The basic elements of the historical teaching of the Christian church on salvation are reiterated by the Anabaptists: that all people have sinned in Adam and are therefore unworthy of the favor of God; that through the death of Christ the way of salvation is provided for all; that the way of salvation is effective only if and when individuals respond appropriately. If there is a major divergence theologically between Anabaptists and other Christians, it focuses on the way in which Anabaptists generally understand the last of these elements, the human response. This will be discussed below.
Of the various theories of the atonement, the satisfaction theory is prominent among 16th-century Anabaptists. That is not to say that they consciously chose one theory over another, but that they tended to accept the dominant emphasis of the day. Thus they held that in order for sinners to be rescued from the clutches of Satan, a perfect sacrifice was required. Christ, as the sinless one, provided this sacrifice and in this way satisfied the justice of God. Some Anabaptists, such as Melchior Hoffman, Menno Simons and Dirk Philips, go so far as to support this view with the teaching that Christ had "celestial flesh" despite his human birth (incarnation). Yet this never becomes a matter for refined and prolonged debate. The Anabaptists move beyond a narrow and objective application of the satisfaction notion.
As noted above, the major discussion concerning salvation does not focus on the theory of the atonement, but rather on the appropriate human response. That is, there was widespread consensus that one cannot lay claim to salvation on the basis of forgiveness alone. Rather, repentance must be followed by amendment of life. in other words, discipleship (Nachfolge) belongs constitutively and integrally to the work of salvation.
Regarding the place of good works within salvation, the Anabaptists are quick to point out that good deeds are not to be offered as merit before God. Righteousness on the basis of good works is completely out of the question. Rather, the good deeds of the believer are an extension of the gracious work of God in the life of the believer; indeed, they are an extension of the salvific work of God as such. This means that if good works are not in evidence it is questionable whether the saving work of God has taken root in the person.
Basic to this viewpoint is a particular theology of grace. Menno Simons holds that grace does not make its original entrance with the Fall; it is present already in the act of creation. Inasmuch as the divine act of creation establishes the works of God, grace is therefore integral to works. It follows that the good works of God done by people belong to the gracious work of God. Thus salvation, as the work of grace, includes not only the justification of the sinner, but also what is sometimes called sanctification. This explains as well why the Anabaptists could speak somewhat unreservedly of the positive place of the law in the Christian life. This is also the reason why "works righteousness" is not seen as a danger provided that good works maintain their basis in grace.
This theology of grace provides the basis for regarding all people as called to salvation. The human race was created with the potential for grace. That is, grace is universal in the sense that God offers grace to all people, not only to the so-called elect. Thus salvation is preached to all with a sense of urgency and with the assumption that from God's side no one is excluded from the invitation to believe.
This basic approach to a theology of salvation has critical implications for a number of questions. First, what is the place of original sin in Anabaptist theology? Anabaptists have a unique approach to original sin, an approach that supports their understanding of salvation. They affirm the historical reality of original sin, but deny that its power over the individual is final and absolute. That is, they hold that evil has entered the world through the first human parents and that all people are sinners because of the ongoing effects of that act. Yet the effect is not understood as total and debilitating. Something of the image of God, given with creation, remains. This provides a point of entrance for the Spirit of God. As well, this gives the person as such the capacity to exercise a free decision with respect to the invitation to salvation. In the light of the above it is understandable that Anabaptists have had some appreciation for the position of Pelagius (fl. 400-418) rather than Augustine (354-430) on the question of free will.
Second, what is the view of Anabaptists regarding the salvation of children? Generally it is held that while children are conceived and born in sin, they are protected by the grace of God until such a time as they are able to take a conscious and informed stand, in confession and action, for or against the saving work of Christ. In this connection it is therefore not appropriate to baptize infants. While children are certainly not considered to be Christians by virtue of their natural birth into believing families, neither are they destined to eternal punishment if not baptized as infants. Rather, they are considered safe in the grace of God until they are able to exercise their free will in response to the offer of salvation.
Third, will some be saved and others not? As mentioned above, the Anabaptists do not subscribe to that doctrine of predestination which held that some are chosen to be saved while others are destined for damnation. They insist only that Christ died for all. With this they do not imply a universalism, as though all would inevitably and eventually be saved. Rather, their intent is to uphold the graciousness of God toward all people and the freedom of all to choose God. The choice between life and death is the responsibility of the one to whom grace is offered.
It should be added that while the Anabaptists do not promote predestinationism or universalism, they are advocates of religious liberty or toleration. People should be allowed to believe as they wish without coercion. This implies a graciousness toward all people, especially the powerless. Such graciousness is not based on a lax attitude toward the unbeliever or toward those who hold a contrary view. Rather, it is based both on a theological conviction and on a practical concern: the conviction that God is truly a God of grace toward all, and the concern that they and others be allowed to follow their conscience in matters of faith, and not be coerced by force and even by threat of death to comply with a particular form of religion or with the official religion of the state.
Fourth, how is the salvation of the sinner experienced? The Anabaptists tend toward a holistic view. This can be understood in two senses. Firstly, salvation encompasses the entire person, impinging upon every dimension of life. The person becomes a "new creation" through repentance and amendment of life. Secondly, it is the whole Christ that saves. That is, the work of justification is understood as the incarnation of the life, the death, and the resurrection of Christ in the disciple. One cannot find in Anabaptism the typical Protestant distinction between justification and sanctification. Nor can one find an exclusive concentration on the atoning death of Christ distinct from the salvific power of his life and ministry. In short, salvation is the original and ongoing experience of new birth, understood as the transformation of the whole person into the likeness of Christ. Salvation is experienced through the interplay of forgiveness and discipleship.
Finally, what is the context in which salvation is experienced and affirmed? The Anabaptists place great emphasis upon the faithful church as the experiential community of salvation. If salvation means incorporation into Christ, this implies incorporation into the church, the body of Christ. The Anabaptists do not make salvation an individualistic matter, but see its earthly culmination in the experience of voluntary participation in the visible church.
To this point we have sought to outline in broad terms the view of salvation generally held by 16th-century Anabaptists. The question now arises: have these predominant features been upheld among Mennonites since that time? This is a difficult question to answer since historical developments are complex. Yet some observations are possible on the basis of major confessions of faith that have been formulated and accepted from time to time throughout Mennonite history.
The Dordrecht Confession of 1632 carries forward the essential features of Anabaptism from the previous century. For example, here repentance and "amendment of life" are integrally related (art. 6). However in the centuries that followed, significant changes are noticeable. While an overt dedication to a biblical basis continued, this basis proved broad enough to allow for rather diverse and divergent developments.
One variation can be noted in the Ris Confession of 1766. Here one notes a fortification against a legalistic view of salvation. This is accomplished by highlighting grace alone, with works understood as only an outward proof of an inward grace (Art. 20). With reference to works the major concern is that self-righteousness and legalism be avoided.
Another variation comes to light in the soteriology which accompanied the rise of the Mennonite Brethren church in Russia around 1860. This movement reacted against the growing assumption within the mother church that salvation is a natural birthright for Mennonite colonists, and that personal holiness is secondary in salvation. The Mennonite Brethren focused on the salvation experience as a radical turning from sin to a life of personal holiness. The influence of European Pietism of the 18th and 19th centuries can also be seen in the Mennonite Brethren emphasis.
Some of the Mennonites in North America were influenced noticeably by Fundamentalism during the first half of the 20th century. The Mennonite Church's (MC) confession of 1921, entitled "Christian Fundamentals," reflects this. Here the human condition is stated in terms of helpless fallenness, and the work of Christ is presented unequivocally in terms of the substitutionary atonement alone (art. 4-6). The 1921 statement also discounts the possibility of reforming society independent of the merits of Christ and the experience of the new birth (art. 10). This reflects the typical reaction of Fundamentalism against the social gospel. When brought to bear on Mennonite theology the emphasis results in an unfortunate disjunction of salvation from discipleship.
Mennonite scholarship during the past 40 years has given some attention to a theology of salvation. Spearheaded by the discovery and interpretation of Anabaptist sources, theologians have suggested guidelines for a faithful application of an Anabaptist-Mennonite perspective to this theme. One finds in these writings a call for the wholesome integration of nurture with evangelism, a recovery of the integral relationship between soteriology and discipleship, and an affirmation of the integration of salvation with the doctrine of the church.
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Beachy, Alvin J. "The Grace of God in Christ as Understood by Five Major Anabaptist Writers." Mennonite Quarterly Review 37 (1963): 5-33.
Driver, John. Understanding the Atonement for the Mission of the Church. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1986.
Dyck, Cornelius J. "Sinners and Saints," and J. A. Oosterbaan, "Grace in Dutch Mennonite Theology," in A Legacy of Faith, ed. by C. J. Dyck. Newton, KS: Faith and Life, 1962: 87-102; 69-85.
Friedmann, Robert. A Theology of Anabaptism. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1973: 78-101.
Klaassen, Walter, ed. Anabaptism in Outline: Selected Primary Sources, Classics of the Radical Reformation (CRR), vol. 3. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1981: 41-71.
Toews, John A. History of the Mennonite Brethren Church. Fresno, CA: Mennonite Brethren Board of Literature and Education, 1975: 361-79.
Wenger, John C. "Concerning the Satisfaction of Christ: an Anabaptist Tract on True Christianity." Mennonite Quarterly Review (1946): 243-54.
Wenger, John C. "Grace and Discipleship in Anabaptism." Mennonite Quarterly Review 35 (1961): 50-69.
Yoder, Gideon G. The Nurture and Evangelism of Children. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1959.
Yoder, John Howard. The Politics of Jesus. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972: ch. 11.
Cite This Article
Harder, Helmut. "Salvation." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1989. Web. 24 Sep 2017. http://gameo.org/index.php?title=Salvation&oldid=143730.
Harder, Helmut. (1989). Salvation. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 24 September 2017, from http://gameo.org/index.php?title=Salvation&oldid=143730.
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