Earlier this year R.C. Sproul’s Ligonier Ministries released the results of their survey of the views of Americans on God, sin, salvation, heaven and hell, and the Bible, with the tagline “A Poll of Eternal Significance.” The not so subtle implication is that the answers given to the survey questions indicate that most of the participants are in peril of eternal damnation because they are not affirming the correct propositions about the matters above. There is nothing particularly surprising about Ligonier’s tone in the survey since they take pride in identifying themselves as defenders and promoters of the theology of the Protestant Reformers, a theology that rests on the conviction that ultimately orthodoxy (correct teaching or belief) rather than orthopraxy (correct living) is what determines one’s standing before God. Granted, it is a bit more nuanced than that, but, for instance, in classic Protestant theology it is of critical importance that a proper distinction be made between “faith” (a passive confidence in the sufficiency of Jesus’ work rightly understood) and “works” (righteous living). Any understanding of the message of Jesus and the Apostles that departs from the Reformed Protestant definitions is a false gospel, and those who preach it, along with those who believe it, stand condemned according to their reading of Paul’s Letter to the Galatians (1:9 – 10). In effect, the eternal destiny of human beings rests on whether or not they sincerely affirm the right ideas. A number of considerations make this a rather dubious proposition.
The testimony of Scripture is less than definitive on a number of the matters Ligonier identifies as having “eternal significance.” For instance, the survey asked participants to agree or disagree with the statement, “By the good deeds I do, I partly contribute to earning my place in heaven.” The authors of the survey were dismayed at the significant percentage of evangelicals who agreed with this assertion, but I can imagine a diligent student of the Bible, not catechized in the classic Reformed categories, pausing and calling to mind Jesus granting the sheep entrance into his kingdom because they had fed the hungry, clothed the naked, and visited the imprisoned (Matthew 25:31 – 46), or remembering James’ declaration that a person is justified by his works and not by faith alone (James 2:14). A thoughtful student of scripture might also consider Jesus’ proclamation that on the last day “those who did the good” will come forth from their tombs to a resurrection of life (John 5:28 – 29) or recall that Jesus told the story of the Good Samaritan to answer the question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Even the great Apostle of Grace, Paul, muddles his supposedly precise articulations with statements like, “The one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life” (Galatians 6:8). The Apostle uses “action verbs” giving the impression that one needs to exert some effort if he or she hopes to live eternally. It certainly seems plausible that one might affirm that good deeds play a part in salvation based on the testimony of the Bible.
If a “plain reading” of the scripture does not offer a clear answer to the role of works in redemption, then surely, we can rely on the scholars for clarity on the issue. However, the men and women who have devoted their lives to understanding the sacred texts cannot even agree on what it says. There is a lively debate between the “heavy-hitters” in the theological arena over what Paul means when he uses the terms “faith” and “works.” Should “faith” be understood as “a sincere but passive trust” or is it more proper to translate the Greek term pistos as “faithfulness” implying a more active reality? Additionally, is it our exercise of “faith” that saves us or is it the “faithfulness” of Jesus in fulfilling the will of the Father, a possibility based on the syntax of the Greek words underlying the English translations we rely on? When Paul speaks of “works,” is he referring to “righteous deeds” or “the works of the law” such as circumcision, Sabbath-keeping, kosher eating, and other marks of Jewish identity?
To arrive at a firm answer to such questions is even beyond the ken of most pastors. The reality is that many pastors are not even aware of the questions, and many who are, possess only a vague idea of the root issues and would struggle to offer a credible account of the debate. This is not necessarily a failure on their part. They have entered the pastorate because they love Christ and are animated by His love for people. It is a calling that rightfully tends to draw those who are outwardly directed and not disposed to spend hours alone in the study of large tomes and the grammatical subtleties of ancient languages. Most pastors teach from within the framework that they have imbibed from their particular Christian tradition because they grew up in it or acquired their theological education within it or both. They are sincerely convinced that it is true, and most are neither interested nor inclined to do the work to empathetically understand other perspectives in order to look critically at their own (an endeavor that is fraught with both vocational and financial risks). Yet, these are the folks that the average congregant depends on for his or her conception of God and God’s will for humanity. This has always been the case and is of necessity.
Most people have gifts and interests in things that are vital to the health of the community inside and outside the church, but leave little time or interest in the kind of bookish knowledge necessary to genuinely grasp the literary, cultural, and linguistic nuances of the collection of perplexing ancient texts called the Bible. They were drawn to their church by a tangle of factors over which they have little control that may or may not include family, friends, geography, education, personal experiences (positive and negative), personality, and preference. When confronted with a new idea or perspective on a passage or issue, the average Christian will often dismiss it as wrong because it is not what they are accustomed to hearing, and that is all they are equipped to do. Most congregants live fruitful Christian lives loving and worshipping Jesus and serving others while remaining oblivious to the distinctive doctrines of their tradition or the thorny theological and textual questions that swirl around the Bible. If stopped by Ligonier interns and questioned about the faith, they will give the answers that they have heard their pastors and teachers give.
If the classical Reformed assumptions are correct, then God has placed a burden on the shoulders of men and women that even the best are unable to bear. Most evangelical Christians either blissfully ignore or remain unaware of the implications of the theology they have adopted, or they read and attend exclusively to teachers within their subculture in order to sustain the comforting illusion that they understand the Scriptures rightly. If the classical Reformed assumptions are correct, then the above realities make eternal life a crapshoot for the average person. They just have to hope that their circumstances (e.g. personal proclivities and the vicissitudes of life) have landed them in the right camp.
Thankfully, neither Jesus nor any of the New Testament writers make a certain set of affirmations the mark of a genuine disciple. One of the ironies of Jesus and Paul is that their harshest condemnation was directed at those who prided themselves on theological precision and made it the basis for excluding others. Rather, the kingdom of God belongs to those whose lives are shaped by the same sort of love that Jesus embodied in laying down his life for his enemies (Mark 8:34 & John 15:12-13). Their faith is faithfulness to Jesus’ call to take up their cross and live according to the values of the age to come.