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Salvation's Ever Expanding Circle

The theological roots of The Salvation Army

John Wesley

The very thrust of the gospel story moves from a couple, to a family, to a tribe, to a nation, to a region, to the ends of the earth. This “ever-expanding circle of inclusion” commences with the pre-existent Trinity at the dawn of creation, and ever since the people of God have sought to expand this circle.

In the subsequent 1,900 years since the first century of the gospel story, Salvationists see the revelation of God in numerous events. For 1,500 plus years these revelations [have come] primarily through the Roman Catholic Church. This bedrock is irreplaceable.

The struggle to formulate creedal truth through the various church councils of the early centuries culminated in confessions that Salvationists honor—especially the Apostles’ Creed and Nicene Creed, which are included in the official Salvation Army Handbook of Doctrine. Such texts are profound, and reveal God to people.

How [salvation is understood by The Salvation Army] is classically orthodox and yet distinctly influenced by two significant forces: the 16th century Reformation and 18th century Wesleyan revivalism. The former is theological bedrock; the latter reflects the revivalist milieu in which the Army was born: 

Reformation Foundation

  • Salvation is provided by grace alone
  • Salvation is received by faith alone
  • Salvation is experienced in Christ alone
  • Salvation is taught in Scripture alone

Wesleyan revivalism

  • All people need to be saved
  • All people can be saved
  • All people saved can know they are saved
  • All who are saved can go on to Christian holiness

As an evangelical movement The Salvation Army would affirm the fourfold definition of evangelicalism by David Bebbington: 1. Spiritual truth is to be found in the Bible. 2. A focus on the atoning work of Christ on the cross. 3. The belief that human beings need to be converted. 4. The belief that the gospel needs to be expressed in effort.

The religious Great Awakenings in Great Britain and America (1730-1750) [were punctuated by] John Wesley’s Methodism and George Whitfield’s Frontier Revivalism. The itinerant nature of these works, the focus on the poor and working class, outdoor preaching with a direct call to conversion and a bold call to holinesss no doubt guided Army Founder William Booth in his thinking and continue today as essential features of Salvationists. And his wife Catherine probably felt even stronger than William did about the plight of the homeless, the underpaid and other marginalized people. Nevertheless she cautioned William: “Praise humanitarianism as much as you like, but don’t confound it with Christianity.”

The culmination of this growing vision is seen in the launching of the In Darkest England Scheme in 1890 and the publication of William Booth’s most famous book, In Darkest England and the Way Out. Here is a sample quotation: “The scheme of social salvation is not worth discussing which is not as wide as the scheme of eternal salvation set forth in the gospel. The glad tidings must be to every creature not merely for an elect few who are to be saved... It is now time to fling down the false idol, and proclaim a temporal salvation as full, free and universal.”

Adapted from “The Transmission of Divine Revelation–a Salvation Army Perspective” and “The Nature of Salvation–a Salvation Army Perspective” by Colonel Richard Munn, and “Social Justice–a Salvation Army Perspective” by Colonel Michael Marvell. Articles appear in Conversations with the Catholic Church, informal dialogue between the Catholic Church and The Salvation Army, 2007-12, © 2014 by the General of The Salvation Army and The Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, published by Salvation Books, London.

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