“In essentials unity; in non essentials, liberty; and in all things, love.”
1. I wish to share about the importance of resolving differences in Christian doctrines among fellow Christians in an appropriate manner in the light of the command of Jesus for Christian unity in John 17:20-21.
2. The Church revival led by John and Charles Wesley in the eighteen century was very encouraging . J Wesley and G. Whitefield were at one time co-workers in leading this great church revival. However Wesley was pro-Arminianism while Whitefield was pro-Calvinism in their theological thought. As a result, there were arguments between them and they stopped co-operating with one another due to differing beliefs about predestination. I always believe there are Christian doctrines of primary importance which touch on the foundation of our belief such as what are contained in the Apostle Creed. Christians need to defend those important doctrines vigorously to protect our orthodox Christian belief. On the other hand, there are Christian doctrines of secondary importance which include matters such as predestination. Christians should not allow such matters to divide their fellowship and unity in the Lord. Hence, I was surprised that outstanding Christians such as J Wesley and G Whitefield allowed their differing beliefs about predestination to divide their fellowship and unity in serving God. However, I am glad to learn that at least in the end, they patched up their friendship before they died. Wesley preached at Whitefield’s funeral. It was all to the gory of God and his eternal Kingdom that he did. Moreover, despite this history, it is more heartening to know that the post-World War II evangelical coalition in North America has held Calvinist and Arminian believers together within one great movement. At least as many member churches of the National Association of Evangelicals are Arminian in the theological orientation as Reformed. The Christ like spirit of love and irenic acceptance of differences of opinion over secondary matters have greatly enhanced the influence of the evangelical coalition in society. It leads me to examine whether such phenomenon has also happened among the Chinese Churches now? With much regret, it is not the case yet, as shown in the present case.
3 I understand that the majority of Chinese Christians today believe in Calvin’s teachings about predestination including the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints, which is also commonly known as “once saved, always saved.” They believe as Clark Pinnock had once believed when he said that “Therefore, it is no surprise that I began my theological life as a Calvinist who regarded alternate evangelical interpretations as suspect and at least mildly heretical. I accept the view I was given that Calvinism was just scriptural evangelicalism in its purest expression and I did not question it for a long time.”
4 I do not share Calvin’s teachings on predestination. Over the past years, the more I study the Bible, the more I am convinced that it does not teach “once saved, always saved.” The whole Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, teaches about conditional salvation as Scot McKnight had put it like these, “I am contending that the book of Hebrews does teach conditional salvation but that condition is a condition taught throughput the whole Bible.” “In Hebrews, final salvation is not unconditional. It is conditional and that single condition is persevering faith.”
5 Although the warning passages do not directly warn that one would lose his salvation if he commits the sin of apostasy, I believe that they give rise to such clear message by inference. It is because we should understand that each warning passage sheds light on the other. Hence, if we examine carefully each warning passage in the light of the other and then consider their combined messages, an irresistible inference can be drawn from those warning passages that if a Christian commits the sin of apostasy, he would no doubt lose his final salvation. In the past, I had difficulty to understand why outstanding Christians such as J. Calvin whom I respect failed to understand the clear message of the warning passages of Hebrews, otherwise he would not have believed in the doctrine of “once saved, always saved.” Only recently do I understand the reason, that is because Calvin and Calvinistic school such as John Owen had held that the readers, who could not be restored to repentance (Hebrews 6:4-6) were not genuine believers. Most bible scholars today agree the readers of Hebrews were genuine Christians such as I. H. Marshall when he says the following, “Second, the lapsed had tasted the heavenly gift. The verb ‘to taste’ has sometimes the nuance of taking a tiny sip, and is so taken here by Calvin. J Owen held that there is a difference between tasting and eating and fully digesting. But recent scholars are agreed that the idea emphasized in the verb ‘to taste’ is that of experiencing the flavor of what is eaten; the amount consumed is not in mind at all. When Christ is said to have tasted death (Hebrews 2:9), there is no suggestion that he got off lightly with a mere taste and no more, rather He experienced its bitter taste to the full. The author’s whole point would be nullified here also if he was speaking of ‘those who have had a mere glimmer of light and no genuine experience of salvation.” Scott McKnight also agrees that the readers, at the phenomenological level, converts to Jesus Christ. I Marshall concludes, “We seem indeed to be compelled to allow that a person may go so far in apostasy that God refuses him the opportunity of repentance. In this passage, exegetical honesty demands that this possibility is at least raised. Moreover, it is in conformity with other passages in which we find that there is a limit to the patience of God in urging recalcitrant sinners to return to him. A stage of “no return” may be reached by the person who dabbles with apostasy.”
6 I begin to understand why J. Calvin believed “once saved, always saved.” It is because in the days of Calvin, there were many sufferings, such as natural disasters, large scale infectious diseases, wars etc. and also many Christians were persecuted because of their faith. “When Calvin emphasized the doctrine of predestination, his original intention was not to curse the non-elect, but to comfort those in the Lord. Many were worried they would lose their salvation, but Calvin emphasized the great power and grace of God in persevering them. Salvation would not be lost for the elect” Although I appreciate Calvin’s teaching in this matter was out of good intention, it has caused many Christians in the generations after him to believe the Bible teaches “Once saved, always saved”, therefore they misunderstand Calvin as teaching salvation for Christians is totally secured regardless whether they persevere in faith and obedience in God in their lives. On the other hand, I understand Calvin also emphasized a genuine Christian would persevere in his faith to the end, hence any Christian who had committed the sin of apostasy was not a genuine Christian in the first place. With respect to him, I really cannot accept the correctness of this statement. While it is true that some believers who later turned away from their faith may not be genuine Christians in the first place, it is unfair to conclude it is true for each and every apostate. Let me take marriage as an example. While it is true to say that many couples who have ended in divorce may not have genuinely committed their lives to each other or loved one another when they enter into their marriage, it is not true to hold this view for every couple who have divorced each other. In other words, there have been couples who have genuinely loved each other and committed to one another when they enter into marriage but still have ended up in divorce in the end!
7 It was very interesting for me to read sometime ago an article written by Clark Pinnock entitled “From Augustine to Arminius: A Pilgrimage in Theology” in which he shared how he came to the conclusion that the deterministic logic of Calvinism is flawed. As mentioned earlier, Pinnock began his theological life as a Calvinist who regarded alternate evangelical interpretations as suspect and at least mildly heretical, believing that Calvinism was just scriptural evangelicalism in its purest expression, and he did not question it for a long time. He held onto this view until about 1970, when one of the links in the chain of the tight Calvinian logic broke. It had to do with the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints, likely the weakest link in Calvinian logic, scripturally speaking. He was teaching at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School at the time and attending to the doctrine particularly in the book of Hebrews. If in fact believers enjoy the kind of absolute security Calvinism had taught him they do, he found he could not make very good sense of the vigorous exhortations to persevere (eg 3:12) or the awesome warnings not to fall away from Christ (eg 10:26), which the book addresses to Christians. It began to dawn on him that his security in God was linked to his faith-union with Christ and that God is teaching us here the extreme importance of maintaining and not forsaking this relationship. The exhortations and the warnings could only signify that continuing in the grace of God was something that depended at least in part on the human partner. And once he saw that, the logic of Calvinism was broken in principle, and it was only a matter of time before the larger implications of its breaking would dawn on him. The thread was pulled, and the garment must begin to unravel, as indeed it did.
8 What had dawned on him was what he had known experientially all along in his walk with the Lord, that there is a profound mutuality in our dealings with God. What happens between us is not simply the product of a set of divine decrees that, written on an everlasting and unchangeable scroll, determine all that takes place in the world. He began to doubt the existence of an all determining fatalistic blueprint for history and to think of God’s having made us significantly free creatures able to accept or reject his purposes for us (Luke 7:30). Even the good news of the grace of God will not benefit us, as Hebrews says, unless “mixed with Faith in the hearers. “(Heb 4:2) For the first time, he realized theologically that the dimension of reciprocity and conditionality had to be brought into the picture of God’s relations with us in creation and redemption and that, once it is brought in, the theological landscape would have to change significantly. The determinist model cannot survive once a person starts down this road, as scripturally he came to see he must. It is Pinnock’s strong impression, confirmed to him even by those not pleased by it, that Augustinian thinking is losing its hold on present-day Christians. One thing he was asking people to give up is the myth that evangelicals often hold – that there is such a thing as an orthodox systematic theology, equated with what Calvin, for example, taught and which is said to be in full agreement with the Bible. Pinnock explains, “The idea holds great appeal for us, not because it is our experience, but because it delivers such a delicious sense of security and gives us such a great platform from which to assail those dreadful liberals who are such historicists. By this means we can try to insulate ourselves from the dizziness one feels when too many concepts are being questioned and called in for review and revision. I guess it is time for evangelicals to grow up and recognize that evangelical theology is not an uncontested body of timeless truth. There are various accounts of it. Augustine got some things right, but not everything. How many evangelicals follow him on the matter of the infallible church or the miraculous sacraments? Like it or not we are embarked on a pilgrimage in theology and cannot determine exactly where will it lead or how it will end.”
9 Pinnock has also mentioned that a theological shift is underway among evangelicals as well as other Christians away from determinism as regards the rule and salvation of God and in the direction of an orientation more favorable to a dynamic personal relationship between God, the world, and God’s human creatures. He believes the trend began because of a fresh and faithful reading of the Bible in dialogue with modern culture, which places emphasis on autonomy, temporality, and historical change.
10 It is important to hear what Pinnock has to remind us, “The great majority of theologians change their minds quite often. We often refer to their early work and their later work, and sometimes also to the middle stages of their thought. Karl Barth, undoubtedly the greatest theologian of our century, illustrates this very well, and he was not ashamed of changing his mind. It is better to change one’s mind then to continue on a wrong path.”
11. Although J. Wesley and G. Whitefield could patch up their friendship before they died, as mentioned in the preceding paragraph (2), another two very famous Christians, Martin Luther and Zwingli, failed to do so because of their theological differences about the Holy Communion, the responsibility apparently rested on Luther. Luther believed Christ’s body was physically present with the believers at the Holy Communion because of the doctrine of the ubiquity of Christ’s body. However, Zwingli did not agree with Luther’s view and believed Christ’s body was in heaven, sitting at the right hand of the heavenly Father. To Zwingli, the purpose of Holy Communion was just to remember Christ’s atonement work for mankind. Luther and Zwingli’s theological differences about the significance of the Holy Communion constantly led them into argument with each other. Finally, Zwingli took the initiative to reconcile with Luther as he thought their differences were in non-essentials, with unity in essentials, which did not forbid Christian brotherhood. He said, “Let us confess our union in all things in which we agree, as for the rest, let us remember that we are brethren. There will never be peace in the churches if we cannot bear differences on secondary points.” However, Luther deemed the corporal presence a fundamental article, and construed Zwingli’s liberality into indifference to truth. Luther told Zwingli, “I am astonished that you wish to consider me as your brother. It shows clearly that you do not attach much importance to your brother. It shows clearly that you do not attach much importance to your doctrine.” Moreover, Melanchthon looked upon the request of the Swiss as a strange inconsistency, and said to Zwingli. “You do not belong to the communion of the Christian Church. We cannot acknowledge you as brethren.” Furthermore, Luther was very angry that Zwingli believed that very good people but who were not Christians would be saved as well. Luther remarked once that he would rather drink blood alone with the papists than wine alone with the Zwinglians. A few days before his death, he wrote to his friend, Pastor Probst in Bremen: “Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the Sacramentarians, nor standeth in the way of the Zwinglians, nor sitteth in the seat of the Zurichers”
12. I am very surprised about the refusal of Luther to the request of Zwingli for reconciliation regarding their theological differences. I believe most Christians today, if not all, would think their differences were really in the non-essentials. Hence, I appreciate very much the attitude and initiative taken by Zwingli to reconcile with Luther in order to seek Christian unity among them. On the other hand, I suspected Luther was quite proud which led him to refuse to accept Zwingli’s request for reconciliation. It might be because Luther was very famous by that time as he had started the European Reformation in the sixteen century. No wonder, Joseph Motte commented Luther was a man of bad temper and lacked in humility.
13. The above incidents happened in church history have led me to appreciate the motto of the Moravian Brethren : “In essentials, unity; in non essentials, liberty, and in all things, love”. I believe Christians today have to seek unity in Christ as far as possible bearing in mind the commands of the Lord Jesus in John 17:20-21. Moreover, Christians must forebear and respect the theological differences of secondary importance with other fellow Christians with love, remembering what Paul teaches us in 1 Cor.13. It is because without the love of God in us, we can easily hate other Christians who have alternate evangelical interpretations different from us, just like how Luther had hated Zwingli. The worst is that fellow Christians even persecute each other in the name of God, believing they are serving God in so doing, because of differences in their biblical interpretations. We can see so many examples from church history. For instances, it is very hard to believe that during the Reformation period, thousands of Anabaptists were put to death because of their belief in the territories under the control of the Roman Catholics and the Reformers. It was because both of these two groups of people were determined to get rid of Anabaptism because they believed Anabaptism was dangerous heresy.
14. History teaches us that people do not learn from history. Hence, Christians today need to learn from church history in order to avoid repeating the same mistakes committed by many Christians who had persecuted fellow Christians in the past. Regarding the differences in biblical interpretations among fellow Christians, we have to respect and learn from each other for issues of secondary or even tertiary importance. With the attitude of humility and the love for the truth, we should always seek to find out what exactly the Bible teaches rather than just accept whatever a certain famous theologian or Christian teaches. It is because Augustine got some things right, but not everything. The same applies to John Calvin, John Wesley, Arminius and other outstanding Christians. Hence, let all Christian always find out and practice what the Bible teaches, sola Scriptura, as Martin Luther had so strongly and rightly emphasized at the start of the Reformation. To conclude, let all Christians always remember and practice the famous motto, “In essentials, unity; in non essentials, liberty; and in all things, love.” By doing so, we would achieve better unity in Christ which can then draw people to know God. (John 17:20-21).
 Clark Pinnock, The Grace of God and the Will of Man (Grand Rapids 1989), 17.
 Scot McKnight, The Warning Passages of Hebrews, Trinity Journal 13NS (1992), 55
 Ibid, 59
 I Howard Marshall, Kept by the Power of God (Bethany House Publishers, 1969), 142
 Ibid, 147
 Clark Pinnock, The Grace of God and the Will of Man (Grand Rapids 1989), 15-30
 Ibid 28
 Ibid 15