Pilgrim in process
How long does it take to “get saved” (1 Corinthians 1:18)? Many years ago at a revival meeting, I went to the altar, said a prayer, and went home rejoicing. The work is done, I thought. I’m saved.
To top it off, my father gave me a verse from Philippians 1:6, which said I could be confident that the one who began the good work of salvation within me would carry it on to completion “until the day of Christ Jesus.”
Great, I thought. I’m all set.
It took me a number of years to learn there was a lot more to this matter of “getting saved” than simply going to the altar. There was much spiritual work ahead, and I was to be engaged with God in working out my own salvation “with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12–13).
So my journey with Christ began more than 60 years ago. There was much to learn, even more to obey. Looking back, I can discern some of the key forward steps in the process of being a pilgrim. I recount several.
Write it down!
A growth spurt occurred for me when I began journaling. This spiritual discipline became an excellent means of tracking my inner pilgrimage. It helped me reflect on what was really important in my life, set priorities, and get a God-sized perspective on things.
Whenever God called me to take new steps of obedience in following Christ, I found it helpful to drive down the stake of that new commitment by writing it down.
Only a few years after I began journaling, I started writing for the Herald. That was in 1964. Over time, writing for more than 20 periodicals and journals became a significant means for me to process and address important theological and cultural issues, and to think Christianly. I thank former editor Harold Jantz for inviting me to be a regular columnist for “Christian Mind” (MB Herald 1982–1996).
Laying down foundations
The time for laying down spiritual foundations for my life and ministry was my three-year journey at Mennonite Brethren Bible College. I cherish this experience more than my many years of study at university and seminary.
At MBBC, two men became exemplars for me – J.A. Toews and David Ewert. I seek to emulate David’s approach to biblical exposition. From J.A. Toews, I learned that discipleship means accepting the work of Christ and following in the way of Christ.
Broadening the base
Although my Bible college, university, and seminary studies contributed a great deal to developing a Christian mind, for me it has been, as Francis Bacon said, “reading [that] maketh a full man.” In my reading of the great classics of Christian literature, I have discovered how deep the spiritual well is, and how little of it I’ve tasted.
It took me too long to discover Augustine and à Kempis, Luther and Calvin, Spener and Wesley and Wilberforce to read alongside Menno Simons, Harold Bender, and John Howard Yoder. Reading A.W. Tozer (1897–1963), the Christian and Missionary Alliance author who was both a mystic and a prophetic voice to the hyped evangelicalism of his day, has both inspired and challenged me.
My mentor in stretching my intellect and sanctifying my imagination has been C.S. Lewis. To use Lewis’s analogy, there is a common hall – shared orthodox teachings of Christianity – which he famously called “mere Christianity.” But, then, there are the rooms of a variety of faith traditions, many of which are distinctive expressions of that common faith. I’m so glad that in my pilgrimage, I learned so much from these other faith traditions to shore up where mine was weak and deficient. How wonderful it is to see the bigger picture of what God has done and what he’s doing in the world through the worldwide church.
Regrets along the way
In retrospect, I wish I had been less judgmental and dogmatic about secondary theological issues in my earlier years. In my twenties and early thirties, my theology left no room for middle ground. I had no sympathy for those even slightly off my theological grid.
I grew up in a legalistic Christian culture with a bounded-set mentality. In terms of gauging a person’s spirituality, that mindset doesn’t measure movement to a centre, but whether someone is inside the boundaries of our box.
For many evangelicals, the set marker for becoming a Christian has been saying “the sinner’s prayer” or its equivalent. Many people have, indeed, become Christians in such a specific act. However, many have also come to faith in a slow and very undramatic process.
Another regret I have is that I frequently confused primary and secondary issues of faith and practice. I have come to see that many of the issues which have drawn so much heat among Christians were actually secondary matters – church polity, eschatology, forms of worship, and the practice of spiritual gifts.
We must allow liberty and treat with respect those who hold differing views in secondary issues. Over the years, I’ve become much more open in these matters while at the same time becoming ever more adamant regarding basic biblical essentials.
Finding the essentials
Sorting out the essential beliefs we hold is also a process; however, there are some fixed points. Here are some of mine.
Foundational for me in all theological discussion is the affirmation that Scripture is authoritative for Christian faith and practice. I hold firmly that all of Scripture is to be viewed through a Christocentric lens.
A second essential I draw from my view of Scripture is that salvation comes only through the atoning work of Christ on the cross. Without dismissing secondary models developed down through history to help us understand different facets of the atonement, I firmly believe substitutionary atonement to be the controlling biblical metaphor. I also firmly believe that none of our atonement theories can ever exhaust the glory of atonement realities.
A corollary of this glory is the privilege and obligation we have to share the marvellous message of what God has done for us in Christ. And after many years of struggling with specific issues in evangelism, I’ve come to believe that we must simply trust God in how he mediates the salvific work of Christ to those who have never heard of him, to children who die in infancy, and to people with mental challenges.
Finally, I believe we must teach kingdom ethics. The early Anabaptists were known as the Sermon on the Mount people, and sought to order their lives accordingly. Believers are people of the way – the way of Christ – who affirm that love and forgiveness are stronger than revenge and hatred. It’s my conviction that there is nothing as compelling to the watching world as the holiness of God’s people (John 17:17–19).
As Mennonites who have largely adopted much of today’s popular evangelicalism, we are in danger of teaching a half-gospel; i.e., justification to the neglect of sanctification, with a huge gap between theology and ethics.
A place to stand
Over the years, I’ve grappled with and written about the haunting questions of human existence – suffering and evil, a beleaguered world where truth seems forever on the scaffold and falsehood on the throne. How are God’s high and holy purposes ever going to be fulfilled through this mess, I queried?
I’m learning not to take refuge in contrived answers as to how God is working out his beneficent plan, but in a scriptural understanding of who God is. I must trust his character even when I don’t understand his ways. I simply cry out with Paul, “Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out!” (Romans 11:33).
So I live with mystery, with unanswered questions. But the greatest mystery to me, which causes me to fall down in wonder, love, and praise, is the mystery of divine, suffering love. In the words of Lesslie Newbigin, it is “the mystery of the incarnation and cross, of the holiness that can embrace the sinner, of a Lord who is servant, and of the deathless one who can die.”
In spite of the vast expanse of what I do not know or understand, along with Newbigin and countless saints down through the ages, this is what I do know: I know the way and the way is Jesus.
Here I have found a place to stand.
–Walter Unger is a member of Bakerview MB Church, Abbotsford, B.C., and has been writing for the Herald for nearly 50 years.