Geographically, Sam is from Mersea Island, which is about 20 miles away from my home in Chelmsford. In terms of churchmanship, he as an Anglo-Catholic priest and I might seem to be at opposite ends of the Church of England – although in many ways I feel closer to Anglo-Catholics than I do to middle-of-the-road liberals.
Sam has written some interesting thoughts about evangelism, which set me thinking. Am I in fact an exponent of what he calls revival evangelicalism, for which he shows little sympathy?
Let me first say that I accept the principle of sola gratia, “only by grace”. After all, that is what the Bible clearly teaches:
8 For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— 9 not by works, so that no one can boast.
Ephesians 2:8-9 (TNIV©)
But I do not accept the Augustinian formulation of that principle (also accepted by Calvinists) in terms of God’s grace being irresistible; rather, God gives us free will to accept or reject his calling, for he wants us to make a free decision to follow his ways:
9 Do not be like the horse or the mule,
which have no understanding
but must be controlled by bit and bridle
or they will not come to you.
Psalm 32:9 (TNIV©)
Perhaps in Sam’s eyes saying this is enough to put me into the revival evangelical camp. If so, so be it. But my view is characteristic by no means only of American evangelicalism, but also of the great majority of British Christianity probably right back to the time of Pelagius, Augustine’s British (or Irish) opponent in the 4th-5th centuries (who was probably “semi-Pelagian”, Sam’s Option 2, rather than “Pelagian”, Option 1). My view also seems to have been that of the early church, as argued for example by Roger Forster and Paul Marston in the appendix to God’s Strategy in Human History.
Meanwhile I am puzzled by Sam’s criticism of what he calls decisional regeneration, the teaching that
the decision of the believer is the key step in salvation,
for he also writes
it is the confession that Jesus is Lord which makes someone a Christian.
The only real difference between Sam’s position and the one he rejects seems to be whether it is necessary to express one’s decision with a verbal confession. In fact the Bible clearly teaches that both a decision in the heart and a confession with the mouth are required:
If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.
Romans 10:9 (TNIV©)
In fact Sam’s problem with decisional regeneration seems to be with whether it is right to take any steps which might encourage other people to believe and make a confession of faith. Now I can understand why Sam does not like some of the methods used by modern evangelists to persuade people to make decisions; some of them certainly go beyond Christian propriety. On the other hand, some churches, including Anglo-Catholic ones, must be erring in the opposite direction, in that their activities seem to have the effect of discouraging outsiders from coming to the point where they confess Jesus as Lord. So perhaps the real issue here is what kind of steps are acceptable to encourage people to believe.
At this point Sam makes four criticisms of revival evangelicalism, concerning worship, evangelism, church and world.
On worship, I agree with the “Reformed” position, as expounded by Sam, that preaching and the sacraments should be central to Christian worship, and that pressure for decisions should be not be – which does not imply that it is wrong to invite people to make a decision to believe and a confession of faith.
I also agree with the “Reformed” position that Scripture and the gospel should be central to evangelism, but in addition I would point out Paul the apostle’s example to us of being careful to use means which are effective with our target audiences:
19 Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. 20 To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. 21 To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. 22 To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. 23 I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.
1 Corinthians 9:19-23 (TNIV©, my emphasis)
I also agree with the “Reformed” position that salvation is not just an individual matter, but the church is a necessary part of the Christian life.
And I am puzzled by Sam’s comments about the world, but agree with the “Reformed” position that
growth in faith is tied in with growth in good works, which are seen as the fruit.
Does this make me a Reformed evangelical, or at least an evangelical who is acceptable to Sam? I hope at least that he can accept that my position does not “fall off the edge of traditional Anglican teaching“; indeed it is probably right at the centre of the traditional teaching at least of what is now the largest group within the Church of England, the evangelicals.
But I do have serious problems with Sam’s teaching that “God is in charge of whether a particular person is saved or not“. This appears to be a summary of the doctrine of double predestination, that some are predestined to be saved and everyone else is predestined to be damned. He can hardly make acceptance of this teaching into a touchstone for Anglican orthodoxy, for it is a position which surely has never been taken by more than a small minority of Anglicans. Indeed, it seems to me that predestination to damnation is explicitly rejected in Article XVII “Of Predestination and Election” of the Thirty Nine Articles:
for curious and carnal persons, lacking the Spirit of Christ, to have continually before their eyes the sentence of God’s Predestination, is a most dangerous downfall, whereby the Devil doth thrust them either into desperation, or into wretchlessness of most unclean living, no less perilous than desperation.
It is also of course explicitly rejected in Scripture:
3 This is good, and pleases God our Saviour, 4 who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.
1 Timothy 2:3-4 (TNIV©)
The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.
2 Peter 3:9 (TNIV©)
there is a duty placed upon all Christians to seek common ground and affirm those things which bind us together rather than focussing on things which drive us apart.
And I am sure that there is a lot of common ground between you and me, which fits well within the “very broad boundaries” of the Church of England. So let us not get sidetracked into disagreements about predestination, nor about methods of evangelism as long as these do not compromise basic Christian principles. Let us instead focus on fighting our real enemies, which are not within the church but are matters of the world, the flesh and the devil.