Perpetual Conversion (Reframing the Question of Salvation)

Perpetual Conversion (Reframing the Question of Salvation) August 6, 2011

I had an epiphany while I was reading Kurt Willem’s Red Letter Christians article on being a Christian disciple rather than doing Christianity. It’s not like it’s the first time I’ve heard people talk about being rather than doing. It was very trendy among the writers we read in seminary to talk that way. But this is the first time I thought of these two words as being analogous to works-righteousness (doing) and justification by faith (being). And so I wanted to put forward a somewhat risky proposal (which can hopefully be treated as theology-in-progress rather than heresy by my more zealous critics). What if salvation is properly understood as a perpetual process of being converted from works-righteousness to justification by faith?

I think the reason this question is preposterous to some of you reading this is because you have been shaped by a set of assumptions within American evangelical Christianity that we inherited from the camp meeting revival culture of the 19th century. In revival culture, salvation became an event rather than a process. The goal of the revival preacher was to whip up the sinner to a point of such terror and contrition that they would despair of their eternal self-sufficiency and throw themselves upon the mercy of the cross. It was a one-shot deal, because little towns didn’t have permanent preachers. Preachers could only come to town as part of a long preaching circuit. Thus, they didn’t do sermon series. The sermon had to present the entire gospel in one speech which was supposed to draw as many people out of their seats and weeping at the altar as possible, hence a need for large helpings of fire and brimstone and a God angry enough to move a confused sinner’s heart quickly. It wasn’t the time or place for thoughtful apologetic discourse or the “seeker-sensitive” Santa Claus God of today’s megachurches. God needed to be brutal enough to make the sinner’s salvation event decisive, which also meant that the sinner needed the security to feel like the exact date and time of her altar call was absolute enough to engrave her name in the Book of Life.

The revivalist ethos has cast a large shadow on the evangelical consciousness since those times. It’s part of this revivalist legacy to tell people they haven’t been “born again” unless they can give you an exact date as opposed to saying they grew up in the church and gradually took ownership of their faith over time. Evangelicals use their “born-again” date to define themselves against mainline Protestants and Catholics, but I’m not sure that this way of thinking is Biblically necessary. The Ethiopian certainly asked Philip to pull the chariot over and baptize him. Paul was thrown from a chariot on the way to Damascus.

But what about Peter and the other disciples who went through different stages of making Jesus their Lord? What about the many households of people who were baptized by Paul? What about Cornelius who feared God, then had a specific dream, then talked to Peter, and then was baptized? What about Nicodemus who must have believed something when he invited Jesus to his house but took a couple years to get over his incredulity at what Jesus said until he put his reputation on the line by going with Joseph of Arimathea to claim the body of his Savior?  Is it useful to comb through all of these stories searching for a preconceived conversion moment they need to have? Or is it okay for salvation to be a process within them?

And furthermore, why couldn’t we call Paul’s conversion a process too? Does saying, “Who are you, Lord?” really constitute “accepting Jesus into your heart”?

A large part of the reason I’m a Methodist and not a Baptist is because Methodism does understand salvation to be a process rather than a one-time event. I was baptized at age 7 with all the sincerity in my heart that a 7-year old could muster, and I believed with all the sincerity that a 16-year old could muster that it hadn’t worked the first time so I prayed Jesus (back) into my heart at Young Life camp. Then at age 20 in the square of San Cristobal de las Casas, in an event that I still cannot fully understand, God made me His when my heart was broken by a little barefoot indigenous girl who tried to sell me Zapatista dolls. That’s my story. It might not work for a testimony in a Baptist church. But to me, it seems completely ludicrous to try to make one of these events or one of the many other transformative moments God has used into my “when I got saved” moment.

So now I want to make a claim that is kind of out there even for a Methodist. In Methodism, we believe that there are two parts to salvation: justification and sanctification. Justification has to do with my trust of Christ’s sacrifice on my behalf, while sanctification has to do with the transformation the Holy Spirit is able to make to my character because of the trust I have given to Christ. The standard Wesleyan teaching is that justification is the inaugural event of salvation, while sanctification is the process by which we “work out our salvation with fear and trembling.” There have been variations on this teaching before. Phoebe Palmer claimed during the Holiness movement that sanctification could be an instantaneous event that happens at the same time as justification, and a whole set of branches on the Wesleyan tree sprung up from this new Holiness tradition.

What I want to claim is in the opposite quadrant from Phoebe Palmer. I think that justification is best understood to be a process just like sanctification is. I may be somewhat repositioning the lexicography of these two terms. I would define justification as the measure of my trust in Christ while sanctification is the measure of my transformation by the Spirit. They’re two different categories of measurement for how saved I am (a way of talking which is surely maddening to a neurotic either/or “born again” dater).

The more that we are justified, the more we can be sanctified, but sanctification begins long before justification is complete. This seems to be consistent with the ordo saludis of Thomas Aquinas (as best I can remember) since Thomas writes that the three supernatural virtues faith, hope, and charity feed one another the more each one is developed, which helps explain why my Catholic friend Dan pretty much said Duh! when I shared my thought with him. But it would certainly be a new development within Wesleyan thought to say that justification and sanctification are both processes that feed off of each other. Still, I just don’t think John Wesley would be scandalized to hear someone say that engaging in a work of mercy or piety could increase your trust in Christ and cultivate the spiritual fruits (patience, gentleness, mercy, etc) in your heart at the same time. It seems ludicrous to need for there to be a linear sequence between putting our trust in Christ and receiving the Spirit’s transformation.

In any case, when Paul says in Romans 10:9, “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus Christ is Lord and believe in your heart that He was raised from the dead, you will be saved,” what in the world makes this have to be a one-time event rather than a perpetual posture of trust? What does it really accomplish to stand up in church to make a one-time confession of the Lordship of Christ (which by the way has lost its meaning in a culture that doesn’t use the word “Lord” in non-religious contexts)? Maybe being saved has to do with continually confessing Jesus as Lord in response to all the other lords who claim your allegiance: family, career, country, addictions, etc. When otherwise valid life pursuits turn you into their slave and you catch yourself worshiping an idol, you open your mouth and say, “I forgot. Jesus is Lord!”

With regard to the conversion from works-righteousness and self-justification, I don’t think we ever stop being Galatians completely (Galatia was the church Paul ripped to shreds for trying to earn their salvation through works). We are constantly needing to be reminded not to try to prove our worth to God through our works. We forget that what makes us Christian is not that we avoid premarital sex or work in the soup kitchen or lift our hands in the air and close our eyes when we sing in church or a dozen other markers that we use to show off our Christianity to others. What makes us Christian is that Jesus died to set us free from our sins. I don’t think it’s useful to pretend that we always trust in Jesus perfectly from the moment we first decide to give it a try. It seems more honest to understand it as a process that gets easier the more that we do it. We certainly have to start that process somewhere, so those who will melt away without a “born again” date could say that “being saved” happens when you’ve started the process of your salvation.

Now someone is going to say, well, it’s fine for you to talk that way about Christian discipleship, which is certainly a process, but why call this salvation? Salvation has to do with how we measure up before God, whether we have the Jesus stilts that make us tall enough to jump over heaven’s gate. Here’s my conundrum. If we are justified by trusting in Christ and not by any action that we take (which would be a work), then justification by faith definitely cannot involve proving anything to God because whatever decision or propositional assent that does the proving would in actuality be the “work” by which we are saved. If however, justification primarily involves Jesus’ convincing us to trust Him fully, then there truly is no need for a “work” that God needs to evaluate as a faithful or unfaithful response to His love. Justification would simply consist in accepting and receiving Christ’s atonement as a gift, a freedom which is undermined any time we try to prove our worth to God through our actions. I believe that every day we have to be converted by God into receiving our salvation as a gift.

Tell me what you think about this topic and whether you think it’s within the bounds of orthodoxy.

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

TRENDING AT PATHEOS Progressive Christian
What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • John Meunier

    Interesting and thoughtful post.

    Wesley might quibble with your two-stage order of salvation. He would say the first stage is being awakened from our spiritual slumber and becoming aware of our sins. This leads to searching for peace with God, which comes with justification. I’m not sure that has much impact on your overall point, but it struck me as worth pointing out.

    I think a classic Wesleyan might push back on some of your examples by noting that baptism and conversion are not the same and that the example of the disciples with the pre-Easter Jesus is not the same as our experience. (See Wesley’s sermon “The Almost Christian.”) The disciples’ faith before the death and resurrection of Jesus could not include justifying faith of the evangelical as such faith depends on the cross.

    Of course, Wesley is not our pope. I’m just trying to think through some of the issues that might be raised in light of his preaching and teaching.

    I suppose the ultimate Wesleyan question about your vision is whether it bears the fruit of holiness in the lives of those who hear it.

    • Morgan Guyton

      In “Awake Thou That Sleepest,” Wesley coins the phrase “self-justification” that has become critical to my understanding of what we need to be liberated from by the cross. As long as we self-justify, we’re going to be intransigent, hard-headed people whether it takes the form of despair, nihilism, or self-righteousness. Christ’s justification gives us the freedom to stop self-justifying. I’m just not sure this freedom comes over us all at once. There’s a certainly a point in time when a door is opened that wasn’t open at all prior to that moment, but perhaps it swings fully open over a period of time (not to get too hung up over metaphors).

      I think in my own experience my “awakening from slumber” regarding an awareness of my sins and my tendency to self-justify has increased the more I’ve been sanctified. That’s why it seems to me like justification doesn’t happen all at once at the starting gate. Stanley Hauerwas writes in the Peaceable Kingdom that Christians have to “learn how to be sinners.” I think that our postmodern context has given us a valuable resource with deconstructive criticism in that we are predisposed to view ourselves with suspicion and interrogate our motives for what we do so that we can wrestle with our underlying pettiness and privilege. The postmodern subject has a different understanding of his/her inherent phoniness than the modern subject did. In Wesley’s early modern context, there’s little distinction between emphatically committing myself to the rational proposition that I am a sinner and coming to a deep holistic awareness of how my pride, envy, lust, etc, really are rotten things that I hate and want freedom from.

      The more I grow in my faith, the more I think of myself as a sinner. I think what characterizes the outset of a Christian’s faith journey is a “desire to flee the wrath to come,” a general sense that I don’t have the resources within myself to face God and to live for God. I may articulate some recognition of my sin but my vision is blurry like the blind man who got his vision healed twice by Jesus.

      Good point about the distinction between the disciples’ experience and ours. I will have to reread Wesley’s Almost Christian. Perhaps we are “almost Christians” for a lot longer than we realize and there’s a point of true conversion that just happens later in the process than we’re accustomed to thinking. In any case, I’m still learning how to confess Jesus as Lord. I don’t think I’ll ever get it perfectly right though I’m sure going to take my best crack at “going on to perfection.”

  • Max

    Before God, we are justly condemned.

    God Himself solves the problem of our condemnation by: (1) clothing us with the righteousness of Christ and accepting us by virtue of his righteousness, and (2) clothing Christ with our sin and pouring out his just and perfect hatred for our sin on his eternally beloved Son.

    This is awfully good news for us:

    The just hatred of God for our sin has been fully executed and expended to an exhaustive degree in Christ, and the righteousness which Christ worked for and earned as a man before God is now available to everyone who believes.

    Because God treated Christ as we ought to have been treated, God now righteously treats us as Christ ought to have been treated.

    “This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins.” Romans 3:25

    In other words, this act of God reveals why he didn’t execute his perfect justice on sinful man immediately after he sinned in the garden. It reveals how he could have looked over all the sin committed by Abraham, Isaac, Joseph, Noah etc… and still be a righteous and holy God.

    Justification is completed by this act of God in Christ, which is quite obviously only able to be realized through faith.

    Justification, therefore, refers to our status before God.

    He converts our status from guilty to innocent, blameless, holy, and perfect all for the sake of his Son- to the praise of his glorious grace.

    Sanctification refers to our state as creatures.

    We are still sinners; but renewed, justified, and pardoned sinners. The more we understand the radical grace of our justification, the more we will mourn and weep over our sin and rejoice over the work of Christ.

    Justification is the conversion of our status before God, and sanctification is the progressive transformation of our creature-hood from wretched sinner to holy child of God.

    You might like this articulation: Justification is salvation from the condemnation of sin, sanctification is salvation from the power of sin.

    Freeing man from the guilt, consequence, and condemnation of sin is a work which has been completely, totally, and absolutely finished once and for all by Christ; freeing man from the power of sin, on the other hand, is a progressive work of the Holy Spirit which will certainly be finished in every single believer who has been justified freely by God’s grace in Christ.

  • Max

    Here is a question egarding salvation: What exactly are we being saved from?

  • Paul

    GREAT blog! I plan on posting when I get a few minutes. All I will say, in short, is this: I think of salvation as a ‘present perfect’ state. It’s a bit like the wind, for those who are born of the Spirit, you see the effects of that second birth, but you can’t always tell where the Spirit is coming from or going to because the second birth is a work of the Spirit, and is a mystery. I don’t think “the effects” (i.e. good works – which God created for us to do in advance) are what justifies us, but just like if the wind is REAL, the leaves move around, so if there are no good works, I have no reason to think someone has been twice-born… And, yes, I would make my Baptist seminary professors dismay over the fact that I don’t look to a “date” of salvation (I think that’s what baptism helps our human minds to quantify the new birth, since I think God knows our human mind’s need to de-mystify this all) but I would leave YOUR profs (i.e. Finksta’ haha!) in a bit of dismay to reject the notion that sanctification is a process on a “grayscale” and NOT a “second work”.

    • Morgan Guyton

      EXACTLY! Justification and sanctification are all a messy mosh of grace. They’re entangled more than we can capture. Our feeble terminology consists in clumsy human attempts to categorize that will always fail to do so perfectly. Where does the wind come from? How the hell do I know? But I know when it blows. And it’s blowing! Praise God that He had the mercy to blow on me. I’ve just gotta ride that wind and throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles to run with perseverance the race marked out for me because Jesus is the author and perfecter of my faith. And he’s constantly chiseling. If he’s a perfecter of my faith, then faith is not a one-time “decision” so much as your stride when you’re running a race. Jesus is making continual corrections, helping me not to get cramps, twist my ankle, etc, so that ultimately somehow if I put my hope in the Lord, then I too will mount upon eagle’s wings and soar up towards the top of the mountain of the Lord. When I get there and God says, “I love you, you lousy sinful scoundrel,” I will say, “Thank you Father, Can you rip this tumor of pride out of my heart so I can finally be free to worship you with all that I am and give myself over completely to your perfect wind?”

  • Paul

    **oops, I meant “I would leave your Wesleyan tradition profs in dismay by my rejecting of the notion that sanctification IS a distinct second work”…

  • Morgan Guyton

    I think that we’re saved from being unable to stand in the holy presence of God. Isaiah 6 gives us the best example of what facing God’s holiness looks like to even a righteous man like Isaiah. Ephesians 2:8-10 describes justification by faith not in terms of its change in God’s attitude towards us but in terms of our change in attitude: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” The purpose of justification by faith is “so that no one can boast.”

    The same thing applies to the purpose of election in 1 Cor 1:27-29: “But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him.” The purpose of God’s election is “so that no one may boast before him.” Boasting or “glorying” in yourself is what I mean by self-justification. We are justified by faith and God chooses the foolish to shame the wise in order to liberate us from our boasting.

    The reformed tradition absolutizes the penal metaphor that Paul is using in Romans for salvation. There are many other metaphors in the Bible for atonement. I currently find the most resonance with the sacrificial metaphor of Hebrews. I don’t think you can build your entire theological system off of one book from the Bible. If you look closely at the theologians you’ve been reading (all of which seem to come from the same tradition), every other passage in the Bible is interpreted on the basis of Romans. That’s giving primacy to Romans that is not canonically necessary or appropriate. Why not interpret Romans itself through the lens of the whole of the canon instead of interpreting the whole canon through the lens of Romans?

    For example, when many reformed Christians go to Matthew 25, instead of seeing a command to visit the sick, clothe the naked, etc, and a warning of what will happen if we don’t, they just say oh, here’s further evidence that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” There’s no need to obey Jesus because all that’s important about this passage is that we all deserve “eternal punishment.” The word of God is thus blasphemed because its meaning is filtered through Romans 3:23, thus neutralizing Jesus’ command in order to fit a square peg into the round hole of a systematic theology you’ve already decided to have. The two biggest mentions of hell by Jesus are Matthew 25 and Luke 16:19-31. We should not go to these passages and say well, they don’t really mean what they say on the surface, because in Romans, it says X (which is precisely what the reformed tradition does even though they don’t admit they’re doing it). In fact, that’s kind of what you and I did when we looked at what Peter said to Cornelius in Acts. Romans should have some weight, the gospels should have some weight, John’s letters should, Hebrews should, all of the witness of the Old Testament, etc.

    When I read Romans 8:1-2 in the light of Hebrews 10:19-22 and the Isaianic prophecies, what Paul seems to me to be saying is that because of Jesus, WE KNOW that God doesn’t condemn us. Jesus’ blood is God’s proof that He doesn’t condemn us. Putting our trust in this proof, we take God’s side in the battle against in sin and become part of His wrath against our own sin as Paul describes in Romans 7.

    My suspicion is that the perspective that you’ve taken to be normative of Christian orthodoxy regarding judgment, salvation, etc, has gained so much resonance in American evangelicalism not because it represents the whole arc of the Biblical canon but because of the 19th century revivalist tradition I described in which God’s wrath needed to be emphasized in order to break people of their self-justification so they can come to the altar and be delivered. Everyone you’re reading has been shaped profoundly by that tradition. Almost all of the footnotes in John Piper’s books are from Jonathan Edwards who was the camp-meeting preacher extraordinaire.

    What scandalizes me about reformed theology is it suggests that God needs (and thus lacks) something that the cross provides for Him. When you make the cross about persuading God, you’re suggesting that it wasn’t part of His sovereign plan from the beginning. We are the ones who need to be awakened and invited by the cross to approach a God who loves us completely and judges us completely. God is not allergic to our sin (which is the problematic implication of the standard four-spiritual law reformed presentation of our need for atonement). We are allergic to God’s holiness.

    We are oblivious to this allergy because we have no exposure to real holiness in an abominably cynical, fallen world. But if we don’t have a cross to cling to when we finally see the true holiness of God, we will hate it with all of our being and we will be condemned by it, not because God is any less loving but because His love demands absolute intimacy and truth. The problem is that our human analogies for this reality fail and they create stumbling blocks for millions of ex-Christians out there. It’s copping out to say, “Oh, they’re just all postmodern relativists whose struggle doesn’t merit serious consideration.” No! We need to take seriously the challenge to explain a reality whose infinite nature is only accessible to us by analogy, using analogies that work in our contemporary context and not saying that what worked for Anselm or Calvin is good enough for us because the world doesn’t look the same way as it did for them.

  • John Meunier

    I’m not sure Jonathan Edwards is properly described as a camp-meeting revivalist in the 19th century model. He certainly led a revival.

    This may be a quibble. I could be wrong. I’m not an expert on Edwards.

    • Morgan Guyton

      Yeah I was being anachronistic. The First Great Awakening is of course a different context than the Second but it seems like it’s also one of the basic tributaries that flows into the revivalist ethos of American evangelicalism. I’m a pretty clumsy historian. I know I haven’t read enough on this topic.

  • Paul

    You said; “I think that we’re saved from being unable to stand in the holy presence of God…” A-friggin-MEN! haha, such a hellfire and brimstone Reformed way to look at it! Exactly, I think understanding salvation depends more on a retrospective of “who is God?” than it depends on a study of evangelists… the glory and mystery of salvation begins pre-Genesis, those angels at the incarnation, were smart enough to shout “GLORY TO GOD IN THE HIGHEST BECAUSE MANKIND JUST HAD PEACE DECLARED WITH THEM BY GOD”!! They have seen what happens to those who set their faces against the living God, This I think was why the Spirit moved so powerfully with J. Edwards’ preaching, NOT because he was a fancy orator, but because the gospel was not preached as a “yuppie accessory for financial management”, but the sober fact that we are NOT saved so much “from sin” as we are saved “from God” Himself!

  • Max

    God’s wrath against sinful men wasn’t just emphasized in the 19th century revivalist tradition, it was emphasized in Israel when they were commanded to stone transgressors of the Mosaic law, and when an animal sacrifice was offered.

    I think it is quite remarkable that God’s wrath against sinners used to be emphasized precisely because it isn’t emphasized anymore today, not because “those guys” didn’t understand God’s word, love, and acceptance.

    Here is my question:

    How does God deal with the fact that we sin?

    My answer is he can only be wrathful against our sin because he is holy.

    *Not because he isn’t all powerful and completely free to do whatever he wants, he most certainly is all powerful and completely free, but he must be wrathful against our sin because he is holy and he doesn’t contradict his unchanging character.

    The one thing God cannot do is contradict his own nature. He is good, therefore he cannot be evil. He is holy, therefore he pours out just wrath against us for our sin in hell, or he pours out his wrath for our sin on Christ in his great wisdom and mercy.

    Regardless, our sin is judged with fierce anger, hatred, and wrath because of who God is: just and holy.

    So, granted that God is holy, how does he deal with us, granted that we are sinners, and how does his dealings with us relate to the cross? It seems that if God isn’t allergic to sin, the only virtue of the cross is its ability to persuade us to stop making a big deal about our sin and just come on already! Please, tell me what you think.

    • Morgan Guyton

      The language you’re using falls short for me though on a deeper level I think we’re saying the same thing. Jesus is God’s Word made flesh. So the cross is properly understood as a self-sacrifice on the part of God. Its the heresy of subordinationism to talk as though Christ and God have separate wills or that Christ gives God something that he lacks and needs through the cross. Their will is the same. God does not need the cross to change his mind about us, which is the impression that many popular caricatures of reformed theology create. God always loves us and His love is always radically intimate and demanding enough to feel like hellfire to those who don’t trust in Christ. I am okay with saying the cross saves us from God only if you say that on the cross God saves us from Himself. Otherwise you’re creating a good cop, bad cop duality and bitheism that is heretical.

      God doesn’t need to punish sin because of His own inadequacy or neediness. That’s the irony of some caricatures of Calvinism. By talking about God’s need for punishment, you’re actually compromising His sovereignty and depicting Him as insecure. God’s holy presence is unbearable to those who are impure (i.e. all of us) if we have not put our trust in the blood of the lamb. The blood is for the sake of our assurance; God does not need assurance.

      We need assurance so that we can face God’s judgment and hate our sin like He does and know that His hatred for our sin is not hatred of us as people. He loves us. That’s what Jesus died to prove. If God needs to have anything proved to him by us, then whatever proof we give to God is the work in works-righteousness. Justification by faith means trusting God enough to face our sin with integrity and receive his sanctification. It’s absolutely not about coming to the conclusion that our sin is no big deal. Ironically we come to a nihilistic attitude toward sin most readily the more radically we commit ourselves to a doctrine of imputed righteousness.

      Total depravity is a great smokescreen for nihilism. God is not interested in whether you can go on and on about the intricacies of the torture you think we deserve for the most minute of sins. I imagine that whenever He hears people talk about how righteous his wrath is, like that’s supposed to impress Him, He gives a nice golf clap and says, well, are you going to let me get to work on you or what? The fruit is what matters. It’s easy to fall into the trap of using pious-sounding fire and brimstone theology as a substitute for obedience. The tendency to do that is an epidemic right now in American evangelicalism.

  • Morgan Guyton

    By the way, I hope I’m being respectful in how I’m speaking. This conversation is really sharpening me. I know that there’s an irresponsible way to talk about the Wesleyan tradition and the reformed tradition and both sets of vocabulary and emphases have a contribution to make in illuminating the deeper truth that we’re all striving towards. So if I forgot to qualify my critiques of Calvinism by saying something like “popularized caricatures/misunderstandings of reformed tradition,” that’s what I mean. I’ve read Calvin himself and he’s spot-on. It’s when kids take his ideas and try to make them into 20 minute popularized Powerpoints that they end up unknowingly committing heresies that Calvin himself would disapprove of. Thanks for wrestling with me. Keep it up!

  • Max

    No disrespect bro! No worries!

  • Morgan Guyton

    If you guys want to get back to the source of where all of Calvin’s theology came from, check out Augustine’s “Nature and Grace” essay at I’ve just been reading it a little bit because I’ve got nothing better to do on a Saturday night. It was the definitive essay he wrote in his debate with Pelagius which is the basis for our doctrine of “justification by faith.” Augustine is a church father that we can trust. He’s the greatest Christian theologian of all time. And his writing is so thick with Biblical citation, it’s amazing.

    All that I’m opposed to are the stumbling blocks we create for young Christians or non-believers when people try to thump their chests and sound really “bad-ass” in talking about God’s wrath. There’s a way of talking that is unnecessarily inflammatory for people who don’t understand the nature of holiness. And I’ve seen a lot of people talk this way as a means of earning their salvation by believing “tough truths,” being “politically incorrect” for Jesus’ sake, etc. Holiness is an upper-level course in Christian discipleship. It takes a while on the journey to come to the point of finding our sin abominable and understanding why God would hate it.

    Infinite beauty is torture to look at when it makes you feel ugly. I think that’s a better way of describing the reality of God’s holiness than the tired out fixation on “punishment.”

  • Max

    I think it is accurate to say that God saves us from Himself, although I think it would be more precise to say that God saves us from his own wrath and justice by becoming a man and absorbing his own wrath which is due for man’s sin.

    Additionally, I do think it’s worthy to mention that I agree: God does not need to persuade himself to forgive us. He did not need to save man. He did not need to provide a Savior, but he did! Without his saving provision, all of mankind would be doomed to hell, but according to his will, God poured out his justice for our sin on himself in our place that we might be saved.

    He saved us by his own will and volition, nothing on the part of man moved him to act. It was only because he wanted to demonstrate his glory in manifesting his wisdom and revealing his merciful qualities, and of course because he is essentially love. God loves. What an amazing thing!

  • Morgan Guyton

    How do you interpret Romans 11:32? (Not a loaded question, just curious. I’m not sure what to do with it myself.)

    “For God has bound everyone over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all.”

  • Some thoughts:

    “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ Jesus in Matthew 15:37-40

    Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world. (James 1:27) But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.” Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do. (James 2:18)

    “To be is to do”–Socrates
    “To do is to be”–Jean-Paul Sartre
    “Do be do be do”–Frank Sinatra

    • Morgan Guyton

      Love it! Thanks.

  • Max

    In the context of the book I would say Paul is talking about the jewish christians and the gentile christains: all of whom have been disobedient and all of whom need mercy equally. The jewish christians/judaizers may have been looking down on the non jewish without realizing that they are sinners as well, and in a great need of mercy along with the gentiles- mercy which is found in Christ alone.

    • Morgan Guyton

      It’s not surprising that you’re adding extra-Biblical qualifiers to the verse based on what you’ve been taught, but it is striking that Paul uses the word πάντας (all) without qualification when he’s always very deliberate in his use of pronouns. We shouldn’t qualify what Paul doesn’t qualify himself. In Romans 11:25, Paul writes, “Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in.” For him to use that construction τὸ πλήρωμα τῶν ἐθνῶν is remarkable considering the fact that he could have very easily used the noun elektos (elect) rather than ethnon (Gentiles/nations). Romans 11:25 is pretty unequivocally universalist, which means the context leads me to say that pantas in 11:32 really means “all” rather than “all of some limited category that Paul hasn’t been explicit about.” Don’t worry; there’s plenty of counter-examples in the Bible to hold in tension with this verse, but I think it’s important to be honest about the fact that Paul’s words in Romans 11:25-32 don’t fall neatly in line with the Calvinist theological system.

      The other striking feature of this verse is the use of the ἵνα preposition: “in order that.” It suggests that the phrase after the ἵνα is the purpose of the phrase before it. So what this sentence is saying is that God has hardened all of us (συνέκλεισεν) with ἀπείθειαν (disobedience, obstinance) is in order that God’s mercy might reign over all, i.e. so that no one would think they have done anything without the mercy of God. So this verse suggests that when God predestines our obstinance, it’s so that we’ll be broken and have no other recourse but to beg His mercy. The place where this occurs is at the conclusion of Paul’s discourse in Romans 9-11. The part immediately following is a doxology and after that is a whole different topic. The placement of this verse suggests that it provides the conclusion (and perhaps explanation) for everything that Paul has been talking about in the preceding discourse (i.e. the main source text of predestination). This makes me think that God’s objective with election is to put everyone under the reign of His mercy. This is consistent with 1 Cor 1:27-29 which frames the same concept using different terminology saying that God chooses the weak to shame the strong, foolish to shame the wise, etc, “so that none may boast before Him,” and also with Ephesians 2:8-9 where Paul says that the purpose of justification by faith is “so that no one can boast.”

  • Max

    I don’t think it requires the addition of extra-biblical elements to read the “all” in Romans 11:32 as a reference to Jews and Gentiles alike.

    Paul draws out distinctions between the Jews and Gentiles only to show that the distinctions are ultimately insignificant considering the truth that both have broken the law of God. Hence, He will have mercy on them “all”- both Jews and Gentiles alike- not just the dirty pagans.

    So either I’m wrong or the Bible teaches universalism, right?

  • Max

    *So either this reading which I advocate is right, or the Bible teaches universalism, right?

    • Morgan Guyton

      No. Leave the either/or behind. When exegeted faithfully, the Bible’s witness is paradoxical and irreducible to neat, clear categories. That’s my quarrel with any kind of systematic theology, be it Rob Bell’s or John Piper’s.

      Trying to resolve it into universalism or TULIP or Arminianism or Catholicism or anything else is turning the gift into a millstone. Hebrews tells us if we turn back to sin after believing, there’s no forgiveness. Romans says there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. 1 John says if we say we are without sin, then the truth is not in us. It’s a mystery. There is no reason to let Romans 6-8 be the guide to interpreting the rest of the Biblical text, which is what I would argue that Luther and Calvin decided to do.

      Part of trusting that it really is God’s Word means we don’t let the writers of theology books decide for us what the Bible is allowed to mean (e.g. Paul didn’t really mean pantas or pleroma; you have to insert the elektos in between the lines). In Romans 9, Paul takes a completely different tone than in Romans 11. I don’t know how to reconcile the two and it would be dishonest of me to act as though one chapter were in the Bible and the other weren’t. But I don’t think Romans 9 should be privileged over Romans 11 or vice-versa.

      In Romans 9, Paul says some were created for destruction. That’s very hard for me to swallow, but it’s in there; I can’t deny it. I haven’t yet found a pastoral context in which that verse would be helpful to someone’s Christian discipleship, but I suppose if I were counseling the victim of a violent crime or something of that nature, I might pull it out.

      We have to grow comfortable with some dissonance and incoherence. That requires a more radical trust than to build a logically full-proof system that privileges certain verses over others. It’s certainly helpful to always keep our interpretations in check with theologians and church tradition (hopefully from multiple traditions within orthodoxy). That’s critical.

      But at the end of the day we have to be radically humble and not to try to understand too conclusively what must always remain beyond our understanding. If you understand God completely, then what you’re talking about is an idol by definition. God has given us His Word to speak truth into a variety of different situations; sometimes 1 John is what we need, sometimes Hebrews, sometimes Isaiah. It’s more important that His Word be “useful for teaching, rebuking, exhorting, etc,” in a variety of circumstances than that it be perfectly consistent and logical. Love the mystery. Love the unknowable. Let it be a gift and a sign of God’s love for you that you will never figure this out and you will have amazing conversations for the rest of your life as you wrestle through it.

  • Max

    I am under the conviction that God is powerful enough to disclose himself clearly and sufficiently to mankind. Obviously we cannot know him to an exhaustive degree because he is infinite in all his glorious qualities, but I believe we can understand him properly and sufficiently to know him because of he is all-powerful.

  • Morgan Guyton

    Sure He’s disclosed himself clearly and sufficiently but not without paradox, because in His wisdom, He sees that paradoxes force us to stay humble in our interpretation. His word is “useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness,” which is different from saying that it’s logically univocal and easy to fit into one systematic schema. God rightly confounds our attempts to reduce His word to a set of man-made fundamentals. When we start editing the Bible on the basis of our systematic theology, we’re letting the tail wag the dog. Don’t put your trust in your theological system; that’s works-righteousness in a different form. Trust Christ only.

  • Max

    So God only reveals himself paradoxically because he sees it as a proper way to humble us?

    • Morgan Guyton

      Words like “only” make me nervous. Our faith is full of paradoxes. Jesus says in Mark 4 that he tells the truth in parables in order to confound his listeners, quoting Isaiah 6:9-10 which is one of the most difficult prophecies in the Bible. Mark 4:22 says, “For there is nothing hidden, except to be disclosed; nor is anything secret, except to come to light.” The truth is such that if it were disclosed fully, we would think we’ve got it fully and move on to something else. It is because it always remains beyond our grasp that we keep on seeking and have an infinite portion left to discover. John 1:4 is one of my favorite verses in the Bible: “The light has shone in the darkness, and the darkness could not seize it.” Light is such a perfect metaphor for the way that truth is always beyond our grasp. You can only point to light; you cannot grab it, because then you end up with a fistful of darkness.