Living in a story bigger than justification by faith: theological worlds

My friend and former student, Wayne Beason, asked a good question in response to the last blog post. I made the observation that if you proclaim the Kingdom of God’s nearness prior to eating and healing, you have nothing, other than yourself, to point to. Wayne observed that most of the coaching he’s received on evangelism has emphasized the personal testimony of the evangelist. In other words, the transformed life of a believer is the best evidence we have of God’s saving work. So, how how does my comment relate to this?

First, of all, I want to say that these kinds of stories are still important, but may not be the clearest evidence we have of the Kingdom of God, which is social by nature. The reign of God orders not just individual lives, but the relations we have with others. I’ve often said that the life of the individual is not a broad enough canvas for the saving purposes of God to be displayed. (Note that in Ephesians, the church is offered as the place where God’s good ordering is put on display for the sake of all creation). Placing the focus of evangelistic testimony on the individual invites a problem that Wayne noted when he asked his question. We’re tempted to overstate the before/after picture to make the story adequately dramatic. I was a ruined sinner, but now my life is free from all of that. As Wayne points out, for good boys like him this is a hard story to tell. He wasn’t a ruined sinner, having grown up in the church and having always loved God. And few of us really can point to our current lives as a consistent product.

When thinking about Wayne’s question, I also recalled the work of W. Paul Jones in his book, Theological Worlds. Jones’ theory, backed up with some research, is that each of tends to resonate with a certain life issue that frames the way we see the world. Each  frame, which Jones calls a “world,” has a state to overcome: guilt, abandonment, injustice, emptiness, suffering. Each world has a rhythm: condemnation-forgiveness, emptiness-fulfillment, separation-reunion, suffering-endurance, conflict-vindication. Jones also has an inventory you can take to determine which world is yours, and I have found this to be a helpful tool.

Here’s the deal. Percentage wise, very few people seem to resonate in the condemnation-forgiveness world. Separation-reunion, emptiness-fulfillment, and suffering-endurace are far more prevalent. I’ve also gone through the Psalms to see which worlds are represented there and condemnation-forgiveness frames very few of them. Suffering-endurance and conflict-vindication are far better represented.

The ruined sinner to transformed saint story tends to live principally in the condemnation-forgiveness world. Penal substitutionary atonement certainly does and this tends to stand in for the gospel for many of our members. So, we have the unhappy circumstance of focusing our evangelistic message almost exclusively in relation to a world that doesn’t resonate with many individuals and is a minority theme in Scripture.

I used to use Jones to help congregations shape evangelistic witness, but I’ve moved away from that. Jones’ focus is still on the inner life of the individual, and I’m convinced that a thorough understanding of the Kingdom of God would touch on all of these worlds, so I begin there and let the individual chips fall where they may. But Jones is helpful in showing how limited our evangelistic message, focused on the guilt of the individual, has been. Jones’ work also suggests a broad range of unexplored themes that still might fit under the term “salvation.”


About Mark Love

I am the Director of the Resource Center for Missional Leadership at Rochester College. Part of my job includes directing a master's degree in missional leadership, a situated learning degree. I am married to Donna and have a son, Josh Love, who lives in Portland, OR. With Donna, I have also inherited three great daughters and three amazing granddaughters.
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1 Response to Living in a story bigger than justification by faith: theological worlds

  1. Mike Friend says:

    Mark, Happy Easter!! I still have my Theological Worlds book from 19 years ago. It was one of my very first structured studies with the church. What I learned from that study has stuck with me all this time and I still have my notebook, from which, I refer too on occasion. With the benefit of time, the theological worlds examples still hold true for me – the Gospel is bigger than the condemnation/forgiveness model. From my experience, a minor percentage of people fall into that group, yet evangelists seem to focus a majority of their attention there. The gospel meets people where they are at – one at a time and most usually one on one. I’ve reached a milestone of sorts…20 years ago I was baptized..thank you for being there Mark.

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