Many people in the EMC are worried about “liberalism” in the Church. It’s hard to explain exactly what liberalism is, but we all seem to know what we mean. To go “liberal,” we believe, is to drive the “welcome, include, and affirm everyone” instinct so one-sidedly that we compromise the Gospel revealed in Scripture.
Let me try to explain where this “liberal” instinct comes from and why it arose in the first place. After the Reformation in the 1500’s, a huge problem hung over the freshly wounded bodies (!) of Christ. Have the severed “churches” (Protestant, Anabaptist, Catholic) any Gospel-based way for all these new factions to co-exist peacefully within society?
Prior to the Reformation, the Church provided the glue holding society together, sort of. But with the Church now existing in mutual damnation of itself in mutual excommunications, was there still a Gospel-based way for people to love one another across boundaries? Could Jesus still bring us together in love, overcoming our differences, or would we now need to find secular ways to live out the Bible’s command to love?
Attempts were made. The first swing-and-a-miss was the theological killing of the Reformation age resulting in thousands of martyrs from all churches lined up against each other. Another swing-and-a-miss was the Thirty-Years War, a devastating 17th century war between the new “churches” in which a quarter of Europe’s population died. The last swing-and-you’re-out was World War I, when the churches of the west goaded the world to a bloodshed never before seen.
Much went on in the meantime, but the divided churches found no Gospel-based way to love across their differences. The Church never figured out how to come to theological agreement in love. Was it really impossible, using biblical resources, to overcome deep differences regarding baptism, salvation by grace, ordination, and so on? Apparently.
Finally, western society said, “Fine, you’ve had your chance. If that’s what the Gospel amounts to, we’ll just have to find another way to get along.” And that is where liberalism in the Church and in the world arose.
In all its different forms, liberalism tempers doctrinal truth, looking for better ways to approximate what was supposed to be the love of the body of Christ. It’s what the world came up with in response to un-resolvable disunity in the church. If the Church doesn’t like it, it has no one to blame but itself. We simply have not shown that genuine Christian truth leads people to costlier love across painful boundaries. All we have shown is that a commitment to Scriptural truth leads to division.
And so, if we want to resist liberalism, it does not help to just shout louder about “truth” or “purity” or “sin.” We have to show the world that the gospel enables us to love our enemies, our theological enemies. We have to show that in the Spirit, guided by Scripture we are able to overcome our differences with Catholics, Lutherans, and other Mennonites.
But I see recent signs that things may be changing and that the Church is getting genuinely tired of its division. Churches are partnering in mission like never before. Martyrdom is exposing our common blood as believers across traditions. Reformation divisions over baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and justification are looking less interesting to the Church today.
When Jesus finally reigns in the Church and his love prevails, liberalism will be shown as the pale impotence it is. “On earth as it is in heaven. . . .”
The Apostolic or Apostles’ Creed is a profound summary of the essence of the Christian faith. It is brief, concise but does not elaborate the meaning of the various statements.
This statement, “I believe in the forgiveness of sins,” is, in the estimate of the writer, the essential essence of the Christian faith. Without forgiveness, there is no gospel, no redemption, but only condemnation. Without forgiveness we would not be able to have a relationship with God.
The only way to bring humankind back into relationship with God is forgiveness. Similarly, in order for me to have a relationship with a fellow human who has hurt me I need to forgive that hurt whether that person repents or not though our relationship will not be restored unless the wrongdoer acknowledges his wrong and seeks forgiveness (Mk. 11:25).
What is Forgiveness?
Forgiveness is taking the wrongs done to you, absorbing the consequences, letting them go and not holding them against the perpetrator whether the person repents or not and thus removing my side of the barrier that hinders our relationship.
Jesus came to redeem us. The only way He could do that was by forgiving us. And to forgive us He had to take the consequences of our sins against Him, absorb them, and then let us go free. His death on the cross was His way of forgiving us. He had to experience the separation from God. On the cross He cried out, “My God, My God why have you forsaken me?” Those were the consequences of our sin against God and the cost of forgiveness.
In Ephesians 1:7 we read, “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace which he lavished upon us.” And in Colossians 1:13-14 we read, “He has delivered us from the dominion of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.”
Much more could be said but here we have a concise definition of redemption: “the forgiveness of sins.” Jesus’ death on the cross was a voluntary death. He did it because that is the only way forgiveness was possible. All of us were dead in our trespasses and sins. So by His death Jesus wiped out death and brought forgiveness.
Let’s apply it to our life. If you forgive someone who has ruined your reputation, what happens? You accept the ruined reputation and let the one who has done it go free; you do not hold it against him nor do you seek justice. That briefly is what forgiveness is. It is substitutional; the one sinned against absorbs the hurt and pain of the evil done and does not hold it against the guilty party. This is what Jesus did.
The Bible says the soul that sins will die. He has brought forgiveness, but it doesn’t become yours until you accept it. To accept it means you acknowledge you have done wrong, are sorry for it and ask for forgiveness. And then Jesus is faithful and just to forgive us our sins. We are then free and in relationship with our Saviour.
What About Repentance?
That is very essential, but not for the forgiver. If the guilty one wishes to experience forgiveness than she or he will have to confess and repent of the wrong done and seek forgiveness. The hurt party forgives whether the guilty party repents or not.
But if the one who is guilty wants to experience forgiveness in his or her life, that person must repent. So the person repents, apologizes and asks forgiveness. The forgiver does what a friend of mine did to a repentant person. He said, “I have forgiven you a long time ago.” But you go on to say, “Yes I forgive you gladly. I forgave you already but I am happy you are seeking the forgiveness for yourself.”
At that point the final step in forgiveness can happen—reconciliation. The forgiver has already forgiven, but full reconciliation can only happen if the guilty party repents and seeks forgiveness.
What about Restoration?
For example, what happens to what was stolen? The forgiver forgives and does not demand repayment. If the guilty party offers restitution, the forgiver receives it not so much for himself but to help the guilty party find peace and freedom.
Forgiveness and Spiritual Healing
The hurt party forgives, for this is necessary to be healed. If one does not forgive, one will struggle with bitterness, anger, and avoid the wrongdoer. So forgiveness in this sense is therapeutic. It brings healing to your soul and will help one to love the wrongdoer.
The wrongdoer must repent and seek forgiveness to become free and move toward healed relationships. We will not forget some of the serious hurts we forgive, but when the memory comes we decide to not indulge in those memories but set them aside because we have forgiven them.
In forgiveness the wrongdoer and the forgiver each has or her his part. Each can only do his or her part. The forgiver forgives whether that is accepted or not. The sinner repents to experience that forgiveness. Forgiveness is complete when this happens. This is what is modeled by Christ forgiving the repentant sinner. Christ has died for all. Forgiveness is available for all but only those who respond to the offer of forgiveness experience that forgiveness.
Forgiveness is a Decision
You have to decide to forgive just as Jesus decided to forgive our sins and then took the consequences—death. But forgiveness becomes ours only as we acknowledge the wrong we have done, repent, and ask for forgiveness.
Forgiveness is my decision to absorb evil done to me and not hold it against the doer. This gives me peace in my soul. For the wrongdoer to experience that forgiveness, the wrongdoer must repent, confess and acknowledge the wrong and ask for forgiveness.
This forgiveness now makes it possible for reconciliation between the two. It may take time to move forward for the forgiver as well as it may take time for reconciliation to come to completion. But forgiveness makes that possible as one commits oneself to walk in forgiveness.
This is the will of God. Rejoice in the forgiveness of Jesus and, with the resurrection power that is yours because you have Jesus (Rom. 6; 2 Pet. 1:3), walk in continual forgiveness towards those who do you wrong.
We are to follow Jesus’ example. He forgave our sins through His death before we repented and we experience that forgiveness only if we repent and accept it. You and I are too always forgive the person who does wrong to us whether the other person repents or not. That is loving the other. The one who did the wrong needs to repent if he or she wants to experience forgiveness. When that happens, reconciliation and a renewed relationship become possible and should emerge.
Dr. Harvey Plett has served as president of Steinbach Bible College and as EMC moderator; he is a long-serving minister at Prairie Rose EMC. He continues to do some teaching, preaching,
counseling and writing. He and his wife Pearl live in Mitchell, Man., and celebrated 58 years of blessed marriage on August 22, 2016.
James Arminius (ca. 1559-1609), a Reformed pastor, was given a task: to refute the teachings of Anabaptists who were then seeking refuge in Holland.
“This was an assignment which he never finished,” says Donald M. Lake, a professor of theology at Wheaton College, most likely “because he may have found some of their views more scriptural than their opponents” (Grace Unlimited, Clark H. Pinnock, ed., Bethany Fellowship, 227).
This did not mean that Arminius, a Reformed pastor and then professor of theology, agreed with all of the views held by Anabaptists: “…while he advocated toleration for the Anabaptists, he had no sympathy for their views of political isolationism” (229).
There was, though, one view which Arminius held that he, Anabaptists, and the wider early Church had in common: a rejection of double predestination.
God does not arbitrarily choose some people to eternal life and some to eternal death quite apart from how they would freely respond to him in the future, he said. He taught that Christ died for all of humankind and actively seeks our salvation.
Arminius wrote, “There is . . . no point of doctrine which the Papists, Anabaptists and Lutherans oppose with greater vehemence than this” (double predestination). He considered it a view that brought the Church into disrepute (Arminius Speaks: Essential Writings on Predestination, Free Will, and the Nature of God, John D. Wagner, ed., Wipf & Stock, 2011, 56).
He held to the total depravity of humankind; we are lost in our sins and dependent upon God’s grace through his Spirit to enable us to respond to Him. He was undecided on whether a true believer could fall from grace to the point of being eternally lost. (His death from tuberculosis at about age 50 prevented further earthly study.)
The Dutch scholar rejected unconditional election, limited atonement, and irresistible grace. He taught that despite Christ’s universal call and atonement, we, having a freed will restored by the Holy Spirit, can resist God’s desire to our ultimate harm (Acts 7:51; 2 Cor. 6:1).
He wasn’t alone in seeing this in Scripture. “Anabaptists would argue with good cause that it was a [viewpoint that] Balthasar Hubmaier and other Anabaptist thinkers had begun developing almost a century earlier” (Roger Olson, The Story of Christian Theology, 471-72). Olson calls Hubmaier an “Arminian before Arminius.”
Dr. Harold Bender, an Anabaptist historian and theologian, says, “Mennonites have been historically Arminian in their theology whether they distinctly espoused the Arminian viewpoint or not.” The same, I suggest, describes many evangelicals today.
While too few EMCers and other evangelicals realize how the term Arminian relates to their beliefs, many reject double predestination and hold to an unlimited atonement and resistible grace. This places us within the Arminian stream of theology. There is much common ground between Arminian and Reformed Christians, but not on these particular points.
Does it matter what we call ourselves? Maybe not, but it matters what we believe and teach. “Christ Jesus…gave himself as a ransom for all” (1 Tim. 2:6). “For Christ died for sins, once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God” (1 Peter 3:18). “He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9).
Resources: “Arminians Attempt to Reform Reformed Theology,” in Roger E. Olson, The Story of Christian Theology (IVP, 1999, 454-472); Roger E. Olson, Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities (IVP, 2006); Roger E. Olson, Against Calvinism (Zondervan, 2011); Robert Shank, Elect in the Son (Bethany, 1970); Robert Shank, Life in the Son (Bethany, 1960); Arminius Speaks (details above). Note: Against Calvinism is poorly titled. Olson is not against Reformed theology generally or Calvinists, but opposes the ULI (in the TULIP).
A publication of the Evangelical Mennonite Conference