How a core evangelical doctrine became my gateway heresy

How a core evangelical doctrine became my gateway heresy May 6, 2015
"Bible with Cross Shadow," David Campbell, Flickr C.C.
“Bible with Cross Shadow,” David Campbell, Flickr C.C.

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.

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  • Rust Cohle

    > I don’t see any Biblical reason to reduce judgment to a binary yea or nay decision.

    Are you kidding? Destruction/Life, Broad/Narrow, Sheep/Wolves, Sheep/Goats, GoodFruit/BadFruit, etc., etc., all seem rather binary to me.

    The lake of fire is the torturous eternal madness

    Actually, the “lake of fire” (Pyriphlegethon, Phlegethon,) as well as Hades and Tartarus, are Greek mythology—which is what most of Christianity is.

    […] they perform their ritual, and persuade not only individuals, but whole cities, that expiations and atonements for sin may be made by sacrifices and amusements which fill a vacant hour, and are equally at the service of the living and the dead; the latter sort they call mysteries, and they redeem us from the pains of hell, but if we neglect them no one knows what awaits us.

    Plato (4th century BCE) The Republic. Book II.

    • charlesburchfield

      I know why the caged bird sings.

      • Rust Cohle

        We do live in cages now.

        Richard Manning on the Cage of Civilization

        • charlesburchfield

          tho I walk in the valley of the shadow of death I shall not fear evil.

          • Rust Cohle

            “The idea of death, the fear of it, haunts the human animal like nothing else; it is a mainspring of human activity – designed largely to avoid the fatality of death, to overcome it by denying in some way that it is the final destiny of man.” ~Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death


          • charlesburchfield

            are you afraid of dying? me too. I just try to live my life w as much integrity loving god and loving others, trusting in the future that in my final moments the peace i know and have known will not fail to carry me like my earhly father once did when I was a tiny helpless child.

          • Rust Cohle

            > are you afraid of dying?

            All humans fear dying; it’s why we wear seatbelts and have smoke alarms and eat when we get hungry, and also why we create mythical tales about an afterlife.

            > trusting in the future

            You’re still going die and be as dead as a dead horse.

            Ecclesiastes 3:19 “Surely the fate of human beings is like that of the animals; the same fate awaits them both: As one dies, so dies the other. All have the same breath; humans have no advantage over animals.”

            Michael Martin & Keith Augustine. (2015) The Myth of an Afterlife: The Case against Life After Death. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

          • charlesburchfield

            dead as a horse? You too?

          • Rust Cohle

            Job knew it too; the afterlife is a myth. It’s emotionally enjoyable to talk about, just like Santa Claus, but in the end, nobody is bringing you presents from the North Pole.

            My purpose is to discuss these questions and show that the author of Job methodically uses “death as extinction” in his logical arguments, but reverts to the popular concept of Sheol in his emotional ruminations and outbursts.

            Pinker, A. (2007) Job’s Perspective on Death. Jewish Bible Quarterly. Vol. 35 No. 2. pp. 73-85.

          • louismoreaugottschalk

            in the sweet bye and bye we shall meet on that beautiful shore…
            Did you ever hear the saying that things are not untrue just because they haven’t happened? I think you and I shall meet after death & remember we had these convos together.

          • Rust Cohle

            Science, especially neurology, shows that the afterlife is a hoax.

            The Myth of an Afterlife: The Case against Life After Death
            by Michael Martin, Keith Augustine

            You’re not going to live forever, any more than a mummified pharaoh.

          • louismoreaugottschalk

            do you believe in ‘science’?

          • Rust Cohle

            Are you trying the old game of equating science to religious faith?

          • louismoreaugottschalk

            Love is not part of any game I think. It contains all that loves even your love for control of your own life & science. Love contains you rusty! It’s both inside you and outside you. By comming here and spending your precious time posting aren’t you hoping to find a wider lens in which to see the reality of those of us who know and testify to to world of the holy spirit? I think If you love something or someone then your soul found a safe home. Isn’t that what you are looking for and longing for in all the posts you have written on christian blogs? You have been doing this for sooooo long rusty! Aren’t you going to admit that you are hungering to know what all the fuss is about? Aren’t you really hoping there is going to be something more interesting to go to after you die?

          • Rust Cohle

            > Aren’t you really hoping there is going to be something more interesting to go to after you die?

            No. All you amateurish psychologizing just failed.

          • louismoreaugottschalk

            keep posting bc I think it is a good sign that you are still interested in life, love, hope & having contact w ppl.

          • Rust Cohle

            You keep posting, because it’s a good sign you like reading what I write.

          • louismoreaugottschalk

            yes! i will keep posting and I do like what you write. I like that you are articulate, studious, bold, well read, a chalenge & it’s enterained me for as many times as I have encountered your posts. I think a lot of you and appreciate what an interesting chap you are! I wish I knew you better.

    • Alan Christensen

      I was going to point out the same thing about the Biblical depictions of the judgment. Clearly what’s envisioned is some kind of sorting of who’s in and out. Whatever the final result is as to who’s in the Kingdom, though, I’m pretty sure it will upset my expectations. “HE’S in? SHE’s in? THAT GUY’S out?” Many who are last shall be first.

      • charlesburchfield

        all are ‘in’ i think.

    • summers-lad

      Rust, you make a fair point about binary judgment. But I agree with Morgan for two reasons. Firstly, Jesus told us in his parable of the wheat and the weeds not to make binary judgments – that is reserved to God. (The obsession of some evangelicals with deciding whether so-and-so is saved goes against Jesus’ teaching in this regard.) Secondly, I don’t believe the binary judgment is the end of the story. Hebrews 4:13 says we must all give an account of ourselves to God, and when I was young I assumed that this was like explaining myself to an angry teacher with a threat of punishment looming. But not at all: the writer has just emphasised that God already knows us through and through, so I now take this as being so that I see the truth about myself as God does, and the purpose of this is for healing. 1 Peter 4:5-6 talks about people who have already died being judged (ignore the NIV – it deliberately mistranslates this verse for Calvinist theological convenience) so that though dead they may come to life in the spirit.

      • Rust Cohle

        > so that though dead they may come to life in the spirit.

        It’s funny how Christianity so confusingly conflates 2 of the 4 afterlife mythical stories humans tell themselves to allay the fear of dying.

  • I love this, Morgan. Thank you so much!

  • kent

    Maybe justification isn’t about how god views us, but about how we view ourselves. Maybe it’s not about him being OK with us but us being OK with ourselves. Man’s greatest need is to be justified. He needs to feel that his life matters. To be at peace with god, we need to feel that he is OK with us. As you stated, we need to feel safe in relating to god because shame has brought condemnation (god isn’t condemning us, we do that to ourselves because we don’t feel justified . . . he isn’t mad at us; we are afraid of him). Jesus’ message of a loving Father, and proof of his love for us in his death, have justified our lives. He showed us how important we are to him / that our lives matter. Maybe justification fulfills a need in us; not a need in god.

    • Exactly. It’s our need to be justified. Jesus rescues us from the self-justification that many fundamentalists have never been saved from.

      • charlesburchfield

        Selfjustification, legal clauses that benifit the priviliged and specifc penalties for violations= rationalising systemic violence that affects the marginal misfits of a society based on merrit I think.

  • John Powell

    Quite the confusing position. Not sure why it is so fashionable today to reject 2000 years of orthodoxy for reasons that don’t make sense of scripture. I can’t tell if you are rejecting the traditional interpretation, or just giving some additional perspectives. Still, in your last paragraph I would have to take issue where you write, “But if God has other names and methods he uses in other religions and cultures, who am I to stop him?” Acts 4:12 states, “There is no other name under Heaven given to men by which we are saved.” The exclusivity is pretty clear and it is in continuity with God’s purposes for mankind to be reached through his chosen methods, namely the one man Jesus. The trajectory of the biblical story runs exclusively through Christ and no room is made for anything else. Thus the spread of the Gospel to all nations as necessary and planned for by God. This is the method, not just one of many.

    • Peter is not answering the question that I’m asking in Acts 4:12. Nor was Jesus addressing the existence of Muslims and Buddhists when he tells Thomas not to worry because he IS the way, the truth, and the life by which people reach the Father. The exclusivity that you’re describing was a very convenient justification for centuries of European colonialism. I definitely tell people about what Jesus has done in my life and I fully expect that he can transform their lives too. I am also open to the possibility that God can work through other religions too.

      • John Powell

        Neither Jesus nor Peter need to address every group or possible questions in order to present the answer to questions to which Jesus is the answer. That is being disingenuous with the text and refusing to see the obvious point intended in the story. Yes, God could use other religions as he is free to use anything for his purposes, and there are elements of truth in many different faiths. All the more reason to clarify the one as the source and authority of all truth, namely Jesus. Still not sure how you can read the biblical story and come away with anything less than the absolute superiority of Jesus and exclusivity of Jesus as the one way of salvation.

        • charlesburchfield

          i think ‘superiority’ & ‘exclusivity’ are words leftover from the days when iI saw everything in terms of merriting the god of empire favor. Jesus never killed anyone. now i see god as loving and joined to whoever shows up in a body on this planet. He sure isn’t going to let any one get away! I consider I have walked thru the valley of the shadow of death many times in my too long life & fallen short of all empire’s expectations of me, yet I am aware of a loving presents that helps me and encourages me to get out of bed everyday. I am still here for the broken hearted like me.

    • rrhersh

      That “2000 years of orthodoxy” line is the same one the Church of Rome used during the Reformation, except they quoted a smaller number.

  • Father

    I’ve read through this thrice and, while I don’t disagree with anything Morgan is saying, I still don’t understand the position that he is pushing back against.

    In my Protestant days, I always thought that Protestants were making the whole “faith vs works” issue way too complicated. As a high school senior, I gave a sermon on the issue for Youth Sunday in which, I would only years later discover, I outlined the Catholic position as found here:

  • charlesburchfield


  • You know Morgan, as I read this…there is this smile lighted up in my face because you wrote on some of the issues I raised some months ago concerning my “Questioning God and Man’s theologies..” I’m still on that journey. Though, some scriptures like “Every kneels and tongues…” and “It is God’s will for ALL MEN to be saved” or “God wants all men to have the knowledge of Christ” or “All Nations you have created will come and bow and worship You, God” and so on always knock me off…

    I don’t know how He’s gonna do it, but I do know that His Judgment is to “EXPOSE all Men to the Truth, which is Christ”. Living live outside the truth and trying to justify oneself in “self-absorb-work” is a hell on its own.
    It bothers me no more because, He’s God and if He chooses to use other means or names in getting people to himself, so be it… I just don’t wanna box Him again….

    Thanks for sharing this, brother.

    • Exactly. Hell is self-justification. Salvation is liberation from that.

      • summers-lad

        George Macdonald said “the one principle of hell is ‘I am my own’.”

  • “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.”

    Oh my goodness, I love this part.

    • summers-lad

      I absolutely agree. I love your word “faithing”. And I have felt for a long time that “believing” in the traditional evangelical sense, praying the sinner’s prayer or whatever, is a work like any other in the way it is often described.

  • otrotierra

    Morgan, what a fantastic commentary. Many thanks for sharing! A liberating departure from stale evangelical hermeneutics.

  • Theodore A. Jones

    “For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous.” ROM. 2 :13