POSTED - 4/21/2001
The Gospel and Evangelicalism: An Assessment
- William Webster
I solemnly charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by His appearing and His kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction...Be sober in all things, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry (2 Timothy 4:1-2, 6)Having examined the gospel of the Scriptures, the teaching of Jesus, and the position of the Reformers and Reformed theologians on the application and appropriation of salvation, some serious concerns must be raised about the gospel which is being presented by some evangelicals in our day.
Even though we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to that which we have preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so I say again now, if any man is preaching to you a gospel contrary to that which you received, let him be accursed (Galatians 1:8–9)
The Church must be bound to none other authority than unto the voice of the gospel and unto the ministry thereof (John Hooper, English Reformer (A Declaration of Christe and His Offyce. Found in The Library of Christian Classics (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1966), Volume XXVI, p. 198.).
We will look at three doctrinal positions held within evangelical circles. The difference between them is not over justification, but with the nature of salvation and saving faith. All agree that justification is by faith alone in Christ alone. All are orthodox in their definition of justification—the sufficiency of the atonement of Christ and imputed righteousness. How then do they differ? The divergence of opinion has been brought into focus by the current lordship salvation debate.
We will call those in the first camp ‘pro–lordship’. They hold to the inseparability of justification and sanctification in the salvation experience, teaching that sanctification is the inevitable result of union with Christ and the evidence of saving faith. They teach that saving faith involves not only trust in Christ as Savior but also repentance and commitment to Christ as Lord.
The salvation doctrine of the second camp is characterized by the teaching called ‘easy–believism’. These teachers define saving faith as trust in Christ as Savior only. They strongly deny the necessity for repentance and submission to Christ as Lord for salvation. They teach that sanctification, while desirable, is not absolutely necessary in the overall experience of salvation. They define salvation as justification and imputed righteousness alone.
The third position is the one I want to focus our attention on in the remainder of this article. Many who call themselves Reformed hold this position, one which I feel is both subtle in its error and dangerous. Those who are in this third camp agree in a broad sense with most of Reformation theology. The danger is not in what is agreed upon but in what is denied. These teachers rightly condemn the antinomian emphasis of ‘easy–believism’ and are emphatic in their insistence that saving faith will result in a life characterized by sanctification. So far so good. But their definition of saving faith is incomplete. They do not teach repentance as an essential corrollary to saving faith but rather as a fruit of faith and justification. Therefore to call of men to Christ is to call them to faith alone and not to repentance and faith. So when an individual is ‘saved’, it is through a faith they have defined as knowledge (an intellectual understanding of the facts related to the work of Christ), assent (intellectually concluding that the facts are true) and trust in the person and work of Christ (coming to the settled conviction that these facts are true for me personally). But this faith is void of any call to repentance and submission to Christ as Lord. It is not that they deny the necessity for repentance but they insist it occurs only after one has believed. Many Reformed people hold to the same weak view of faith as those in the camp of ‘easy–believism’. Its focus is exclusively upon the work of Christ in atonement and on imputed righteousness. Men in both camps are silent on many of the important teachings of Jesus regarding the nature of salvation. The issues of discipleship and lordship are not viewed as teachings which have direct bearing on what it means to come into a relationship with Christ and thereby to enter the kingdom of God. Saving faith is defined as trusting Christ as Savior only. Lordship, then, is relegated to the process of sanctification. In this sense there is an affirmation of lordship but not in the initial exercise of faith.
Let’s be clear, saving faith does involve a knowledge of and assent to the facts of the gospel and trust in Christ, but this is not all that is involved in the biblical teaching on faith. Faith defined as trust in Christ as Savior only, is not biblical saving faith. It is insufficient. It omits an equally important element in faith, namely, commitment—as Jesus defines it in his discipleship teachings in Luke 14 and Mark 8. James Montgomery Boice points this out:
Is ‘faith’ minus commitment a true biblical faith?...If faith without works is dead—how much truer is it that faith without commitment is dead...True faith involves these elements: knowledge...heart response...and commitment, without which ‘faith’ is no different from the assent of the demons who ‘believe...and shudder’ (James 2:19) (James Montgomery Boice, Christ’s Call to Discipleship (Chicago: Moody, 1986), p. 21).J.I. Packer says:
That man should not separate what God has joined is a truth about more than marriage. God has joined the three offices of prophet (teacher), priest, and king in the mediatorial role of Jesus Christ, and directs us in the Bible to relate positively to them all. God has joined faith and repentance as the two facets of response to the Savior and made it clear that turning to Christ means turning from sin and letting ungodliness go. Biblical teaching on faith joins credence, commitment, and communion; it exhibits Christian believing as not only knowing facts about Christ, but also coming to him in personal trust to worship, love and serve him...‘Lordship salvation’ is a name for the view that upholds these unities...It is no more, just as it is no less, than the mainstream Protestant consensus on the nature of justifying faith...Simple assent to the gospel, divorced from a transforming commitment to the living Christ, is by biblical standards less than faith, and less than saving, and to elicit only assent of this kind would be to secure only false conversions (J.I. Packer, Comments from the Foreword to The Gospel According to Jesus by John MacArthur (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1988), p. ix).As noted earlier, we need to distinguish between discipleship as a commitment and discipleship as a process. It is both. It is precisely the same distinction, which we examined, that John Murray makes regarding definitive and progressive sanctification. When Jesus calls men he calls them first to a commitment of discipleship. That commitment results in union with him and will then produce a life of growth in discipleship or sanctification. But unless the initial commitment is made there will be no union with Christ, no new life, the Holy Spirit will not indwell the heart and the individual will not be converted and therefore there will be no sanctification. While those in the third camp reject the teaching that one can have saving faith without the works of sanctification, they object strenously to the fact that a lordship/discipleship commitment is an integral part of such faith. But to teach that commitment to Christ as Lord occurs only after one has been brought into a saving relationship with him is to distort the meaning of saving faith. Commitment to Christ as Lord is an integral part of repentance and cannot be separated from the initial act of saving faith. Repentance is not the fruit of a relationship with God but a condition for entering the relationship. It is a repentant–faith that saves and unites us to Christ and produces sanctification. Justification is by faith alone, but we must accurately define that faith. The Westminster Confession states that an essential part of the exercise of saving faith is the receiving of Christ as Sanctification: ‘The principal acts of saving faith are accepting, receiving, and resting upon Christ alone for justification, sanctification and eternal life, by virtue of the covenant of grace.’ (The Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter XIV, Section II. Found in A.A. Hodge, The Confession of Faith, (Edinburgh: Banner, 1958), p. 204). And John Owen points out that the works of sanctification are rooted in a life that is submitted to Christ: ‘All obedience unto Christ proceeds from an express subjection of our souls and consciences unto Him.’ (John Owen, The Works of John Owen (Edinburgh: Banner, 1965), Volume 1, p. 136; Volume 3, pp. 480–481).
Since receiving Christ as sanctification is an essential element of saving faith and sanctification must begin with submission to Christ, then submission to Christ as Lord is an essential aspect of saving faith.
The definition of faith as trust in Christ as Savior only focuses exclusively on justification. This is shortsighted. It fails to emphasize the biblical view of salvation as deliverance from sin. Salvation is applied to men’s hearts as they receive Christ and are united to him through repentance and faith. As we have seen, this is the consistent emphasis of Reformed teaching. John Murray confirms this:
The interdependence of faith and repentance can be readily seen when we remember that faith is faith in Christ for salvation from sin. But if faith is directed to salvation from sin, there must be hatred of sin and the desire to be saved from it. Such hatred of sin involves repentance which essentially consists in turning from sin unto God (John Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1955), p. 113.The teaching of faith alone was emphasized by the Reformers to counteract the Roman Catholic emphasis on the necessity for the sacraments and good works to attain justification. But to define the Reformation teaching of faith alone as trust in Christ without repentance and commitment to him is a distortion of both the Reformation teaching and the gospel message. Faith alone means faith without the merit of works, not repentance. The Bible always presents repentance as a corollary to faith in receiving Christ for salvation.
Dead Faith or Living Faith
According to scripture, living faith produces fruit or works while dead faith does not. James speaks of dead faith which he calls non–saving because it does not result in sanctification (Js. 2:14–21). What then, is the difference between faith that produces works and faith that does not?
Paul gives us the answer in Romans 6 where he says that it is impossible for one who is truly justified to continue living in sin. Why? The issue is union with Christ. The life united to Christ possesses a certain kind of heart and produces a certain kind of behavior. This is a truth we touched on in our discussion of sanctification and is explained in Romans 6:22: ‘But now having been freed from sin and enslaved to God, you derive your benefit (fruit), resulting in sanctification, and the outcome eternal life.’ Paul teaches that the person who bears fruit in sanctification has been freed from sin as a ruling power and has become enslaved to God. He has been brought into subjection to God. That word enslaved, as previously pointed out, is the Greek word doulos. It speaks of the relationship of a servant to a Lord or Master. When an individual is united to Christ through repentance and faith he becomes a slave to God through Christ. Therefore, the essential difference between saving and non–saving faith is not only trust in Christ as Savior but surrender and commitment to Christ as Lord.
Christ has accomplished a complete and finished work, but in order for that salvation to be applied to the individual life, Christ himself must be appropriated. Saving faith defined as trust in Christ without repentance and commitment is incomplete, insufficient. Such faith will not produce a life of sanctification and good works because the individual will not be in union with Christ—the heart is left in rebellion against God. The mind may embrace the facts concerning Christ, but the life has not truly embraced the person of Christ. These Reformed teachers who promote an ‘easy–believism’ definition of faith are committed to the Reformation principle of scripture alone (sola scriptura). Yet, by misinterpreting the fundamental teachings of Christ, they unwittingly promote an antinomian message even while affirming the truth of sanctification (as a process). By appealing to men to trust in Jesus as Savior only without repenting, the gospel message offered assures them of eternal salvation from hell but not sin. If a man does not yield to Christ as Lord he is in rebellion against him and stands opposed to him as Lord. The words of Thomas Watson bear repeating:
‘Knowledge without repentance will be but a torch to light men to hell’ (Thomas Watson, The Doctrine of Repentance (Edinburgh: Banner, 1987), p. 77).Many today have departed from the biblical gospel. While Roman Catholicism has distorted the meaning of justification, much of evangelicalism has distorted the meaning of saving faith. We do well to heed Dabney’s warning:
The selfishness and guilty conscience of man prompt him powerfully to look to the Saviour exclusively as a remedy for guilt, even when awakened by the Spirit. The first and most urgent want of the soul, convicted of its guilt and danger, is impunity. Hence, the undue prevalence, even in preaching, of that view of Christ which holds Him up as expiation only. We have seen...what I regard as the dangerous statement, that the true believer, in embracing Christ, first receives Him only in His priestly office! The faith which does no more than this, is but partial, and can bear but spurious fruits. Is not this the explanation of much of that defective and spurious religion with which the Church is cursed? The man who is savingly wrought upon by the Holy Ghost, is made to feel that his bondage under corruption is an evil as inexorable and dreadful as the penal curse of the law. He needs and desires Christ in His prophetic and kingly offices, as much as in His priestly. His faith ‘receives Him as He is offered in the gospel;’ that is, as a ‘Saviour of His people from their sins’ (R.L. Dabney, Systematic Theology (Edinburgh: Banner, 1871) p. 664).Assurance
So what about assurance? Is there any? Romans 8:1 assures us that for all that are ‘in Christ Jesus’ there is no condemnation. All who have savingly believed in Christ have the gift of eternal life (Jn. 3:16) and can know they have it (1 Jn. 5:12–13). But scripture also warns those who have professed faith in Christ against a ‘dead faith’ that is no more than words. It is not those who profess Christ but those who possess him who can know they have the gift of eternal life: ‘He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have the life’ (1 Jn. 5:12; Jn. 1:12). Without practical holiness, no man will see the Lord (Heb. 12:15). Peter, Paul, James, John and Jesus all warned against a false or spurious faith (2 Pet. 1:10; 2 Cor. 13:5; Js. 2:14–26; 1 Jn. 2:3–4; Jn. 8:30–34) and the repeated admonition of scripture is for self examination—to make our calling and election sure: ‘Test yourselves to see if you are in the faith; examine yourselves! Or do you not recognize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you—unless you fail the test?’ (2 Cor. 13:5).
Assurance in scripture is given to that one who has truly received Christ, evidenced by the manifestation of his character in that life. The example of the Pharisees should sober us. It is possible to have orthodoxy of doctrine, outward religious conformity and be lost.
It is not the place of a preacher or teacher to give assurance of salvation to anyone. That is the right and ministry of the Holy Spirit. We may assure an individual that if he comes to Christ in repentance and faith he will be received: ‘All that the Father gives Me shall come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will certainly not cast out’ (Jn. 6:37). This is Christ’s own promise. But it is fulfilled only to those who come on his terms.
We have a tremendous responsibility to warn men of spurious or dead faith and to lift up the biblical standard of salvation. This is the purpose of the book of 1 John. John tells his readers that a profession of faith in Christ is meaningless without a corresponding holiness of life. Those who know Christ will keep his commandments (1 Jn. 2:3–4). John tells his readers how to test themselves to see if they really know God, are ‘in Christ’ and therefore abide in him: Do you walk as Jesus walked (1 Jn. 2:5-6)?
We have every right biblically to tell men that if they are not holy, if they are not being conformed to Jesus in character, but are characterized instead by habitual sin, then they have never been justified. If there is no holiness, there is no saving faith. This is especially true in our day of easy–believism. James Montgomery Boice has voiced a concern that multitudes of professing Christians may actually be deluded by a false faith. He pleads for self–examination:
It is not only a false theology that has encouraged this fatal lack of discipleship. The error is also due to the absence of what the older devotional writers called a ‘self–examined life.’ Most Westerners live in a tragically mindless environment. Life is too fast, and our contact with other persons too impersonal for any real thought or reflection. Even in the church we are far more often encouraged to join this committee, back this project, or serve on this board than we are counseled to examine our relationship to God and His Son Jesus Christ. So long as we are performing for the church, few question whether our profession is genuine or spurious. But sermons should suggest that members of a church may not actually be saved, although they are members. Teachers should stress that a personal, self-denying, costly, and persistent following of Christ is necessary if a person is to be acknowledged by Jesus in the last day...In the absence of this teaching millions drift on, assuming that because they have made a verbal acknowledgment of Christ ten, twenty, or even thirty years ago and have done nothing terribly bad since, they are Christians, when actually they may be far from Christ, devoid of grace, and in danger of perishing forever (emphasis mine) (James Montgomery Boice, Christ’s Call to Discipleship (Chicago: Moody, 1986), pp. 15-16).Dr. Boice suggests that preachers preach with the objective of bringing men to self–examination, to question the genuineness of their profession. This is what Paul exhorted the Corinthians to do: ‘Test yourselves to see if you are in the faith; examine yourselves! Or do you not recognize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you—unless indeed you fail the test’ (2 Cor. 13:5)? The seriousness of Jesus’ teaching on discipleship in contrast to the current message of easy–believism makes the call to self–examination all the more urgent and necessary. Better occasional self doubt than eternal deception. We must be faithful to present a true and complete gospel, to assure men that God will receive them if they come—on his terms. The Reformers did not shrink from challenging men to examine their lives—to make their calling and election sure. Note this exhortation from Thomas Cranmer:
All Holy Scripture agreeably beareth witness that a true lively faith in Christ doth bring forth good works; and therefore every man must examine himself didligently, to know whether he have the same true lively faith in his heart unfeignedly or not; which he shall know by the fruits thereof...A man may soon deceive himself, and think in his own phantasy that he by faith knoweth God, loveth him, feareth him, and belongeth to him, when in very deed he doeth nothing less...Some peradventure phantasy in themselves that they belong to God, although they live in sin; and so they come to the church, and shew themselves as God’s dear children. But St. John saith plainly: ‘If we say that we have any company with God, and walk in darkness, we do lie.’...Deceive not yourselves, therefore, thinking that you have faith in God, or that you love God, or do trust in him, or do fear him, when you live in sin; for then your ungodly and sinful life declareth the contrary, whatsoever you say or think. It pertaineth to a Christian man to have this true Christian faith, and to try himself whether he hath it or no, and to know what belongeth to it, and how it doth work in him...Let us therefore, good Christian people, try and examine our faith, what it is: let us not flatter ourselves, but look upon our works, and so judge of our faith, what it is. Christ himself speaketh of this matter, and saith: ‘The tree is known by the fruit’ (Thomas Cranmer, A Short Declaration of the True, Lively and Christian Faith. Found in The Library of Christian Classics (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1966), Volume XXVI, pp. 277, 280–281).Conclusion
If we would be true to the Lord and to the Reformation heritage we embrace, we must take a strong stand against any ecumenical movement that is willing to compromise the biblical gospel for unity with Roman Catholicism. Rome claims that the sola fide teaching of the Reformation rejected all works of holiness and the need for moral transformation, and that its concept of forensic justification was a legal fiction which was anithetical to scripture. These accusations are false. While it is true that the Reformers emphasized sola fide in their teaching on salvation it is also clear from their writings that in doing so, they did not exclude the necessity for regeneration, sanctification, adoption, repentance, and conversion. The Reformers did not reject the proper place of works in the overall scheme of salvation. They simply declared that justification was not based on the merit of sacraments or human works but exclusively on a relationship with Christ. Given the historical context in which the Reformers lived and taught and the errors of Rome with which they had to contend, it was necessary to focus on the biblical truth of justification. But as we have stated repeatedly, justification is just one aspect of the overall message of salvation proclaimed by them. Their teaching is an affirmation of and is in conformity with the teaching of scripture on salvation.
It is also important that we stand against the corruption of the Reformation gospel by the antinomian element within evangelicalism which corrupts the biblical meaning of saving faith by denying the necessity for commitment to Christ as Lord for salvation. This directly contradicts the teaching of Christ and scripture. As evangelicals, it is possible to rightly hold orthodox views on justification (in opposition to legalism), only to fall into the heresy of antinomianism. We can espouse scripturally accurate teachings on justification and be guilty of distorting the biblical teaching on saving faith. In so doing, while we claim the theological heritage of the Reformation, in practice we may embrace teachings which deny it.
We must maintain the distinction between justification and sanctification. Justification is based upon an imputed righteousness which completely delivers from the guilt and condemnation of sin. It is the only basis for our salvation. At the same time we must emphasize the necessity for repentance and submission to Christ as Lord in the application of that salvation. What profit is there if we rightly interpret the meaning of justification and pervert the meaning of saving faith? We must preach the whole counsel of God. Without a gospel call that includes repentance from sin and Christ’s call to discipleship, we will be guilty of proclaiming a false or incomplete gospel. The Christ who saves and justifies cannot be appropriated apart from a faith that commits to him.
The Church and our culture are in great need of revival. If we long to see it happen we must stand against the legalism of Rome and the easy–believism of much of evangelicalism and return to the proclamation of the biblical and Reformation gospel. The Reformers preached the gospel. They were bold and uncompromising and witnessed the power of God in great revival. Wherever the true gospel is preached and given its place of primacy and priority, wonderful transformations occur in the lives of individuals. We need a new Reformation today—a return to the biblical gospel message and a commitment to its proclamation in the power of the Holy Spirit. Paul’s words are as true today as when he first penned them:
The Gospel is the power of God for salvation for everyone who believes
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