Worse Than Salvation By Works

Worse Than Salvation By Works August 9, 2017

This struck me while discussing the Gospel of John’s depiction of judgment as based on belief in the present (3:18), versus judgment based on works in the future. If believing in this context means having the right ideas, then that presents a serious problem. Belief in God is the most foundational kind of belief in the Bible. If what that means believing the right things  – assenting to the precisely correct doctrines – about a God that transcends what humans can ever hope to comprehend, then that creates an impossible situation for human beings, one that is arguably far worse that that connected with not being able to “earn your way to heaven” through good works.

Not only does believing the right things about the incomprehensible, unimaginable, and infinite pose a greater challenge than accomplishing the unattainable goal of moral perfection, but it also makes salvation a matter of luck. Who is saying the right things about this God, in precisely the right way? Which competing claims must one assent to in order to be saved, lest one be punished? How can a human being hope to choose rationally between them and make exactly the right choice, when the full answer is ultimately beyond the grasp of every one of us?

Of course, the matter gets even worse when one supposedly also has to believe the right things about the Bible and its meaning, leaving one’s eternal fate to depend on choosing the right view of the atonement, eschatology, and so on. And worse still, when we realize that this belief system doesn’t substitute grace and faith in the place of works as the means to salvation, but turns faith into the one work that humans still need to do, and do correctly, in order to be saved.

Thankfully, the biblical literature talks about the faith that saves as faith in God. And more importantly, it makes the actual lynch pin of salvation God’s grace rather than the human response to it. Too often, salvation is viewed in economic or judicial terms, so that it is a switch that one flicks by assenting to this or that (and for some, once the switch is turned on, it can never be turned off again). But when we realize that the emphasis in the Bible is not believing certain things to be true – and then believing one’s beliefs to be absolutely correct and certain – but trust in God precisely because as human beings we inevitably fall short not only in our actions but also in our thinking.

A familiar biblical text, Proverbs 3:5, captures the essence of this when it says “trust in Yahweh with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding.” I’ve commented before on how fundamentalists invert the meaning of this. But the attempt to pretend that a matter of biblical interpretation or theological reasoning does not involve human understanding should not persuade anyone. To rely on God means trust in the midst of uncertainty and a failure to understand, just as we do in the midst of our moral failures and shortcomings.

If “salvation by faith” is to mean anything that is reassuring, then it surely has to mean trust in a God that is gracious, and cultivating a relationship to that God, rather than getting beliefs correct. Do you agree?

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  • Al Cruise

    Yes I agree.

  • Phil Ledgerwood

    I agree. Especially in the West, our Christianity is enamored with learning and believing the right things. I think, philosophically, that direction probably started when Greco-Roman church fathers were trying to make sense of Semitic scriptures in their own context, but the whole thing probably took on sharp edges in America with the fundamentalist/modernist controversies.

    The gospel of John is a handy bridge for that maneuver as his portrayal of Jesus appears to be more “abstract spiritual figure” than “Judean prophet.” I tend to interpret Jesus’ comments about judgement and salvation as being immediate, prophetic pronouncements against his current generation rather than a forecast of the end of the world, and I think that’s the case in John as well, but he definitely likes to move Jesus more into the realm of abstract universals.

  • Gary

    If salvation = afterlife status:
    The one time (maybe the only time), that the OT is better than the NT.

    Differentiated versus undifferentiated afterlife.

    Ehrman’s blog:

  • Al Cruise

    Undifferentiated afterlife is probably true in the sense that Theology plays no role. I have posted this before, I thought it would be good to re-post again here. This particular phenomenon seemed to happen to those who lived with an attitude of religious based judgmental-ism. In the west it is seen mostly among-st ridged Christian fundamentalists. However speaking to people of other faiths it does occur within their faiths also with people of the same attitude.
    Here are some observations from 40 years of street ministry. A fairly common thing that occurs in street ministry over time, is you inevitably end up being with people who are dying and being with them in their last moments of life. Often it can be because they are homeless and have no one, or estranged from family. In our group of outreach workers there is one lady, Marie, who is a professional nurse and trained in hospice care. Over the years she has been with 200+ people at their final moments of life. People tend to fall into three categories. 1. Quiet and silent, 2. In varying degrees of euphoria, seeing loved ones, and/or figures of light. 3. horrific agony. The following things did not seem to play a roll in what category people fell into. They are. What doctrine about God and the afterlife they believed in, being atheist and sexual orientation. I am not suggesting that I know what really happens after death , I do not, and I do not believe anyone else knows either. Marie shared a recent case where an individual who was a professed believer and Church elder [ evangelical Christian fundamentalism], dying in horrific agony. His last moments were screaming in terror and about seeing demons and fire coming through the windows, with his family fleeing the room. Many hospice care workers will share similar stories. I am not suggesting anything definitive about these experiences, I merely want to share observations and let you draw your own conclusions. This man lived his life using the threat of hell-fire and damnation on anyone who disagreed with him and had hurt and alienated many people from his family and his Church. Judgement might be having to face up to your own actions and the consequences they caused to others. What you believe may be what you will experience.

  • Iain Lovejoy

    When did faith in God become belief in facts about God? The word “faith” (pisteos in Greek) means as I understand it principally “trust” and it is in God in the person of Jesus that we are supposed to trust, not a theological position statement.
    We are also repeatedly told that the key thing is love, not faith, and that love is greater than faith.
    None of this squares with the notion that “salvation” consists of passing a post-death theology pop quiz, the penalty for failing which is eternal punishment by God.
    I don’t believe the Bible ever refers to salvation or eternal life being a future post mortem state. It says eternal life / salvation happens now, in this life, which is not ended with death but continues into the hereafter. (I am prepared to be corrected however.) It is described in various ways but the gist of it seems to be that we become children of God, that is we are adopted into a loving parent / child relationship with him, which the Bible tells us not even death can separate.
    How faith fits in seems to me to be that it is by putting trust in God and therefore learning to love him, rather than by doing anything to earn it (since he loves us already) that we can achieve this relationship.
    If you are looking for judgement after death, it seems to me that dying without having God to trust in, or coming before the direct presence of God entrenched in sin, to which God’s presence us said to be a consuming, refining fire, is not going to go well.
    In any event, assent to any particular theological position seems to me to have nothing to do with anything.

    • Al Cruise

      I agree with much of what you say. It seems that those who can be described as hubris/narcissistic and live in a self imposed rigid religious Theology, struggle the most emotionally at the time of their death.

    • Tim

      Pete Enns did a helpful article awhile ago, the point of which was that he had decided to stop ‘believing in God’ and start trusting God instead.

  • Scott Goltl

    Very helpful insight that we are not saved by assent to the correct doctrines. But even this is a theological position like those rejected in the article. One which you are encouraging others to embrace and forsake the others.

    Jesus is the Way, the Truth and the Life and he, by grace, leads us in all three. Truth matters because he matters. We are encouraged to watch our doctrine closely so that we do not lead others away from Jesus to one of many other compelling teachings that forfeit the one who loves us and is drawing us ever deeper into his kingdom life. It is only by his gracious hand that we are preserved from making our “rightness” our righteousness.

    Thanks for writing this. It helps me to clarify that the person of Jesus saves me and not what I confess to be true about him.

    • Al Cruise

      ” But even this is a theological position” As is yours. Your position is based on time and place of birth not on trust in God. It’s a position that wasn’t known by many until after the the Protestant Reformation. Sounds like conservative evangelical Theology.

  • Tim
  • Timothy Weston

    Proverbs is treated as more of a manual of living rather than observations and quips from a king’s throne. I laugh with irony of the application of this with Jeremiah 17:9 used as a way of writing off knowledge.

  • Tommy G

    Good article. Reminds me of James 2:14-25, Hebrews 11 and everything Jesus taught. Sure, it’s important to believe the right things but even the demons believe that! It’s so much more! It is trust in God, in Jesus and demonstrating it by what we do, the greatest of these is love.