In a previous blog, I mentioned that American Christians in the twentieth century expended a lot of time and effort to mass-market the gospel. They sought to boil the message of the New Testament down to its essence so that it could be more easily digested by people who had little or no acquaintance with the Bible or the church. Their motivations were noble; they wanted to save as many people as possible from eternal judgement and introduce them to the life that only Jesus can provide. Moreover, their efforts yielded some positive results, as is evidenced by the large numbers of people who attended evangelistic crusades by Rev. Billy Graham and others.
But what about their foundational assumptions? Is salvation supposed to be easy to obtain? If not, why not? These questions are bigger than we can explore in a blog; indeed, much better scholars than I (e.g., Scot McKnight) have explored them at length. Still, I think that it is important to at least raise these questions, and I think we need to do so in the context of some very important biblical texts.
The Heart of God
In Romans 10:13, Paul quotes part of Joel 2:32 in order to say that, “Anyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved.” It might seem strange for Paul to say something like this, given the seemingly deterministic language that he uses in Romans 9. But, in truth, it encapsulates the heart of the letter’s argument. Paul can say that all people, regardless of ethnic origin, must acquire salvation by believing in and submitting to Christ (Romans 10:9-10) not only because of the nature of the human predicament (Romans 1:18-3:20; 5:12-21) but also because of the character of God.
For Paul, God is a God who saves. God’s desire is to see all people embrace repentance (Acts 17:30; cf. 2 Peter 3:9) and place their trust in Christ (Ephesians 2:1-10) so that He can make out of them a single social group with a cohesive identity (Ephesians 2:11-18). Of course, by quoting the Old Testament to make this point, the venerable apostle reminds us that it is not, in fact, original to him. God’s desire to save is an indispensable part of the Old Testament’s witness. It is rooted in the חֶסֶד and the faithfulness that stand at the heart of what God has revealed to us about himself.
The High Standard of Jesus
It should be clear from what we have said up to this point that God is actively engaged in the process of saving people, but it does not necessarily follow that getting into God’s family is an easy matter. Notice what Jesus says in Matthew 7:13-14
“Enter through the narrow gate. The gate that leads to destruction is wide, and the avenue that leads to destruction is easily navigated—and many people find it. The gate that leads to life is narrow, and the road that leads to life is difficult to navigate—and only a few find it.”
Jesus’ words are not very comforting; in fact, they are downright scary. Still, they draw our attention to an important point. The standard for entry into God’s Kingdom is high—and it always has been.
Think about all the things that we have been talking about over the past several weeks. Before we ever stepped foot in the New Testament, we talked about the necessity of having a humble, obedient relationship with God. We also talked about the importance of being just, kind, merciful, and faithful to the people that God places in our lives.
As we have seen from our study of the Greatest Commandment, these requirements are by no means overturned in the New Testament. This impression is confirmed by something else that Jesus said. The Pharisees were the experts in interpreting the Old Testament’s requirements, and they were committed to applying what they learned to their everyday lives. And, yet, Jesus had the audacity to say, “For I tell you that, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the legal experts and the Pharisees, you will definitely not enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” It is also confirmed by a number of texts which exclude practitioners of certain behaviors from participation in the heavenly kingdom (cf., for example, Galatians 5:19-21; Revelation 21:6-8).
Meritorious Achievement and the Standard of Jesus
The coming of Jesus did not lower the standard; it is still hard to enter into life. But does this mean that “heaven” has a means test? Must we purge ourselves of all evil and accumulate a mountain of good deeds in order to inherit eternal life? Is all the talk of salvation by faith, both in Scripture and in the writings of the church’s leaders, merely a deadly deception?
Jesus himself provides us with the answer. In Matthew 7:21-23, he says the following:
Not everyone who says to me, “Lord! Lord!” will enter the kingdom of heaven. Rather, only those who do the will of my Father who is in heaven will enter it. On that day, many will say to me “Lord! Lord! Did we not prophesy in your name? Did we not cast out demons in your name? Did we not do many miracles in your name?” Then I will tell them, “I never knew you. Get out of my sight, you bunch of outlaws!”
In these verses, Jesus clearly couches the standard for entrance into the Kingdom in terms of obedience, but we have seen this before. What is important is that Jesus explicitly denies that the standard has anything to do with meritorious achievement.
Let’s unpack this a little bit. The portrait of salvation that Jesus presents to us is relational and interactive. We cannot get away from the uncomfortable fact that Jesus demands obedience from his followers, but the notion of obedience carries within it the idea that Christ issues commands and we respond to those commands. Although we play an import role in the process, we are not the center. Christ is, for it is he who issues the commands.
A view of salvation based on meritorious achievement presents a very different picture. For one thing, it shifts the focus from Christ to us. We are the ones who go out and do the work. Christ is merely the evaluator of our work. For another thing, it requires no interaction between us and Christ. Meritorious achievement permits (and perhaps even suggests) the idea that we have a list of deeds to do that is independent of Christ and his character. Our job, then, is to do the things on this list—and maybe even to come up with things to do that are not on the list but that will win us the favor of Christ (who is nothing more than a cosmic test-grader).
Don’t Forget about Grace
In the preceding paragraphs, I have tried to show that biblical soteriology is characterized by two tensions. First, there is the tension between God’s desire, which broadens the availability of salvation, and God’s standard, which restricts the availability of salvation. God wants everyone to have eternal life, but what God requires will inevitably mean that some are unable to obtain it. We see this dynamic played out in Jesus’ encounter with a wealthy member of the elite (Mark 10:17-22).
Second, I have tried to show that there is a tension between action and relationship. People are not saved by their spiritual or moral achievements. Nevertheless, their salvation must manifest itself in the way they live. More specifically, it must manifest itself through obedience to Christ. In order for obedience to take place, a person must hear Christ’s voice and respond appropriately, and I do not think that it is claiming too much to say that an appropriate response is not possible unless the person loves and trusts God. Otherwise, the commands of Christ will seem foolish at best.
This second tension may still trouble some readers—even when it is thoroughly and carefully explained. After all, who obeys Christ perfectly? I do not, and I do not know anyone who does. And, yet, I think that we cannot escape from the clear teachings of Scripture: righteousness, understood first and foremost as obedience to Christ, is a prerequisite to entrance into God’s Kingdom. How are we to resolve this conundrum? How narrow is the gate?
It will help us to remember that salvation is, ultimately, God’s work. Moreover, it is a result of God’s grace. And this means that we need to revisit the first tension I mention above—the one between God’s desire and God’s standard. We see throughout the Old Testament that God gives grace to those who make a good faith effort to obey Him. Sometimes, that grace gives them the ability to obey, but more often it motivates God to overlook their shortcomings or to provide them a way of making things right.
We must assume that God works the same way in our time. God has given us the Holy Spirit (itself an act of grace), and so we are accountable for what we do in a way that earlier generations were not. Nevertheless, we are still weak and frail. God is not surprised by this fact. The whole point of Christ’s death is to make forgiveness available to us when we do not live up to the calling which we have received.
I am a sinner. I don’t sin as much today as I did twenty years ago, but I still sin. And, yet, I am also a beneficiary of God’s grace. There are days when I am not particularly interested in obedience, for I know all too well that obedience is hard. On those days, God shows His grace by wooing me back to the narrow road that leads to life. There are other days when I want to obey, but physiological, emotional, and other needs conspire to undermine my good intentions. On those days, God understands and forgives. More importantly, God reminds me that I am His child by renewing my strength and restoring my resolve.
It is this grace—God’s faithful, inexhaustible, love-infused grace—that drives the process that we have been talking about. Without grace, we could not love God. We could not repent of our sin and trust Christ. We could not obey. We could not become people of justice and mercy. And this is the most important tension to be found in Christian soteriology. God is not opposed to work; He calls us to a lot of it. But as soon as we put our hand to the plow and begin to push, we realize that it is not us who are doing the real work. It is God.