Imagine I tell you a degree from Harvard will be granted to you the instant you express a sincere desire for it.
That’s right. From the moment you say “Yes,” in the eyes of the university you will be a Harvard graduate, credited with having faithfully attended all classes, completed all course work and passed all exams.
And then, imagine I also tell you, repeatedly and in a number of different ways, that in order for you to graduate from Harvard you must attend all classes, complete all coursework and pass all exams. Imagine I urge you, admonish you, plead with you to make sure you don’t allow yourself to become entangled in attending parties and screwing around and not doing your homework “because,” I emphasize, “you will graduate from Harvard only if you persevere in your studies to the end.”
Do you think you might be a little confused?
THEY BEAT HORSES, DON’T THEY?
Now, it’s not that I want to beat this horse to death. I’m going to beat it to death, mind you. But it’s not that I want to.
It’s more that (a) repetition is at the heart of learning, and even more that (b) every week there are many new subscribers to this blog (thank God!) and I’m eager to make sure they understand the key arguments being made.
In my next post we enter a new exciting chapter in the story and so I want to devote this post to summarizing where I stood on the issue of justification in the few years before the idea of Catholicism entered my mind.
During my twenty years as an evangelical Protestant, essentially every Christian I knew and every theologian I read was committed to the classic Reformation doctrine of justification, where justification is understood as the imputation (legal crediting) of Christ’s own personal righteousness to the account of the one who believes. It takes place and is completed the moment one looks to Christ in faith.
This is what I had been taught and what I believed. And yet the more I read the Bible, the more I began to have doubts.
THE ISSUE OF PATTERNS
First was this issue of a basic pattern I saw in Scripture and couldn’t get out of my mind.
I had been taught that the very idea that God would require us to trust him and obey him in order to receive his blessings was essentially an abomination and the very opposite of how God relates to us. This is “works salvation.” This has us “earning” God’s blessings and “saving ourselves.” This robs God of the glory that is only his when he accomplishes all the work. This leads to “boasting.”
And then I noticed that in the Bible everyone who was ever blessed by God had been required to trust him and do what he commanded them to do. I noticed that Noah had been required to trust God and build a boat in order to be saved through the flood. I noticed that Moses and the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob had been required to trust God and cross the desert in order to receive their promised inheritance. I noticed that Naaman the Syrian had been required to trust God and dip in the Jordan seven times in order to be cleansed of his leprosy. I noticed that the man born blind had been required to trust Jesus and wash in the pool of Siloam in order to receive his sight.
And somehow, no one seemed to feel this arrangement an “abomination.” No one was waving his arms and complaining that the man had “earned” his eyesight or that Noah was now “boasting” for all eternity about how he saved himself.
Protestantism was always drawing this radical distinction between faith and obedience. But as far as I could see, in the minds of the biblical authors there didn’t seem to be much difference at all between faith and obedience.
PASSAGES THAT DIDN’T SIT WELL
Then came all those passages in the New Testament that in one way or another created tension with the Protestant doctrine of justification, passages that didn’t “sit well” within the system of thought, passages that didn’t seem to “fit.”
For instance, I was taught that we have eternal life because the merits of Jesus Christ have been credited to us in the act of justification and that “our obedience is not a condition for receiving eternal life.” And then, lo and behold I find St Paul warning the church in Galatia that each person will reap exactly what he has sown and that it is those who persevere in “doing good” and do not “lose heart” who will reap the harvest of eternal life (Galatians 6:6-7). I found him confirming this exact thought in his letter to the Romans: “To those who by perseverance in doing good, seek glory, honor and immortality, God will give eternal life” (Romans 2:7).
I was taught that at the moment of justification, all our sins are forgiven, including (this is key) all future sins.
A Protestant friend once told me that she found the idea of Christians making a general confession of sins every Sunday (“I confess to almighty God and to you my brothers and sisters, that I have greatly sinned…”) almost repulsive. Why? Because it seemed to her that this amounted to slapping God in the face, implying that he hadn’t already forgiven those sins.
This is an implication of Luther’s doctrine of justification — that every sin we will every commit is credited to Christ and forgiven at the moment his righteousness is credited to us. I was taught this. And then I found John writing, “My little children, I am writing this to you so that you will not sin; but if anyone does sin we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous” (1 John 2:1).
Notice that John is writing to believers (“my little children”). He urges them not to sin (“I am writing this to you so that you will not sin”) but then he comforts them with the knowledge that if they do sin, there is a remedy (“but if anyone does sin we have an advocate with the Father…) and if only they confess their sins, God will be faithful and just and will forgive their sins and cleanse them from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9). John seems to view the mercy of God in Christ as a fountain his children will want to return to again and again to receive forgiveness and cleansing along the path to eternal life.
On the other hand, because Protestantism envisions all sins as forgiven and done away with at the beginning, when it comes to the issue of Christians confessing their sins, it’s common to hear Protestant teachers say things like: “Well, technically speaking you don’t need to go to God to receive forgiveness for sins you commit (since God has already forgiven them) but having said that, when we sin it’s probably a good idea to take a moment to acknowledge that sin and to thank the Lord for having already forgiven you.”
The more I thought about it the more this convoluted explanation didn’t seem to rest naturally with what John is saying here.
I was taught that once we has been justified by the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, our salvation is certain. It cannot be lost. From that moment we are immaculately holy and blameless in God’s sight.
Then I found Paul telling the believers in Colossae that they will be presented holy and blameless before God “provided that you continue securely established and steadfast in the faith, without shifting from the hope promised by the gospel” (Colossians 1:22-23). I found the author of Hebrews saying that we will share in Christ “if only we hold our first confidence firm to the end” (Hebrew 3:14). I found Jesus saying, “If you keep my commandments you will remain in my love” (John 15:10) and warning the Church in Ephesus: “But I have this against you. You have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember then from what you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lamp stand from its place, unless you repent” (Revelation 2:4-5).
Looking at this passage from Revelation, notice that according to Jesus, the Ephesians had love at one time.
The problem is that they have since “abandoned” that love and have “fallen.” Now they need to “repent” and “do the works” they did at the beginning and if they don’t, Jesus is going to come and “remove” their lamp stand.
This is according to Jesus. However, according to classic Protestantism, this cannot be. Since no one can have true love for the Lord and then lose it, the Ephesians must have only appeared to have had true love.
At this point I was not only feeling confused. I was beginning to feel exhausted by all the complicated and convoluted explanations required of passages that seemed fairly straightforward except for the fact that they “couldn’t” be saying what they were saying. And they couldn’t be saying what they were saying because what they were saying didn’t fit the Protestant view of justification.
Finally, I was taught that because the sins we commit as Christians have already been forgiven and cannot possibly cause us to lose our salvation, while we should certainly avoid sin, sin is not something we should be overly concerned about. Instead we should focus our minds on how holy and blameless we are “in Christ” and understand that our righteous standing before God is secure.
And then I found the Apostle Paul writing, “I beat my body and make it my slave so that after proclaiming to others I myself should not be disqualified” (1 Corinthians 9:27). I found the author of Hebrews reminding me that in my struggle against sin I have “not resisted to the point of shedding blood” (Hebrews 12:4). I found him admonishing me to “strive” after holiness “without which no one will see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:14). And if that wasn’t enough, I found St Peter saying, “If you invoke as Father him who judges each one impartially according to his deeds, conduct yourselves with fear throughout the time of your exile” (1 Peter 1:17).
And why should we take sin this seriously? Is it because sin may give evidence that we’ve never “really” believed in Christ?
No. We should take sin this seriously because, as the author of Hebrews tells us, it is possible to become “hardened by the deceitfulness of sin” and “fall away from the living God” (Hebrews 3:12-13).
It doesn’t require extensive training in logic to understand that it’s only when a diploma is something granted at the end of one’s 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. If a diploma is something that is handed to me on the first day of school, and by that afternoon is already framed and hanging on my wall, then it seems highly unnatural to start telling me that I won’t receive a diploma unless I accomplish everything a student normally accomplishes in order to receive his diploma.
If this sounds confusing to you, well, this is the kind of confusion I experienced as a Protestant reading the Bible.
In a thousand and one ways, the New Testament authors seemed to me to be teaching that one’s salvation is not something that is settled at the beginning of one’s Christian life, but is the outcome of an entire life of faith, leading to obedience, resulting in blessing.
The Christian is described as experiencing profound peace and joy, because he knows that in Christ he has been given “everything he needs for life and godliness” (2 Peter 1:3), everything he needs to fight the good fight and lay hold of eternal life. All that is required is that he want it, and continue to want it, and continue coming to Christ for forgiveness and grace.
At the same time, the Christian is described as living with a profound sense of seriousness, because he’s aware that he possesses a will and that it is therefore possible for him to choose sin, become entangled in sin, lose the desire to repent and abandon Christ.
I had to admit that this balance of peace and joy, on the one hand, and seriousness on the other, was exactly what I saw in the New Testament. And the thought occurred to me: Imagine that salvation is not settled at the beginning, and that it is more like the path of faith, leading to obedience, resulting in blessing we see exemplified throughout Scripture. If this were true, all of these passages that were causing me trouble would settle down and fall into place. They could all be read and understood in their natural sense.
Because, after all, the thing that made them “difficult passages,” requiring elaborate and convoluted explanations, was the assumption that salvation is settled at the beginning, that justification is a one-time legal event that takes place the moment one first believes.
Whether true or not, it was Luther’s doctrine of imputation that functioned like a theological wrench thrown into the works, clogging the system and making the reading of the New Testament so extremely confusing and complicated.
It was at this point that I asked the question for the very first time: Is it possible that Luther’s doctrine of imputation isn’t true?