My friend and regular contributor to this blog, Tom Harkins, and I have had a long and productive conversation (with Grant) in the comments section of my previous blog post. It’s about the relationship between faith and works. In fact, I mentioned this debate in last Sunday’s sermon.
Tom and I agree that “easy-believism” in the contemporary church is a deadly-serious problem. (And not just us!) As I was preparing last Sunday’s sermon, on 1 Peter 1:10-21, I came across this incisive, if depressing, observation from R.C. Sproul:
When Justin Martyr addressed his apologia, his defense of Christianity, to Emperor Antoninus Pius, he sought to defend the truth claims of Christianity, but he also challenged the emperor to examine the lives of Christians and to observe their purity. No apologist would use that as an argument for Christianity in our culture today. We cannot.
Indeed. In what way would most present-day Christians in the industrialized West match Peter’s description of Christians as non-conformists and “exiles” in a world that is not their home? Don’t we often feel very much at home here? “Easy-believism,” which marches under the flag of “justification by faith alone,” contributes to the problem. It teaches that Christian faith is mere assent to an increasingly small number of propositional truths—not a commitment to Christ that demands the transformation of our lives.
In my United Methodist context, the tendency toward easy-believism is among the devil’s craftiest wiles, alongside universalism and the rejection of biblical authority.
God help me, I hope the gospel I preach resists each of these tendencies. On the other hand, if no less a gospel preacher than the apostle Paul was accused by his critics of antinomianism (Romans 3:8; 6:1, 15), perhaps the gospel of free grace, in the hearts of sinful humanity, will always be prone to misunderstanding.
In the comments section of the previous post, Tom was arguing that our good works, alongside faith, play a small but necessary role in salvation. At one point in the argument, he asked: “Guys, let me ask you this—what is the real problem with thinking that there may be some ‘human contribution’ to salvation? Or the ‘Christian walk’ thereafter?” After citing scripture to support his position, he wrote: “So, CONCEPTUALLY, what is the problem? Could not God want to (and be able to) create moral agents independent of himself, whom he could interact with and respond to based on their own morality? I don’t see what is supposed to be ‘wrong’ with that, as a conceptual or philosophical or theological matter.” (See the comments for the full discussion.)
I responded as follows:
Speaking for myself, the real problem is that I know myself to be a sinner who is helpless to keep God’s law and desperately in need of God’s grace at every moment. Romans 7 rings deeply true to me. Keep in mind: for all your biblical justification for semi-Pelagianism (literally that’s what you are advocating), Jesus teaches us not to “try harder” or to “do your best” but to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect. Are we not utterly condemned by God’s Law? Jesus himself amplifies the Law in his Sermon on the Mount and elsewhere: It’s not simply doing these things and avoiding other things; the purity of our hearts matters even more to God. Still, you would say that, because of the atonement, it’s O.K. that we can’t be (anywhere close to) perfect (or even “do our best” for more than a few seconds at a time)—Christ makes up the difference.
But on what basis does Christ do that? You would say the cross: Christ died as a once-for-all sacrifice, upon whom God laid all of our sins—past, present, and future. When we believe in Jesus, our debt of sin is utterly wiped out. Just as our unrighteousness is imputed to him on the cross, so his righteousness is imputed to us. And we are united with him by the Holy Spirit when we believe, such that just as Christ was resurrected, so (we can be confident) we will be resurrected.
That being the case, on what basis would God still condemn us—after we’ve placed our faith in Christ? Is the cross not good enough? Did Christ’s death not fully atone for our sins, such that there are still others for which we’re responsible. Because make no mistake: You’re arguing that’s it’s possible for God to condemn us for at least some sins—specifically, those sins that prevent us from “doing enough” to be completely forgiven. And God help us, according to your argument, none of us quite knows what those sins are, so let’s hope we don’t commit them!
So what’s at stake for me is the meaning of the Christ’s atoning death on the cross, whose benefits we receive through faith alone. I would challenge you to think in broader theological terms, rather than isolating verses here and there. Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin, among others, knew their Bibles at least as well as we do, yet they affirmed justification by faith alone. So do I.
Besides, all of your well-founded concerns about “easy-believism” can come down to a question of whether someone is “in the faith” or “out of the faith,” not whether they’re “doing enough” or not. The danger, as I see it, is that many people think they’re Christians when they’re not—and the fact that they’re living unregenerate lives gives evidence of this. “Examine yourselves.” By all means. Even in that verse, Paul points to the authenticity of faith, not the extent to which we work.
After further argument, Tom clarified his position: the initial act of placing our faith in Christ—which Tom refers to as a “pledge of allegiance”—implies these kinds of works, without which it’s clear that true conversion hasn’t taken place. I nearly agree: I would say, however, as Billy Graham often said, that repentance represents the desire to change. We bring to God our desire, and let him give us the power to make it happen. This, of course, represents another point of contention with Tom: whether or to what extent we are able, apart from the prevenient work of the Spirit, to change.
I would say, alongside most orthodox Protestants, that we’re not at all able—apart from God’s grace.
Anyway, it was a thoughtful discussion. Thanks to my brothers in Christ, Tom and Grant.
1. R.C. Sproul, 1-2 Peter (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2011), 46.