How do we integrate the radical truth of the miracle of the new birth, as well as the gentle truth that the ungodly are justified by faith alone?
The former is dramatic: believers are transferred from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of light, from the dominion of Satan to the salvific reign and rule of Jesus Christ in their life. They are given a new heart, are indwelled with the Holy Spirit, and have the resurrection-power of Jesus Christ himself renewing their hearts. They have a faith by which they are not only justified, but are also sanctified. “He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” (Colossians 1:13-14) “No one born of God makes a [continual, persistent, unrepentant] practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him, and he cannot keep on sinning because he has been born of God.” (1 John 3:9)
The latter is gentle and especially re-assuring: bankrupt, struggling, empty-handed, broken-hearted sinners are welcomed, adopted, forgiven, united to Christ, and given eternal life as a free gift. Their mustard seed of faith is continually accepted an the instrument of their immediate acceptance by God. “My yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Jesus, in Matthew 11:30) “And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness.” (Romans 4:5)
I do not hold to the “non-Lordship” position. I instead affirm that sanctification necessarily and inevitably follows justification: those who are connected to the vine of Christ inevitably produce good fruit (John 15:5). Yet, two terms I learned from a non-Lordship author I think are helpful to consider: “front-loading” and “back-loading.” The idea is basically this: Even though one affirms justification by faith alone, one is in danger of smuggling in a false gospel by 1) defining “saving faith” in an oppressive manner or 2) demanding so much post-conversion evidence that a genuine believer is robbed of warranted assurance.
As an extreme example, the cults tend to smuggle the entire Christian life of obedience and works into the definition of “faith.” Whereas Paul makes a distinction between faith and works, others sometimes essentially say, “All kinds of works and obedience are equivalent to faith.” Such a person can say, “We are justified by faith”, yet mean the opposite of what Paul meant. Calvin Beiser addresses the problem in the following:
“The relationship of entailment between A [faith] and B [works] may be any of several kinds. A entails B if A and B are identical; If A then B is a valid inference by the law of identity. By causation, A entails B if A is a necessary and sufficient condition of B: If A then B. A. Therefore B” is a valid inference by modus ponens. By inclusion, A entails B if all A are B, even if not all B are A: All A are B. C is A. Therefore C is B is a valid inference by modus ponens. [With regard to faith and works, what matters] is whether the entailment is that of identity, cause, or inclusion. The first equates faith and works and destroys the whole Biblical teaching of justification by faith alone apart from the works of the law (Romans 3:28). The third subsumes works under faith and likewise destroys sola fide. Only the second maintains the Biblical distinction between faith and works and the Biblical doctrine that works are the necessary consequence of faith and so upholds the Biblical teaching of justification by faith alone apart from the works of the law.” – Calvin Beisner, “Norman Shepherd and the Faith that Justifies”, Knox Theological Seminary Chapel, October 22, 2002
I suspect that made zero sense to some of you, and that is OK. How about an analogy? Suppose my car mechanic friend tells me, “I will change your serpentine belt for free.” And then I ask him, “What do you mean by free?” And he answers, “I mean that all you have to do is pay me for parts and labor.” Oh.
Now imagine having a conversation with God in which he says, “I will forgive your sins immediately for free, by faith alone.” And you ask, “What do mean by ‘faith’?” And he says, “Oh, I mean, live a long life of perfect obedience, works, and holiness, and then at your death, I will immediately forgive you.” Yikes.
As you can see, depending on how one defines terms, the gospel of grace can be turned into a soul-crushing anvil.
Now consider a similar problem with regard to the evidence — the vindication, the authenticating fruit that we look for when we look at someone and try to graciously and patiently discern whether or not they are the “real deal.” Imagine telling someone, “You are saved by grace through faith alone, but in order for me to know whether your faith was real, you need to live a perfectly obedient life.” This would be an extreme example, but I you get the point.
The reaction of the non-Lordship movement to frontloading and backloading is to simply reduce the miracle of the new birth to a potentially inconsequential decision that a person makes. In a moment in time they choose to receive the forgiveness of Jesus, but no change of life is gauranteed in this life until death. Not only does this position run against scripture, it also values assurance above authenticity. I would rather have a dynamic assurance and real salvation than an absolute assurance and a false salvation.
Virtually every letter of the New Testament is relevant to this larger issue of assurance and authenticity. Let us consider two: Galatians and 1st John.
Galatians is chiefly about justification by faith alone, and the gift of the Spirit, received by faith alone. “We know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ.” (Galatians 2:16) “Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? … Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith… ?” (Galatians 3:2,5) Yet in this very same letter Paul writes of the works of the flesh and the fruits of the Spirit as evidence of who is a new creation, and who isn’t. After listing the works of the flesh, Paul writes, “I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.” (5:21) The one who is justified by faith alone, who has received the gift of the Spirit by faith alone, inevitably lives by the Spirit, displays the fruits of the Spirit, “sows to the Spirit”, and does not definitively (permanently) give up:
“Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap. For 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. And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up.” (Galatians 6:7-8)
The gospel of justification and the Spirit by faith alone is the root, not the fruit, of this salvation. May we never sever the root from the fruit, nor look to the fruit as the root. Authenticating fruit matters. And the most important authenticating fruit of saving faith is love: love for God, love for the gospel of Jesus Christ, love for the body of Christ, and love for one’s enemies. “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.” (Galatians 5:6).
Now, to the letter of 1st John. One purpose of John’s letter is to foster assurance: “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God that you may know that you have eternal life.” (1 John 5:13) It is important to read 1st John as a whole letter, not as a string of pearls. A good commentary that explains the significance of the Greek is important as well. For example, 1 John 3:6 is ripe for abuse: “No one who abides in him keeps on sinning; no one who keeps on sinning has either seen him or known him.” Is John teaching perfectionism? What does he mean by “keeps on sinning”? Does he really think that believers who abide in Christ obtain sinless perfection in this life? Absolutely not. And to get a sense of what John is saying, we have to read his letter as a coherent whole. John makes it clear from the first chapter that believers continue to sin, and that being in fellowship with Christ and abiding in Christ involves regular confession of sin, exposing ourselves to the light:
“If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:6-9)
Reading 1st John is easier when we keep this in mind. John isn’t looking for perfection in a believer. He is looking for repentance, confession, authenticity, and disposition. Again, what is the chief characteristic that he looks for in a genuine brother, born of God? Love.
“We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brothers. Whoever does not love abides in death. Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him. By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.” (1 John 3:14-18)
This doesn’t clear up all the ambiguity behind the issue of dynamic assurance. But it does point us in a general direction. Be patient and gentle with fellow Christians when they sin. Paul counsels us, “If anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness.” (Galatians 6:1) And we have ample reason to be merciful: “For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you.” (Matthew 7:2) But precisely because we are not the final judge, and because we are more concerned with authenticity than a static or false assurance, we keep the sober warning of Paul in mind:
“Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” (1 Corinthians 6:9–11)