Evangelist: “This is the deal: You place your faith in Jesus and God will save you. All you have to do is say the prayer, repent and give yourself to Jesus, make him Lord of your life, which means obey him, tell someone about your decision, find a good church, and Jesus will forgive your sins. How good a deal is that?”
Lost Soul: “But you said it’s free, that I didn’t have to do anything.”
Google “transactional gospel” and you will find hundreds of blogs criticising the “if I do this, then God will do that” formula. The prosperity gospel is a subset. But the Covenant of God is not a contract we enter with God.
Google “how to become a Christian” and you get millions of websites giving you the transactional steps you need to take to gain God’s approval. The Reformers, concerned to avoid a transactional gospel, came up with the “regeneration precedes faith” doctrine to ensure salvation is solely God’s work. But this understanding of the sovereignty of God goes too far. It makes God responsible for everything and does not allow God the freedom to create humans with free will. Can we escape this impasse? I think so.
Faith is the key. It is significant that God uses faith in salvation, and not hope or love. We are not responsible for producing the gospel that we receive by faith. The object of faith is not of our making. If we think of faith as what we believe about Christ, we cannot avoid responsibility for having those beliefs. God would decide whether to save us by checking our brains for the doctrines we hold as true to. It would be like having a doctrinal exam to get into heaven. If we jettison this understanding of faith, how would we decide who are Christians? But we are not supposed to. Jesus said “Do not to judge” one another (Luke 6:37a). If people in another denomination say they are Christians, rejoice and treat them accordingly. Disunity in the church is worse than doctrinal errors.
Instead, we might think of faith as a gift from God (Eph 2:8) in much the same way that our faculty of sight is a gift from God. As such, everyone has faith, and the difference is in what they receive through faith. Jesus applied the image of the eye of the body (faith) making us full of light or full of darkness (Matt 6:22-23). To use a more contemporary metaphor, faith is like a radio receiver. We turn the radio on and tune to a particular station. But the receiver does not save us, nor does tuning in to God’s Word, but God’s Word saves us. Jesus came to save the entire world. God broadcasts the message of salvation to everyone, but not everyone wants to receive it. Unlike a radio station, God knows who are listening, that is, those who receive Jesus by faith. The gospel proclamation is powerful to make alive the human spirit (1 Cor 1:18). With this understanding of faith, we may replace the Reformers’ proposition with “regeneration operates through faith.” Human free will and responsibility remain intact and salvation is a free gift from God.
So, there is no transaction, nor is it needed. People cannot gain salvation by anything they do. There is no deal. God intends the gospel message for everyone. People have an entirely passive role in salvation, but an active role in hearing the gospel. As Jesus said, the Kingdom of God is near “and everyone tries to enter it by force” (Luke 16:16b). As for salvation, we trust that Jesus will save us. Salvation and ultimate freedom from sin is the eager hope of everyone living by faith in God’s Kingdom (Gal 5:5).
Things such as saying “the sinner’s prayer”, confessing sins, being baptised, going to church, etc., play no role in a person’s salvation. These are things the born-again believer does in God’s Kingdom. Just as loving others is a fruit of the Spirit and evidences his presence with us, such things also evidence our salvation, but do not cause God to save us. We cannot, and do not need to, negotiate our salvation.
Proclaiming the gospel this way frees us of the cringe factor of feeling we are manipulating someone to change his or her mind so we can make the sale. The Parable of the Sower shows that the Word of God will produce a harvest of righteousness in fertile soil (Matt 13:1-23; Mark 4:1-20; Luke 8:4-15). As Jesus explained of those who refuse to receive the gospel, “You will indeed listen, but never understand, and you will indeed look but never perceive.” (Matt 13:14) while to people of faith, Jesus said, “But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear.” (Matt 13:16). Faith as a faculty allows us to escape the transactional gospel.