I can't help but find myself increasingly alarmed at the discontent of professing believers with the doctrine of justification by grace through faith alone in Christ alone. As a matter of fact, I find the preceding statement quite alarming! Should it ever be conceived in the mind of a believer that justification by faith alone would be questioned in any manner? This entire conversation is quite frightening.
Recently in conversations with professing believers I have found myself defending the doctrine of justification by faith alone. I have also recently been preaching through the book of Romans, and I have become ever more aware of subtle attacks against the doctrine. Paul's argument for justification by faith has been pressed into my conscience with such effect that I'm very sensitive to any conversation pertaining to justification.
Paul's entire argument to the Church at Rome is demonstrated with no greater clarity than in the words, "And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness." Paul makes it clear that...
A. He is making it clear that justification is for the "one who does not work," and that justification is not the result of any form of work on behalf of any individual. If it is then that individual would have just cause to boast before God.
B. He is making it clear that justification is realized for the "ungodly," and is not granted when the ungodly find faith and then improve their ungodly condition. We come by to Christ by faith while in the most miserable condition! Any other view is in direct opposition to the historic doctrine of total depravity.
C. He makes a most powerful assertion that for the ungodly man who does not work to merit justification "his faith is counted as righteousness."
Let me now state a couple things for clarity sake, even though they may seem at first of no importance to the present writing. First, faith and repentance (two sides of the same coin, so to speak) come as a result of regeneration. We are granted the gifts of faith and repentance by God. Second, along with faith and repentance, God the Holy Spirit empowers and indwells the believer in order that they might then be conformed to Christ, and manifest the fruit of the Spirit. Just as Abraham himself showed forth his genuine faith from God as he offered up his son Isaac. Finally, all of salvation, whether regeneration, conversion, sanctification, or glorification, are all the result of God's grace. For we are made alive by grace! Faith and repentance are gifts of His grace! It is God's grace that works within us both to will and to do according to His good pleasure! We will be raised by the same power with which Christ was raised from the dead! Soli Deo Gloria! (I'm working on a few thoughts for a future post about the believer's obedience to the commands of scripture, so don't leap to an attack thinking I'm denying Christians should be obedient to the commands of scripture.)
Now, I hope the reader does recognize that I do not seek to invalidate the claim that states "genuine faith will result in genuine fruit." I do however hope the reader will understand that justification is not by fruit. Justification is not by turning one's life from repulsive ungodliness to accepted moral excellence. Justification is not by religious activity. Justification is not by the outworking of gracious gifts granted us by God. Justification is by faith! Will that faith result in good works that God before ordained that we should walk in them? Sure! However, justification remains by faith alone.
The thief on the cross manifested no great amount of "fruit" as it would be assessed by today's fundamentalist standards. He was never immersed in water. He was never involved actively in ministry local or worldwide. He never contributed financially to the work of missions. He never contributed to the ministry of a local assembly of believers. However, as an ungodly man with nothing in and of himself that he might present before God as acceptable, he was granted the marvelous gift of faith to which Christ responded, "Today you will be in paradise with me."
With that said, had that thief lived past that very dark hour he was immersed in, would he have been baptized? Would he have joined himself to other believers for fellowship? Would he have then found himself searching the scriptures that he might grow in grace and in the knowledge of Christ? I certainly believe he would have! Genuine salvation according to scripture is accompanied by a manifestation of work of the holy Spirit within the believer. However, all that aside, he was justified when he believed! When he came clothed in self-abasement and totally dependent upon the Lord who hang beside him, his faith was counted as righteousness. According to many modern Evangelicals the thief should have went to torment because there was nothing to validate his conversion experience.
I have been told not to take obscure passages like that and build a doctrine upon it, because it's not the norm. I've been told the actual norm we find in scripture is the opposite of this. I've been told that opinions like mine are nothing more than silly excuses to preach people into heaven who make death bed confessions. I will now attempt to deal with each of these accusations.
1. Don't take an obscure passage and build a doctrine upon it, because it's not the norm.
I haven't. I have taken the entirety of scripture that teaches justification by faith alone, and simply set forth one of the most beautiful examples ever given to prove the veracity of the doctrine. It is actually far more dangerous to insinuate that in some obscure way this thief was justified in some manner not found elsewhere in scripture. This opens the door to a floodgate of religious philosophies that all claim various ways of justification. This thief was justified exactly like every other individual in Holy Writ. He believed God and his faith was counted as righteousness.
2. The actual norm in scripture is the opposite of the thief's account.
Such a statement tosses away the Biblical doctrine of God not being a respecter of persons. Such a statement concludes that the thousands saved on the day of Pentecost were all fitted into the same mold. Such a statement concludes that any mention of entire households believing was merely speaking of households with certain age groups, life spans, etc. On the Day of Pentecost we are told that Jews from all walks of life were present. Did God limit His saving grace to those who still had long days and much life ahead of them? The scripture actually does not give us a "norm" for the recipient of saving grace. Rather, it expresses God's saving goodness toward people from all walks of life, which definitely includes those with little life left to live(say that five times real fast). Perhaps it is our experience that most conversions we are familiar with include people who have much life left to live. Our experience does not dictate doctrine. The account given us in Holy Scripture must dictate our doctrine. The account given in scripture is that of justification by faith alone.
3. Opinions like these are silly excuses to preach people into heaven who have made death bed confessions.
I once knew of a gentleman who would visit hospitals and nursing homes religiously. He was a Free Will Baptist, and relentlessly pursued "professions of faith" from those he felt were facing death. He used scare tactics, empty philosophy, and other un-scriptural methods. He would then go on to preach some of their funerals, and would pronounce the individual heavenly bound as a result of their "death bed confession." This is wrong on so many levels that it would take a series of posts to deal with it. But to assume the position that I would desire such a practice for myself simply because I claim justification by faith alone apart from any human effort, is totally unfounded. It is honestly an attack on my character, and an attack on my ability to perform my duties as a minister in a Biblical manner. I have never addressed the eternal destination of an individual at their funeral. I always proclaim the Gospel with clarity and simplicity, and make sure those in attendance know that our church is ever ready to assist in any way possible. Even so, just because some have a twisted view of Biblical salvation, and they desire to offer false security to hurting families and friends, it does not negate the fact that justification is by faith alone apart from any work.
There is a part II coming very soon. I have also heard that such view of justification by faith alone stands in contrast to Jesus words in the Sermon on the Mount(Matthew 7), and that my view presented an easy Gospel, and that I was like so many who are ashamed to get tough and really tell the truth. I will deal with those things in a future post. For now, I pray these words find you well, and that your heart be ready to search the scriptures and see if these things be of God.