Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Soteriology: A Bunch of My Thoughts at This Point

NOTE: I started working on this post back in the summer. I worked on it for awhile, then abandoned it because I felt like the scope of what I was trying to talk about was just too broad. But a couple weeks ago I looked at it again and realized I had put too much work into it not to try and finish it (even if "finishing it" just meant getting it to a point where it was blog-worthy and ready for further refinement). I do think I'm biting off more than I can chew here, but as God helps me to sort through this stuff I have to start somewhere. So, here it is.

In 2007, I helped to staff a summer missions trip in Wildwood, New Jersey for seven weeks. It was a great experience - one of the best summers of my life. I learned a lot about what it looks like to live in community, to counsel those who are hurting, and to share about Jesus.

The theme of our project that summer was treasuring the Gospel, so most of our teaching focused on helping the participants to realize just how wonderful the Gospel message is. We spent most of our devotions in the book of Galatians, emphasizing freedom from legalism and assurance of salvation, and we spoke often about God's unconditional love - the idea that, because of what Christ has done, we can rest confidently in the knowledge that our redemption is certain. We told the participants that, because of Christ's sacrifice, God no longer sees our sin. We even asked them to evaluate themselves, only to hand their evaluations back with A-pluses at the top. Christ has earned your A+, we said. That's the good news.

It was a wonderful summer, and I came back with a renewed passion for God and ministry. But in the back of my mind there was a nagging question: If my sin doesn't condemn me, why does the unbeliever's sin condemn him? It seemed inconsistent. On one hand, we believed that our salvation was sure - but, on the other hand, we believed that those who didn't accept the Gospel were doomed to everlasting destruction. I wondered: Does it strike anyone else as odd that we tell each other that God has unconditional love and grace available for us unless we fail to realize that He has unconditional love and grace available for us? If God really does have unconditional love and grace available for people, why doesn't that love and grace apply whether people are aware of it or not?

In the years since that summer, I have returned to this question often, and that question has beget many others. This is partially why I felt so sympathetic toward Rob Bell in the whole Love Wins controversy. When I read the first chapter of his book, I was deeply moved because it was so refreshing to hear someone from the Evangelical world giving voice to the questions I've wrestled with for the last four years. I don't agree with everything he says in the book, but I understand where he's coming from and I think he offers some valuable insights.

But, back to the question: Who ends up on the receiving end of God's love and grace? In Wildwood, we told the participants (and ourselves) that those who have faith in Jesus can rest assured that they will be on the receiving end of God's love and grace. For those who are "in Christ," we taught, God's grace is certain. However, we also taught - or at least we subtly implied - that those who are not "in Christ" will not be the recipients of God's grace. Those "in Christ" are guaranteed eternal joy. Those who are not are guaranteed eternal suffering.

But what distinguishes someone who is "in Christ" from someone who isn't? In other words, what is the condition that must be satisfied for a person to be a recipient of the "unconditional love" of God? Is it possible that God loves everyone unconditionally, even the ones who are not "in Christ"? If so, can this belief be reconciled with the common conception of Hell?

There's so much to think about here it's overwhelming. For now, I want to address the question: what is the condition that divides the condemned from the redeemed? I'll consider two perspectives.  

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1. The Reformed View

If you ask someone from the Reformed side of the theological spectrum, they will tell you that the dividing condition is God's choice. If God has chosen to redeem you, they say, then you are "in Christ" and His love for you is unconditional. If He has not chosen to redeem you, then you are (justly) condemned to eternal suffering. The dividing condition has nothing to do with you, but everything to do with God.

Most adherents of Reformed theology do believe that the redeemed must profess faith in Christ. However, the profession of faith is not considered to be the dividing condition between the redeemed and the condemned. Why? Because God's choice is said to precede the profession. The profession, they say, is merely a sign that God has chosen the individual. It is a necessary sign, yes, but it is not the dividing condition itself.

If you read my post from May 12th, you know I am not a fan of this perspective. The Reformers claim that God is loving, but they also claim that He creates a large portion (perhaps even a majority) of humanity for the express purpose of executing punishment on them forever. If this is love, it is not love in any sense I am familiar with. "Ah," the Reformers say, "that's because sin has warped your view of love. You need to understand that God's love is greater than our love. It is a holy love. It is different." I agree that God's love is greater than our love, but the Reformer's doctrine of reprobation doesn't sound like great love - it sounds like great hate. We can't redefine a word to mean it's opposite and still pretend that it means the thing we usually think of when we say it. If God's love is so different from my conception of love that it might as well be hate, then the word "love" has no meaning. We might as well stop trying to say anything about God at all.

Reformed theology says that the condition that separates the damned from the redeemed is God's free choice, but what about God's choice - is that conditioned by anything? From what I've noticed, most people in the Reformed camp have a hard time answering this question. On one hand, their answer is no because they don't believe that anyone does anything to warrant his or her salvation. On the other hand, their answer is yes because they don't believe God makes arbitrary decisions. God has His reasons, they say, we just have no idea what they are.

If you ask me, it's pretty hard not to view God's election as arbitrary if it is a decision made without regard to individuals' character or behavior in any respect. And it would have to be - because God's choice is said to precede the individuals' behavior. In Reformed thought, if an individual professes faith in Christ and lives a Godly life it is only because God has already chosen that they do so. But the Reformers don't want to accept the idea that God's election is arbitrary, so they argue that "God chooses to elect some and not elect others in the manner that most maximizes His glory." The problem with this explanation is that it assumes God will be more glorified if some people go to Hell. Why would this be? If God's election precedes and determines the behavior and faith (or lack thereof) of all people, then it is God who decides how many people will love Him and to what degree. If God is completely sovereign over who glorifies him there is no reason for him not to elect everyone, for that would generate the greatest net glory.

Think about it: A redeemed person can celebrate and glorify God. A condemned person can only curse and blaspheme from the pit. Wouldn't more redeemed people mean greater glory for God? If God's choice is the dividing condition, why - if God's foremost concern is His glory - would He not choose to redeem all of humanity? Does a musician feel more glorified when his latest album sells a million copies or a thousand? The answer is obvious. Something is off here.

Not to mention the fact that most people are not compelled to glorify a being who creates souls for the purpose of punishing them eternally. I'm certainly not very motivated to glorify a God who acts like that. Are you?

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2. The Free Choice View

This may not be the official name for this perspective, but I think it expresses it well. In the Free Choice view, the dividing condition between the condemned and the redeemed is a choice made through the free exercise of the human will. Unlike the Reformed position, the choice is not predetermined by God but is actually left to the power of the individual. Most people who hold to the Free Choice view still believe that God knows who is going to be saved and who isn't, but they don't see a conflict between God's omniscience and human free choice. God knows what people are going to choose, they say, but that's because of His perspective, not because of His decree. For example, when I watch The Lord of the Rings I know that Gollum is going to remain obsessed with the ring until the very end, but that's not because Gollum's character didn't actually have a choice. The reason I know is because I've already seen the movie. Like God viewing the course of history, when I watch The Lord of the Rings I have a perspective that the characters within the movie don't have. Just because I know what decisions the characters are going to make doesn't mean I'm making them for them.

So, the Reformed position says the dividing condition is God's choice. The Free Choice position says the dividing condition is our choice. At first, they sound like very different perspectives - but the more I think about them the more I realize that the distinction between them is muddy. Even if God has created humanity with the intrinsic ability to either reject or receive salvation, the power to choose salvation still comes from God. In other words, salvation in the Free Choice position is still only possible because of God's choice to create humans with the ability to make the choice.

Therefore, people who subscribe to the Free Choice view should feel just as dependent on God for their salvation as the people who hold to the Reformed position. In both views, it is only because of God's power and His choice that salvation is possible. The difference is that - in the Free Choice view - God has chosen to give all humans the power to either receive or reject salvation, whereas in the Reformed view God chooses to give only some the power to receive salvation and also makes it impossible for them to reject it.

So, the Free Choice view says that it is an individual's choice that determines whether or not he (or she) ends up redeemed or condemned. But what is the choice that must be made? Is it a one-time thing, or is it a decision that must be made multiple times?

This, I think, is where things get very complicated.

Most Evangelicals answer this question by saying something like, "You just have to choose to believe in Jesus." If this is true, though, I think there are two important questions to consider:

a. What does it mean to 'believe in Jesus'?

This question itself can be broken into two sub-questions: (a) What is belief? and (b) Who/What is Jesus? As to the first, the Bible says that belief is more than just intellectual assent. It's not enough to just know the story about Jesus and to acknowledge that He is God. According to James 2:19, the demons know this, too. Belief is more than just knowing. It is a knowing accompanied by an appropriate response. What is that appropriate response? Depends on who you ask. According to some, it's simply trust that He will save you. According to others, it's trust plus water baptism. To others, trust plus speaking in tongues. To others, membership in the "true" church (i.e. Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy). To others, trust plus fairly good behavior (or really good behavior, depending on who you ask).

And what about the second sub-question - who/what is Jesus? Whereas the first question asked "what is the appropriate response to knowing?" this question asks "what qualifies as knowing?" Sometimes people treat the name Jesus like it's some sort of magical incantation - as if all that matters is believing in the word itself, regardless of whether one has any actual comprehension of who Jesus actually is. This seems silly to me - especially considering that Jesus was never called Jesus when he walked the earth. The name Jesus is a mis-transliteration of a Greek mis-transliteration. When Jesus walked the earth, He was called Yeshua. But if the vocalization of the name Jesus is not sufficient, that means we must have some degree of accurate knowledge about who Jesus is before we can choose to believe in him.

According to most people who identify themselves as Christians, Jesus was a Middle-Eastern man who lived in Nazareth, taught in parables, and was crucified and raised from the dead. More than this, though, Jesus was (and is) God Himself. He is the agent through which the world was made and the person through whom the creation holds together. He is "the light of the world" and the source of all goodness. He is the way. The truth. The life.

If all this is true, though, it leads to more questions - the main one being: how much knowledge does a person have to have about Jesus in order to believe in him? Does one have to be aware of the Middle-Eastern man who lived 2000 years ago? Does one have to know that this man died on a cross for the sins of the world? Does one have to believe that He was God in the flesh? What about the Trinity? Does a person have to know about that, too?

I think it's important for us to remember that Christ is not just a Middle-Eastern man or a word meant to be used like an incantation. Christ is God - the divine power who created the world and holds it together. If we understand Christ in this way, it follows that if there are people out there who believe in love, goodness, and truth but have never heard the name of Jesus it is possible that they may know Christ better than some who profess his name. I am not saying that we can have any confidence that people like this (if they do exist) are saved or that we shouldn't proclaim the story of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection with urgency and passion (we should, because that's what Christ  commanded us to do - Matthew 28), but I think there is some room to be hopeful. It is possible that more people "know" Jesus than we are usually inclined to think.

b. Does everyone have the opportunity to believe in Jesus? 

If (1) belief in Jesus is absolutely essential to being spared from eternal suffering and (2) God's nature is love, it only seems logical to believe that God gives every person a legitimate opportunity to repent and believe.

In John 1 - one of my favorite passages in Scripture - the apostle writes, "Through him [Jesus] all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood [or overcome] it."

If Jesus truly is the "light of the world," everyone who has lived has encountered him in some way. Jesus said that "for everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened." I suspect that everyone is exposed to some measure of the light of Christ - when this happens, they can respond positively or negatively. Those who respond positively by desiring and embracing the light will find more and more revealed to them. Those who seek find. Those who respond negatively, however, will turn back to the darkness, remaining in spiritual blindness. The more a person rejects the light, the harder the heart becomes.

Of course, I'm speculating here - and even if what I've said so far is true, it leaves a lot of questions unanswered. For example, does this mean that everyone who hasn't heard about Jesus simply hasn't responded to the light in the appropriate way? Is it possible that people can say "yes" to the light they've been exposed to and still end up living their entire earthly lives without hearing the name of Jesus? Or does that idea contradict Jesus' teaching that "he who seeks, finds"? Is it possible that some people who say "yes" never hear, but then are given an opportunity in their dying moments because they did say "yes" to the light they were exposed to during their lives? I don't think anyone knows for sure.

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Faith in Faith?

Both the Reformed camp and the Free-Choice camp - although they believe different things about the dividing condition between the saved and unsaved - often demonstrate something I like to call "faith in faith." There is probably a more technical term for this perspective, but if there is I'm not sure what it is. People who hold this view believe that the faith one must demonstrate in order to manifest salvation (Reformed camp) or secure salvation (Free-Choice camp) is faith of a very specific kind.

As is usually the case in evangelical Christianity, people who hold to this perspective believe that the individual must believe certain things in order to be saved: the individual must believe he is a sinner in need of God's grace and he must believe that Jesus has died on the cross to save him from his sins. However, the "faith in faith" view adds an extra condition to true faith: the individual must also believe that Jesus' sacrifice is 100% sufficient for salvation. If the individual fails to recognize that Jesus' sacrifice is 100% sufficient for salvation (say, for example, by relying in part on his own good works), then somehow Jesus' sacrifice will not apply to him.

The best example I can think of to demonstrate this kind of thinking is a conversation I overheard when I visited my friend's seminary. A man was talking about a charismatic church he used to attend and he said, "Many of the people there believe you have to speak in tongues to be saved, and I'm worried about them. I'm worried because if they believe that, they're not really trusting in Christ for their salvation, and if they're not trusting in Christ for their salvation they're not saved."

In this man's view, although Christ's sacrifice is completely sufficient to redeem a person, that sufficiency only applies if the individual recognizes that it is 100% sufficient. If the individual fails to recognize this, Christ's sacrifice is not credited to him and he is not redeemed.

According to this perspective, an essential quality of the redeemed is that they recognize that faith in Christ's sacrifice alone is the only necessary requirement for being saved. God's grace is available and His love is unconditional for those "in Christ," but people are only "in Christ" if they believe that faith alone is sufficient for salvation.

This, of course, is the perspective I described earlier when I was talking about my experience in Wildwood. There are several things that bother me about this view. Besides the fact that there is something immediately puzzling about the idea that "there is no grace for you unless you realize that you are 100% saved by grace," one of the difficulties with this perspective is that very few people really believe it. In other words, if everyone who fails to meet this requirement is destined for eternal condemnation, there aren't going to be many people in heaven. The reality is that most Christians, conscious or not, suspect their salvation is at least partially dependent on something they are doing. Catholic and Eastern Orthodox people are more open about this than Evangelicals, but I suspect many Evangelicals think this way in their hearts. Any time a person refrains from doing an evil act because he fears being condemned to Hell or doubts his salvation because of some sin he has committed, that individual demonstrates a lack of faith that Christ's sacrifice is sufficient. If the 'faith in faith' view is true, how convinced does a person have to be of the sufficiency of Christ's sacrifice before their salvation is secure?

My opinion? I do believe that Christ calls us to have faith that He alone is sufficient to redeem us, but I think there is grace for us even when we (consciously or unconsciously) doubt his sufficiency.

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In summary, the Reformed perspective is neater and tidier than the Free Choice perspective, but the tidiness comes at a high price because we have to sacrifice the idea that God is loving (in any meaningful sense) if we're committed to staying away from universalism. Although the Free Choice perspective raises a myriad of questions I can't answer, it's definitely the camp I fall in at this point in my life.

I suspect, though, that I will always think about these questions and that I have a long way to go in the process of understanding God (all of us do - we will never be able to comprehend God, but those of us who will be in His Kingdom will be able to spend an eternity of time learning an infinite amount about Him). But, for whatever reason, God has wired me to ask and wrestle with these kinds of questions, and although there are times when thinking about these things leads me to despair there are other times when I feel like I am doing something essential to my walk with God - something deeply meaningful and even life-giving.

The problem is when it leads to paralysis. That does happen sometimes.

Have you ever read Romans 11? There are a lot of confusing passages in Scripture, but Romans 11 has to be pretty high on the list. It starts with Paul saying that he wishes he could go to Hell to save his people, the Jews (most of whom have rejected Christ as Savior). He says a lot about ingrafted branches and then he says that "all Israel will be saved" because it is through their rejection of Christ that salvation has come to the rest of the world. Or at least that's what it sounds like he's saying to me, and no one I've ever asked has been able to provide a different explanation.

So, what is it, Paul? Are the Jews going to Hell or are all of them going to end up saved? Aren't you talking out of both sides of your mouth?

He doesn't seem to give a straight answer. He simply recites a doxology I would do well to recite myself:

Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God!
How unsearchable his judgments,
and his paths beyond tracing out!
Who has known the mind of the Lord?
Or who has been his counselor?
Who has ever given to God
That God should repay him?
For from him and through him and to him are all things
To him be the glory forever! 


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