Imagine you received a letter from a college you applied to informing you that from the moment you first expressed sincere interest in attending that college, a degree had been credited to you. You were now a graduate. Your diploma was on the way. It was a “done deal.” Imagine you then received a second letter from this college, informing you that in order to graduate you would need to attend classes for four years, accomplish required homework, write papers, pass tests, and so forth. Think you might be a bit confused? It’s only when a diploma is something granted you at the end of your college experience that it becomes natural to describe little things like attending classes and doing homework and passing tests as though they were requirements for receiving a diploma.
This is common sense. And it illustrates pretty well the tension I felt as I tried to reconcile the doctrine of justification I had been taught as a Protestant with what I saw on nearly every page of the New Testament.
Justification as Imputation
According to the classic Reformed view of justification, I had been “declared righteous” in God’s sight the moment I first looked to Christ in sincere faith. At that moment, a legal transaction had taken place in which the perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ was “imputed” or “credited” to my “account.” This is the sort of language we used to describe what happens in justification.
Yes, I believed that I would go on in my life as a Christian to grow in obedience to Christ. But this had nothing to do with my “justification,” which was having Christ’s righteousness imputed to me and received “by faith alone.”
From the instant I was justified, I was as assured of heaven as Jesus Himself. I was “saved.” It was a “done deal.”
Now, once you’ve defined justification as something that takes place and is completed forever the instant one believes, then, obviously, anything that comes after that in the Christian’s life cannot be viewed as a requirement for receiving the blessing of salvation.
Because of this, while I looked at the things that come after justification — discipleship, growth in holiness, good works, and so forth — as evidence of justification, as expressions of thankfulness to God for the free gift of justification, I did not view them as requirements or conditions for the inheritance of eternal life.
To make obedience to God a condition for being saved, well, that would amount to a damning system of works righteousness. That would be the equivalent of saying we earn our own salvation!
Old and New Testament Patterns
Now, as I related in the previous article, I had come, during my time in seminary, to see that obedience in the Old Testament is always presented as a condition for receiving the promised blessings of God. From Noah to Abraham to Moses to the Israelites, the call of God is always, “Trust me, do what I command you to do, and I will bless you.” The pattern we see in the Old Testament is always faith, leading to obedience, resulting in blessing. And never is this viewed as something negative. Never is the response of God’s people in faith and obedience portrayed as some evil form of “works righteousness.”
It was after I graduated from seminary, was ordained into the Protestant ministry, and began on Sundays to preach verse-by- verse through entire books of the New Testament that I was increasingly struck by the sheer number of New Testament passages that presented the same pattern I had seen in the Old Testament.
Faith and Obedience in the Gospels
For instance, what was I to make of a passage like Luke 9:23- 25?
If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake, he will save it. For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself?
And what about Luke 14:26? Here Jesus says, “If any one comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.”
Verse 33 is even stronger: “So therefore, whoever of you does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.”
If my salvation was assured the moment I first believed, and the righteousness of Christ was credited to my account, why is Jesus describing salvation as though it were contigent on my taking up my cross and following Him and even being willing to lose my life?
What was I to make of John 15:10, where Jesus says, “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love”?
Remain in my love? I thought that from the moment of my justification, when I was clothed in the perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ — that, in terms of my standing before God, I was from that moment as righteous as Jesus Himself!
And then, what in the world was I to make of Matthew 25:31- 46, where the eternal destiny of human beings is described as though it will be determined by their good deeds, or lack thereof?
Then the King will say to those at his right hand, “Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me…”
It seemed that the preaching of Jesus reflected the same essential pattern I had seen in the Old Testament: “Trust me (faith), do what I ask you to do (obedience), and you will be blessed (salvation).”
Faith and Obedience in the Epistles
And it wasn’t just Jesus in the Gospels. I was continually running into the same message in the New Testament Epistles.
For instance, what was I to make of Galatians 6:7-9?
Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for whatever a man sows, that he will also reap. For he who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption; but he who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life. And let us not grow weary in well-doing, for in due season we shall reap, if we do not lose heart.
Here’s Paul, in a letter supposedly devoted to teaching the doctrine of justification by faith alone apart from obedience, and how does he conclude his exhortation to his readers? He concludes by reminding them that they will reap exactly what they sow and that if they want to reap the harvest of eternal life, they had better focus on sowing to the Spirit by “doing good” and persevering in this.
Even more difficult to reconcile with the doctrine of justification by faith alone was Romans 2:6-7, where the Apostle describes obedience as though it were the very key to whether or not one will inherit eternal life.
For he will render to every man according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life.
Finally, what was I to make of those passages, scattered throughout the New Testament, that speak as though salvation is not something that is guaranteed at the beginning of one’s walk with Christ?
The Epistle to the Hebrews contains a number of such passages.
Take care, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. For we share in Christ, if only we hold our first confidence firm to the end (Heb 3:12- 14, emphasis added; see also 6:4-6, 10:23-31; 12:1-17).
In Colossians 1:22-23 St. Paul reminds his readers that Christ has reconciled them to God in order to present them holy and blameless and irreproachable before Him, “provided that you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel which you heard” (see also 1 Corinthians 10:1-13).
And there were more of these as well.
Explanations and Answers
Of course there were ways of explaining these “difficult” passages, ways of defusing them. The only problem was, these explanations seemed in almost every case to amount to saying in one way or another that Jesus and Paul and the other New Testament authors didn’t really mean what they seem to be saying.
“Sure, Jesus says that to remain in His love we have to keep His commandments. But He doesn’t mean that keeping His commandments is an actual condition for remaining in His love. Surely not. That would be salvation by works! What Jesus really means here is…” At this point there follows some fairly convoluted explanation of how “what Jesus really means here” turns out to be totally different from what Jesus actually said there!
The same with Paul. “Sure, Paul says that God will give eternal life to those who persevere in doing good. But he doesn’t mean that perseverance in doing good is a requirement for receiving eternal life. That would be salvation by works! He just means…”
The same with those passages in Hebrews. “Yes, the author of Hebrews does urge his readers to make sure they do not become hardened by sin and fall away from the living God. But surely he doesn’t mean that it is actually possible for a Christian to fall away from the Living God. He just means…”
I thought about Jesus speaking to crowds of simple men, women, and children and presenting the path to eternal life as though it were about believing in Him (faith) and following Him (obedience). “If you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love.” “If any man will not take up his cross and follow me, he cannot be my disciple.” “It’s not those who say, ‘Lord, Lord,’ but those who do the will of my Father in heaven.” If what Jesus really wanted these simple folk to know was that they would be justified by faith alone, completely apart from obedience, how could He look them in the eyes and say so many of the things He said? And why does Jesus never seem to feel the need to correct the impression His words are giving?
Why do we never find any of the New Testament authors sensing the need to “explain” to their readers how what they are saying about obedience doesn’t conflict with justification by faith alone? There’s not a hint that any of them felt the need to do so.
I struggled for years with how to make these New Testament passages fit the view of justification I had been taught and that I held. Over time I began to suspect that they simply don’t.
It isn’t natural to speak of attending classes and doing homework and passing tests as requirements for receiving a diploma you already have hanging on your wall. And it isn’t natural to speak of persevering obedience as a requirement for receiving a salvation you’ve already had credited to you by faith alone. These New Testament passages do not sit naturally within the theological framework of the Reformed doctrine of justification. They don’t fit.
At some point it struck me. I spent a good deal of time trying to understand how to interpret those “difficult” passages in such a way as to make them fit a doctrine of justification that I never questioned. I assumed the Reformed doctrine to be true to the teaching of Scripture. This was, after all, the very heart of the gospel as taught by Luther and Calvin and all of the Reformers. And what was the alternative but to accept some damning system of works righteousness, like that taught by the Catholic Church?
For the first time the thought entered my mind: What if these passages are not the problem? What if these passages should be read in their natural sense? What if the problem is with the Reformed doctrine of justification? What if Luther and Calvin were wrong?
It was about this time that I learned an old friend from my time in seminary had become Catholic.
More on that in the next article…