Continually Sharpening

A theological blog by Janelle Zeeb

The Exhausting Teachings of Treadmill Theology

It's probably safe to say that no one really likes to be on a treadmill. Even if it's good for our health and gives some people a rush of endorphins, is there anyone who wouldn't rather, if they had a choice, get off the treadmill and take a break?

But, what if - like in an awful dream - you can't get off it! You must run and run for the rest of your life, because if you stop running or fall off, there's a giant lake of fire below you! Run! Run! Or else... and where's that evil laughter coming from anyways?

Regrettably, this surreal dream is all too real in certain theologies which put Christians onto a treadmill of performance and insist that we keep on performing for the rest of our earthly lives ... or else!

Or else what? Or else, maybe you won't have enough merit to enter heaven. Or else you might not die in a state of grace. Or else you won't have become holy enough for God to accept you. Or else your faith was never truly real. In all cases, it's not looking good for your eternal salvation.

For my cognate comprehensive exam I've been studying all about different historical Christian theologians' views of God's grace. Lamentably, many theologians, both Protestant and Catholic, end up with a theology of grace which in one way or another insists that sanctification (being made holy or like Christ) in this life is mandatory for justification (being qualified for eternal salvation).

They do all correctly assert that the beginning of the Christian life and all progress in sanctification is totally due to God's grace, because God is the one who draws us to himself through the Holy Spirit, and who once indwelling us, gives us the motivation and ability to give up on sin, do good works, and love God and others. This is all very true, and necessary to avoid any idea that we earn our own salvation or have done anything that we can brag about before God. All the good we do is totally due only to the Holy Spirit's calling, enabling, and assisting. The only thing we do is choose to not resist the work of the Spirit in our hearts (and this is not a work, any more than accepting a gift is a work).

However, the problem comes when continual sanctification becomes a requirement for justification. Sadly, all the major theologians I studied, including Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin, John Wesley, Bernard of Clairvaux, the Council of Trent, the Catholic-Lutheran Joint Declaration on Justification, and historical Anabaptists all claim this, one way or another. Martin Luther was the only exception.

Whether it's the insistence by Calvin in his Institutes 3.16 and 3.2.11-12 that one who is truly elect will persevere in faith and good works to the end of life,1 Wesley's view that "Without God's grace, we cannot be saved; while without our participation God's grace will not save",2 the later Lutheran qualification that we are saved by faith alone, but the only faith that counts is faith that is "active in love",3 even these Protestants have fallen away from the Reformation position on sola fide (that we are saved by faith alone). It can all be summed up in that popular yet contradictory claim that "we're saved by faith alone, but the faith that saves is never alone".

As soon as someone claims that it is literally just faith in Christ that saves (as per John 6:28-29 or Romans 3:22-25, for example) without any other works being necessary, then come the accusations of cheap grace, easy-believeism, or antinomianism (lawlessness).

It's like these critics think God is gracious, but not THAT gracious. Like there must be some catch or something we have to do, because otherwise it's just too easy to be saved. As if it wouldn't be fair to those who have worked so hard for God, if God just let people into heaven who haven't done hardly anything for the kingdom (seemingly forgetting the parable of the vineyard workers in Matthew 20:1-16.)

No matter how much these above theologians qualify their statements that we are saved only by God's grace, because all our cooperation or participation is enabled by God's grace, it all is subject to the same criticism Karl Barth makes in his Church Dogmatics 4.1 paragraph 58.1.4 Here, Barth argues that all the technical Catholic distinctions between types of grace really end up with the effect that the grace that we have to cooperate in ends up overshadowing the grace that is purely from God and requires no human cooperation.

The same thing happens when we insist that Christians must participate in sanctification in order to be justified. The practical effect is to put the focus on what we do or don't do, and not on God's graciousness to us in Christ and the prevenient work of the Holy Spirit.

Sermons encourage Christians to avoid more sin, do more good works, pray more, read more Scripture, attend church more often, volunteer, tithe, serve, witness, evangelize, speak in tongues (if that's their thing), love others more, love God more, and on and on. Bible study groups then discuss how to do these things better, and provide accountability on how we're doing these things. All the focus is on us and our actions.

I'm not saying every church, every sermon, or every study group is guilty of this, but it is very easy to accidentally to give this impression, or for someone who has been exposed to this treadmill theology to read it into sermons and Biblical texts when we don't actually mean it.

So no wonder then that if we ask many Christians why they think they're going to heaven, the answer is "Because I believe in Jesus as my savior ... AND also I ... [ insert thing they do here ]". But this means that to keep our salvation we have to keep doing [ insert thing here ]. And then, at the end of life, what really made the difference in our salvation is what we did [ insert thing here ]. Not God's grace. Not Jesus' death and resurrection. Not the prevenient drawing of the Holy Spirit. But our own constant effort in doing [ insert thing here ].

Thus, we end up on the performance treadmill. The only way to get off is to make the clear distinction between faith and discipleship, as the Free Grace movement does. We must say we really are saved by faith alone, and that even if that faith doesn't last for a lifetime it is still enough to save a person eternally, although there are many good reasons to persevere in sanctification and discipleship.

Then, our Christian daily walk of sanctification and discipleship can be one of gratitude, joy, and peace. Our motivation will be the pleasure of serving God to the best of our abilities, without the constant threat of "or else...".

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. Randy L. Maddox, Responsible Grace: John Wesley's Practical Theology (Nashville, TN: Kingswood Books, 1994), 19.
  • 3. "Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification" by the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. October 31, 1999, paragraph 25. Accessed Sept. 4, 2018 from here
  • 4. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV.1: The Doctrine of Reconciliation, trans. G.W. Bromiley, eds. G.W. Bromiley and T.F Torrance (London; New York: T&T Clark International, 2004), 87.