I remember the moment it became clear to me that I was insane.
I had resigned my position as a Protestant minister and was waiting tables at a restaurant in the Valley. I was in the kitchen folding napkins preparing for the lunch shift. I was thinking about Martin Luther and working on some theological problem when I heard someone screaming. I glanced in he direction of the sound and saw that it was my manager and that she was screaming at me. Exactly what she was screaming, I can’t recall, but the gist of it was that I should be folding my napkins much faster than I was.
I mumbled an apology of sorts and picked up the pace, but inwardly I was thinking, “Lord, what have I done?”
In this series I’m explaining how this particular Protestant pastor went insane. That is, I’m explaining how I came to move away from the doctrine that launched the Reformation and provided me with my income (Luther’s doctrine of justification by faith alone) and embrace Catholicism and wind up at the age of 42 enduring abuse at the hands (actually the voice) of a woman a dozen years my junior in the kitchen of a French/Asian fusion restaurant on Ventura Boulevard.
FAITH AND OBEDIENCE IN THE OLD TESTAMENT
In my last post I talked about the brain-twister that first got be thinking outside the Protestant box.
It was the simple reality that when I looked at the basic pattern we can see in Scripture of how people are called to relate to God, it’s not the “faith alone” pattern we see in Protestantism. Instead, it’s always “faith, leading to obedience, resulting in blessing”.
I saw this in the lives of Noah and Abraham and Moses and every person in the Bible.
And once I saw this, the questions that came naturally to mind were: If God wanted to teach the world that his blessings must be received by faith alone, in order that they might be by grace alone, and that God might receive all the glory, and that it borders on legalism to even imagine that our obedience would be required, why did he fill the entire Bible with the examples of men and women who are always called to trust him (faith) and do what he tells them to do (obedience) in order to receive his blessing — and present them not as examples of legalism but as positive examples for us to imitate in our lives?
It didn’t make sense. I was scratching my head.
And all the more vigorously as I graduated from seminary and was ordained into the Christian ministry and began to spend a great deal of time preaching verse-by-verse through various books of the New Testament. I found that the pattern I’d seen in the Old Testament didn’t end with the Old Testament but continued right on through the New Testament as well.
In fact, I found myself running continually into passages that fit beautifully with the basic pattern of “faith, leading to obedience, resulting in blessing,” but didn’t fit, and created “tension” with, the idea that salvation is something determined at the beginning of our Christian life.
FAITH AND OBEDIENCE IN THE NEW TESTAMENT
For instance, what was I to make of passages like Romans 2:7 and Galatians 6:6-7, where St Paul, the apostle supposedly most devoted to teaching justification by faith alone, describes eternal life as the reward one receives for “doing good?”
“God will give to each person according to what he has done. To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life” (Romans 2:7).
“Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. The one who sows to please his sinful nature, from that nature will reap destruction; the one who sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life. Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest, if we do not give up.”
What was I to make of so many passages in the Gospels where Jesus speaks of obedience as though it were the key to whether or not one will receive his blessing?
“If you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love?” (John 15:10).
“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, I was naked and you clothed me…” (Matthew 25:31-46).
And then, what was I to make of all those passages scattered throughout the New Testament that seem so clearly to teach that it is possible for a believer to become entangled in sin, lose the will to repent, and not make it to the end?
“See to it, brothers, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called Today, so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness. We have come to share in Christ if we hold firmly till the end the confidence we had at first” (Hebrews 3:12-14).
“He has now reconciled . . . in order to present you holy and blameless and irreproachable before him, provided that you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, and shifting form the hope of the gospel which you heard…” (Colossians 1:22-23).
“Therefore do not throw away your confidence; it will be richly rewarded. You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised” (Hebrews 10:34-35).
And I could go on quoting from every book in the New Testament. While it’s filled with passages that speak of salvation as being by faith in Christ, it’s also filled with passages that speak of salvation as a reward for faithful obedience, that speak of obedience as the determining factor on the day of judgment, that insist we must persevere to the end in faith and obedience in order to be saved.
I thought again about that pattern of faith, leading to obedience, resulting in blessing.
I thought about how faith and obedience seem to be almost interchangeable in Scripture. St Paul describes Abraham as a man who received God’s blessings because of his faith, and yet when the Lord appears to Isaac he says, “I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven…because Abraham obeyed my voice and kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes, and my laws.”
I thought about Moses and the children of Israel on their way from Egypt to the Promised land. God supplied them with everything they needed for the journey. It was all grace. But in response to that grace, God’s people had trust him and follow the pillar of cloud by day and fire by night. They had to collect the manna each morning. When they sinned they had to bring their sacrifice, receive God’s forgiveness and continue the march of faith. It was those who persevered to the end who took the land and received their inheritance.
It struck me that this is how salvation seems to be described in the New Testament.
All these passages fit when I thought of salvation in terms of this pattern. They became problematic when I tried to make them fit what I had been taught to believe as a Protestant about salvation.
TENSION, TENSION AND MORE TENSION
Here’s why these passages created tension for me. Remember that the very essence of the Protestant view is that justification is a legal transaction that takes place and is completed the moment we first turn to Christ in faith. Christ’s righteousness is credited (imputed) to our account and we are from that instant as righteous in God’s sight as Jesus himself. We are saved.
Now, if Paul believed and taught this, then how is it that he turns around on a dime and warns his readers that God cannot be mocked, that a man will reap what he sows and that the ones who will reap a harvest of eternal life are the ones who persevere in “doing good?”
If the Lord Jesus believed and taught justification by faith alone in his imputed righteousness, how is that he describes the day of judgment as a time when God will judge each person according to his deeds?
I imagined Jesus speaking to the crowds of simple men, women and children who followed him. If it was crucial that they understand that their acceptance with the Father could only be by faith alone in his imputed righteousness, how could he look them in the eyes and say the kinds of things he said? “If you keep my commandments you will remain in my love.” “It’s those who do the will of my Father in heaven who will enter the kingdom of heaven.” “Enter the kingdom… for I was hungry and you fed me…”
How could he give these people the clear and unmistakable impression that their salvation would be based on trusting him and obeying him, like Noah, like Abraham, like all the saints of Hebrews 11, with never a word spoken to correct the false impression he was giving?
Not once do we find Jesus saying, “If you keep my commandments you will remain in my love — but of course I don’t mean to imply that obedience is necessary in order to be saved! No, no, eternal life is by faith alone! I’m just saying that if someone has true faith, he will be the sort of person who will keep my commandments and remain in my love. That’s all!”
Of course there were ways explaining these “difficult” passages. There were ways of defusing them and getting around what they seem to be saying when read in a natural and straightforward manner.
“Oh, Jesus doesn’t mean that obedience is an actual condition for entering heaven…”
“When Paul says that God will give eternal life to those who persist in doing good (Romans 2:7), he’s just speaking hypothetically. He’s describing a hypothetical scenario and saying that if salvation was by obedience, then God would give eternal life to those who persist in doing good. But it’s not, and so in reality God gives eternal life on the basis of faith alone…”
“James is just saying…”
“The author of Hebrews is just saying…”
I knew the explanations. But over time the explanations started to remind me of the explanations O.J.’s defense attorneys gave. Over time the explanations just didn’t seem to really work.
I could see that these New Testament passages sit naturally within a framework of faith, leading to obedience, resulting in blessing. I could see there was a natural fit, like a glove on a hand. I could also see that these passages don’t sit naturally within the framework of justification by faith alone. There’s not a natural fit.
And we all know that if the glove does not fit, you must acquit.