Sunday, October 27, 2013

Jesus or Hell: The Grace of Works Salvation (A Commentary)

The above video got me to thinking about how religion decides who goes to heaven or not. Fundagelicals boast about how salvation sola fide, or salvation by grace through faith and not by works, is superior to works salvation. This assumption is deeply ingrained throughout the Protestant tradition, but nowhere does it receive a less critical assumption than in fundagelicalism.
Some of the recent rethinking of the doctrine of justification by scholars like N.T. Wright, Gorman, and others has been attacked precisely on these grounds. Bound with one's view of justification is one's view of atonement. The standard fundagelical and I would even say broader Protestant line on justification and atonement results in a mystical Christianity that is highly disconnected from the affairs of this world, but that's another blog post. I would simply like to throw open the assumption and question whether salvation sola fide, by grace through faith and not by works, is truly superior. To do so one must set aside the standard systematic theology that has been with us since the Reformation. If we do so, I think we will find an utterly compelling case for salvation by works. Now let me stop here and say that my argument is a practical tool as a commentary on Christianity itself, not a call for the Christian church to change its teaching. Others can do that if they want.
The affinity for a non-works salvation is bound up in the story of Martin Luther, who apparently despaired of the eternal destination of his soul. As a good Catholic, he engaged in regular penance and self-discipline in the hopes that god would accept him. However, he never found that acceptance until, in a fit of despair one day, he realized that "the just shall live by faith," thus re-discovering the doctrine of justification by faith which remains with us to this day. The assumption is that Martin Luther really did not have god's acceptance before coming to accept salvation sola fide, and that after accepting salvation sola fide, he found peace and acceptance. This may have been the experience of Martin Luther, but as any good fundagelical will tell you, how one feels does not salvation assure.
There are several characteristics about Martin Luther that would dispose one to believe that his psychological anguish over the eternal destination of his soul had more to do with personal disposition than the achievement of true salvation. For one thing, the teachings of the Catholic Church, including types of sins, confession, and penance, could easily result in an unhealthy obsession in this area.
Secondly, Luther's upbringing was harsh. His mother was a strict disciplinarian. According to this website what Luther experienced during his childhood would be considered felony abuse today. Is it any wonder such an individual had issues with acceptance by god, especially since god is almost universally understood within Christianity as a father? Therefore, it is most highly probable that Luther's anguish was rooted in psychological issues rather than soteriological reality.
Another thing to consider is the disconnect between the teaching of Jesus in the Gospels and the teaching of Paul in his Epistles. If one just read the gospels, works salvation is strongly indicated. If one just read Paul's Epistles, salvation sola fide is strongly indicated. The standard Protestant line is that Paul explains the gospels. In other words, Jesus said XYZ but he really meant what Paul explained as ABC. The next option is that Paul has been misread, and this is the line that recent scholarly work on justification has taken (Wright and Gorman). Yet even in these alternative hypotheses, there is moment of salvation where one comes into a relationship with god through the church. The last option is that Paul and Jesus are truly at odds.
Again, I do not intend to argue systematic theology per se. I am merely pointing out that the concept of works salvation is far less foreign to historic Christianity than fundagelicals and Protestants would have you believe. Fundamentalists are especially poor at properly representing church history, and evangelicals are only a little better.
If one chooses to accept the validity of works salvation, what to do with Paul is an entirely academic matter. Unless, of course, you accept the idea of verbal plenary inspiration AND/OR inerrancy, AND you choose to recognize the traditional 27-book New Testament canon. Again, this is a whole other subject. But one could start with the hypotheses of scholars like Wright and Gorman and just take them a little further out.
A plain works salvation is clearly portrayed by Jesus Christ in Matthew 25:31-46(NIV):

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.
“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’
“They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’
“He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’
“Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”

To summarize, I'll quote Steve Douglas:

"Surely the God described in the New Testament who desires that His followers’ character resemble His own would be far more satisfied with an exceptionally ignorant follower, a silly but obedient child in whose life He is able to cultivate righteous attitudes and behaviors but who is somehow under the impression that she serves a Cosmic Platypus, than He would be with a follower who has come to the right conclusions on every aspect of Jesus’ nature and his atonement for us and who even tries to love his neighbor, but who passionately cautions everyone not to attempt to 'add to the finished work of Christ' by being preoccupied with doing the sorts of things that Jesus was concerned with during his life."

This is true works salvation: whether or not you know the deity in question, if you do righteous things, you are okay. The exact opposite is grace through faith salvation: no matter what you do, if you know the deity in question, you are okay. Even Paul in Romans seems to hint at true works salvation in Romans 1:18-20(NIV):

"The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.”

I think that most people understand this concept very clearly. What remains to be explained is how a person knows whether they are good and okay or bad and deserving of judgment. To listen to Martin Luther, the Protestants, and fundagelicals, one cannot know without resorting to salvation sola fide. Then god is bound by his promise to save you. Otherwise, you have no assurance, no salvation, and no chance at escaping hell. Such people are confusing psychological certainty with truth (something that Christian apologist James White points out that King James Only advocates do).
How can we know what the test is, then? Our conscience, which Christianity claims is given by god--Romans 2:14-15(NIV):

"Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them.”

What about people who have no conscience? According to Romans 1, they're doomed. People without a conscience are the criminals of our society anyway. Whether homosexuals are included in this group, as Romans 1 says, is another issue.
What about people who have an over-sensitive conscience? Paul explains quite clearly that while the violation of extraneous rules is not wrong, going against conscience for any reason risks violating the conscience in graver areas. Expositing the Scripture on this would take quite a bit of room, so I'll skip it for now.
What about people who have an under-sensitive conscience? Following conscience has a strengthening effect. So then true works salvation is this: follow your conscience. You have it for a reason. But, but, but... the rules! Christ came to fulfill the law, providing a final Hebrew sacrifice to free everyone from it.

Now having laid out true works salvation, I am finally in a place to comment on the video. True works salvation is a much more hopeful and loving concept that salvation sola fide. Any good person around the world can be saved if they truly follow their conscience. As she mentioned a friend saying in the video... hell is not a worry if you are living the right life. Who cares? And if you are truly evil, you should worry, but you probably don’t.
At this point a Christian will reply that truly following the light of conscience will lead one into the Christian gospel. God will make sure of it. This is patently false. Consider South American natives a few years after the death of Jesus. Unless you are a Mormon and think Christ visited the Americas, there is no way that any Christian could have gotten to them with the Christian gospel at that time. So then the logical inference is that all South America natives (at the time) were savages without a conscience whatsoever. I suspect one of the main, unrecognized problems Christians have with true works salvation is that it is incredibly pluralistic, because every religion teaches right living. It makes Christianity one out of many ways to god. Christianity becomes a Hebrew sect that, several years after the death of Jesus, morphed into another Hellenistic mystery religion, that finally gained traction when Constantine made it the state religion of Rome.

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