Rethinking Salvation and the Purpose of John’s Gospel: Challenging Assumptions about Conversion

The gospel of John is often regarded as an evangelistic account, aiming to introduce unbelievers to Jesus and lead them to faith. However, what if there’s a different perspective? In this blog post, we’ll explore a thought-provoking idea that may keep you pondering its implications. Specifically, we’ll question the assumption that belief in Jesus was the only pathway to salvation, especially within the context of the first century.

In the third episode of the Rethinking Scripture Podcast, we delve into the topic of conversion, with a particular focus on the gospel of John, chapter one. Our discussion also incorporates insights from notable theologians like Dr. Earl Radmacher, who made significant contributions to biblical academia during his tenure at Western Seminary, Grace Seminary of the Northwest, and Rocky Mountain Bible College and Seminary.

Exploring the Nature of Salvation: Drawing from Dr. Radmacher’s book titled “Salvation,” we examine the multifaceted aspects of spiritual salvation, encompassing past, present, and future. This holistic view encompasses justification, sanctification, and glorification, each playing a vital role within the broader scope of salvation. By placing faith in the finished work of Christ, moderns are initially saved from sin’s penalty and declared righteous. Throughout their lives, believers experience ongoing deliverance from sin’s power, with the ultimate promise of eternal freedom from sin’s presence in heaven.

Reassessing the Purpose of John’s Gospel: To grasp the Gospel of John’s message accurately, we must understand its purpose and how it shapes the narrative. Typically, scholars refer to John 20:30-31 as a key passage for determining the gospel’s intent. According to Radmacher and Derickson, John aims to engender faith in his readers, leading them to believe in Jesus and receive eternal life. However, this perspective often emphasizes justification over sanctification. By examining the gospel of John, we challenge the assumption that John’s purpose was solely evangelistic (justification), exploring the potential implications for sanctification salvation to be the main focus of the teachings of Jesus.

With this newfound perspective, we raise intriguing questions: Have we been reading the gospels with incorrect assumptions about salvation? Could it be that some individuals in the first century were already saved by placing their faith in the Old Testament’s promise of a Messiah? For those, would their encounters with Jesus be a step of sanctification instead of justification? By contemplating these questions, we open the door to a fresh understanding of salvation, its historical context, and the purpose of the gospels.

How Does the Bible Present Those Who Believed in Jesus?

In today’s church culture, conversion is often understood as a personal decision for Christ that happens at a church altar or an outreach event. However, the biblical text tells a different story. The Rethinking Conversion project challenges the modern understanding of conversion and invites readers to explore the transitional nature of the gospels from the perspective of Old Testament saints.

Theologians often ignore the fact that OT saints, those who came to a saving faith through God’s revelation in the Hebrew Scriptures, would have been everywhere in the gospels. These folks are often not considered “saved” or mentioned in sermons. Modern believers are not taught to see the clues that help identify this unique group of people.

Jesus arrived in the flesh and opened a door that created a theological threshold that all believers would need to pass through. However, there was a huge delayed reaction to the news of the Christ due to the logistics of the first-century.

Before Jesus was born, some people believed in the one true God, and through their devout faith, they had a relationship with God. They believed God’s promise of a messiah that would come and save humanity. These people were saved, but what happened to them once Jesus was born? Did their faith go away? Did they have to start over? The New Testament details the transition of these OT saints from faith in a promised messiah to faith in Jesus, the messiah. The people in the gospels who respond favorably to Jesus are not experiencing an initial faith conversion.

The modern understanding of conversion involves saying the sinner’s prayer or responding to a sermon, but there is little evidence in the Bible to support the emphasis we’ve placed on these methods. The Rethinking Conversion project invites readers to explore the Bible and challenge the modern understanding of conversion.

C.S. Lewis Was “Surprised by”… His Conversion

Most Christians describe the conversion process as a personal experience of turning towards God and accepting Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior. They say it involves acknowledging one’s sinfulness, repenting (asking for forgiveness), and committing to follow Jesus as the guiding principle in one’s life. It is considered a transformative experience that leads to a deeper relationship with God and a change in behavior and attitudes.

Conversion to Christianity is often described as both a personal decision and an experience. It involves an individual recognizing their need for salvation, making the conscious choice to turn towards God and accept Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior, and then experiencing the transformative power of the Holy Spirit in their life. Conversion is sometimes viewed as a deliberate and voluntary act of the will. Both the decision and the experience are seen as integral aspects of the Christian conversion process.

While most people think of conversion as something that happens at a point in time, C.S. Lewis described his conversion to Christianity as a slow and gradual process that took place over several years. He referred to it as his “Great Breakthrough.” Lewis was a lifelong skeptic and agnostic, but he was eventually drawn to Christianity through his friendship with J.R.R. Tolkien and other Christian intellectuals, and through his own deep reflections on the nature of life, morality, and spirituality. He wrote about his conversion journey in several books, including “Surprised by Joy” and “Mere Christianity,” in which he described his realization that the Christian faith was based on evidence and reason, and that it provided a comprehensive and compelling explanation of the world and the human experience. Lewis’s conversion story has inspired many people, and continues to be widely read and discussed in Christian circles.

He described the experience of his conversion as a joyous one, hence the title “Surprised by Joy.” Lewis wrote about his struggle with doubt and skepticism, and how he eventually came to see Christianity as the most rational and fulfilling explanation for the world and human experience. He also wrote about how his encounter with Christianity was initially through literary works, and how his encounter with the beauty of Christian themes in literature drew him to explore the faith more deeply.

In “Surprised by Joy,” Lewis candidly shares about the last step in his journey to faith. It happened while he was riding in the side car of his brother’s motorcycle to the grand opening of a new zoo called Whipsnade.

Lewis says this about his experience.

“I know very well when, but hardly how, the final step was taken. I was driven to Whipsnade one sunny morning. When we set out I did not believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and when we reached the zoo I did. Yet I had not exactly spent the journey in thought. Nor in great emotion. “Emotional” is perhaps the last word we can apply to some of the most important events. It was more like when a man, after long sleep, still lying motionless in bed, becomes aware that he is now awake.”

He finishes his thought about his conversion this way.

“As for what we commonly call Will, and what we commonly call Emotion, I fancy these usually talk too loud, protest too much, to be quite believed, and we have a secret suspicion that the great passion or the iron resolution is partly a put-up job.”

So is our conversion a point in time personal decision… or is it something that takes place over a longer period of time? Have we put too much emphasis on our “Will” and “Emotion” as Lewis suggests?