Insights from Green’s ‘Evangelism in the Early Church’, pt. 2

I think I should have explained in Part 1 of this three part series that I have intended these posts on Greens book to be more practical and not a formal review or critique of Green’s work. Many have done that and there is probably a fair bit to critique. These posts are more of a personal/ministry reflection on the work and tries to apply some of the trends and principles Green sees at work in the early church to our modern church context (inherent in that comment is a critique of Green – he does little work applying what he sees in the early church to the modern church save his epilogue of 8pgs.).

The third thing I am taking away from Green’s book is a desire to reclaim a more robust understanding of conversion. Green points out that the early church proclaimed the person of Jesus, the gift of forgiveness and salvation, and they called for a response. In other words, they expected results, namely repentance, faith and baptism. It is very accurate to say that the early church (first century) didn’t consider conversion quite complete until the convert was baptized (this changed by the second century where converts were catechized extensively before being baptized). Green points out, I believe correctly, that Paul intentionally places his discussion of baptism in Romans 6 immediately following his discussion of justification in Romans 5 – one naturally flows from the other. Greene writes, “they all make it abundantly clear that baptism and conversion belong together; is is the sacrament of the once-for-allness of incorporation into Christ” (pg 215).

Without falling into any sense of our work in baptism contributing to our right standing before God, re-emphasizing the role of baptism would go a long way, maybe, in abating the rising tide of ‘easy believism’ so prevalent in the church today. We offer salvation without repentance, call for faith and neglect obedience. We do it in the hopes that by offering a minimalist gospel we will be removing any/all barriers to people coming to Christ. This problems with this are legion. I’ll mention just one here because I’m coming back to it later – holiness is one of the church’s most compelling evangelistic tools. This minimalist gospel is detracting from the holiness of the church and will ultimately have (is having) devastating affects on the ‘believability’ of the gospel we preach. [Note on picture: this is a 4th century baptistry in Milan where St. Augustine was baptized by St. Ambrose.]

(Somewhat tangentially is a lengthy discussion of Newbigin’s three understandings of the church in the NT, “each with it’s appropriate means of entry“. Newbigin points to the NT teaching of the church as the New Israel, and on this understanding it is baptism that marks one’s entrance just into the covenant community just as circumcision marked one’s entrance into the Old Covenant community of Israel. Added to this is the understanding of the church as the fellowship of believers for which repentance and faith were necessary conditions of acceptance. Finally, the church is also understood as the community of the Holy Spirit, so it is the reception of the Spirit and living the Spirit led life that are marks of entrance to the church. Green points out that that each of these modes of entrance have been picked up by certain wings of the Christian church – the Catholic church picked up on the requirement of baptism, the Protestant on the necessity of faith and repentance and the Pentecostal on the importance of the Spirit. He argues that each is valid and necessary, but that “all become falsified if taken in isolation and to its logical extreme.”(pg. 222). There’s a lot to ponder in this discussion, but as I said, somewhat tangential to this post.)

Green continues the main line of his argument on the robustness of the early churches theology of conversion pointing to the conversion of Paul as normative for all Christians (though obviously the Damascus road experience isn’t, the effects of his conversion are). Green comments, “This encounter with Christ touched Paul at every level of his being. His minds was informed and illuminated…His conscience was reached…His emotions were stirred…His will was bent…His life was transformed” (pg. 225).

This leads me to insight four (hinted at above), which really isn’t new but Green does an excellent job of reminding his reader of the necessary connection between belief and behavior. Green cites the uniqueness of the Christian fellowship, the transformation of individual lives, their irrepressible joy, their endurance even to the point of death and their power in the Spirit as behaviors that backed up their beliefs and gave the early church so much success in evangelizing both Jew and Greek. Quoting Green at some length, “The truth of their claims must have been assessed to a very large degree by the consistency of their lives with what they professed. That is why the emphasis on the link between mission and holiness of life is given such prominence both in the New Testament and the second century literature…Life and lip went together in commending the Christian cause…The two cannot be separated without disastrous results, among them the end of effective evangelism. That is why the New Testament writers are so intolerant of both doctrinal and moral defections among their converts” (pg. 250). (Note on the picture: the painting is called the “Choice of Perpetua”. Read her amazing story of courage.)

For the promise of immediate results and numbers to make us feel good, I fear much of the evangelical church has cut it’s nose of to spite its face. The numbers of converts won by such easy-believism type evangelism are dubious to begin with and the great danger is that the next generation (possibly this generation) has entirely lost its credibility with the world. David Wells argues this point at length in his book The Courage to be Protestant (which I began posting about but ran out of steam). I think those who say we need a massive reformation of the church (revival in the old sense of the word) before we will experience any great successes in the mission of the church are right on the mark. Yet it seems that for a large swatch of evangelicalism holiness is an after thought, seriousness about God is viewed as a hindrance and the game is numbers. Best way to get numbers is to be fun and high energy. But, in the midst of this push we are loosing credibility and I see it in the faces of students who I talk to – both the non-Christians who think we’re all a bunch of hypocrites and the Christians who are reluctant to share their faith because they know their lives don’t back up what they proclaim.

I’m glad that while this may be the rule there are many exceptions. Some ministries take holiness and seriousness seriously. Even in those that don’t there are students who do. Praise God. And I am praying that many more will be added to the joyfully serious who love holiness and show people their convictions not with mere verbiage but by living well (and need I say it, I pray that I’ll be included in that group too).

One more post to go…