The Canadian Red Ensign

The Canadian Red Ensign

Monday, April 18, 2011

Gospel Promises and Assurance

What was the Reformation in the 16th Century AD all about?

You will get different answers to that question depending upon who you ask and what their emphases are.

An historian, especially one with materialistic presuppositions who seeks explanations of religious events in secular concerns, might say that the division in the Western Church was brought about by the invention of the printing press (which made the Scriptures and learning available to a wider number of people) and the emergence of the nation-state in the late Medieval/Renaissance periods which weakened the authority of the papacy.

An ecclesiastical historian would point to corruption and abuses in the Church, such as simony, the selling of indulgences, etc. to which both the Reformation and Counter-Reformation were responses.

A Protestant theologian would stress the doctrinal issues – particularly the five Latin solas summarizing Protestant theology : sola Scriptura – the Bible alone is the final authority, sola gratia – salvation is by grace alone, sola fide – justification by faith alone, solus Christus – Christ alone is the Savior, soli Deo Gloria – to God alone be the glory.

A conservative historian might argue that the Reformation was one step, an ecclesiastical step, in a general decline in respect for authority in the Western world that began with Renaissance humanism and developed into liberalism in the 18th and 19th centuries, and post-modernism in the 20th and 21st centuries.

A reactionary Roman Catholic might argue for a version of the latter which makes the Reformation the cause of the decline (see Hilaire Belloc’s The Crisis of Civilization for an example of this approach).

Someone who highly values Christian unity might argue that cultural differences were the primary cause of the Reformation. Northern peoples, especially those who spoke Germanic languages, tended to become Protestants, whereas southern peoples, especially those who spoke Romance languages (languages that evolved from dialects of Latin) tended to retain their ties to the papacy.

These different answers do not necessarily contradict each of the others. They reflect different perspectives as to what is most important and different historical contexts within which to place the Reformation.

Dr. Martin Luther, the central figure of the Reformation, would undoubtedly have stressed “justification by faith alone” as lying at the heart of the matter. This was the article, Luther said, upon which “the church stands or falls”. Even here, however, there is a different way of looking at. “Justification by faith alone” is St. Paul’s doctrine stated in the language of systematic theology, an objective intellectual discipline. For Luther however, this doctrine had a very personal, subjective significance. St. Paul’s doctrine came to him, as refreshing good news, as the answer to a long, personal, agonizing struggle for assurance of salvation. There is a sense then in which we can say that assurance of salvation is what the Reformation was really all about.

Can a person know that their sins are forgiven, that they acceptable and righteous in the eyes of God, that have everlasting life and that they will be with the Lord eternally?

The Scriptural answer to this question, particularly in the Johannine writings where it is stated explicitly, is yes.

These things have I written unto you that believe on the name of the Son of God; that ye may know that ye have eternal life, and that ye may believe on the name of the Son of God. ( 1 John 5:13)

Unfortunately, the answer which Christ’s holy, catholic, and apostolic church has given to this question, has not always matched Scripture’s answer, in every time and place. Hence the Reformers’ emphasis on “sola Scriptura”.(1) While St. Augustine championed the doctrines of God’s justifying grace against the Pelagian heresy, which taught that man could initiate his own return to God through his own will, St. Augustine unfortunately also taught that except from special personal revelation to saints, a believer cannot know that he will be eternally saved, although he can through faith have an assurance of forgiveness of his sins in the present. Final salvation, St. Augustine taught, required that one end their life in a state of grace, and while we can know that we are in a present state of grace if we are walking with Christ by faith, we cannot know that we will persevere to the end. This doctrine unfortunately prevailed in the church for centuries and still prevails in certain parts of Christ’s church.

Note however, that the Roman Catholics and others who hold to St. Augustine’s doctrine on assurance, are not necessarily the furthest people in Christ’s Church from the Biblical, Johannine doctrine of assurance. Among Protestants, there are many who identify themselves as followers of John Calvin, who express their belief in the doctrines of justification by faith alone and in assurance of salvation, who nevertheless teach these doctrines in such away as to undermine faith and assurance in actual experience of the Christian life.

How can the doctrines of justification by faith and the believer’s assurance of salvation by preached and taught in such away as to undermine faith and assurance?

By separating faith and assurance and making the believer’s subjective experience the basis of assurance.

The Gospel message, consists of objective facts about God’s love and graciousness to sinners, revealed in His gift of a Savior, His Son Jesus Christ, in Christ’s death for the sins of the world which completed the work of salvation, and God’s raising Jesus from the dead. The Gospel invites all sinners to believe in Jesus and promises everlasting life to all who do.

Christian faith consists of believing this message, of trusting in Jesus Christ, the Savior God has given. Christian faith then, is based upon something objective and external to the believer.

The Puritans, English-speaking Calvinists influenced by the teachings of Theodore Beza and William Perkins, would affirm that. They would, however, say that faith and assurance are two different parts of the Christian experience and that the latter must be based in part upon evidence in one’s life of the transforming work of the Holy Spirit that distinguishes someone with true faith from someone with “temporary faith”. (2)

Needless to say, the Puritans were not noted for their strong assurance of salvation.

John Calvin himself, taught no such doctrine. He, like Martin Luther, taught that the subjective experience of faith in Jesus Christ and the subjective experience of assurance of salvation were one and the same experience, and therefore both have as their sole basis, the external, objective, redemption accomplished for the believer in Christ and transmitted to the believer through promises of God in the Gospel. This is the doctrine of Scripture:

Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. (Hebrews 11:1)

This verse is difficult for people in our modern era because of the positivist assumptions that under-gird the materialistic, scientific worldview that has become dominant in the Western world. Positivism is the notion that knowledge and certainty come through the scientific method which has evolved from primitive “theology” and “metaphysics”. The necessary conclusion of this worldview is that certainty pertains only that which is observable to the senses or demonstrated through reason. This conclusion was explicitly stated in the “logical positivism” of the early 20th Century. While philosophy has moved on from here (3) these concepts still widely prevail in the worldview of the society to which we belong (4). Certain well-meaning Christian responses to this materialistic trend, such as Søren Kierkegaard’s concept of faith as a “leap in the dark” have been less than helpful in illuminating the relationship between Christian faith and certainty.

The Christian message stands in contrast to modern materialism, scientism, and positivism. Christianity teaches the Incarnation – that the eternal Word of God “became flesh and dwelt among us”. In other words God, Who transcends the physical universe which is His creation, has made Himself known to us by becoming One of us, living among us, and most importantly dying for us and rising again. What God has revealed of Himself in Jesus, is more certain than that which see with our own eyes. Faith is not a leap in the dark but our reception of God’s revelation of Himself. What God has revealed of Himself is absolutely true and certain and therefore more reliable than our own deductions, no matter how impeccable our logic, or our own observations.

Thus, when the New Testament speaks of the believer’s “hope” it does not use the word “hope” the way we use it today. Today we use the word “hope” to describe the situation of wishing something to happen but of being uncertain that it will happen. In the Bible, however, the believer’s hope is a confident expectation based upon the promises of One Who is eternally trustworthy.

In the order for the burial of the dead in the Book of Common Prayer it prescribes the following to be said at the graveside:

Forasmuch as it hath pleased Almighty God of his great mercy to receive unto himself the soul of our dear brother here departed: we therefore commit his body to the ground; earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust; in sure and certain hope of the Resurrection to eternal life, through our Lord Jesus Christ; who shall change our mortal body, that it may be like unto his glorious body, according to the mighty working, whereby he is able to subdue all things to himself.

“Sure and certain hope”. While this phrase would be an oxymoron if “hope” were taken to mean what we usually mean by it, it expresses a wonderful Biblical truth when “hope” is used the way the Bible uses the word. Faith is the “substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen”. What God has promised in Jesus Christ to all who believe, we can be certain of simply by believing God.

What has God promised in Jesus Christ to those who believe?

Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that heareth My word, and believeth on Him that sent Me, hath everlasting life, and shall not come into condemnation; but is passed from death unto life. (John 5:24)

Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that believeth on Me hath everlasting life. (John 6:47)

I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in Me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: And whosoever liveth and believeth in Me shall never die. ( John 11:25-26)

Some try to argue against the assuring testimony of these verses by saying “Yes, these verses say faith is necessary, but other verses teach that we have to do other things in order to obtain eternal life”. These promises, however, (there are over 100 of them in John’s Gospel), are worded in a way that does not allow for that argument. Take John 3:16 for example. “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that Whosoever believeth in Him should not perish but have everlasting life”. If someone can believe in Jesus but fail to have everlasting life because they did not do something else required elsewhere in Scripture, then how can John 3:16 be said to be true? “Whosoever believeth” excludes the concept of “except for those that don’t do this, that, and the other thing”.

God’s promises of everlasting life in Christ to all who believe need to be understood in the context of the Gospel revelation of Who Christ is, the significance of His death on the cross, and the demonstration of the truth of Christ’s claims in His glorious resurrection, otherwise these promises would be completely unbelievable. We should also consider exactly what it is that Christ is offering. What is everlasting life?

The Book of Genesis opens with an account of the creation of the world, and the creation and fall of mankind. It tells how man was created by God, and placed in the Garden of Eden. In that Garden, God provided man with “every tree that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food” (Gen. 2:9). The verse that tells us this goes on to say that in the midst of the Garden, God placed two trees, the tree of life, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. God told man that he could freely eat of every tree of the Garden except the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Man was forbidden to eat from that tree, and told that the day he did he would surely die.

In the next chapter, the man and woman were tempted and ate of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. God, mercifully did not slay them on the spot, but He drove them out of the Garden of Eden “lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever” (3:22).

However literally we choose to read this part of the book of Genesis, it is more than the fable or just-so story, that skeptics make it out to be. It depicts man as having been given a choice between a knowledge that was forbidden man and everlasting life. Man could have one but not the other and man chose foolishly. He was led into this choice through unbelief, through mistrust in God, through believing the serpent’s lie that God was withholding this knowledge from man, not for man’s own good, but for selfish reasons.

It was for man’s own good, however, that the knowledge was forbidden. Only God could have that kind of knowledge without possessing sin in His own heart. Man could only possess it by sin, and that sin rendered man unfit for everlasting life.

God, however, loved man, and in His mercy, not only did not slay man, but promised that He Himself would set right what man had made wrong, and would make it possible for man to have everlasting life. The first hint of this is in the curse on the serpent where God says that the seed of the woman “shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel”. From this first hint in the earliest chapters of Genesis, the picture develops throughout the Old Testament, of the redeemer that God would one day send to save His people and establish His kingdom. The clearest picture would be found in the writings of the prophet Isaiah:

He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the LORD hath laid on him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth: he is brought as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so he openeth not his mouth. He was taken from prison and from judgment: and who shall declare his generation? for he was cut off out of the land of the living: for the transgression of my people was he stricken. And he made his grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death; because he had done no violence, neither was any deceit in his mouth. Yet it pleased the LORD to bruise him; he hath put him to grief: when thou shalt make his soul an offering for sin, he shall see his seed, he shall prolong his days, and the pleasure of the LORD shall prosper in his hand. He shall see of the travail of his soul, and shall be satisfied: by his knowledge shall my righteous servant justify many; for he shall bear their iniquities. (Isaiah 53:3-11)

Depicted here, is the Lord’s suffering servant, Who is willingly led to suffer and die, and upon Whom the sins of God’s people are placed, satisfying God, and bringing peace, healing and justification.

The promised redeemer of God’s people was called the Messiah, which means “the Anointed One”. In Greek, Messiah is translated “Christos”. We call Jesus of Nazareth, Jesus Christ, because the Christ was Who Jesus claimed to be. Jesus identified His role as the Christ, or Messiah, with that of the suffering servant of Isaiah. When He asked His disciples who they said that He was, and St. Peter declared “the Christ, the Son of the Living God”, it was then that Jesus began teaching them that He must go up to Jerusalem, be put to death on the cross, and raised from the dead on the third day. His disciples did not understand this until after these events had taken place because it was not common to think of the Messiah in terms of the suffering servant. To Jesus, however, the cross was central to His identity as the Christ. It was by means of His death on the cross that He paid for the sins of the world. This is how Jesus is able to fulfil His promise of everlasting life to all who believe in Him. His death on the cross took away the barrier to man’s having everlasting life – man’s sin.

Jesus’ resurrection is the evidence that Jesus is Who He claimed to be. When the scribes and Pharisees demanded a sign from Him, He declared that none would be given them except “the sign of the prophet Jonah”, referring to His resurrection (Matt. 12:38-40). St. Paul wrote that Jesus was “declared to be the Son of God with power, according to the spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead” (Rom. 1:4). Christ’s life, death, and resurrection “was not done in a corner” as St. Paul testified to King Agrippa (Acts 26:26). St. Paul summed up the abundant eyewitness testimony that existed to Christ’s resurrection in the fifteenth chapter of his first epistle to the Church in Corinth.

It is in this context of the Gospel message that Jesus’ promises of everlasting life to all who believe in Him are both understandable and believable. Jesus is demonstrated by His resurrection to be the Christ, the Son of God, the Savior that God gave to the world, Whose death on the Cross paid for the sins of the world so that those who believe in Jesus will have everlasting life. Salvation then, in the sense of our being rescued from our sin condition and given everlasting life, is something that God has done for us out of the love and goodness of His heart, and not something that we are to accomplish for ourselves through our own efforts. We can therefore be certain of our everlasting life by simply trusting in what God has done for us in Jesus.

This certainty is the foundation of the Christian life. If we do not believe that our acceptance with God has been accomplished for us by Christ, that we can do nothing to add to it, and that we are to simply trust in Jesus, then we must always be trying to earn our acceptance with God by our own efforts. Such efforts can never please God, however, because they are not done out of the God-centered motive of seeking to please the God we love, but out of the self-centered motive of seeking to obtain God’s favour for ourselves, and because they are an insult to God by offering to pay for something He has already given us freely in Christ.

“The just shall live by faith” the prophet Habakkuk and St. Paul the Apostle both write. This means more than just that we possess everlasting life and the righteousness of God through faith. It means that those who God considers to be just or righteous, i.e. those who trust in God, are to live their lives on the basis of faith. The life Christ prescribes for His followers is very demanding. He demands that His followers be perfectly righteous in their heart and not just in their outward behavior (Matt 5:20-48) and that we place the pursuit of God’s kingdom and righteousness before even essential worldly needs like food, shelter, and clothing (Matt 6:25-44). He demands that we deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow Him. He meant that literally, not metaphorically. The person who “took up his cross” was the person condemned to die by crucifixion, who had to carry his cross to the place of execution. When Jesus said that His disciples must take up their cross and follow Him, He was challenging them to give up their lives and die for Him.

Apart from faith in Christ, His death for our sins, and His promise of everlasting life to all who trust Him for it, these demands are pure Law, an insurmountable obstacle preventing us from approaching God, for there is no way we can come close to meeting these demands through our own efforts. When looked at through faith in Christ, however, these demands take on a new light. When we trust God’s promises of everlasting life in Christ to all who believe, we can walk the path Christ has laid before us in confidence because our acceptance with God does not depend upon it.

We who are evangelical Protestants affirm our belief in the doctrines of justification by faith alone and the believer’s assurance of salvation and often accuse the rest of the Christian church of muddling up the Gospel with rituals and good works. While these accusations are often accurate we need to be aware that we ourselves are frequently guilty of the same thing.

In the tradition of evangelical revivalism, for example, the Gospel is frequently preached as an ultimatum that challenges sinners to “make a decision for Jesus”. What that decision consists of differs from evangelist to evangelist, sermon to sermon. Sometimes it is “accept Jesus Christ as your personal Savior”, sometimes it is “invite Jesus to come into your heart (or life)”, sometimes it is “give your heart (or life) to the Lord”. Two things are notable about these different ways of presenting the “decision for Christ”. First, each of them can suggest a very different concept from each of the others. Second, none of them necessarily means “believe in Jesus Christ”.

This is very different from the New Testament, where the Gospel is literally a message of “good news” about Jesus Christ, Who He is, what He did for us on the Cross, and His resurrection and promise of everlasting life to all who believe. In the New Testament the Gospel is a message to be believed not a challenge to “make a decision”.

There are two potential dangers in decisional evangelism. The first is that it can produce shallow conversions combined with a cocky, arrogant form of “assurance” which seems to be more faith in one’s decision than in Jesus Christ and His saving work. The second is that it can lead to people responding to invitation after invitation, altar call after altar call, making decision after decision, each time hoping that “this time it will work” and never coming to the full assurance of hope.

Some well-meaning evangelical theologians and pastors, try to warn people against the first danger by telling them that they need to have “heart faith” instead of just “head faith” or “mental assent”. This is not necessarily wrong but it can be misleading. What is the difference between “head faith” and “heart faith”?

The only legitimate difference between the two is if “head faith” is taken to mean believing a set of facts that have no personal significance to the person believing them, whereas “heart faith” is taken to mean believing a set of facts that are of tremendous personal significance to the person believing them. This is the difference between believing that Jesus Christ died and rose again as historical facts, and believing that Jesus Christ died and rose again and through doing so redeemed me from sin and obtained for me everlasting life. The difference between the two is really a difference in what is believed not a difference in where or how it is believed.

Other ways in which theologians and pastors try to distinguish between “the right kind of faith” and “the wrong kind of faith” are “trusting a person” as opposed to “believing facts”, and “believing in” as opposed to “believing that”. While these distinctions can sometimes clarify for a person what it means to believe in Jesus they can also be misleading.

These distinctions are foreign to the Bible and to common sense. To trust a person, means to believe certain facts about that person, i.e. that he is reliable and will keep his word. In the Gospel according to St. John “believing in” Jesus means “believing that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God”. When the Bible speaks of the heart, it speaks of the inner person, and the contrast is always with the outside, particularly one’s words, and not with the mind or intellect. “[M]an looketh on the outward appearance, but the LORD looketh on the heart” (1 Sam. 16:7), “This people draweth nigh unto me with their mouth, and honoureth me with their lips; but their heart is far from me” (Matt 15:8, quoting Isaiah 29:13), “That if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved.” (Rom 10:9) (5)

Pastors and theologians who speak this way are well-meaning, but the danger is that they re-create the Puritan problem of trapping people in the question of “do I have the right kind of faith?” This question is a bottomless pit because it focuses one on one’s own faith which is the surest way of making faith disappear. As A. A. Hodge put it:

The man who is talking about his love unceasingly has no love; the man who is talking about his faith unceasingly has no faith: the two things cannot go together. When you love, what are you thinking about? Are you not thinking about the object of your love? And when you believe, what are you thinking about? Why, the object that you believe. Suppose you ask yourself, 'Am I believing?' Why, of course you are not believing when you are thinking of believing. No human being believes except when he thinks about Christ. (6)

Decisional evangelism and calls for introspection as to whether one has “the right kind of faith” are versions of the same subtle mistake – the mistake of turning faith itself into a work, which leads people to focus their faith on their faith, instead of on Jesus Christ. Faith, however, received God’s favour, which is freely given. It does not earn God’s favour. Faith does not plead its own merits to God, but rests upon the promises God has made to in the Gospel of Jesus Christ to those who believe.

(1) I would argue that “suprema Scriptura” would more accurately express Luther and Calvin’s doctrine than “sola Scriptura”, and that the latter phrase has had unfortunate consequences in Protestantism, but that is a subject for another essay.

(2) Max Weber argued that this is the source of the Protestant work ethic which developed into capitalism, the belief that material prosperity through hard work is an indication of one’s election. This (the Puritan doctrine, not Max Weber’s sociological analysis) seems rather inconsistent with Christ’s teachings about not serving both God and mammon.

(3) This does not mean that philosophy has moved back to classical and Scriptural truth. The logical positivism of the early 20th century was abandoned when the 19th century view of scientific theory as “that which is verifiable” was replaced by the 20th century view of scientific theory as “that which is falsifiable”, largely associated with the work of liberal philosopher Sir Karl Popper. A connection can be drawn between this and the birth of the ultra-relativistic nihilism of post-modernism, although I would not wish to impute the latter to Popper and his writings.

(4) Since logical positivism represents an outdated stage in the decline of Western appreciation for metaphysical truth which has lingering influences to this day, I recommend an old, but not outdated book, to those looking for a response to it. That is Owen Barfield’s The Rediscovery of Meaning: And Other Essays, published in 1977 by Wesleyan University Press.

(5) See Gordon H. Clark, Faith and Saving Faith (Trinity Foundation: Jefferson, MD, 1990).

(6) A. A. Hodge, “Assurance and Humility”.

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