MESSAGE FOR FEBRUARY 1, 2004
(Eighth in a series of messages)
These past several weeks we have been focusing on the biblical teaching pertaining to the very important topics of the believer’s conversion and assurance. As we have done so we have discovered that what is taught in the bible on these topics is not widely taught in the evangelical church. Careful, balanced bible teaching on this topic drawing from the whole counsel of God has been replaced by superficial slogans like “once saved, always saved” that do not represent the whole of Scripture on this topic and easily produce false converts and unbiblical, man-centered evangelistic appeals.
Given the fog that hangs over the church and the confusion on this issue, we have tried to strip away the error so we can think biblically about some of the most basic and important questions a follower of Christ can ask. These are questions like, “What is a biblically defined Christian?” And “How do I know if I am one and how can I have real assurance of my salvation?” Those are questions we hope to continue to answer next week, but this week I want to summarize our assessment of what scores of evangelicals believe on this topic because part of the role of the church is to equip the flock not only to live out and proclaim the truth but sometimes just as importantly, to recognize and reject error. And that is especially important on a topic so widely misunderstood and so vitally important to the health of the church.
Although I make no claim of being exhaustive in my assessment of what is wrong with much of evangelicalism’s understanding on this topic, I want to break the main errors down into three groupings. The first broad error commonly seen in current day evangelical thinking on the issues of conversion and assurance of salvation is the absence of a big-picture, God-centered understanding of salvation. I divide this error into two parts. The first is the sad fact that salvation is often reduced to a affirming a set of beliefs and making a decision rather than entering into a covenant relationship with God through Christ.
In other words, salvation is often understood to be primarily intellectual and volitional when it is at its root, relational. Salvation is often reduced to the intellectual—what you KNOW doctrinally and the volitional-what you have DECIDED about Jesus. Today, in many churches if you affirm as true the basics of the Christian faith—the Person and work of Jesus Christ, the reality of the Trinity, the authority of the bible and perhaps a couple of other truths, you are assumed by most to be a Christian. And if you throw in a testimony about a time when you made a decision for Christ then any and all possible doubt about your soul is removed. Those two elements, the intellectual and volitional are seen as the bedrock of salvation and assurance.
Consequently, people assess their own spiritual health by their understanding of basic truths and whether or not they have had some sort of experience involving a one-time, willful decision for Christ. This is not what Jesus taught. When Jesus was asked, what was the essential biblical teaching representing God’s requirements of his people he spoke not of head knowledge or a past decision or experience. He presented it in relational terms In each of the three synoptic gospels, he quotes the Law of Moses saying, “…You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” [Matt22:37] Notice Jesus places his stress not fundamentally on the intellectual or volitional (though both of those elements are necessary) but on the relational. By implication, the question God asks of us that gets to the heart of our spiritual condition and maturity is not intellectual, “what do you know about me?” or the volitional “have you made a decision for me?” but the relational—“do you love Me with everything in your being?”
There are countless people in churches who could answer a hearty “yes” to the intellectual question, “do you have knowledge about me” and have made some sort of the one-time decision about Jesus but who, if they understood how Jesus defines love (through obedience cf. John 13:34) and if they were blood honest, would not be nearly so quick to tell you “I love God with a passion.” Jesus again speaks of the primacy of this relational element in John 17:3 where he says in his high priestly prayer, “And this is eternal life, that they KNOW you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” Notice two things about that statement. First, it is fundamentally relational—eternal life is about KNOWING someone--God and his Son, Jesus. The word for “know” John uses there indicates personal knowledge within a relationship. The Bible teaches the Lord of the universe is a Person (or more precisely three Persons, one God) and can be known personally. God is a divine Person—he is not like us, but he is a Person and can be known personally. Jesus says eternal life is wrapped up in a personal relationship with God and his Son Jesus.
Second, notice that the intellectual and willful elements are assumed in the relational. Eternal life isn’t about knowing just any old god—Jesus says it’s about knowing “the only true God.” In order for a person to know the only true God, it is assumed they by God’s grace have made intellectual distinctions between the true God and other false gods. Also, implied in that term “know” is willfully placing trust in God within the covenant relationship, so there is a willful, volitional element assumed as well. Salvation is primarily relational and that means the reason we should want to intellectually know more about God is because we love Him so much we want to discover more and more of his excellencies, not simply acquire more information about him detached from the relationship. The reason a new mother spends hours looking into the face of her baby is not because she is intellectually curious about his anatomy. Her fascination with the child is rooted in her love relationship with that child. She looks and studies and weeps with joy because she is enraptured with this new and precious person in her life. Likewise, the reason a person makes not one, but thousands of decisions to moment by moment follow Christ is grounded in the fact that they are in a relationship marked by love and their love is displayed in the decisions to be obedient they make day in and day out.
Salvation is about knowing God. A.B. Simpson wrote a great hymn called, “Once it was the Blessing.” The first stanza says, “Once it was the blessing, now it is the Lord; Once it was the feeling, now it is His Word; Once His gift I wanted, now the Giver own; Once I sought for healing, now Himself alone.” Simpson’s salvation issued in a profound love for God and that should be the case for all followers of Christ. This relational basis of salvation carries many implications for us. For instance, our understanding of sin will be horribly incomplete if it is not directly tied to our personal relationship with God. Think about it. If we view salvation primarily as a willful decision then we will more and more see sin as simply making a bad or wrong decision because our salvation is framed by a decision-based theology. Likewise, if we view salvation on an intellectual plain then we will more and more view sin as only a mistake or an error—a betrayal of what we know—“Why did I do that? I know better than that.” But if we see our salvation primarily within the context of relationship then we will more and more see sin for what it is—a personal betrayal of God committed by a rebellious child against his/her loving heavenly Father. When we sin in this context of relationship, THAT, by God’s grace brings godly sorrow leading to repentance because we are so very sorry that we have grieved the One who is so glorious and so precious and who has done so much for us. You can feel how much more hateful sin is in that context than if it’s simply a bad decision or an ignorant mistake.
It’s horribly superficial for a person to receive any assurance of their salvation by calling to memory the date or season they made a decision to follow Jesus if they can do that. It’s just as superficial to take our spiritual temperature by checking our intellectual understanding of Christian truths. The most revealing question—the one that goes to the heart is relational. That is, “Do I have a growing personal love for God—is He becoming more precious to me—do I desire Him more—do I yearn more and more for his sweetness—Is my relationship with Him growing more passionate, more sweet and more satisfying?” Those questions are truly helpful on the issues of assurance and conversion and they are often left unasked when the emphasis is placed on a decision and having sufficient theological information about God.
A second and closely related casualty of this absence of a big picture, God-centered theology is that salvation is taken away from God and rests mostly on human decision. Salvation in many quarters of the church places man squarely at the center. When he senses his need for salvation, at his leisure he summons God and God comes to him like some sort of divine waiter who serves Him His spiritual food in the person of his Son and then goes away until he is summoned again. As we’ve quoted before, J.I. Packer best describes this common and gross misunderstanding of God in salvation. He says, “we depict the Father and the Son, not as sovereignly active in drawing sinners to themselves, but as waiting in quite impotence “at the door of our hearts” for us to let them in....the enthroned Lord is suddenly metamorphosed into a weak, futile figure tapping forlornly at the door of the human heart, which He is powerless to open…Christ [is] the baffled Savior, balked in what He hoped to do by human unbelief.”
How different is that picture of God and his relationship to our salvation than the One Paul who wrote in Romans 8:28-30, “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. 29For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. 30And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified. Paul unmistakably, unapologetically presents GOD as THE active and initiating Person in salvation. It’s not fundamentally about OUR decision; it’s about God’s decision and saving work.
When we stray from a God-centered view of salvation we will invariably move away not only from a correct understanding of God’s sovereignty but also of His mercy. If God is portrayed as a salvation vending machine—that is, he is OBLIGED to mechanically dispense salvation to all who deposit the currency of faith, that strips God of his mercy in salvation. This god HAS to save all those who come to him NOT fundamentally because he is MERCIFUL but because—he is programmed to spit out salvation in response to the right appeal from humanity. Do you hear where this understanding places the ultimate authority for salvation? On the sinner—the sinner becomes the final arbiter, the final authority, the crucial link in the chain of salvation. How different is that from the God Paul writes about in Romans 10:20 when he says about the Gentiles, quoting the prophet Isaiah, “…"I have been found by those who did not seek me; I have shown myself to those who did not ask for me." That doesn’t sound like salvation is very dependent upon humanity does it?
When we have a man-centered view of salvation we are robbing God of his glory in sovereignly and mercifully saving sinners. Beyond that, we are opening the door to minimizing the God-initiated, miraculous nature of the new birth. And that brings us to the second broad error relating to salvation in current evangelicalism. That is, the imbalance that exists between the emphasis placed on justification over against regeneration. There is today in evangelicalism a much heavier emphasis on justification than on regeneration in salvation. Both justification and regeneration are necessary elements of salvation but they are very different from each other. Regeneration is the miraculous work of God in a spiritually dead sinner wherein He without any help from the sinner makes him spiritually alive and transforms him into a new creature. We saw that Jesus in John three calls this being “born again” or “born from above.” John 1:13 says of born again sinners they, “… were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. “ God regenerates without any role played by the sinner.
Justification is defined by one theologian as “a legal declaration by God which, on the basis of the sufficiency of Christ’s atoning work, he pronounces that the believer has fulfilled all the requirements of the law required of them.” [Erickson, p.956] In justification, God imputes to the sinner the very righteousness of Christ, the perfect righteousness he lived out on earth and places Christ’s perfect righteousness on our spiritual accounts. He credits us with Christ’s righteousness.
Both those elements of salvation are precious and BOTH must be prized daily by every believer. One is not more important than the other and they are BOTH required for salvation. Sinners come into this world spiritually dead and they must be made alive by God—transformed into a new creature, made ready for heaven. But sinners also stand in a state of legal guilt before God the Judge and are therefore subject to His eternal condemnation. Dead sinners need a new, spiritually alive nature and guilty sinners need a new, spotless and merit-filled legal record to replace their mammoth record of treasonous offenses against their holy Judge.
Today, there is in the church much more emphasis placed on justification than there is on regeneration and again we see the man-centeredness of this. Anyone can claim God has given them a new legal record—that He has legally declared them not only not guilty but much more, as righteous as Jesus Christ--they have received by faith the legal righteousness required by a holy Judge. Independent of other factors, it’s impossible to disprove that claim because it is rooted in their alleged faith. In the salvation of a sinner, there is no hard legal documentation on earth and this new legal standing with God it is received by faith, which by definition believes what is NOT seen.
Regeneration on the other hand is much easier to test because it is not ultimately dependent upon a legal declaration by God received by faith but is, according to Scripture accompanied by undeniable evidence of this miraculous work seen in the quality of a regenerated person’s life. First John 2:29 says, “If you know that he is righteous, you may be sure that everyone who practices righteousness has been born of him. First John 3:9 says, “No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God's seed abides in him, and he cannot keep on sinning because he has been born of God.” Evidence! First John 4:7, “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God.” Again, notice we are born again into a relationship—we KNOW God. The point is there is outward evidence to indicate this miraculous, life-giving work of regeneration by God.
We said when we studied James, there are many who claim to have saving faith but indeed do not and the proof of that according to James is not in a person’s profession, but in their performance—the quality of their faith. James calls non-saving faith “dead” because it has no works associated with it. Saving faith is alive because it is expressed by works through someone who has been made spiritually alive. In today’s evangelical context where we see this imbalance in emphasis of justification over regeneration the question asked of a person who claims to be a follower of Christ is seldom, “do you have signs of spiritual life?” but is overwhelmingly, “do you believe?” Again, there is nothing wrong with believing—it is essential. The problem is with the imbalance whereby questions inquiring about manifest evidence of new spiritual life are not nearly as common as questions about faith and they should be. This is why James says in a similar context distinguishes between living faith and dead faith.
Again, please don’t misunderstand. I am not saying there is too much emphasis in the church on justification. There can NEVER be too much emphasis on justification! This is at the heart of the gospel. We should moment-by-moment breath in this intoxicating truth of our imputed Christ-righteousness before God. Romans 5:1 says, “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” My relationship with God is not rooted in condemnation, but on the righteousness of Christ graciously placed on my account. The problem is not an overemphasis on justification, it is an under emphasis on regeneration that causes people to assess their salvation EXCLUSIVELY on legal grounds. And that imbalance provides for a breeding ground for false confessions, false faith and false converts because without the balancing stress on regeneration and its observable, life giving effects there can be no distinction made between living faith that saves and a dead faith that does not.
John again strikes the balance between regeneration and justification by faith in 1 John 5:1 when he says, “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the Father loves whomever has been born of him.” Within the context of a love relationship with God, both justification through faith and regeneration are necessary and the validity a person’s faith is seen in the unmistakable evidence of their new birth.
A third and final broad error in current evangelical thinking on salvation is the imbalance between the emphasis on salvation as an event or one-time experience over against salvation as a life long- process. Again, hear the problem is one of imbalance. The bible teaches that salvation is BOTH a past experience and a life long process but when was the last time you heard someone say, “I am so thankful Jesus is saving me”? Or, “I’m finding this phase of God’s salvation of me to be very hard.” Those are both very valid statements biblically. On the other hand, you regularly hear people say things like, “I was saved 20 years ago.” Now, that’s not a bad statement as far as it goes. The problem is that it leaves much unsaid about salvation as a process.
We see salvation as an ongoing process taught in several texts like Philippians 2:12 where Paul says to the church at Philippi, “Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling,” At conversion we come into an initial knowledge of God and remarks like, “I’ve known the Lord for 40 years” reflect that. But Paul says in Colossians 1:10 says we are to be “increasing in our knowledge of God.” At conversion, we were transformed into new creatures, but the process of salvation called sanctification continues as we are, according to 2 Corinthians 3:18,. “...being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit. The New Testament regularly pictures our salvation as a process—it’s a marathon race, an ongoing fight of faith, a life-long pilgrimage across alien turf. The emphasis of the New Testament on salvation is not simply an event in the past but a process requiring perseverance. Jesus says in Mark 13:13, “And you will be hated by all for my name's sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.
This imbalance in stressing the initial, one time experience of salvation over the process of our salvation through sanctification carries with it all sorts of dangerous implications. For one, it functionally eliminates the need to persevere to the end. This is why you can hear people say things at funerals like, “We know old Billy’s in heaven now because, even though he hadn’t been to church in 10 years, he prayed to receive Christ when he was a teenager.” People who say those kinds of things mistake God for Santa Claus because they have an imbalanced view of salvation that places all the stress on the one time experience and none on the life-long process of salvation. This is one reason why there is wrong understanding of apostasy or those who fall away from the faith as we looked at two weeks ago. If salvation is primarily an event and someone who professes to have gone through this experience but then subsequently falls away, the only logical conclusion is that they lost their salvation. But if salvation is also a process that calls for perseverance—a perseverance enabled by God, then those who fall away merely show that they were never truly in Christ.
Now, what do we do with all this? Is this simply an unimpassioned, analytical critique of current evangelical thinking on salvation? NO! That kind of teaching produces only proud people who become self-proclaimed experts on salvation and who count themselves to be blessedly more informed than the sick, prevailing church culture surrounding them. These truths should not make us proud, they should humble us because they show us how easily an entire culture can be lead astray by a lack of biblical balance. And beloved, that can happen to any of us apart from God’s grace. We are all out of balance in some areas of biblical doctrine, but for the sake of our souls, we dare not be imbalanced in this one.
Here is what these truths should do for us, among others. First, we should spend some time thinking and praying about how we have been influence by the common evangelical thinking about salvation? Second, we must think and pray through some of the implications of right biblical thinking on this topic. If salvation is all from God and given only by his mercy, that should make us very humble and thankful people. Are we? If salvation is a miraculous work of God making us new creatures and plainly seen by a life filled with evidence of his saving, heart changing work, that obligates us to ask whether there is much evidence to convict me of being a believer. Is there?
If salvation is seen in a person through their passionate love for God, then we must ask ourselves—“Do I really love God?” “Do I treasure HIM and not just what he can do for me?” “Do I delight in HIM?” Do I hate sin because it grieves my Father or because I dislike its negative consequences? Can I honestly say with David in Psalm 27:4, “One thing have I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to inquire in his temple. “ That was written by a man after God’s own heart. Is that a picture of our heart? If salvation is a process to be worked out in fear and trembling, what are we doing to show that? Or are we making as the ground for our assurance an experience we had 20 years ago? May God illumine our hearts to the truth and give us the grace to repent of unbiblical attitudes, desires and actions for God’s glory.
Page last modified on 2/8/2004
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