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The upcoming EFCA 2014 Theology Preconference, “Soteriological Essentials and the ‘Significance of Silence’: Arminianism, Calvinism, Lutheranism and the EFCA,” addresses the doctrine of salvation and how it is understood theologically and practically. Historically denominations have been created with a specific theological understanding of soteriology or salvation. Discussion has often led to division, not only between denominations but within denominations, and even within local churches.

There is a place for these discussions and differences, but will they inevitably lead to divisions?

In the EFCA, we think not. We attempt to focus on the essentials of the doctrine of salvation while granting/allowing freedom of understanding, all the while doing this together in the same denomination and even within the same local church. It is, we believe, an implication of acknowledging that the gospel is of “first importance” (1 Cor. 15:3) and a small realization/fulfillment of Jesus High Priestly prayer for unity and oneness in Him (Jn. 17). It is truly a manifestation of our unity in the gospel of Jesus Christ (Eph. 2:11-22).

How then is this delineated?

The soteriological essential: we are saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone to the glory of God alone. This Reformation principle affirms in summary form key biblical truths.

But, does faith precede regeneration or does regeneration precede faith? Does one believe and is then regenerated? Or is one regenerated and then believes?

The fact that God initiates salvation is a fundamental truth. It is an essential truth affirmed by Arminians/Wesleyans, Calvinists/Reformed and Lutherans. However, some expound this through effective grace while the others do so through prevenient grace. Evangelicals from these various theological traditions repudiate Pelagianism and semi-Pelagianism. So how do we live life together?

This is the significance of silence – we will debate an issue but we will not divide over an issue. If this is the case, then what are the guidelines, the parameters within which we live and minister together? Evangelical Convictions: A Theological Exposition of the Statement of Faith of the Evangelical Free Church of America notes the following (24-25):

Once [the early Free Church leaders] began to put in writing what was commonly believed among them, they were silent on those doctrines which through the centuries had divided Christians of equal dedication, Biblical knowledge, spiritual maturity and love for Christ.’ This ‘significance of silence’ reflected our strong concern for Evangelical unity in the gospel.

In the EFCA the “significance of silence” is defined in this way (Evangelical Convictions, 24, n. 18):

This expression does not mean that we will not discuss and debate these issues but simply that we will not divide over them.

As noted in a previous post, our goal is to present the various views in an irenic and constructive manner so that we can instruct and inform of the positions. We desire that people have an accurate understanding of the various views. There is much misunderstanding and many caricatures of the other views from one’s own. In fact, confusion and misunderstanding exist of one’s own position!

Because we in the EFCA live and minster together in unity in the gospel of Jesus Christ while allowing various positions on the specifics of the doctrine of salvation, caricatures of the other positions are not only not helpful, they are hurtful. We desire to highlight the places where there is unity in the essentials and also where there are differences, not ignore or conceal them, and then model how these discussions can and should be done.

As an application, what we generally request/require of our credentialed candidates is that they defend their own position biblically and theologically, and also that they give an accurate presentation of the other position biblically and theologically.

My general pastoral commitment was to help those with another view know and understand it even better, biblically and theologically. And then to model for them what it means and looks like to hold a position (and to preach and teach it, even passionately) but to do it in a respectful manner. In other words, to model what this looks like in our ministry.

I would be delighted if some (many/most/all) of the pastors in attendance could follow what we do as a model and replicate it in the local church where they serve.

 

The EFCA strongly affirms that dictum that we “major on the majors, and minor on the minors.” As Rupertus Meldenius stated in the midst of the tragic Thirty Years War (1618-1648), “in essentials unity, in non-essentials charity, in all things Jesus Christ” (with some variation of the last statement).

In the EFCA we refer to this as “the significance of silence,” which means that on those non-essential matters we will debate issues but we will not divide over them.

It is one thing to state this as a policy. It is another thing to live this policy out in practice. It requires a great deal of grace and maturity, without compromising truth.

One of the doctrines that appears to lead perpetually to questions, concerns, and tensions is that of salvation: does faith precede regeneration (generally referred to as the Arminian/Wesleyan position), or does regeneration precede faith (generally referred to as the Reformed/Calvinist position)?

This doctrine has, once again, become a hot-topic issue in the Southern Baptist Convention. Last year at their annual Convention there were “heresy accusation” claims.  (This discussion does not remain in the SBC alone. It affects all denominations that are a place for both of these understandings of salvation, including the EFCA. I will write about our EFCA commitment and practice at a future date.)

Because of this discussion in the SBC, a “Calvinism Advisory Committee” was formed by Frank Page, President, SBC Executive Committee, to respond to the questions being raised, the tension the SBC is presently experiencing. This Committee, made up of 19 members with David Dockery, retired president of Union University, serving as chair, released their statement as they approach their annual Convention meeting: “Truth, Trust, and Testimony in a Time of Tension: A Statement from the Calvinism Advisory Committee”:

Here is one of the key conclusions they made of their time together, which is stated as part of the introduction to this Statement, each of the four components – truth, tension, trust and testimony – being delineated thoroughly:

Four central issues have become clear to us as we have met together. We affirm together that Southern Baptists must stand without apology upon truth; that we do indeed have some challenging but not insurmountable points of tension; that we must work together with trust; and that we must encourage one another to testimony.

Dockery affirms this work with these words:

For several years, Southern Baptists have been asking important questions about our identity and our future. At times we have struggled with trying to grasp the breadth of our doctrinal and historical differences, particularly related to matters such as Calvinism. What has been needed is a new consensus that will help point us toward a new sense of cooperation and renewal for the sake of the Gospel. It is our hope that Truth, Trust, and Testimony in a Time of Tension, while not a perfect statement, will, nevertheless, provide a significant and positive step in that direction. The statement reflects the efforts of many diverse voices who have attempted to speak as one with a sense of convictional civility and Spirit-enabled charity toward and with one another. We pray that these efforts will enable us to serve collaboratively and work faithfully, while offering a joyful and Gospel-focused witness to a lost and needy world.

As would be expected, the document has been and will be variously considered. For some, it will be considered good and necessary. For others, it will be considered bad and unnecessary. And one knows there are all kinds of varied responses in between and outside those! Christianity Today has included a brief update.

Because we in the EFCA live with the same doctrinal parameters on the doctrine of salvation, I would encourage you to read the whole document. There is much for us to learn in the EFCA about living and ministering together from the common foundation of the gospel of Jesus Christ.