Tag Archive: Grace


Conversion of St. Paul by Caravaggio (1601, 2nd version)

After charting the changing trends in postmodern philosophical thinking, Kallenberg turns to a more explicit discussion of evangelism.  He begins his explanation of conversion to faith by stating what conversion looks like from God’s point of view: “When someone comes to Christ no human assistance is needed.  No one contributes in any way to the gift that comes to us from God entirely by means of grace” (31).  However, Kallenberg balances this stance by attempting to look at conversion from the human side.

From the “human side,” conversion includes three transitions.  First, Kallenberg argues that conversion entails a change of social identity. According to Kallenberg, we identify an object by understanding its function in a larger context.  All people, Christian and non-Christian, live within their own context.  When one’s context changes, the person is all but physically transformed into someone quite different; their social identity changes.  Kallenberg points to Augustine’s conversion as an exemplary change of social identity.  Prior to conversion, Augustine’s life was a random dabbling of disjointed episodes.  After conversion, however, Augustine’s life became woven into a new context, a new story.

As Kallenberg rightly claims, “divine revelation comes to us in the form of a story” (37).  The question then becomes, which story (or context) is true?  For Kallenberg, a person claims the “true” story by allowing that story to shape his or her life.  Conversion, or a change of social identity, then, is to understand one’s own story in the true story line of the gospel.

Second, Kallenberg argues that conversion involves the acquisition of a new conceptual language.  Citing George Lindbeck, Kallenberg claims: “One’s religious world is limited or expanded by the conceptual language one has at one’s disposal.”  Christians maintain a special language of reconciliation, forgiveness, grace, etc. and conversion means accepting and learning the new language.

How does one learn the religious language? By participating in the linguistic community’s form of life – that weave of activity, relationships, and speech that gives the community its unique personality.  Conversion is participating in the life of the church, learning in word and deed to speak and live the language of God.

Third, conversion requires a paradigm shift.  A paradigm is one’s set of beliefs embodied in the life of a community.  Conversion calls non-believers to a change of paradigms, a change of allegiance.  For the Christian community, scripture is the corrective lens by which everything else is brought in to focus (our lives, world, ecosystem, etc.).  Scripture is that which shapes our beliefs, values, and assumptions.  Conversion demands that new believers transition their paradigms to come into better line with the Christian community.  Instead of historically-critically testing the text (remember, subjecting faith to testing is one of the marks of modern philosophical thinking according to Kallenberg in chapter one), we allow the text to test us, to interrogate us.

I appreciate Kallenberg’s look at conversion from both God’s perspective and the human side.  I wonder, however, if this is all there is to conversion.  Is it simply changing one’s social identity, learning a new language, and shifting belief sets?  Also, what makes this possible?  Yes, Kallenberg acknowledges that faith comes as a gift from God, but what inspires faith (or these three changes) within new believers?  I would wish to emphasis that conversion (regardless of how we describe the specific changes) is something that takes times.  Through attending to the means of grace we are constantly being converted, transformed, and sanctified into new creatures in Christ.  And the source of such conversion and growth is grace working through the Spirit.  Living in God’s grace and exercising our will for good comes, as Paul writes, by walking by the Spirit (Gal. 5:25).

This is the second review in a seven-part series looking at Brad Kallenberg’s Live to Tell: Evangelism for a Postmodern Age

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Stained glass window at Gloria Dei Lutheran Church (Downers Grove, IL)

The logic of discipleship

In chapter three Jones argues that Christian discipleship is the core of any evangelistic outreach.  He believes that evangelism is the part of the church’s mission that seeks to help persons enter into Christian discipleship.  Jones contrasts his emphasis on discipleship with William Abraham’s focus on evangelism as initiation into the kingdom of God (The Logic of Evangelism, 1989).

Abraham claims that evangelism seeks to initiate persons into God’s saving work, the reign of God.  The Triune God first initiated this mission, and Christians are called to evangelize others into the mission.  Discipleship occurs after initiation into the kingdom.  Naturally, Abraham believes that the church plays an active role in the initiation process.

Jones counters Abraham on several key points.  First, Jones argues that while humans respond to the reign of God, it is not the reign of God into which they are initiated.  Rather,  humans are initiated into disciples after a faithful response to the reign of God.  Discipleship, not entry into the reign of God, is the aim of evangelism.  Second, Jones critiques Abraham’s stance on evangelism and initiation outside the church.  Jones believes that Abraham’s view establishes a position in which God only acts, or initiates, with the help of Christians in the Church.  Jones suggests that Abraham narrows the scope of God’s reign by limiting it to the church’s ministry.  The reign of God is wider than the ministry of the church.  Jones writes, Abraham “limits God’s sovereign action on earth to be no larger than the ministry of the church” (70).

Jones rearticulates the logic of evangelism as initiation into Christian discipleship in Wesleyan soteriological terms.  First, evangelistic outreach calls people to repentance, seeking ways in which God is already working to turn around others.  He writes, “In modern evangelism, one of the most crucial tasks of discernment is to discover the ways in which a non-Christians might be responding already to God’s grace” (79).  Additionally, justification comes as the point of entry into the Christian life where one’s relationship with God changes.  Jones highlights one’s baptism and cognitive commitment (intellectual acceptance of the gospel) as marks of justification.

Finally, Jones examines sanctification within evangelistic outreach.  He argues that from the moment of justification, sanctification begins through worship, spiritual disciplines, formation (conversion), witness, spiritual gifts, and faith-sharing.  Through a congregation – a gathered community of believers in which persons live the Christian life together – sanctifying grace works to perfect believers in love of God and neighbor.

Throughout Jones’s discussion of initiation and discipleship he could have devoted more time to baptism.  He quickly gives a nod to baptism’s role in discipleship, but his thought in this area appears short-changed.  It only seems appropriate to connect our baptismal vows with evangelism.  As baptized persons we are initiated into God’s family (Church Universal).  Also, through the water and the Spirit we are incorporated into God’s saving mission in the world.  To speak of our evangelistic motivation without tying that motivation to baptism seems to not fully portray our baptismal identity and calling.

This is the third review in an eight-part series looking at Scott Jones’s Evangelistic Love of God & Neighbor

Is “Salvation by grace through faith” unique to Christianity?

In chapter six Tennent prompts a discussion a seminary student would love.  He enticingly asks, “Is the Christian emphasis on grace dramatically different from other religions’ doctrines?”  Is grace a universally understood and accepted idea?  Immediately, Calvin and Arminius or Presbyterians and Methodists come to mind.  Tennent, however, points to a similar debate happening within branches of Hinduism (Vadagalais and Tengalais).  Also, Tennent highlights the Japanese Jodu Shin Shu (True Pure Land); a stream of Mahayana Buddhism Karl Barth called “Japanese Protestantism” (137).

True Pure Land emerged in 13th century AD by the Buddhist reformer Shinran Shonin.  This “Japanese Protestantism,” Tennent claims, parallels the soteriological claims made by so many Western Christians.  Shinran recognizes the helplessness of the human condition and humanity’s desperate cry for grace.  However, while a doctrine of “salvation by grace through faith” does exist in Buddhism, it is an incomplete Christian understanding of the phrase according to Tennent.

Does this conclusion mean Christians have the market cornered on grace, faith, and salvation?  Tennent allows for the possibility that True Pure Land is in total error.  Perhaps the void of Christ and God’s redemptive acts in grace-filled non-Christian religions negates the whole of their existence.  Yet, in that case are we to shun all of it?  Could we not still acknowledge that the True Pure Land is an example of the truth that God “has not left himself without testimony?” (Acts 14.17).  Tennent concludes that the lesson we should learn from Shinran is to expect doctrines of grace in other religions, and not be surprised by them” (158).

Chapter six left me a little disappointed.  Tennent failed to offer many definitive or insightful statements.  Many questions remained unanswered.  What if we find grace in other religions?  Is that an avenue to talk about the grace of Christ?  Do we settle to know that “grace” is to be found apparent from the Christian witness?  What is the source of the other grace?  My hopes for chapter six were not met, and I finished the chapter with more confusion than clarity.

This is the sixth review in an eleven-part series looking at Timothy Tennent’s Theology in the context of World Christianity.

“Choose this day whom you will serve…”

After outlining the three-scene drama of evangelism in chapter 1, Brueggemann bridges the drama from scripture to contemporary times. He asks the question: Who is the constituency for evangelism? The most obvious answer: the outsider who stands apart from the community of “news,” or those who live by other (non-Israel, Christian) narrative identities. The great meeting at Shechem (Joshua 24) depicts Brueggemann’s tale of outsiders and insiders.

In Joshua 24 the “insiders” are Israel while the “outsiders” are represented by the “Canaanites.” Appreciatively, Brueggemann owns the fact that some interpretive readings of the conquest (“destroy the Canaanites”) may be problematic for any discussion of evangelism! However, Brueggemann holds to the view that the “conquest” of the Promised Land was likely a peaceful movement of coexistent communities. Thus, “Canaanites” represents a polemical, ideological term. Canaanites are those who are committed to social practices that are viewed as hostile to the covenantal vision of Israel (49). Canaanites, or outsiders, are those committed to practices (or theology) that are greedy, self-serving, arrogant, or wasteful.

So, the evangelistic question remains: How can such a person who lives in a different way legitimated by a different ideology be made a full participant in the story and the life of Israel? For an answer we look at Joshua’s speech in Joshua 24.

Anachronistically, Brueggemann imagines three yearning characters gathered around to hear Joshua’s words. First, he envisions a young girl from a troubled and dysfunctional family. The girl lives in the midst of familial wars and disputes. Her situation seems hopeless and impossible. Yet, she hears of God “giving” [to ancestors] Isaac…Jacob and Esau…the hill country” (Josh. 24.2b-4). She learns of a gracious God, one who gives gifts and hope. She hears the tale of God breaking the hopelessness, reconciling siblings, and guaranteeing futures (54).

Another listener is a tired business executive. He is worn-down by his heavy workload, but cannot escape it because he is fully dependant on it for his livelihood. The more he works the more he earns; and the more he earns the more he “lives.” Until…he hears Joshua relay the message of God in the Exodus, ““I brought you out” (Josh. 24.5-7). The executive realizes that life is about more than the docility of work and pleasing the boss. The Empire is not great provider (56). Rather, God offers a role in an alternative story of life. Like during the Exodus, God brings a departure for those trapped in despairing cycles.

Thirdly, Brueggemann tells of the hearer who is a member of the permanent underclass of society. The listener does not know how she fell into the lower socio-economic levels, but she knows it was her fault. But then Joshua tells of a great promise: “I gave you a land on which you had not labored, and towns that you had not built, and you live in them; you eat the fruit of vineyards and oliveyards that you did not plant” (Josh. 24.13). The lower class person’s spirits rise at the thought of a gift, of a promise, of an uninherited offer. In each situation, Joshua offers the hearers a reconstructed view of life. They are invited to imagine themselves differently. Through the retelling of God’s mighty acts they are invited to begin life anew (66). They are invited to move from despair to hope. They are allowed to depart from docility. They are offered a gift for the disadvantaged.

In this chapter Brueggemann offers a compelling picture of what evangelism might look like in today’s world. He beautifully translates Shechem for today. We can safely assume the hearers he paints into Joshua 24 are present in our pews in 2010. How will we tell them the story? How will we invite them to find themselves in the whole of God’s redemptive story?

Also, I love how Brueggemann does not spare the difficult side of the story. For as Joshua puts it, “Choose this day whom you will serve?” We are reminded that the story into which we are invited demands a response from us. Even more, the demands are tough. We must choose to leave behind the gods of Egypt, abandoning other loyalties, fear, and hopes in an effort to serve Yahweh only. There is, as Bonhoeffer put it, no cheap grace.

This is the second review in a five-part series looking at Walter Brueggemann’s Biblical Perspectives on Evangelism.

Mark 6:14-29 — The Beheading of John the Baptist

Many of us look upon this text with shock, maybe even fear.  We might best describe it as a “text of terror.”  Today, moments of terror, or fear, still break in to our lives.  There’s the terror of broken homes and fractured families.  We trembled when the doctor pronounces the diagnosis.  We fear the loss of loved ones.  Jobs, finances, uncertainty, and fear of failure are all terrifying propositions.  In those moments, our own “text of terror” plays itself out in our daily lives.  Yet, there is hope.  In the end, the disciples come to gather, hold, and bury John’s body.  God, not Herod, has the final say.  Today’s disciples, the Church, remains at the ready, waiting to hold those who hurt, grieve, and experience loss.  In the toughest of times, when it seems as if the terror is too much, call upon the Church.  Call upon God, who through the Christ’s body (the Church), promises to hold, to nurture, and to love those who call upon His name.

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