Joel Willitts, old friend from my last sabbatical in Tübingen, has blogged about Scot McKnight's new book.
I find his description very exciting. In the past, I've blogged on the idea that God judges us according to the light we have. This is a venerable Christian idea that has been in the mix of Christian thinking for centuries. If I remember correctly, Bounds considers it the majority opinion of Christian history.
Frankly, I don't see how Christianity can be coherent if it is not true. I am a Wesleyan-Arminian. I do not believe that God picks and chooses who will be saved and who will be damned. If you have to have heard Jesus' name to be saved, then, in effect, there is geographical predestination.
Rather, as a Wesleyan, it is essential to me that God's "prevenient grace" light everyone who comes into the world and give everyone a chance to be saved, even if they have not heard of Jesus' name. The idea that God judges everyone according to the light they have is thus a key idea for Wesleyan-Arminian theology, in my opinion.
That is not to say that everyone in the Wesleyan Church or some of our related churches hold this position. Because we have come to swim in evangelical waters, we often can't tell the difference between what current is what. Frankly, just seeing McKnight's book has encouraged me because I was wondering whether I needed to back off talking the "God's judges according to the light we have" position.
You see, it changes how you look at evangelism and missions. I can say--it is God's will for us to take the good news to everyone we can. I can say--we go because we want everyone to know the truth, because we want to bring everyone we can into our fellowship and into the blessings of God's people. But these kinds of motivations pale beside the urgency of saving people from hell.
I might be very motivated to go undercover and do mission work in Iran if I saw that mission work as the only thing that stood between the Iranians and hell. Would I be as motivated if I only believed that those whose heart was right but heads messed up would be blessed so much more to understand the full story and be brought into Christian fellowship?
Of course these are issues of the consequence of ideas more than the truth of ideas themselves. If God does judge people according to the light they have, then I just have to accept the consequences. These sorts of things are diversions, logically, from the key question. If God commands us to go, then God commands us to go, and that's that.
There is an irony in this position because we find ourselves in a similar situation to the Calvinists in the 1700s. Some argued against missions by saying, "If God had predestined those in India to be saved they would have been born in England or Europe." The response was, "This is the way that God has chosen to reveal who is predestined among those in India."
Now someone says to the Arminian, "What of the biblical language that yearns to see as many saved as possible?" The response is, "This is language about the how more than about the why." God has willed the in-gathering of those who yearn for him and missions is the path by which he does it."
I cannot be dogmatic on this issue, only to say that it seems to me Christianity is incoherent if something of this sort isn't true. If God is love, then he must surely try to save everyone. And if you have to hear Jesus' name to be saved, then God has failed miserably. For this reason, I go with God judging everyone according to the light they have.
The implications are, to me, profound and exciting in their own right. Evangelism ceases to be about getting people to make a decision and be baptized--a focus that seems quite insubstantial. The goal becomes to see people move toward Christ and his kingdom. It becomes a massive life-long task that isn't reduced to a prayer you read on a card one afternoon.
Now my goal is to share more light with those in unbelieving lands to see them know God far better than they do. I nurture children on the path to God not because they are out and need to come in but because I want to give them as much light as possible. And long after a person makes a personal decision for Christ (and I am not in any way denying the importance of an event of Spirit-filling), we have the task of pushing others and ourselves on to Christian maturity.
In short, sharing the good news (evangelism) becomes a whole life-long task, not a blip in a lifetime that has often proved to be most superficial and shallow. I'm looking forward to reading McKnight's book because I have a hunch it is where the church as a whole is headed and should head.