Continually Sharpening

A theological blog by Janelle Zeeb

The Antidote to Treadmill Theology

In my previous post, I had discussed a form of theology I like to call Treadmill Theology.

This theology insists that continual obedience in doing good works and sanctification (growth in holiness) is mandatory in order to be finally justified (qualified for eternal life).

The problem is that it effectively leads to a form of Christian life where all the focus is on our actions instead of on God's grace. Since in this view our final salvation depends on our lifelong performance, there can be no real assurance of salvation, and thus no consistent experience of peace or joy.

The Antidote: Eternal Security and Free Grace

I am convinced that the only antidote to this form of theology is the doctrine of eternal security, which says that once a person believes in Christ, they are permanently saved and can never lose their salvation.

Some theologians such as John Calvin would agree with this. But then Calvin defines the requirements for this eternal salvation in such a way that you can never be really sure that you are saved or not - because if you're really saved, then you will persevere in faith and grow in sanctification until the end of life (see his Institutes 3.16 and 3.2.11-12). If at any point in life you seem to fall away and never appear to return to Christianity, the conclusion is that, well, you never were really saved at all, even if you once professed belief in Christ as your savior.1

Therefore, eternal security is not enough. We must combine this with the Free Grace perspective that a person is permanently and eternally saved the moment they first place their faith in Christ as their savior.

There are several Bible verses which I believe teach this truth so clearly that it cannot be denied.

Let's start with some verses that clearly say salvation is based completely and only on faith in Christ (I am using the ESV):

  • John 6:40: For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.
  • John 6:47: Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes has eternal life.
  • Romans 3:20-25: For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin. But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it - the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.

And this is entirely apart from any works that we do either before or after our salvation:

  • John 6:28-29: Then they said to him, "What must we do, to be doing the works of God?" Jesus answered them, "This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent."
  • Romans 4:4-5: Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness.
  • 1 Corinthians 3:11-15: For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw - each one's work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If anyone's work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.

So, belief in Christ is all that is necessary for eternal life; no works are necessary. Even if a person's entire life is judged to be unworthy of any heavenly rewards, but they believe in Christ, they will be eternally saved.

But, some might argue that these verses only mean that the person who continually believes in Christ has eternal life; as if a person who stops believing also loses their promise of eternal life. So then we need the eternal security verses:

  • Ephesians 1:13-14: In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.
  • Ephesians 4:30: And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption.
  • Philippians 1:6: And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.

Therefore, we can summarize the teaching of the above three sets of verses as this: We receive eternal life simply by faith that Jesus is our savior, apart from any works we have ever done or will ever do, and the instant we believe, we are permanently indwelled by the Holy Spirit who is our personal guarantee from God that we will be resurrected and experience eternal life. The good work of sanctification that the Holy Spirit begins in all Christians will be instantly completed when we are resurrected or transformed and meet Jesus in the clouds (1 Thess. 4:16-17).

But What About Other Verses?

Since the proper method of Biblical interpretation is to use the clear verses to interpret the difficult or unclear verses, the clear meaning of these verses cannot be ignored by appealing to more obscure verses. If a verse is capable of being interpreted in more than one way, then we should consider all possible interpretations and compare with other verses on the same topic to determine which interpretation is most consistent, digging into the meaning of the words in the original languages of the Bible if necessary.

However, I'm convinced the above verses are just so clear that they simply cannot have any alternative meanings that could make them consistent with the idea that works are necessary for salvation, or that once a person has faith they can lose their salvation. While some difficult verses may appear to teach that true Christians can lose their salvation, we must say that this interpretation is impossible, for their meaning can never contradict these clear verses.

We can use the same approach to the difficult Bible verses that John Wesley used in his controversy over predestination with the Calvinists.

He said that because of the very clear verses which say God truly wants all to be saved (e.g. 1 Timothy 2:3-4), when it came to the difficult verses the Calvinists used to try to disprove this, Wesley could proclaim "Whatever these verses mean, they cannot mean that!".2

So whatever the difficult verses mean, they can never mean that we have to do certain works or persevere in faith in order to keep our eternal salvation.

Of course, we should try to find better interpretations of these challenging verses. But that might not be possible given our distance from the original Biblical authors in time, culture, and language, and we also will never understand everything clearly in this life (1 Corinthians 13:12).

We might be tempted to just throw up our hands in exasperation and say "Well, how can we know what any verse really means then?"

The Protestant doctrine of the "Perspicuity of Scripture" also called the clarity of Scripture, as expressed in the Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 1, article VII means that "those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed, for salvation, are so clearly propounded and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them."

Basically, what we need to know about the absolute basics of the Gospel about eternal salvation are clear enough in the Bible that we don't need to be an expert in the Biblical languages or theology to understand them. That must include the basics of if we are saved by faith alone, or if other requirements exist. (Note that I do not subscribe to the Westminster Confession, I just find its description here of this idea helpful.)

Making Sense of Difficult Verses

But some will ask: how can we possibly re-interpret some of the most famous verses that seem to imply that faith alone is not enough to be saved?

First, we must say that when the Bible says someone believed or had faith in Christ, that means they really did believe or have faith in Christ. There is no distinction between genuine faith and non-genuine faith. So for example, in the parable of the four soils, when Jesus says that some believed for a time, but then fell away (Luke 8:13), we can't write off these people's faith as unreal or nonexistent. They did believe, and based on the above eternal security verses, they are eternally saved, even if they didn't persevere in faith in this life.3

Or the famous verses in James, which claim that faith without works cannot save (James 2:14) or is dead (James 2:17), cannot mean that faith without works is not really faith at all. This is how many commentators interpret it, but it is actually contradictory: faith is either faith or it isn't, you can't have some sort of faith that is not really faith, or believe but not really believe!4

Yes, faith without works is useless and as good as dead for all the help it is to others in this life (James 2:15-16), and useless for earning eternal rewards (1 Corinthians 3:10-15). But it's not non-faith. So Free Grace interpreters say that James 2:14-17 does not mean that faith alone is not enough for eternal salvation; the term "save" here is not referring to eternal salvation, but to salvation from negative temporal consequences of sin (i.e. physical death, James 1:21, 5:20).5

We can't say that James contradicts John and Paul, for they were all inspired by the same Holy Spirit. And we can't read back a misinterpretation of James into the extremely clear verses by John or Paul that specifically negate any role for works in our eternal salvation, or claim that Paul or John actually meant something different than what they wrote.

Therefore, I'm convinced that even if we can't explain every difficult verse, we can know enough to say "Whatever it means, it can't mean that!" And then keep looking for other possibilities for interpretation which are consistent with the basics of the gospel of salvation by faith alone.

For the only alternative is to jump back on that treadmill of constant performance, and give up any possibility of assurance of eternal salvation, and the peace and joy that come along with it.

Footnotes:

  • 1. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion Book 3, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011).
  • 2. My paraphrase, from Wesley's sermon "Free Grace". See: Albert Outler, ed. The Works of John Wesley. Volume 3: Sermons. Frank Baker editor in chief. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1982-1984), 556.
  • 3. Alberto S. Valdez, Luke, in The Grace New Testament Commentary, Volume 1, Robert N. Wilkin ed. (Denton, TX: Grace Evangelical Society, 2010), 263.
  • 4. Bob Wilkin, "Impossible Interpretation of the Parable of the Four Soils", Grace Evangelical Society Blog. Accessed September 20, 2018, from https://faithalone.org/blog/impossible-interpretation-of-the-parable-of-the-four-soils/
  • 5. Zane Hodges, James, in The Grace New Testament Commentary, Volume 2, Robert N. Wilkin ed. (Denton, TX: Grace Evangelical Society, 2010), 1108-1109, 1116-1118.