Is A “Carnal Christian” Saved? (Part Two)
I ended Part One of this series by asking why the question and finding an answer to it matters. Here I will attempt to answer that.
It matters because Scripture speaks to it. The problem is that Scripture speaks to it ambiguously. Scripture is not always as clear as we would like it to be—even on very important matters. There can be no question that Scripture urges God’s people, those who profess faith in Yahweh and in Jesus Christ, to be holy. Of course, one meaning of “holy” is “set apart to God’s service,” but surely no one can seriously argue that’s all it means. Speaking only of the New Testament (for now): Scripture, including Jesus himself, clearly expresses God’s expectation that God’s people, those forgiven and reconciled to him, become godly people. Some passages sound as if such holy living, inward and outward (new dispositions and moral reformation), is required to be among God’s people and enter into God’s kingdom. (If anyone doubts this we could engage in an in depth Bible study with many proof texts, but, for now, I will assume my readers can think of such biblical imperatives for themselves.)
On the other hand, Scripture also emphasizes God’s mercy—even toward those who are not particularly holy. And it indicates that no one can claim to be sinless. 1 John 1 includes this theme and requires only confession of sin and repentance, not moral transformation (unless one counts repentance as sufficient for moral transformation which is not what I mean by it here). A major theme of Scripture, Old Testament and New, is God’s love and mercy toward those who truly repent and, acknowledging their sinfulness, throw themselves upon God’s grace with faith. Again, we could engage in a lot of proof texting here, but for now, at least, I’ll bypass that and trust my readers to know this theme of Scripture.
So, to sum up, Scripture is somewhat ambiguous about the requirement of progress in inward and outward moral transformation for assurance of salvation. While nothing in Scripture encourages trust in what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace,” or what Lordship Salvation advocates call “easy believism,” Scripture does indicate that all that is required for salvation is trust in God alone, that is, full-orbed, holistic faith from the heart (which I assume includes repentance). Turned around, however, we could also correctly say that while nothing in Scripture encourages trust in good works, moral transformation, amendment of life, holiness, for salvation, Scripture does indicate that faith in God without them is not to be trusted—as the sole sign of saving grace in a person’s life.
I will return to this tension later in this series and explore ways of easing it.
For now, let me posit another reason why this question and the issue it points to is important. It’s important because true New Testament Christianity is not as individualistic as contemporary American evangelicals (and many others) have interpreted (or distorted it) to be. The New Testament is chock full of requirements especially for leaders among God’s people, the church. Accountability is also a major theme of Scripture. Apparently, if we are to believe the Apostle Paul, having people within the church, especially leaders, who are living sinful lives is scandalous. Paul even went so far as to command churches under his authority to expel members who lived such lives. Presumably such people claimed to be forgiven, reconciled, justified by faith (or else they would not have been prominent members of the church). Today, unfortunately, even many evangelicals have nearly totally abandoned such expectations of holiness, or even avoidance of scandalous behavior, and church discipline. We have succumbed to American individualism and interpreted authentic Christianity and salvation itself as totally and exclusively a matter between the individual and God. I cannot tell how many times I have heard evangelicals (including Baptists who don’t call themselves that) say about a church member engaging in sinful conduct “That’s between them and God.” We still believe that the church is somehow involved in acknowledging the validity of initial salvation, although we’ve largely reduced that to a sinner confessing faith in Jesus Christ (without signs of repentance, heart-sorrow for sin). But once a person “comes to Christ by faith” we often overlook their spiritual growth or lack of it—except to encourage spiritual growth. But we rarely talk about spiritual growth as “holiness unto the Lord.” We have come to interpret spiritual growth largely in terms of “learning and serving.” The result, so it seems to me, is that many even “mature Christians” live lives hardly different from non-Christians with little or no intervention from their own Christian community. This makes the church look to outsiders like a club. Yes, of course, the opposite, severe legalism, can make the church look to outsiders like a club of self-righteous prigs. But that is not much of a problem anymore, at least not within the mainstream of evangelical Christianity. And to anyone who raises that as a real problem today, I would simply ask which the New Testament emphasizes (to say nothing of the Old Testament!). With which does the New Testament seem more concerned? The church as an exclusive group of holy people or the church as a group of individuals deciding for themselves without any accountability or interference what “holiness” means?
Third, and finally, the question and issue matters for the sake of assurance of salvation. It seems to me that American evangelicals have by-and-large reduced “assurance of salvation” to trust in one’s own individual decision of faith in the past. I do not find that reduction in either the Bible or Christian history. It often looks like little more than “faith in faith” with the second “faith” being a personal decision with little consequences other than what might be a false assurance that might better be called complacency. Ironically, for the sake of assuring church members of their salvation, we American evangelicals have largely reduced authentic Christianity to remembering a childhood decision for Christ at the end of a week of Vacation Bible School. (Or an adult decision for Christ at the end of an evangelism crusade or revival.) I doubt that is all there is or should be to assurance of salvation. False assurance, based on nothing more than an individual decision to say “Jesus is my Savior,” is a big part of the problem I am pointing to in contemporary American evangelical Christianity.
Both in the New Testament and in historical Christianity of most traditions, assurance of salvation is and was based at least in part on “signs of grace,” visible Christianity, dedication to the cause of Christ, even at least inward moral transformation over time into a godly personality. Today, I fear, perhaps out of fear of legalism and harshness, we have by and large abandoned that whole idea. We reduce assurance to trust in a once-for-all, individual decision of faith that may very well have been made under pressure and only to please someone else.
In Part Three I will attempt to bring some resolution to this question and the dilemma it represents. The specific question is this: Should we, the covenant people of God, offer assurance of salvation to a person who fits the profile of a “carnal Christian”—a person who once made a profession of faith in Jesus Christ but whose life shows no signs of grace, inward or outward moral transformation, amendment of life through the power of the Holy Spirit?