Billy Graham wasn’t wrong to emphasize Jesus as a “personal Savior”

September 15, 2014

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A pastor friend of mine asked me to share my thoughts on this blog post about contemporary evangelism by a Northern Seminary professor named David Fitch.

Fitch opposes “formulaic” presentations of the gospel, “[w]hether it be a Billy Graham Crusade, a Seeker Service or a 4 Spirtual Laws booklet,” because they rely on “techniques to convince someone of their need/sinfulness and a process for receiving the gospel. Today, among the masses, these techniques are perceived (most often) as coercive.” Worse, because the goal of these techniques is to convince someone of the truth of the gospel, they effectively “deny the prevenient work of the Holy Spirit.”

Let us always believe God is drawing people to Himself, including us through our non-believing friends. Then let us tend to His presence by being present to the other person allowing for His presence between us. This space then becomes the arena for the in breaking Kingdom.  Evangelism happens in the space of His presence between us and other people, not in a coerced set-up presentation.

He also believes that it’s time to abandon or at least deemphasize “forensic” theories of atonement such as penal substitution in favor of the Christus Victor model, which emphasizes the victory that God has inaugurated over the powers of sin, death, evil, and violence.

Substitutionary models of atonement in my opinion (and this includes Anselm) were later contextualizations (not that there is anything wrong with that). Their forensic nature connects less and less with cultures of the West. Expand your understanding of the gospel. Read Scot McKnight, NT Wright, Gustaf Auelen as a start.  Come to see evangelism as the inviting of people into the world where Jesus is Lord, not merely leading people to accept Jesus as their “personal” Savior.

Finally, he argues that evangelism should be aimed less at convincing people of the truth of the gospel than proclaiming that truth and letting the Holy Spirit do the heavy lifting within the non-Christian’s heart.

I think I’ve fairly represented his argument.

As for my response, if you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you can probably predict it. First, I disagree strongly that substitutionary atonement was some medieval innovation by Anselm with which we Protestants later fell in love. I believe it is the primary (though hardly exclusive) biblical way to understand how the cross of Christ reconciles us to God. Christus Victor is fine and true enough, but it doesn’t offer an explanation of how the victory of the cross happens.

Wherever we come down on atonement, I would insist that we emphasize that God has done something—objectively, once and for all—to take care of my guilt (and your guilt) for the sins that I’ve committed (and you’ve committed). This is incredibly good news to me personally, so if that means that I overemphasize Jesus as a “personal” Savior, well, so be it.

How can the gospel not be deeply personal? Eternity hangs in the balance of a person’s decision to accept or reject God’s offer of salvation through Christ. What a relief that God has done something through the cross of his Son that saves me from the eternal consequences of my sin!

Billy Graham and his fellow evangelicals didn’t invent the doctrine of hell, and Jesus himself spoke about it more than anyone in scripture. Was Jesus being coercive when he did so?

Well, I’ve covered all this ground before. If you have doubts about penal substitution and its central place in scripture, please see Dr. Robert Gagnon’s excellent essay, which I discuss and link to here.

Here’s what I wrote, rather quickly, to my pastor friend (who agrees with me):

Thanks for the link. I actually disagree… Strongly, I’m afraid. How would we (in the mainline especially) know whether the Billy Graham approach works anymore? When was the last time anyone tried it? We can “be present” with non-Christians all we want… At some point we must use words to share the gospel. This author’s words have a nice post-modern ring to them, but they seem to endorse the status quo of evangelism is mainline churches. The status quo doesn’t work.

As for substitutionary atonement versus Christus Victor, first, it doesn’t have to be one or the other, but I’m sorry: each of us must confront the fact that we are sinners. Christus Victor doesn’t say how the cross reconciles us to God, only that it does. How? What happens? To the credit of “forensic” models of atonement, they purport to offer an explanation—one which, frankly, is writ large across Paul’s letter to the Romans and which makes good sense of the suffering servant of Isaiah 53.

Any atonement model that fails to say that each of us is a sinner who needs God to have accomplished something objective on the cross to deal with our “personal” sin against a holy God is deficient, in my opinion. Substitutionary atonement does that very well. And Tim Keller is one of the world’s great preachers, in my view, because he communicates that clearly in every sermon!

And I’m tired of the old knock against the “personal” Savior and Scot McKnight’s put-down of what he calls the “soterian” gospel. Of course the gospel is deeply personal to those whose lives have been changed by Jesus! It’s personal first of all… then we can talk about where we go from there!

Is there any decision that an individual can make that’s more important than to accept God’s gift of salvation through Christ? Unless there is, don’t tell me Billy Graham has been surpassed!

The words about how the old model fails to depend on the Holy Spirit? Oh please! Should we instead do a really crummy job presenting the gospel—one which fails to address felt needs of an individual’s life, one that is unclear and confusing—because, if people still convert in spite of our efforts, then we’ll know that the Holy Spirit was responsible?

2 Responses to “Billy Graham wasn’t wrong to emphasize Jesus as a “personal Savior””

  1. betsypc Says:

    A view from the pew:

    After spending a lifetime of being a good Methodist, I finally became confused and lost enough that I distanced myself from all things church and discovered the Heidelberg Catechism and three books about it. When I was done, I was folded into God’s amazing story of salvation and had an understanding of Christianity I never thought possible. All the random pieces of the puzzle of Christianity I had been collecting fit into a larger understanding. The experience became one long question of why nobody had never had this conversation with me before. I felt like this knowledge should have been incorporated into my thinking a long time ago. I can attest to the truth that redemption most definitely begins with head knowledge. There were many best things that I learned including finally understanding that God chose to become human and pay his own price for our sins; something I had never understood before.

    My thought now is, you have to impart knowledge, then step back and let the Holy Spirit work. I now have an understanding of atonement and what happened on the cross–they are one of many theories–but as time goes on, the exact details do not matter, all that matters is it happened. I have come to realize there are two levels of theology–the large one that states who God is and who we are in relation and then there is the small theology that becomes the subject of debate, so much so, that the large theology gets lost.

    The other thing I did was spend some time with Wesley’s sermons and journals. The modern UMC is so caught up in social justice issues, it was stunning to learn that Wesley started with connecting individuals to God; he emphasized the “me’ aspect of Christianity every bit as much as he emphasized the social. Based on my experience, the root problem with the UMC is the emphasis is too much social and not enough individual; it has to be a balance of both.

    • brentwhite Says:

      I apologize on behalf of the UMC. I promise I’m working for change! I find that Methodists in general are hungry for the gospel, rather than the watered-down “social gospel” that so many of its clergy seem eager to feed them. In our defense, it’s what we learn in our mainline seminaries. Regardless, when someone hears and responds to the gospel, it will be deeply personal before anything else.


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