The Bible presents us with a strange dynamic, one that defies Aristotelian-like attempts at systemization. As with the Incarnation, we are presented with a dialectical soteriology. We have seemingly opposite and irreconcilable truths that we cannot reconcile. We cannot systematize them either by reaching a synthesis or by reading one pole in light of the other.
Just as the Scriptures seem to teach God predestines our free choices, we are also given a doctrine of Salvation by Grace through Faith Alone, grounded in election, and yet somehow cast in conditional terms dependent on our perseverance. We could say 'seemingly' dependent and that would probably be correct, but I would prefer to avoid this and other attempts at systematizing, because when we do this, we start the process of explaining it away. By throwing the word 'seemingly' or some other term if you prefer...in front of a word like dependent, we're viewing the conditional passages through the lens of election...which raises the types of dilemmas we often see resulting from System problems gaps.
Questions like....are the warnings genuine? are they written to believers? Is the gospel offer really sincere?
Once were asking these questions, we're on the wrong path. We're second guessing the text because it doesn't fit with our systemic presuppositions.
So how can we understand the passages that qualify salvation by casting it in conditional terms?
As we read the Scriptures and understand them we find that even our perseverance is part of the gift. Our very faith is part of the gift. There is nothing to boast about.
Yet somehow from our temporal perspective and in the realm of our experience, we understand this Divine Gift of Grace to be conditioned upon our continuance in believing.
While on one level faith is the intangible hope in things unseen, not an irrational hope, but supra-rational. It makes sense, it's not blind, but at the same time it requires we proceed beyond what is immediately verifiable. You can't reduce Saving Faith to mathematical formula that can be observed and verified.
Those that attempt to this end up reducing Saving Faith to word-form. Basically if you say the right words and really truly understand them, grasp the profundity of the grammar…then you are indeed saved. For the Arminian system this is the moment of Rebirth…for the Predestinarian, the words follow shortly after Rebirth.
Saving faith cannot be mere assent. There are many theologians who suggest this, but this is what James calls the faith of demons. They too have no problem acknowledging who Christ is and what he's done. According to some understandings of the gospel, these demons would have to be saved.
But Saving Faith in the Scriptures seems to be something more. It has a vitality, an element of continuance. Though we fight (and we exhorted to fight) the long defeat against the flesh…we continue. Not under our own power, but through the working of the Spirit. We begin to not only discern what is right, but we desire the right. There is an on-going change. Sanctification, a vitality that demonstrates the reality of our Justification, the present reality and promise of our adoption, it's a foretaste of the glory we already possess in Christ and yet totally lack here on the Earth prior to the 2nd Coming.
These dynamics are replete throughout everything the New Testament teaches regarding Salvation.
It is Union. It is Justification. It is Sanctification. It is Glorification.
It is mortification and rebirth.
It is a multi-faceted unity…and we in our finiteness cannot take in all facets at once. And each facet serves as window, an aspect to the total picture of our reconciliation. Each alone is both sufficient to convey the message of Salvation, but insufficient apart from the whole picture.
Justification is but one facet and it is a mistake to look at all the others in light of just one. Salvation is Justification….but it's not merely Justification with some corollary ideas.
And each of these aspects of Divine Redemption has both an ongoing/temporal and an already completed/eternal or eschatological aspect.
For the systematician, the math doesn't work.
We're saved and not yet saved.
We're sanctified and not yet sanctified.
Again all these things tie in with our Union in Christ.
Christ the Theanthropos, the God-Man is both
Reigning and not yet reigning.
Glorified and not yet fully glorified as He will be in the Consummation.
We being United to Him, share these same dynamics, these same tensions.
Truly we live between the worlds, between the times. We are inhabitants of two realms.
Again and again we are exhorted that our hearts are wicked, the flesh deceives, draws us back, we are tempted, we groan and we are sorrowful.
And yet we are also to reckon ourselves redeemed, dead to sin, free from the bondage of sin and its temptations, and we are full of joy, hope and peace.
This then is the tension that helps us understand faith. It's living here and now and yet living as if we're in the future realm, the Eschatological Kingdom…the Kingdom of Heaven.
We are saved, we are being saved.
The Systematicians like to break it all down into an outline, a form, a chronological system that explains how we're elected, regenerated, and then subsequent to that we are converted….repentance and belief (our acts) are placed under conversion.
Calvinistic systematics teach our regeneration is not a result of our repentance and belief as the Arminians teach. Rather we repent and believe because we are regenerate.
This is true and I believe the Bible teaches this, but it often does not teach it this way. How is it presented? We're simply told to repent and believe. We're not told to pick it apart, though there are times when we can do that. But this type of hyper-dividing of terminologies is driven by System-thought. Trying to place everything in this or that category, and saying this term must mean this because chronologically it comes after this idea. Saying a particular term must always mean the same thing...this too can be a symptom.
It's great for writing a manual, but the Scriptures don't speak this way and when it comes to our daily lives, what are we told?
Today, if you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.
We're not told…okay, understand that now in light of Divine Grace, which is a gift that cannot be rescinded…oh…well, what can that mean? How could we 'harden' our hearts? That doesn't make any sense? The warning is empty.
Right. Because you've imposed the system on the text. The text simply says to not harden your heart. Full stop.
Now the system says, we can't harden our hearts, because we didn't have the ability as it were to soften our hearts in the first place. That may be true. But again, that's not how it's presented. Or it may say we can't harden our hearts because it has viewed temporal salvation and assurance through the lens of election.
Again this demonstrates a fundamentally different way in how we go about the Scriptures. Do we walk through the text, grabbing out verses as it were and plug them into the appropriate place in the grid…..in this case actually removing the weight of the words?
Or do we follow the text and if our system is dynamic, dialectic, or undeveloped, we say….so be it?
I would say we need to be careful not to harden our hearts and thus fall away. We need to keep repenting and believing...which if we're regenerate, we will surely do.
I'm hardly suggesting we have to live in some constant state of terror and angst. Far from it. We can have a bold assurance, because it's not about us, nor dependent on us. But if I go on for years living in a state of apathy, taking grace for granted, and have no desire for the things of God, then I shouldn't have assurance, I should tremble. I'm not manifesting the fruits of the Holy Spirit working in me. I need to fall down on my knees.
Now some who grow apathetic might be saved. Some who are zealous are undoubtedly lost...but that's beside the point.
If fruit has to be present, then it would seem there is some kind of call for continued vitality. Somehow in the mystery of things, that vitality is something we do, but those of us doing it know full well it's all of the Lord. If left to ourselves, we would walk away, our faith would fail.
The vitality shows the work of the Holy Spirit, is a testimony to others, and to some extent can testify to our own hearts. I find no joy in reviewing my Christian walk. Frankly it makes me pretty sick. BUT...compared to what I was as a lost person...not much better at all, no comfort there...but there is a vitality, a reason for living and existing, a way of thinking that wasn't there before. God help me if that dies or withers. There's no boasting, no points. It has nothing to do with that.
But there's no false assurance either. When I'm in a season of sin...if I'm not driven to repentance, then something is wrong. What do I 'do' about it? Repent and believe. Preach the gospel to myself every single day...and all is well.
The Scriptures clearly teach both God's Divine Sovereignty in Providence and in Salvation… and yet they also teach man's responsibility and that man's choices have consequences.
As I said earlier God predestines our free choices. The logician says that's incoherent. He would say either predestination cannot be, or we don't have free choices.
I would simply say that theology and all metaphysics transcend logic. It doesn't mean they're illogical, it just means that two-dimensional time bound logic can't decipher it….just as it cannot the Trinity or the Incarnation.
I've written before how the Hyper-Calvinist, building a system off the foundation of Election views salvation as 100% God and 0% man.
Systemically sound, but in contradiction to the text.
Arminianism teaches that salvation is 95% God and 5% man, or some even believe it's 50% God and 50% man.
Sound by Enlightenment standards of fairness, justice, and logical coherence in allowing human responsibility…. but a gross perversion of the doctrines of Scripture.
The Dialectical View grasps salvation as being 100% God and 100% man. This is the same dynamic at work in the Incarnation. In fact I would argue the Incarnation is the hermeneutical key to understanding the Salvation, the Kingdom, the Church including the Sacraments, etc…and even the Gospel itself.
These are all issues that we've discussed before. This same way of thinking can be applied to the Sacraments/Ordinances and we can understand Baptism and the Lord's Supper as meaning absolutely everything and yet nothing. They save and yet absolutely do not.
We don't need to impose a system and try and relegate this verse to water baptism and this verse to Spirit baptism. We simply follow text and when it says, rise and wash away your sins, we don't need to change the meaning, qualify the grammar. Instead we need to expand how we think.
What about Assurance someone will inevitably ask?
We can have 100% assurance…..today.
Tomorrow, as long we're preaching the gospel to ourselves, repenting and believing, persevering, then we know that we are not hardening our hearts, falling from grace, or 'not' continuing in the faith. We know the Spirit is working in us…as pathetic and rebellious in our hearts as we are….the perseverance, the fruit of faith demonstrates we are the children of God.
Why am I questioning the normal understanding of Justification by Faith Alone? I'm not questioning it at all. I'm questioning what has been done with it. I'm questioning those that make it the centerpiece of a system and treat it in a way the Scriptures do not. If you want a system, a lens by which to understand theology, a hermeneutical tool, that gives us a metaphysical epistemology, a correct Divine Logic…..then we look to the Incarnation to the Person of Christ Jesus.
Any System-thought, whether anchored on Libertarian Free Will, Divine Predestination, Justification by Faith Alone, Logic, Experientialism, or any other thing will in the end take over the text of Scripture and by necessity will have to reduce, redefine, or otherwise explain away some or many texts.
The only right anchor is the Person of Jesus Christ. The Supra-Logical Revelation of His Person does provide a System, but it's Dialectical and thus can incorporate all the texts of Scripture even when they seem to contradict.
In the case of Hyper-Sola-Fideism, a system is erected that does indeed magnify Divine Grace…but at the expense of the full scope of Revelation.
Now, aren't I being a bit presumptuous….taking on history, challenging tradition?
Yes and no.
On the one hand, anyone who claims to be Protestant must acknowledge that history can be wrong. Their own historical claims depend on it.
While we all would certainly reject the Roman understanding of Justification, I think it best to avoid some of the systematic and confessional structures Protestantism has given to us.
While I can't argue the Church Fathers understood these things exactly in the way I'm explaining them…nevertheless, what I'm saying is compatible with Early Patristics, more developed later under Augustine, (I'm not endorsing everything Augustine taught or did) and then seemed to be repeated again among some of the Dissenters during the Middle Ages. Again, it was held in undeveloped form. We find Hussites, Lollards, and Waldenses holding to both Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility. They have an understanding of Grace in salvation but also believe in the efficacy of the Church, the ordinances, and in the importance of works, a living faith. First and foremost they were committed to Scripture and were not keen on tradition or man-made systems.
Go to part 4