Monday, July 1, 2013

David Bercot on Salvation

    We have been considering David W. Bercot's thought provoking book The Kingdom That Turned the World Upside Down, and we last looked at his view of church and state. Today we turn our attention to his view of salvation.
    On this point Mr. Bercot seems profoundly confused. He asserts that "the gospel of the kingdom centers on the kingdom of God, not on man's personal salvation" (p. 132). But this reflects a particularly Jewish conception of the kingdom. They naturally thought of the national salvation of Israel. But when the gospel spread to the Gentiles it was no longer a matter of the deliverance of Israel as a nation, but of the personal salvation of individuals. We enter the kingdom individually by being born again and personally becoming Jesus' disciples.
    By the same token Mr. Bercot seems confused about the definition of faith. At one point he accuses the Reformers of teaching "easy believism": "Just believe that Jesus died for your sins and that your own obedience plays no role in your salvation and –voila – your eternal life in heaven is assured" (p. 253). In other words, saving faith, to use the technical term, is "assensus" – an assent to a set of theological propositions. But the Reformers specifically repudiated that view. They held that saving faith was more than assensus, it was also fiducia, a firm trust and reliance on Christ for our salvation. It is rather Mr. Bercot who is guilty of intellectualizing faith. He defines faith, not as trust in Christ but as belief that the promised blessings of the kingdom will actually take place (cf. p. 134).
    Mr. Bercot also seems to be confused about the relationship between regeneration and predestination. He
John Calvin
tells us that "Neither Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, or the Roman Catholics put much emphasis on the new birth. In their systems, the new birth was simply part of the whole mechanized process" (p. 253). We are not sure exactly what Mr. Bercot means by "the whole mechanized process," but elsewhere he asserts that "Under Calvin's doctrine of predestination, it makes no difference whether a person lives by Jesus' teachings or not" (p. 247). It suffices to say here that Calvin never said any such thing. Rather, what Calvin actually said was this: "When we hear mention of our union with God, let us remember that holiness must be its bond . . ." (Institutes, This comes near the beginning of a section in the Institutes that was published separately as The Golden Booklet of the Christian Life.

    At another point Mr. Bercot appears to contradict himself. He tells us that Pelagius "said (or purportedly said) that we humans can walk perfectly in the commandments of Jesus, without the need of grace" (p. 204). But then, only two paragraphs later, Mr. Bercot himself advances the classic Pelagian argument: if Christ gave us the Sermon on the Mount, then we must have the power to obey Christ's teachings!
    The failure to understand predestination and regeneration, in turn, leads to difficulties in understanding the relationship between faith and works. Some critics of Calvinist theology, including many Southern Baptists, argue that since salvation is offered to mankind as a free gift of God's grace, there is absolutely no connection at all between salvation and works.. We are saved by faith plus nothing, they like to say. But other critics of Calvin, including Wesleyan holiness groups and Mennonites, can see the necessity of good works, but run into difficulty stating what exactly the relationship between the two is. They sometimes seem to make works the condition of salvation. If a professing Christian fails to produce good works, he loses his salvation.
    At one point Mr. Bercot has a very strong statement about salvation by grace (p. 142), and points our, quite rightly, that "Jesus does the atoning for us. We do not save ourselves. Jesus does the saving" (p. 143). But he also criticizes those who "give out kingdom invitations without any conditions" (p. 136). He tries to tell us that "Jesus didn't fulfill that law just to give us another long list of similar regulations in its place" (p. 140), but then tells us that we are to keep Jesus' commandments. But what are "Jesus' commandments" if they are not "a long list of regulations"? Mr. Bercot seems to think that the difference is in the spirit with which the commandments are kept. "His burden is light only when we detach ourselves from every entanglement of this life and lose ourselves in devoted service to our Lord" (p. 141). In other words, Christ's commandments are not burdensome if we only try harder to keep them!
    The answer, we think, to all of these problems is that a changed life is the necessary result of salvation, not its precondition. Regeneration is a work of God's grace in the soul transforming it and making it more like Christ. Good works are the evidence of the new birth.
    Mr. Bercot is understandably reacting against a very real problem that exists in contemporary American Christianity, and we all need to grow in our understanding of God's Word. We probably all need a more radical vision of the place of Christianity in modern society. But we think that Mr. Bercot can be of greater service to the church at large if he were a little more careful in his treatment of church history, and if he thought through the doctrine of salvation a little more clearly.

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