“Easy-believism” versus “faith alone”

May 4, 2017

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.[1]

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.

15 Responses to ““Easy-believism” versus “faith alone””

  1. Tom Harkins Says:

    You’re welcome! And good summary.

  2. Grant Essex Says:

    Thank you for your patience in moderating the discussion.

    I like what Billy Graham said above. It was certainly true in my case. When I “reached the end of my rope” some years ago, I fell on my knees and wailed, “Oh God, I can’t do this anymore. Take me change me. Please!” And, he did…

  3. Tom Harkins Says:

    Here is some more scripture to support my view that it is “our” faith that “consummates” the deal. Matthew 9:27-30a (NIV) (“As Jesus went on from there, two blind men followed him, calling out, ‘Have mercy on us, Son of David!’ When he had gone indoors, the blind men came to him, and he asked them, ‘Do you believe that I am able to do this?’ ‘Yes, Lord,’ they replied. Then he touched their eyes and said: ‘According to your faith will it be done to you’: and their sight was restored.”)

  4. Tom Harkins Says:

    What did you guys think of my illustration? Jesus uses that type of language frequently in the gospels. Another couple of such passages that come to mind are: (1) “And he could do no mighty works there, because of their unbelief.” Not that he was incapable of doing so, but instead that he chose to act on the basis of faith on the part of the recipients, and they did not have any. (2) The prostitute (Mary Magdalene?) who came to Jesus and washed his feet with tears and anointed them with perfume, to whom he then said, “Your faith has saved you,” almost certainly in a “salvific” sense.

  5. Grant Essex Says:

    I agree with one minor caveat. It is not your faith that saves you, but Jesus himself. Your faith is a prerequisite. If one refuses to “believe” then that one is not going to be saved. If one believes that Jesus will save/heal/raise them, then Jesus will respond positively to that faith.

    This, however, does not settle or explain the doctrine of election.

  6. Tom Harkins Says:

    So left open is the question whether it is “our” faith that saves us, as opposed to something that God “pours in”? (I don’t dispute that Jesus is the one doing the “saving” as the agent and the one who made provision, and I of course agree that faith is a prerequisite for receipt. The question remains–who “supplies” the requisite faith–us or God? These passages suggest to me that the one on the receiving end of “salvation,” of whatever ilk, is the “supplier.”)

  7. Grant Essex Says:

    I can play that game. 🙂
    The one who is saved supplies the faith. But, where did he get it? Is it all of his own strength and will? I think not, but rather that the believer has his faith provided, strengthened and maintained by another more powerful than he.

    • Tom Harkins Says:

      I guess your statement “the believer has his faith provided” answers the question to me of your view. That’s where we disagree. I do so based on the verses cited, among others (though doubtless you have a number as well).

  8. Grant Essex Says:

    Yup:

    John 6:44 and John 15:16.

    So, since we both have so many verses to cite, isn’t it possible that we are both right? That God can be “sovereign” without doing damage to man’s “free will”?

    I’m really on the same page with you here Tom. I just allow for a bit of Divine Mystery.

    • Tom Harkins Says:

      I don’t want to beat a dead horse, but essentially I don’t think we are “on the same page” because to me the “difference in source” makes the difference between “arbitrariness” and “our responsibility” when it comes to salvation. But I understand your position.

  9. Grant Essex Says:

    “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD.”

    • Tom Harkins Says:

      “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my thoughts higher than your thoughts.” Yes, familiar with the passage. Certainly God is “beyond us” in many ways. I just don’t think “higher” means that things can be “illogical” and still be true.

  10. Tom Harkins Says:

    How does this comparative analysis fit in here with respect to the predestination versus free choice debate we are having? God is both the “playwright” of the “play of history” and also the “lead actor.” As with most good plays, some parts of the play are inconsistent with what the lead actor wants at the time, but nonetheless by the end of the play both the lead actor and the playwright are satisfied.

    Thus, God as the “actor” “repented” that he had made man at the time of Noah. God wanted to destroy Israel when they made the golden calf, until “talked out of it” by another actor, Moses. The Sanhedrin obviously were not acting in a manner “pleasing to God” as the actor when they had Jesus crucified, yet in so doing they fulfilled the crux of God’s plan for history as the playwright. And Jesus (as the actor), when he saw the fruit of his labors, was “satisfied” (and elevated to the right hand of God the Father).

    Similarly with us presently, often we do things contrary to how the Spirit (as the actor) prompts us. Yet in the ultimate analysis, things work out to the good for us as believing actors (Romans 8:1) (though, as I maintain, we as actors do not end up with the same “ultimate” reward by way of that “good” as we would have, had we always obeyed) as well as God’s plan for history.

    You might very well go along with this and interpret it in a predestination fashion (as all being “subject to” the playwright). But here is how I see things differently from predestination under this “play” model. In earthly plays, the playwright DOES dictate everything as the author. Whereas with God, he “foreknew” (Romans 8) what types of people we would be (our “hearts” [“for out of the heart come the issues of life”]), and then “planned around” that to script his play. In other words, he put Moses up against Pharaoh and Jacob against Esau (a la Romans 9). He put Jesus up against the high priest and Pilate. He hooked me up with you! 🙂

    So, there is, indeed, no ultimate “conflict” between God’s will and our exercise of our own wills, but this is precisely because the playwright does NOT make our “hearts” choose as they do, but rather takes those hearts into account. The whole “play” only works, and makes sense, if we really did fall, really did need redemption, have redemption paid for, and then really ourselves “choose,” independent of “control,” either “for” or “against” God. God “put us where he did,” but did so knowing how we would choose, not making us choose that way. And because we did so choose, it “makes sense” and is “just and fair” for those who say “yes” to be promoted to heaven and those who say “no” to be consigned to hell.

    Can this “model” reconcile our positions? Or is it still necessary for God to be the one who “imbues” our “choices” in your view?

  11. Grant Essex Says:

    I’m not as hung up on the need for my “free will” to be free of God’s will, but if the above works for you, it doesn’t offend me.


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