to the other hell to be free of it. Free of his sin, hell itself would be endurable to him.”
Taking what George MacDonald so eloquently expressed, and summarizing it, I would say that salvation is most essentially from sin itself, its power and presence in our lives. As we are delivered from sin, we are naturally delivered from its consequences, the ultimate of which is hell itself.
Using this to directly respond to Tozer, I would say that Tozer’s “conditions of salvation” might be better understood as signs of salvation. We know we are saved, and are being saved, when we obey the Lord, when we no longer seek the false consolation of the world, when we repent of idolatry, when we genuinely seek to commune with him.
I once read somewhere that MacDonald said in a sermon something to the effect that he did not consider himself saved, and that he would not consider himself so until by the grace of God he had been brought into the perfection that God desires for him in Jesus Christ. For MacDonald, this movement toward perfection is something we should experience here, but would not be complete until the age to come.
This kind of challenges our modern evangelical notions of salvation, doesn’t it?
Well, this is where I currently am in processing the nature of salvation and what conditions, or expectations we may have when we use that word. Anyone care to weigh in with their ideas? If so, it may be a good idea to read the couple of posts on Dr. Armstrong’s blog, but it is not necessary.