Last week, Leadership Journal ran an article by John Ortberg where he discussed a concept made popular by Paul Hiebert: bounded vs. centered sets. Hiebert was sort of the Yoda of missionary anthropology, so I’ve read lots of his writings, included his discussion of this concept. But I hadn’t really thought of it in the way that Ortberg applied it.
The idea is that instead of looking at our salvation as a bounded set (saved, not saved), we should look at it as a centered set, the center being Christ. What happens is that we start with salvation by grace, then begin to act as if we were saved by works. In Ortberg’s words:
If we treat Christianity as a bounded set, there will always be a disconnect between the gospel and discipleship. The gospel will be presented as something to get you “inside the circle.” Once you’re inside, we don’t want to say you have to do anything to stay in (that would be salvation by works). But we don’t want to say you don’t have to do anything (the triumph of entropy, or, to use a biblical word, being lukewarm, or to use a theological word, antinomianism). So we don’t know what to say.
However, if we treat Christianity as a centered set, the relationship between the gospel and discipleship becomes much clearer. The gospel is the proclamation that life with and through Jesus is now available to ordinary people. It is a free gift of forgiveness and grace that cannot be earned. If I want it, the way that I enter into it is by becoming a follower of Jesus and orienting our lives with him at the center.
There have been times on this blog where I’ve presented an idea and someone says, “So if we don’t do that, we’re lost?” That’s bounded-set thinking. We need to understand that sanctification is a continual process, the process of becoming like Christ. We should ever be working to be more like Jesus.
Now before someone points it out, yes, I do believe there is a difference between saved and not saved, that there is a boundary. The idea of the bounded set is not totally wrong. But it’s less than helpful as we examine the concept of sanctification.
I found Ortberg’s article to be thought-provoking. I hope you’ll read it.