“You have nothing to do but save souls”: John Wesley on Evangelism and the Pursuit of Justice

by David N. Field.

The Methodist Church is currently undertaking a two year exploration of what it means to be a justice-seeking church through the Walking with Micah project.  Theology Everywhere is working in partnership with the project to host a series of articles about justice. For more information visit www.methodist.org.uk/walking-with-micah/

John Wesley’s instruction to his preachers that they had “nothing to do but save souls”i is an odd place to begin a discussion on Wesley’s understanding of the pursuit of justice.

It seems to support the view that the mission of the Church is primarily to proclaim the gospel of personal salvation. Methodists who emphasise social engagement and the pursuit of justice tend to start with Wesley’s commitment to the wellbeing of the poor, his opposition to the slave tradeii, and his advocacy of economic justice. However, the genius of John Wesley’s theology is that it offers an alternative in which the proclamation of personal salvation and the pursuit of justice are dynamically and inseparably related to each other. It is Wesley’s concept of “saving souls” rightly understood that provides the context in which they are related to each other.

Salvation in Wesleyan Perspective

The starting point for understanding a Wesleyan perspective on salvation is that God, who is love, created human beings in God’s own moral image of love. When Wesley wished to describe love for our fellow human beings, he referred to the Golden Rule of “doing unto others as you would have them do to yourself”, which is expressed in the triad of “justice, mercy and truth”.

God’s intention for humanity, he said, was devastated by sin; instead of loving God and their fellow human beings, human beings turned away from God and centred their lives on themselves, resulting in the abuse, misuse, exploitation, and even destruction, of other human beings. Salvation is the process by which God restores the image of God in human beings by drawing them into a relationship with God by the Spirit, enabling and empowering them to live lives characterised by justice, mercy and truth. It begins before we are even conscious of it through what Wesley referred to as “preventing grace”.

Wesley was using the word “preventing” in the eighteenth-century sense of “that which goes before”. His phrase is now more commonly referred to as “prevenient grace”. For Wesley, prevenient grace is active in all people so that we find in all people a moral mixture of that which reflects God’s intention and that which is contrary to it. Prevenient grace is the beginning of the process of salvation and is directed toward drawing people to repentance and new birth. Yet this is only one stage in the process of salvation. Salvation is the restoration of the image of God in the human person. Souls that are saved are ones that are transformed into the moral image of God – that is, they are permeated by divine love.

A Life Permeated by Divine Love

Divine love ought to shape all dimensions of Christian lives so that they are centred on God and passionately directed toward the comprehensive wellbeing of others – concretely through a lifestyle characterised by justice, mercy and truth.

Justice is treating people as creatures with dignity and value because they are “made in the image of God, bought by his Son, and designed for his kingdom”.iii Mercy goes beyond justice and responds to human beings in their need and misery out of a deep empathy, and seeks to relieve their needs and transform their situation. Truth rejects all forms of deception and is expressed in honesty, reliability and faithfulness.

Justice, mercy and truth should characterise our personal relationships, our business practices and our social engagement. The pursuit of justice, mercy and truth for the poor, the suffering, the sick and the imprisoned was a characteristic of early Methodism. An

important example is Wesley’s involvement in the struggle against the slave trade.iv

Evangelism and the Pursuit of Justice – Putting it Together

We can summarise the dynamic relationship between evangelism and social justice in relation to two interrelated themes.

Firstly, a person who has experienced a new birth and is being transformed by the Holy Spirit will live a life characterised by justice, mercy and truth. However, active engagement in the pursuit of justice, mercy and truth is a means of grace, a way through which God transforms us into the divine image.

Second, evangelism leads to the pursuit of justice, mercy and truth – for this is the fruit of conversion. Evangelism that does not lead to this is defective for it is not nurturing people in transformation. The greatest hinderance to evangelism is that the personal and communal life of Christians is not characterised by justice, mercy and truth; this undermines the truth claims of the gospel. Where the lives of Christians demonstrate justice, mercy and truth they verify the truth claims of the gospel and this becomes a means of evangelism.

Evangelism and the pursuit justice, mercy and truth are integrally related to each other. It is this integral relationship that is the genius of a Methodist approach to evangelism and social transformation.

David N. Field is the Ecumenical staff officer for Faith and Order and Theological Dialogue for the Council of Bishops of the United Methodist Church, and an Academic Associate of the Research Institute for Theology and Religion, University of South Africa. A fuller exploration of the themes above can be read in David’s article ‘Holiness, social justice and the mission of the Church: John Wesley’s insights in contemporary context’, published in Holiness: The Journal of Wesley House Cambridge, Volume I (2015) Issue 2 (Holiness & Mission): pp. 177– 198. It is reproduced here with permission of the author and of the Singing the Faith Plus website on which it originally appeared.

i “Minutes of Several Conversations between the Reverend Mr. John and Charles Wesley and Others.” In Works of Wesley vol.10:854

ii James Montgomery, a younger contemporary of Wesley, was another campaigner against slavery. His views are reflected in the hymn Hail to the Lord’s anointed (StF 228).

iii Explanatory Notes on the New Testament 1 Peter 2:17

iv John Wesley’s Thoughts Upon Slavery is available in various printed forms and online e.g. https://docsouth.unc.edu/church/wesley/wesley.html. Also see David N. Field ‘John Wesley as a public theologian: the case of Thoughts Upon Slavery, Scriptura vol.114; and David N. Field ‘Imaging the God of Justice and Mercy: theological allusions in John Wesley’s Thoughts upon Slavery’, Studia Historiae Ecclesiasticae vol.47 no 1 (2021)

33 thoughts on ““You have nothing to do but save souls”: John Wesley on Evangelism and the Pursuit of Justice”

  1. Thank you for this article. I feel very strongly the correlation between personal salvation and the pursuit of justice. For me it has to be faith AND works; it can’t be either/or. We only have to look at the Salvation Army for an example of how evangelism and a social conscience is the best combination for Christian life. They are well known and respected, even among non-believers, as the church with high hopes of Heaven while its feet are firmly on the ground.

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  2. The love of God is unconditional, freely given to all people, inclusive and non-judgmental. For me this is the amazing love that Charles Wesley wrote about and I take it that this is also the “prevenient grace”; the love within which we all live and move and have our being.
    However, “Divine love” is for the holy! It places conditions as to whether we are acceptable to God – so this love of God is conditional, exclusive to those who are saved, and judgmental with regard to the 94%, the non-Christians who are supposedly destined for Hell! I have heard many wonderful and meaningful sermons based on the unconditional love of God, but dread those based on this conditional “divine” love.
    I could justify this theology with reference to the Bible and the writings of modern theologians, but would probably be accused of being a Rent-a rant rep, although I do not think this criticism of John Wesley’s words requires justification and take being insulted for my questioning faith to be a compliment.

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    1. Human love is limited, Robert. There can’t be many people in the world who love President Putin at this moment in time, but God does, despite Putin’s behaviour, because God’s love knows no bounds. That’s why it is Divine. God does not exclude anyone from his love but we exclude ourselves when we reject him.

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    2. My use of “Divine Love” refers to God’s unconditional passionate commitment to the well being of human beings and his empowering and enabling us to love God and our fellow human beings – it has nothing to do with being judgemental, exclusionary or sending people to hell. You may have sermons that used the phrase in another way but that is not what I mean.

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  3. Thanks Pauline. I agree wholeheartedly: Human love is limited but God’s love knows no bounds! My issue is with those who preach the idea that God’s love knows bounds, that it is limited, conditional, and that we have to earn it. Since John Wesley limits God’s love to those who are saved, his “divine love” is conditional.
    We see unconditional love between parents and their children, in the actions of the father in the parable of the prodigal son, in the love shown by ordinary people of no particular faith towards the poor, the refugees, the hungry. How can the love of God be less than that!
    Thanks again for your comment. Every time I hear anyone speak of God’s unconditional love for us all, it warms my heart! Emily Brontë whose father was a minister refused to go to church and yet she wrote this wonderful description of God’s love in her poem – No coward soul is mine.

    No coward soul is mine,
    No trembler in the world’s storm-troubled sphere,
    I see Heaven’s glories shine
    And Faith shines equal, arming me from fear.

    O God within my breast,
    Almighty ever-present Deity.
    Life, that in me hath rest
    As I, Undying Life, have power in thee.

    Vain are the thousand creeds,
    That move men’s hearts, unutterably vain,
    Worthless as withered weeds,
    Or idlest froth amid the boundless main.

    To awaken doubt in one
    Holding so fast, by thine infinity,
    So surely anchored on,
    The steadfast rock of Immortality.

    With wide-embracing love,
    Thy spirit animates eternal years,
    Pervades and broods above,
    Changes, sustains, dissolves, creates and rears.

    Though earth and moon were gone,
    And suns and universes ceased to be,
    And thou wert left alone,
    Every existence would exist in thee.

    There is not room for death,
    Nor atom that his might could render void,
    Since thou art Being and Breath
    And what thou art may never be destroyed

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  4. God’s love is unconditional, Robert, we are agreed on that. But God gave us a free will. He will not impose his will on us; we must choose God’s way, not our way. God wants us all to be restored to him but if we choose to reject him then we exclude ourselves from his grace. This time of Lent is a time for turning back to God’s will for our lives and fasting from our own selfish ways.
    Repent and believe the good news: Jesus died to save us all from our sins.

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  5. I agree with most of what you say Pauline, but feel there is an important theological point here. If we start out with the view that we are all born sinners who need to seek repentance, then God is over and above us, judgmental and expecting us to do a deal in which we earn His acceptance and love by self sacrifice. On the other hand we could start out with the view that the amazing love of God is such that we are forgiven before we ask for forgiveness and that this love is freely given, here within us and unconditional. Since I take the latter view I cannot find meaning in the idea that Jesus died to save us from our sins, but I am overwhelmed by the revolutionary, unconditional, anarchic love he displayed.
    What “brought me to Christ” was the realisation that the love within which we live and move and have our being was staring me in the face! It was the human kindliness, solidarity, simple joy in life that I found motivated friends, family, strangers, Emily’s poem, and I discovered this in church and on the streets.

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  6. If a wicked person turns away from their evil and does what is right and just, they will surely live, they shall not die. None of the crimes they committed will be held against them. Ezekiel 18:21

    You have heard that our ancestors were told ‘You must not murder. If you commit murder, you are subject to judgement’ but I say, if you are even angry with someone, you are subject to judgement! Matthew 5:21-22

    Either we believe in the authority of the Bible, Robert, or we don’t. If you don’t, there is not much point in having this discussion. For those who do, it is the realisation that Jesus is the Lamb of God, the ultimate sacrifice, who liberated us from the burden of sin so that we could discover, as Robert has, the joy of living in God’s mercy, love and grace. God doesn’t need to ‘do a deal’ with us. The deal was done on the cross.

    Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world, have mercy on us.
    Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world, grant us peace. Amen.

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  7. As I read it in 1 Corinthians Paul writes of the foolishness of God, forgiving unconditionally, but Matthew says sinners are subject to judgment. I go with Paul on this. The fact that in the Bible we can have such inconsistent views is why I treat it with an hermeneutic of suspicion. If that means I do not accept the authority of the Bible then so be it.

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    1. What I fail to understand is, if you do not accept the authority of the Bible, then how can you believe anything you have ever heard about Jesus? He might just be a fictional superhero, like Robin Hood or Batman. So do you just cherry pick the bits you like, or the bits which support your own worldview?

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      1. The phrase ” the authority of the Bible”, let alone ‘belief in’ or acceptance of that, is deeply problematic. I wondered what you meant by “Either we believe in the authority of the Bible, Robert, or we don’t. If you don’t, there is not much point in having this discussion.” and this latest post I’m really struggling to make sense of. [Actually I thought Robert replied very well to that previous post.]

        I would like to set aside for the moment the very important (more important than the point I am going to make now) discussion about what is meant by the authority of the bible and what that means to different people, and why they believe what they do. Observing for now, if this is not the place to have such a discussion then where is?

        Pauline, forgive me if I have misunderstood but the logic of this post escapes me. Does one really need to accept the authority of the Bible, even in the weakest broadest sense of that expression (let alone in the sense that many mean by that phrase) to believe anything about Jesus? I don’t have the data to back this up but I don’t think there are actually many people who think that Jesus of Nazareth is a fictional figure.

        It seems to me (and I admit this is second or third hand scholarship) that actually critical evaluation of biblical material, especially the more radical open minded discussion, and possibly even that that set out with a negative agenda, has actually enhanced for many their appreciation of Jesus.

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  8. Pardon me, Gentlemen, I was under the impression that the Methodist Church still believed in the authority of the Bible, the Trinity, atonement, redemption and salvation, otherwise what is the point of Easter? My mistake, obviously. What happens in your church on Good Friday and Easter Sunday then?

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  9. Forgive me Pauline if there was something I said that caused the irritation your sarcasm implies you feel. I am honestly trying to understand what you are saying. I’m afraid this post makes no more sense to me than the last. Again I am struggling with the logic. How does a list of doctrines (and I fear your narrow interpretation of those doctrines) relate to ‘the point of Easter’?
    Are you really saying that at the heart of the Christian faith is a set of doctrines (and I say again, it seems to me your narrow interpretation of those doctrines)? I certainly don’t want to put words in your mouth, so let me say what I am hearing from you and I would be delighted to have got it totally wrong. You do acknowledge above that the love of God is unconditional but you do seem to be suggesting there is a deal on our part to accept that love and that is to believe these doctrines. As I say I hope I have that totally wrong because that seems to be making ‘faith’ as in the Pauline ‘salvation by grace through faith alone’, a ‘work’ and in fact not grace at all. I worry too that you seem to be saying the point of Christ’s Passion and the Resurrection is somehow about my (very selfish) salvation.

    Since you ask about Good Friday and Easter (and I am going to assume you ask in good faith and not sarcastically – as I say I don’t really understand what you mean by your question following the list of doctrines) let me say something about that. For me the Cross is the ultimate revelation of the nature of God. There is no condition on the offer of God’s love but God’s very nature imposes conditions on how that love is worked out. God will not overpower the created order, still less demand punishment, but rather offers complete self-sacrifice and goes on loving even those who perform the crucifixion, those who are responsible for it and those who let it happen by their indifference or fear.
    For me the resurrection is not a con-trick by an all powerful God reversing the killing as if it were not real but a continuation of that very nature of love that overcomes the hatred and brings life in all its fullness. The Risen Christ retains the marks of the crucifixion (and please let us not get side tracked by questions of literal truth about such imagery).

    I am truly sorry that you seem unable to understand or engage with the questions and points Robert has been making and seem to want to close down any discussion with reference to doctrines we are some how just meant to believe. At the very least I hope I have got you wrong on that and look forward to offering my sincere apologies. In the mean time I am sincere in my apology for any irritation caused by what I have said, it truly is not my aim.

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  10. Tim, you seem to read an awful lot into my rather brief comments. Or is it that you read what you want to read in order to pick fault and criticise at great length? I don’t want to engage into any long-winded dialogue with people who argue against the basic doctrines of the Christian faith. What you believe or don’t believe is immaterial to me. God offers the gift of salvation, it’s your choice whether you accept it or not.

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    1. “But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.” 1 Peter 3:15

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      1. Thank you, James.
        ‘My hope is built on nothing less
        Than Jesus’ blood and righteousness;
        I dare not trust the sweetest frame,
        But wholly trust in Jesus’ name.’
        (Cornerstone, Hillsong)

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    2. Fair enough Pauline. I was aware of the danger I might be reading far too much into what you were saying, but I was honestly trying to understand what you were saying, as I really could not follow your logic. The apologies were genuine and so was the desire on my part that I was wrong -so in that sense at least it was very definitively not what I *wanted* (sorry I don’t know how to emphasise here) to read in order to pick fault.

      I remain deeply saddened that you see Robert’s enquiries and deep belief in the unconditional love of God as someone who “argues against the basic doctrines of the Christian faith.” He obviously can speak for himself, and might even except that description at least in the sense that he would argue against certain interpretations of those doctrines. For me, I am afraid I yet again don’t understand what you are saying. With respect, what makes you think I argue against basic Christian doctrine? I hesitate to read anything into your comments, and I sincerely hope I am wrong, but I get the impression you do not appreciate that a) others may understand these doctrines very differently from you and b) that many fear a reliance on doctrine orthodoxy actually runs counter to the Gospel.

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  11. Tim, I would be very interested in your thoughts about the amazing unconditional love of God – totally inclusive and non-judgmental. There are three ways we could respond to that love.
    1. We could always treat those we meet with unconditional love, whatever they may have done or are likely to do. But then we have a problem with those who would abuse, bully, steal or murder!
    2. We could assume that the whole idea is wrong, so Jesus was wrong and our love for our neighbour must be conditional.
    3. We could make a clear distinction between our personal motivation to love, care and respond to the needs of our neighbour and the practical working out of that while protecting society and ourselves from those who abuse, bully, steal or murder.
    The third option works for me. Thanks for posting a response. I sense that, like me, you have a questioning faith. Although we have strayed somewhat from the David’s original question it has provoked some interesting discussion. God bless!

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    1. Thanks Robert,
      I think the first thing to say is there are no easy answers -certainly in the sense of living it out but actually in theory too. I have to say, in the light of the short interactions above, that I do not think a slavish trust in doctrine is of help here (even my own strong belief in the nature of God, as you would emphasise unconditional love, and I would add self limiting in not using Power or over turning the created order, as revealed in the incarnation).

      Your list of responses is helpful (especial 2. -although I would accept your description of me as having a questioning faith, I don’t think I have every really seriously considered that option. I should take perhaps take my own advice and see that deeper faith can actually come from genuine open minded consideration.) However, certainly in practice the situation is more complicated. Theoretically I lean towards 1. but I am very aware I expect ‘society’ to deal with the problems (so may be I really mean 3.) and then I am likely to be critical of ‘them’ too when I see oppression rather than protection or revenge rather than protection and reconciliation.

      The situation in Ukraine highlights many of these issues (although of course it should not take a situation that happens to involve Europeans and is clearly of great geopolitical significance).

      In short I have no answers, but thank you for raising these questions.

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  12. Tim, If you go on Google and ask “Is God’s love unconditional” the overwhelming response is yes. The trouble is that they then go on to tell us what conditions we must fulfil to receive God’s love! These condition are usually that we repent from our sins or declare that we are “saved” or assent to credal Christianity or attend church or have the right Faith or learn to say the right words in the right order! What comes to my mind is that the gospel writers tell us Jesus actively sought the company of “sinners” and even suggested that of such are the Kingdom of heaven. His love for others was absolute!
    Love is an absolute. we cannot half-love God and God does not half-love us. So there are no conditions we must fulfil to become acceptable to God and receive His love.
    As I have stated before, our relationship with God is unconditional, and in our relationship with others we are motivated to love unconditionally. In practice God expects us to care for each other, which means our love may be conditional, so we can protect ourselves and others. Although, as you say, we must be critical when we see oppression or revenge rather than protection and reconciliation. The question is, why, O why, do some people insist on making God’s amazing love for us all conditional?

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    1. In today’s reading from Luke 16, Jesus tells the parable of the rich man and Lazarus.
      After death, the rich man is cast out from God’s love because in life he had ‘everything he wanted’ but did not show love to poor Lazarus. The rich man pleads with Abraham to send Lazarus to warn his brothers that they should repent of their sins and turn to God, to which Abraham replies:
      ‘If they won’t listen to Moses and the prophets, they won’t be persuaded even if someone rises from the dead.’
      Jesus spoke these words to teach his disciples that:
      a) they should live a life of kindness and compassion for others.
      b) they should repent of their sins and turn to God.
      c) they will be judged.

      Doesn’t this bring the two sides of the argument together? Yes, we should live a selfless life, but we all fall short of the standards set by Jesus. We all need forgiveness and grace, which is freely offered to all.

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      1. If people are judged, then, by the definition of judgement, forgiveness and grace are conditional. If non-Christians (i.e. most people) are cast out into outer darkness or condemned to Hell, how on earth can this be good news? What sort of God would give humans self-will, a spirit of curiosity and a sense of adventure, and then sentence them to eternal suffering, if they exercised these and didn’t beg for forgiveness?

        If there is judgement, I suspect the question asked will not be “Did you belong to the right church?” nor “Did you believe the right things?” nor “Did you say the sinner’s prayer?” It is much more likely to be “Did you love enough?” To which the honest answer for most of us will be “Not nearly enough.” What makes the gospel into good news is that the response to that is likely to be “Then, it’s just as well that I loved much more than enough for both of us.”

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    2. Robert, I’m afraid I am definitely not the person to ask, “why, O why, do some people insist on making God’s amazing love for us all conditional?” Presumably people do not see that as what they are doing.
      I don’t think I am deluding myself in wanting to know what people believe and why, but clearly my efforts to do that here have not been successful. There seems to be in me (subconsciously at least) the student who wants to argue (and beat in argument) Conservative Evangelicals, in the name of the unconditional love of God obviously ;-).
      Over the years I have greatly appreciated the seal for kingdom values, the fellowship and even the teaching of many who are clearly more conservative than I am, but I am increasing aware how little I understand what and particularly why they believe and I’m afraid I therefore probably caricature their beliefs.
      I think it is far more fruitful to concentrate on the exploration of these matters than attacking or defending one’s belief system (be that the ‘authority of the Bible’ or the ‘unconditional love of God’). I know, physician heal they self!

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  13. RNP. It is a carrot and stick situation. Yes, God could threaten us with punishment, judge us and withdraw His affection, but I take it that Jesus brought us the good news that we are forgiven before we ask for forgiveness (as in the parable of the prodigal son), given courage to deal with the present day and hope for the future (and our children’s future). This “carrot” is freely given, and it works; it is the power of powerlessness I read of in 1 Corinthians. And this “donkey” finds this love that God gives to us truly amazing!

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  14. ‘The bread we offer you is blessed and broken,
    And it becomes for us our spirits’ food.
    Over the cup we bring, your Word is spoken;
    Make it your gift to us, your healing blood,
    Take all that daily toil
    Plants in our hearts’ poor soil,
    Take all we start and spoil, each hopeful dream,
    The chances we have missed,
    The graces we resist,
    Lord, in Thy Eucharist, take and redeem.’
    (Kevin Nichols)

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  15. Pavel, your comment was a ray of light in a darkened room! Particularly the last sentence. Catherine, I love the poem. Tim, I wish you well in your searching. This discussion may have strayed a bit from David’s post, but I have found it very encouraging. I would be very interested in David’s opinion of this discussion, because I have questions about salvation in the context of God’s unconditional love -Is it salvation from sin or is it in fact to realising the meaningfulness and power of God’s love?

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    1. Your last sentence gives much food for thought, Robert.
      If we think of the parable of the prodigal son, we know that the father’s love was unconditional. He watched and waited every day, longing for his son to return home, and when he spotted him a long way off, he ran to greet him and welcome him back with open arms. But if the son had not decided to go back (repent) he never would have known about or experienced his father’s unfailing love and forgiveness. He would have remained in a state of disgrace, separated from his father’s loving arms only by his own pride.

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  16. Also the point of the parable was surely to show the forgiveness of the father rather than the error of the son. The father forgives the son unconditionally, forgetting the stupidity of the son, as if the squandering of his inherence had never happened. In the same way God forgives us unconditionally even before we ask for forgiveness and even if we do not ask for forgiveness! Isn’t that amazing!

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  17. To your first question, isn’t that why many people turn back to God, when they discover that they can’t make it without him? That was certainly my reason for turning back. I didn’t run out of money, I ran out of strength. I felt defeated by life. I went home. I have never regretted it. In this season of Lent, and in these challenging times for the world, I pray that more people will repent, go back home, and discover for themselves the all-embracing love of our Heavenly Father.

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  18. To your second question, yes of course it is amazing! And the father could have just sent the son a letter to say he was forgiven, but the son would have still been out there, on his own, trying to get by without his father. He needed to turn back, go home, place himself back in his father’s protection, to discover the real joy of unconditional love.

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    1. ‘There’ve been times when I’ve turned from his presence,
      And I’ve walked other paths, other ways,
      But I’ve called on his name
      In the dark of my shame,
      And his mercy was gentle as silence.’
      (Estelle White)

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