One of the most challenging issues that has faced the evangelical church in America in the past forty years is the question of the nature of saving faith. In particular, does saving faith include my obedience or commitment to obey, or is it instead a complete reliance upon the work of Christ apart from any sort of trust in my own works?
Many of the most popular voices in evangelicalism would argue that faith in Christ is insufficient if it does not also include at least a “total commitment” to obey Him as well. John Stott puts it this way: “ Saving faith includes obedience… It is in fact a complete commitment to this Person involving not only an acceptance of what is offered but a humble surrender to what is or may be demanded.”
Francis Chan, in his recent book Crazy Love, writes: “As I see it, a lukewarm Christian is an oxymoron; there’s no such thing. To put it plainly, churchgoers who are ‘lukewarm’ are not Christians. We will not see them in heaven.”
On the surface, such statements are appealing. If I can set a visible standard that determines who is “in” and who is “out,” I am not left with the problem of Christians who might, quite frankly, be a mess. If my friend (or enemy) professes Christ but seems to live in disobedience, the simple answer is that he must not be saved. I have an easy, black-and-white solution to spiritual issues that might otherwise be a bit sticky. All Christians will necessarily and consistently demonstrate a certain degree of spiritual fruit.
In my early twenties, however, I began to study the Scriptures in earnest and as a result to question such formulations of saving faith and its results. Does a person’s lack of faithfulness always prove that they are not a Christian? Look at the book of 1 Corinthians, for example. Paul writes to a church that is filled with “problem Christians,” the very sort of sticky situations that defy simply solutions. The people are engaged in gross sexual immorality, lawsuits between brethren, abuse of the Lord’s supper,and spiritual pride because of their gifts. And yet, he calls them “brethren” at least twenty-two times throughout the book, more than any other New Testament book.
In 1 Corinthians 3 he refers to these believers as “fleshly” or “carnal,”immediately after calling them “brethren.” They are “infants in Christ,” but apparently in Christ nonetheless.
I would hasten to add that he does warn in the same chapter of judgment upon Christians who are in sin. He concludes, however,not that they will lose their salvation, but that they will “be saved, yet so as through fire.” They will lose eternal reward, hear chastisement from their Savior, and remain ineffective for His kingdom. But their salvation still depends upon what Jesus has done, not upon what they do.
Furthermore,how can I ever know how much sin is too much? At what point do I begin to do what Paul criticizes in Galatians, making certain works determinative of whether a person qualifies to be a member of God’s people? Francis Chan seems to recognize this quandary himself, because later in the same chapter he writes: “Each of us has lukewarm elements and practices in our life…The Scriptures demonstrate clearly that there is room for our failure and sin in our pursuit of God.” How can I have lukewarm “practices” yet not be lukewarm? Such distinctions seem artificial in light of Scripture.
I think it best to read passages such as Ephesians 2:8-10 at face value: “ For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one mayboast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them. ” Our salvation is given as an entirely free gift; no obedience, works, or “total commitment” is involved. Works are natural and expected, but do not prove our worth before Christ. Instead,we completely trust in the only Son of God who is completely worthy.
This concept has changed my life radically. Contrary to those who would argue that a completely free Gospel leads to sin and license, I have found the opposite in my own life. I yearn to serve with joy and gratitude because of the lavish grace I have been given. I do not fear that my daily failures will send me to hell, but recognize that I am completely covered by the grace of Jesus who gave Himself on my behalf, precisely so that those failures will not keep me from eternal life.
Now that’s crazy love. Let’s worship and obey our Savior in response.