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Beliefs That Count by Georgia Harkness


Georgia Harkness was educated at Cornell University, Boston University School of Theology, studied at Harvard & Yale theological seminaries and at Union Theological Seminary of New York. She has taught at Elmira College, Mount Holyoke, and for twelve years was professor of applied theology at Garrett Biblical Institute. In 1950 she became professor of applied theology at the Pacific School of Religion, in Berkeley, California. Published by The Graded Press, Nashville, Tennessee, 1961. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Chapter 6: We Believe in Salvation From Sin


This experience comes through faith in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. The act involves penitence for past sins and the acceptance of His mercy and forgiveness. Salvation comes not by our own striving or any achievement of merit. It is the free gift of God’s grace who "shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us." Thus God takes away our sins, restores His image in our hearts, and grants to us a new birth, another chance, through the unmerited love of His Son and our Savior, Jesus Christ.

Do We Need Salvation ?

In the third chapter of John’s Gospel we read of a man named Nicodemus, a Pharisee and a ruler of the Jews, who came to Jesus by night with a searching and uneasy sense that Jesus could give him something that he needed greatly. Jesus’ words to him on that occasion are as challenging today as they were in the first century: "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God." (John 3:3.)

Nicodemus did not understand what it could mean to be "born anew," and many persons since his time have failed to understand. But those who became Christians in the first century knew. Their lives were set aflame by a new spirit that took them through "dungeon, fire, and sword," and in this experience the Church was born. The new birth has lain at the heart of the gospel ever since.

But do we need salvation today? How does a saved person differ from a decently moral, well-behaved, public-spirited citizen who is not a Christian? And do we need any special experience in order to become a Christian? These questions may be hard to answer, but they ought to be faced.

It is both the blessing and the curse of our society that there are so many "good" people who are not Christians. It is a blessing in that we are happy about their kindness, generosity, and self-control. But it is a curse in that when a person is a fairly good citizen and a decent fellow, he is likely to assume he is good enough. In this case "the good is the enemy of the best."

This is no new phenomenon. The rich ruler who came to Jesus with the searching question "Good teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?" had kept the commandments from his youth. But this was not enough. (Luke 18:18-23.) Although the Bible does not say so, Nicodemus could probably have made a similar claim.

To the situation as it exists today, several conclusions can be drawn:

1. We ought not to decry real goodness or lambaste it as evil. Instead, we should rejoice in it wherever it is found.

2. We ought not to suppose that being a kind neighbor or having a "well-adjusted personality" is a true equivalent for life in the Kingdom.

3. We must start with people where they are -- whether serene and kindly or tragically upset and maladjusted -- if we are to be God’s servants to bring them to Christian salvation.

The answer to this problem roots in what we must be saved from if we are to be saved by Christ. Traditionally, the emphasis has been placed almost entirely on being saved from sin. Since this is man’s most persistent enemy, it is certainly our basic need. Even in our free-and-easy generation hosts of people are tortured with the agony of remorse. And more, perhaps, would be if dullness had not seared their consciences.

However, there is another need to which Jesus was always ministering, and another situation in which regeneration (the historic phrase for being "born anew") has been the gift of God through Christ in all the centuries. This is the need for peace of soul, for conquest of fear, for strength in weakness, for the ability to "be of good cheer" even in the face of deepest trouble, and to be "faithful unto death" where death is real and terrible and not to be evaded.

Today we recognize that not only sin but neuroses of various sorts are terribly disturbing to personalities. Our generation is no more sinful than any in the past, but it is more jittery. Many of our contemporaries to whom Christian regeneration seems quaintly out of date are inwardly crying out for exactly what it has given to Christians through many centuries: courage and inner peace.

Sometimes we call this condition "peace of mind" and either seek it or decry it, according to our inclinations. There is a superficial peace of mind that is not the same as Christian peace and is more of an escape than an acceptance of the hard realities of life. But there is also a peace that comes from God, "a peace that the world cannot give." It is this that we are concerned with here.

Therefore our message must always have two sides. On the one hand, we must uncover the sins of which most people are largely unconscious -- the all-too-prevalent sins of pettiness, harshness, jealousy, self-pity, and self-will -- and call men to repentance as the basic requirement of the new life in Christ. We must also with understanding and sympathy mediate to unhappy, anxious, turbulent lives the gift of the peace of God which passes all understanding.

But the question "Do we need salvation ?" is a two-pronged one. Although we realize that persons need what the Christian religion offers, must we insist that a person who has "grown up a Christian" still needs to have the experience of personal regeneration ? Are not the influences of a Christian home and church enough to make him a Christian without his having to be "born again?"

Certainly not everybody must have the dramatic about-face experience of Paul on the Damascus road or an experience like that of Augustine, who was a seeker for years until, at thirty-two, he suddenly answered the call of Christ and became a changed man. But the experiences of Martin Luther and John Wesley are also significant. Both of these men had been Christians during their youth in a second-hand sort of way and were servants of the church. But they, too, lacked great vitality until a personal experience gripped and transformed their lives.

It is to say too much to claim that nobody can be a Christian on the basis of Christian nurture, but it is to say too little to underestimate the need of a personal decision for Christ. Such a decision may be overwhelming in its emotional effect and may change radically the currents of one’s vocational, domestic, and community relations. Or it may be made quietly and may lead primarily to deepening rather than the discarding of previously formed ideals and goals. But there must be personal decision, or Christian experience remains marginal and inert.

About the nature of Christian experience we shall have more to say in the next chapter. Now we must turn to two other crucial questions: What does God do in our salvation? And what does he require of us ?

Justification By Faith

This experience comes through faith in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. The act involves penitence for past sins and the acceptance of His mercy and forgiveness. Salvation comes not by our own striving or any achievement of merit. It is the free gift of God’s grace who "shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us."

The cardinal note of the Protestant Reformation, and one that in some form has been a major emphasis of most Protestant denominations, is justification by faith. It was this emphasis that became life-transforming for Martin Luther. It enabled him to break with the church of Rome and its external system of salvation, and under persecution to speak these historic words at the Diet of Worms: "Here I stand; I can do no other." Furthermore, it was Luther’s commentary on the Book of Romans, wherein this doctrine is proclaimed, which was heard by John Wesley as he attended the meeting on Aldersgate Street. And it was in this same meeting that his heart was "strangely warmed" and Methodism was born.

What does this doctrine mean? In brief, it means that our salvation is God’s gift and not our achievement. It means that what he requires of us are penitence, faith, and the acceptance of his mercy and forgiveness. Salvation does not come "by our own striving or any achievement of merit." In other words, we are not saved by our own good works, however good they may be. We are not saved by our own merits, however meritorious our acts. We are saved by God’s gift in the ministry and death of Christ as we accept these gifts in a humble and penitent spirit and dedicate our lives to God.

Some common misunderstandings concerning the doctrine should also be cleared away. To be "justified" means that God no longer holds us under judgment for our past sins. Instead, he lifts the burden of our sinning and gives us a new start. This gives a new power of moral victory to our lives. As one of the great hymns by Charles Wesley puts it:

"He breaks the power of canceled sin,
He sets the prisoner free.’’ (From "O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing."

Yet this does not mean that our sins, either past, present, or future, are a matter of indifference to God. Sin, whether forgiven or unforgiven, is always a serious matter. Nor does it mean that the social and personal effects of past sins are all wiped out. Sin leaves its scars even where wounds are healed. The persons we have hurt through our selfishness and lack of love may forgive us, but this does not make the situation as if it had never happened. To be born anew is a wonderful and life-changing experience, transforming our relations to one another as well as to God. But it cannot set aside all the past, and we ought not to expect it to.

Nor does the experience of being justified by faith through the grace of God put an end to our sinning! There is a great wealth of meaning and truth in the words of Paul, "Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ." (Romans 5:1.) And there is much wisdom in Paul’s other message of assurance which is basic to the subject of this chapter: "Therefore, if any one is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come." (2 Corinthians 5 :17.) This is what regeneration -- being born anew -- means. Conversion, which is the word we commonly use for this experience, stresses the turning from a self-centered to a Godcentered life. Therefore it is the new orientation by which life is governed.

All this may be said and must be said. Yet the fact remains that we do not by conversion become sinless. We must repent again and again and daily seek God’s forgiveness. As was noted earlier, there is great truth in the words of Luther, simul justus et peccator, which mean "at the same time justified and a sinner." This is the great paradox of our faith. It does not contradict the fact that we are called of God and enabled by him to "grow in grace." And, as we shall see in a later chapter, this is the basic meaning of Christian perfection and sanctification. It does contradict any doctrine of holiness which assumes that either through an initial regeneration or a "second blessing" we shall achieve on earth the ability to live without sin. To assume that we have reached this pinnacle, or shall reach it, is a dangerous pitfall to self-righteousness. We need at this point to keep ever before us the words of Paul, "Therefore let any one who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall." (1 Corinthians 10:12.)

The Difference Salvation Makes

Thus God takes away our sins, restores His image in our hearts, and grants us a new birth, another chance, through the unmerited love of His Son and our Savior, Jesus Christ.

Salvation means being delivered from the burden of our sins and the torturing pangs of remorse by the awareness that God has forgiven us and set before us the possibility of a new life. A psychological term much heard today is "acceptance." Salvation means that the love of God accepts us as we are and enables us, not indifferently or self-righteously, but humbly, penitently, and with new dedication of will, to accept ourselves. Another psychological term is ‘integration." In the Christian sense our discordant, confused, sinful lives are given a new wholeness and sense of direction. To be saved means to be healed -- made whole from our infirmity of soul and given a new strength and purpose from God.

There is no one word that expresses the full meaning of salvation. Yet all the great traditional words of our faith indicate a genuine change of life, goals, and motive power. As regeneration in its derivation means to be "born again," and as conversion means to "turn around," so redemption means to be "bought back" and brought back to our Father’s home and fellowship through the love and the self-giving of Christ. Atonement means "at-one-ment" and refers to the new unity of the soul with God which one who has been alienated and estranged by his sin and self-will finds in the grace, mercy, and peace that God in Christ stands ready to impart. Reconciliation does not mean that God must be reconciled to us, but that "God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation" (2 Corinthians 5 :19). The story of the prodigal son is perhaps the greatest of all Jesus’ parables because it expresses so perfectly what the love of God has done and is always doing for us.

Today we are perhaps more likely to use simply the words "accepting Christ" or "becoming a Christian" for this great event, but the meaning is the same. It means being "born again" in the center of one’s being and hence having a new outlook and approach to life.

If the regeneration is deep-going, a person’s choices and decisions are different from the time when it happens. Feelings, words, and acts take on a different tenor. "He seems like a new person" or "I feel like a new man" are commonplace but accurate descriptions of the change that can be wrought,

Sometimes the change is so radical that it seems miraculous. Sometimes there is a gradual, and at times almost imperceptible, change in values, motives, feelings, and modes of responding to situations. If there is no difference at all, regeneration has not occurred.

To be real, regeneration must certainly affect our moral living. This does not mean that a radical and drastic change in moral standards is always involved. Yet it must sharpen our sensitivity to the needs and hurts of others; it must increase our eagerness to serve; it must sharpen our courage under moral strain -- or it is shallow. Though opinions may legitimately differ as to what is the right course to take in a given issue, especially in a complex matter, the saved Christian stands for the right as he sees it. The committed Christian is one about whom there is no doubt concerning which side he will be on in a clear-cut moral issue or how he will meet a moral crisis that might shake another person from his moorings.

Regeneration begins inevitably in personal experience. It was not simply an accident that led Jesus to concentrate on touching the inner lives of people and leading them to trust and obey God in a new way. He knew, as we also must know if we are at all discerning, that this is where motives are established and activities are grounded. The world we live in sadly needs reconstructing. But there can be no greatly reconstructed world until there are more reconstructed persons in it. This means that even those who call themselves Christians must become more deeply Christian.

Yet this does not by any means give sanction to indifference to social issues. Jesus found his mission perfectly stated in certain great words of the prophet Isaiah:

"The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord." (Luke 4:18-19)

At the call of Christ, this may well be our mission in our own time and place. Is it an individual or social gospel ? It is both, and the two cannot be separated without distortion.

Accordingly, a regenerated Christian looks outward in sympathy and service to other people -- all people of all races, classes, and nations. He takes so seriously the injunction to love God and his neighbor that he cannot be at ease before injustice, evil-doing, or the suffering of others. The parable of the Good Samaritan takes its place alongside that of the Prodigal Son as being central to our faith.

"Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God." This is a large order. It is too great for both our comprehension and our power. But it is not too great for God, "who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ." (2 Corinthians 4:6.)

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