Over the years I have been disappointed in the subtle, unintentional assault upon the Gospel. Asking a hypothetical question, “If you stood before God and He asked you why He should let you into His Heaven” what would be your response? Most Christians say something like this: “Because of my faith in Jesus’s sacrificial death on the cross.” Few who identify as “Christian” would say, “Because of my works.” And this is great!
However, when asking ourselves how we KNOW that we are saved from God’s eternal wrath, our answers and our assurance become fuzzier. How do you know that you are saved? Would you rely on your faith, your actions or a combination? Again, most would immediately say it’s their faith that they are relying on.
But, when we consider the proof of our salvation, we begin to focus on what we have done. We often turn inward and question whether our faith was genuine. Unintentionally, faith takes a back seat to works. We determine (and it may be the case) that when the works aren’t present that our faith may not have been authentic.
So, we begin to ask questions along these lines. Did I “really” believe? Are my works commensurate with my faith? Are my sin patterns exemplary of a lifestyle void of faith? Thus, $64,000 question is: How do you gain unequivocal assurance? Do you immediately consider what you do rather or don’t do rather than what you believe? Do you look at your daily life and wonder if your behavior measures up to Jesus’s expectations? Introspection is healthy, but it can undermine our assurance. If you determine your eternal standing is based upon behavior, this can be a very slippery slope. If your behavior (works) is lacking (whose isn’t at times) does that mean that you believed in vain since you are told that by your fruit you shall be known?
From the site, Got Questions is the following analysis of Matthew 7:16, “You shall know them by their fruit.”
The statement “you will know them by their fruit” (Matthew 7:16) is part of Jesus’ teaching about recognizing true followers and avoiding false prophets. Beginning with verse 15, we read this context: “Beware of the false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Grapes are not gathered from thorn bushes nor figs from thistles, are they? So every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot produce bad fruit, nor can a bad tree produce good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. So then, you will know them by their fruits” (Matthew 7:15–20).
Notice the usage of “true followers” as opposed to “false prophets”. Given the constant usage of qualifiers like “true Christian” (in contrast to a fake Christian), “real faith” (as opposed to counterfeit faith), the waters can get murky. What actually is fake faith? Is it faith without works? And what is the fruit of a bad tree? Truly, how can you know that the day you trusted Christ as Savior that you actually became a Christian?
Let’s attack this methodically and then at the end I would like to offer a brilliantly articulated article written by Dr. John W. Robbins, former president of the Trinity Foundation. He tackles what I refer to as the “Lord, Lord” passage from Matthew 7:23.
ASSURANCE OF SALVATION
So, how does one gain assurance of their salvation? In other words, what does saving faith look like? How do you know if your ticket is punched for eternity? Is there any way to know beyond a shadow of a doubt that you are eternally secure? The way some well-known passages (Matthew 7:15-23; James 2:17-26) are being interpreted, call into question whether we can, in fact, be certain of our eternal destiny. How do you know if you’re on the narrow path that leads to life?
Let’s begin with the clear teachings and then tackle the less clear passage as we search for assurance.
By Grace Through Faith in Christ
The Apostle Paul made clear in numerous passages that it is only by faith in the sacrificial death of Christ, that salvation has been made available. By grace alone (sola gratia) through faith alone (sola fide) in Christ alone (solo Christo). These 3 of the 5 solas emerged from the reformation in direct contradiction to doctrinal positions of the Roman Catholic Church (RCC).
Rome was teaching that although grace, faith and Christ were essential components of salvation, in and of themselves they could neither secure nor guarantee one’s eternal life. The RCC taught and still teaches that only through additional acts of piety and righteous works, all while abstaining from blatant sins, will one be allowed entrance into Heaven. So, in the end, to the RCC, it is faith plus works that save us.
As has been well established, the reformers rejected the RCC’s position on salvation. They agreed with the teachings of the Apostle Paul who argued that it is neither “work” nor “faith plus works” that pass us from death into life… but rather ONLY through belief. Just as it was with Abraham, faith is accredited to us as righteousness. Salvation is a gift and no amount of meritorious works can improve upon that gift lest it no longer remain a gift. As a sidebar, it seems that salvation being a “gift” can be forgotten as we work through assurance of our salvation.
Consider the below extortion from the apostle.
3 For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham BELIEVED God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” 4 Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. 5 And to the one who DOES NOT WORK but BELIEVES in him who justifies the ungodly, his FAITH is counted as righteousness…
So, it is not the one who works but the one who believes who is justified.
Jeremiah lamented that the heart of man was deceitful and desperately wicked and Isaiah confessed that he was a man of unclean lips. He further contended that all of our works are
but filthy rags before a holy God. (Isa 64:6; Jer 17:9; Isa 6:5) We are not “mostly dead” in our trespasses and sins but we are “all dead”, apart from Christ. So Paul teaches us that it is ONLY by faith that we are saved lest any of us be able to boast. None of our accomplishments can add one scintilla to the grace of God and no lack thereof can subtract an iota from His mercy. This is reiterated in Paul’s epistle to the Ephesians.
8 For by grace you have been saved THROUGH FAITH. And this is not your own doing; IT IS A GIFT of God, 9 NOT A RESULT OF WORKS, so that no one may boast.
In addition, the Apostle Paul dealt very harshly with the Galatian Christians who were fervently attempting to perfect the grace of God by strict adherence to the law. Their crime was not the fact that they were living lives of wanton sin, but rather that they were attempting to return to law keeping to justify themselves before Christ.
1 O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you that you should not obey the truth, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed among you as crucified? 2 This only I want to learn from you: Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith? 3 Are you so foolish? Having begun in the Spirit, are you now being made perfect by the flesh? 4 Have you suffered so many things in vain—if indeed it was in vain?
5 Therefore He who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you, does He do it by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith?— 6 just as Abraham “believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.” 7 Therefore know that only those who are of faith are sons of Abraham. 8 And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel to Abraham beforehand, saying, “In you all the nations shall be blessed.” 9 So then those who are of faith are blessed with believing Abraham.
Was obedience to the truth referring to acts of piety? No, obeying the truth was an act of faith not of works. A look at the prior chapter makes this abundantly clear.
knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law; for by the works of the law no flesh shall be justified.
And, given Jesus’s constant rebuke of the Pharisees, was it their lack of behavioral fruit or their unbelief which condemned them? They prided themselves in the law keeping of every jot and tittle but they rejected the grace of God through faith in the Messiah. It’s most common to determine that the bad fruit to which Jesus often referred regarded bad behavior. This will be more thoroughly addressed in the Robbin’s article.
Faith Plus Works?
At this point all seems crystal clear until we run headlong into both James’s epistle and some of Jesus’s most difficult teachings. Since many pastors and teachers today assert that hoards of Christ professors are not actually Christians, we have a conundrum. How do faith and works fit into the salvation process? Many Christians are considered by some as mere pretenders. It is argued that belief in Christ (mental assent) is simply not enough, since the behavior of many professing Christians does not seem to line up with approved standards of Christian conduct. And, given the untoward lifestyles of many who have named the name of Christ, who can blame this assessment?
In an attempt to explain and describe this apparent disconnect between faith and holy living, we add an endless stream of qualifiers: “Real faith”, “actual faith”, “real Christian, “true Christian”… But, at this point it seems prudent to determine whether these modifiers are biblically approved and if so, are they used anywhere in the NT? In addition, is a “false prophet” (whose antithesis is a “true prophet”) considered so because of bad behavior or a rancid faith?
For example, did the Apostle Paul ever refer to the Christians in Corinth (which was an extremely wayward and carnal church with many members engaged in rather horrid acts) with the above modifiers? Did he ever call anyone who put their faith in Christ a “so-called Christian”, or did he ever use any such modifier which questioned their eternal position?
Oh, I think it’s clear that there were false Christians among them but the question is, what was it that disqualified them… their unbelief or perhaps their carnal deeds? I think this is a vitally important question to answer.
(1 Corinthians 6:9-10)
“Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither the immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor sexual perverts, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor robbers will inherit the kingdom of God.”
Are you unrighteous? I sure am and so was Isaiah, Paul and everyone who has ever walked this earth, save Jesus. So, we are ALL excluded from Christ’s Kingdom based upon behavior. But does the story end here? Clearly not! As long as we are relying on our own ability to keep the law we will forever be excluded from the Kingdom of Heaven.
At this point, let’s revisit the reason these qualifiers are so often added. There are many who, for a brief time time or even for a season, have professed Christ as savior but who do not continue to live according to the precepts found in Scripture. This is undeniable. There are examples galore. Some in my own family. Excuse my presumptuousness, but all of us to one degree or the other are guilty of this disconnect.
So, in order to clarify whether someone is a Christian (since our old nature is with us until we die), we, quite naturally and sometimes pharisaically become fruit inspectors. If we don’t see right behavior (attitudes and actions which are in accord with Christ-approved conduct), we assume that there was never actually “genuine belief”. Again, we use a modifier of belief, insisting that their rancid fruit could not have have come from a tree subsisting on the waters of life. Therefore, for the one who professes with their mouth and believes in their heart, according to some, that may not be enough… because it is assumed that it wasn’t “true faith” or “saving faith” if it is unaccompanied by expected righteous works. Modifiers abound in our modern vernacular and we therefore often use terms like “true Christian” to describe someone who appears to be walking with Christ. As I hope you are beginning to see, this is a very slippery slope because faith in Christ is quantified, measured and often found wanting.
Once behavior becomes the deciding factor (in terms of assurance), how can anyone be certain that they have permanently passed from death to life? If simple belief in Christ’s shed blood is not enough, our certainly that we ARE saved naturally wavers. So, again, we need to ask the question how we can ever develop an uninterrupted assurance of salvation as we pass through the dry times of life? When illness comes, relationships break, we succumb to sinful patterns, and the storms of life rock our worlds… all causing faith stresses… if we can’t rely on a once-for-all time faith in Christ to anchor us, to secure our foundation, where shall we gain our strength in such uncertain and sometimes turbulent times?
In my earliest days as a Christian, I was exhorted to write in my Bible the day and the hour that I professed Christ as my savior. When I had doubts about my conversion, which most certainly can and did creep in, I was encouraged to look back to that glorious day and know that my eternal state was indeed secure. But was it? Could that have been a faith build on a foundation of sand? Could I have believed without it taking root?
Is this fool’s gold pursuing the holy grail of assurance? What happens when the fruit of our lives doesn’t measure up to the scriptural standards of holiness? Is belief truly enough? I have heard said literally hundreds of times that even the demons believe (James 2). The implication? If malevolent creatures believe and they are destined for the Lake of Fire, belief appears not to be inadequate for a sinner such as I. So, it is, therefore, assumed that simple, childlike faith may not be enough to move the needle. When considering our eternal standing, instead of pointing to the day we placed our trust in Jesus’s shed blood, we are forced inward to examine our accomplishments for Christ as we check for the manifestation of “good fruit”. Is this healthy? Is this biblical?
We use, what I believe are often misunderstood passages, to determine that if faith is not accompanied by commensurate works (many have different qualifying standards – Baptist’s have traditionally used smoking, drinking and dancing as disqualifying behaviors LoL), that we are not “genuinely saved.” This belief without expected works is often referred to as “easy believism”, which is yet another qualifier… in this case rather pejorative to the act of faith and it’s transformative power. The implication is that it’s simply not enough to believe… it’s just too easy to mentally assent to a proposition and, therefore, it is often determined that it can’t be genuine unless we do _________… and don’t do __________. Fill in the blanks.
Consider the following passage which appears at first glance (or possibly after hundreds of glances and even in-depth studies) to support this notion. (Read the passage from James 2 below first and then read the rest of this paragraph) What does James mean when he writes that we must show our faith through our works? He insists, or so it appears, that “true faith” MUST be accompanied by works. Is he contradicting Paul who stated plainly that it is not the one who works but the one who believes who has entered the community of Christians? *I’m reminded that Luther referred to James’s epistle as a book of straw. He was keenly aware of the apparent tension between the statements of James and Paul.
18 But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. 19 You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder! 20 Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless? 21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? 22 You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; 23 and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”—and he was called a friend of God.
In dealing with what appears on the surface as a scriptural conflict, we must begin with the necessary premise that there are no contradictions in Scripture. Employing “the analogy of faith” we must interpret Scripture with Scripture. The less clear through the clear. All passages must be synchronized and homogenized and they cannot be contradictory.
I have had devout Catholic friends who contend that James refutes Paul or at the very least that Paul’s teaching is incomplete or not totally adequate. They believe that faith is COMPLETED by works. So, since other requirements are added to faith, the burden of syncretizing James and Paul seems insurmountable, at least in so far as saving faith is concerned. That’s why Catholics aren’t certain until they die whether their earthly contributions heaped on top of their faith were enough to push them over the edge into Heaven. While on this earth they literally have no idea if, after their death, they will have to remain in Purgatory for a prolonged period to further atone for their sin… or if they did enough in the here and now to pass purgatory and go straight into Heaven. I find that incredibly sad, but given the way many protestants deal with James 2 and Matthew 7, many of own appear to be riding in the sinking boat.
With James 2 in our rearview mirror, let’s read the rather haunting words of Jesus as they send shockwaves throughout our souls. I can’t find a more horrifying passage, given the way I used to understand Jesus’s stern warning.
21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who DOES THE WILL of my Father who is in heaven. 22 On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ 23 And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’
Does this passage frighten you? Jesus is saying rather emphatically that not all of those who say “Lord, Lord” and do all of those amazing deeds in His name are certain of their eternal destiny. As a matter of fact, some who think they have their ticket punched are apparently destined for the eternal wrath of God… deceiving themselves into believing they are God’s elect. So, again, how can we know if we’re not in the “depart from Me” group?
Are Jesus and James teaching that those who merely believe in Jesus may not be worthy of His Kingdom? Are they warning that the narrow road is regarding behavior not belief? Is belief not enough? If not, then what kind of behavior is necessary? If anyone uses profanity are they excluded? If anyone goes for a season without daily Bible reading are they going to be cast into the pit of Hell because it proves that their faith wasn’t genuine? Clearly, if they prophecy, cast out demons and do mighty works, they may be excluded. What hope them do we have? If they lie on a tax return or think evil of their neighbor, will they be forever cast out of the God’s presence?
In other words, what is enough? How will we ever know what constitutes “true faith” i.e. “saving “faith?” Who is a “true Christian?” If our works cannot diverge from our faith lest we be disqualified, then who can be saved? Is it possible to KNOW beyond a shadow of doubt that we are a children of the King? If so, where does that assurance come from?
With this as a backdrop, please consider reading the following paper written by John Robbins. There I think you will find answers to the more difficult questions I’ve raised. I read it many years ago and found his conclusions heartening and compelling. He deals with these gray areas of apparent contradiction in a way that few have.
In closing, let me say that if we continue to believe that there’s no way to know if we are the ones who Jesus will ultimately cast out, and if we attempt to “prove” our worthiness by our works and/or lack of sin, that treadmill may be your undoing. Walking the faith/works tightrope is not for the faint of heart. In my view, and I certainly don’t mean to be harsh, those who pigeonhole the meager works of those who aren’t as pious or devout as they are, may be deceived by their own pride. I’m truly sorry if that’s offensive. It’s not meant to be but I think it should be a warning. Are any of us truly different than the prophet Isaiah who realized that at his best, his works were but filthy rags (and I think we all know to what kind of rags to which he was referring)? The narrow road’s path is lit by the mercy and grace of God.
Lord, Lord (Matt 7.21-24) – Dr. John W. Robbins (pdf)
Credit for the above goes to Dr. John W. Robbins and David Curtis (Here and Here). I was hopelessly confused by some of these more difficult passages prior to hearing and reading their teaching.