My generation of Christians love rationalistic debates. And one favorite debating point is the question of salvation: among professing believers who is truly saved? Whenever that question is raised claims and counterclaims fly: “You don’t have any right to judge us!” Or, “You’re bending the Bible to build your view!” And again, “Our faith offers the only true doctrine because it represents two thousand years while your church believes all sorts of new nonsense!” And so on. Stimulating, maybe, but not very fruitful!
But my generation has seen its heyday. In today’s American church a reaction has developed among lots of twenty- and thirty-year-olds. Blame it on debate-avoidance, or a cynicism towards intellectual puffery, or perhaps on a post-modern openness. Whatever the cause an axiom for many younger believers is that everyone has a right to embrace their own theological preferences; and a person’s private faith should be free from critique.
This broad-minded impulse may not be as pronounced in the UK as in the US but the same youthful church wing in Britain certainly prefers a rather privatized and more relational, experience-rich faith than is provided by many current-generation church leaders . . . especially those who lead through the authority of a church post and creed but without the accompanying authority of a transformed life.
What should we make of these youth movements? I think we should in some measure both celebrate them and be wary of them. Here’s why.
Celebration is in order because these movements recapture the importance of personal faith, hope and love as bedrock features in a real community of faith. While creedal traditions may define faith as a collective exercise—the acceptance of community truths to ensure community membership—my younger friends see a problem here. For love to have any meaning it must be personal; yet the elevation of impersonal truth as an end in itself is relationally compromised. Love is sensitive, compassionate, and open. And true Christians are those who love others.
We must also be wary. The nature of love is for a lover to be devoted to the one who is beloved. But there can be a serious misstep involved if a given love loses its reference to the source of love: to God himself. And not just God in generic terms, but the Triune God who “is love” in himself. In other words we must not love love as an end in itself. Instead we must turn to our source. We must be reconciled to God before his love will transform us. Such love is very different to a self-elevating scheme of mutual approval.
So as much as my generation has been foolishly rationalistic, the emerging generation faces the threat of being foolishly emotive. One seeks arid ideals and the other seeks relativistic relations. And both face the threat of idolatry: of worshiping autonomous human intellect on the one hand, or a devotion to autonomous human experience on the other. God made us to have intelligence and to enjoy experience but not as ends in themselves. Instead we were made for him: to know his love.
The point of salvation is to restore what was intended for us in the creation and lost to us in Adam’s fall: a shared love. In other words we do not come to salvation as a life-extension scheme but as a stunning reconciliation with the God who “shows his love for us in that while we were sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). What sort of experience does this generate for all who respond? We “rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation” (5:11).
Reconciliation is the critical concern: a saved person is now reconciled to God in response to God’s love expressed in Christ’s death on the cross. Our hearts are no longer selfish—whether in the older form of a rationalized but disaffected faith, or in the newer form of a relativistic sentimentality. Instead we find the Triune God at the center of our newly awakened desires, with others included in his spreading love.
This is what it means to be truly saved. We dare not settle for less.