A Light+Life Podcast
With guest Dr. Timothy Dwyer
Hosted by Brett Heintzman
by Tim Dwyer
Let me call him Frank, to protect his family. He was a member of our church, in his 70s. He was involved in ministry in his younger days, attending Bible college and serving as a pastor. By the time I met him, he was retired and beginning to suffer health problems, including a painful tumor.
He stopped attending church and couldn’t stand the young pastor. There were emotional and spiritual changes (but many have battled illness with faith). Then, one Sunday, when his wife was in church, he left a note, walked a few hundred yards from his house, and killed himself with his shotgun.
At the funeral, everyone talked about Frank being in heaven. While no one can play God in situations like these (and the interaction of body and mind is very complicated), everyone assumed Frank was saved. People are saved who have once trusted Christ no matter what else happens, aren’t they?
What is salvation?
In evangelical churches, there is massive confusion about the most important of all topics: salvation. At least four views circulate in many congregations. The esteemed leaders who presented these views have each made a tremendous contribution to the people of God. The views, however, must be examined carefully and compared with Scripture (Acts 17:11).
N.T. Wright: Joining the People of God
N.T. Wright is probably the most famous Bible scholar in the English-speaking world today. He is prolific beyond measure, passionate about the gospel, and has a worldwide platform. His influence, particularly among young evangelicals in the USA and UK, is huge.
Wright has written so much and given so many lectures that he is hard to summarize, because he has always said something else somewhere else! Nevertheless, his signature books “Jesus and the Victory of God” (1992), “Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision” (2009) and especially “Paul and the Faithfulness of God” (two volumes, 2013) all lay out a coherent vision: the Reformers, especially Luther, got it really wrong; Israel was still in “exile” during the time of Jesus and Paul; Jesus came to renew the covenant and creation.
For Wright, essentially, salvation is joining the people of God who will be raised from the dead. It is becoming part of the covenant people. When pushback has come, he has nuanced his understanding, but essentially, Jesus came to renew the people of God, so salvation is joining the covenant people and participating in God’s mission in the renewal of the creation. Pretty much everyone before Wright, even E.P. Sanders and James Dunn, did not understand this!
John MacArthur: Full Submission to Christ
The influence of John MacArthur, now in his 80s, is hard to overestimate. He has preached his expository sermons at the same church in California for more than 50 years, is listened to by more than 50,000 people every day on the signature radio show “Grace to You,” and during the pandemic, between 200,000 and 300,000 people were tuning in to livestreamed services from MacArthur’s Grace Community Church.
MacArthur is a titan of the evangelical church and has been called the John Calvin of his day. His most-quoted books on salvation include “The Gospel According to God” (2018); “The Gospel According to Paul” (2017) and especially “The Gospel According to Jesus” (1988). His theme — emerging from Southern California in the 1970s and 1980s and moving progressively more Reformed as the years have gone on — is this: salvation is full and complete submission to Christ.
One must continually test himself or herself to make sure that one is truly in the faith, for false and true believers mingle. Christ died for God, to make propitiation for sin, and since Christ is Lord, nothing less than full submission to Christ will do. Many have dubbed MacArthur’s approach “Lordship salvation.”
Zane Hodges: Free Grace
The next name will not be as familiar, but the themes of his teaching will be. Longtime pastor and seminary professor Zane Hodges in books like “The Hungry Inherit” (1972) and “Absolutely Free” (1989) taught that God’s love is unconditional and free, a simple moment of faith places one in salvation, and one is secure forever. We must not confuse discipleship (which may or may not occur) or works (which are to gain rewards, not evidence salvation) with salvation. Salvation is fully free, says Hodges. When one believes in Jesus, one is saved, no matter what else they do the rest of their lives.
It is discipleship and rewards that are costly and require sacrifice, says this view. Since salvation is truly free, to add any requirement of obedience to follow it is to make a condition that would destroy salvation as a free gift.
Anyone who believes becomes saved by simply an act of faith. If someone teaches that a prayer can save someone, that person is a follower of Hodges. The threshold to enter is very low, but then one must grow. A key distinction between MacArthur and Hodges: for MacArthur, repentance is necessary, but for Hodges the requirement is faith alone.
Chandler and Sproul: Neo-Reformed
In the last fifteen years, neo-Reformed theology has become hot, spurred on by superstars like John Piper and Matt Chandler, The Gospel Coalition, and the book “Young, Restless, Reformed” by Collin Hansen. The late R.C. Sproul is an iconic figure for this group.
Here we find a fourth view of salvation (with overlap with MacArthur). The saved are the elect, chosen by God, and given faith by God, and they will persevere to the end. Verses in the Bible are rearranged, and to its credit, this movement has a large concern with holiness, but in the end, those chosen will be saved.
An Outlier: Pelagian Decisionism
In most congregations, even in Wesleyan circles, versions of the above four views circulate and compete with one another. However, one other view needs to be mentioned.
This is the idea that people are saved because they have made a “decision for Christ.” A person might put it like this: “I am going to heaven because in May of 1971, I asked Jesus into my heart.” Here, it is not Christ, or Christ’s death that saves, but the decision of the person. Basically, the person saves himself or herself by a right choice.
This is a variant of the old heresy of Pelagianism: it is not God or Christ who saves, but our own choice or decision. This common belief, crude though it is, would frustrate and probably enrage Wesley (as we shall see), not to mention Luther, Calvin, Augustine and Paul.
Also, this must be considered: people make decisions all the time (such as to go on diets) and then change their decision. How is salvation different?
Salvation: Biblical, Evangelical, Wesleyan
What exactly is salvation? What should we preach and teach?
A good place to start is with the book of Acts. Part of the reason is that the language of salvation/save/Savior is used over forty times in Acts and its companion, the gospel of Luke. In one crucial chapter, Acts 2, we have the coming of the Holy Spirit in verses 1–4; Peter’s sermon in verses 5–40, and the response in verses 41–47. Here is what a careful reader will discover regarding salvation:
It shall be the case that “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Joel 2:32, quoted in Acts 2:21)
“With many other words he warned them; and he pleaded with them, ‘Save yourselves from this corrupt generation’” (Acts 2:40).
“The Lord added to their number each day those who were being saved” (Acts 2:47).
Clearly, the concept of salvation is central in the chapter. What does it mean? What is necessary for it to happen? What takes place when it happens?
It is true that at times in the book of Acts, the language of salvation can be used for rescue or healing (Acts 4:9, 27:20, 31, 34, 43). In Acts 2, though, it is a spiritual transformation created by God.
Here is what happens first. The people of Jerusalem, to whom Peter is speaking, have a starting knowledge of God and God’s revelation as Jews. Then, Peter outlines the work of Christ in summary fashion (v.14–36; all the sermons in Acts are summaries of longer messages). The preacher is filled with the Holy Spirit (v. 4). Old Testament Scriptures, particularly Joel 2:28–32, Psalm 16 and Psalm 110, are expounded. The people are pierced and convicted (v.37). There is a newfound humility to ask, “What shall we do?” (v.37). The new believers join the community of faith and grow together (v.42–44). An ongoing mission follows (v.47).
Right away, a few questions emerge: what does a person need to know about Christ to be truly saved? Note that in 1 Timothy 2:4, God desires all to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth. A knowledge component is part of salvation. Then is there any salvation without a crushing of pride and conviction of sin? When salvation truly occurs, isn’t one integrated into the community of believers?
Salvation is not about praying a prayer, a moment of temporary belief, or without preparation by knowledge of Christ and the Scriptures. It is not a mere decision. It is not even asking Jesus into your heart (nowhere mentioned in the Bible). Instead, salvation is a transforming act of God.
How did John Wesley understand salvation?
Wesley’s experience is well-known to most Light + Life readers. He was raised in a parsonage, a member of the Holy Club at Oxford, a missionary to Georgia, and devout and pious for years before the experience of his heart being “strangely warmed” on May 24, 1738. Though it is debated whether this was an experience of assurance, or sanctification, or salvation, let us consider Wesley’s own words.
Of course, like Wright, MacArthur and Sproul, Wesley wrote so much over the course of his long life that it is unfair to summarize so briefly. Nevertheless, we must try.
“You have no fruit from your labors. And why is this? Even because the Lord is not with you. But can you go this warfare at your own cost? It cannot be. Then humble yourselves before Him. Cry unto Him out of the dust, that He may first quicken thy soul; give thee the faith that worketh by love; that is lowly and meek, pure and merciful, zealous for good works, rejoicing in tribulation, in reproach, in distress, in persecution for righteousness’ sake!”
“Lord, increase my faith, if I now believe! Else, give me faith, though but as a grain of a mustard seed! – but ‘what doth it profit if a man say he hath faith and hath not works’? Can that faith save him? Oh no! The faith which hath not works, which doth not produce both inward and outward holiness, which does not stamp the whole image of God on the heart and purify us as He is pure; that faith which does not produce the whole of the religion described in the foregoing chapters, is not the faith of the gospel, not the Christian faith, not the faith which leads to glory.”
Then, on the new birth, from his sermon “The New Birth”:
“From hence it manifestly appears what is the nature of the new birth. It is that great change which God works in the soul when He brings it into life: when He raises it from the death of sin to the life of righteousness. It is the change wrought in the whole soul by the almighty Spirit of God when it is ‘created anew in Christ Jesus.’”
How does this compare with Calvinism? From “Predestination Calmly Considered”:
“If then you say, ‘We ascribe to God alone the whole glory of our salvation;’ I answer, ‘So do we too.’ If you add ‘Nay, but we affirm that God alone does the whole work, without man’s working at all;’ in one sense we allow this also. We allow, it is the work of God alone to justify, to sanctify, and to glorify; which three comprehend the whole of salvation.”
I think it consistent with the rest of Wesley to say that salvation is available to all and that it is a transforming work of God with real life results. How does this occur?
Invaded by the Trinity
Let us return to Acts 2 for a moment and ponder the trinitarian nature of the chapter. Notice that there is the work and words of God (v.11, 17, 22, 32). There is the kerygma or message about Christ (v.14–36). There is the work of the Holy Spirit in preacher and listeners (v.4 and 38). Real content about Christ’s life and work is given. There is repentance, transformation, and dynamic life in the community. We have way more than a dark sanctuary, untucked shirts, a rock band, and a message about life skills!
Salvation is being invaded by the Trinity. It may come in a moment, or after years, or from a sermon, or walking down the street. It is a work of the Spirit (John 3:6, 8); “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27); an act of God, as God the Father delivers us from the authority of darkness into Christ’s kingdom (Colossians 1:13).
No wonder the transformation is so great!
The contributions of Wright, MacArthur, Sproul, Hodges, Chandler and others have been huge, and our esteem for them should be high. On this topic, the stakes are very crucial, since Jesus taught that there is fake wheat (KJV tares) amidst the real wheat, and many thinking they are saved will be in for a very unfortunate surprise at the judgment (Matthew 13:24–30, 7:21–23 and 25:31–46). Preachers, witnesses, Bible study teachers and all of us making disciples must have clarity on this most vital of all topics: how God changes lives.
May we ask for, seek and see many people invaded by the Trinity in days to come!
Editor’s note: As we seek to live The Free Methodist Way, we may need to reconsider our understanding of salvation and our other beliefs to determine if they match the God-Given Revelation found in the Bible. Instead of living according to the shifting standards of Christian pop culture, may our lives be empowered by the Life-Giving Holiness of the Trinity invading us.