Local News: Mississippi Presbyterian Cursillo, sponsored by the Presbytery of Mississippi, will be hosting MPC #12 at Camp Wesley Pines on October 31 through November 3. Those interested in working on staff for this retreat are required to attend a training session coming up September 27-28. For more information about working on staff, or to participate in the retreat as a "pilgrim", go to www.mspresbyteriancursillo.com.
This summer’s edition of Issues Etc. included a testimonial written by Pastor John Frasier titled, “From Self-Focus to Christ-Focus: Why I Left Decision-Making and Introspection for a Better Way”. Frasier recounts growing up in an evangelical church where the assurance of one’s salvation was based on having made a decision for Christ. It wasn’t uncommon, he said, for people to doubt the veracity of their decision in his home church and re-dedicate their lives, just to make sure they were really saved.
1. Frasier’s battle for objective assurance of salvation
Frasier says that he never could arrive at much assurance under this model because he could never be sure that his faith in Christ was as solid as it should be. In other words, he was making the mistake of putting his faith in his faith, so to speak, instead of putting his faith in the objective work of Christ on the cross which is what it is, regardless of how shaky our faith is. Frasier says he became attracted to Reformed Christianity which emphasized God’s grace more than human decisions. However, even here he was dissatisfied.
He explains, saying:
“Unequivocally, salvation was by grace alone through faith alone, but now salvation’s assurance was worked out through a system of self-examination in which you look for good works as the evidence of conversion. Any certainty that I belonged to Christ had to be worked out through my performance on the treadmill of the law. How did I know Jesus was for me? That question had to be answered by looking for “evidence of grace” in my life. If I found something in my behavior that could only be explained by God’s supernatural work, then I could know that Jesus was mine. Some days I felt satisfied upon self-examination, but most days, the evidence wasn’t convincing. Even worse, it was often damning.”
It is true that Reformed Christianity can foster an unhealthy sense of introspection, wherein people look within for some sort of assurance that they are truly part of the elect. It’s unfair, though, to allege that Reformed Christianity leaves people floundering around in a subjective quagmire with nothing but their own spiritual progress to look at for assurance of salvation. This is Reformed Christianity gone awry. In its worst form, this introspection tendency can become a backdoor form of works-righteousness where people base their assurance of salvation on their own progress or “evidence” of Christ in them.
2. Frasier’s departure from the Reformed Church and entrance into the Lutheran
Frasier was led, as a result of this angst, to abandon Reformed Christianity and become a Lutheran. Explaining his decision, he said, “In the end, under both frameworks [Baptist and Reformed], I was looking for an objective work of God (Jesus died for me) in something subjective about myself (my decisions or my transformed life).”
Martin Luther knew the soul agonizing angst of wanting to have certainty about being right with God, and it was Luther’s writings that helped Frasier on his journey:
“What I encountered [in Luther’s writings] was the objective work of God’s external Word. Rather than depending upon my power to discerning my transformed behavior, I found that the external Word had all the power.”
One can sympathize with Frasier’s relief—in Luther, the emphasis is not so much our ability to believe the gospel as it is on the gospel itself. The good news is that Christ has saved us. Of course, Scripture calls us to do something--to believe this good news, but the good news itself is solely about what Christ has done for us, not about anything we do.
3. Responding to Frasier’s criticisms of Reformed theology
This dilemma, trying to know for sure that one’s faith is genuine and that one is truly saved, transcends denominational barriers. The main fault, therefore, in Frazier’s article is that it implies that Lutheran theology neatly clears up the problem. Scripture tells people to base their assurance of salvation on the finished work of Christ on the cross. Yet at the same time Scripture itself tells people to look within at times for their assurance of salvation—as St. John says in his first epistle: “We know we have passed from death to life because we love the brethren.” John is saying we can know we are truly in Christ based on the love we have for each other.
We know that one’s sole basis for assurance can’t be how well we love God or each other since, as Frasier points out, our love is unsteady and some days even those who are saved don’t act like it. Frasier concedes that this emphasis on the gospel alone was not absent during his days as a Reformed Christian: “Evangelicals talk all the time about our need for the external Word of the Gospel. But that external Word fails to save unless you believe, and so there was no subjective confidence that could be built on the external, objective Word of the Gospel.”
Again, the dilemma Frasier describes is one common to all Christians, a dilemma that can’t be avoided by joining a new denomination. The gospel is about what Christ has done, and yet there is the need to internalize or personalize the good news. If the message, “Christ died for the sins of the world” saved people in and of itself, this would lead to believing in universalism. Scripture makes it clear, though, that God requires people to trust in Christ. When a person trusts in Christ, the good news is no longer an abstract, “Christ died for the world”, but rather a personal assurance, “Christ died for me.”
As much as Lutherans emphasize the objective truth of the gospel, the external Word of God, over and above our subjective experience with it, even Lutheranism concedes that the gospel, the power of God to salvation, is only effectual for those who believe. Hence, the old question, “Have I truly believed, or have I deceived myself into thinking I have truly believed?” can still sneak its way in. The solution to this dilemma—the one proposed by both Reformed and Lutheran—is to look not to oneself, but to Christ.
For Frasier, though, Lutheranism offered something objective that Reformed Christianity didn’t. He said, “I could doubt my faith, but I could not doubt that I was baptized.”
For the sake of argument, assuming Lutheranism is correct, assuming that baptism did bring about salvation, meaning that a person could know 100% for sure that she was saved if she had been baptized, the dilemma still persists. Because, according to Lutheran theology, it’s possible for a baptized person to fall away, the nagging question, then, can persist, albeit perhaps in another form—not, “Have I believed and am I saved?” but rather, “Am I still saved?” Ironically, this is a question that Reformed Christians generally don’t ask, believing as they do in the Perseverance of the Saints—that all true Christians (though not necessarily all the baptized) are preserved by God and kept from falling away. Some Presbyterians would say that no theology which denies the doctrine perseverance of the saints can provide complete assurance of salvation because a person could only possess present-tense assurance, never certain that he will persevere until the end.
Frasier went on to say, “I could doubt my own self-examination, but I couldn’t doubt that I was forgiven because I heard the word of forgiveness pronounced by the called and ordained servant of Christ.”
This seems to be an oversimplification, tantamount to saying that hearing the gospel itself brings about salvation. Paul says that faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God. It’s not enough to sit in the pew and hear the word of forgiveness pronounced; it has to be believed personally. Many churchgoers hear the Word year in and year out and don’t actually believe it. Christ said at the end of the Sermon on the Mount that many will be shocked at the last day to hear that Christ never knew them—they had been part of the believing community and had wrongly assumed that they were right with God when in reality they weren’t. Does this mean the focus reverts back to our subjective experience? It needn’t. It simply means asking, “Do I really believe the gospel that I’ve heard?” is a legitimate question to ask.
4. What Reformed Christians can learn from Lutherans
Frasier said, “As I moved into the Lutheran church, I found, for the first time, a full encounter with the Gospel. Hearing the Gospel before, was to hear it in mono, but this was stereo. In the best of Reformed evangelical worship I might hear the Gospel in a sermon, but now in the Lutheran liturgy suddenly Jesus with his Gospel was all around me. I heard it, saw it, and tasted it.”
Every time this examiner has visited a Lutheran Church Missouri-Synod worship service, what has always stood out the most has been the sheer gospel-centered focus of it all. This examiner believes that Reformed churches could learn a lot from Lutherans about how to make the Gospel more front and center. As Frasier put it, the Gospel should be something we not only hear and process (intellectual) but also something we see and taste (physical, tactile). The sacramental/liturgical nature of Lutheran worship helps foster this in a way that is sometimes lacking in Reformed churches, and Reformed churches would do well to learn from Lutheran brothers and sisters.
The ultimate solution (which Lutherans and Presbyterians both preach) whenever doubts plague is to look to Christ, just as Peter had to look to Christ as he walked on the water. Scripture doesn’t encourage people to endless introspection, but it also doesn’t encourage them to neglect self-examination altogether. The question Scripture tells people to ask, though, isn’t, “Do I believe enough?” or “Did I recite the Sinner’s Prayer just the right way?” The question Scripture invites us to ask is simply, “Do I believe the gospel?” We are saved not by the intensity of our faith in Christ, but by Christ himself—our faith itself isn’t what saves; it is the object of our faith who saves. Scripture promises that all who believe the gospel are saved. If someone is plagued by doubts about the veracity of his own faith—driven by a desire to believe the gospel, but despair that one doesn’t believe strong enough—Scripture points us back to Christ.
Christ himself said no one could believe in him unless the Father drew the person. Believing the gospel doesn’t come “natural” to anyone, since we are sinful creatures naturally inclined to disbelieve God’s Word. If one believes the gospel, or even wants to believe the gospel, this is indicative of a work of God in a person’s heart. As Martin Luther said, if you’re concerned about whether or not you are predestined for salvation, pray to God, and if you do so, you may conclude that you are predestined.
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