One of the classes I’ll be teaching every semester here at Northwest is called “Discipleship & Spiritual Formation.” I look forward to the opportunity to continue honing the class into something increasingly excellent as time goes on.
In the midst of teaching the class for the first time last semester and now again this January, I have become convinced that discipleship is often wrongly understood as only coming AFTER conversion. Moreover, I feel strongly that dividing salvation from sanctification as we often has is rather questionable.
The tradition model of the ordo salutis or “order of salvation” is as follows: reprobate life of sin, moment of salvation, and then sanctification. Christians debate about how sanctification works (see below) but most do not debate that this is the order.
Make no mistake, there is a lot to commend this somewhat staccato progression. We think here of the story of the Apostle Paul, or the various testimonies we may have heard of those who had a powerful transformation from despair to glory. The Scripture tells us about moving “from death to life” (John 5:24). I think especially here of a former Sunday School teacher who had a powerful conversion experience from a drug-addicted and suicidal life. It happens.
But then there are other stories. Stories we know well. Stories that are often our own. Situations where people spend a long time being “pre-discipled” or “pre-sanctified” before coming to saving faith. They bring a great deal of philosophical concerns to the table or are dealing with a lot of questions. Perhaps they’ve been hurt before or are unwilling to make a completely blind leap of faith. For these–and I’m convinced their numbers are not insignificant–discipleship is not merely something that happens after salvation.
Historically, I think here of the practice of the early Church, where baptism and admission to the Eucharist (indeed, the Church itself) took place only after a focused period of catechesis or religious instruction in the Christian faith. I remember the conversions of Augustine, Wesley, and C. S. Lewis, all of whom seem to have moved in stages to full life in Christ. Wesley had been a “Methodist” and a missionary long before he said he “felt his heart strangely warmed” and made a full commitment of faith (interestingly, he later espoused the idea of a “prevenient grace” that went before salvation).
If therefore, discipleship and/or sanctification can both precede and follow salvation, how ought this knowledge alter our evangelism efforts that are seemingly far too focused on the altar call or particularly moving sermon? The Alpha Course coming out of the UK is one development that recognizes this need…but what more can we be doing? And how important is the altar call, anyway?