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Reproclaiming the Everlasting Gospel

Salvation: Do We Know What It Means?

The following excerpt from Lewis Benson's Six Disciple Church Lectures details some of the changes that have come about in the concept of salvation. Today we still use words like forgiveness, sanctification, justification, the cross, etc., but our understanding of those words are not the same as when used by the writers of the New Testament or the preachers of the gospel in the days of the early church. The full text of Lewis Benson's Disciple Church Lectures will be available for download from our new literature website, which will be made live soon.

But even though the church before Constantine had lost much of its unique charismatic character it yet remained a community in tension with the world. Its members refused to bear arms or perform the required acts of obeisance to the emperor. It did not think it strange when it had to suffer.
But after the establishment of universal infant baptism the church became composed of all the subjects of the emperor organized for religious purposes. Tension between the church and the world had become impossible. Before this the new Christian had had the experience of passing from one community to another over a definite frontier. He had passed from the old world into the new world where the rule of God, into which the whole race of mankind will finally be brought, was already experienced by faithful Christians. In the fourth century this frontier was destroyed. A church that included everyone in the land, both pure and impure, saints and sinners, could no longer think of itself as a “holy nation!” or a “people of God’s own possession”. In this mixed multitude in which the good and the bad were all thrown together the church no longer consisted of those who had accepted the conditions of discipleship, including the first condition of discipleship, namely, cross-bearing. In a church not wholly or even principally composed of disciples there could be no fellowship in sharing the sufferings of Christ. The church had ceased to be the suffering community of the suffering servant.
These vast changes in the church’s constitution created the need for a re-interpretation of the church’s gospel and especially a revised understanding of its moral and spiritual implications. One direct consequence of the new conditions was the rise of monasticism. As the church itself came to be no more than a cross section of the whole population the quest for the holy community began to be carried on in monastic communities. The institutional church endeavored to keep such communities within her framework. These monastic communities did not seek to restore the gospel order of the early church. Their conception of holiness and purity was largely dominated by an asceticism that did not have its roots in the Christian revelation. Their communities were governed by abbots and their internal structure was not essentially different from the structure of similar communities in other religious traditions. They sought to create opportunities for seeking the holy life in community without challenging or questioning the institutional character of the state church. But not every Christian in search of a holy life was to be found in monasteries. Although the church as a whole was no longer a spiritual house built of spiritual stones, the Christian could still seek holiness as an individual. The Christian gospel of salvation now began to be reinterpreted in individualistic terms. In [the] early church the “new life was not thought of simply or even chiefly as a particular inward experience of each individual, rather it was manifested in the agape which animated the whole of the new community and joined its members in fellowship with one another and with God.” [9] But the vision of the redemptive community of the redeemed began to fade and after the 5th century the church no longer anticipates in its own life the promised “new earth wherein dwelleth righteousness.”
The nature of salvation itself was radically reinterpreted. In the apostolic age repentance meant a turning to righteousness, not just sorrow for wrong doing; forgiveness implied the gift of new life, not just absolution for past sin; justification meant a restoration to righteousness and holiness, not just restoration to God’s favor; and sanctification was not a state of extraordinary holiness but the state of all who had truly repented and been forgiven. In the New Testament “the saints” is not a term for a special category of Christians but included everyone in the church. In the 11th century Anselm’s doctrine of salvation becomes limited to release from the guilt and penalty of past sin and there is a corresponding de-emphasizing of the miraculous new heart, new mind, new righteousness, new personality, and new community. Salvation is no longer connected with the gospel of the new world.
The church is not the recipient of fresh energies by which it is “made alive with Christ” and “made to sit in heavenly places with Christ.” [10]
In medieval thought, says Oliver Quick, “atonement is a means of purgation rather than an instrument of redemption.” The cross has become divorced from the resurrection and forgiveness has become divorced from receiving redemptive power.
Thus far we have reviewed in briefest outline the beginnings of the New Covenant Community and the three stages of its decline. From this point onward we will attempt to trace the course of the movement toward reform and restoration which began with Luther in the early 16th century and concluded with George Fox and the Quakers in the 17th century. This movement can best be described in terms of three lines of historical development. First, the Reformation of the 16th century led by Luther, Zwingli and Calvin; second, the Anabaptists of the 16th century; and, third, the Quakers of the 17th century. (The relationship between Anabaptists, Quakers and the English free churches calls for some further distinctions which will be dealt with in the next lecture.)
9 - Oliver Quick, The Gospel of the New World, p.66.
10 - Ephesians 2:5,6.

Taken from Lewis Benson' Six Disciple Church Lectures, pp 31-34

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