Monday, August 26, 2013

Saving Humans via the Faith of Demons? Part 3

In the last two posts, we started picking through James 2, taking an extra-close look at James 2:19, the frequently cited "Demons believe and tremble" line. By now I think you can see that there's at least good reason to question how the translators placed the quotes in James 2:18-20, and that there is a third way to place the quotes which is, at the very worst, plausible and, at the very best, far more sensible.

In verse 18, James introduces a hypothetical objector. And I've decided to name him "Newman." The KJV, NKJV, ESV and NIV all depict Newman's argument, which James is anticipating, as consisting of seven whole words: "You have faith and I have works." While the NASB puts those seven words, plus the balance of verse 18 into Newman's mouth. It reads, "You have faith and I have works. Show me your faith without your works and I will show you my faith by my works."

But the template that we discovered in Romans 9 and 1 Corinthians 15 shows us another possibility:

But someone will say…

You have faith and I have works. Show me your faith without your works and I will show you my faith by my works. You believe that there is one God you do well even the demons believe and tremble.

But do you want to know, you foolish man, that faith without works is dead?

This breakdown follows the pattern of the Romans and 1 Corinthians passage, and when we consider the discussion that leads up to it, a much more coherent discussion emerges.

But now it's time to bounce back to James 2:14 and revisit the popular teaching on this passage:
"What [does it] profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him?"
We've already seen that popular teachers are fond of using this passage to teach that, well, you can't just say that you have faith. For example, Greg Koukl has this to say, and notice his reference to James 2:
"There are other passages which have to do with our behaviors and our works, and the classic one is James Chapter 2, but I see these as indicatives. In other words, the genuine Christian is going to display a change in life in some measure that's palpable, that's measurable… You can't just talk it. You've gotta walk the walk."
But wait a minute, I have a question: Where are the teachers who are out there teaching that you can just say that you have faith? What are their names? I know of some Free Grace teachers that say that good works are not necessary for salvation, and that's certainly my view, but they're not out there teaching that anyone can "just say" that they have faith. Why would anyone think that "just saying" you had faith would save anyone? When Jesus says "He who believes in me has everlasting life," He doesn't give any hint whatsoever that you can "just say" that you believe in Him. That the belief has to be genuine is a given, is it not?

Here's an illustration which will connect up again with the metaphor for this blog: Suppose I write a book about how to skydive. And in this book I describe all things you need to know… what gear to buy, how to set it all up, etc. And suppose I also describe in the book when to pull the ripcord. Do you suppose I'd have to tell you "Oh, by the way, you can't just say you pulled the ripcord. You really have pull the actual ripcord. Just saying that you pulled the ripcord will do nothing at all, and you'll plunge to your death."

Why would I need to write that? This is exactly what these folks are saying that James is doing. But is that even reasonable?

And in addition, their remedy never really addresses the insincerity of the belief directly. Instead, notice that their remedy is works. That is how they aim to prove that the faith is sincere. But… can this be valid? Well, for that to be valid, we need to think that works are a reliable indicator that someone is saved. Right? And if works is a reliable indicator, and we actually mean "reliable," then wouldn't we have to say that anyone who exhibits good works is saved? That would be a problem, wouldn't it?

Fred Lybrand offers a powerful challenge to the notion that "works proves faith" in his book "Back To Faith." He describes talking to seminary students and asking them a question that goes something like this:
"When you see someone doing a lot of good things--for example, they're really active in the church, they participate in a lot of charity functions, they lead very moral lives--from that observation, is it possible to conclude that they are saved?"
And when the students answer with "No, of course not… they might be doing that stuff because they think they have to earn their way to Heaven," Fred hits them with a difficult question:
"Well then how can you tell that someone's not saved by their lack of good works?"
The bottom line is this: Works are not a reliable indicator of whether someone is saved.

To be fair, neither is what someone says. If someone says they're a believer, if they say they're saved, that isn't a reliable indicator either. Notice that "works" consist of anything you do. And speech is something that you do. So if what we say isn't a reliable indicator, then why would we think that what we do is a reliable indicator?

For a real-world example of what happens to assurance when you attach it to your own performance, please read here.

So that's all very interesting, but then what is James saying in verse 14?
"What [does it] profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him?"
Verse 14, if read all by itself, sounds like the popular teaching is right on the money, doesn't it? But if you zoom out the book of James, and if you bring into the discussion the things that James said, for example, in Chapter 1, then something very different emerges.

Earlier we mentioned that "save" doesn't always refer to eternal salvation from Hell. That understanding will be useful here. The word doesn't automatically have a religious, eternal salvation connotation to it, it simply means to be rescued or delivered from some danger, some impending threat, some unpleasant circumstance, the specifics of which should be determined by the context.

So the book of James starts out talking bout various trials and temptations… James 1:2-3 reads:
"My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience."
And verse 12:
"Blessed [is] the man who endures temptation; for when he has been approved, he will receive the crown of life which the Lord has promised to those who love Him."
And verse 21:
"Therefore lay aside all filthiness and overflow of wickedness, and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls."
Hmmm. Save your souls? Is this talking about eternal salvation from Hell? There seems to be little debate over the notion that James' letter here is written to believers… people who are already saved in that sense. So what else could our souls be saved from? How 'bout various trials and temptations?

I think that verses 23-24 are recapitulated in James 2:14-20:
"But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man observing his natural face in a mirror; for he observes himself, goes away, and immediately forgets what kind of man he was."
Here again, I think many folks jump to the conclusion that this pertains to eternal salvation, and that "The Word" here necessarily means "The Gospel." But it's not that specific, is it? "The Word" here is most likely a reference to Bible Doctrine generally. That is, it is a compendium of precepts we learn and believe by studying God's Word, and these precepts are intended to be used and to be useful in our everyday lives. Things like, for example, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." And that's just one example.

So what is a "hearer only" of the Word? Isn't it obvious that this is someone who listens to these precepts but never actually puts them to use in their life? A doer of the Word would be someone who listens and also alters their actions and attitudes accordingly. And for that person, those precepts become useful.

James 2:8-10:
"If you really fulfill [the] royal law according to the Scripture, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself,' you do well; but if you show partiality, you commit sin, and are convicted by the law as transgressors. For whoever shall keep the whole law, and yet stumble in one [point], he is guilty of all."
Here James can be seen, perhaps, to be offering an example of what it would be like to be a hearer only and not a doer. James cites the "royal law according to the Scripture" as "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." So that precept is the example James gives of "The Word," or "Bible Doctrine" which these folks should have known. But in the example, the person doesn't fulfill this royal law and instead shows partiality. He has heard the precept, but he has not conformed his own actions and attitudes to it and so that precept doesn't benefit him nor does it benefit anyone around him.

Skipping ahead to verse 14, James still has in mind the same idea; the same problem. He asks,
"What [does it] profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him?"
Profit here has to do with benefit, with utility. And the word "faith" is a collective noun which is used here synonymously with "The Word" from James 1:23-24. It's that compendium of precepts and principles which we have learned. James is asking whether those precepts can benefit someone--either by delivering them through trials or by otherwise solving a problem--if they don't conform their actions and attitudes to those precepts and actually put them to work. In other words, if you've only been a hearer of those precepts and haven't been a doer of those precepts, what good are they to you or those around you? How will they solve your problems? How will they deliver you from trials? They can't, can they?

This is the idea in James 2. It has nothing to do with salvation from Hell.

And then in verses 15 and 16, James gives an example of this very phenomenon:
"If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you says to them, 'Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,' but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what [does it] profit?"
Here, a brother or sister has a logistical problem, a logistical trial, which they need to be delivered from. But if you don't provide for them as you have been taught to do, then you are a hearer of the word only, not a doer, and you have rendered that word useless. It benefits no one. And then James summarizes again in verse 17:
"Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead."
There is a question about the word "dead" here, because the popular teaching is that it means "not real" or "invalid"; that without works your faith (in Christ, so it goes) isn't genuine. But "dead" doesn't mean non-existent or fake. When you see a raccoon alongside the road, the raccoon is real… it's actually there. It's not a figment of your imagination. The problem is, since it's dead, it just lays there. It doesn't do anything. This is the idea behind "dead" here and we'll see further reinforcement of that a bit later.

So this takes us right up to verse 18, when James will now introduce the argument from "Newman." And perhaps with the understanding we've developed up to now, we'll be able to see what Newman's trying to accomplish with his argument (which we understand doesn't end until the end of verse 19) and, I think we'll see a conversation between James and Newman that actually makes a lot more sense… it might even be coherent!!

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Saving Humans via the Faith of Demons? Part 2

In the previous post I introduced some problems with the more traditional understandings of James 2, in particular verse 19. Now I'm going to delve deeper into James 2:18-20 to try to understand just what is being said there and by whom. As it turns out, there's some scholarly disagreement about the placement of one simple little punctuation mark, which really opens up a can of worms.

Before we get there, I want to set this up a little with an experiment using two other New Testament verses. As we get into it, it's important to understand that the original Greek text (or manuscript copies) lacked such things as quotation marks and even periods and commas. In fact, the Greek text was just solid "uncial" (upper case) Greek letters without so much as spaces between words. And so wherever you find things like quotation marks in your English Bible, the translators inferred those quotation marks… they weren't in the original text.

The other thing to keep in mind is that translations, in fact not even the manuscript copies, of the New Testament are not considered to be divinely inspired. That description is reserved only for the "autographs" or original text, which has never been found and is probably long gone. This means that we have a "permission" of sorts to ask certain questions of decisions that translators made, and maybe even to make certain corrections… so long as we have good reason to do so.

With all of that in mind, let's take a look at two New Testament passages in a way that approximates how they would have been read in the Greek. We'll look at Romans 9:19-20 and 1 Corinthians 15:35-36. I have removed the punctuation from these passages, though I've left in the word spaces, and I've made all the text lower case, so that it's uniform and easier to read. In each of these passages, the author (Paul) introduces a hypothetical objector and he lays out the argument which he expects this person to make, and then he responds to that argument. Now here's the game: Read these passages just a they are below and decide where the quotation marks need to go in order to accurately represent the conversation.
Romans 9:19-20
you will say to me then why does He still find fault for who has resisted His will but indeed o man who are you to reply against God will the thing formed say to him who formed it why have you made me like this
1 Corinthians 15:35-36
but someone will say how are the dead raised up and with what body do they come foolish one what you sow is not made alive unless it dies
In each case the correct placement of the quote marks is pretty obvious. It might help to represent the conversation using something like a script format, like for a movie. And let's give the hypothetical objector a name. Let's call him "Kramer."

Romans 9:19-20
You will say to me…

Then why does He still find fault, for who has resisted His will?

But indeed, O man, who are you to reply against God? Will the thing formed say to him who formed it 'why have you made me like this?'
1 Corinthians 15:35-36
But someone will say…

How are the dead raised up, and with what body do they come?

Foolish one! What you sow is not made alive unless it dies.
What's funny about this is that we do this all the time in our own conversations with people, and we never use quote marks to clarify who says what… as we listen to someone, we usually know intuitively where the quote starts and when it stops. These cues, sometimes subtle and sometimes not, are present in these two passages. The beginning of the quote is a little more obvious… clearly, "Someone will say…" is the author speaking, and what follows is the content of this hypothetical person's speech… and even though those words are uttered by the author, those words don't express thoughts and attitudes held by the author. Quite the contrary, often times the author disagrees with that content and he's about to show you why.

And because the content of the objector's speech is contrary to the author's thoughts and attitudes, the author can only begin his rebuttal with something that indicates a change in direction… because the author's rebuttal will run contrary to the objector's argument. That's what a rebuttal does. So, we can see that the end quote in the Romans passage belongs just before "But indeed, O man…" The word "but" is an adversative conjunction, which indicates a change in direction. And in the 1 Corinthians passage, the end quotes belong right before what amounts to an insult. "Foolish one!!" Those are Paul's words, expressing his low opinion of the argument that he's now responding to.

When you double-check this on any online Bible or in a printed Bible, you'll see that for these two passages there is no disagreement as to the placement of the quotes across our English translations… they follow the pattern above. But interestingly enough, we find that there IS disagreement in James 2:18-20, and even more interesting is the fact that for this passage, no English translation follows the pattern above!

So, how do the English translations render this passage? Where do they place the quotes?

Again, we'll use a movie script format to help make the breakdown more clear, and we'll name the hypothetical objector "Newman." First we'll explore the King James, New King James, English Standard and New International versions. Here's how they deal with it:
But someone will say…

You have faith and I have works…

Show me your faith without your works and I will show you my faith by my works you believe that there is one God you do well even the demons believe and tremble but do you want to know, o foolish man, that faith without works is dead?
So, let me get this straight. Newman is coming at James with what argument? "You have faith and I have works?" That is Newman's argument? That's the whole thing? Seven words? That's not much of an argument, is it? What exactly do you suppose Newman thought he was going to accomplish by telling James that "you have faith and I have works?" Does that make any sense?

Also, remember that this passage is commonly used to teach that if works doesn't accompany faith, then the faith isn't real. But notice that (according to these translations) James seems to say just the opposite here… that Newman's faith can be shown without works! James seems to be saying that faith can be shown without works, (Show me your faith without your works) or by works (and I will show you my faith by my works) Good Lord, what's going on here?

But let's suppose that it all does make sense. Let's suppose that really is the totality of Newman's argument. How does James respond to it? Does James' response fit? Let's take a look…

James says:
"Show me your faith without your works and I will show you my faith by my works…"
Okay, wait a minute. Newman just said "You (James) have faith and I (Newman) have works." So why is James asking Newman to show his faith when Newman never claimed to have faith? Newman only claimed to have works.

According to the KJV, NKJV, ESV and NIV, James continues:
"…you believe that there is one God you do well even the demons believe and tremble but do you want to know, o foolish man, that faith without works is dead?"
Notice that in this translation, the "demons believe and tremble" line is depicted as James' own thoughts and attitudes.

I don't know how to pull a coherent conversation out of that breakdown, do you? What does "you believe that God is one, even the demons believe…" have to do with Newman's incredibly brief and, apparently irrelevant "You have faith and I have works" argument? How does this make sense? This just doesn't add up!

Well, we could always try the New American Standard translation and see if their solution is helpful. Here it is:
But someone will say…

You have faith and I have works. Show me your faith without your works and I will show you my faith by my works.

You believe that there is one God you do well even the demons believe and tremble but do you want to know, o foolish man, that faith without works is dead?
So okay… now at least we have Newman giving something that looks a little more like a serious argument. The crushing seven-word argument that the other translations leave him with is just plain insulting!

But even so, is this right? Whatever Newman's argument is supposed to mean, why does it deserve a rebuttal involving demons and what they believe? What relevance does this have? When you break it apart this way, it looks as though James hasn't paid any attention at all to Newman's argument.

I really don't see how this breakdown is much better in terms of coherence.

So what if we try something else? Remember the pattern we saw in Romans 9 and 1 Corinthians 15? Why don't we see if that pattern can be discovered in James 2:18-20? How would we test that?

Well, let's try reading without any punctuation and see if we notice any similarities…
but someone will say you have faith and I have works show me your faith without
your works and I will show you my faith by my works you believe that there is one God you do well even the demons believe and tremble but do you want to know, o foolish man, that faith without works is dead
Right away we see the same cue at the beginning as we did in Romans 9 and 1 Corinthians 15.
"Someone will say…"
This, we know, is James.

And now we have to look for a place where the flow of thought changes direction. And in Romans 9, that was the adversative conjunction "but" and in 1 Corinthians 15, it was an insult. So… do we find either of these in the James passage? Yes we do!! In fact, we find both of them!
"but do you want to know, o foolish man…"
So now we have a whole new way to look at this passage. And guess what? If this is right, then the infamous "demons believe and tremble" line isn't even something that James himself says… that line is in Newman's mouth, and James thinks Newman is a "foolish man!"

So the next step will be to re-examine this exchange with a completely different breakdown, and we can also look at verse 14 and work forward to see what point Newman is trying to score against James. Then we just might see something that approaches a coherent conversation. Stay tuned!

Monday, August 19, 2013

Saving Humans via the Faith of Demons? Part 1

What does the faith of demons have to do with the salvation of humans? Well, a vast majority of Christians think that one has quite a lot to do with the other, and they think this because of a peculiar passage in the book of James. But I think it can be demonstrated that James 2 has been misused and abused as a way to justify strapping on a reserve 'chute.

The particular passage in question is James 2:19, but we'll end up exploring the rest of James 2 also, because it's very easy to take away from James 2 that faith in Christ isn't really enough, that we also need works in order to prove that our faith is valid.

I have several examples of how this text is abused. The first comes from the Bible Believer's Commentary on James 2, where the author writes:
"These verses are commonly misused to support the heresy that we are saved by faith plus works, called 'synergism.' In other words, we must trust the Lord Jesus as our Savior, but that is not enough. We must also add to His redemptive work our own deeds of charity and devotion."
So the author here begins with a proper smack-down of this idea of "synergism," the notion that works must be added to faith. Bravo on that. Notice, also, that the author believes that adding works to faith is heresy. But in the very next paragraph, he steers the reader right back to that very idea:

"James insists that a faith that does not result in good works cannot save. There are two keys which greatly help in the understanding of this verse. First of all, James does not say 'What does it profit ... though a man has faith ... .' Rather he says, What does it profit ... if someone says he has faith. In other words, it is not a question of a man who truly has faith, and yet is not saved. James is describing the man who has nothing but a profession of faith. He says he has faith, but there is nothing about his life that indicates it. The second helpful key is brought out in the NASB. There, the verse closes with the question 'Can that faith save him?' In other words, can that kind of faith save? If it be asked what kind of faith James is referring to, the answer is found in the first part of the verse. He is speaking about a say-so faith that is not backed up by good works. Such a faith is worthless. It is all words, and nothing else."
So after the author soundly refutes this idea of adding your works to faith, and right after he appropriately deems it "heresy," he turns right around and affirms exactly the same idea when he insists that if your faith is not "backed-up by good works" then you're not really saved. Partly, the confusion comes because the author assumes that when James uses the word "save" in verse 14, he's talking about eternal salvation from Hell and that "faith" necessarily refers to one's faith in Christ. The logical result of those assumptions is that faith isn't really enough, you must add works. And that right there is synergism, is it not?

Another example comes from Norm Geisler's book "When Critics Ask," page 527, where Geisler writes:
"The demons are not saved because they do not exercise a saving kind of faith. This is James' very point, namely, not any kind of faith can save a person. Only the kind of faith that produces good works can save. While we are saved by faith alone, nevertheless, the faith that saves is not alone. It is always accompanied by good works."
Once again, good works are a part of the equation because if you lack good works, then you're not really saved. And yet somehow we're supposed to think this is not synergism? Just what is going on here?

Well, there's an entirely different--and very sensible--way to understand James 2 which does not require any doublespeak whatsoever. But to get to that, I think it makes sense to dive into verse 19 first. And here we will learn some very interesting things about how how our English Bible was translated.

First, take a look again at Geisler's statement:
"The demons are not saved because they do not exercise a saving kind of faith."
Hmmm. Is this true? Would the demons be saved if only they would exercise the right kind of faith? Doesn't that imply that there is a plan of salvation in place for demons, and that, as it is for humans, it is based upon faith in Christ? But is there a plan of salvation for demons? Did Jesus die for the sins of demons? How could Jesus pay for the sins of demons unless He, the 2nd Person of the Trinity, become a demon as well as a man? Well, the answer is "No." There is no plan of salvation for demons. So then why would James write this?

By now it should be apparent that, in general, Christians are having trouble making sense of James 2 and reconciling it with other New Testament passages. And this goes all the way back to Martin Luther, who wanted to remove the book of James because he was convinced that it contradicted Paul. Well, Martin Luther has a point… sort-of. I think that if, by the word "save" in verse 14, James means "eternal salvation from Hell," then I don't know what other conclusion you could reach, but that James is contradicting Paul. Clearly, if James is saying that faith isn't enough to save a person from Hell, then not only is he contradicting Paul, but he's contradicting Jesus Himself.

But, of course, if James did not mean "salvation from Hell," then all bets are off.  And if that sounds far-fetched to you, just ask yourself this question:
"Do I mean 'eternal salvation from Hell' every time I use the word 'save?'"
The answer is "Of course not!" I might say "I was saved today," but you might discover that I was on a rafting trip and fell out of the raft in a dangerous rapid. In that context, the word "save" has nothing to do with salvation from Hell, does it? No, it just means that someone pulled you back into the boat, rescuing you from the dangerous rapid!

And we find something similar in the Bible… sometimes the word "save" is used to refer to eternal salvation from Hell, and sometimes it's used to refer to salvation from something else. And how do we know? Same way we'd know about the rafting accident: context.

So, let's zero-in on James 2:19 first, and then we'll step backward to verse 14 and piece it all together. Here it is:
"You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe--and tremble!"
The standard teaching of this passage suffers from three basic problems:

First, consider the statement "You believe there is one God…" This might be useful for understanding our salvation if our salvation was contingent on believing there is one God. But this is not the case… our salvation is contingent on believing in (trusting in) Jesus Christ. In other words, the person who merely believes that there is one God isn't saved any more than the demons are.

Second, there is no plan of salvation for demons. Christ died for the sins of humans, He didn't die for the rebellious angels. With this in mind, it's hard to imagine how this verse informs us about our own salvation at all. If demons are trembling, it's because there's no plan of salvation at all for them, not because their belief isn't the right kind of belief.

Third, do the words in verse 19 reflect James' own thoughts? Over and over again these words are attributed to James himself… after all, these words are found in an epistle written by James. So, isn't it a foregone conclusion that these words reflect James' own thoughts?

Well, it turns out the answer to that question is "No, it's not a foregone conclusion." And this is because of three very simple words recorded in James 2:18:
"Someone may say…"
With those three words, James is bringing into his discussion an argument which he anticipates someone making, and James intends to respond to that argument. Notice that he's not talking about an actual person here… he's speaking hypothetically. The question is, "What might someone say?" What is the totality of that person's argument, and what is James' response to it? And here's what's interesting: Our English translations do not agree on this point, and what's even more interesting, is that the vast majority of popular Bible teachers seem to be utterly unaware of it.

So next time we'll examine this problem more closely, we'll compare the English translations, and we'll track the interchange between James and this hypothetical objector and see what we can make of it. I think you'll be amazed at what we'll find.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Snatching Defeat from the Jaws of Victory

Recently The Gospel Coalition posted an outline from a 1994 book by Don Whitney called "How Can I Be Sure I'm a Christian: What the Bible Says About Assurance of Salvation". To be fair, there are a few things in the outline that the author gets right. But the take-home message in the outline is this: None of us can really be sure that we're saved. And that's ironic, since it's a book about assurance of salvation.

Remember that the metaphor for this blog uses a skydiver to illustrate something important about trust. A smart skydiver always packs a reserve 'chute. But the reason he does is simple: He doesn't trust his main 'chute. If the main 'chute fails to open, the skydiver can cut the main 'chute loose and deploy the reserve 'chute, and the skydiver lives to tell the tale.

The gospel is different, however. It requires no reserve 'chute. In fact, it demands no reserve 'chute. In the gospel, God has invited us to jump out of the plane with one 'chute, Jesus Christ. Those are the terms. When we bring a reserve, we have failed to trust in the main 'chute.

So, I'm going to take a closer look at this outline and see how many reserve 'chutes it contains.

I. Assurance of Salvation: Is It Possible?
  1. It is possible, indeed normal, for Christians to experience assurance of salvation
  2. It is possible, indeed normal, for a non-Christian to have a false assurance of salvation

Now, it's not that I disagree with the author's two sub-points here… but it's curious that he's left out a category: It's also possible, indeed normal, for people to have no assurance. Anyone who isn't Christian in the broadest sense of the word would fall into that category. And this is interesting, because by focusing here on non-Christians with false assurance, he reveals that Christians can't really have assurance. After all, maybe the assurance you think you have is actually a false assurance and you're not really a Christian. How would you know?

Of course, we would expect, since this is a book about assurance, that the author will give us a way to know. But what we'll discover is that, well… he doesn't. In the end, the author does more to create doubts than he does to squash them.

II. Having Doubts about Your Salvation: It is possible, indeed normal, for Christians to have occasional doubts about their salvation. Doubting assurance is not unbelief. The causes of doubt are many:
  1. Spiritual immaturity may contribute to doubts about assurance.
  2. Sensitivity to sin may cause confusion about assurance.
  3. Comparison with other Christians may cloud assurance.
  4. Childhood conversion affects the assurance of some.

I agree with this group of points as well. All those things can contribute to a Christian's doubts about their salvation. But here's an interesting question: "Why?" And the answer is very simple. Because many Christians are taught that if they are failing to grow spiritually, they might not be saved. And because many Christians are taught that if they sin too much, they might not be saved. And if they aren't as good as the next guy, they might not be saved, and if their conversion happened during childhood, they might not be saved. And oddly enough, this very book will teach exactly those things. So why should we be surprised that having doubts about your salvation is normal? We are typically taught (quite erroneously) to be skeptical about our salvation. And the author of this book only makes that worse.

III. The Basis of Assurance: The assurance of salvation rests primarily on
  1. the character of God 
  2. the works of Jesus Christ
  3. the truth of God’s promises

Ahhh. Yes. Absolutely right. Now, let's see if the author sticks to these three things as the basis for assurance.

IV. An Inner Confirmation: Assurance may be experienced partly through the inner confirmation of the Holy Spirit. How does the Holy Spirit give Christians this assurance?
  1. He opens our minds to understand the Bible in ways that give us assurance.
  2. He guides our thinking about the biblical marks of salvation in our lives.
  3. He brings Scripture and its truths to our minds in various ways that assure us.
  4. He causes an inner sense of assurance without words.

This is an interesting point because it seems eerily similar to what Mormons teach. They claim to receive an "inner witness" or "inner testimony" that, for example, the Book of Mormon is true. This, for obvious reasons, makes me a little uncomfortable. It's very subjective, isn't it?

Having said that, because the Holy Spirit inspired the words of scripture, we can say that the HS gives us assurance because there are verses of scripture that are intended to give us assurance. So, I'm on board with that.

I'm concerned, however, about these "Biblical marks of salvation in our lives." This is another area where doubts are created, not destroyed. A "mark of salvation" is a sign; an indicator that a person is actually saved. But if we were to base our assurance on such indicators (assuming they exist) then these indicators would need to be reliable, unmistakable. If, for example, it's possible for unsaved people to exhibit any of the same indicators, then it could not be said that such indicators are "reliable." A "reliable" indicator is one that can't and won't lead you to a false conclusion.

V. Signs of Eternal Life: Assurance may be experienced partly through the presence of the attitudes and actions the Bible says will accompany salvation [1 John].
  1. Do you share the intimacies of the Christian life with other believers?
  2. Do you have a deep awareness of your sin against the word and love of God?
  3. Do you live in conscious obedience to the word of God?
  4. Do you despise the world and its ways? 
  5. Do you long for the return of Jesus Christ and to be made like him?
  6. Do you habitually do what is right more and sin less?
  7. Do you love other Christians sacrificially and want to be with them?
  8. Do you discern the presence of the Holy Spirit within you?
  9. Do you enjoy listening to the doctrines the apostles of Jesus taught?
  10. Do you believe what the Bible teaches about Jesus Christ?

And here the author begins to reveal some of these indicators, these "Biblical marks" of salvation. And while all of these things are good, desirable, admirable… only one of these can actually provide assurance, only one of these is actually a reliable indicator. Do you believe what the Bible teaches about Jesus Christ? If the answer is "Yes," then all the rest is superfluous. And the other points--all nine of them--are reserve 'chutes. For example, I might ask myself (as the author suggests):

"Do I live in conscious obedience to the word of God?"

And if I answer "Yes" and if I take that as confirmation that I am saved, then I have just donned a reserve 'chute. I'm no longer relying or trusting on the main 'chute.

And what's the main 'chute? Well, the author himself told us in Point III what the "primary basis of assurance" consists of. The author said those three things were 1) the character of God, 2) the works of Christ and 3) the truth of God’s promises.

But now the author wants me to base my assurance on whether or not I live in conscious obedience to the word of God. He's actually telling me to trust in something other than the three things he said form the basis of assurance!! And not just one thing, but nine other things!

VI. A Spiritual Mind-set: Only those who are spiritually minded are Christians. You are spiritual minded when you think about the things of God:
  1. spontaneously and without external causes
  2. more than anything else
  3. with more delight and enjoyment than anything else.
  4. You are not spiritually minded if “God is not in all [your] thoughts.”

This entire category is not only ambiguous and subjective, but it's one big, giant reserve 'chute. Why should I stake my salvation on how "spiritually minded" I am if I'm really relying on the one thing that can really give me assurance? (Point III again) The truth is, the only reason I would need to make such an assessment is if I was not relying on God's character, promises and Christ's work. And that means I'm packing a reserve.

VII. Things That Erode Our Assurance: A true Christian may lose a sense of assurance of salvation because…
  1. he or she refuses to deal with known sin
  2. of spiritual laziness
  3. of satanic attacks 
  4. of trials or harsh circumstances
  5. of illness or temperament
  6. God seems to withdraw a sense of his presence and blessing.

I could add something like:

    7. Books like "How Can I Be Sure I’m a Christian?" by Don Whitney

Seriously, though… the refusal to "deal with known sin" may, in fact, erode a person's assurance. But only if they haven't fully comprehended the magnitude of God's grace and only if they've failed to understand the gospel. What does 1 John 2:2 say? It says that if anyone sins, we have an advocate in Jesus Christ. Jude 24 says Jesus Christ presents us faultless before the Glory of God.

This is what the Bible teaches about Jesus Christ, and remember that believing what the Bible teaches about Jesus Christ was the one thing from Point V that can actually give you assurance!

The person who has jumped out of the plane with one 'chute (Christ) has no reason to think that sin theaters their relationship with God. This person understands and believes that Christ has taken care of that completely, and so it's no longer an issue when it comes to salvation. This person understands Romans 8:1 when Paul says "There is no condemnation to those are in Christ Jesus," and they understand John 5:24 when Jesus Himself says "…he who hears My word and believes in Him who sent Me has everlasting life, and shall not come into judgment."

In other words, the person who relies on Christ, believes and understands that their sins are forgiven. Period.

VIII. Common Problems with Uncertainty
  1. Those converted as children may experience special difficulties with assurance.
  2. Those who remember little else besides following Christ sometimes have doubts that those with adult or dramatic conversions do not.
  3. Concrete childhood thinking differs from more abstract adult thinking.
  4. An awareness of the Lordship of Christ must expand to cover all the ever-expanding circle of life that comes with maturity.
  5. Stay-at-home mothers of young children may experience special difficulties with assurance.
  6. True assurance won’t lead to spiritual carelessness.
  7. Those worried about the unforgivable sin have not committed it.

That people who don't "convert" until adulthood might have more dramatic conversion experiences than people who accepted the gospel as children is a reality… but it shouldn't be a source of doubt because everyone should understand that it's not about the experience.

The final point about the unforgivable sin is worth commenting on as well, but it's hard to do so without getting into the controversy over just what the "unforgivable sin" is. I'm going to avoid that, however, and just say that if his statement is true, then whoever is worried about the unforgivable sin is saved. Belief in Christ isn't necessary… just make sure you're worrying about the unforgivable sin. Then you'll be alright.

I analyze a similar argument in Assurance by Works; A Reserve 'Chute Case Study.

IX. False Assurance of Salvation: Sources of a false assurance of salvation
  1. A public commitment or outward response to the gospel
  2. Baptism
  3. Involvement with church
  4. A strong Christian family heritage An abundance of good deeds
  5. An extraordinary experience
  6. A dramatic personal or lifestyle change
  7. Material blessing and financial security
  8. A false understanding of God
  9. A false understanding of sin and hell

I agree completely that the first eight indicators listed here are unreliable indicators of salvation. In other words, just because someone has been baptized doesn't necessarily mean they're saved. That someone's involved with church doesn't necessarily mean they're saved. That someone has an abundance of good deeds doesn't necessarily mean that they're saved. That someone had a dramatic lifestyle change doesn't mean that they're saved. But we'll see very shortly that the author recommends that you do some of these very things if you're still not sure. We're almost there.

X. Characteristics of the falsely assured
  1. They are either unconcerned or angry when warned about false assurance.
  2. They are either legalistic or loose with spiritual disciplines and duties.
  3. They are either very weak in or very confident of their Bible knowledge.
  4. They have either a vicarious Christianity or an overly independent spirit.
  5. They may be constantly resisting the truth or never able to come to the truth.

This is an interesting list of characteristics. Notice the contrasts… on one end of the spectrum you might be apathetic when warned about false assurance, and on the other end you might be angry. You might be legalistic, or you might be sloppy with spiritual disciplines. You might be very insecure about your knowledge of Bible doctrine, or you might be overly confident. You might depend on other's too much, or you've gone off on your own.

Makes me think of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. If your porridge is too hot or too cold, you might be falsely assured. But if your porridge is "just right" then I guess you're okay. Either way, your experience with respect to assurance now depends upon your performance in the categories put forth by this author. If you set off this author's alarm bells, then you should have doubts.

But should we have doubts? Is Christ trustworthy or not? In Point II of the outline, the author wrote:
"Doubting assurance is not unbelief."
Hmmm. Let's take a look at it: What is "assurance," exactly? Assurance is an abstract noun which refers to the state of being assured, is it not? What does it mean to be assured of something? Or, what does it mean to assure someone else of something? Is that not synonymous with making a promise?

"I assure you, I will be there to pick you up at 10:00." Would the expectation be any different if I said "I promise you" instead of "I assure you?" No, it wouldn't. Would it make any difference if I said "Verily, verily I say unto you, I will be there to pick you up at 10:00." Or maybe I would say "Most assuredly…" or "Truly, truly." Makes no difference, does it? These are all PROMISES. And what did Christ say in John 6:47 and about a dozen other places? He said:
"Most assuredly, I say to you, he who believes in Me has everlasting life."
If I've promised to pick you up at 10:00, and you have doubts about whether or not you'll be left stranded, why wouldn't we call that "unbelief?" If you believed my promise, how could you have doubts?

Is Christ trustworthy? If He is, then why not just believe Him? He said that if you do, then you have everlasting life. What's to doubt?

So what does this mean, then? Does this mean I'm "unconcerned" about assurance? Or am I angry? Am I being legalistic or loose with spiritual disciplines? Am I being either weak or over-confident in my knowledge of Bible doctrine? Am I overly independent? Am I guilty of an offense by simply believing Christ's promises and being confident in them?

Simply put, doubting assurance (or salvation) is the very definition of unbelief. If you believe, then you have accepted Christ's assurance to you. End of story.

The final point in the outline is a list of things to do in case you're still not sure. Let's take a look:

XI. What to Do If You’re Still Not Sure
  1. Don’t take for granted that you understand the gospel.
  2. Think deeply about the gospel.
  3. Repent of all known sin.
  4. Submit everything to the Lordship of Christ.
  5. Meditate much on 1 John.
  6. Don’t doubt the promises of God.
  7. Believe as best you can and pray for greater faith.
  8. Practice the spiritual disciplines.
  9. If you really love God, take assurance because non-Christians don’t love God passionately.
  10. If you hate your sin, take assurance because non-Christians don’t hate sin deeply.
  11. If you’ve never been baptized, present yourself as a candidate in obedience to Christ.
  12. Don’t neglect the Lord’s Supper.
  13. Don’t compare earthly fathers to your Heavenly Father.
  14. Seek godly counsel if the doubts persist.
  15. Pray for assurance.
  16. Wait patiently upon God to give you a fuller experience of assurance.

Hmmm. Okay, I'll grant that it's possible to have a poor understanding of the gospel. But if I can never reach a point where I say "Yes, I understand the gospel," then how in the world can I ever have assurance?

Think deeply about the gospel? What does this mean? Repent of all known sin? Submit everything to the Lordship of Christ? How will what I do help give me assurance?

Meditate much on 1 John? I think he means "Meditate much on the way I understand 1 John." First John is a difficult book, and I'm convinced that it's widely misunderstood. It should be a source of assurance, because (the way I've come to understand it) it emphasizes our secure position in Christ. It emphasizes that God sees us as without sin. But the popular view of 1 John is a view which could be added to the authors list of things which erode assurance.

Number 6 is the only valid point among fifteen: Don't doubt the promises of God. In other words, believe!!

We began talking about reserve 'chutes. In Point 9, the author says that you should be assured if "you really love God." This is a reserve 'chute. Your love for God cannot provide you assurance. believing God's promises, however, can. Likewise, hating your sin cannot provide you assurance. But believing God's promises will.

The next point is very interesting, because earlier the author presented a list of sources of false assurance. And what was the second item in that list? It was baptism. Baptism, the author says, is a source of false assurance. And yet, here he offers baptism as a solution to doubts about assurance!!

He also says that not neglecting the Lord's Supper is a solution to doubts about assurance. So with respect to baptism and the Lord's Supper, we are supposed to rely upon rituals which we perform for our assurance? That's stuff that WE do. That's a reserve 'chute. How 'bout this instead: "Don't doubt the promises of God. Believe!!"

Alright, I'll give the author point 14 too… seeking godly counsel is not a bad idea. Hopefully that Godly counsel won't consult this book, however. Hopefully the Godly counsel will exhort the doubting person to simply believe.

Pray for assurance? In the Bible, God has already given us every assurance, has He not? I'm not opposed to prayer in general, of course… and perhaps if someone does pray for assurance, God will find a way to remind them of just what assurance is, and that if they'll simply believe His promises, they'll have assurance.

Don Whitney's "How Can I Be Sure I’m a Christian?" really adds up to one giant discouragement regarding assurance of salvation. It snatches defeat from the jaws of victory. The sum total of the message is this: Assurance is really impossible, but we're going to pretend that relying on our own performance gives us some kind of assurance, even though we know it can't.

Almost all of Whitney's solutions amount to relying on things other than God's promises for assurance of salvation. In other words, he's telling folks to carry a reserve, and this just reveals (or requires) distrusting their main 'chute. And because we know that the fabric and thread that we use to sew our reserve 'chutes together with are inherently defective, our reserve 'chutes can never give us assurance. Only one thing can: Believing Christ's promises.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Thinking About Divine Freedom

In my last post I said we'd get to the issue of Divine freedom. Recently Bob Nyberg of New Tribes Mission  sent me a link to an interesting critique of Libertarian freedom, and in it the author affirms what I've concluded about how best to describe God's freedom. But before I get to that, there are a few items in this author's critique that stood out and which warrant a response. In the critique, J.W. Hendryx wrote:
"One of the main objections of Arminians, Semi-pelagians and other synergists to divine election is based on moral rather than exegetical grounds."
This statement is a good example of the warped paradigm that the Calvinist must operate within. That the author considers the view he's opposing to be "synergism" demonstrates a disregard for the notion, as taught by the apostle Paul, that trusting in something is not work, has no merit, has no value. If I trust my neighbor to feed my pets while I'm away, I am not going to be the one feeding my pets. My neighbor gets all the credit for that, I am indebted to my neighbor for doing that work for me. So, this author has a distorted view of Monergism and, as a Calvinist, it is actually he that will end up embracing synergism. For a more in-depth exploration of this distorted view of Monergism, read Monergism Distorted.

There's more in the statement that's worth commenting about. Where do we get our ideas of what is moral and immoral? Is it not from exegesis? Where do we get our ideas of what is just and unjust? Is it not from exegesis? Have we no exegetical basis on which we can say "God is Just?" In other words, to characterize the objection as based on "moral rather than exegetical grounds" is to advance a false dichotomy. If a person's sense of morality comes from exegesis, then their objection is based upon exegesis!

Hendryx also wrote:
"I have heard many of them contend that the Augustinian view of God is morally repugnant since God could and would never force humans to do something against their will."
Here, the author mischaracterizes the objection. If God created humans without free will, there's nothing morally repugnant about that. God created lots of things which lack free will. That God would create humans without free will, and then hold them responsible for something… that is morally repugnant.

If someone created a robot and programmed that robot to kill another person, would it be just to hold the robot responsible? Of course not! We would know that the robot was merely doing what it was programmed to do and we would prosecute the person who programmed the robot! If the only way to understand God's sovereignty is to say that He determines our actions and we lack the freedom to choose, then why would God hold us responsible for doing things when He was the one who caused us to do it?
"We all know that the Arminians teach that man has a free will in the libertarian sense. What this means, simply is that they believe man has the ability to choose otherwise. That is, they affirm that human beings are free to choose between opposites ... to make choices uninfluenced any prior prejudice, inclination, or disposition. They believe the will, being neutral, can just as easily choose good or evil. On the surface this may seem reasonable but when you think about it for a moment it makes no sense because deep down we know, and the Scriptures affirm, that a person must always choose according to what he is by nature, otherwise how could the choice be rightfully said to be his own? Let us never forget that the nature of a person is not a thing he possesses. It is something he is. For example, When a person loves evil by nature, he will always make choices in line with what that nature desires most."
This paragraph contains at least a couple examples of deliberate distortions of Libertarian freedom. The author claims that under Libertarian freedom the will is "neutral." But this is not necessarily the case. There is no denial that the will is inclined toward evil. But Libertarian freedom simply allows for the possibility of making choices contrary to that inclination. That's not the same as neutrality.

The author is quite confident that a person "must always choose according to what he is by nature." And yet, it's quite clear that even fallen, unregenerate people choose against committing sin at least on occasion. And we also know that Christians choose to commit sin, something that is contrary to their new nature in Christ. So the ability to choose contrary to our nature--whether unregenerate or regenerate--is demonstrable. So, the author's statement that:
"When a person loves evil by nature, he will always make choices in line with what that nature desires most."
…is demonstrably false.

Then the author asks:
"The question is, does God have a free will in the libertarian sense? i.e. Is God able to …choose good or evil? And if not does this mean human beings have more freedom than God?"
This is a very interesting question. Is the ability to choose good or evil necessarily superior to the ability only to choose good? Is that what we want to say? This is what is implied by the author, is it not? He believes that if we think of humans as having Libertarian freedom, then humans have more freedom; a superior kind of freedom, when compared to God. The author would be right to expect that God's freedom should be superior to man's freedom. But superior in what way, exactly? Perhaps we shouldn't jump to conclusions about what kind of freedom is superior.

I think the author is right when he says that God's freedom should be described as "Compatibilist" freedom. I think Compatibilism is a very good way to describe God's freedom as long as we are careful to point out that we do not believe that God's decisions are determined by any external cause. And, because of how Compatibilism is sometimes defined, this can be difficult to do. The very name "Compatibilism" refers to a supposed "compatibility" between determinism and free will, which essentially means it would affirm both.

But wait a minute… determinism is the idea that choices are determined by an external entity. For example, a marionette's actions are determined by the puppeteer; they are not the product of the marionette's will. The marionette, in fact, has no will. So, to the extent that Compatibilism affirms determinism, we cannot use Compatibilism to describe God's freedom, can we? How could God be God if His actions were determined by some external entity?

So, some care must be taken when it comes to defining Compatibilism if we're going to use that term to describe God's freedom. It seems like the aspect of Compatibilism that the author has in mind is the idea that God's own character or nature constrains God's choices. To use the author's example, God is not free in the sense that He cannot choose to lie. And I agree entirely with the author on this point. We might say that God freely chooses to do good, but only good. The choices to do evil are not available to God, but only because of His nature, not because some external entity is preventing Him from going in that direction.

We could use J Warner Wallace's term for Compatibilism, which is "self-fettered free will." Wallace uses the term "unfettered free will" as an alternate term for Libertarian freedom. With these terms, it's easy to see that God's will is "self-fettered." His own character, His own nature, constrains His choices. And yet, since no external entity is determining His choices for Him, we can say that He is truly free.

J Warner Wallace describes Compatibilism (self-fettered free will) this way:
  "Humans have the ability to choose something, …but they always are restrained by their pre-existing nature… You are limited in your choices because you're not going to choose [those things which are contrary to your nature]. You only choose WITHIN YOUR NATURE."
And of course, he's talking here about human freedom. But I think it's obvious that God is restrained in His choices by His pre-existing nature. He will not choose those things which are contrary to His nature, He only chooses within His nature. But is this an apt description of human freedom? Well… certainly not in this life. For more analysis of this question, please read here and here.

If our nature inclines us toward evil and we are unable to choose contrary to that inclination, then how do you account for the fact that unregenerate people do not commit sin at every opportunity they're given? It ought to be impossible for an unregenerate, "natural" man to choose against committing any particular sin at any point in time.

Also, we know that regenerate (born again) persons choose to commit sins, even though this is clearly contrary to the new nature that they've been given. As a description of human freedom, Compatibilism utterly fails to explain this, while Libertarian freedom seems to accommodate it quite comfortably.

And by the same token, Libertarian freedom would be an inappropriate description of God's freedom because if God had Libertarian freedom, then He would not be constrained by His nature and, if He wasn't constrained by His nature, then He wouldn't be God.

So, perhaps the author here has jumped to a conclusion about which freedom is superior. If God is the greatest possible being (and I think He is) and God has Compatiblist freedom, then Compatibilist freedom must be the greatest possible kind of freedom! And because we affirm that mankind is made in the image of God, and yet isn't God's equal (read this for more about being made in God's image) then we should expect that man has an inferior kind of freedom.

So maybe it's wrong to say that Libertarian freedom is a superior kind of freedom. Maybe the ability to choose contrary to one's nature should be viewed as a defect, not an advantage!

There's still one remaining issue, though… human freedom in Heaven. We're not given many details about Heaven, but we are told that we will be free from sin. And that's difficult for any of us to imagine. But I think that some of the mystery goes away if we anticipate that when we receive our resurrection bodies, we will lose our defective Libertarian free will and our freedom will become like God's in the sense that we will freely choose to do those things which are consistent with our new, glorified nature. At that point, Compatibilism will become an apt way of describing human freedom. We will be free from the Old Sin Nature and the new nature will reign absolutely.