Evangelicals on the Problem of Being Saved

What does it mean to be saved? It depends on who you ask.
In general, the modern definition of saved according to many contemporary Evangelical Churches is a defined spiritual relationship with Jesus Christ. How this relationship begins and the nuances that publicly confirm such a declaration varies slightly between denominations. The rudiments consist of an acknowledgment of one’s shame, the inability to correct one’s behavior, the need for divine intervention, and the promise of a changed life.
Evangelicals believe the only route for a divine intervention is through the mediation of Jesus Christ who substitutes Himself as both the sufferer and the redeemer on each person’s behalf. This portrait of Jesus, according to Evangelical doctrine, is the only way to forge a relationship with God. However, There is a problem here. What ritual does one have to do that both confirms yourself and works within the guidelines of the Church as being saved? This is where diversity starts to creep in.
Typically in Evangelical circles, a verbal confession is required to enact such an arrangement and a prerequisite to gain entrance into heaven. This declaration is volitionally done and expressed both privately and publicly.

Normally this realization is a one-time intense emotional experience that is described as an epiphany between God and the person — a mystical union and results in catharsis. “Catharsis is an emotional discharge through which one can achieve a state of moral or spiritual renewal or achieve a state of liberation from anxiety and stress.”1 This moment is dated, qualified and publicly expressed. Other terms to describe this moment are born again or conversion.’ A clearly defined confession of this epiphany is usually necessary for full entrance into an evangelical community.
The Billy Graham Association has liked to emphasize this moment as born again and describes this state succinctly:

A born-again Christian is someone who has repented of their sins and turned to Christ for their salvation, and, as a result, has become part of God’s family forever. All this takes place as God’s Spirit works in our lives.2

This is typical of most evangelical Churches, but perhaps is an over-generality. John Stackhouse, a Professor at Regent College in Vancouver, believes being saved to be a distinctive mode of Evangelical spirituality but that the date and time of conversion are not universal within Evangelical circles. He cites that Billy Graham does not give an exact date or time of his being saved but a process.3
However, once one starts to get into the details and begin asking questions such as;

  • What is a qualified experience?
  • Is it an intellectual or psychological state?
  • What is the demarcation line between sincere and insincere penitence?
  • Does it take a crisis moment, such as a death of a family member, loss of a job, etc., as the Christian Missionary Alliance puts it, to bring on a conversion.?
  • What if a person is incompetent and cannot understand the abstract foundations of penitence, redemption, sacrifice or confession? Does their lack of intellectual capacity damn them?

These details start to unravel the unity between the various camps on the subject.
Many leaders within are beginning to question the traditional Evangelical position and have called for a re-evaluation. Brian D. McLaren, a Pastor from a Plymouth Brethren background, and one of the leaders of the growing Post-Modern Christian movement believes it is outdated:

“I think our definition of “saved” is shrunken and freeze-dried by modernity. We need a postmodern consideration of what salvation means, something beyond an individualized and consumeristic version.”4

McLaren reflects an active tension in the Church community where one is questioning or even repudiating the modern evangelical definition, but lacks a solid model to replace it.
Scot McKnight, a New Testament Professor at North Park University, takes it even further:

Whether evangelicalism was paying attention or not, it is now. Universalism, or at least the prospect of it, is the single most significant issue running through the undercurrent of evangelicalism today… My own estimation is that somewhere near 75 percent of my students, many if not most of them nurtured in the church, are more or less universalist. They believe in Jesus and see themselves as Christians but don’t find significant problems in God saving Muslims and Buddhists or anyone else on the basis of how God makes such decisions.5

The Evangelical world has been challenged internally on the definition by Rob Bell, whom some considered the replacement for Billy Graham. A review in Christianity Today accuses him of universalism and then claims that Bell’s thesis offers answers that “sabotage his own goals.”6
Salvation is intended to be the defining character of Evangelicalism, but as Cathleen Falsani, web editor and director of new media at Sojourners, has found the movement itself is very diverse. In her web article titled, Defining “Evangelical” and Other Unsolved Mysteries she asked a number of Evangelical leaders on their definition and concluded:

As you can see from the answers some of our authors have offered, “evangelical” at best has a fluid definition, depending on whether the question is asked in a cultural, religious, historical or political context — and then colored by where both the speaker and the listener situate themselves in those worlds.
Perhaps defining “evangelical” is a bit like trying to define (definitively) what pornography is. To paraphrase former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart in a 1964 Court opinion, I shall not today attempt further to define it, but I know it when I see it.
The best answer I’ve heard lately to the question, “What is an Evangelical,” arrived unexpectedly at a New Year’s Eve party I attended a few weeks ago in the southern California town where I live. Not long before the clock struck 12, a mutual friend casually turned to my longtime friend (and now neighbor) Rob Bell, former pastor of Mars Hill church in Michigan, and casually asked him what “evangelical” really means.
With a glass of champagne in one hand and a smile on his face, Rob answered, “An evangelical is someone who, when they leave the room, you have more hope than when they entered.”

A quote attributed to the late science fiction writer Rober A. Heinlein finds a serious weakness in the Evangelical theology of being saved, “A long and wicked life followed by five minutes of perfect grace gets you into Heaven. An equally long life of decent living and good works followed by one outburst of taking the name of the Lord in vain — then have a heart attack at that moment and be damned for eternity. Is that the system?”7
It is indeed a subjective experience that cannot be qualified except through emotional fervency. One could perhaps surmise that the strength of such a definition was waning in the mid-1900’s until Billy Graham exploded on the scene.
Graham’s preaching and the Evangelical voice came in the 1960s during a radical shift in cultural thinking regarding life and personal identity.
21st-century philosophers discussed a similar parallel that Graham so strongly emphasized. Philosophers Karl Jaspers’ and Martin Heidegger promoted that to experience true existence, one must confront reality and make a decision. It did not matter if the final personal result was a grim one or a leap of faith. It was the decision that counted. It was considered the special moment that defined one as fully human. If one did not confront reality and come to that moment of decision, they would not discover their true humanity.
Karl Jaspers called this the first order experience and also final experience. Followers of Jasper were known to say, “I have had a final experience”.8
It is not surprising that many of Graham’s programs have the word decision as the key phrase in their traditional literature, such as the Decision Magazine, the radio program The Hour of Decision etc.
With the general society already conditioned that a one time intensely subjective experience is necessary for becoming being fully human, the Evangelical message of being saved nicely fit. One could argue that this evangelical conversion process is the religious alternative to the final experience.
Factions of the Catholic Church have had their own internal struggle against the contemporary definition of salvation and struggle to re-find what they believe to be their traditional one. Extremist groups within this realm, such as the St. Benedictine order, led by the late Father Feeney, have fought against Liberalist theology and modernism, by enforcing an ancient decree, “Extra Ecclesiam Nullus Omnino Salvatur”–“Outside the Church, there is no salvation for anyone” (the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215). The statement conveys that only formal members of the Catholic Church can be saved. They cite numerous Church Fathers throughout history to support their position. Father Feeney and his followers are recoiling against a modern challenge by urging allegiance to the Church and its traditions. It is a protectionist type of reaction, which does not give a precise definition of what the term saved means.9
The discussion of conversion in the annals of the Evangelical world can be traced back to the Methodist movement that struggled over the same question. Harold Roberts, the President of the World Methodist Council in the late 1950’s, stated:

“The test of the reality of conversion is to be found in a sense of forgiveness, a growing sensitiveness to sin, a conviction that all sin can finally be overcome by the power of God, an assurance that we are on the right road and that our life is in the hands of divine love, a changed relationship to our fellows revealed in social justice, the pursuit of peace, compassion, patience, humility, and absence of self-concern, and deepening allegiance to the Church as the people of God.”10

This is one of the better definitions, but it is not ironclad. How can one test that a person has changed relationships, overcome sin, has conviction etc.? The question of conversion then switches from the pronouncement of the individual’s conversion experience to confirmation by the Church authority.
Another approach can be taken from J.A. Wickham’s A synopsis of the doctrine of baptism, regeneration, conversion, etc.11 He argues that the historic Church taught and believed conversion and regeneration were represented in baptism. Baptism and being saved are synonyms. Either one is baptized or not. Whickham’s approach takes away the subjective nuances of conversion. There are weaknesses in this argument, but it is compelling.
These are a few of the problems that modern Evangelicals face today in defining the core of their belief system. However, none, except for J.A. Wickham, offers a satisfactory and a non-subjective alternative.
The next article on this subject looks into the earliest role of faith in the Christian message. It is an analysis of two key phrases found in the Books of Mark, and Luke. What it means to be Saved.

  1. http://literarydevices.net/catharsis/
  2. http://www.billygraham.org/articlepage.asp?articleid=4077
  3. http://www.christianity.ca/NetCommunity/Page.aspx?pid=4376. Originally published in Faith Today, May/June 1995.
  4. Brian D. McLaren. “A New Kind Of Christian” San Francisco: Jossy-Bass. 2001. pg. 130
  5. http://www.relevantmagazine.com/god/church/features/24878-universalism-and-the-doctrine-of-rob-bell.
  6. http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2011/april/lovewins.html?start=2
  7. http://thinkexist.com/quotation/a_long_and_wicked_life_followed_by_five_minutes/344885.html
  8. http://mhsymp.com/?p=49
  9. http://www.catholicism.org/pages/outside.htm, http://catholicism.org/author/fatherleonardfeeneymicm
    Originally I learned about Father Feeney at http://www.ihsv.com/a_challenge_of_faith.html. This page is now gone. It seems that any history of Feeney has been significantly toned down since the initial research was performed a number of years ago.
  10. Harold Roberts. The Doctrine of Conversion: Some Reflections. Pg. 197 as found at http://www.oxford-institute.org/meetings/1958/08_1958_Roberts.pdf
 The London quarterly and Holborn review, Volume 28; Volume 184. 1959
  11. http://books.google.com/books?id=jINCAAAAIAAJ&printsec=frontcover&dq=doctrine+of+conversion&lr=&ei=qqxlS__YPJjEzgSF-OE2&cd=16#v=onepage&q=&f=false

2 thoughts on “Evangelicals on the Problem of Being Saved”

  1. Heinlein’s sniping comment is captured perfectly by St. Augustine: “And the believer of one year, or of a period as much shorter as may be conceived of, if he has lived faithfully until he died, has rather had this perseverance than the believer of many years’ standing, if a little time before his death he has fallen away from the steadfastness of his faith” (http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/15122.htm).
    Seriously, Evangelicals need to either read all of St. Augustine or none of him.

    • But of course St. Augustine was the first church father, I think, to make one’s own salvation an issue by publishing the gift of perseverance. The paleo-Augustinian Catholics–i.e., the Jansenists–were like their Protestant counterparts concerned with securing certainty of one’s salvation; the conversion experience also unites Jansenists and Evangelicals. Surely someone has done serious research into this business, about which I can only make learned stage whispers.


Leave a Comment