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Thielen: What’s the Least I Can Believe and Still Be a Christian?

This is the final post on this book, and it deals with a single question: “Do Mainline Christians Believe in Getting Saved?” Hint: Thielen’s short answer is “yes.”

As I mentioned before, Thielen converted from Southern Baptist to United Methodist after many years as an SBC pastor. I am guessing having read this book that he left during the SBC conservative resurgence/fundamentalist takeover [link], mostly on the basis of where he ended up, what he feels necessary to say in such a short book, and what he doesn’t feel is necessary. He opens this chapter by setting up a foil for his argument, namely the long and manipulative altar call sometimes found at evangelical churches or revival meetings. He says some people get saved that way, but not everyone. He then proceeds to give a fairly standard presentation of the Wesleyan formula for personal salvation:

  1. Salvation is a lifelong process
  2. We are saved by God’s grace
  3. Salvation requires human response

And three steps of salvation:

  1. God’s prevenient grace
  2. God’s justifying grace
  3. God’s sanctifying grace

He also name-checks “working out your salvation” and “going on toward perfection.” It’s pretty standard stuff from his tradition. It’s also interesting to note that while he discusses confirmation, he actually presents a “sinner’s prayer” at the end of his discussion. I honestly can’t decide if by doing so he’s sending a mixed message or not.

I have to admit that as someone who grew up in a Baptist home (independent Baptist, but independent specifically from SBC and UMC lineage) I feel I have to point out two things:

  1. I believe when someone presents a formula for salvation, especially one that involves sanctification, one is obligated to deal with questions surrounding “works righteousness” and “falling away.” Or to beg a particular question, “eternal security.”
  2. I have to admit that I kind of envy confirmation or catechesis prior to baptism, and I wish that the traditions I’ve spent the most time in placed more emphasis on these, rather than having a “walk the aisle, pray the prayer, sign the card” formula people who leave our tradition tend to despise.

The latter being said, I am amazed how many people I’ve met who went through confirmation class, weren’t in any way shape or form converted, were confirmed as a formality, and later despised and repudiated their confirmation and denied they were ever Christians. I suppose it is one of the pitfalls of having a process of any kind that a person will either put their faith in the process itself or manage to navigate the process without any faith at all.

It’s a great puzzle to me how it seems that more people leave the evangelical churches for the older, more denominational churches, but the people who leave the older denominational churches lose their faith altogether. I’d love to have some real data here to weigh and measure, but I don’t; the anecdotes seem to suggest that, though.

But to get back to Thielen: it’s important to note that he doesn’t as far as I can tell locate salvific force in our faith, as Arminians are often accused of doing. There’s no “well were you sincere?” aspect to his formula here. And from having various Lutheran and Reformed authors caricature Arminian soteriology I would have expected exactly that.

All told this is a light little book and as such has to cut corners; I’m more curious than I was before what rank and file lifelong Methodists actually believe and practice. I prefer to believe that the Church Universal encompasses people of most if not all denominations, and there was nothing here to suggest that mainline Christians are Christians in name only.

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  1. April 19, 2011 at 9:38 pm
  2. April 19, 2011 at 9:38 pm

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