A Thought Experiment
I realize that simply stating a doctrine of salvation by grace alone will not immediately convince otherwise those many who have over lifetimes internalized a doctrine of salvation by works. However, I do ask that you walk with me through a thought experiment. Let’s assume that the Bible, as interpreted by our Confessions, is correct in its evaluation of our nature without the sovereign invasion of righteousness from our merciful God. Here’s the definition of our sinful state from the Second Helvetic Confession (5.037).
SIN. By sin we understand that innate corruption of man which has been derived or propagated in us all from our first parents, by which we, immersed in perverse desires and averse to all good, are inclined to all evil. Full of all wickedness, distrust, contempt and hatred of God, we are unable to do or even to think anything good of ourselves. Moreover, even as we grow older, so by wicked thoughts, words and deeds committed against God’s law, we bring forth corrupt fruit worthy of an evil tree (Matt. 12:33 ff.). For this reason by our own deserts, being subject to the wrath of God, we are liable to just punishment, so that all of us would have been cast away by God if Christ, the Deliverer, had not brought us back.
When the Confession says “of ourselves” read “by ourselves.”
Now, assume that, though you are actually in the state of sin described above, you nevertheless set out on a quest to prove that you are “good enough” to earn God’s approval. I contend that there will be two unavoidable primary consequences.
- You will become interested in the frailties and failure of other people, since this provides “evidence” of your own moral superiority.
- You will have to build an ever-expanding web of excuses and falsehoods to explain away the accumulating evidence to the contrary that you are actually not now, never have been and never will be “good enough” to earn God’s approval.
It is at these very two points that postmodern Christians have chosen to direct their primary assault. They have correctly identified the intrinsic hypocrisy and impossibility of this position. But, rather than correct it, they have leveraged it to defeat any claim to objective morality.
On the first issue, they use this mentality as an opening by which to accuse people of hypocrisy. Imagine a Christian who states the belief that same gender marriage is at odds with God’s intention for human life, but who also accepts a doctrine of salvation by works. So, the postmodern Christian replies, “You hypocrite, you accuse others of sin but you yourself are full of sin.” And, the postmodern Christian is correct! If the other Christian has any sense of fair play they will have great difficulty reconciling their position with the guilty knowledge of their own sin. The only apparent choices are to obstinately hold to this apparently contradictory position, retreat into silence, lest they be again embarrassed by their hypocrisy, or, begin to agree with the postmodern position.
On the second issue, postmodern Christians offer an escape hatch for the increasing sense of panic as the weight of real sin forces ever more numerous and substantial additions to the web of falsehoods that supports our flagging sense of moral superiority. The postmodern Christians say, in effect, “Hey, if you join us you will be able to actually achieve moral superiority!” This is accomplished by two means. First, the notion of sin itself is so minimized and marginalized that its power appears to substantially diminish. Secondly, what remains of “sin” is redefined to be violations of current social norms. That is, “sin” becomes nothing other than “lack of inclusiveness,” “lack of diversity,” “judgmentalism,” and “greed,” among others. Now, a person can become accredited as “morally superior” simply by using the politically correct talking points of elite postmodern culture. Yes, many Christians continue to reject this offer, but if they hold to salvation by works, their confidence in the face of postmodern Christians who are convinced of their actual moral superiority will likely wane over time.
Thus, it appears that the acceptance of a salvation by works mentality has led to a state of unilateral moral disarmament for Christians who seek to uphold Biblical morality. Were this false doctrine actually true, we would have no viable alternative but to accept the “anything goes” (as long as its approved by the cultural moral elite) approach to sin. However, salvation by works is a deadly, false doctrine. The only antidote to the darkness of false doctrine is to shine the light of true doctrine, which the next post will attempt to do.