Presenting a Trinitarian gospel

Jeff McSwain
The Jan./Feb. 2008 issue of The Journal of Student Ministries includes the article "Reconsidering the 'Non-Negotiables'" by Christian Smith (Notre Dame) and Douglas Campbell (Duke Divinity School).

The article is written in defense of Jeff McSwain and other staffers recently fired from Young Life (YL) for advocating a Trinitarian view of the gospel - one grounded fully in God's triune nature and Jesus' incarnation.

Though Smith and Campbell acknowledge that Young Life has a valuable ministry and that their teachings are, in balance, fully orthodox, they believe that YLs position on how the gospel should be presented to teens is "defective" in that it espouses a "conditional and sequential understanding of salvation" that is dependent upon our own "human repentance and faith."

They note that "the theological commitment entailed in [YL's] position is a belief that God saves us because we repent - that salvation isn't accomplished for people until they take action to embrace the gospel. In other words, God has provided *nearly everthing* for our salvation; but God's work remains ineffective until humans contribute their own last part of the transaction by 'making a decision' and having faith."

Campbell and Smith call this theological position, "insidious 'works righteousness' [that is] alien to the sovereign love and grace of God in Christ at work through the Holy Spirit." They note further that the YL position, "reflects less a biblical gospel of God's elective and covenantal redemption than our American culture's preoccupation with contractual agreements."

The authors believe that the YL position overlooks an "important tradition in the historic Christian faith...teaching that it's possible for humans to respond to God in repentance *because and only after they have, in fact, been saved by God.*"

They continue: "Jesus' removal of sin is not somehow conditionally dependent upon our acts of remorse for our perceived sin. Our repentance and faith *per se* add nothing to our salvation; they are mere responses accepting an already established, divinely accomplished fact of redemption."

Campbell and Smith are careful to note that this understanding of the gospel is not to be equated with universalism (a frequent, but unwarranted, objection to Trinitarian theology).

Campbell and Smith assert that, indeed, "a Young Life staff member can faithfully proclaim the gospel to teenagers without having to tell the story in such a way that suggests that their salvation is dependent upon their own acts of remorse, repentance, and faith." There are many precendents within the historic, orthodox Christian faith that say they can.


This is more "Gospel Gold" for our current treasury of liberating repentance, Ted! :-)


How much more confirming can WCG's current education in the Spirit be, than to see all of these MANY sources rise up at this present time and affirm the Christ-centered, Apostolic, and historical teaching of the Church in and around this Good News of the Cosmos' inclusion in Christ?!

Good Gravy! Talk about THE Light shining in the darkness and the darkness unable to overcome it!!

Keep it coming Father, Son and Holy Spirit!!!
Anonymous said…
Thanks Ted for sharing this issue with us.

And what you have presented confirms what I have seen going on for a long time in American Christianity. It is the wholesale alienation of the church youth from the faith. This alienation, based on my talks with those "church youth" who have left the organized faith once adulthood is reached, exists because of at least two causes.

One is the separation of youth away from the main body of the church. All too often the youth are sent off to be in various studies, activities, and meetings, which are separate from the regular church studies,activities, and meetings. So, by the time young adulthood is reached, there is little or no connection felt for the main body of the church. So why stay with that church?

Second is this feeling that God's love is conditional. You know, it is the forgive or God won't forgive you type of thing. In other words, church youth are typically taught to be something other than human--meaning "Super Christian!". But when their humanness becomes apparent as they reach adulthood, the feeling, which arises, is one of not being good enough to be acceptable to God.

But no problem to these two, and probably other causes (like hypocrisy in the American church) of alienation! The solution I typically see in Christianity these days is to trot out more programs, which turn out to be the same broken messages to the youth, only this time around in different packages.

This is all rather curious to me in that the situation today contrasts sharply with the makeup of the earliest church, which was mostly a young person's church.

Anyway, please keep those "card and letters" coming.

J. Richard Parker
Ted Johnston said…
I reproduce here a post from the discussion concerning YL and Jeff McSwain. In this discussion you find folks making certain pronouncements about the theology of Barth and Torrance. Here the author of this post (Marty Folsom) counsels a more careful analysis.

It is troubling to see that James Torrance and Karl Barth can be so quickly reduced to being liberals and Universalists in the comments of many readers. If ever there were theologians in the 20th century who affirmed the centrality of Christ in the Gospel and called for human obedience to them it was these two.

We must take seriously the biblical affirmation that God demonstrates his love in Christ while we are sinners and that God loves unconditionally.

Many posts in this conversation appear to undermine the very proclamation of the atoning work of Christ as an act of love for ignorant humanity that actually has completed "the greater gift" in Christ which already dealt with the loss in the first Adam (Rom. 5) for us.

We must always give priority to God's act and God's love and see the human response as an acceptance of that reality that allows us to live within the actuality of the atonement.

This is what the preaching of the gospel does: it proclaims the love of God, this exposes our sin and alienation, consequently we respond to God's self-sacrificing love, not to our sinful condition.

Grace must precede repentence or God's love becomes conditional and we collapse into legalism. Who did Jesus have a more difficult time with: the legalists or the liberals?

If YL is to go forward it must continue to focus on Christ and let the Spirit convict of sin because Christ is made so clear, not because kids are focused on their own internal struggles.

This discussion is not hair-splitting, it is addressing the center of the gospel. Even Calvin conceived of sin as the "shadow" that is created because of the light of the gospel-it has no real substance itself and can only be seen because of the light.

YL follows the best of the reformed tradition when it presents the light of Christ in gospel proclamation about Jesus who shows us the Father and invites us home.

...I understand some disagree on the "necessity of repentance," meaning that repentance is required to receive grace, but some of us believe that God's kindness leads to repentance (Rom 2:4) and do not believe that the gospel is offered without first knowing the God of the Gospel made known in Christ.

I have many years of involvement with YL and have preached Christ first and that repentance is the turn to him which leaves the sin behind. Any attempt to first leave or turn from the sin by ourselves is an act of sin itself; the human attempt to do what only God can do.

Guilt is never the biblical way to convert. Preaching Christ and him crucified is a message of love and forgiveness that may raise questions of guilt, but we must fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith.
Pastor Jonathan said…
Wow! I'm looking forward to reading that article when it becomes available.

This sentence really struck me:
the YL position overlooks an "important tradition in the historic Christian faith...teaching that it's possible for humans to respond to God in repentance *because and only after they have, in fact, been saved by God.*"

In other words, the historic teaching of Christianity is that belonging precedes belief. We belong to the Father because the Son has already included us in his relationship with him. And we are only able to believe this truth about ourselves because it is already true of us.

I've been running across this repeatedly in reading ancient Christians (like Irenaeus and Gregory of Nyssa) and in The Adopted Life we've printed several quotes from the Church Fathers that say exactly this.

In general it seems that in 21st cen. American Christianity we haven't really understood what the historic teaching of the church has been regarding humanity's connection to the Trinity.
Ted Johnston said…
Commenting on Richard's and Jonathan's comments: Guys, I agree wholeheartedly.

Richard, as it pertains to ministry with youth (which you know is my great passion in life), the standard conservative (modern) evangelical presentation of the gospel (at least inadvertently) paints a picture of a loving Jesus and an angry Father, the latter only forgiving you if you first repent (fully).

This leaves kids with little assurance of salvation and with the not so subtle suspicion that their heavenly Father may this day (because of their sin) be quite angry with them.

What a terrible way to portray the Father, Son and Spirit who are fully one in their unconditional and undiminished love for us all.

And Jonathan, I think you are correct that much of 21st century North American Christianity has lost sight of the orthodox teaching of the early church. I would add that it seems particularly lost to the conservative/fundamentalist wing of the modern evangelical movement and certain liberal wings.

Thank God it is not completely lost in our day - and I think we are seeing it bubble up more and more.

It seems that the Spirit is doing some surgery on our collective mind - but that should be no surprise because his ministry is conforming us to Christ (the real Jesus who is fully God and fully human, and who is in being and doing fully one with the Father and Spirit).

Blessings to you both,
bill winn said…
Hey all,
I thought this might be of interest to all of us here. Last month P.D. Kurts sent me a copy of the article about Jeff McSwain in Christianity Today and after reading it I couldn't help myself I just had to call this man and hear more of his story. Jeff told me some cool things about his experience with YL and the "non-negotiables" He said he'd studied under one of the Torrance brothers in Aberdeen Scotland.

He also told me he knew Baxter (no surprise with the Aberdeen connection)but had not talked to him since returning to the states many years ago.

One thing that thrilled McSwain was to find out that there was a denomination that was officially teaching Trinitarian Theology. He went on and on and several times asked me to clarify that it was not just in our local church that we are teaching Inclusion/Adoption but that it is coming from HQ as well!

In fact he was so excited that he is planning to attend our Perichoresis Conference here in Richmond in April. It should be quite a thrill to see Dr. Baxter Kruger, William P. Young, and Jeff McSwain together talking it up about our place in the Trinitarian Life of God!

By the way if anyone wants to attend this conference just let me know and I will add you to the email updates we are sending.
Ted Johnston said…
It’s interesting to see how this issue is playing out in some of the evangelical press (CT, Journal of Youth Ministry, etc.).

On the one hand, no one (including me, and I'm sure Jeff too) wants to diss Young Life, but on the other, more and more folks are seeing a glaring deficit in the typical modern conservative - fundamentalist presentation of the gospel.

This discussion is “descending” from the "ivory tower" offices and classrooms of academic theologians into the churches and para - church offices of mainstream evangelicalism. And nowhere is the discussion more “real” (and one might say “urgent”) than in youth ministries, which are laboratories of a sort for various approaches to evangelism and discipleship.

I think what we’re seeing is the doctrine of God’s Trinity “invading” all these places and practices.

The more I study the writings of Paul, John, and the other writers for the New Covenant, the more I see the tragic predicament of the human race. This predicament is that, while we like to think of our state as being one of light, we actually walk in great darkness. Furthermore, this darkness pervades everything we humans do from how we worship "God" to how we deal
with "the other guy." And every now and then we bump into each other so hard that we engage in all sorts of harsh activity in order to defend our place in the darkness.

Yet God has a message for the human race. It is as John says:

I Jn 1:5-7--This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all. If we claim to have fellowship with him yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live by the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin. (NIV)

And even though we humans continue to love the darkness and have all sorts of justification for staying in the darkness, God's message is always there for any willing human to embrace through belief in the name of His Son, Jesus Christ. Furthermore, when this miracle of belief becomes a reality in
someone's life, the Great Floodlight of Jesus Christ Himself turns on within that new believer and penetrates every nook and cranny of that person's life for their eternal good.

Let us continue our denominational walk into the light.

The best to you all!

J. Richard Parker