Last week I read a curious piece that purported to identify the exact point at which Pilgrim was saved in John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress: was it at the wicket gate, at the foot of the cross, or perhaps even at some other point? I confess a measure of confusion on the matter. Like many before me, I’ve had the uneasy sense that the salvation event in Bunyan’s little tome is more a process than a point.
As uneasy as I have been with Bunyan’s allegory on this matter, I am more uneasy still with the explanation offered by Jim Orrick in his blog post. In Orrick’s understanding, Pilgrim is justified when he goes through the narrow wicket gate (i.e., he believes Christ and loses his forensic guilt), and then is relieved of his psychological guilt when he arrives at the foot of the cross and grasps the theological significance of what occurred there. Had Orrick stopped here, I might have been amenable to his theory.
Instead, Orrick goes on to support his theory with the emphatic statement that “the Bible proclaims that a person gets saved when he receives Christ, and the Bible does not say that a person gets saved through believing that Jesus died for him. Christ himself is the proper object of saving faith, not some part of his work.” He adds, “A person is saved not when he believes in right doctrine…but when he believes in the right person, namely Christ. So the object of saving faith is not a doctrine but a person.”
I find this troubling on multiple levels. Firstly, the Scriptures demand more than a mere reception of Christ. They demand that we affirm (1) certain theological facts about Christ’s person—he is Lord (Rom 10:13); he is God’s Son (1 John 5:1, 5); etc.—and (2) certain theological facts about his work—he died (1 Thess 4:14); he rose again (Rom 10:13); he will judge/reward (Heb 11:6); etc. Granted, we don’t have to know every theological nuance about atonement in order to be saved, but there are some basic facts that are non-negotiable: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures (1 Cor 15:3–4).
But secondly (and more importantly), I am troubled about the theological implications of divorcing faith in Christ’s person from faith in Christ’s work. If indeed an individual can “receive Christ” for true salvation without affirming even the most rudimentary details about what Christ did, then soteriology is effectively stripped of all but an existential Christ encounter: all else becomes optional. This door has been taken many times in the history of the church, and never to a good end. Let us hope that Orrick’s post is not opening up this door yet again.