In our evangelical world when people speak of salvation it is very common to hear the words "experience" and "decision" highlighted. We would like to compare this language with the Bibles manner of speaking about our salvation.
Notice in the following examples how we talk about salvation issues:
In conversation with a Christian elder I commented on an article we'd both read about another Christian body. He responded, "But we have the born-again experience." The subject in his sentence was "experience."
A denominational leader, in discussion with me, insisted that God does not give faith but only gives the "opportunity to believe."
In Christian testimonies the emphasis is often on "my decision" for Christ, how "I accepted," "my commitment," whom "I found," what "I experienced" and how "I changed," rather than on what God did.
In contrast, when we read the Bible we find a very different language and emphasis. To get at this, let's look at these two terms: "Experience" and "Decision."
What do we mean by the term, "experience?" Are we talking about a conscious awareness or assurance of an objective reality? Or are we talking about a subjective event that we can point back to in our life? My observation is that the term is understood by most people as the latter.
The question here is not whether experience is a part of our lives as Christians. It certainly is. The question is, rather, what is the role of experience? What if anything does it have to do with salvation?
In the context of a person who has been baptized as a child and brought up in the Christian faith, some fear that unless we require that such a person have a subsequent "conscious experience," (often connected with the idea of a decision), that person is in danger of "resting on baptism." But if resting on baptism, or anything else for that matter, is considered a danger why is resting on experience, no matter how we define it, safer? Any resting on experience is shaky indeed. Why isn't faith (resting) in Christ (the Christ received through Word and Sacrament) enough? Certainly there are baptized persons who do not continue in faith and they need to be brought again to repentance and faith through hearing of the Law and the Gospel.
It is instructive to compare the Scriptural expressions, concerning salvation, to our expressions: 1 John 5 says that he who has the Son has eternal life, and that you who believe may know that you have eternal life; John 3:18 assures us that whoever believes in him is not condemned. The words "believe," "faith" and "know" are pervasive in Scripture. The only condition for salvation, stated over and over again, is faith, as our Reformation heritage affirms. If we believe this why doesn't our talk reflect this? Dictating what experience a person "must" have is dangerous. Faith in the Jesus Christ of the Bible is the only condition for salvation.
If faith is the only condition where does this faith come from? Is faith the product of a decision I make? Do I choose Christ or does he choose me? Who is the initiator in salvation? In short, do I contribute anything to my salvation? This is the heart of the matter.
Again, we turn to the Scriptures for an answer. Faith itself is a gift (Eph. 2:8 and Rom. 12:3); Faith comes from hearing the Word of Christ (Rom. 10:17). In theology we say that the Word is "efficacious;" it has the power to produce what God Himself requires, in this case, faith (Isa. 55:10,11 puts this truth so beautifully). When Jesus said, for example, "Pick up your mat and walk" the power for the man to do so came with Jesus' Word.
The Scriptures put the emphasis on God as the initiator in calling, justifying and sanctifying - God made us alive (Eph. 2:4,5); God made his light shine in our hearts (II Cor. 4:6); The Lord opened Lydia's heart (Acts 16:14); No one can come to Jesus unless the Father enables him (John 6:65); Faith comes through Jesus (Acts 3:16); God gives repentance (Acts 5:31); The work of God is to believe (John 6:29); God works in you to will and act (Phil. 2:13); Faith was "poured out" on Paul (I Tim. 1:14); etc. How different these phrases sound from what we've become accustomed to in decision theology!
Understanding this emphasis of Scripture is very liberating. We recommend Martin Luthers, The Bondage of the Will; (see also the Formula of Concord, Thorough Declaration, II, Of Free Will).
How does this emphasis relate to the idea of the will? Many speak of having a free will. No one disputes the ability to make many choices in everyday affairs. However, a biblical and Lutheran understanding of salvation makes clear that we are not free to "choose" Christ or "decide" for Christ. Indeed, Luther masterfully defends, in The Bondage of the Will, the biblical truth that an unregenerate person is unable to choose God. Due to his sinful nature he is able only to resist grace, not to accept it (Rom. 7:18). Eph. 2 says we were "dead in trespasses and sins" (total depravity includes the bondage of the will). In John 15:16 Jesus said, "You did not choose me, but I chose you." That is certainly plain language, reinforced in I Cor. 1:27-31 and elsewhere.
Ephesians 2 says "But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions." In this Ephesians passage God holds "center stage" and is clearly the initiator. We respond only through his enablement, after the fact. It is startling to compare this chapter with the way we express ourselves, "I made a decision for Christ." Because the evangelical world is engulfed in "decision theology" we hardly know how to reflect, in our speech, the emphasis of Scripture anymore.
Some may ask if it is necessary to be so precise in our understanding of these distinctions. I would say, in answer, that a lack of clarity in understanding these distinctions will have far-reaching negative consequences. Among them are:
1. Our theology will become man-centered rather than God-centered. The facts of the Gospel, on which our salvation rests, will be lost. In I Cor. 15:1-4 Paul defines the Gospel (notice how God-centered and rooted in history it is): "I want to remind you of the Gospel I preached to you...For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures...." This is the Gospel on which our assurance rests, the historical, objective, external facts. The Gospel is not our experience of those facts but the facts themselves.
There are numerous aberrant groups who claim to preach the "Gospel." But in these non-orthodox groups the Gospel as defined by Paul is absent. These groups are guilty of proclaiming "another gospel", as Paul charges in II Cor. 11:4 and Gal. 1:6. We need to be aware that "another gospel" does not have to be bizarre; it need only distract from the real Gospel. Emphasizing subjective experience could distract from, or replace, the Gospel of Jesus Christ. This is a very real danger today.
There is another disadvantage, inherent in an experience-oriented message. If our testimonies are reduced to telling of the experience we've had, rather than the relating of the Gospel on which our hope rests, we will be hard pressed to match experiences with any number of non-Christian groups. The Mormons, for instance, will tearfully tell of convincing experiences that sometimes border on the miraculous. Mormonism is totally subjective. This is the greatest obstacle in dealing with Mormons. Evidence, Biblical or otherwise, is rendered powerless as a Mormon's assurance rests on subjective experience ("the burning in the bosom," etc.) Whatever will we say to them if our Christian hope, too, is rooted in experience?
Much effort is expended in trying to show cultists, and other lost people, what the Bible says about the Gospel and faith alone. But when we look at the Christian church, to which we are hoping to introduce them, we see a church that is sadly becoming just as confused as they are about the sufficiency of faith alone in the Gospel alone.
So, if "an experience" and "a decision" are not the litmus tests, how do we assess whether someone has faith or not? We find, especially in this pluralistic society in which we live, that a more Biblically faithful approach might be to ask the following two questions: Which Jesus do you believe in?" and "What do you believe about Jesus?" Using these questions can help us to avoid the problems that result if we focus on experience. Let me give a personal example.
I have had many discussions with a man who has come out of a Oneness Pentecostal church (non-Trinitarian, and, by definition, heretical). This seemingly devout man professes to be a Christian and is knowledgeable about the Bible. He, along with many other former members of this church, was welcomed into membership in a Trinitarian Pentecostal-brand church, even though he and the others still hold to a non-Trinitarian position. Apparently this church neglected to ask the critical question, "Which Jesus do you believe in?" The result is that a large percentage of the membership of this Pentecostal church embraces a theology that was determined to be heretical as early as the second century. And no one seems concerned! This exemplifies how dangerous it is to base membership on a common experience rather than a common faith.
Next, we need to ask what a person believes about Jesus. I don't know that I have ever heard an unbeliever give a clear expression of the concept of the substitutionary death of our Lord and its sufficiency for his or her salvation. Unfortunately many professing believers among us seem confused about that concept also. Here again I would return to I Cor. 15:1-4. This passage defines what we are to believe about Jesus. Let's look at four additional consequences of failing to distinguish a man-centered emphasis from a God-centered emphasis.
2. We could promote insecurity among believers with this inward-focused experience theology. As the "experience" fades the believer will feel that his salvation is in jeopardy and will be forced to seek or generate another experience, rather than looking to Christ and his finished work, which alone provides a secure foundation.
3. We could mislead those who don't believe in Jesus by encouraging them to seek an experience or to be satisfied with an experience in place of Jesus.
4. We could do damage to baptized, believing children. I find it disturbing to hear the faith of children spoken of as inferior, the very faith that Jesus held up as exemplary! If we focus on "a conscious experience" and "a decision" we will view the faith of a Timothy with suspicion. The experiences that believing, baptized children do have are evidence of life already there, not a basis for their assurance. We dealt with our six baptized children as believers on par with ourselves and did not hold them in suspension, anticipating an "experience." There is absolutely nothing in Scripture to indicate that Timothy's faith which lived first in his grandmother, next in his mother, and then in him, is a second-class faith in God's eyes. To suggest that, as some have, is to do harm to such believing ones. We should rejoice that God kept in a living faith those of our children who are Timothy's.
5. Finally, we could shut up the Kingdom to the "weakest" among us, those who remain children for their entire lives, such as the mentally handicapped and the mentally ill. We put such stress on rationalism, which relies on human ability rather than God's ability. May God forgive us for offending these little ones who, as Jesus said, "believe in me!"
In our tendency to set up requirements that go beyond God's Word we need to keep in mind that in the final analysis only God truly knows the mind and heart.
May God grant his Church biblical faithfulness in these days of confusion.
Written by Greta Olsoe.