If you’ve been following along with my posts, you might have noticed that I’ve managed to cover all the standard characteristics of Evangelicalism except “conversionism, the belief that lives need to be changed”. I admit to stretching the assigned topic at times to get through the list, but this month’s topic, “Faith and Works”, is a softball pitch of the beer-in-one-hand variety for me. Salvation is the term Christians (especially Evangelicals) use to describe the conversion event and Protestantism was founded because of our insistence that conversion is an act of faith and not of works. I could dig up a quote from one of Paul’s letters and be done with it, but it turns out to be not that easy.
A few weeks ago, my son asked me what the most important two parts of a walkie-talkie are. (He’s at a very analytic stage in life.) My answer was maybe the transmitter and the receiver, which sounded about right to him. Then we talked about which parts we could get rid of. For instance, our set has a little LED flashlight, which is handy, but not necessary. They also have a hands-free feature that makes the Push-to-Talk button potentially superfluous. If you don’t mind the cross-talk from being locked into one channel, there’s a bunch of parts that are used to set up the frequency that could be removed. The only functions of a walkie-talkie that really can’t be taken away are the ability to send and receive radio transmissions. Without one or the other, it’s just not a walkie-talkie.
Salvation is a bit like a walkie-talkie: you need both faith and works or else you don’t really have salvation.
One of Protestantism’s touchstone stories for illustrating that faith is all you need for salvation is the two criminals crucified on either side of Jesus. One mocked Jesus mercilessly, but the other asked Jesus to remember him when he came into His kingdom. It must have struck observers as pretty humorous since all three men were surely destined to suffer for a few more hours and then die. Jesus promised the man who asked that they would meet that very day in paradise. By implication, the man was saved purely by his faith in Jesus as the literal Son of God.
We have a walkie-talkie like that: it can only send pre-loaded call-tones since the microphone broke somehow. My son set up a convoluted game of hide-and-seek that involved the seeker using the receive-only device while the hider transmitted hints. (He’s at the arbitrary rule-making age too.) Lots of folks figure God works a bit like this: we are looking for Him and He transmits revelations to guide us now and again. All you need to do is know the right things and you will be saved.
Historically, this view is associated with the heresy of Gnosticism. Bonhoeffer called the modern variation “cheap grace“. Jesus’ brother, James, called it dead faith. Taken to the extreme, once a person makes the salvation decision they are assured of eternal bliss and believe nothing else matters in this life. Nothing could be further from the truth—Jesus spent the bulk of His teaching exhorting His followers to love others as themselves (the Golden Rule) and to love God with everything they had.
But there is a kernel of truth in the idea that we don’t have to do something for God in order for Him to rescue us. Way back in Genesis 3, humanity was captured by evil and we cannot escape without divine intervention. The Hebrew Scriptures tell the story of a failed attempt to free one nation from the tyranny of sin via religious activity. Occasionally an individual will achieve a greater level of righteousness than their contemporaries, but when sin rubs against human institutions God’s priorities usually get lost in the shuffle. That’s why, when Jesus walked among His chosen people, He had to drive out profiteers who changed foreign money so that worshipers could pay the temple tax.
While I was on vacation in Hawaii last week, I witnessed a man pulled back to the beach by a pair of divers who had found him on the bottom of a snorkeling lagoon. Most likely, he got tired from fighting the surf, panicked, and accidentally swallowed some water. At that point, he would have been helpless to rescue himself. That’s what happens when we start getting sucked down by sin—we start off doing something a little dangerous and end up overwhelmed. I know that’s what has happened to me.
In the depths of sin, we need God to rescue us and we can never rescue ourselves. But you can’t say you’ve been rescued if you keep going back to the dangerous place and taking crazy risks. Salvation is a lot less like a ticket to heaven and a lot more like an AA chip. Thankfully and paradoxically, God has provided a way for followers of Jesus to escape sin daily: His own Spirit.
To me, salvation is the total package. We can’t save ourselves from our addiction to sin so we need faith. And yes, we risk falling back into sin if we don’t continue to pursue a godly life via works. In order to be effective at either faith or works, we need God’s Spirit to guide our steps. Further, we need the other believers to support us in these things. And prayer! Don’t forget prayer. Reading your Bible can help too. And so on.
All of this is to say, you could probably communicate with a pair of walkie-talkies that have just a transmit and receive function, but that’s not the best option. Even seemly pointless features, like a flashlight, turn out to be wonderfully useful and appreciated at times. God isn’t really interested in giving us the most basic tools to live a good life. He’s interested in giving us the best tools:
For thus says the LORD: “Sing aloud with gladness for Jacob, and raise shouts for the chief of the nations; proclaim, give praise, and say, ‘O LORD, save your people, the remnant of Israel.’—Jeremiah 31:7 (ESV)
So in the weeks to come, starting with Bruce‘s Arminian/Wesleyan perspective, remember that we all agree that Salvation is what Jesus has done for us even though we disagree about the mechanism of Salvation.