The other week, a friend playfully tweeted out a warning not to mess around with “gateway heresies” since they lead to bigger heresies. I got to thinking about this and I realized that the core evangelical doctrine of justification by faith is precisely the reason why I’m not afraid to breach the walls of evangelical “orthodoxy.” So I guess that means justification by faith was my gateway heresy.
What does justification by faith mean? In evangelical youth group, we learned that nobody can earn their way into heaven by doing good deeds, which evangelicalese calls “works.” You can only be saved, or justified before God, by “faith” in Jesus Christ. This doctrine of justification by faith is based on a bunch of scriptures. Here are two of the most important ones.
For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast. Ephesians 2:8-9
Since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith. Romans 3:23-25
You’ll notice the word “grace” appears prominently in both scriptures as does the word “gift.” We could just as easily refer to justification by faith as justification by grace, because whatever “faith” is, Paul is emphatic about saying that it is a gift of God’s grace and “not our own doing.” So whatever saves us and makes us right with God is not the product of our own efforts. It is something God instills in us.
Now there are all kinds of debates about what it means to have “faith” in Jesus Christ. The problem is that the way many evangelicals define “faith,” they make it into a “work.” If “faith” is demonstrating perfect faithfulness to God by obeying his laws, that’s a work. If “faith” is believing all the right things about God, that’s a work too. Many evangelicals try to cheat by saying that if someone has faith, they’ll inherently do and believe all the right things as a “result,” but retroactive justification by works is still justification by works.
For faith to actually be a gift from God and not a work would mean that faith cannot be an effort that is either performed correctly or incorrectly. Faith becomes a work as soon as we imagine it to be something God evaluates and decides whether to accept or reject. As long as our minds are secretly tormented by the question of whether we are “faithing” hard enough to be accepted by God, then we don’t really have faith in God’s acceptance. Salvation is what happens when we stop trying to prove ourselves to God because we trust that we are completely loved and accepted by God. Living in that trust is what produces genuine love, freedom, and righteous living.
The problem is that most evangelicals understand our doctrine to say that God only offers complete love and acceptance after we have shown that we trust in his complete love and acceptance. Before that, God expects impossibly absolute perfection from us and burns with white hot wrath at every mistake we make, longing to torture us in hell. Clearly, this way of understanding God’s love and judgment is perverse.
Walking on eternal eggshells before God does not produce the kind of empowering, grace-gushing relationship God wants us to have with him so that we can spread his love in the world. We cannot gain faith in God’s complete love and acceptance if we believe that his complete love and acceptance is contingent upon our “faithing” hard enough. That’s the paradox.
Now some Calvinists resolve this paradox by saying that God has certain expectations for our performance of “faith” which he either accepts or rejects, and the reason it’s not a work is because our “faith” is really a puppet show of acceptability that God is putting on for himself through us. I interpret the paradox differently. I don’t believe that God’s acceptance is conditioned upon an acceptable performance of “faith.” My faith has actually taken away my ability to think that. God accepts every human being unconditionally. Period. But this doesn’t mean that God doesn’t also judge every human being for how we have lived.
I don’t believe we are saved from being judged by God. We are saved from being alienated by God’s judgment. When you are justified by faith, you want God to judge you and chisel away the pieces of you that are sinful and life-destroying. You want to be “crucified together with Christ so that it is no longer [you] who live but Christ who lives within [you]” (Galatians 2:19-20). What we are saved from is being defensive about and afraid of God’s judgment. Some Christians try to differentiate between God’s “discipline” for those he loves and his “judgment” for those he condemns to hell, but this has no legitimate Biblical basis. God accepts all of us and he judges all of us.
Too many Christians understand God’s judgment to consist in saying either “You’re in” or “You’re out.” But I don’t see any Biblical reason to reduce judgment to a binary yea or nay decision. What if God’s judgment means simply that God speaks the truth to us about our lives with absolute authority and will not let us persist in any self-delusion in his company? And why should this truthful judgment be all negative? What if there are ways that we’ve misjudged ourselves too harshly and God’s judgment corrects that?
I don’t see any reason to believe that God’s grading scale is 0 or 100 and that he always rounds from 99 down to 0, which is how the mainstream evangelical “four spiritual laws” tell the story. God’s judgment is infinitely nuanced and perfectly truthful to a level that is not even possible for us to perceive even if we were being absolutely honest. What if the difference between heaven and hell is the difference between facing the perfect truth about ourselves with a solid trust in God’s grace or without it? This is consistent with what I read in John 3:19-21:
This is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.
How does Jesus save us? By making it safe for us to step into the light of God’s truth. We hate the light as long as we fear being rejected on account of our sin, even if we hide that fear of rejection behind a citadel of self-righteousness. The outer darkness of hell is where our soul lives when we flee from God’s truth because we don’t trust in his grace. The lake of fire is the torturous eternal madness of trying to argue with the truth because we don’t believe that Jesus has paid our debt and proved our forgiveness. Stepping into the light and looking into the eyes of the one who is perfect truth is no less daunting than flying straight into the sun, but faith in Jesus gives us the power to do just that.
So what about the Hindus and the Muslims and so forth? And what about the Christians who don’t believe all the right things about God? If they have gained the trust in God’s grace to look straight at truth without flinching, then eternity with God will be heaven to them. Otherwise, it will be hell. Maybe for some, it will start off in hell and grow more heavenly. I don’t see any reason to presume that God can’t keep on trying to change hearts for all of eternity. My trust in God’s grace involves an explicit relationship with a savior named Jesus. But if God has other names and methods he uses in other religions and cultures, who am I to stop him? It doesn’t matter how many evangelicals would call me a heretic for saying that.