Should you question your salvation?

May 14, 2009

The topic of fruit as evidence of salvation has recently been brought to my attention again, and I thought it would be good to take some time to write out some of my study on this topic from a while back. I’ll be doing so in a series of blog posts, then collecting the results together at the end.

The crux of the question is this: if a person sincerely trusts in Christ for salvation, but then sees some degree of a lack of fruit in their lives, should they at some point question whether they were saved in the first place?

As an answer, I propose the following:

  1. Biblical theology is based on a person having absolute assurance that they are saved. To demonstrate this fact, I will show that the logical flow of all of Paul’s general letters requires absolute assurance, and fails entirely if such assurance is not possible.
  2. The theology of questioning salvation on the basis of fruit, is based on the impossibility of ever having absolute assurance that you are saved, but, rather, always having only a relative assurance. I will show this from the clear statements of salvation-questioning teachers, and from logical necessity. I’ll then handle common objections to this conclusion, showing that although some claim that absolute assurance and questioning salvation can coexist, they cannot.
  3. Therefore, since Biblical theology requires absolute assurance, and salvation-questioning theology makes absolute assurance impossible, it will be demonstrated that salvation-questioning theology is inconsistent with the Bible.

For this post, I’ll simply state my arguments in support of point 1, then in future posts defend them one at a time.

1. Biblical theology is based on a person having absolute assurance that they are saved.

Arguments for this point:

  1. Paul addresses all of his letters to a group of people he calls “saints” and “brethren.” This sounds as though he knows that they are saved. And if he (and they) could not know for sure, it would be misleading for him to refer to them as such, because some of them would not be saints and brethren.
  2. Many of Paul’s declarations of what is true about the redeemed, are stated not in the abstract, but in the second person. He says “you are all sons of God” (Gal 3:26). This sounds as though he knows that these truths apply to his readers. And if he (and they) could not know for sure, it would be misleading for him to say so. He would have to say “Christians are all sons of God – are you one of them?” as many salvation-questioning teachers say.
  3. Paul exhorts Christian living on the basis of assurance of salvation. He says “work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for God is at work in you” (Phi 2:12-13). This sounds as though the basis for their work should be their assurance that God is at work in them. And if this could not be surely known, Paul would have to say “work, because if you do not then God must not be at work in you” – as many salvation-questioning teachers say.

I hope, from this brief summary, it is clear that Paul’s train of thought in all of his letters requires an absolute assurance of salvation. He writes to people he calls saints, tells them what is true about them in Christ, then exhorts them to act on the basis of that knowledge. He does not address a mixed multitude, telling them what is true about Christians and asking them to see if they fit the criteria, then telling them to work so that they will discover whether or not they are Christians. To force Paul into such a theology is to take isolated statements and elevate them above the overall logic of Paul’s writing. And this is no purely intellectual matter – this assurance is God’s intended basis for peace and Christian living, free from fearful, servile duty.

Obama, Piper, and Allegorical Interpretation

April 17, 2009

John Piper highlights how President Obama exegetes and applies the Sermon on the Mount:

We cannot rebuild this economy on the same pile of sand. We must build our house upon a rock. We must lay a new foundation for growth and prosperity — a foundation that will move us from an era of borrow and spend to one where we save and invest; where we consume less at home and send more exports abroad.

It’s clear how this interpretation misses the point Jesus makes of the parable: the rock is Jesus’ words.

What’s not so clear is that the same error is made by conservative pastors who use allegorical interpretation. The classic example is Origen saying that every detail in the parable of the Good Samaritan refers to something in Christian theology. No: as Jesus interprets it, the point of the parable is to love others in need.

Common allegorical errors today: the Song of Songs refers to Jesus (not, as it would seem, romantic love), many OT prophecies refer to Jesus (not, as it would seem, the land of Israel).

Mark Driscoll’s Marriage Sermon: The Flip Side

April 4, 2009

I just finished listening to Mark Driscoll’s sermon on marriage for men, from 1 Peter. I did find it quite powerful and helpful: it described ways of failing to be a man that I hadn’t considered before.

But I’m a bit concerned by Driscoll’s injunction not to criticize him, but, instead, to direct that energy toward changing myself. It’s true that God will hold me accountable for my life – but he will also hold Driscoll accountable for his teaching. And any applications I do in my life on the basis of incorrect teaching will fail to be what God desires. Yes, I need to change my life; but no, I must not refrain from correcting theological errors in the meantime.

When someone teaches on a hot moral topic like domestic abuse, it’s tempting to think that you can’t criticize their message, because that would be endorsing domestic abuse. That’s a logical fallacy. Yes, Driscoll was correct that domestic abuse is a huge problem that isn’t talked about enough; but no, he was not correct about other emphases. So here are my concerns:

First and foremost, Driscoll asserted that some men mistreating their wives may not be Christians (the idea of fruit-as-evidence-of-salvation has significant problems, but I won’t address those here). Assuming, then, that they are not Christians, what is the gospel they hear?

  1. You’re acting wickedly.
  2. You should feel shame.
  3. Jesus died for you – how could you act like this?
  4. In response, you should start acting better, right now.

I don’t remember anything being mentioned about Christ’s offering his righteous and life-transforming power to anyone who believes in him. The call-to-action is simply to change your life right now. It’s difficult for me to see how this isn’t works-righteousness. I know that Driscoll believes and teaches justification by faith – but the message any nonbelievers would have received from him in this message is quite the opposite.

If you add Calvinism into the mix, the problem gets worse. Just last week, Mars Hill Church was highlighted in the press as a stronghold of “the New Calvinism.” But where is the reference to the Holy Spirit’s enabling work? Where are the prayers for enabling power, in order to be able to change one’s life? It’s not that Calvinists shouldn’t tell Christians to change their lives, but it’s that such a strong teaching of your responsibility, with so little mention of God’s sovereignty and enabling power, is not what you’d expect from the New Calvinism.

Humility. I believer Driscoll probably is a great dad, so there’s no need for him to pretend to be a poor one. But even just one statement of humility would have gone a long way. He said to the husbands in the audience who considered themselves great, that they might not be, and certainly have something to work on. But I don’t remember any instance of him acknowledging his own needs to grow. Paul considered himself the worst of all sinners, who constantly did what he did not want to do – and Driscoll is able to preach angrily about poor dads without any admission of his own wrongdoing?

Finally, swearing. I’m not here to judge – I have a swearing problem, especially when I’m alone, and it’s sin, and I hate it. But I’m not helped in this when pastors swear on the most popular Christianity podcast on iTunes. It’s now a common rhetorical device for pastors to swear, and then say to the congregation “you’re more concerned with my swearing than with the injustice I’m talking about” – a great rhetorical device, but horrible theology. On those grounds, I could preach about murder, steal someone’s wallet, then say “you’re more concerned about me stealing that wallet than about murder!” It doesn’t work. Murder is a sin, and theft is a sin. Don’t use your preaching about one sin to excuse another.

As always, if any of the details I’ve written about above are incorrect, please comment and I’ll correct them.

Are Christians “Sinners”?

March 31, 2009

I started reading yet another book today that insists it’s essential for Christians to see themselves as sinners. Is this true or not? Here’s my suggested approach.

First, aside from the term itself, let’s look at the things that most Bible-believing Christians can agree to, related to Christians and sin. When a person trusts in Christ, they are credited Christ’s righteousness (Rom 4:5). Also, in some sense the power of sin over that person is broken (Rom 6:20-22). However, there is still a battle within the believer between sin and the Spirit (Gal 5:17), and no Christian is ever entirely without sin in this life (1 Jn 1:8). A Christian can overcome this sin to progressively grow in holiness, by relying on the power of the Spirit (Gal 5:16) and renewing his mind to the truth (Rom 12:2), among other things. A lot of times, disputes over the term “sinner” arise because one side believes that the other is missing one of these key points (and it can work both ways). It’s important, then, at the outset, to discuss these points, to see if both sides really agree to them.

If we can agree on these points, then, the question remains, should a Christian see himself as a sinner? We agree to all the above *assertions,* but should that *label* be additionally applied?

Here’s some hard Biblical evidence. “Although the New Testament provides plenty of evidence that the believer sins, it never clearly identifies the believer as a sinner. Paul’s reference to himself in which he declares, ‘I am foremost [of sinners]’ is often referred to as contrary (1 Tim 1:15). Despite the use of the present tense by the apostle, several things make it much preferable to consider his description of himself as the “foremost [of sinners]” as a reference to his preconversion opposition to the gospel…The only other places in Scripture that could be referring to Christians as sinners are two references found in James. The first, “Cleanse your hands, you sinners” (4:8), is one of 10 verbal commands urging anyone who reads this general epistle to make a decisive break with the old life. This is best understood as calling the reader to repentance and therefore salvation. The second use of “sinner,” found in James 5:19,20, appears to have a similar reference to unbelievers” (Anderson, Victory Over the Darkness, pp. 48-49). If you are aware of any passages that counter this, please let me know in the comments – this is the best information I have so far of NT use of the word “sinner.”

In light of this Biblical evidence, my questions to someone who would advocate referring to Christians as “sinners” would be:
– Do you think it is *essential* for Christians to see themselves as sinners? If it’s so essential, why did Jesus, Peter, Jude, and all the apostles recorded in Acts never call them that? Why did Paul only (possibly) refer to himself as a sinner, never any of his readers? Did the Lord and the inspired apostles really so thoroughly ignore such an important doctrine? One that you, over and above their ignorance or dullness of speech, have brought to light? Does the Word not really make us “thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Tim 3:16-17), until it’s supplemented by your additions?
– Do you, instead, think that it is not *essential* for Christians to see themselves as sinners, but *helpful*? If so, why would it be more helpful than simply explaining the above Biblical truths about a Christian’s relationship to sin? The term “sinner” is subject to misinterpretation leading to excessive guilt, but those truths, when well explained, are not subject to misinterpretation. So, then, isn’t it the explanation of the truths the helpful part? And didn’t the apostles find it most helpful to explain the truths, and found no helpfulness in ever referring to Christians as sinners?
– Do you, instead, think that it’s not necessarily *helpful*, but at least *permissible* for Christians to see themselves as sinners? If so, would you be willing to permit others to teach the essential truths about Christians and sin, *without* referring to Christians as sinners? And would you be willing to entertain discussions about the negative effects that self-identifying as a sinner could have?

Therefore, I’d say there is a strong Biblical argument to say that a Christian should not see himself as a sinner. Incidentally, most of the points so far in the book I’m reading work whether or not you use the label “sinner” – the emphasis seems to be focusing on the common truths I described above. If that’s the case, let’s focus on those, and leave our zealotry about extra-Biblical terminology aside.

Incidentally, the argument could be raised that this is analogous to the extra-Biblical term “Trinity.” I’d argue that it’s not analogous. The term “Trinity” was coined to defend clear Biblical assertions of the nature and relationship of persons in the Godhead, against heretical denials of these Biblical assertions. But there is nothing heretical about the person who affirms all the above Biblical truths about Christians and sin yet does not use the term “sinner.” Also, the word “Trinity” does not appear in the Bible, but began being used later, whereas the term “sinner” *does* appear in the Bible, but not in reference to Christians. The term “sinner” already has an inspired meaning, so we do not have the authority to change the way it is used.

Martin Luther’s humor

March 24, 2009

Martin Luther is hilarious. Check out this quote from On the Bondage of the Will. He’s talking about the inherent contradictions in the Sophists’ view of free will, and imagines a conversation in which he repeats back to them their own view:

“Suppose a Sophist of the best type were given me, with whom I could talk these things over privately in informal discussion, I should ask for his candid and unbiased judgment like this: “If anyone should tell you that a thing was free, which of its own power could go only one way, that is, the bad way–it could indeed go the other way, that is, the good way, but not by its own power, only with the help of another–could you refrain from laughing, my friend?” For on these grounds I shall easily establish that a stone or a log has ‘free-will’, because it can go up and down; though by its own power it can only go down, and can go up only with the help of another!”

Don’t Waste Your Life on Your iPhone

October 16, 2008

John Piper is one of my favorite pastors and authors, but one who’s known for not trying to be particularly polite. He wrote a book called Don’t Waste Your Life, talking about God’s purpose for your life, and how so many things can distract us from it. One of the examples he frequently cites is computers and technology.

Today, on Piper’s blog RSS feed, I saw the following headline:

Don’t Waste Your Life on Your iPhone

Immediately I got convicted. Is my latest technology interest really keeping me from God’s purpose for my life? Am I wasting my life on Steve Jobs’ latest gadget?

Then I read the post:

The full text of Don’t Waste Your Life is now available online for free in a format optimized for the iPhone.

Oh. Right. I guess Piper wasn’t calling me out after all. Maybe it was just the Holy Spirit.

Christian hedonism: why the question is important.

July 21, 2008

There are a lot of theological questions out there, and some of us aren’t particularly interested in theology. Why, then, should we pay attention to the question of Christian hedonism: whether or not emotions are an essential part of Christianity?

The Great Commandment says that “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” and “love your neighbor as yourself.” It also says that “On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” That probably means that if you get the Great Commandment wrong, you will get every other commandment wrong.

This is why the question of Christian hedonism is so important: it addresses what it means to love God and love your neighbor. A prevalent view in the church says that “love is not a feeling – it’s a commitment.” In this view, focusing on feelings is at best pointless, and at worst destructive. Christian hedonism, by contrast, says that emotion is an essential part of love. In this view, if you say you love God and your neighbor, but you don’t feel anything for them, you aren’t loving them. In this view, focusing on feelings is absolutely essential.

Therefore, Christian hedonism and its alternative have very different interpretations of the Great Commandment, which will lead to very different approaches to the whole Christian life. It’s therefore essential to come to your own decision about what scripture says about these two views.

As always, I recommend the Desiring God Resource Library for more information on Christian hedonism.