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Decision for Christ to Conversionary Discipleship

This series is an attempt to elucidate the dialectical (both/and) tension at the heart of Brethren theology and to relay its importance for today. These posts are using the definition of evangelicalism found in David Bebbington’s magnificent work Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s. More specifically, we will be exploring the distortions of Bebbington’s criteria and offer a corrective from J. Allen Miller for Brethren life. You can find my comments on Bebbington’s criteria here and my biographical sketch of J. Allen Miller here. You can also check out my last post on moving from biblical inerrancy to a Christocentric hermeneutic here.

Bebbington Criteria Distortion Miller’s Corrective
Activism/Conversionism Decision for Christ Conversionary Discipleship[1]


A central aspect of evangelical religion in America has become the “decision for Christ.” The decision has come to be the embodiment of the evangelical importance of conversion and the necessity of a response. Many modern theologians, many of whom are evangelicals, have provided critiques of this core practice within evangelicalism. One of those thinkers, theologian David Fitch of Northern Seminary, captures the historical and social milieus that gave birth to the “decision for Christ” in his work The End of Evangelicalism? Discerning a New Faithfulness for Mission: Towards an Evangelical Political Theology. Capturing the history of this “master-signifier”[2] within evangelicalism, he writes:

Evangelicalism was birthed out of the revivalism of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The signature ritual of this revivalism was (some form of) “the altar call,” where one made a decision to put one’s faith in Christ. Amidst the burgeoning individualism of a new democracy and the new religious freedom unimpeded by the traditionalism of the European Reformation, the Great Awakenings called countless thousands across the American frontier into a decision to commit their lives to Christ. These populations of the newly “saved” funded the generations who would later walk through the modernist-fundamentalist controversies and become the evangelicals. From the Methodist camp meeting preachers, to Charles Finney and his “new measures” revivalism, to evangelists Billy Sunday and Charles Fuller all the way up to the more recent “crusades” of Billy Graham, all of these preachers were evangelists calling people forward to an “altar” of some kind to make “the decision.” The basic message of salvation that emerged during this time was as follows. 1) God created us and loves us; He created us for “relationship” with Him. 2) All humanity, however, has sinned and lies fallen under the judgment of sin. Every individual therefore is separated from God and condemned to hell (Rom 3:23). 3) God, however, has made a provision for our sin through Christ’s sacrificial death on the cross; Christ took upon himself our sin as a substitute, thereby paying the penalty for our sin, propitiating the wrath and judgment of God (1 Pet 3:18). 4) By putting our faith and trust in Christ alone through his atoning work, we are saved from eternal damnation and are gifted with eternal life (John 5:24, Eph 2:8–9). Every one, therefore, needs to make “a decision for Christ” to recognize their own sin and to put their faith in Christ and His work on the cross in order to then receive eternal life.2 There was then usually a decision that followed afterward. Upon making the first decision, the individual was called into the “Spirit-filled life,” an additional decision to live daily in dependence upon the Holy Spirit.[3]

Fitch’s articulation of the environment that produced the “decision” is one in which Miller lived and was conversant. Miller heard the revivalistic-fundamentalist reduction of salvation to a decision and also heard the ethical demands of liberal theologians stressing the life of Jesus over and against any substitutionary, mystical, and emotional appeal. Miller, unlike both camps (fundamentalist and liberal), stresses that while a new birth is necessary, it is but the beginning. In a section of his writings on salvation entitled, “The Divine Ideal Set Before the Christian,” he writes:

The saving work of grace conceived of as beginning in the new life in Christ Jesus is not regarded as fully accomplished in these initial acts. These are indispensable and primary conditions to salvation. We come now to consider salvation in its relation to the individual himself and that as it pertains to his whole being and through his whole life. We find that the New Testament holds before the believer and ideal of life and character, of behavior and accomplishment, to be attained in Jesus Christ. This attainment is a gradual and prolonged process. The ideal is exemplified in Jesus Christ himself and is enforced again and again by practically every New Testament writer.[4]

Writing later in the same section he likens growth in Christ to the development of a human. “Newborn babes,” he writes, “grow into full-grown men. Men are not born full-grown. The beginning of the new life in Christ Jesus is a birth. The birth must not be confounded with the process of the development of the whole after life.”[5]

The key to this process is a lifelong practice of repentance. Repentance makes salvation ever fresh. Repentance becomes the connection between salvation in three tenses—past, present, and future. Miller notes:

Repentance is a change of mind and as such it is an inward work of grace wrought upon the soul. But in its outward expression it requires fruit worthy of its profession. Repentance is itself a mighty revolution in the life, a change so great and so marvelous that it is well-nigh a miracle, and as such it manifests itself in the fruit of the Christian life. True repentance always makes all possible restitution for its past errors….No one can truly repent and then allow any evil of his old and former life to continue if it is within his power to end them. No evil alliances, socially or commercially, for example, which grow out of one’s old life can be continued after a true repentance if the penitent can himself annul them. If he can not annul them he will so far as possible destroy their results. God and the quickened conscience of a repentant man have no difficulty in settling the matter of restitution….What a supreme teaching is this that enjoins so radical a change in a man’s life as to make him all over into a new man when the process is completed. But such is the end of the process which repentance begins in a man’s soul. It is the first step in salvation and salvation when it is complete brings a soul into communion with God and crowns him by that very fact with eternal life.[6]

Repentance, in Miller’s writings, reveals a counter to “decision-based salvation” and offers, instead, a Christian life marked by conversionary discipleship—salvation as past, present, and future. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that Brenda Colijn, Brethren elder and theologian, captures this model of conversionary discipleship in an article entitled “Salvation: Past, Present, Future.” Colijn finds the Brethren understanding of salvation as “both an event and a process: it is an accomplished fact, a continuing walk, and a future hope.”[7] As such, Colijn argues, salvation is a lifelong process that is intimately tied to a life of obedience and discipleship. In Colijn’s assessment, many evangelicals (especially fundamentalists) have been so afraid of salvation by works that they’ve overlooked the ethical implications of salvation in the New Testament. Orthodoxy produces orthopraxy. Regarding human responsibility, she comments:

Believers must cooperate with God in carrying on the salvation process that He has begun in their lives. As they obey Him, He transforms their will and actions to more closely resemble His. The parallel between obedience and salvation indicates that the two are inseparable.[8]

Both Colijn and Miller stand in agreement in this Brethren witness regarding the fruit that must be wrought in the life of the believer. They also stand resolute in their defense of the life of the church for salvation. “The context of salvation in the New Testament,” Colijn writes, “is corporate; Christians are not called to be individual believers, but to the members of the Body of Christ.”[9] The church, for Colijn and Miller, is not a parenthesis in God’s plan but is essential to the ongoing work of salvation in the believer. The church in this model, unlike the individualistic (and often private) model of most evangelicals, is central.

Conversion is just the beginning of a lifelong process that culminates in our glorification at Christ’s return. This lifelong process is discipleship, a traditional Brethren emphasis…. The church must provide the context and the motivation for discipleship. This means a strong commitment to education, support for small groups and other means of spiritual growth, training in leadership, opportunities for ministry, and mutual accountability.[10]

Fitch agrees in his assessment of how American evangelicalism must address its reductionistic understanding of salvation and its anemic (often non-existent) ecclesiology. “Such a re-articulation of the gospel, he writes, “results in a new communal disposition towards the world.

From the pretentious “Do you know where you are going when you die?,” we come to the world offering a welcome: “to enter the salvation begun in Jesus Christ that God is working for the sake of the whole world.” We do not characterize salvation in terms of “you receive this and this” if by faith you believe. Instead, salvation is a joining in with God in “the setting of all things right.” It is an invitation to extend the reign of God in Christ over your life and into the world wherever sin, death, and evil still linger. The offer of salvation becomes, “Come and put your entire life under the reign of Christ for the transformation God is working to make the world right,” “come and live under his Lordship over the world.” In this way, no new Christian can miss that “in Christ” you are going from living for yourself, out of yourself, in yourself with all the things that you have become entangled in, to living “in Christ” where the entirety of our lives is transformed into the Kingdom politic God is bringing via the Holy Spirit for the whole world. In a practice like this, a politic of fullness is born to engage the world for the salvation of the world. Such a gospel calls for a renewal of discipleship practices in evangelicalism. Discipleship is the shaping of desires, vision, and character into Christ, his Kingdom, and his mission for the world. This demands practices of spiritual formation…In these practices the disciple learns how to ask “What is God doing, what is God saying?” in the situations of everyday life. The same disciples then learn to respond. These “disciplines” are not secluded away from the community so that they devolve into individualist legalism and behavior reinforcement therapy. They become a part of our every day life together. They breed a new politic of fullness.[11]

Salvation leads to discipleship. Discipleship becomes the pattern of spiritual formation that sustains our salvation. Salvation is the lifelong communal journey of becoming like Christ. Where more systematic theologies have divided salvation into theological silos, Colijn argues we need to recapture a larger, more robust understanding of salvation that challenges such siloing: justification, sanctification, and glorification. Each of these categories, she believes, corresponds to the three tenses of salvation.

The past tense of salvation assures us that we have peace with God and that God is able to complete the work he has begun in us. The present tense urges us to grow in our faith as we participate in the redeemed community. The future tense encourages us to anticipate the day when God’s work in us will be complete and we will receive our inheritance.[12]

Miller’s influence on the life of the Brethren, and his challenge to the “decision for Christ,” is a conversionary discipleship model that ties together faith and obedience, salvation and discipleship. The ‘why’ for Miller is the biblical witness (much like Colijn). In the life of the church, faith and obedience are wed to continually disciple one another.

Faith and obedience are so vitally linked that they become in many instances all but synonymous. In the Old Testament this is especially strongly brought out. The old prophet Jeremiah, in 11:7, represents God as constantly calling to His people, saying, “Obey my voice.” And Samuel long before had said, “To obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams.” The finest Old Testament summary of the true religious life is given by Micah in 6:8. To do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God. True obedience can not be better described than in these marvelous words. In the New Testament obedience to the Lord is the test of true discipleship. Our personal relation to the Master is determined by this test. According to Acts 5:32 obedience is the condition upon which the Holy Spirit is given. “And we are witnesses of these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God hath given to them that obey him.” Obedience purifies the soul. So the greatest of the blessings of the Christian life come to us through obedience, namely, the Holy Spirit and purity of soul. May none of us ever deny our profession by our disobedience to the Word and will of God.[13]

This life of conversionary discipleship flows out of an understanding of the atonement that highlights the centrality of covenant and relationship over and against a calculation of sin that often downplays human responsibility. The next post will detail Miller’s corrective to atonement theology among many evangelicals.

Next Post: Penal Substitutionary Atonement to Covenantal-Relational Atonement

[1] See David Fitch. End of Evangelicalism? Discerning a New Faithfulness for Mission: Towards an Evangelical Political Theology. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2011. Fitch combines Bebbington’s “conversionism” and “crucicentrism” into a single category. While this is understandable, this post makes the argument that activism and conversionism are better collapsed together—the response of a believer becomes a “decision for Christ.”

[2] Fitch cites the philosopher Slavoj Žižek and his work within semiotics—the study of language and symbols. The “decision for Christ,” according to Fitch, has become what Žižek calls a “master-signifier.” “A master-signifier,” Fitch writes, “is a conceptual object around which people give their allegiance thereby enabling a political group to form.” Fitch also argues that biblical inerrancy and the idea of a Christian nation serve as master-signifiers for American Evangelicalism. See Fitch, The End of Evangelicalism?, 26, Kindle.

[3] Fitch, The End of Evangelicalism?, 76, Kindle.

[4] Miller, Christian Doctrine, 85.

[5] Ibid, 87.

[6] J. Allen Miller, “Steps in the Way of Salvation (V),” The Brethren Evangelist 32, no. 32 (August 10, 1910): 7.

[7] Brenda Colijn, “Salvation: Past, Present, Future,” The Brethren Evangelist 102, no. 10 (October 1990): 4.

[8] Ibid, 5.

[9] Ibid, 4.

[10] Ibid, 6.

[11] Fitch, The End of Evangelicalism?, 152, Kindle.

[12] Colijn, “Salvation,” 6.

[13] J. Allen Miller, “Steps in the Way of Salvation (VI),” The Brethren Evangelist 32, no. 34 (August 24, 1910): 7.

2 comments on “Decision for Christ to Conversionary Discipleship

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