What would happen to evangelism if we thought about it by considering evangelism in the Reformation? That is the question that shapes a brilliant but short chapter in David C. Steinmetz, Taking the Long View.
To begin with, we’d think about evangelism in the Bible, the heart of the Reformation.
The issue for Luther was indulgences, which meant the doctrine of penitence, which meant repentance. Right there is where Steinmetz camps out. Here is his summary and I have added numbers:
These four themes from early Protestant thought—(1) the denial of the possibility of preparation for the reception of grace, (2) the insistence on the church as the context in which genuine repentance takes place, (3) the description of conversion as a continuous and lifelong process, and (4) the warning that there is no conversion that does not exact a price from the penitent—are certainly not the only themes that need to be considered by the church in the present as it ponders its own evangelistic mission. … As Calvin observed, when we deal with repentance and the forgiveness of sins, we are dealing with “the sum of the gospel.”
A brief word now on each of the four items.
First, “Common to almost all early Protestant discussions of repentance is a barely disguised hostility to every theory of conversion that stresses proper preparation for the reception of grace.” Steinmetz says Luther was on to Gabriel Biel’s theory: “As Biel saw matters, God had established a covenant with the church, the terms of which are proclaimed in the Gospel. God promises to give saving grace to everyone who meets the conditions of his covenant.” Luther countered Biel and Steinmetz puts it this way: “The real preparation for grace, if one can use this language at all without occasioning misunderstanding, is the preparation that God has made by his election, calling, and gifts.” Real sinners admit they are sinners and real sinners are justified by God’s grace.
The one absolutely indispensable precondition for the reception of grace is not to be right— not even in the sense of theological orthodoxy—but to be sick. The Gospel is for real sinners.
Second, Protestants focused not so much on individualism as ecclesial context for repentance to occur.
Even in the worst of times the church is, to use Calvin’s favorite imagery, a mother and school, which nurtures and instructs men and women in the Christian faith. When confronted by the Augustine quotation “I would not have believed the Gospel if the authority of the Church had not moved me, Calvin agreed with it, much to the surprise of his conservative critics. … The authority of the church to which Augustine alluded is the authority of the holiness of its life and the faithfulness of its witness. … The Gospel, not the church, binds and looses from sins, and yet it does not do so apart from the church that bears it and bears witness to it. … While the Gospel can and does reach outside the church, and while God is never limited in achieving his purposes to any instrumental means, nevertheless, the church is the principal sphere and context for authentic conversion. Repentance is, if you will not misunderstand me, a churchly function. Indeed, it is the perpetual activity of a church reformed by the Word of God.
Third, conversion is not a one-and-done thing; it is life long if it is genuine.
Vhile conversion begins, as everything in history does, at some point in time, the process of conversion is not completed until every aspect of the human personality is driven out into the light of God’s severe mercy, judged and renewed. Conversion proceeds layer by layer, relationship by relationship, here a little, there a little, until the whole personality and not merely one side of it has been re-created by God.
No aspect of Reformation teaching on penitence is more foreign to the American evangelical experience of the past two centuries than the stress on conversion as a process rather than as a crisis in human life. Evangelicals have always emphasized the initial moment of faith in which one passes from death to life, from darkness to light. This is a moment celebrated, recalled, and, when the experience fades, recaptured. While sanctification may be a process, conversion is the work of a moment. The Protestant reformers did not agree, but that was not because they despised the first stirrings of faith or the resolute convictions of people who bore witness to what they had seen and heard.
Finally, “Every conversion has a price.”
There is a tendency in certain circles of American evangelicalism to offer the Gospel as the solution for pressing human problems without mentioning that there is another side to the question. The Gospel not only resolves problems that trouble us; it creates problems that we never had before and that we would gladly avoid.
Calvin describes the life of the converted by two ponderous phrases: mortification of the flesh and vivification of the Spirit. The first phrase is clear enough; it means death to the old way of thinking and acting. But the second phrase is the one not to be lost sight of. The death of the old is for the sake of the birth of a new reality.