We are considering Michael Shank’s book Muscle and a Shovel. Up to this point, I’ve tried to keep the arguments free of Greek and such like, trying to learn from Shank’s popular (and effective) style.
But sometimes, you just can’t escape a little Greek. After all, the Spirit inspired the apostles to write in Greek.
In Church of Christ circles, the idea of being saved by “faith only” is usually treated with a sneer, because it’s assumed that “faith only” means “without obedience of any kind or for any reason.”
You see, Church of Christ theology has been heavily shaped by its many debates with Baptists, and Baptists teach “perseverance of the saints.” A few extremists even teach that you could live a sinful, rebellious life and yet be saved because at some point in your life you uttered the Sinner’s Prayer. But this is not standard Baptist teaching. Rather, the Baptists generally teach that a Christian who has committed himself to Jesus through the Sinner’s Prayer will receive the Holy Spirit and, as a result, will not fall away and will, instead, continue to live as faithful Christians to the end. (If he doesn’t, he never really had faith.)
I disagree with this teaching and certainly believe that Christians can fall away and lose their salvation. When Paul says we’re saved “by grace” and “through faith,” I don’t think Paul’s teaching once saved, always saved or perseverance in the Baptist sense of the term.
In the Churches of Christ, we tend to hear “faith” as referring solely to believing that Jesus is the Son of God. Part of this is because we use “repentance” to refer to a change in how we live to be committed to living as God would have us live. And that’s not wrong.
But the use of “faith” as being solely what someone believes is a Reformation teaching, going back to Calvin especially (but not only Calvin). It’s not the biblical meaning of the word.
For example, in Romans 4 and Galatians 3, Paul builds his argument for salvation by faith on the fact that God credited Abraham with righteousness because of his faith. We Gentiles enjoy the benefit of the same covenant God made with Abraham because the Gentiles have been grafted into Israel (Rom 11).
Abraham’s faith was belief that God would keep his promises. His “faith” was trust in God to do what he said he would do. Thus, a second element of saving faith is to trust God to keep his promises.
Another meaning of “faith” in the Bible is “faithfulness.” For example, in Eph 5:22, Paul lists “faithfulness” as a fruit of the Spirit. The Greek word translated “faithfulness” there is exactly the same word often translated “faith.”
N. T. Wright explains in Christian Origins and the Question of God: Jesus and the Victory of God, p. 263, how “repent” and “faith” were used by First Century Jews. He refers to a story told by Josephus about a Jewish rebel named Jesus –
I was not ignorant of the plot which he had contrived against me … ; I would, nevertheless, condone his actions if he would show repentance and prove his loyalty to me.
[quoted by Wright at p. 250.]
The Greek used by Josephus, metanoesein kai pistos (repent and believe = show repentance and prove loyalty) is identical to the Greek in Mark 1:15 –
“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.”
Wright notes that “believe in me” is translated “be loyal to me” in most translations. “Believe in” or “to have faith in” thus can mean “be loyal to” or even “submit to as lord.”
Josephus asked Jesus the Galilean brigand leader [not Jesus of Nazareth], ‘to repent and believe in me,’ in other words, to give up his agenda and follow Josephus instead. Jesus of Nazareth, I suggest, issued more or less exactly the same summons to his contemporaries.
To “repent” in this context is not to “no longer commit that sin” but to “change loyalties.” To “to have faith in” or “believe in” means “to follow” so that the many, many commands of Jesus to “follow” him in the Gospels overlaps with Paul’s instruction to have “faith” in Jesus.
In short, a third meaning of “faith” is “be faithful to” or “faithfulness” or even “to follow.” This side of “faith” is very nearly synonymous with “penitence” and “obedience.” And so there can be no faith/trust/faithfulness without obedience. Faith includes a heart that obeys.
Thus, the Greek word for “faith” has three meanings, and all three are found in our confession when we are saved –
* Belief that Jesus is Lord, the Messiah, and Son of God, crucified and resurrected by God (Rom 10:9; Matt 16:16) = faith at its simplest.
* Trust that God’s promises surrounding Jesus and those who commit themselves to him are true (Gen 15:16; Rom 4:3; Gal 3:6) = hope.
* Faithfulness to Jesus, living as co-crucified people who carry their crosses daily and serve, submit, and sacrifice as Jesus did (Gal 2:20; Rom 13:23) = love.
Thus, when the scriptures say that everyone with “faith” will be saved, the promise is to those who fully honor their confession and who not only believe Jesus to be Messiah and Lord intellectually but submit to him as Lord and trust him to be their Savior.
I can be faithful or obedient or penitent and yet be imperfect in so doing. If you ask me whether my four sons have been obedient children, the answer is absolutely, unquestionably “yes!” If you ask whether they’ve ever disobeyed, you’ll get the same answer.
But their hearts were faithful. Their hearts were filled with love for their parents and their brothers (even if they didn’t know it). They were obedient, although they often disobeyed, because obedience characterized their lives at home, at school, etc.
Hence, when we very correctly insist that a convert must be “obedient,” that is absolutely true, but it hardly means that the convert may make no mistakes — even doctrinal mistakes. You see, my obedient sons often misunderstood my instructions, and yet I never once disowned them. I sometimes punished them, but they remained my sons and heirs, a part of my household and family despite their occasional willful disobedience.
I’m an estate planner, and some of my clients have shared with me that they’d disowned a child. It’s always a deeply sad situation involving a child who rebelled and continued to rebel despite repeated pleas to return and obey. It’s rare — but it happens.
I can’t imagine a theology that makes God into a father less loving than ordinary people — people who aren’t even Christians.
Therefore, falling away can happen, but it requires rebellion.
(Heb 10:26-27 ESV) 26 For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, 27 but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries.
This passage concludes a theme that runs throughout Hebrews warning against rebellion. The teaching isn’t that we’re damned every time we sin or misunderstand this or that doctrine. Rather, it requires sinning deliberately against known laws of God. “Sinning” is present tense in the Greek, implying continuous action — rather than aorist, which implies a single action.
We can also fall away if we deny of faith in Jesus –
(1Jo 4:2-3 ESV) 2 By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, 3 and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already.
And we can fall away if we refuse to trust God’s promises to save those with faith in Jesus–
(Gal 5:5-6 ESV) 5 For through the Spirit, by faith, we ourselves eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness. 6 For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.
Paul declares damned the Judaizing teachers who required circumcision in addition to faith in Jesus. Why? Because circumcision damns? No, because, as v. 6 says, it’s not “faith working through love.”
His logic is that only faith acting in love saves; therefore, circumcision does not. It’s a failure to trust God’s promises.
Thus, we fall away by going out the same gate through which we entered: Faith. We entered in belief, trust, and faithfulness; and if we leave, we leave by surrendering any one of those three.
This is a simple, understandable, easy-to-teach approach to understand faith and salvation and falling away — and it’s what the scriptures say. It’s entirely consistent with the dozens of verses that promise salvation to all with faith.
We just have to sort out baptism. And that’s next.