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Casual Confusion About Salvation in Anabaptism

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I sincerely appreciate Anabaptism—the groups that sprang out of the Reformation and became known as Mennonites, Amish, Hutterites, Dunkers, Doukhobors, and German Baptist Brethren (among others). I wrote my undergraduate thesis on the Swiss Brethren and have long considered myself a “Baptist” with a small “b,” having an affinity for the broader Anabaptist movement over and against the Protestant Reformers such as Luther, Zwingli, Knox, and Cranmer.

But Anabaptism isn’t flawless.

The movement was not, and is not, monolithic. It encompassed a variety of views. A recent book introducing Anabaptism exemplifies the casual confusion about salvation that can exist in that movement.

For example, the author says that Anabaptists thought you could not be saved by faith alone:

“For the Anabaptists, faith by itself was insufficient for either salvation or community” (Becker, Anabaptist Essentials, p. 21).

However, even though the Anabaptists rejected sola fide, the author says they also believed in salvation by grace:

“While these first Anabaptist/Mennonite Christians (the terms are often used interchangeably) affirmed the ancient Apostles’s Creed and belief in salvation by grace…” (p. 22).

That’s confusing because Paul defined salvation by grace as being by faith apart from works (Eph 2:8-9). Faith by itself is utterly sufficient for salvation because it receives the completed work of Christ. You cannot say faith is insufficient for salvation and still believe in salvation by grace because grace and works are mutually exclusive in salvation (Rom 11:6).

The author goes on to explain that faith requires obedience to be saving:

“Discipleship insists that faith and obedience must be held together. Faith requires obedience, and obedience requires faith. James insists that if there is no obedience, there is no faith, saying, ‘Faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead’” (p. 34).

If we’re talking strictly about discipleship, I would mostly agree that faith and obedience must be held together because there’s no discipleship without obedience. I agree that obedience requires faith because whatever is not done out of faith is sin (Rom 14:23).

However, I suspect the author means there is no salvation without discipleship and obedience. Furthermore, he misrepresents James’ argument when he claims James said that without obedience, “there is no faith.” Instead, James wrote that faith without works is “dead.” It is still faith. But it is useless or unprofitable for saving a person from the trial they’re enduring (see here). James is not talking about how to be saved eternally but how to live a godly life through trials and tribulations such as economic poverty (see the purpose of the Epistle in Jas 1:2-4).

Later, the author notes that Evangelical Christians often conclude a gospel presentation by inviting people to say the sinner’s prayer. He entertains the possibility that saying a sinner’s prayer may be the minimum requirement for heaven:

“While praying the sinner’s prayer may begin the Christian journey and be seen as the minimum requirement for entrance into heaven, there is more to the Christian faith than forgiveness” (p. 33).

Let me clarify that believing in Jesus, not saying a prayer, is the minimum requirement for salvation. Saying a prayer won’t save you. However, after you’ve believed in Jesus as your Savior, it's appropriate to thank Him for your eternal salvation. Still, Free Grace people discourage evangelizing using a "sinner’s prayer" because it can easily confuse people into thinking they’re saved by saying magic words.

Modern Anabaptists talk about “red-letter Christians” who take the words of Jesus more seriously than other traditions. In that case, I would challenge them to believe in “red-letter evangelism.” Read through John’s Gospel and see what Jesus says about eternal life. There’s only one thing you need to do to have that: believe in Him. “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me, even if he dies, will live. Everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” (John 11:25-26, emphasis added). Free Grace people believe that and think it’s essential. I hope all Anabaptists will include it in their essentials, too.

Send your questions or comments to Shawn.

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