As he so often does, and always with a congenial spirit, my friend Tom challenged a point I made in a sermon—this time related to the one I posted yesterday, on Mark 10:13-27. This discussion is important enough to merit a separate post.
In that sermon, I spent time analyzing Jesus’ words to the Rich Young Ruler in verse 18: “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.”
I confess that whenever I’ve preached or taught this text, I’ve mostly ignored this verse. It seemed like a strange diversion. Now I view it crucial to the meaning of the passage. As I said in my sermon:
My point is that Jesus isn’t denying that he’s good; he’s denying the basis on which this young man believes that Jesus is good. See, the young man doesn’t know that Jesus is both fully God and fully human. He believes Jesus is merely human—just like everyone else. But he sees Jesus doing all these good things; he doesn’t see Jesus doing any bad things; and, he senses there’s something different, something holy about Jesus, and he wants to know what it is…
See from this man’s perspective, goodness was about doing and not being. Inheriting eternal life was about what you do and not who you are.
Therefore, Jesus is saying that we cannot be saved through our good works. None of us is good enough. None of us can ever be good enough. It’s only by God’s grace through faith. As I’ve said before, every other religion teaches that if you want to be “saved”—however salvation is defined—you have to do these things. Christianity alone says, “Because you’re saved, you will do these things.”
Tom disagrees. While we can never earn our salvation, he writes, good works are required—the work of repentance, for example. He added:
I submit, however, that being “born again,” while involving a work of God, nonetheless of necessity is going to bring about a “change of character” if it is to be “salvific.” Having faith does mean, I think, that we have to be willing to “change some things” on account of wanting to have God in our lives. “Lovest thou me more than these?”, Jesus asks Peter. “Yes.” “Feed my sheep.” Salvation requires an “exchange” between us and God. “My life for your life.” I want what God has enough to give up what I have to get it. Hence the pearl of great price illustration you mention.
So, what exactly do we have to “give up”? Or “change”? I think this can vary from person to person, along the line of how John answered those who asked him. Sort of, what God “puts his finger” on, just as Jesus did with the ruler. Even doing so is not “good enough” to earn salvation without grace and forgiveness, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have to “do it,” whatever “it” is, to “seal the deal.”
I affirm much of this: Yes, being born again requires repentance. But even this repentance is made possible by God’s grace. Being born again will bring about a change of character such that we will be willing to change. But this character change and this newfound willingness to change is made possible by that same grace. Like Peter, we will want to obey the Lord in whatever he tells us to do. But our obedience is a response to a prior grace: it’s not on account of Peter’s “feeding Christ’s sheep” that Peter was saved.
After all, suppose the Rich Young Ruler had obeyed Jesus and sold all of his possessions. I believe that Jesus was telling the truth: the young man would be saved. But not through the bare act of selling his possessions. Rather, Jesus knew that the man’s act of obedience would signal that this change of heart wrought by the Spirit—this new birth—had taken place.
Again, grace comes first. The good work we do afterwards is a sign of that grace. I think this is consistent even with James’s words about faith being dead apart from works. Works are a sign of salvation; not its cause.
But Tom, ever the bulldog attorney that he is, gave another challenging response: So why am I not a Calvinist? Why don’t I believe in individualistic predestination? At this point, I waved my Arminian flag: we Arminians believe that while prevenient grace makes possible our ability to choose to accept God’s gift of salvation, we still choose.
But if that’s true, he wondered, how is choosing not itself a meritorious work—like, from his perspective, the work of repentance and obedience? Either way, whether he’s right or I’m right, an exchange is taking place: God is giving us something in response to something we do.
Doggone it! Tom is raising the smartest objections to the Arminian side. In fact, I’ve heard Catholics raise similar objections against us Protestants. (Tom is Southern Baptist.)
Nevertheless, I would say the following: this choice we make to receive Christ, while not exactly nothing on our part, isn’t much. Whatever else it is, it shouldn’t be construed as a meritorious work through which we’re saved.
I admit that sounds pretty lame, even to me. To help me out, I’ll quote from author and Christianity Today editor Mark Galli, who, in a different context, wrote the following about our “choice” or assent to be saved.
A man finds himself in the middle of a vast sea, treading water. There is no land in sight, no boat on the horizon. He is hungry and thirsty and rapidly tiring. He’s headed for death. This man may have free will to swim in one direction or another. He may choose to swim or to tread water. But when it comes to the most important thing, he has no choice—he cannot choose to survive. He’s going to drown.
Then along comes a rescue ship. When the ship gets close, it lets out a raft with three men on board. Rowing over to the desperate man, they stretch their arms out over the edge of the raft and grab him. He grabs their arms as they pull him into the boat. They take him on board the ship, give him medical attention, and get him home. The man is saved.
When this man then recounts his story to his family, how will he describe it? Will he say, “Well, the rescuers loved me so much, they pretty much let me decide my fate. And, really, it was my free will that made all the difference.” No, he will describe how utterly hopeless his situation was, how grateful he was to see the rescue ship, how wonderful those three men who pulled him aboard were, how excellent the navigator was to find him, and so on.[†]
Again, while our choice isn’t nothing, it’s not much. And it’s far less, for example, than a rich man giving away his entire fortune! As I told Tom, “From your perspective, I might feel insecure, never quite knowing whether I’d repented thoroughly enough, or ‘done enough’—or done whatever equivalent action that the Lord asked me to do—in order to be saved.”
Even with the inner witness of the Spirit, my tender conscience might still nag me: “Have you done enough?”
† Mark Galli, God Wins (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale, 2011), 73-74.