Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Free Gift of Grace

There is a story about a group of Christian scholars sitting in a room debating what distinguishes Christianity from all other world religions when C.S. Lewis walked into the room. When the question was posed to Lewis he gave a one word answer, “Grace.”

I don’t know whether the story is true or not. But either way it is a profound answer. Only Christianity among all the world religions offers you eternal life as a free gift. You do not do anything to earn it. In fact, as an imperfect being you can never do enough to earn it. We do not “work” our way into the kingdom. God simply gives us the keys.

I am always perplexed by belief systems (such as Jehovah’s Witnesses) who claim to use the same scriptures as other Christian denominations. Even under the alternate “New World Translation” used by the Witnesses, there are some things about their theology that simply do not make sense.

Specifically, the Witnesses insert personal works into the salvation formula. Your eternal destiny is somehow tied into how good of a life you have lived here on Earth. This is admittedly a simplification and they would likely explain the salvation process in much more detail, going into how Jesus undid the effects of Adam’s sin, etc. But after they have gone into all this detail, the conclusion they arrive at still ends up based in your personal good deeds. The question is whether this conclusion is supported by their own scriptures.

A couple of passages from the Bible come to mind. In order to be as fair as possible to the Jehovah’s Witnesses (because they translate the scriptures differently) I have copied the two passages from the New World Translation so that it is clear that the translation does not alter the ultimate conclusion:

PASSAGE #1: Matthew 20:1-16
“For the kingdom of the heavens is like a man, a householder, who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vinyeard. When he had agreed with the workers for a de•nar´i•us a day, he sent them forth into his vineyard. Going out also about the third hour, he saw others standing unemployed in the marketplace; and to those he said, ‘YOU also, go into the vineyard, and whatever is just I will give YOU.’ So off they went. Again he went out about the sixth and the ninth hour and did likewise. Finally, about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing, and he said to them, ‘Why have YOU been standing here all day unemployed?’ They said to him, ‘Because nobody has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘YOU too go into the vineyard.’

“When it became evening, the master of the vineyard said to his man in charge, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, proceeding from the last to the first.’ When the eleventh-hour men came, they each received a de•nar´i•us. So, when the first came, they concluded they would receive more; but they also received pay at the rate of a de•nar´i•us. On receiving it they began to murmur against the householder and said, ‘These last put in one hour’s work; still you made them equal to us who bore the burden of the day and the burning heat!’ But in reply to one of them he said, ‘Fellow, I do you no wrong. You agreed with me for a de•nar´i•us, did you not? Take what is yours and go. I want to give to this last one the same as to you. Is it not lawful for me to do what I want with my own things? Or is your eye wicked because I am good?’ In this way the last ones will be first, and the first ones last.”

Passage #2: Luke 23:39-43
But one of the hung evildoers began to say abusively to him: “You are the Christ, are you not? Save yourself and us.” In reply the other rebuked him and said: “Do you not fear God at all, now that you are in the same judgment? And we, indeed, justly so, for we are receiving in full what we deserve for things we did; but this [man] did nothing out of the way.” And he went on to say: “Jesus, remember me when you get into your kingdom.” And he said to him: “Truly I tell you today, You will be with me in Paradise.”

In these two passages we can see a descending scale. Jesus’ parable in Matthew speaks to God’s sovereignty. The denarius is a metaphor for the salvation granted to all who come to Christ (the householder). Regardless of when in your life you come to Christ or how much work you put in thereafter, all true believers are granted the same salvation.

The parable includes five groups of workers:

(1) Those who worked 12 hours
(2) Those who worked 9 hours
(3) Those who worked 6 hours
(4) Those who worked 3 hours
(5) Those who worked only 1 hour

All of these workers agreed to work for the householder. But despite the different amounts of work they each put in, all five groups received the same payment. The amount the received had nothing to do with the amount of work they put it. They all agreed to come to the vineyard and work it, but that alone was enough for the owner to graciously give them the reward.

The same is true of Christ. True believers agree to put their faith in Christ. Part of that means working for the kingdom. After all, Jesus is not only our Savior, He is also our Lord. When you accept Him as your Lord that means you are agreeing to do His will.

So when we become believers we agree to work the vineyard. But we have no idea how long we will be working. God may call some of us home after 30 years. For others perhaps it will only be 30 minutes. Jesus does not give us our “denarius” based upon the amount of work we put it but rather based solely on our acceptance of Him as both Savior and Lord.

Some people may object by pointing out that even those who came at the eleventh hour still put in one hour’s worth of work. But that is the point of the passage from Luke. The robber on the cross next to Christ admits that he did nothing in his life worthy of reward. Yet when he asked Jesus to remember him, he was asking the householder to enter the vineyard. Jesus replied, “Truly I tell you today, You will be with me in Paradise.” Jesus gave him his denarius.

This passage allows us to add a sixth category to the parable:

(6) Those who worked 0 hours

Yet even the robber in this sixth category was given his denarius.

The New World Translation attempts to alter the conclusion of my argument by inserting the comma after “today” rather than before it (so that Jesus is saying that he is telling the robber “today” rather than telling the robber that he will be in paradise “today”), but ultimately it does not matter. It makes little difference when the robber would enter paradise. What matters is when he died. He was in the process of being executed when Jesus said he would receive his denarius. The opportunity to do good work for the kingdom is gone. All he can do at this point is profess his faith. If his works were to be evaluated by God after his death, the balance sheet is certainly going to come out in favor of condemnation for this man. Yet Jesus invited him to paradise.

I have heard Jehovah’s Witnesses say that Jehovah will evaluate how they lived their life and decide their fate for the afterlife. Regardless of how you feel about any other issue the Witnesses raise, these two passages alone (which I have taken from their translation of the scriptures) should cause them to take a serious second look at their theology. When your eternal destiny is at stake, you must be very careful to ensure that your worldview is consistent with what you claim as its foundation.

Christ does not weigh your good deeds versus your bad deeds and decide whether you are worthy of salvation. Christ said this with His own tongue. The fact is that God is perfect. Unless you are perfect, any eternal communion with God would create a stain upon His holiness. ANY bad work, even one, is enough to disqualify you from eternity with God. Only by having Christ’s righteousness imputed to us can we have any hope of heaven. If you continue to depend upon your own righteousness, you will be in for a surprise when you stand before the judgment seat and learn that you are not as good of a person as you may like to believe. Accept God’s free gift in the spirit in which it is offered. Come to the throne in humility and with a trembling heart and you can be saved.

God bless.


DagoodS said...

Ten Minas Ministries:

Only Christianity among all the world religions offers you eternal life as a free gift. You do not do anything to earn it.

Accept God’s free gift in the spirit in which it is offered. Come to the throne in humility and with a trembling heart and you can be saved.
Those two sentences are incongruous. First you say, “You don’t have to do anything to obtain it” but then you finish with, “This is what you have to do to obtain it.”

Further, any universalist system actually doesn’t require a person to do anything to obtain eternal life, and using this method, would trump Christianity as being truly different than other world religions

Ten Minas Ministries said...

Thank you for your comment. In response to your first point, I do not believe the two statements are incongruous. Please notice that you actually rephrased my statement. I did not write, "You don't have to do anything to obtain it." My statement was "You do not do anything to earn it." You changed my word "earn" to "obtain."

I would recommend Norman Geisler's book "Chosen But Free" for a more detailed explanation, but basically the analogy is like someone giving you a present out of the blue. If I held out a gift to you and said, "Here, please accept this present from me," you are free to either accept or reject that gift. However, if you choose to accept it, we do not say that you "earned" it. If you did some work for me in exchange for the gift then the gift would not truly be free. You did something to "earn" it. But if I offer you a free gift based on nothing you have done whatsoever, you still have the freedom to accept or decline (and therefore you must do something to "obtain" the gift; i.e., accept) but this does not mean you were any more deserving of it based upon your actions. Thus you did not "earn" it. This is part of what Geisler defines as "moderate Calvinism."

As for your comment about universalism, I disagree. You have not mentioned any particular universalist system (Bahaism, Unitarian Universalist, etc), but in general universalist systems offer multiple paths to the divine. They attempt to say that all systems are correct (a statement that logically cannot be true considering most, if not all, of these systems are contradictory; Universalists modify the systems in order to support this position). But having multiple paths still requires you to follow one of those paths and therefore you must do more than simply accept a gift. Therefore universalist systems do not have the equivalence of the Christian concept of grace.

If by "universalist" you mean the cultural belief that all people simply go to heaven, I would agree that under this cultural belief (I am not aware of any true "religious" organization that advocates this belief but I am open to correction if you know of one) you do not have to perform any "work" to go to heaven. However, there is also no concept of a "gift" because there is no alternative BUT heaven. It is simply the next step in a process, whether you want to go there or not. You can no more stop it than stopping the sun from rising in the morning simply because you want a few more hours of sleep. Therefore there is no grace.

Also, I have yet to come across any true apologetic for such a belief. In my experience it is a cultural desire based upon existential wants, not truly a logically formulated position. But if you know of anyone who has attempted a logical defense of such a position I would be open to reviewing it.

Thank you again.


DagoodS said...

A semantic issue.

Perhaps I was unclear. In the end, this version of Christianity still places a human requirement in order to be saved. It may be small—just believe and confess. (Rom. 10:9) It may not be as large as other religion’s requirements. But you are still left with at least one (1) requirement to make the formula work—a human requirement.

It is not solely God’s Grace because if it was, then there would be zero (0) human requirements.

I was focusing on the word “Do” in “You do not DO anything to earn it.” And trying to point out how you later point out, one must DO something to…well…earn it.

“Earn” is defined as receiving compensation for services rendered. No services; no compensation. Services; Compensation. “Accept God’s free gift…come to the throne with humility”—you are compensated with salvation. Do not—no compensation.

Geisler’s example illustrates this. I must reach out and take the gift—there MUST be some action on my part—in order to receive it. A truly free gift, especially in this area, would be one that I received regardless of any action on my part. Whether I took it or didn’t take it.

I am unaware of any logical defense to Universalism, although how hard can that be? Simply because something is logically cohesive does not make it either true or false in actuality, nor even impact plausibility. I could posit, for example, there is a God, and all persons (regardless of their actions) go to heaven upon their death. Nothing illogical about that, nor any requirement necessary.

I certainly have discussed with people who hold such views, and find nothing inherently illogical in such a position.

Here, maybe this will help. I agree your brand of Christianity is unique. All religions, taken in their own consideration, are unique. So what? However, this brand of Christianity is NOT unique in having a God who gives salvation solely out of Grace—it leaves a human requirement (albeit not much.) If that is the method you are using to demonstrate Christianity is different—universalism has you beat.

Ten Minas Ministries said...

"'Earn' is defined as receiving compensation for services rendered."

I agree. In Geisler's formula the gift is offered BEFORE any action on the part of the person. It is just like contract law. Offer precedes acceptance. At the time the compensation is offered no services have been rendered. Plus I would also pointing out that accepting a gift is not really a "service rendered." It is a benefit for the recipient, not the giver.

It all boils down to Geisler's example. Do you think you have "earned" a gift by simply accepting it? Does the fact that you said "yes" somehow mean you did something to "deserve" the gift? I stand by my position that the answer is "no." In fact I think that someone who offers a gift would probably be offended if you responded to the offer by saying, "Sure I'll take it. After all I really earned this." The proper response is to thank them for THEIR generosity, not to somehow take credit for the gift yourself.

As for universalism, I agree that the coherence of a truth claim does not alone make it valid. You raise a very good point here. Many alleged truth claims could theoretically be internally coherent, but that does not make them true. That is why the coherence theory of truth cannot be the sole test for truth.

Truth must be coherent, but it also must correspond to reality (i.e., the correspondence theory). Therefore it is an insufficient apologetic to simply say that a universal salvation theory is coherent. It also must be shown to correspond to reality. That, I believe, would be a taller order (such a theory also may not even pass the coherence test if, for example, they claim that God is "just"). But that is getting sidetracked from the point of this post.

This is a Biblical argument. Whether you think the Christian concept of "grace" is unique or not really does not alter my point. IF you accept the Bible as authoritative I do not believe a works salvation formula holds up. That was the main point. But I hope that I have adequately addressed your concerns.

Thank you again for your comments.