Saturday, June 21, 2008

From Heavy Theology to Easy Believism

A friend of mine who is a scholar and has written on this topic extensively even to the point of published material, gave me some additional insight regarding the nature of saving faith according to proponents of the active obedience school.

He writes,

"On the active obedience, people who believe in the imputation of active obedience will argue that if the faith is genuine (i.e., Spirit-wrought) then it will produce repentance and obedience as evidence of the genuineness of faith. The problem here is that the Bible represents repentance and obedience not simply as flowing from faith, but as necessary for justification and salvation.
Repentance is unto the forgiveness of sins. Except you repent you will likewise perish (Luke 13:1-9)."
So, I am wondering how much the ordo salutis has to do with this debate. But this debate seems centered around the temporal order of the Holy Spirit's effectual call, regeneration, faith, repentance, obedience, and the applications of those being justification and sanctification, whereas the ordo concerns the logical flow of these things: if one then the other. Even so, it is difficult to wrestle with in a non-temporal fashion for if one cannot have faith without regeneration, it is easy to think of the former not existing in time without the latter occurring first. On the other hand, faith and regeneration could happen simultaneously. The Spirit moves where it wills...
The active obedience school appears to be more Lutheran in its approach to the order of salvation than the Reformed. From what I have read, the active obedience school acts out on this paradigm because of its commitment to the idea of what Luther called glauben allein (faith alone). In fact, Luther translated Romans 3:28 in the German as allein durch den Glauben ("alone through the faith," literally); notice the emphatic position of the word allein in this translation. For Luther, it was very important to put forth the idea of being justified through "faith alone" because otherwise, in Luther's view, the only alternative was the Roman Catholic view of justification and sanctification being one in essence, and assurance of salvation--even salvation itself, would be impossible. Luther was so emphatic upon his position of glauben allein that he wanted the epistle of James taken out of the canon. Luther simply could not wrap his mind around the idea of faith working in conjunction or being the same is essence as repentance.
It appears this is indeed the key issue in the debate in the Reformed world regarding the whole idea of justification by glauben allein: are we justified by glauben allein, which is then followed by repentance and obedience (Lutheran view), or are we justified by a faith that is wrought by means of the Holy Spirit's effectual call, regeneration and consequent repentance and faith stemming from being in union with Christ by the Spirit's regenerative power (Reformed view). As my friend earlier noted, the Bible says, "Except you repent, you will all likewise perish," (Luke 13:5).
And, Paul says in Acts 26 19ff: "Therefore, O King Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision, 20but 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." And, "When they heard these things they fell silent. And they glorified God, saying, "Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life,'" (Acts 11:18).
It seems that the Lutheran view of justification has with it a certain level of unhealthy scholasticism that removes the idea of repentance from dead works from the idea of a saving faith. In fact, the original text of the NT in Romans 3:28 does not have the word "alone" in it: that was Luther's predisposition acting out in creating a gloss in the text. The text actually says, "For we consider that a person is justified by faith apart from works of the law." The word "alone" is not present. The active obedience school has, it seems, taken advantage of the Lutheran view of justifying faith, and added the theological construct of the imputation of righteousness to the believer as a consequence of the active obedience of Jesus. And, it appears that the "easy believism" is indeed a negative consequence of this doctrine for the parishioner hears that upon faith, one is justified, and that sanctification occurs temporally after such faith.
Therefore, repentance is not preached in churches, and although the Lutheran view teaches that a justification by glauben allein should and must produce a progressive sanctification in the believer, I think something else happens. What happens is that the mind of the parishioner interprets faith as belief, or intellectual assent, and casts off sanctification as something to be considered as "works" apart from the "faith" that they had (note the temporal significance), and many people do not sense the pressing need to repent, otherwise they too would perish.


Jonathan Erdman said...

Thanks for the post, Chris.

I think I agree with you that justification and sanctification have been dichotomized in an unhealthy way......but the passages you listed appear to be contextually specific. I'm always cautious in how much universal truth about faith I take out of a specific context. In Luke 13, Jesus is addressing a group of people who were discussing the "the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices."

In Matthew 10, we find the following story:

16Now a man came up to Jesus and asked, "Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?"

17"Why do you ask me about what is good?" Jesus replied. "There is only One who is good. If you want to enter life, obey the commandments."

18"Which ones?" the man inquired.

Jesus replied, " 'Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, 19honor your father and mother,'[d] and 'love your neighbor as yourself.'[e]"

20"All these I have kept," the young man said. "What do I still lack?"

21Jesus answered, "If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me."

22When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth.

23Then Jesus said to his disciples, "I tell you the truth, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. 24Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God."

25When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished and asked, "Who then can be saved?"

26Jesus looked at them and said, "With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible."

27Peter answered him, "We have left everything to follow you! What then will there be for us?"

28Jesus said to them, "I tell you the truth, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. 29And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother[f] or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life. 30But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first."

If we extrapolate this as a universal truth about salvation, then we must keep the commandments and forsake all things in order to obtain eternal life: and that is all! Taken at face value, this passage teaches a legalistic salvation.

Faith strikes me as a bit more ambiguous than we typically let on. I honestly wonder if it is possible (or even desirable) to define faith. Perhaps what I mean to say is that faith seems far more contextual: the people that Jesus were dealing with needed to hear a works-based salvific call; Luther needed to understand grace in a non-legalistic sense. The prophetic word seems far more contextual and far less universal.

chris van allsburg said...


thanks for the comment. you seem to be the only person on the planet interested in giving time and thought to what i write.

so, thanks again, brother!

I guess my immediate reaction to your ideas about contextual vs. universal applications of the salvation message in scripture is that it seems to produce a lack of foundationalism to the gospel message of repentance toward God and faith in Jesus.

As far as the Matthew 10 story goes, I think we can still extrapolate a universal truth from the text about the rich man's idolatry (2nd and 10th commandments). Moreover, the historical and cultural context of Jesus' time needs to be remembered: the Messiah was present on earth in a human body and required followers, which his disciples were. Progressively, we still follow Jesus today, by yes--obeying him. So the universal truth of salvation is the same: follow and obey for there is no other way to be happy in Jesus, but follow and obey.


chris van allsburg said...

also, in the Matthew (19, actually) story of the rich young ruler, we get a clue to jesus' intentions w/ the young man when he asks "What still do I lack?" Apparently this fellow knew that strict obedience to the 10 commandments was either a) not possilbe, or b) insufficient. Moreover, Jesus sums up the law and doesn't just quote the decalogue when he says, "and love your neighbor as yourself."

I agree that context is the key and the context is still Old Covenant Israel, w/ the Teacher of Righteousness in their midst. The young man should have known to have a "circumcised heart" (jer. 4:4) and Psalm 1 "blessed is the man to whom the Lord will not impute unrighteousness," etc.

And maybe Jesus' point was that the young man had indeed NOT obeyed the law, and was guilty of the 1oth commandment, "you shall not covet." And Matthew tells us that he went away sad because he had wealth.

I'm disagreeing w/ you that Israel needed a works-based salvation as opposed to a different sort later on in history (Luther's day).

I think the idea that divine justice is satisfied either by obedience or by punishment is a key paradigm for understanding the OT law. Israel was called to covenant faithfulness, which is a relationship w/ God as Father in union w/ him, w/ the result of obedience (not perfect obedience); which is to say, a living active penitent faith accompanied w/ daily repentance and renewal. Paul takes up this theme, I think, in his letters.

Jonathan Erdman said...


I will be back to your points, but in the meantime I wanted to give you a link to a Calvinist theologian and a book that looks interesting:

We are selling a book called By Faith Not by Sight by Richard Gaffin.

Here is the description (and I can't say I disagree with Gaffin!):

How, according to the teachings of Paul, does the individual receive salvation? That is the focal question behind this book. Gaffin argues against some recent scholars that it is both a meaningful and an appropriate question to ask. So what does the application of salvation to sinners involve for Paul? Does he distinguish between salvation accomplished (historia salutis) and salvation applied (ordo salutis) and, if so, how? And how important is the latter for him? What exactly is the place of justification in his theology? Gaffin argues that, “No matter how close justification is to the heart of Paul’s gospel, in our salvation, as he sees it, there is... a reality, that is deeper, more fundamental, more decisive, more crucial: Christ and our union with him, the crucified and resurrected, the exalted Christ. Union with Christ by faith—that is the essence of Paul’s ordo salutis.”