Friday, December 31, 2010

Toward a Demystification of False Faith

Luke’s theology (Lk 24.47; Acts 5.31, 11.18; cf. 13.48, 18.27) reminds us of the words of Ezekiel 18.21ff and it reminds us that repentance leads to divine forgiveness of sins: forgiveness of sins is preceded by repentance and has always been preceded by repentance. Given the biblical teaching that faith is the occasion of justification and a cause of forgiveness of sins (something not exclusive to Pauline teaching, in considering examples Luke 18.9-14 and Acts 10.43), it follows that either faith is a sort of repentance or that one cannot believe without having first repented. Let the reader consider these things before we shift gears in this discussion.

Meanwhile, the phrasal verb “believe in” at present has two meanings in common parlance: to believe that someone or something exists (e.g., “I believe in Santa Claus”) or to trust, trust in, or rely on someone or something. The latter meaning is another thing to consider before we shift gears in this discussion.

For two thousand years there has been the habit of saying “Whoever believes in Jesus/Jesus Christ/Christ/etc.” will be justified, or forgiven, or saved: the operative choice of words being simply and exactly “believes in sb.” At the same time, presumably we would be hard-pressed to find anyone who did not truly believe that this statement is not subject to some sort of qualification or that the semantic purview of such a phrase was not limited in some way. In other words, let’s stop to imagine the early years of Christ before he began his three-year earthly ministry ending around 30 AD when he ascended to heaven. Imagine that football existed back then, that Nazareth had its own high school football team, and that the continued victories of the team there were a raison d’être of people’s happiness there, like high school football in Texas. A game is coming up, but the star quarterback has been injured and cannot play in the upcoming game. Imagine, if you will, that the Lord himself is a member of the team but does not normally assume the duties of the quarterback. The coach signs him on as the quarterback anyhow, and does so because he believes that he is able to win the game.

What has the coach done here? The coach has trusted the Lord’s abilities as a football player to win the game. In fact, the coach trusts the Lord himself. However, the coach trusts the Lord to win the game, not in some other capacity, way or respect and not for some other reason. The coach trusts the Lord Jesus Christ, but you do not want to say that any of the apostles or disciples of Christ had this sort of thing in mind when they said “Whoever believes in him receives forgiveness of sins.” Again, the coach trusts the Lord Jesus Christ, but you do not want to say that the apostle Paul had this sort of thing in mind while contrasting the estate of self-relying Jews and in-grafted Gentiles in the book of Romans or elsewhere in Paul’s writings about the Law.

What that means is that “Whoever believes in him receives forgiveness of sins” would not express the proposition Whoever simpliciter believes in him receives forgiveness of sins in Acts 10.43 or elsewhere. With that said, no one really wants to start reading things into texts in a blithe or cavalier manner, and certainly not unless the scales of probability and possibility heavily enough weigh in one particular direction to warrant such an action. Nevertheless, one apparently must admit at least that faith with regard to sin and salvation from sin is what the Bible has in mind when speaking of faith that precedes justification and forgiveness of sins.

This leads to other issues. Reformed theology in toto is pretty much correct. What then are we to make of John, chapter 8 verses 31 to 37? It is written:

31 Then said Jesus to those Jews which believed on him, If ye continue in my word, [then] are ye my disciples indeed; 32 And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free. 33 They answered him, We be Abraham's seed, and were never in bondage to any man: how sayest thou, Ye shall be made free? 34 Jesus answered them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Whosoever committeth sin is the servant of sin. 35 And the servant abideth not in the house for ever: [but] the Son abideth ever. 36 If the Son therefore shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed. 37 I know that ye are Abraham’s seed; but ye seek to kill me, because my word hath no place in you.

So the faith of the Jews lasted for all of six verses before quickly fading away: this is remarkable in itself, but it also has the initial appearance of contradicting Reformed soteriology with its teaching of the perseverance of saints. After all, it is by faith that any believer lives and will escape the wrath of God.

We already know that “believe in” is a phrase which can mean different things, even apart from its use to indicate affirmation of the existence of some object. And apart from concerns over proverbial football games as mentioned earlier, it is conceivable that a person might trust Christ in a number of different respects. Some might trust him to expel the Romans from the Promised Land and to restore the Davidic monarchy. Others might trust him as much as they trust other Jewish religious leaders for guidance and support, while continuing to seek to attain their own righteousness as opposed to the righteousness that comes from God thus leaving themselves subject to impending punishment for past wrongdoings.... In fact, the Jews of that era must have believed in God in some respect and in some sense, for their actions were precipitated by a belief God existed (Rom 10.1-2) and a belief that his words as recorded in the Law could lead to their establishing their own righteousness (Rom 9.30-33, 10.3). Yet when God is left to occupy merely a remote supporting role in one’s seeking righteousness, we see a dividing line of semantic purview between John 8.31 and the likes of John 3.16.

At this point I think back on a person I used to work with. He claimed to be a Christian, and he went around asking if others believed in Christ, even clarifying the question to ask whether I believed that Christ died for my sins. This is remarkable, because while Romans 1.16 holds that the gospel of Christ is the power of God unto the salvation those who believe, the Arminian proposition that Christ died for anyone and everyone is false: both such that this co-worker of mine does not appear to have believed the gospel directly, if at all. In any case, it is unclear that this person has ever come to repentance or believed in Christ according to a sense of the phrase “believe in” which rises above the analogy of the proverbial coach mentioned above. The conduct of this co-worker was not only morally lackluster but was actually incorrigible even by secular standards. (No large surprise that he ended up being fired from his job, twice.) Without even going into details on the matter, to believe that such a person conceivably was regenerated by God and repentant would probably be irresponsible. And if someone believes in Christ without having repented of sins against God, what kind of belief can such a person possibly have vis-à-vis Luke’s theology of repentance? Answer: apparently nothing that falls under the semantic purview of the likes of Acts 10.43.

At this point I think back on bad trends in modern evangelism and think back on another person that I have spoken with in the past. “Make Jesus the lord of your life and you’ll be saved!” “Believe in Jesus, and your troubles will go away!” Neither of the two foregoing preachings is biblical though apparently both are present in modern preaching. (Ray Comfort over at The Way of the Master has spoken out on such things for years now.) Yet if those preachings make for one’s only concept of what gospel preaching is, then why should there not be cases of false conversion and false faith in this world?

Under those conditions, yes, one could well end up like the particular “ex-Xian” that I am thinking of. In this particular case, we are talking about a person who by his own testimony used to “believe in Christ, repentance, a personal relationship with God, submission to God, that Christ died for his sins, etc.” I paraphrase the words of this person and elide some details, but a few things in his testimony are striking. Number one, the fact that he did “believe in Christ” does not mean much per se and per nature of the foregoing comments of this discussion. Number two, one may notice that there is nothing in his testimony and defining of terms that precludes the following possibility: that Christ once was very important to him while this person was also was someone, not unlike the Jews of Paul’s era, who saw obedience to God’s commandments (which ultimately include moral requirements of faith, by the way) as being that which is meritorious of salvation. The semi-Pelagianism of various Arminian-like churches and congregations already leans in favor of such an outlook on obedience, without taking the plunge into blatant legalism. How much more, therefore, would the theology of a relatively ignorant, unregenerate person lean in this direction?

Number three, I said that I elided some details of the testimony. Many of those details were items of a list of things he believed in, and those in turn happen to be good deeds or beliefs that various particular good works should be done. (It bears noting that this is something I first noticed well after obsevation number two above.) Number four, and to come full circle, this would be ex-Xian actually took time to define terms, since I already knew that a phrase such as “believed in Jesus” could mean a number of different things and therefore asked about the matter. As it turns out, the very phrase “believed in Jesus” was defined not as trust, reliance, intellectual assent, or anything similar to this or closely-related to salvation from sin; instead, it was defined by this person in terms of religious service or spiritual devotion. On that note, I reiterate the words of the second observation above: there is nothing in this person’s testimony and defining of terms that precludes the possibility: that Christ once was very important to him while this person was also was someone, not unlike the Jews of Paul’s era, who saw obedience to God’s commandments (which ultimately include moral requirements of faith, by the way) as being that which is meritorious of salvation. Of course, such a belief also ensured that the unbelieving Jews of the era died in their sins, wrongdoings and acts of rebellion against heaven.

So the solution to the John 8 problem is probably that the Jews believed in Christ only in some more-or-less loose sense of the phrase. Modern pseudo-converts, on the other hand, are more likely victims of unsound preaching, muddled and oversimplified preaching, false promises of irresponsible preachers, and ultimately their own sins.

Finally, as the title of this article suggests the article is not meant to be a final report on the question of supposed ex-Christians and other things which initially appear to be contrary to the Perseverance of the Saints. Nevertheless, I believe that the arguments and conclusions therein lead in the right direction for further research.

No comments: