I’ve been involved in a lot of discussions lately regarding the committment versus profession ratio of Christianity. It seems that it always spirals downward into two extreme viewpoints, and frankly it frustrates me to no end.
One extreme is closely related to my own evangelical background, that being the idea that salvation of souls comes by the grace of God and our works or efforts are no factor.
On the other end of the totem pole is that which wonders how people who profess this viewpoint remain so uncommitted to the teachings they claim to believe. If there are no fruits of obedience, no works etc, how can that person be saved?
Sometimes the latter viewpoint really gets hung up on James’ teaching of faith and works. You know, "You have faith; I have deeds." Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do.".(NIV)
Often people get tunnel vision when it comes to James’ talk of deeds(works). They drift toward a salvation that relies on man and not enough on God a little too much for my comfort.
So, I guess that settles it, huh? God is the source of salvation and we just put our trust in it, no effort, no deeds, no works. Easy enough.
Hold on, I did refer to the first viewpoint as extreme didn’t I? I will tread very lightly on this because I’m not sure I’m ready to be labeled a misguided heretic!
Phillipians 2 is fast becoming my favorite passage of scripture for a couple of reasons, but for this post I’ll stick with verses 12 and 13
my dear friends, as you have always obeyed–not only in my presence,
but now much more in my absence–continue to work out your salvation
with fear and trembling, 13 for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.
The phrase "work out your salvation" is semantically troubling for some people, even people who quote "for by grace are you saved….not of works…" incessantly in defense of their professed Christianity.
Professed. Isn’t that an interesting term? It’s become a medal of honor in today’s evangelical church. Isn’t that what we, who are in ministry are always looking for? Professions of faith? Doesn’t the church need professions of faith in order to keep the doors open. Don’t we need a congregation of professions in order to pay our electric bills, salaries, and missionaries? Don’t we need a healthy amount of professions to compete with the half dozen churches around our neighborhood in offering amenities of comfort such as cutting edge programs, great music, and practical preaching?
In the words of Jerry Seinfeld who said of sending men to the moon. "isn’t that far enough?". Don’t we have more than enough professions? Haven’t we taken enough gallup polls to determine that the majority of Americans profess Christianity?
Okay, back to Phillipians. To a lot of professed Christians, working out ones salvation is a troubling concept. It’s troubling to their understanding of the Gospel they came to believe and accept. "Oh, that just means something different…that has nothing to do with salvation.",they might say.
First of all, it’s very to clear that Paul is writing to a church of committed Christians, not merely "professors of Christ". Paul compliments them in verse 12 as "you have always obeyed". And he turns around and encourages them to "work out their salvation."
The key turnaround word there is "continue". In other words, their history of obedience as Christ followers is to be "continued" in working out their salvation.
Works, deeds, obedience, whatever you want to call it are important ingredients in our salvation. They are not the source of our salvation, but the conduit.
Fact of the matter, there is no salvation where works do not appear. I know this sounds contrary to reliance on God and His grace, but if there are no acts of obedience, then how is grace released?
I think the evangelical church as a whole communicates a confusing message of the true meaning of the gospel. I believe it is because we have reduced the gospel of Christ to a doctrine of intellectual assent instead of a life altering discipleship.
1. Salvation – We, especially Baptists, in our zeal to "win souls" have reduced salvation to a decision about where you go when you die…heaven or hell. It seems we’re more interested in getting people to agree with us about what we believe then true conversion.
Salvation is redemption! We are not only being saved from eternal separation (hell), we are literally being rescued from a way of living that is engrained in our spirit and flesh.
Here’s an illustration, whether you agree politically or not, we (USA) allegedly rescued Iraq from a dictator whose ‘kingdom" was destructive and prohibitive. We desire to see Iraq in a democratic form of government bringing newfound peace and freedom.
Likewise, salvation means that God rescues us from a kingdom that we currently control, influenced by a society and world system of competing kingdoms. The kingdom of self. Our kingdom is one that is destructive and prohibitive and completely opposite of the one God intended for us.
Jesus never asked the question, "do you where you would go tonight if you were to die?" and He most certainly wouldn’t ask it now. (I doubt he’d pass out tracks on the street corner either)
Jesus gospel was exlusively,the availability of the Kingdom of God. It’s what he meant when he said "the kingdom is at hand". He wasn’t talking about a future realm a.ka. post death heaven.
"At hand" means here and now! It means, Here I am, God in the flesh. I’m available, I’m accessible!
2. Grace – What a watered down word this has become in the church. Most people think of grace in terms of "acquittal", "given a break", a "free pass. The reason this pervades our thinking is because grace has been made synonomous with forgiveness of sins. Again, since we reduce salvation to decision about post death, then we naturally equate grace to forgiveness.
The problem with our presentation of the gospel is that we capitalize on the human need to "not feel guilty". We have unwittingly taught that removal of guilt is the object instead of removal of sin.
Let’s not forget our entire purpose for following Christ. Although not an overnight or instantaneous process, the gift of salvation is for the purpose of removing our sin, not just our guilt of sin. Of course, when sin is removed the guilt naturally follows, right? This is where "dying daily" or "taking up our cross "comes in. We need to constantly practice "killing off" the desires of our kingdom self, not so we can feel guilt free (although that’s a benefit), but so we can create room for God’s kingdom to permeate our words and deeds!
Let me clarify something about grace. It is indeed because of grace that we have forgiveness. If, by God’s grace, we aren’t forgiven, we certainly are hopelessly left to our foolish ways and schemes which of course are what is meant by "works of righteousness".
But to say grace brings forgiveness is totally different from saying grace IS forgiveness. The best definition I’ve heard is from Dr. Dallas Willard who describes it as "Grace is God acting in our lives to bring about what we do not deserve and cannot accomplish on our own."
Grace is God’s activity, simply put. Because of (grace) God acting, we are forgiven. Likewise, because of grace we become like Christ. Because of grace, sin is gradually removed.
The old hymn "Amazing Grace" doesn’t only speak about "10,000 years bright shining as the sun". John Newton said the grace of God changed his condition. "was blind but now I see".
Then there’s that closing verse in 2 Peter where he encourages the reader "18 But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ."
Tell me, if Grace is forgiveness, how does one grow in forgiveness? Once I’ve been forgiven, do I need to be forgiven again?
Peter is not encouraging anyone to grow in forgiveness, he is telling them to continue allowing God to be active in their daily lives which of course corresponds to the second half of that verse "and knowledge of our lord and Savior Jesus Christ."
That verse is all about relationship between the Christian and the Christ!
3. Faith – this is the final term I want to cover in this post. I wonder how we ever reduced faith to mere intellectual assent to a set of doctrines? How we were able to champion the cliches that proclaimed "it takes a heart knowledge, not a head knowledge", or "he missed heaven by six inches"(distance between head and heart), or "you gotta walk the walk if you’re gonna talk the talk" and still continue to present the gospel in a 3 step formula followed by a repeated prayer.
Is this what faith is? If you "believe" that Jesus was born of a virgin, died on a cross, rose again in 3 days, so that you can go to heaven?
When did faith cease to be obedience? When did faith stop requiring following Jesus?
Henri Nouwen said it best "a Christianity without discipleship is ALWAYS a Christianity without Christ."
Is our representation of the gospel, one that reduces Salvation to Insurance, Grace to guiltlessness, and Faith to Intellectual Assent the reason that so many "professors" are stuck in a lifelong 3-cycle wash of sin-guilt-remorse. Is this the "living water" that Jesus assured the Samaritan woman was what she needed. Is this the life He challenged the rich young ruler to give up his wealth for? Is this new birth He suggested the Pharisee Nicodemus needed to endure?
One looks no further than the life of Jesus himself to see the fullness of a life governed by the Kingdom of God. Does what we have compare at all? We’ve taken the name of Christ, but what reductions have we made in doing so?