Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves. Do you not realize that Christ Jesus is in you – unless, of course, you fail the test? And I trust that you will discover that we have not failed the test.
2 Corinthians 13:5-6
I have been lately asked to respond to Paul Washer’s sermon posted on You Tube. (You can find the sermon http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cncEhCvrVgQ) I have only heard this sermon twice: and only one of those times did I attempt to listen critically to it, but I believe that Washer is on target with his message, though I admit that he dances fairly close to the line on the matter of genuine faith.
The problems that he is addressing are two-fold: (1) the weak type of gospel preaching that comes from many evangelists and pastors who preach salvation without repentance and (2) the Christian culture, especially the youth Christian culture, that has arisen from that type of preaching that has not resulted in lives lived in righteousness and holiness. When dealing with extreme conditions it is hard not to sound just as extreme in the opposite direction, and that is what Washer does at a few points in his message, but mostly he is right on target for the problem he is addressing.
I remember coming home to the USA one summer from Southeast Asia and being surprised by an attractive 30-ish woman in a department store. She was rather immodestly dressed with t-shirt, short shorts, fairly splashy jewelry, but her t-shirt had on it WWJD, short for What Would Jesus Do. I thought that she typified what is both right and wrong with much of the church. It was right that we were reaching people like her, and it was wrong that discipleship and holiness had been so neglected.
Washer is addressing the biblical basis for assurance of salvation. We are to examine ourselves to see if we are in the faith or not, and the examination must take into account both our profession and our lifestyle. If the gospel has not changed our perspectives and our values, as well as our actions, then we have every reason to ask whether we are truly saved. I differ a bit on the approach of Washer, but this is mostly a matter of methodology, not of theology. I find it helpful to lead people through a prayer of salvation, so that they can clarify that they have indeed asked Christ into their lives and that they believe the right things about Christ. The biblical emphasis is on believing in Christ (Acts 16:31 and Romans 10:9-10).
Yet the Bible also emphasizes the change found in someone’s life as evidence for real faith (John 15:2 and James 2:14-26). The statement of James, “faith without deeds is dead”, is not intended to say that we are saved through our works. James had already said, “He chose to give us birth through the word of truth” (James 1:18) and “Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you” (James 1:21). So the argument put forth by James is not that we need good works to save us, we are saved through accepting the word of truth planted in our heart, rather that genuine faith reveals itself through some work, some outward response to God’s love. As has been observed by many, the test of salvation and the filling of the Spirit are not how high you jump when the Spirit touches you, but how straight you walk when your feet hit the ground. Real faith will bear some outward witness to its existence.
This is the challenge before us: seeking to find some balance between faith and works, repentance from sin and acceptance of Christ. In calm reflection when we are able to sit down and write out our theology in peace, we may express all of these thoughts correctly, but in the heat of the moment, when we are on the ground dealing wiht real souls who are asking real questions about real problems, we can easily err on either side of this in our speech. So if one preacher is understood as going big on grace and soft on sin, or another is big on sin and soft on grace, let us state for the record that the Bible is strong on both. We are sinners deserving of hell and eternal separation from God. Christ died in our place for our sins. We are to turn from our sins and believe in Christ and obey Him. As Paul said, “I preached that they should repent and turn to God and prove their repentance by their deeds” (Acts 26:20).
A word of warning should be inserted here: the current American Christian culture rose as a reaction to legalism that was also an aberration of the truth. For decades in churches in America, church discipline was overdone, creating a self-righteous and judgmental type of Christianity. So in an over-reaction to the extremism of those years an entire generation of pastors and Christians grew up who saw discipline mostly in negative terms, and today we have churches where discipline has all but disappeared. The correct answer must be to return to the central themes and teachings of the Bible and not get caught up in the extremes. This was, by the way, almost exactly the issue that Bonhoeffer’s book, The Cost of Discipleship, sought to address for Lutheranism in the 1930’s.
Bonhoeffer described the “cheap grace” as “the grace which amounts to the justification of sin without the justification of the repentant sinner who departs from sin and from whom sins departs. Cheap grace is not the kind of forgiveness of sin which frees us from the toils of sin. Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession.”
He then described “costly grace” as “the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will gladly go and sell all that he has. It is the pearl of great price to buy which the merchant will sell all his goods. It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble, it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him. Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which must the asked for, the door at which a man must knock.”
What is the biblical standard for evangelism and discipleship? Where do we draw the line between spiritual immaturity and the outright rejection of the teachings of Christian holiness and righteous living?
First, we have laid the foundation for this problem to develop by preaching Christ as Savior without also presenting Him as Lord. The New Testament preaching did not make this mistake. The preaching of Peter at Pentecost proclaimed, “God has made this Jesus whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ” (Acts 2:36). Paul insisted in Romans 2:16 that his gospel declared that a day is coming when God will judge men’s secrets through Jesus Christ. Judgment is an essential element in the gospel message and if it is removed we no longer have the gospel. Of course, the teachings of the New Testament affirm that through the grace of God Christ died in our place, that He took upon Himself the judgment rightfully due us.
In all of Billy Graham’s preaching there remained a constant thread of social and moral obligation, that we are under the judgment of God because of our sin and the only hope is Christ. We must turn in repentance from sin and in faith reach out to Christ for our forgiveness and redemption. All Christian preaching must also call people to surrender to the Lordship of Christ, to live in obedience to His commands.
Second, we must be “redemptively” patient with new believers seeking to follow Christ, yet stumbling along the way. Since justification does not come through obedience to the moral law of God, we are also not morally changed through trying to be obedient to the law. Transformation into the image of Christ comes as we grow in grace, and not merely because we are told to obey. The fact that the divorce rate is roughly the same for the church as for the world should be no surprise, because people are only transformed spiritually by being under the teachings of the Bible and being obedient in spirit to the urgings of the Spirit. Since our people are coming out of the world and into the church, we should only expect that they are bringing with them the habits and patterns of thinking of the world.
The only alternative available to us is to be legalistic and strict, which would be against the spirit of the gospel and detrimental to the work of the Lord in people’s lives. In this area I believe that the gift of pastoring people, which means to lead them into maturity, is different from Washer’s gift of the confrontational prophetic word. After Washer leaves the meeting and gets on the plane and goes away, the individual Christian is still left with the call of Christ to live in holiness and the reality of his own sinful nature. He needs patient and loving pastoral help him grow to spiritual maturity.
Thirdly, we need to preach more on the themes of holiness and repentance. The holiness of God correctly understood always results in our deep awareness of our sinfulness. Repentance is an essential response to the revelation of God, and is clearly attached to the idea of faith. We cannot believe in Christ without repenting from sin, and we cannot continue to believe in Christ without continuing in the spirit of repentance. No doubt, the younger generations of today seem not to be so caught up in the same hang-ups that my generation dealt with, but they do have their own hang-ups. The legalism of the past created false guilt and left people dealing with worldly sorrow (2 Cor. 7:10) as opposed to Godly sorrow, which brings repentance and restoration. Perhaps the hang-ups of today’s youth result in not having any sorrow at all, no real guilt for doing wrong, which seems to be an even more serious problem.
Finally, no treatment of this subject is complete without taking into account Titus 1:15: To the pure, all things are pure, but to those who are corrupted and do not believe, nothing is pure. In fact, both their minds and consciences are corrupted. The context of Titus 1:15 is the discussion about the dietary restrictions the Jewish faith taught, and which foods are acceptable for a Christian to eat. This subject dominated much of the ethical discussions of the New Testament (see Romans 14:20-21 and Matthew 15:1-9), but the principles arising from these discussions encompass more than just what we eat and don’t eat. They bring us to consider how we relate to the world. John the Baptist took the Nazarite vow with its strict dietary rules, but Christ came “eating and drinking” and was known to be a “friend of sinners” (Matthew 11:18-19). Our Lord associated with the unbelieving world, and as the Father sent Him into the world He also sends us.
To be a sincere follower of Christ calls us to engage the world and to do it on God’s terms. We can enjoy the things God has created and continues to create through the human arts and crafts. Clearly a line must be drawn somewhere; there are some associations we must not accept where the world has gone too far away from God’s standard of righteousness. Yet the redeemed mind allows us to enjoy our Father’s world, both His creation and the creativeness of people who are made in His image. Where our conscience does not condemns us, where our freedom in Christ does not cause our weaker Christian brother to stumble, we are free to venture.
Ultimately Christ calls us to a life of joy, freedom, and fulfillment. We are not called to misery and unhappiness, but the path to our fulfillment requires that we deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow after Him. Only in maintaining the balance of the free and abundant grace of God in Christ and our responsibility before God to be holy as our God is holy is our freedom and joy found.
Lord, let us follow You, the Biblical Christ, not the “False Christ of Modern Culture” or the “False Christ of Convenience.” Lead us to know You in Your holiness, lead us in the paths of repentance and faith, that we might live lives pleasing to You. Amen.