I follow with a couple of reflections.
One of my problems with Reformation era atonement theology is the forced, artificial, radical separation of “justification” from “sanctification.” The Reformers begin by insisting that Christians contribute absolutely nothing to their salvation and then struggle to defend why they should live just and righteous lives.
Indeed, it becomes in just terribly bad taste to speak of the necessity of being “faithful” to Jesus, and yet the Scriptures are filled with such verses as –
(Luk 9:23-24 ESV) 23 And he said to all, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. 24 For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.”
(Act 26:19-20 ESV) 19 “Therefore, O King Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision, 20 but declared first to those in Damascus, then in Jerusalem and throughout all the region of Judea, and also to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God, performing deeds in keeping with their repentance.
Jesus expresses the atonement in terms of “follow me.” Paul says “repent and turn to God.” Sounds like they expected people to do something to contribute to their own salvation. They call for a choice and a radical commitment to Jesus — not merely getting a bit of doctrine right — but a personal pledge of loyalty to Jesus.
And Paul doesn’t change in Romans and Galatians. He’s not distinguishing between merely having the right position on the Jesus question and works. That’s not his point at all. He’s distinguishing between a heart truly committed to Jesus and mere outward signs that may or may not reflect the heart.
And, as we know, the heart is circumcised by the Spirit and God’s laws are written there. But, as Paul told Agrippa, a penitent (or faithful) heart will reveal itself in works, but not the works of a legalist. No, it will be fruit of the Spirit, beginning in love.
I’ve written several posts in the past where I dispute the notion that “justification” refers uniquely to the moment of initial salvation. We are justified by faith throughout our Christian lives. I am as justified by faith today as I was coming out of the baptistry.
But I refuse to accept the notion — which seems Gnostic to me — that “faith” is merely belief that Jesus is the second-person of the Godhead. Even the demons believe and tremble.
The Churches of Christ — and most others — have long taught the necessity of repentance. It’s a plain teaching in Acts, where the audience is often Jewish and the arguments made in Jewish categories.
Outside of Acts, Paul does not often speak in terms of repentance. Some find a contradiction. But Paul actually says the very same thing in speaking of “faith/faithfulness.”
It’s odd to me that when someone insists on repentance as a requirement to be saved, there’s no accusation of synergism or works salvation. But when the vocabulary shifts to “faithfulness,” suddenly it’s heresy to speak of turning toward God and following Jesus.
- The gospels tell us to “follow” Jesus. It’s the same concept. To follow Jesus is to be faithful to Jesus.
- Acts tells us to repent. It’s the same concept. To repent is to be faithful to Jesus.
- Paul says to have faith. It’s the same concept.
- Who would suggest that we could follow Jesus without believing that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God?
- Who would suggest that we could repent without believing that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God?
- Who would suggest that we could have faith without believing that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God?
- Who would suggest that we could follow Jesus without committing to live as he commands?
- And who would suggest that could repent without committing to live as Jesus commands?
- And how might we have faith in Jesus and yet refuse to commit to live as Jesus commands? You see, faith obviously requires commitment to obey.
Hence, “faithfulness” is a fair translation of “faith” — as suggested by N. T. Wright, Michael Gorman, the translators of the NET Bible, and many others.
And this translation — and perspective — avoids the old Protestant problem of how to preach salvation by faith and yet insist that our members follow Jesus in their lives.
In fact, given how poorly Christians live the Christian life, it just might be that we need to seriously rethink our definitions. The Baptists are undergoing a serious re-evaluation of the sinner’s prayer, not because they think baptism would be better, but because the sinner’s prayer inadequately communications the commitment — faithfulness — demanded by Jesus.
Paul was not saying “We’re saved by having the right position on whether Jesus is the second member of the Godhead, not by living righteously.” That’s not the point at all. That’s Gnostic.
Rather, Paul is saying that we’re saved if we follow Jesus, or repent, or are faithful to Jesus, so that our salvation is marked by our faith (following/repentance/faithfulness) not by our obedience to certain commands that allegedly mark us as true Christians. It’s about our hearts. It’s about having circumcised hearts. It’s about having God’s laws written on our hearts. It’s about possessing the Spirit. It’s about having the love of God poured out into our hearts.
Hence, we err when we make justification merely intellectual (I have the right position on the Jesus issue). It’s much more about the heart (I’ve turned toward Jesus to follow him with all my heart.)
And when Christianity becomes about circumcised hearts, then people change and the Kingdom spreads.
You’ll notice that I’ve not tried to fit any of this into categories created for Reformation era debates. They ask the wrong questions. They begin with a Gnostic premise — that salvation is about believing something to be true and little else. And the gospel repeatedly refuses to be fit into those kinds of categories.
The gospel is not merely about “Jesus is the second member of the Godhead.” Rather, the gospel is about God becoming King through the work of Jesus. It’s about the coming of the kingdom (which is unmistakable in the gospels).
The kingdom is about people repenting and submitting to God, as revealed in Jesus. Submission is, of course, a near synonym for “being faithful to.”
The kingdom is not about people merely understanding that Jesus is the Son of God (in the Nicene Creed sense). It’s much more about people recognizing that Jesus is Lord! King! Ruler of the Universe! And bowing before him, submitting to him to become faithful subjects of the kingdom.
“You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God,” in terms of Psalm 2, means “You are God’s Anointed King promised by the prophets.” And this confession compels submission and obedience, much more than philosophical rumination on essences and accidents.
To preach the gospel is to preach “Jesus is Lord” (Rom 10:9) — which compels submission to Jesus as King. To believe it is not an exercise in accepting the mystery of the Trinity. It’s to rearrange our worldview to see Jesus as lord and master and ruler — and an utter and complete commitment of our lives to him.
(Mat 16:24-25 ESV) 24 Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 25 For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”
I have no idea where that verse fits in the old Reformation-era debates. Nor am I interested to know what percent of Pelagian I might be. I just believe it to be exactly true — and any systematic theology that struggles to find a place for this saying is not a gospel theology.
The Reformers were right to reject the works salvation taught by the Medieval Catholic Church. They were right to preach sola fide (faith only). They were mistaken in defining “faith” in terms of Jesus’ place in the Trinity rather than Jesus’ place in the Kingdom. The New Testament confessions place Jesus on a throne and urge us to submit as his subjects. That is gospel and that is faith.
Do you see what happens when we get the meaning of “faith” right? Suddenly, the Gospels and Epistles line up. Jesus and Paul say the same thing — in very different ways for very different audiences, but the same thing. Both preach salvation through faithfulness to Jesus as Messiah, the King of the Kingdom that came through the cross and resurrection.
Suddenly the kingdom theology of the gospels fits Paul. And Paul’s “saved by faith” fits Jesus.
Moreover, we no longer struggle to explain why Christians must obey even though they’re saved by faith and not works.
On the other hand, there is no comfort here for the legalists. Yes, we must be faithful, follow Jesus, submit, repent, and even obey. Of course. Who’s read the New Testament and found a different result?
But there is nothing in “faithful” that allows us to damn those who disagree with us over instrumental music or fellowship halls. “Faithful” is about the commitment of the heart, not the perfection of the intellect. Indeed, making “faith” about intellectual attainment takes us away from the foremost goal — that we follow Jesus with all our hearts.
And I can follow Jesus with all my heart and be mistaken about instrumental music or fellowship halls. Or circumcision. Or foods sacrificed to idols. And therefore I remain saved and in fellowship despite disagreeing about such things — so long as I show you the same grace I expect from you — that is, provided I judge by the standard by which God judges me: grace through faith in Jesus.
(For you astronomy buffs: Defining “faith” correctly eliminates the epicycles and gives us nice, simple ellipses. The impossibly complex and hard to explain becomes simple. We just have to be willing to put the Son in the middle.)