From the Shepherd’s Nook: John Frye

This post, by John Frye, is on the soterian gospel dilemma.

Having our sins forgiven and being accounted righteous, all through the redemptive work of Jesus Christ, are tremendous transformative realities. What is troubling is the cavalier manner which these weighty truths are culled out and presented in the soterian scheme. Has God used the soterian gospel to save some? Undeniably God has, yet this does not mean the soterian gospel should escape serious assessment. Years ago I read about numerous irreversible acts of God that take place at the point justification. Behind the soterian gospel are these unseen actions of God that make it possible for the evangelizer to tell the evangelizee that he or she is “assured of heaven forever.” In the previous posts we have considered some pastoral implications of the soterian gospel. We will now consider the great dilemma in the soterian gospel.

In the soterian way, people listen to the gospel pitch, pray the generic prayer, invite Jesus into and onto the throne of their hearts, and then…and then, demonstrate no to little Christian transformation whatsoever. What’s more, they do not seem to really care that much about discipleship and life change. They are content being assured of heaven when they die and knowing “nothing can snatch them out of their Father’s hand.” Life is good, church attendance may be routine, personal Bible reading scarce, and the mention of an habitual prayer life invokes guilt. They have become what many call “cultural Christians.”

After living for a while in soterian gospel country, I began to ask, Did salvation “take”? Were all those invisible actions of God validly in operation and irreversible? “He that hath the Son hath life.” Does the evangelizee in fact have eternal life? Maybe the person prayed the prayer, not to ask Jesus into their heart, but to get the evangelizer out of their life. What now? Where’s all that assurance of salvation? We are introduced to the postlude of the soterian gospel song and dance. “Well, maybe they didn’t mean it when they prayed?” Or, this is a good one, “…they went out from us because they were not of us.” The potential converts were phonies. I do not recall being phony as an option in the soterian gospel presentation. Also, any legitimate questions the evangelizee might have had about the gospel spiel were tabled until later, after the “plan of salvation” was completed: a tremendous sales technique. The supremely urgent ‘gospel’ presentation cannot be mucked up with an authentic conversation. The soterian point is to get through the plan…to the prayer…and on to the assurance of salvation. In the shadowy theology behind the presentation, being able to announce “assurance of salvation” seems to be the end goal (telios) of the Cross. It appears, sadly, that people who are not in fact regenerate, because over time “by their fruit you shall know them,” have been assured of heaven when they die.

I imagine someone asking, “John, aren’t you being too hard on the proponents of the soterian gospel? They’re not mind readers, you know.” No, they are not. So why in the world are they so confidently telling people who exhibit no life change whatsoever that they are authentically saved? I truly lament this error for the authentic gospel’s sake and the church’s sake. Why?

Bring these cultural Christians into the church and what do you get? The USAmerican attractional model of church! “Give us happy worship. Give us compelling sermons. Give us safe children’s ministry. Give us loads-of-fun teen ministry. Give us sensitive women’s ministry. Give us ‘real man’ men’s ministry. Give us adventuresome short-term missions trips. Give us free counseling. Give us. Give us.” Since from the very get-go the soterian gospel is all about them having their sins forgiven and their going to heaven when they die, then certainly the local church must be all about them, as well. I’ve seen it with my own eyes. For too many evangelicals missional is a nonsense word.

Say to these folks, “When Jesus calls you, he bids you come and die” and they will get blank, confused looks on their faces and wonder if you believe in “salvation by works.” Tell them that not one doctrinal question will be asked at the judgment seat of Christ, but only questions about how they lived their lives for God or not, they go catatonic. Just read them 1 John 2:6, where John the Apostle wrote, “…anyone who claims to live in him, must live as Jesus lived.” Tell them that Christ-like living (non-self-centered living) is the authentic confirmation of Christian profession and they respond, “Get real. Jesus was God. I’m just human.” Yet in the midst of all this, my pastoral hope index skyrockets. When New Testament scholars and diligent pastors declare blazing truth that “Jesus is Lord” in the context of the robust “good news” of the kingdom of God, the flimsy soterian gospel fades. Can I get a witness?

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  • Jerry

    John, early in my pastoral career I used the soterian gospel as my primary evangelism tool. It was usually either a modification of Evangelism Explosion (that was the core of my Evangelism Practics class in seminary) or the Bridge to Life (used during my Navigators time). Yes, people came to Christ and many did begin to be transformed into Christlikeness but it was more because I built a relationship with them that allowed follow-up in discipleship.
    In recent years I have begun focusing on relationship, having discussions and bible studies and THEN asking what they think of the claims of the gospel on their life. I make it lead up to baptism as the point of justification/rebirth which I think is more biblical. Hear the Gospel, Repent, Believe, Be Baptised in the focus of this approach.

  • Jerry

    Similarly, I’ve been in a pitched battle in a bible study where the leader is hammering away on eternal security while minimizing the warnings against falling away. It’s the usual fear of works. It guts the demands of discipleship. I tend to fall on the conditional security spectrum but I really think it is a matter of perception. I draw back from the contention over these issues but an overemphasis on security that does not acknowledge the demands of Christ is deadly.

  • Anthony

    Great post and all the way on board!

    I do have a follow up question, though. For those who go beyond soterian gospel and genuinely pursue (albeit with the presence of ongoing limitation, sin, and weakness) Jesus as Lord over their lives and over the world, in what way can the message of “assurance of salvation” ring true in their conscience? Though salvation is by grace, is one’s internal sense of their own assurance of salvation based on the fruit of Christ’ Lordship in their lives? If so, how is arrogance and pride in one’s own life change prevented?

  • John W. Frye

    Good question, Anthony. I believe that assurance of salvation is conditional. The Spirit bears witness with ours as we demonstrate even inklings of Christian formation. We need to be careful making unfounded claims about the eternal destinies of others.

  • Anthony

    So when a committed, seemingly authentic Christian expresses doubt in their eternal destiny due to some moral struggle or intellectual doubt, is it problematic for me, as a pastor, to affirm their identity and thus their eternal destiny, to tell them, “You’re saved, will be with God forever, etc.”?

  • It seems to me somehow disingenuous for Christ to have said, “Believe, and have everlasting life,” if the everlasting part of that is conditional. How could you be said to have received everlasting life if at some point that life ends? Shouldn’t John 3:16, then, have said, “…have life conditionally everlasting”?
    But yet on the other hand, I also can’t see God manipulating (coercing) someone’s will even following conversion/regeneration/transformation in order to keep him/her saved. Highest form of love requires a will free to give not only at the point of conversion but also to continue in loving relationship.
    I’m convinced that the answer to these seemingly opposing ideas is that God does not manipulate the will at all. But part of transformation is the burst of revelation provided by God and constantly testified to by the HS. God has made us creatures who place ultimate value on truth, goodness, and beauty. That is our heart’s desire (Matt 6:21). Before conversion, it is founded in relative fashion on ourselves. When we are converted, God fully reveals himself as source of truth, goodness, and beauty. Thus, just as Jesus (the man) had free will technically, but practically would never sin, we also have free will but by God’s revelation, testified to by the Spirit, will not choose to direct our hearts elsewhere.
    Of course, that’s the bumper-sticker version of what I believe. But I think it can be shown to be consistent with Scripture. I’m not introducing this to start a long discussion. (Too much detail to sort through.) Just a thought for meditation.
    This stretches the “on topic” link of the comment to the article. (Sorry about that.) I do want to say that I appreciate the article very much and couldn’t agree more.

  • Adam

    I got to hear Paul Young (author of The Shack) speak recently and as he was telling the story of abuse in his childhood he made the comment that he hates the word “used”.

    “Has God used the soterian gospel to save some?”

    God doesn’t USE people or things, He invites. Why are these christians not experiencing any kind of life change? They have never been invited into a new life, or at least not made aware of the invitation. All the right words are actually there, the song after the sermon is called “the invitation”, but the practical reality has been gutted. For me, the “life transformation” is about a better, healthier way to live, and that is what we’re invited into. God doesn’t need us, he wants us, and stepping into that is fulfilling, though hard.

    When I read through the litany of “Give us” the thing I see is that God wishes to give you those things. However, those things are found in Christ and no where else. This isn’t a statement of conditionals, just reality. It’s the same as saying “You will not find water in the desert.” You will not find life away from Jesus.

    For all those christians who seem to be “self-centered”, have they ever been offered life, or do we sit on the side lines waiting for Jesus to wake them up to their situation? Maybe the real answer to the soterian gospel is to first recognize we are not living as generously as we could.

  • Anthony #5,
    Affirming the idea of the assurance of salvation is not the answer to identity in Christ issues or to doubts and struggles. Pastorally, you deal with the current issues in someone’s life by being with them in those issues and offering pastoral direction. I don’t think you say, “Well, aren’t you glad you’re saved, a child of God, and you’re going to heaven.”

  • Dan Salter #6,
    I think you make an error of definition by thinking “everlasting life” is first about quantity. Everlasting life/eternal life in John’s Gospel is the way John describes *life in the kingdom of God *now* and for eternity. So, no, Jesus was not disingenuous as you think.

    The Spirit of God will not witness to our spirit that we are children of God (“Abba Father”) if we habitually live in sin or habitually live for ourselves and not Christ. I don’t care how much assurance of salvation is stressed. Assurance is conditioned on faithful (not perfect) allegiance to Jesus Christ as Lord.

  • Thanks, John. That is an interesting idea about everlasting life. Right now, I’m having difficulty understanding that as what the apostle John intended–but definitely worth some involved reflection!
    I’m also not sure yet how you came to the conclusion of your second paragraph (in your comment #10). Romans 7 to 8 seems to tell me we are not under the law of sin and death, so I’m having difficulty with your insistence that we still are. Also, I’d like to hear more of the faithful but not perfect allegiance to Jesus Christ as Lord. Do you have something written along that line that I could get?

  • Jerry

    John, sorry this turned into an eternal security debate. Unfortunately, such discussions distract us from your main point–the call to genuine discipleship. Jesus said, “make disciples . . . teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.”

  • Marshall

    We’ve been reading Andrew “Nothing But Grace” Farley, who insists that theNew Covenant began with Jesus’ death, so all that hyper-demanding Sermon on the Mount stff was addressed to people under the law, not us. Pastor used to teach Kingdom. The worship is still good for me, not sure what I need to do. Crazy.