Right here, righteous now?

  • Question from CM, United Kingdom.

    The evangelical method of bringing people to Christ by imposing an immediate decision on an individual to choose their eternal destiny on the spot or risk going to hell seems to have held sway forever. But I recently read a book, which suggested that this approach only became popular in the Methodist movement under John Wesley. What pattern emerges from the Bible when God counts someone as “righteous” or “redeemed” and therefore fit to spend eternity with Him? Is this how God does it?

    There are several instances in both testaments of people being given a one-off opportunity to claim some form of salvation. “Choose this day whom you will serve” (Joshua chapter 24 and verse 15) and similar injunctions to the people of Israel are mirrored by instances in the New Testament where those who hear the ‘good news’ are given clear instructions (e.g. Acts chapter 2 verse 38) that they have to follow.

    However, the emphasis on human choice that Wesley prioritised stems from his belief that human free will was the deciding factor in an individual’s salvation. The Bible is less than clear regarding the question of free will (hence the long-running debate over predestination), but it is fair to say that humans have some sort of say in the matter. Jesus tells his disciples that “You did not choose me, but I chose you…” (John chapter 15, verse 16) and that seems to imply that sometimes the choice is out of our hands. In the history of Israel, many ‘righteous persons’ were chosen almost arbitrarily. Abraham and Noah were counted as righteous enough to found God’s chosen people and survive an apocalyptic flood respectively. Neither of them ever responded to an altar call.

    Jesus often left people with a choice to make. The Rich Young Man, who’s story is told in Luke chapter 16, was faced with a choice in how he was going to live his life and what would be his priority from now on. Interestingly, he chose to walk away, much to Jesus’ sadness. Later in Christian history, John Calvin would argue that the only free will human beings had was to reject the offer of salvation.

    So should Christians put other people ‘on the spot’? There has been a recent trend away from confrontational evangelism (door-knocking, street-preaching and the like) to relational evangelism. This comes at a far higher personal risk – rejection is harder to take when you actually know the person involved, but perhaps it is a more Biblical method. Christians are called to be ‘witnesses’ (Acts chapter 1 verse 8), living out the faith as an example to unbelievers. This gives people many opportunities to ‘choose life’ and it allows an unforced decision – a positive ‘yes’ rather than a reluctant commitment made out of the fear of hell.

    And now, a new feature from freelance theology:
    freelance theology’s pre-emptive answer:
    ‘What does ‘evangelism’ mean?’
    It comes from the root word ‘evangel’, which is an Anglicisation (via the Latin) of ‘euangelion’, the Greek word meaning ‘Good News’ (or ‘Gospel’). Euangelistes is a New Testament word meaning ‘one who preaches the good news’ – hence ‘evangelist’.
    Not to be confused with: ‘Evangelical’, which has the same root, but means ‘a person who bases their theology on Scripture (the Gospel)’.

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