The Anatomy of Sainthood
This paper shall address a very important issue: namely, the question of who will be saved. After nearly two thousand years of Christian history, the answer to this question may seem obvious: the one who has faith will be saved. But for the purposes of this present study, I want to take care that our previous doctrinal convictions regarding salvation by faith do not prejudice the outcome of our investigation. Rather than calling those who will be saved “believers,” which in my mind strongly suggests the doctrine that faith and faith alone is the means to salvation, I will use a more neutral and less familiar term, “saint.” While equally biblical, it is less descriptive, and less apt to guide our thinking down well-trodden paths. Because few of us know what it looks like to be a saint and because few of us have any preconceived notions of the attributes which characterize a saint, it is exactly the sort of neutral term we need; for this is precisely the question I want to explore anew: What personal attributes will characterize the person who is qualified for eternal life?
Before we can proceed, we must come to a preliminary understanding of the meaning of this term “saint.” The English word saint is translated from the Greek word hagios; although hagios is usually translated “holy.” A related verb, hagiazo, means to make or render something hagios (holy), but hagios is not translated “to holy-fy”; it is translated “to sanctify.” In the English translations, therefore, two simple facts remain hidden from the average English reader: (1) to sanctify something is to render it holy, and (2) to be holy is to have been sanctified.
In this paper my interest in the concepts of holiness (hagios) and sanctification (hagiazo) lie in the fact that the New Testament writers habitually call the inheritor of eternal life a hagios, a holy one. Now this must mean one of two things: either (1) the one who stands to inherit eternal life is one whose intrinsic moral nature and character can be described as holy, or (2) he is one who has been rendered holy (sanctified) in some other sense. Which of these two possibilities do the New Testament writers have in mind? And equally important—whether holiness of his intrinsic moral nature or some other kind of holiness—what exactly is the sense of the word “holy” when the Christian is identified as a “holy one”? I shall take up this latter question first.
Our English word “awesome” most closely approximates “holy”. If someone is holy, something about him moves us to hold him in awe. In the presence of someone who is holy, we will be somewhat intimidated, silenced, subdued, and restrained; because we will be made to feel our lowliness, to feel the humbleness of our own stature and position. We will feel compelled to respect him and to grant him the honor and recognition that he deserves. There is an aura about the holy person, a spookiness or feeling of heaviness which causes us to walk softly and not to be obtrusive, to know our place and not to act presumptuously, and to be respectful and deferential. In other words, the holy person has an aura about him that makes us stand in awe of him. Perhaps we do not stand in gaping wonder; rather we may look upon him with quiet, considerate respect, but in a kind of awe nonetheless.
In the biblical scheme of things—and more particularly in the religious, liturgical, ritualistic life of Israel—if something was sanctified (rendered holy), it was singled out to play a special and distinctive function in relation to God and his divine purposes. If a prescribed ritual required the priests to use a particular spoon to spoon incense into the fire of the altar at a particular time, that particular spoon would be considered a holy spoon, a spoon dedicated to and reserved for that particular function. When the spoon was not needed, perhaps the priests would keep it in a special case made especially for it; perhaps they would hide it in a special location. It would be very important that a groggy Levite on a gray Palestinian morning not inadvertently use it to eat his bowl of Cheerios. The spoon was holy, made for a special purpose that transcended that of ordinary spoons made for mundane use. Because of its unique purpose in the service of God, an aura of holiness surrounded the spoon itself. One dared not ignore its specialness, desecrating or defiling that which was so unique in function by treating it as if it were merely ordinary or mundane.
By the same token, a priest, a prophet, or a king could be holy in Israel. If a human being is appointed by God to play a unique role, his special function sets him apart from the ordinary, run-of-the-mill human being. Throughout history, people come and people go. The vast majority are assigned the role of living out very ordinary lives and then dying, leaving the present age behind. But a few have been set apart, dedicated to a different function; they have been given the task of speaking for God (in the case of the prophets), reigning for God (in the case of the king), or entering into the presence of God on the behalf of all the people (in the case of the priests). Their functions make these people unique, special, and extraordinary. The roles assigned to them transcend the variegated plurality of mundane roles and achievements; and with the specialness of their function comes the aura of holiness. The prophet, the priest, and the king are special—holy—persons. Because they are so uniquely important in function, one dare not ignore their specialness nor disregard them. One can only bow in respect to one whose role is to represent to us the living, transcendent God. But we do not bow to such a man because his moral nature or character sets him apart; for it doesn’t. We must bow because his God-given role sets him apart.
This last point is critical. God is holy on two counts: firstly, the impeccable moral purity which characterizes His intrinsic moral nature is awe-inspiring; and secondly, the unique authority and power of His role—the sovereign, transcendent creator of all things—is awe-inspiring. To call the prophet, the priest, or the king “holy” is not to suggest that he shares in the aura of God’s impeccable moral nature; he does not. He is a fallible, foolish little sinner like any other human being on the face of the earth. To call him “holy” is to call attention to the aura that surrounds his role, not his moral nature.
In this same way we should understand the apostles’ use of the term hagios to describe the one who will inherit eternal life. The heir of eternal life is hagios (holy) because his role and purpose is unique, not because his moral nature is unique. Failing, damnable sinners, not the perfectly Godlike, will inherit eternal life. But the saint is nonetheless holy, for he has been dedicated by God to accomplish a unique purpose: he has been set apart to showcase the incredible mercy and transforming power of God.
The holy spoon dedicated to the temple ritual stands out amongst the thousands of ordinary spoons because the nature of its function sets it apart. Similarly, the holy prophet who speaks for God, having received the “word of the Lord,” has been given a role that causes him to stand out among all the other human beings around him. God has chosen him to perform a unique and awesome function. In the same way, the Christian hagios (“holy one” or “saint”) of the New Testament is holy (hagios) precisely because he has a role or destiny that sets him apart. The hagios is one of only a few human beings—from among millions who are destined to perish—who have been chosen by God to receive his mercy. The saint (hagios) is a clay vessel created for honorable use among millions of clay vessels created for dishonorable; he is that one “vessel of mercy” standing out amongst millions of “vessels of wrath destined for destruction.” (Note 1)
To sum up then, the person destined to inherit eternal life is called a saint (a sanctified one or a holy one) in just this sense: he is among those, singled out from among the mass of humanity, who have been specially set aside to have a destiny of eternal life rather than a destiny of wrath and destruction.
(Until now, I had always thought that sanctification was the process whereby God transforms us from intrinsically evil, sinful people into people who are genuinely and authentically good. But I was wrong. Contrary to the popular conception, when the Bible speaks of “sanctification,” it refers to the process whereby God marks and identifies the one whom he has selected for a destiny of eternal life. It is the process of God putting his mark or brand upon those who belong to him. Sanctification rarely, if ever, refers to the process whereby one is transformed morally into an intrinsically God-like person. When the New Testament writers want to refer to this latter process and its end—that is, to the process and end of moral perfection—they more typically use the term “glorification,” not “sanctification.” Sanctification is used to denote the process whereby God selects and distinguishes those who will one day be glorified from those who will one day go to their just condemnation.)
The term “saint,” then, is a rather neutral way to describe the person who will inherit eternal life. It describes him strictly as one whom God has dedicated to the special destiny of eternal life rather than to death and destruction. Beyond this, it makes no further claims about him; it does not describe any further attributes.
I. FAITH AND THE MARK OF SAINTHOOD
Having decided what a saint is, a more interesting question arises: What does the saint’s dedication or setting apart to an inheritance in eternal life look like? When God chooses a human being to be saved and to become an heir of eternal life, what exactly happens? Does God merely put the person’s name on a true-saints list and hide it away in some vault up in heaven? Is there no tangible effect in the life of the chosen person? In other words, is “sainthood” an invisible reality, a status that can be known only to God? Or does God bring about some visible effects in the lives of those whom he has chosen to receive eternal life? Are there perhaps characteristic attributes of sainthood that, in principle, make the saint visible and identifiable to all? The New Testament answer, I submit, is yes.
When God calls a person to play the special role of the saint—to show forth the mercy and power of God by being delivered from wrath and destruction—the fact of God’s irresistible call will become visible in the life of that person. When God chooses, he stamps the one whom he is choosing with a visible and tangible mark. Hence, sainthood is a tangible reality. When one has the marks of sainthood, then anyone can know that he is a saint and that he is destined for eternal life. But if one lacks the marks of sainthood, he is not a saint and he will not inherit eternal life. It is as simple as this: being a saint means looking and acting a particular way, and so looking and so acting is a necessary condition for inheriting eternal life. If one does not meet the condition, he will not enter into life.
We come back to the question with which we started: If only those who look and act a certain way will inherit eternal life, what is that “certain way” they must look and act? In other words, what must one do or be to inherit eternal life? To use our newly acquired language, what must one do or be to be a saint?
The traditional Protestant answer to this question is clear: to be a saint, one must have faith. Now what faith is and what faith looks like is not so clear. This has been—and continues to be—the subject of long and passionate debate. But all Christians (at least, all Protestants since the Reformation) agree on this much: the saint is the one who has faith. Faith and faith alone qualifies one as a saint. Faith is a necessary and also a sufficient condition of sainthood. If one does not have faith, he is no saint—no matter what other virtue he might possess. And if one does have faith, he is a saint—no matter what other virtue he might lack. As the Protestant typically states it, “Salvation is by faith alone.”
But I have come to question this particular formulation of sainthood. I see how this Protestant slogan has misled me in my own attempts to understand what sainthood is. It has led me to form utterly unbiblical notions about the character of sainthood and to grossly oversimplify the basis of justification.
The student of the Bible cannot help but notice that many and varied conditions must be met if one is to inherit eternal life. The conditions for being saved are spelled out in different terms in different portions of the Bible. So, for example, consider these two very different conditions: At one point, John suggests that one must understand and acknowledge his own sinfulness if he is to be saved, (Note 2) while at another point, Jesus teaches that only those who “do the will of the Father” will be saved. (Note 3) Now, a reasonable and straightforward approach to understanding the nature of sainthood would be to compile a list of all such conditions and to combine them into a single portrait of the person who is qualified to inherit eternal life. The result would be a portrait of the true saint. The inheritor of eternal life would be the person who meets every one of the biblical conditions placed on salvation.
But the modern Protestant slogan—”salvation by faith alone”—puts an added restraint on us. A person is saved by faith and by faith alone—not faith in conjunction with works, not faith in conjunction with any other attribute. Faith and faith alone qualifies one for eternal life. To teach otherwise is to pervert the gospel. Consequently, if the Protestant assumption is right, when the Bible teaches that only those who show mercy to others will be saved, we must not understand it to be teaching that one who has faith and, in addition, is merciful will be saved. (That would contradict the all-sufficiency of faith.) Rather, we must understand the Bible to be teaching that to show mercy to others is somehow logically contained in or necessitated by the Christian’s faith. In other words, we must understand the nature of faith to be such that showing mercy to others is a part of what having faith means. Under this Protestant view, then, one must assume that every biblical description of a requirement for entering into eternal life is somehow a description of faith itself. It has to be! Otherwise the Bible is not teaching salvation by faith alone. It is teaching salvation by faith plus these other things.
Over the years I had been bothered by the fact that it was not immediately clear how all the Bible’s conditions for eternal life were somehow facets of faith. By what line of reasoning, by what sort of understanding, could I come to see that a portrait of the saint—created by compiling a list of all the conditions of salvation—was nothing more and nothing less than a portrait of the man or woman of faith? For example, one of the conditions of salvation is that a person love his enemies? (Note 4) Is it obvious that if one has faith he must necessarily love his enemies; and is it obvious that if he loves his enemies, he must necessarily have faith? It is not clear that there is an inescapable logical connection between faith and love for one’s enemies. If it is there, it needs to be uncovered and made clear.
As a consequence, under the influence of “salvation by faith alone,” I embarked on the study that ultimately led to this paper. The topic I had set for myself was “The Anatomy of Saving Faith.” I wanted to compile an exhaustive list of all the different facets of justifying faith, and I wanted to know how all those different facets of faith related to one another. I wanted to analyze and to dissect saving faith in order to understand exactly what it was, exactly how it looked, and exactly how it operated in the life of the believer. I assumed that by combining all the necessary conditions of eternal life into one composite picture, the portrait of the saint which resulted would be the portrait of the believer. I expected my portrait of the saint to show clearly that faith was the essential attribute from which all other saintly attributes somehow derived.
As I started my study, then, I thought I was already well on my way to understanding how faith would fit into the picture of the saint: faith, I thought, is fundamentally a specific kind of trust in God. The word translated “faith” is ambiguous. It can refer to the act of believing something or someone, or it can refer to the act of trusting someone for something. Following the lead of others, I had concluded that the saint’s faith is a form of trust, not a form of belief. Furthermore, I had concluded that the trust that saves, or justifies, a person is a very specific trust: the trust that God will transform him into a perfectly good and righteous person. Trusting God for a new car or a delicious pomegranate will not justify me, even if it is authentically trust. One might be willing to trust God for a pomegranate because he really likes pomegranates and trusts that God is willing and able to give him one. But that same person might not be willing to trust God for righteousness because, even though he knows that God is able and willing to make him righteous, he doesn’t want to be righteous. Such a person, I argued, is not justified in God’s eyes. Trusting God for pomegranates or anything else—no matter how genuine the trust—does not qualify one for salvation. Only trusting God for righteousness does that. And so, I had concluded, trusting God for righteousness is the defining essence of justifying faith.
Now my previous views did contain a valid insight; namely, trusting God for righteousness truly is a necessary condition of salvation. But I had thought that this particular insight would provide the key to understanding how sainthood was one and the same as faith-hood. Indeed, this was my hypothesis: trusting God for righteousness is the fundamental core of the saint’s distinctive character, and everything else that characterizes the saint somehow logically flows out of that trust. I entered into a study of the New Testament to prove it, fully expecting that I could and would do so. I set out to trace all the logical connections between the various conditions on salvation, fully expecting to find a trust in God for righteousness at the hub.
Initially, it was easy to find such logical connections. It follows that if one is to trust God for righteousness, he must hunger and thirst for righteousness. And if one hungers and thirsts for righteousness, it follows that he will actively pursue conforming his actions to what righteousness requires; and he could aptly be described as “keeping the Law” or “keeping the commandments.” Furthermore, if one trusts God to make him righteous, it follows that he must view himself as lacking the righteousness for which he longs. I assumed that one could trace all that logically follows from saving faith (or saving trust) and gradually construct a picture of the saint that would show how every biblical requirement for salvation is somehow logically contained in the notion of trusting God for righteousness.
Such was my expectation. But the procedure I intended to follow involved approaching things from a different direction. I determined simply to read through the entire New Testament with a single question in view: What does the Bible say is required for eternal life? I would compile a list of all the necessary conditions of eternal life. Then, if possible, I would determine how these various conditions of eternal life were logically related to one another. Once I had discovered their interrelationships, I would be in a position to draw my portrait of the saint. Therefore, although I expected to find that trust was the fundamental organizing principle of the saint’s life, my method did not allow me to assume this. I could make no assumptions. My goal was, as much as possible, to let the biblical data draw the portrait it wanted to draw, not the portrait I expected it to draw.
To my great surprise, the portrait of sainthood that emerged differed significantly from what I had expected. Specifically, trusting God for righteousness was not the fundamental organizing principle of the saint’s distinctive character. The anatomy of the saint’s sainthood looked significantly different from what I had expected.
My purpose in the next section of this paper is simply to lay out the conclusions I reached concerning the anatomy of sainthood and to draw the portrait of the saint that I found in the pages of the New Testament. Before I do so, however, I want to issue an important disclaimer. Although I am purposely presenting my conclusions in the form of a definitive analysis of the anatomy of sainthood, in reality it is not definitive. What follows represents a sort of proposal, a place to begin the process of reexamination I think is needed. Although I think most of my insights are right, I expect that some aspects of this proposal will be criticized and found wanting. My analysis will undoubtedly require alteration, modification, and correction before it will accurately reflect the biblical view of things. In other words, this portrait is far from finished; much more work needs to be done.
In making the following proposal, however, I am committed to this: faith—or trust—is not the most fundamental organizing principle in the character of the saint. The Protestant slogan aside, a lot more is involved in being a saint than just faith (trust). Trust is but one aspect of what it means to be a saint. Although an extremely important aspect, faith (trust) is nonetheless only one aspect of sainthood—and not the most fundamental.
II. PORTRAIT OF A SAINT
The core characteristic of the saint is that he knows and loves God. Knowing and loving God are best understood as a single characteristic rather than two separate characteristics. In the first place, the biblical authors would take the position that if one does not love God, then he does not truly know God. Objectively, apart from the distorting effects of sin, to know God is to love Him. On the other hand, one cannot love the true God without also knowing and understanding Him. If one had a warped and distorted understanding of God, then love for Him would not be love for the one true God; it would be love for a false god. The saint, then, is the one whose character and outlook is controlled by this one abiding trait: he truly knows and therefore loves the God who created him.
A. To Know and To Love God
1. To Know God
What does it mean to know God? In the first place, of course, the saint is one who knows that a creator God exists. But more than knowing that God is, the saint has an understanding of who God is. More specifically, the saint is one who understands the nature of God, the character of God, what God values, and what God disdains.
With respect to God’s character, the saint understands that God is good, that God’s character is morally pure and altogether untouched by evil. He understands that God is merciful, that God’s moral purity does not manifest itself only and primarily in wrath, condemnation, and retribution; for God delights in mercy and is more than willing to exhibit it. The saint understands that God is benevolent and kind, that He is like a father who delights to give joy to his children. Perhaps above all, the saint understands that God is love.
With respect to the nature of God, the saint understands that God, as our creator, enjoys a unique status and role in our experience: He is sovereign; He has supreme authority over everything in the created order; everything rightfully belongs to Him and He has the right to do with it whatever He pleases. Nothing exists outside the scope of God’s will and purpose. All that is owes its existence to God, the transcendent creator; if He does not will it into existence, it cannot exist. Our very lives and beings completely depend upon the benevolent will of our creator. He is the defining force behind everything in our lives. All meaning, all definition, all truth, all knowledge, and all life derives from God. Apart from Him there is nothing at all. The saint understands all this about God.
With respect to the values of God, the saint understands that God values righteousness and hates evil. God values love, mercy, justice, and truth; and He opposes lovelessness, mercilessness, injustice, and deception. God’s purpose for human existence is that we might manifest all that He loves and repudiate all that He hates. He created mankind to be loving, merciful, justice-loving, truth-seeking, wise, and righteous. The saint understands all this.
Such a true knowledge of God has direct implications for the saint’s understanding of himself. If I know and understand God (and if I am not lying to nor hiding from myself), then I will know that I am not like God, for I am evil. All that God truly is, I am not. God is love; I am cruel, insensitive, selfish, and unkind. God is merciful; I am judgmental and implacably vindictive. God is good and righteous; I am wicked and perverse. In brief, one cannot truly know God without recognizing oneself as evil.
Closely related to the above, one cannot truly know God without realizing that one is unworthy of God. As an evil and perverse creature, I am not worthy that God should give me any good thing. I am worthy of nothing but condemnation, to be met with the righteous, punishing wrath of a purely righteous God.
But there is one final implication of a saint’s truly knowing God. Because the saint truly knows God, he knows that God can be trusted to be merciful—and merciful in a particular way. God can be trusted to bless me, to find a way to show me mercy and to do for me what is to my good. He will find a way to promote my well-being rather than destroy me. To approach me in mercy and meet the deepest needs of my humanity is, for God, very much in character. The saint understands this and knows, therefore, that he can expect it.
2. To Love God
What does it mean to love God? To begin with, if one loves God, he acknowledges as appropriate and as objectively valuable that God be who He is and that God value what He values. The saint’s objective evaluation is that for God to be who He is, is good. Beyond this positive objective appraisal of God, the saint’s subjective response is equally positive. The saint willingly accepts and submits to who God is and what it is He likes. In other words, he likes who God is and he likes what God likes. Accordingly, he gladly accepts that he will be judged by the standards of who God is and what He likes. He does not balk at this; he gladly and eagerly acknowledges it. Indeed, the one who loves God goes beyond even this: he has a single-minded, absorbing passion to be like God in the only way that he can be like Him—in the perfection of his moral nature. He longs to be glorious with the very moral glory of God Himself.
3. The Subjectivity of the Saint
I propose, then, that a knowledge and love of God—as I have just defined these—is the core, controlling characteristic of the saint who will inherit eternal life. If any of the aspects of knowing and loving God (including those my analysis may have failed to take into account) is lacking, then one is not a saint and does not stand to inherit eternal life. To know God so as to love Him is a necessary condition of sainthood; and rightly understood, it is also a sufficient condition of sainthood. A person will inherit eternal life if and only if he knows and loves God in the way I have outlined above.
For convenience, I will refer to the knowledge and love of God that I have just described as the “subjectivity” of the saint. By subjectivity I mean to refer to the inner subjective attitudes, outlooks, perceptions, desires, drives, and passions that make a person tick. Accordingly, a person will inherit eternal life if and only if he manifests the subjectivity of sainthood; that is, only if he is the sort of person who truly possesses in the depths of his own person—in the depths of his own subjectivity—a knowledge and love of God.
The subjectivity of the saint is different from the moral nature of the saint. One’s subjectivity, as I am using the term, refers to the saint’s perceptions, his understanding, his knowledge of how things are and how they should be, his values, his attitudes, his longings, his desires, his passions, and so forth. Now all human beings, as sinners, are evil in their moral natures. But some, according to the gospel, are righteous in their subjectivity. Though all persons are evil, some long to be other than the evil persons they are. They have come to know and to love God and would rather be like Him than like the sinners that, in fact, they are. These are people whose subjectivity has been made righteous; these are the saints who will inherit eternal life.
4. The Implications of Knowing and Loving God
An authentic manifestation of the subjectivity of sainthood will have specific implications for the way one relates to God, to others, and to himself. The Bible spells out some of the more important of these implications and presents them as necessary conditions of being a saint. This follows, of course, from what we have said above. If the subjectivity of sainthood is a necessary condition of inheriting eternal life, and if X is a necessary consequence of having the subjectivity of sainthood, then X itself will be a necessary condition of inheriting eternal life. Below, I list twenty of the more important necessary implications of being a true saint:
- A true saint acknowledges that he deserves eternal condemnation for who and what he is.
- A true saint trusts God implicitly to do good to him and not harm.
- A true saint has a passion to be like God; specifically, he has a passion to be righteous and loving.
- A true saint grieves at the presence of evil in the world and in his own being.
- A true saint does not love the “good things” of this present physical existence.
- A true saint perceives himself, apart from the promise of the gospel, as poor and not rich—no matter what earthly “wealth” he may possess.
- A true saint perceives himself, in the light of the promises of the gospel, as rich, and not poor—no matter how deprived he might be of earthly “wealth.”
- A true saint actively trusts God to transform him into a morally perfect creature and, hence, he lives in the expectation that one day he will be perfectly righteous as God is righteous.
- A true saint delights to be and to do whatever pleases God.
- A true saint strives to do what is good and right; that is, he strives to live in obedience to God’s moral commandments.
- A true saint recognizes the difference between true righteousness and its many counterfeits; he seeks the true and rejects the counterfeits.
- A true saint trusts God implicitly with every aspect of his life and existence.
- A true saint is merciful to others, forgiving even those who sin directly against him.
- A true saint is humble, aware of his lowly status as a mere creature before his creator.
- A true saint is not presumptuous.
- A true saint is ashamed of his own evil, foolishness, and rebellion against God.
- A true saint loves those who love God.
- A true saint is hated and rejected by those who oppose God.
- A true saint fears God, understanding that God is not safe and is no protection against pain.
- A true saint will seek truth and renounce error and deceit.
These twenty conditions are some of the more important attitudes and actions which must result in the life of one who possesses the subjectivity of the saint. Indeed, they must necessarily be present in order to inherit eternal life. If any one of these results is lacking, then one will not inherit eternal life. For the true knowledge and love of God that makes up the subjectivity of the saint will necessarily manifest itself in all of these various ways, not in just a few. To lack in any respect at all is to lack the true and authentic subjectivity of sainthood and to lack eternal life.
B. Two Further Conditions of Sainthood
The New Testament puts two other important requirements on who will inherit eternal life.
Firstly, the apostles distinguish between the genuine and the non-genuine. One’s saint-like subjectivity must be genuine if one is to inherit eternal life. One whose subjectivity is not genuinely that of the saint lacks the requisite love and knowledge of God in the depths of his soul, but knowing what the saint is supposed to look like, he strives to look, to act, and to think like a saint. So, for example, he might talk about being worthy of eternal condemnation, believing himself utterly sincere in saying so, but yet, deep down, not really believe it. Or, he might work hard at keeping God’s commandments, but, deep down, not really want to be transformed morally; for he is more interested in appearing good than in actually being good. Although we could explore at length the differences between the genuine and the non-genuine with respect to each and every one of the necessary characteristics of sainthood listed above, I will not do so here. My point is simply this: in order to inherit eternal life, one must possess the subjectivity of sainthood as a genuine reality at the core of his being. Simply to accept the saintly subjectivity as a script to act out—that is, simply to act out the role of a saint—is not enough to inherit eternal life. One must actually be a saint.
Secondly, the New Testament teaches that a crucial test of the genuineness of one’s saintly subjectivity is its perseverance through trials and tests. Life forces every one of us into situations that sift our souls and subjectivities to discover what is there. Through the pressures and crises of our lives, what is genuinely in my subjectivity and what is only pasted on the surface of my life become apparent. Although during the everyday run of my life I may appear to have a passion to be righteous as God is righteous, it may be impossible to know how deep that passion runs and how genuine it is. But the right sort of circumstances in my life will reveal my passion for what it is. Put me in the right situation, what the apostles call a “trial” or a “test,” and my subjectivity’s true colors reveal themselves. Hence, it is not enough that I appear to be a genuine saint today. A true saint will also look like a saint tomorrow, after the trials, not just now, before them. The true saint’s subjectivity will not allow him to lapse from his saint-like commitments, no matter how much pressure he might experience to do so. Hence, the perseverance of one’s apparent knowledge and love of God through the thick and thin of life’s exigencies is absolutely necessary to inherit eternal life. The genuine subjectivity of sainthood is durable, lasting, and indestructible. The plastic sainthood which we mold on to the surface of our lives is fragile and temporary; ultimately it cannot withstand the pressures that bear down on us as we live life under God’s sovereign will. Hence, only those whose saint-like subjectivity endures to the end will be saved. To have looked like a saint and to have lived like a saint for awhile will not gain one eternal life.
I have covered briefly what the Bible teaches about who will be saved. I have not gone into detail; some issues I have raised could have whole papers and even whole books devoted to them. But whereas the foregoing discussion is short on detail, it is nonetheless intended to be comprehensive. I have tried to offer a complete and comprehensive portrait of the one who will be saved.
III. SEMINAL SAINTHOOD VERSUS MATURE SAINTHOOD
If you are like me, your initial reaction to this picture is one of serious fright. I don’t fit this portrait. This is not a picture of me. Does that mean I am not a saint? Am I not destined to eternal life after all? We must, of course, always take this possibility seriously; but lest we be unduly and unnecessarily frightened by this picture, two final points need to be made.
Firstly, we must not forget the larger context in which this analysis of the saint is situated. From the biblical perspective, every human being, except Jesus, is fundamentally rebellious, evil, and foolish. We are unrighteous sinners. The subjectivity of the saint, therefore, must not be confused with a good moral nature. The gospel is not the absurd message, “Come to me all of you who have achieved a good moral nature and I will perfect your moral nature.” Rather, it is: “Come to me all of you who are tired and weary of the rebellion, evil, death, and imperfection that inflicts your soul, and I will make you morally perfect.” Moral perfection is clearly not a condition we must meet in order to qualify for salvation; rather it is the salvation God has promised. Salvation is our rescue from moral imperfection; we are being saved from moral imperfection into moral perfection.
Understanding this fundamental point keeps us from wrongly thinking that we must reform our moral nature before we can be saved. Accordingly, I spoke above about the subjectivity of the saint rather than the moral nature of the saint. What qualifies the saint for eternal life is not a righteous moral nature, but a righteous subjectivity. The saint’s inner desires, passions, attitudes, and orientation are righteous; his moral nature is not. The saint’s moral nature is evil and desperately in need of transformation. But unlike the non-saints around him, the true saint longs to be different; he longs to be transformed. This longing, together with all the other attitudes and orientations that make up his subjectivity, is what distinguishes the saint as righteous in a way that other sinners are not. As we construct our mental image of sainthood, therefore, we must keep in mind that we are not constructing an image of one who is righteous in moral nature, but of one who is righteous in subjectivity. These will be two very different images.
Secondly, we must realize that in everything the New Testament teaches, this important feature of the saintly subjectivity is implicit: the subjectivity of the saint is not granted to him full-blown; it is granted to him in a seminal form and then develops and matures over time. I shall explain more fully.
Acquiring a saint-like subjectivity is not something that any human being, left to himself, could ever do. No human being is naturally and innately righteous in his subjectivity; he must be transformed; he must become a different sort of person. Righteous subjectivity, therefore, is a miracle; only a supernatural act of God can create in me the subjectivity that makes me a saint. This is why Jesus uses the phrase “born from above” (often mistakenly translated “born again”) to describe the one who will inherit eternal life. Other phrases point to the supernatural, divine initiative behind a person’s becoming a true saint: The one who will inherit eternal life is he who has been “baptized by the Spirit” or “sanctified by the Spirit”; the one who has been “washed,” “renewed,” “equipped (by God) to do his will,” “anointed by God,” “called by God from the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of his beloved Son,” and so forth. So, we become true saints by being born or regenerated by the supernatural activity of God. But what does this look like? What does it look like to be “born of God”? When we have received the divine grace that “washes” us and “renews” us, what visible effects can we expect to see?
A. Sanctification as a Process of Maturation
When the New Testament speaks of “sanctification,” it refers to God’s activity in setting the heir of eternal life apart from the rest of humanity. Sanctification is the act wherein God brands those who belong to him; he marks them with a visible and tangible stamp, namely, with the saintly subjectivity described above. The one who bears this distinctive mark is the chosen child of God who stands to inherit eternal life.
But we must recognize a very important truth about sanctification: it happens through a process that unfolds over time. In the beginning the child of God is not obviously and clearly set apart from the rest of mankind; his subjectivity is not noticeably different from that of other men around him. Nonetheless, even in the beginning, something is different. God has planted in his soul a “seed of righteousness” that will grow inexorably toward its appointed end: to make that person a mature saint evidencing fully the subjectivity of sainthood I have described above. The planting of this divine seed of righteousness is an act of God. Hence, it is an irresistible one: once at work, nothing can stop it. It can, it will, and it must transform the subjectivity of (sanctify) the one who has been born from above. Accordingly, anyone who does not ultimately conform to the biblical picture of sainthood sketched above is not a true saint; for the true saint, sanctified by the Spirit of God, will and must ultimately manifest those characteristics which describe the true child of God. (Note 5)
The Bible speaks of the child of God reaching his telos, the end he is intended to reach. Our translations usually translate telos in terms of “becoming mature,” and such a translation is helpful. It suggests the very picture of sanctification that the New Testament writers have in mind. As an acorn planted in the soil contains potentially all the attributes of the full-grown oak tree, so the seed of righteousness planted in our hearts by God’s grace contains potentially all the attributes of a true saintly subjectivity. As the acorn grows into a mature oak tree, the child of God, over time, grows into a mature saint. Unlike the acorn, however, whose oak-tree attributes may never become actualized, the potential attributes within the divine seed of righteous subjectivity will and must become actual. The divine seed’s growth toward its telos is inexorable.
That sanctification is inexorable is an extremely important fact. But equally important is this truth: the seeds of righteous subjectivity planted in the saint begin as invisible and intangible potentialities, not as fully visible and recognizable attributes. Why is this important? Today, as you and I examine ourselves to see if we are of the faith, (Note 6) we may very well lack the attributes of mature sainthood, of saints who have achieved their telos. We may be, at best, saints-in-process. It would be understandable, then, if the actual condition of our own subjectivity does not perfectly match the portrait of the mature saint. The mature saint will have actualized attitudes, behavior, and orientations that I may still be struggling to realize. This, then, would not necessarily mean that I am not a true saint; it would only mean that I must await the outcome before I can know beyond any doubt my true status before God. So, though immaturity in my saintly subjectivity leaves room for doubt, it does not foreclose on my eternal destiny; I can nonetheless be a genuine saint, born by the miraculous work of God. If so, my genuine sainthood will be vindicated, in time, by the emergence of those very characteristics the Bible says must be there. In time, I will reveal myself to be one who truly knows and loves God. But now, in the present, the verdict is not in. Some of what I see suggests that I am a child of God; some of what I see calls that into question; only time can tell which is the truth. But the Bible is clear about this: only he who is moving inexorably (though perhaps slowly) toward the mature subjectivity of sainthood is truly a child of God.
B. Election as the Condition of Salvation
Strictly speaking, then, what qualifies us for eternal life is not our meeting the necessary conditions outlined in the portrait of sainthood above. Strictly speaking, what qualifies us for eternal life is being “chosen, called, and sanctified by God.” To be sanctified by God, to be “born from above,” is a miraculous, supernatural work that God performs in my subjectivity. If God has performed that work, if he has planted the divine seed of righteousness in my subjectivity, then in time I will inevitably exhibit the subjectivity of sainthood in a full-blown, mature form. If God has not performed that work, then I can never exhibit the genuinely saintly subjectivity. In the first stages of being sanctified by God, therefore, one exhibits relatively little of the subjectivity of sainthood. Yet there is present within him the work of God, the “seed of God,” which, over time, will completely transform his subjectivity into the subjectivity of the mature saint. Therefore, even if the emerging saint, the saint-in-process, noticeably lacks one or more of the necessary characteristics of sainthood, this, in itself, does not disqualify him from eternal life; for if such a person truly is born of God, then he does in fact meet the conditions for eternal life. The requisite characteristics are all there, though only in seminal form. Though they have not reached maturity and have not become fully visible, this does not disqualify the emerging saint from eternal life. It only leaves him in suspense; for so long as he fails to manifest any characteristic of sainthood, the question of whether or not he is truly a child of God is left open.
This is not to say that any saint-in-process must necessarily live in fear and suspense. According to Scripture, I can come to a reasonable state of assurance that I have been called of God and am destined for eternal life, even while I still struggle to meet some of the necessary qualifications of sainthood. Yet there must always lie before me an awareness of the very real possibility that I am not meeting the biblical qualifications of sainthood because, in reality, I am not a saint.
This is sobering; it leaves us without the comfort and reassurance that we want. But this is where the Bible leaves us. We exist in a tension. On the one hand, we can know where we stand: God has called us out of the sea of humanity and sanctified us, destining us to eternal life. On the other hand, the journey is not yet over; and I need to keep watch over my own moral and spiritual commitments. A decision I may make tomorrow could make a lie out of all my pretensions to sainthood today. This is the tension in which the New Testament leaves us.
IV. THE ROLE OF BELIEF IN OUR SALVATION
Thus far in my paper, I have proposed what for me is a new and different portrait of the man or woman who will inherit eternal life. I have suggested that the New Testament places twenty conditions on inheriting eternal life, conditions which until now I assumed—because of a well-ingrained Protestant slogan—were all somehow logically contained in “faith.” Like every good Protestant, I knew that one is saved by “faith and faith alone”; so, if the New Testament teaches we are saved if and only if we meet twenty conditions, then those twenty conditions must all be logically contained in what it means to have faith. For some time I was satisfied to leave this assumption alone; upon further study, however, I have become convinced that it is not right, and this paper is my initial attempt to present a new way of looking at the qualifications for eternal life.
I have suggested that faith is not the central, defining attribute of sainthood; but rather the defining attribute is a certain definable orientation of one’s innermost desires, passions, attitudes, values, perceptions, intuitions, and so forth, which I call one’s “subjectivity” (borrowing a term from the philosopher Kierkegaard). I have suggested that what qualifies a person to inherit eternal life is quite simply that he possesses the “subjectivity of sainthood,” the core of which can be captured by a combination of two biblical concepts: to know God and to love God. In other words, the one who will inherit eternal life is the one who—at the depth of his innermost being—knows and loves God (in whatever sense the New Testament writers mean these terms when they use them). These twenty conditions of eternal life, then, are all somehow the necessary results of knowing and loving God; that is, if a person truly knows and loves God, then he will necessarily do and be what this list of twenty conditions describes. If a person does not truly know and love God, then he will ultimately fail to meet these conditions.
Thus far, however, there has been a very important and obvious omission in the portrait of the saint I have sketched. Nowhere in my analysis have I listed as a condition of sainthood that one believe that Jesus is the Son of God, that Jesus rose from the dead, or any other historical fact about the saving activity of God. If what I am saying is true, then belief in the facts of the gospel are not necessary conditions of one’s being a true saint. Yet although I haven’t counted, I think I can safely say that no description of the person who will inherit eternal life is more common than that which describes him as one who “believes,” or one who “has faith.” The greeting in II Peter 1:1 captures the essence of such a description:
Simon Peter…to those who have received a faith of the same kind as ours [i.e., as we apostles’ faith]…
Obviously, something is drastically wrong with my picture of the saint if I cannot account for this particular fact: in the minds of the New Testament writers, the most apt description of the saint is “one who believes,” that is, “one who has faith.”
A. A Misconception
Before I proceed, however, I must clear up an important misconception. When the New Testament describes the saint as one who “believes” something, it uses the Greek verb pisteuo. The saint is the one who pisteuo-s the gospel (or whatever). When the saint is described as one who has “faith,” the New Testament uses the Greek noun pistis; the saint is the one who has pistis. Pisteuo and pistis are from the same root; they are the same concept expressed in the form of a verb and a noun, respectively. But here a question arises: what concept do these two words express? A certain ambiguity in the Greek language exists at this point. On the one hand, pisteuo can mean “to trust” someone or something, or “to entrust something” to someone; and pistis can refer to “the trust” that someone has in someone or something. The basic concept being conveyed is one of “trusting someone for something.” On the other hand, pisteuo can mean “to believe” someone when they say something or “to believe something” that someone has said or taught. Correspondingly, pistis can refer to “a belief” that someone has or to “the act of believing” someone or something. In this case the basic concept being conveyed is one of “believing something that someone has said.” Here, then, is the question: when the New Testament writers refer to Christian saints as those who have pistis, what do they have in mind? Are they saying the Christian saint is one who trusts someone for something? Or are they saying the Christian saint is one who believes something that has been told him?
I was taught that the New Testament concept was one of trust. Pistis—when used to describe the defining characteristic of the saint— meant to trust someone for something. Over the years my study led me to conclude that “saving pistis” was trusting God for righteousness, that is, trusting God to transform my character into that of a perfectly good and godly person. I accepted this interpretation of pistis readily and without question. The alternative was hard to take seriously; it didn’t seem to make any sense. Surely, one was not saved by accepting as true the gospel story. Surely, considering it true that Jesus was the Messiah was not sufficient to save someone—even the demons did that. If the condition of salvation was merely believing, merely giving intellectual assent to the claims of the gospel, it was far too easy a requirement; it would certainly qualify far more people for eternal life than the Bible actually considered qualified. So, since that could not be right, pistis could not mean “belief”; it had to mean “trust.”
This reasoning was as far as my thinking went on the subject—until now. In my recent study, I did a quick and hasty word study of pisteuo and pistis. I was surprised at the data. It became clear to me that when the New Testament writers refer to the Christian as having pistis, they have in mind that Christian saints are those who have believed the gospel; the saint is one who has heard the apostles’ claims about the gospel and its promises and has believed they are true. This conclusion is inescapable when we consider such New Testament claims as these:
The one who receives the gospel message as the truth and who perseveres in believing that it is truth will be saved. (John 8: 47; II Thessalonians 1:8, 2:10, 13, 19-20; I Timothy 4:16; II Timothy 2:18; I Peter 2:8, 4:17-18; I John 2:18-19, 4:6)
The one who confesses Jesus is the Lord, the Christ, the Messiah (the ONE sent by God to establish His kingdom) will be saved. (Matthew 10:32-33; John 8:24; Romans 10:9; I John 2:23, 4:15, 5:1, 5, 10-12)
The one who “believes in the name of Jesus” or “believes in the Son” will be saved. (Acts 10:43, 16:31; John 3:16-18, 3:36; I John 3:23-24, 5:13)
The one who “believes in Jesus” and “does not deny Him” will be saved. (John 6:35, 40, 47, 51, 7:37-39; Acts 13:39, 20:21; I Timothy 1:16; II Timothy 2:12; I Peter 1:8-9)
So, if my portrait of the saint is going to be biblically accurate, I must account for the following fact: in the minds of the New Testament writers, the most apt description of the saint is as one who has heard the claims of the gospel and has believed they are true.
B. The Role of Subjectivity in Believing
The key to reconciling my portrait of the believer with the primacy of belief in the gospel is in coming to understand how intimately connected what one believes is with one’s subjectivity. As a generalization, the state of one’s subjectivity will determine what one will and will not believe. Let me illustrate.
Consider a man who is unwilling to face into the possibility that his wife is being unfaithful to him. For whatever reasons, he has a strong emotional need to believe his wife is faithful. The pain of her unfaithfulness would be too great for him to bear. What might such a man do if faced with various evidences that she has not been faithful? Quite conceivably, such a man would ignore or perhaps even refuse to believe the evidences before he would allow himself to believe that his wife had been unfaithful.
Or consider a woman who is unable and unwilling to face the reality of her terminal disease. She may very well refuse to believe the prognosis of her highly competent and knowledgeable physician. Why? Because her emotional need to deny the reality of her impending mortality is a stronger force in her own subjectivity than the need to believe what is reasonable and probable.
Consider the Bible teacher who has given lectures, written books, and otherwise gone public defending a particular doctrinal position. Such a teacher could be subjectively incapable of being persuaded of a contrary position—no matter how strong and persuasive the evidence and arguments for the other side—if his emotional need to be found not in error is greater than his need to be objective and rational.
I could multiply such examples over and over again, and in all of them the person’s subjectivity—that is, the desires, passions, intuitions, commitments, values, perceptions, outlooks, and so forth, that shape how he looks at and feels about the world—is a dominating force with respect to whether or not he will hold specific beliefs. The fundamental point is this: one’s subjectivity can be and often is the decisive factor in shaping what beliefs a person will and will not hold.
Beliefs have a quality of being either compatible or incompatible with certain subjectivities. The belief that one is about to die is incompatible with a subjectivity that passionately refuses to accept one’s own mortality; indeed, the two are antagonistic; such a subjectivity is hostile to the truth of one’s own impending death. The truth that one’s wife has been unfaithful is antagonistic to a subjectivity that involves a passionate, deep-seated need for marital faithfulness and a rather weak need to believe what is reasonable and probable. The point is this: we can meaningfully describe the relationship between a factual claim and a person’s subjectivity as being either “hostile” or “friendly.” Person P is friendly toward a factual claim C if his subjectivity is such that he is able and willing to believe C when the evidence supports it. Person P is hostile toward a factual claim C if his subjectivity is such that he is unable and unwilling to believe C in spite of the fact that the evidence supports it. So, the woman above is not friendly toward the factual claim that she is about to die; and the man above is not friendly toward the factual claim that his wife has been unfaithful.
C. The Role of Subjectivity in Believing the Gospel
The subjectivity of the child of God (the saint) is radically different from the subjectivity of the child of the devil (the one who is destined for wrath). According to the Bible, they are like light and darkness; they are completely hostile to one another. The passions that drive the child of God are completely opposite from those that drive the child of the devil; the attitude the one has toward God is completely incompatible with the attitude the other has; the values embraced by the one are utterly at odds with the values embraced by the other. No more fundamental difference exists between two human beings than the difference between the subjectivity of the child of God and the subjectivity of the child of the devil. The difference runs deep into their souls; as deep as can be.
Correspondingly, the child of God and the child of the devil will be hostile or friendly toward different factual claims; for the subjectivities that incline or disincline them toward holding certain beliefs are radically and fundamentally different. The beliefs acceptable to the child of God will be unacceptable to the child of the devil and vice versa.
So, what about the factual claims that make up the gospel? These claims are totally compatible with the subjectivity of the saint I have defined; the nature of the gospel claims are such that one with the subjectivity of sainthood will be friendly toward them. On the other hand, one who lacks the subjectivity of sainthood will find one or more aspects of the gospel objectionable, offensive, and totally unacceptable; the nature of the gospel claims are such that one who lacks the subjectivity of sainthood will be hostile toward them. The issue here is not the rationality of the gospel claims nor the evidence supporting them; the issue is something very different. The issue is the moral and spiritual status of one’s subjectivity. Assuming the claims of the gospel are seen to be reasonable and well supported by the evidence such that, rationally, they are best viewed as probably true, then what I am saying is this: If a person’s subjectivity is the subjectivity of the saint, then he will be morally and spiritually disposed to be friendly toward the claims and promises of the gospel message; if a person’s subjectivity is not the subjectivity of the saint, then he will be morally and spiritually disposed to be hostile toward the claims and promises of the gospel. The saint, therefore, will be inclined to believe the gospel, accepting its claims as true. The non-saint, on the other hand, will be inclined to reject the gospel, holding it to be untrue—in spite of the fact that the evidence supports it as probable.
Let me try to make this point more concrete. One aspect of the subjectivity of sainthood is that the true saint fears God in the sense that he understands and accepts the sovereignty of God over his life. The saint understands and accepts that God has every right to inflict him with adversity—whether a fatal disease, financial disaster, the death of one he loves, or whatever. Now what if I lack this aspect of saintly subjectivity? What if I cannot accept God’s sovereignty; I neither want nor accept a God who has the right to do whatever he pleases in my life; I refuse to accept and serve God if He is not committed always to do for me what is pleasing and immediately acceptable to me? The question is this: Given a subjectivity that does not include the “fear of God,” will I find the gospel message acceptable? Can I believe the gospel? I think not. Granted, I could reform the gospel; I could restructure it in such a way that God was not sovereign and was no longer to be feared. But would that be the gospel the apostles proclaimed? No, it would be what Paul called “another gospel,” one that is not really another gospel at all. If I am going to believe the gospel story the apostles told, then I am stuck with a God who is sovereign, one who is to be feared. The gospel the apostles taught is the story of a sovereign God, who has the right and power to do whatever He wants with His creation, who chooses some humans to be “vessels of mercy” and others to be “vessels of wrath fit for destruction.” If I do not believe that (among other things), then I do not believe the apostolic gospel. A person whose subjectivity does not include the “fear of God”—that is, a person whose subjectivity rebels at the thought of God having that sort of power and authority—such a person cannot believe the apostolic gospel. He must either reject it outright or reshape the Christian gospel to suit himself better. In either case, he has refused to believe the apostolic gospel. He is what the New Testament calls an “unbeliever,” for he has refused to believe the story of salvation as the apostles told it.
Consider another example. The gospel the apostles told assumes the most important thing in all of human existence is righteousness, that is, godliness or goodness of character. In order to believe the gospel story, therefore, ultimately one needs to be receptive to that assumption. In other words, in order to be receptive to the gospel, one’s subjectivity needs to include the perception that nothing in life is more valuable than personal goodness; one has to have “eyes to see” that righteousness is the most valuable thing there is. But what if one’s subjectivity does not have this particular perception? What if one’s perception is contrary to this; for example, if the most valuable thing in life for me is pleasure? How receptive will I be to the gospel? Ultimately, I will not be receptive at all. The gospel would hold no appeal to me; it does not promise me what I want. It promises something I don’t want; for pleasure and goodness often come into conflict, and I want pleasure, not righteousness. The gospel, therefore, is fundamentally uninteresting and even downright hostile to the values rooted in my subjectivity. Ultimately, I can not and will not believe the gospel. As in the last example, perhaps I can rewrite the gospel and make it compatible with my own subjectivity; perhaps I can believe a “different gospel”; but I cannot believe the gospel the apostles taught, because it assumes a system of values utterly at odds with the value system I embrace at the core of my being.
My purpose is not to examine all the ways the gospel could run afoul of a subjectivity that is not saintly; if my portrait of the saint is accurate, there are at least twenty such ways. In this paper, however, I want to make this general point: if one does not have the subjectivity of the saint, then ultimately he will not and cannot believe the gospel message in its entirety as taught and proclaimed by the apostles in the pages of the New Testament. Without a saintly subjectivity one may believe the gospel message in part; he may accept many aspects of the gospel message, but he cannot accept it in its entirety. At whatever point a person’s subjectivity comes into irreconcilable conflict with the apostolic gospel, he must either reject the gospel altogether or modify it to his own liking. But to modify the gospel is to distort it; to believe a modified gospel is to believe a false gospel; and to accept a false gospel is not to accept the gospel at all. One does not believe the gospel unless one believes the whole gospel, with all its implications, just as the apostles taught it. And only one kind of person will be subjectively able to do that: the saint. Only the true saint has a subjectivity that is friendly toward every aspect of the apostolic gospel; any other subjectivity—at one place or another—will find itself hostile to what the gospel teaches.
D. Believing the Gospel and Personal Salvation
We are now in a position to understand the role belief plays in one’s salvation, that is, the role the New Testament writers claim for it. If what I have said above is true, then no test of whether one will be saved is more apt than the test of how one responds to the gospel message. I have suggested that the one who will be saved is the one who has a very specific subjectivity, the “subjectivity of sainthood,” but how can we tell whether one has that subjectivity? We could, of course, examine each and every aspect of his subjectivity separately, but there is another important way: we can preach him the apostolic gospel. If he believes the apostolic gospel in its entirety, with all of its assumptions and implications, there can be one and only one explanation for his belief: he is a saint—one who has been born of God, baptized by the Spirit of God, and destined for eternal life. No one else could believe the gospel, for no one else would have a subjectivity so completely friendly to the gospel. No natural, sinful, rebellious human being does or can have such a gospel-friendly subjectivity; it is a supernatural act of God, a gift of divine grace; it can come from nowhere else. Hence, belief in the entire apostolic gospel is virtually an infallible test of one’s status in relation to eternal life. If a person believes the apostolic gospel, he does so because he has been born of God and hence has been chosen to inherit eternal life. If he does not accept the apostolic gospel, he does not because he has not been born of God; he remains a child of the devil, and he is not destined to inherit eternal life.
Belief in the apostolic gospel, then, is the supreme test of sainthood. Ultimately, belief in the gospel ties all twenty of the conditions of eternal life into one tidy bundle. If a person truly believes the apostolic gospel, he can only because his subjectivity meets all twenty of the requisite conditions for inheriting eternal life. This then is the explanation for why the New Testament authors typically characterize the saint as a “believer,” as one who has believed the facts and assertions of the gospel message. There is no more apt characterization; nothing else sums up so nicely in one attribute everything there is to say about the saint.
Notice the logic behind calling the saint a believer. Believing the gospel is not one of twenty-one conditions necessary for having the subjectivity of the saint; indeed, as I have shown, believing the gospel is not a necessary condition of sainthood at all. Rather, believing the gospel is something that, in the right circumstances, will and must occur in the person who meets the twenty conditions that are necessary. So, if a person believes the apostolic gospel in its entirety, it follows that he will inherit eternal life. It does not follow, however, that if a person does not believe the apostolic gospel in its entirety, he will not inherit eternal life. To put it formally: believing the apostolic gospel in its entirety is a sufficient condition for inheriting eternal life, because it entails that one has met all of the necessary conditions; (Note 7) but it is not a necessary condition, because one can meet all of the necessary conditions without actually believing the gospel. Hence, it is not appropriate to make believing the gospel number twenty-one on our list of twenty necessary conditions.
I have two reasons for contending that belief in the gospel is not a necessary condition of salvation. Firstly, if I am right about the logic behind the role that belief in the gospel plays in personal salvation, it follows that believing the gospel as such is not a necessary condition; having the subjectivity of the saint gives us the “eyes to see” and the “ears to hear” the truth of the gospel, but it does not necessarily follow that we will have a belief in the gospel. If we are presented with the gospel, we will believe it; but what if the gospel is not presented to us or the gospel presented to us is too distorted to reflect God’s truth? In either case, although we have the “eyes to see” and the “ears to hear,” the true gospel has not been given us to see or to hear; hence, we will not believe it. Nevertheless, we are saved; because what saves a person is the fact that he has been sanctified by the Spirit of God, and that has happened insofar as the Spirit has transformed his subjectivity. What saves a person is the fact that he has been given “eyes to see” and “ears to hear”; he is saved whether or not he has had the opportunity to respond in belief to the gospel. In other words, we are not saved by our belief in the gospel per se; we are saved by our inherent receptivity to the gospel message, whether or not that receptivity has ever been tested by an exposure to the gospel message. God knows our hearts; He knows our subjectivities. Those whose hearts are inclined to believe the apostolic gospel (at whatever time they might finally confront it) are saved; those whose hearts are inclined to reject the gospel are not saved. Whether or not a person holds a belief in the apostolic gospel now is not necessary; what is necessary is that he be the sort of person (in his subjectivity) who would believe the gospel were it ever accurately told to him.
Secondly, there are clear examples in the Bible of individuals who stand to inherit eternal life who never did believe the apostolic gospel. Abraham is the paradigm of such a person. Paul considered Abraham to be the father of those who have faith in Jesus; that is, those who believe in Jesus have the same kind of faith Abraham had—even though, clearly, Abraham never did believe in Jesus, never believed that Jesus was the Son of God, that Jesus was raised from the dead, that Jesus was Lord, or any other of the facts that make up the claims of the apostolic gospel. But it would seem absurd to think that Abraham—the father of all who believe—misses out on eternal life because he did not believe the gospel. The key, of course, is to understand that although Abraham never believed the gospel, he never rejected it either. The gospel, as we know it, simply was never an issue in his life; Abraham was never called on to react to it. By putting forth Abraham as the paradigm of faith, Paul presumably is telling us that Abraham had the kind of God-given subjectivity that is the basis of one’s salvation: If Abraham had been confronted by the claims of the gospel, he clearly would have believed it; and this propensity to believe—due to a divinely regenerated subjectivity—was the basis upon which he was “reckoned as justified” in God’s eyes. At least, this would appear to be how Paul must argue his case. Much more needs to be said about Abraham (perhaps in another paper), but this much is clear: Abraham is an example of one who did not believe the apostolic gospel, but who is nevertheless qualified for eternal life. Hence, strictly speaking, belief in the gospel is not a necessary condition of sainthood; it is not a necessary condition for inheriting eternal life.
E. Clarifying the Role of Belief in Salvation
Before we leave the subject of the role of believing the gospel, we need to clarify two important points: (1) There is a sense in which not everyone who believes the apostolic gospel will be saved; and (2) there is a sense in which even those who reject the gospel could nevertheless be saved.
(1) Not everyone who believes the apostolic gospel will be saved
As we have seen, one of the ways an unrighteous subjectivity confronts the gospel message is to distort it, that is, to believe a distorted version of it. One might accept the outline and concepts of the apostolic gospel, but give those concepts new and different meanings; or he might accept most of the apostolic message, yet omit aspects of the message he finds offensive to his subjectivity. Neither of these ways of “believing” the gospel is believing the apostolic gospel, and they do not qualify a person for eternal life. But what if a person does not obviously or clearly distort the gospel message, if he simply believes the gospel story as the apostles delivered it, would his belief necessarily qualify him as a true child of God? The answer, I think, is still no. Consider the following passage from Acts 8:9-24:
Now there was a certain man named Simon, who formerly was practicing magic in the city [of Samaria], and astonishing the people of Samaria, claiming to be someone great; and they all, from smallest to greatest, were giving attention to him, saying, “This man is what is called the Great Power of God.” And they were giving him attention because he had for a long time astonished them with his magic arts. But when they believed Philip preaching the good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were being baptized, men and women alike. And even Simon himself believed; and after being baptized, he continued on with Philip; and as he observed signs and great miracles taking place, he was constantly amazed. Now when the apostles in Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent them Peter and John, who came down and prayed for them, that they might receive the Holy Spirit. For He had not yet fallen upon any of them; they had simply been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. Then they began laying hands on them, and they were receiving the Holy Spirit. Now when Simon saw that the Spirit was bestowed through the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered them money, saying, “Give this authority to me as well, so that everyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.” But Peter said to him, “May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain the gift of God with money! You have no part or portion in this matter [that is, in this gospel message], for your heart is not right before God. Therefore repent of this wickedness of yours, and pray the Lord that if possible, the intention of your heart may be forgiven you. For I see that you are in the gall of bitterness and in the bondage of iniquity.” But Simon answered and said, “Pray to the Lord for me yourselves, so that nothing of what you have said may come upon me.”
From the Acts account we have no indication that the gospel Simon the magician believed was not the very message the apostles proclaimed; presumably it was. But though Simon had believed the right gospel, he had not believed it out of the right sort of subjectivity; his subjectivity was unrighteous, not righteous, and in the course of time the true nature of Simon’s subjectivity was tested and found wanting. Peter tells Simon that his “heart is not right before God”; Peter tells Simon to pray that “the intention of [his] heart may be forgiven [him].” What Peter refers to as Simon’s “heart” is, I submit, what I have called his “subjectivity.” Simon the magician had believed the gospel, but he had believed it for the wrong reasons, out of unrighteous desires and passions, out of an unrighteous subjectivity; and as a result, his belief in the gospel was worthless with respect to his salvation. Peter told him: “You have no part or portion in this matter [that is, in the salvation promised in the gospel message]…repent of this wickedness of yours, and pray the Lord that if possible, the intention of your heart may be forgiven you. For I see that you are in the gall of bitterness and in the bondage of iniquity.” For my purposes, to identify exactly what in Simon’s unrighteous subjectivity had become apparent to Peter is not important; the point is simply this: whatever the defect in Simon’s heart, or subjectivity, it disqualified him from eternal life even though he had believed the apostolic gospel. Technically, then, only belief in the gospel that arises out of the right sort of subjectivity—a righteous, born-from-above-by-the-Spirit subjectivity—can indicate that one is saved. Mere belief per se cannot signal that one is a true saint destined for eternal life; only belief in the gospel motivated by a sincerely righteous subjectivity is the mark of a true saint.
How can one know, then, whether one’s belief in the gospel is the sort that marks one as a saint and not a counterfeit belief—wrongly grounded—that does not? This is where the New Testament doctrine of perseverance enters in: the one who has believed the gospel for the wrong reasons will eventually find his subjectivity running afoul of the gospel; it will not give nor promise him what he really wants, and he will leave, realizing finally that the gospel message is not believable to him after all. This was happening to Simon, and Peter was warning him. Simon was caught in the web of an idolatry. In the end, he was not interested in the righteousness of the Kingdom of God; he wanted power, power and authority over men and glory in the eyes of other men; he wanted it so badly he was willing to pay Peter for it. Peter recognized immediately what Simon’s request meant: if the driving passion of Simon’s life was the lust for power and authority, then two things were true: (1) his heart ( subjectivity) had not been made new by the Spirit of God, and (2) his belief in the gospel was not destined to endure. The very thing Simon wanted—power and authority—the gospel did not promise him, and what the gospel did promise him—righteousness—he did not really want.
Only those whose driving passion is a lust for the righteousness of the Kingdom of God will have a permanent, enduring interest in the promises of the gospel; only their belief in the gospel can persevere; and only they will inherit eternal life, for only they are “born of God.” This concept lies behind the Hebrews 6:4-8 passage that troubles many:
…in the case of those who have once been enlightened and have tasted of the heavenly gift and have been made partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, it is impossible to renew them again to repentance, since they again crucify to themselves the Son of God, and put Him to open shame. For ground that drinks the rain which often falls upon it and brings forth vegetation useful to those for whose sake it is also tilled, receives a blessing from God; but if it yields thorns and thistles, it is worthless and close to being cursed, and it ends up being burned.
This passage says if a person who has believed the gospel and has had a good, hard look at the gospel from the inside, having come to a clear and accurate picture of the claims and promises of the gospel and the God who made those promises, if he then turns his back on the gospel and walks away from it, he is in deep trouble. Such a person has clearly and unmistakably flown the colors of his subjectivity, and they are not the colors of one born of God. Whether or not this passage suggests it is “too late” for such a person—that there is no further chance in the future for God to transform his heart—is a more difficult question, but this much is clear: there are those who, having believed the gospel and having traveled a long way down the road of Christian belief, eventually turn aside, no longer interested in what the gospel is all about. Why would a person do this? Because he never was interested in what the gospel was about. He was interested in the gospel for other reasons; he thought it held the promise of something else—escape from pain, prosperity, fame, wealth, health, power, tranquility, and so forth—but it took awhile before he realized finally that the gospel never promised what he wanted, and once he did realize this, he split. (Note 8) Believing in the gospel on account of promises it never made, promises born of his own delusions, he never was a child of God; he never was saved. Early in his odyssey, however, he may have been virtually indiscernible from the true child of God. (Note 9)
Let me summarize. Technically, only belief in the gospel that arises out of the right sort of subjectivity is an indication that one is saved. There is, however, a way to distinguish a person who believes the gospel out of the wrong sort of subjectivity, from the child of God who believes it because of his righteous subjectivity: the child of God will persevere in believing the gospel through all his varied experiences; the child of the devil will not. The believer who is ultimately a child of the devil cannot sustain interest in the gospel over the long haul. This is not to say, of course, that such a false believer will necessarily repudiate or reject the gospel outright; he may simply relegate it to an irrelevant detail of his life, or he may believe more fervently a false, distorted form of it; but what he cannot do is continue embracing fervently the true apostolic gospel. Only true children of God can persevere in embracing the apostolic gospel over the long haul of their lives.
(2) Those who reject the gospel could nevertheless be saved
The presentation I have made so far suggests that whereas a person may fail to believe the gospel and still be saved, surely he cannot reject the gospel and still be saved. This contention needs to be qualified in two very important respects.
Firstly, generally speaking, one cannot reject the true, undistorted apostolic gospel and still be saved. To reject a distorted form of the gospel, however, is not only not a bad sign, but it may be a good sign. If one is presented the gospel in a distorted form, his rejection of this gospel is actually an indication of his sainthood. One’s receptivity to the true apostolic gospel, not to an incomplete or distorted gospel, signals one’s sainthood. Hence, if my one and only exposure to the Christian gospel was to a distorted or incomplete form, it is conceivable that the very subjectivity that qualifies me as a saint would prompt me to reject this Christianity. Hence, I would not believe the gospel, and, in a sense, I would even reject it, but I would nonetheless be a child of God; for what I am rejecting (a distorted gospel) is incompatible with the subjectivity of a true child of God.
Secondly, strictly speaking, the way in which the gospel is a touchstone of one’s salvation should be expressed like this: one cannot reject the true, undistorted apostolic gospel—due to the gospel’s incompatibility with one’s subjectivity—and still be saved. This sentence includes an important qualifying phrase to the foregoing discussion: “due to the gospel’s incompatibility with one’s subjectivity.” Belief in the gospel is the touchstone of one’s sainthood because it tends to test the moral mettle of one’s heart, that is, one’s subjectivity; the gospel tests the moral and spiritual qualities of our subjective commitments. But what if one’s resistance to the gospel is not due to an unrighteous subjectivity, but to something else; for example, intellectual problems that one is unable to resolve? What would rejection of the gospel mean in that case? If I have accurately assessed the Bible’s teaching on this matter, then rejection of the gospel for purely intellectual reasons would not disqualify one from being a true child of God. Such a person would be ignorant, misinformed, intellectually misguided, and wrong; but he would not have to be a child of the devil, destined for wrath.
This qualification may, of course, be highly theoretical and totally hypothetical. Perhaps no one rejects the gospel for purely intellectual reasons; perhaps an unrighteous subjectivity is always lurking in the background, using intellectual problems as a way of rationalizing its unrighteous unbelief. For the sake of a clear understanding of what qualifies one as a child of God, however, this qualification is important, even if it is purely theoretical. Our belief in the gospel does not qualify us as saints; being born again makes us saints. Under normal circumstances, being born again results in our believing the gospel. Nonetheless, if a person is prevented from believing the gospel by some factor other than his not being born again, then his lack of belief has no spiritual significance; he is born again, a saint destined for eternal life. The unusual circumstances of his life have just prevented the belief in the gospel that usually ensues from being born again; for purely intellectual reasons, he finds himself rejecting the gospel even though morally and spiritually he is utterly receptive to it. If such a scenario is possible, then rejection of the gospel in this case would not disqualify him from salvation. His belief is a form of righteous unbelief, not the typical unrighteous unbelief; and only unrighteous unbelief is a characteristic of the damned.
F. Implications for Intellectual Doubt
What I have just said has very important implications for the significance of doubt in the Christian’s life. Two kinds of doubt plague the Christian: righteous doubt and unrighteous doubt. Righteous doubt is purely intellectual: something the Christian faith (or other Christians, or our church, or whoever) asks me to believe is unconvincing, problematic, or otherwise intellectually troubling; either it doesn’t seem to make sense, I don’t understand how it could make sense, or I don’t see how there are sufficiently compelling reasons to believe it. If such intellectual problems, and these alone, are why I hesitate to believe—why I doubt—then my doubt may be a righteous doubt; the source of my doubt says nothing about my moral and spiritual status in the eyes of God. But if the source of my doubt is a different set of values, commitments, and priorities from those embodied in that aspect of the Christian faith I am prone to doubt, then my doubt is unrighteous; it is born of an unrighteous subjectivity, a subjectivity not consistent with a claim to be a child of God. Unrighteous doubt is personally dangerous; it betokens a destiny I should not want to have. Righteous doubt, on the other hand, is normal, healthy, beneficial, and ultimately essential in bringing about my salvation; it fuels the process of the perfection and intellectual maturation of my faith. Without righteous doubt there can be no growth; without growth there can be no maturity.
Certainly more can and should be said about doubt, but this much is essential: doubt, in and of itself, is not necessarily antithetical to faith. Unrighteous doubt is antithetical to faith, but righteous doubt is essential to faith. The worst thing we can do as Christians is to try to stifle doubt wholesale. On the one hand, no attempt to stifle unrighteous doubt can succeed in a way that will save the unrighteous doubter; hence, it is futile and useless to try. On the other hand, to stifle righteous doubt is harmful; it is unloving and vicious to prevent people from growing in their faith, and if they do not doubt, they cannot grow.
V. BRIEF COMMENTS ON SOME FINAL QUESTIONS
This paper represents my most recent understanding of the basis of personal salvation, and I have tried to make my case as best I could within the confines of one paper. The study that led me to these conclusions is more thorough, more comprehensive, and more involved than the discussion of this paper can possibly represent; so, unfortunately, much more needs to be said. In closing, let me mention just two of the more important lines of inquiry that need to be pursued before one should be convinced of the understanding I am laying out in this paper.
(1) Are we saved by faith alone?
In deciding whether or not the picture of faith and salvation I am presenting in this paper is true and accurate, the crux of the matter (for me, at least) comes down to this: can any picture of salvation be right that does not clearly and unambiguously support the contention that we are saved by faith and by faith alone? This is crucial; for my picture challenges that contention in some very important ways.
Part of the biblical support for the contention that we are saved by faith and faith alone comes from explicit statements Paul makes in his letters:
For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law. (Romans 3:28)
…nevertheless knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we may be justified by faith in Christ, and not by works of the Law; since by the works of the Law shall no flesh be justified. (Galatians 2:16)
Do such statements by Paul support the contention that we are saved by faith alone in the way that Protestantism has come to understand it? If so, then the position I have presented in this paper should be rejected; it simply does not conform to the teaching of the Bible. But if not, it is possible that no incompatibility exists between Paul’s teaching and the position I have presented. This question needs to be explored. I am quite confident that my position and Paul’s are not incompatible, and it would have been quite helpful to have described their compatibility in detail. Briefly, though, the passages I just cited do not teach explicitly that we are saved by faith and faith alone—nor, contrary to our Protestant expectations, does any other New Testament passage. These passages teach that we are saved by faith rather than by works of the Law. We misunderstand Paul’s point if we take it to define the role of faith in salvation in any other way than as representing the legitimate God-ordained alternative to justification by works of the Law; that is, we are justified by faith, not by works of the Law. Isn’t Paul simply saying this: it is not the person who successfully obeys God’s moral law who will be saved, for no such person can exist; rather, the person who will be saved is the one who, having heard the good news of the salvation brought by Jesus, believes it? How and why and exactly what constitutes being a person who believes the good news of salvation in Jesus is neither explained nor developed by Paul in these contexts. Hence, we go too far if we say these contexts support our contention that Paul teaches that faith and faith alone is the basis of the saint’s salvation. Paul is not addressing that issue when he makes such statements.
Returning to the notion that the clear and unambiguous teaching of the New Testament is not “we are saved by faith and faith alone,” as Protestants assume, we must also consider II Peter 1: 5-11:
Now for this very reason also, applying all diligence, in your faith supply moral excellence, and in your moral excellence, knowledge; and in your knowledge, self-control, and in your self-control, perseverance, and in your perseverance, godliness; and in your godliness, brotherly kindness, and in your brotherly kindness, Christian love. For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they render you neither useless nor unfruitful in the true knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. For he who lacks these qualities is blind or short-sighted, having forgotten his purification from his former sins. Therefore, brethren, be all the more diligent to make certain about His calling and choosing you; for as long as you practice these things, you will never stumble; for in this way the entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ will be abundantly supplied to you.
This passage makes perfectly good sense from the view I have presented in this paper. On the other hand, to reconcile it with any traditional Protestant view that we are justified by faith and faith alone is very difficult.
(2) Where has traditional Protestantism gone wrong?
If faith does not have the central role that protestants have traditionally said it does, where has traditional Protestantism gone wrong? This is an important question. If we can come to understand the line of reasoning that led traditional Protestantism to formulate its doctrine of salvation around faith in the way it did, we will be in a much better position to know what to do with the view of faith I have just presented. If traditional Protestantism is grounded in an accurate understanding of the biblical text with respect to personal salvation and the role of faith—and has not unduly and misleadingly adjusted its formulation of the gospel to make a particular point in response to a particular need at a particular point in history—then neither you nor I have any business departing from the traditional Protestant view. My hunch is, however, that this is not the case. My hunch is that traditional Protestantism—while saying and affirming things that are absolutely biblical, absolutely right and true, and exceedingly important correctives to the errors in the Roman Catholicism to which they were a response—has unwittingly given us a somewhat incomplete and unbalanced picture of the basis for personal salvation. I am not suggesting the reformers failed to understand the true basis of salvation; in all likelihood they did truly understand it; but I question whether the way they chose to articulate their understanding was not unduly influenced by the rhetorical needs of their time such that they failed to achieve a timeless, lasting formulation of the nature and role of faith. If I am right about this, we need not feel constrained to be loyal to their theological formulations on these matters. Instead, we must listen to them and learn from them, understanding what they said by interpreting them in the context of their own rhetorical situation, and we must try to determine how and where the biblical teaching on these matters is embodied in the particular concepts they used to articulate the gospel; yet having done that, we must feel free to discard their concepts and either to return to strictly and purely biblical concepts or to devise our own fresh concepts that successfully and accurately communicate the biblical gospel message.
Earle Craig, a pastor from southern California, was asked to write a response:
In his paper, “The Anatomy of Sainthood,” Jack Crabtree once again apparently rocks the boat of modern evangelical Christian thought, for which we are always grateful. I have tried to imagine what life would be like without Jack’s persistent and scholarly work that immediately destabilizes the stable, confounds the intellectually assured, and sends us all racing to our Bibles to find out if maybe this time he just might be wrong in his apparently unusual proposals. At the least, life certainly would be less entertaining without Jack.
Notice I used the word “apparently” twice: Jack has apparently rocked the boat and apparently made an unusual proposal. It certainly was disconcerting initially to read that Jack believes the traditional Protestant statement of “salvation by faith alone” is “incompatible with the gospel.” I know Jack, however, and he always thinks things through as carefully as possible, and so I forged through the paper. I was not at all surprised to see that he presents a well articulated argument for a view of salvation he believes is different from traditional Protestantism’s understanding of what constitutes a heavenly-bound Christian. He does, however, seem to admit at the end of his paper that his view could merely be a more complete and better balanced “picture of the basis for personal salvation.” I think this is the case. Although he may be rejecting the traditional Protestant view of “salvation by faith alone,” he is affirming the traditional Protestant view of “salvation by grace alone”; he is just explaining the “by faith alone” aspect with greater clarity than perhaps our early Protestant forefathers did.
So in my response to Jack, I would first like to put his paper in historical perspective and suggest that Jack’s view of “salvation by sainthood alone” fits quite well with at least one branch of traditional Protestantism, orthodox Calvinism. Calvinists have always believed the Bible teaches that regeneration of a person by the Holy Spirit precedes faith. With certain qualifications, Jack, I think, is saying the same thing. Secondly, I would like to make some observations about the relationship between “knowledge,” which Jack proposes is half of the subjectivity of a true saint, and “belief,” which he says will result from this subjectivity. I hope to help clarify the difference between these two notions so that Jack is better understood by those who are hearing his proposal for the first time. Others, like me, might find his suggestion that a person can have knowledge before he has belief confusing. How can this be? By adding two more answers to Jack’s implied answer to this question, I hope to help clear up any potential confusion. And then thirdly, I would like to discuss a question concerning the goal of maturity towards which true saints strive: Is the goal ever reached this side of eternity?
I. A HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE
First of all, I want to suggest that Jack is essentially restating and clarifying the Calvinist belief that regeneration precedes faith. Down through Christian history a battle has been waged between monergists and synergists. Monergism is the belief that God alone initiates and sovereignly produces the conversion process within a sinful human being. Synergism is the belief that even if God initiates the process, man independently cooperates with God and completes the process, and then regeneration follows. So monergists typically believe regeneration precedes faith, while synergists believe faith precedes regeneration. I say monergists typically believe regeneration precedes faith because Lutherans claim to be monergists while believing that faith precedes regeneration. Calvinists have argued that this position is illogical, and Lutherans have always criticized Calvinists for being too rational and relying too much on logic. So I should say that rational monergists believe regeneration precedes faith. If I understand Jack correctly, he is a rational monergist. Like orthodox Calvinists, he is proposing that the biblical view of Christian “sainthood” is that a person must first be changed internally by the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit before he can respond in a manner friendly to the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ and embrace this truth for what it is—the message of salvation that makes sense and is the most valuable knowledge we can obtain. Jack does differ from orthodox Calvinism in his belief that regeneration can take place apart from the teaching of the Bible. Nevertheless, the Calvinist basically believes, like Jack, that at least “seminal sainthood” precedes faith.
To demonstrate this agreement between Jack and orthodox Calvinism, let me quote a rather lengthy excerpt from Dr. John Gerstner’s recent book, The Rational Biblical Theology of Jonathan Edwards. (Note 1) Dr. Gerstner has made it his life’s project not only to be a Bible scholar and teacher, but also to immerse himself in the writings and sermons of the eighteenth century theologian Jonathan Edwards and to renew the church’s interest in this man who some have said had the finest mind that has ever existed on the North American continent. I want to use Edwards (who I think even out-Calvined Calvin) as a model Calvinist. Even though I do not agree with his adherence to covenant theology, I deeply appreciate his concern for rationality and his belief that ultimately all truth is rational. He strove to be a thoughtful and reasonable theologian. This is true of Dr. Gerstner as well. In a chapter on Edward’s epistemology and metaphysics, Dr. Gerstner gives his synthesis of the great theologian’s understanding of the steps of conversion. He uses the word “light” to refer to truth about God, whether from the natural world of the creation or from the special revelation of the Bible. The first eight steps, though, involve only light from creation. Edward’s thirteen steps of conversion as synthesized by Gerstner are these: (Note 2)
- Light [from the natural revelation of the creation] comes into the mind of man.
- Unregenerate man being a sinner and naturally a hater of light tries to get rid of this unwelcome light which he cannot avoid.
- Thus he tries to bury it out of sight.
- This angers God who is [the source of] light, and He punishes man by letting him go his way into darkness.
- Man in his hatred and under divine punishment tries to explain away that light that he has seen and suppresses.
- God lets him go ever deeper into his self-made darkness, and the most brilliant thinkers become the most darkened in understanding, the devil himself being the “greatest blockhead of all” according to Edwards.
- Then God gives special divine revelation [i.e., the proclamation of the biblical messages].
- [This] revelation is met with even greater opposition from unregenerate man because it is so much brighter which he therefore hates more.
- At some point, God changes the disposition of the elect from one hating light to one loving it.
- Then all the suppressed light comes welcome to the surface of conscious experience and expression and with it a desire for ever greater light.
- Converted men even grow in the light of nature. They [even more] revel in the light of special revelation. They now love light—all light. [emphasis mine]
- Then the natural revelation which was always there and always compelling but always suppressed and always denied comes into free and happy acknowledgment.
- So if men are not converted they will suppress the light they have and attempt to deny it.
Edward’s ninth step seems to express the same idea as Jack’s proposal of a transition (which God causes in a person) from having the “subjectivity of the child of the devil (the one who is destined for wrath)” to the “subjectivity of the child of God (the saint).” (I am tempted to describe this as being changed from an “ain’t” to a “saint,” but I would not want to be accused of using bad grammar.) The person is transformed internally from someone who hates truth to someone who loves and embraces truth whenever he is exposed to it. Put another way, a person goes from someone who rejects truth to one who believes it. But the key point is that an alteration in the person’s inner disposition (that is, his subjectivity) must take place first. As the Calvinists say, regeneration precedes faith. Being “born again,” or “born from above” (as Jack prefers to interpret John 3:3), takes place first, and belief in the gospel follows as a logical consequence because the person has been changed into someone who no longer suppresses truth, but welcomes and embraces it.
And in another of his writings Edwards (as quoted by Gerstner) says, “It is evident that true virtue must chiefly consist in love to God.” (Note 3) This statement together with his thirteen steps sound similar to Jack’s proposal regarding the two core elements of sainthood: knowledge of God and love of God. So, like Jonathan Edwards of the eighteenth century and Dr. John Gerstner of the twentieth century, Jack is a rational monergist.
II. KNOWLEDGE OF GOD AND BELIEF IN THE GOSPEL
The second thing I want to do in response to Jack’s paper is to help clarify an important distinction he makes; I want to ask, What is the difference between the knowledge of God (which is part of the saint’s subjectivity) and belief in the gospel message (which results from the saint’s subjectivity and therefore from his knowledge of God)? One might be confused by Jack’s proposal that knowledge of God is a necessary condition to eternal life, but belief in the gospel message is not. Someone might want to ask (as I did when I read Jack’s paper), How can I know God if I do not believe in the gospel message?
Jack answers this question by pointing to Abraham, who obviously never believed that Jesus was the Son of God. I would like to approach the question by two other avenues. Firstly, I want to answer the question using the distinction between natural revelation and special revelation, between knowledge we glean from the creation and knowledge we acquire from the Bible. And secondly, I want to use Jack’s notion of “seminal sainthood” versus “mature sainthood.”
A. Natural and Special Revelation
The apostle Paul teaches in Romans 1 and 2 that all mankind knows God through the creation in two ways: (1) The fact that man clearly sees a creation leads him to conclude there is a creator; and (2) the fact that God has implanted an understanding of right and wrong in every person leads man to conclude he is accountable and damnable before a righteous God. Rebellious mankind refuses to acknowledge and to embrace the truth, however; he rejects even the relatively small amount of truth he gleans from natural revelation. Instead he works as hard as he can to deny and to hide from it; he “suppresses [it] in unrighteousness.” This rejection of the truth is Edward’s fifth step above. Jack expresses this idea by saying that the non-saint is “hostile” to God’s truth.
Let’s assume this knowledge from the creation is the only knowledge a person has; in other words, imagine he has never heard any teaching from the Bible and therefore has knowledge of God only from natural revelation and none at all from special revelation. Now assume that God comes along and sovereignly changes this person’s inner subjectivity through the work of the Holy Spirit so that instead of rejecting truth and knowledge of God, the man now embraces it. It seems to me that in order to embrace whatever knowledge of God this person has, he has to believe it. But didn’t Jack say that the subjectivity of a true saint does not need to include belief? How then can this man now embrace his knowledge without belief? The answer is in the specific knowledge the man believes: this knowledge is not the gospel message, which he has never heard; he believes only the knowledge that currently resides in his mind, which is knowledge he acquired from natural revelation and not from special revelation. So a person with the subjectivity of a saint can have knowledge of God without believing (in fact, without even hearing) the gospel message, because he embraces the knowledge he acquired from creation; the new saint does have “belief,” but it is belief in the truth proclaimed (so to speak) by creation, not by the Bible. Then, as Jack is proposing (and Edwards would agree), when this saint encounters the gospel message contained in special revelation, he will recognize it as truth, embrace it, and believe it. This, Jack claims, is genuine New Testament “belief,” because the object of the belief is not any old truth about God, but specifically the truth taught by Jesus and the apostles.
So, my point for the neophyte of Jack’s proposal is that the subjectivity of a saint does contain belief. It just does not necessarily have to contain belief of the truth from the New Testament per se.
B. Seminal and Mature Sainthood
Examining the concept of seminal sainthood is the second avenue we can use to explain the distinction between the knowledge of God that is part of the the subjectivity of a saint and the belief that results from it. Jack explains that “the subjectivity of sainthood is not granted to the saint full-blown; it is granted to the saint in a seminal form and then develops and matures over time.” In other words, when a person is regenerated by the Holy Spirit, he may not have any knowledge of the gospel. What he does have, though, is the potential to have knowledge of the gospel; as he is exposed to the gospel message, he will embrace and believe it as truth and thus acquire knowledge. Because the person’s disposition toward the gospel has been changed by God, even though he may not possess any actual knowledge of the gospel, he might still be said to have knowledge of it in potential form, and he therefore fulfills the necessary conditions for eternal life.
Let me illustrate this possibility with a hypothetical situation. Imagine that a man who has a subjectivity of a child of the devil and who has never heard the Bible’s gospel message is sitting in his home in front of his TV watching the Lakers pulverize the Blazers. All of a sudden God enters into his being and changes his subjectivity. Whereas prior to his regeneration, the man hated God and the truth about Him, now he suddenly loves God and His truth—but he still does not have any knowledge of the gospel message. Now let’s assume the man feels motivated to acquire some knowledge of the New Testament, and so he decides to attend a worship service at his local church. He gets in his car, drives down the street, and in an intersection is broadsided by a Mack truck and killed instantly, before he ever hears a word of the gospel message. Is he saved? Yes. Not because he had any actual knowledge of the New Testament, but because he had potential knowledge of it; God had planted in his life a seed containing everything necessary for the man to grow into a mature, knowledgeable saint. The man’s potential knowledge, his seminal sainthood—which, had he lived, could have matured into actual knowledge of the truths contained in the New Testament—fulfills the necessary condition for him to inherit eternal life. In other words, as Jack says, “Our belief in the gospel does not qualify us as saints; being born again makes us saints.”
We can conclude, then, that knowledge of God is possible without New Testament belief, because we can speak either of knowledge of God from natural revelation or potential knowledge of God with potential belief in the gospel message.
III. THE GOAL OF MATURITY
In this third and final part of my response to Jack’s paper, I want to discuss the question, Does the saint reach the goal of maturity this side of eternity? Jack indicates that even though the child of God begins with only seminal sainthood, nevertheless he will inevitably progress towards a mature form of it. Jack uses the biblical term telos to describe this goal, and he defines it as “the end [the saint] is intended to reach,” which he says could be translated “becoming mature.” Jack then proceeds to describe the process of the saint’s growing up from immaturity to maturity; and he implies that Christian maturity, our telos as saints, is possible before we go to heaven.
I think this is a good notion, but I would like to help clarify what the Bible means. First of all, I understand the Greek term telos to refer not to pre-heaven maturity, but to the end of our earthly lives and ultimately, therefore, to heaven itself. Take for example Hebrews 3:14 where the NASB (Note 4) translates this word “end”:
For we have become partakers of Christ, if we hold fast the beginning of our assurance firm until the end.
The author of Hebrews then goes on to define this end as “God’s rest.” The context indicates this rest is heaven, a vacation so to speak from our struggle with the hardships of this life. The reader is being encouraged to persevere in his sainthood all the way to the end of his life and therefore enter into heaven. He is not being encouraged simply to persevere to maturity before death, although this is not a bad thing. So telos means eternal end, not temporal maturity.
There is, however, another word in the New Testament, teleios, that sometimes does mean maturity, the obvious difference from telos being a simple diphthong. The apostle Paul uses this term in 1 Corinthians 2:6, and the author of Hebrews uses it in chapter 5, verse 14; in both cases I think it is correctly translated “mature”:
Yet we do speak wisdom among those who are mature; a wisdom, however, not of this age, nor of the rulers of this age, who are passing away;… (I Corinthians 2:6)
But solid food is for the mature, who because of practice have their senses trained to discern good and evil. (Hebrews 5:14)
This, I think, is the maturity to which Jack is referring when someone manifests in a grown-up fashion the twenty “characteristics of sainthood.” I point all this out to ensure we realize the Bible refers to two goals: (1) the maturity of our sainthood this side of eternity; and (2) the persevering of our sainthood to the end of our lives, which qualifies us to enter into heaven. Jack certainly alludes to this when he discusses the tension in which we exist:
This is not to say that any saint-in-process must necessarily live in fear and suspense. According to Scripture, I can come to a reasonable state of assurance that I have been called of God and am destined for eternal life, even while I still struggle to meet some of the necessary qualifications of sainthood. Yet there must always lie before me an awareness of the very real possibility that I am not meeting the biblical qualifications of sainthood because, in reality, I am not a saint.
This is sobering; it leaves us without the comfort and reassurance that we want. But this is where the Bible leaves us. We exist in a tension…
Jack is saying and the Bible teaches that even if we have become mature saints, we nevertheless have not reached the ultimate goal of our lives, which is heaven, our eternal rest. So we may have become teleios, but we have not reached our telos. This means, too, as Jack points out, that mature sainthood is still far short of moral perfection. My knowledge of God and love for God may have grown from the time when I was first born again, but they are still meager compared to morally perfect knowledge and love.
Therefore, even maturity does not bring one hundred percent subjective assurance of our salvation. I may have one hundred percent objective assurance from Romans 8:29-30 that those whom God has predestined to salvation, He will definitely and without fail save; but although I may be a mature saint, I never presume with one hundred percent certainty that I am one of the predestined elect. In fact, the Bible teaches that part of what it means to be mature is to avoid presumption about the absolute certainty of the genuineness of my sainthood.
This is not going to be a very popular concept. It seems to me that one of Christian fundamentalism’s sacred cows is the absolute subjective certainty of eternal salvation. In fact, I have been taught and have myself taught that doubt concerning one’s eternal security is anathema; any doubt is a sign of a weak faith and is to be avoided like hell itself. Listen, however, to the apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 9:26-27:
Therefore I run in such a way, as not without aim; I box in such a way, as not beating the air; but I buffet my body and make it my slave, lest possibly, after I have preached to others, I myself should be disqualified.
The more I hear New Testament passages like this, the more I am learning not to panic in the midst of my own struggles and doubts, for I see that even doubt is beneficial and healthy for the saint. Jack calls it “righteous doubt.” Used by God, this doubt is a great humbling tool, a motivator that spurs me to the “throne of grace” to “receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” through my “great high priest…Jesus, the Son of God…who sympathize[s] with [my] weaknesses” (Hebrews 4:15-16). Even though we hate insecurity and doubt, the Bible in Hebrews 3 encourages us to “examine ourselves” (which always introduces for me a measure of doubt about the genuineness of my sainthood) and exhorts us not to harden our hearts—as long as we can still call this moment “today”—when we hear God’s voice through the proclamation of truth. The consequences would be most drastic.
So we press on, having been transformed in our subjectivity by God from people who rejected any knowledge of Him and hated Him, to those who embrace the truth about God and love Him for all that He is. And as we encounter the gospel message of the New Testament, we pray that God will continue to illumine our minds and enable us to see clearly and accurately His thoughts of our salvation through Jesus Christ and to believe His word for all it says. And even if we are mature Christians, we “hold fast our confession” and refuse to succumb to smugness and complacency while we “press on towards the goal of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” The ultimate end is vacation from our struggles in this life. God by His grace alone will cause His saints to reach it.
Notes for Jack Crabtree
(1) See Romans 9: 22-23. (Back to text)
(2) I John 1: 8-10 (Back to text)
(3) Matthew 7:21 (Back to text)
(4) See Matthew 5:44-45. (Back to text)
(5) It is important to keep in mind the three different ways in which the New Testament speaks of sanctification. On the one hand, “sanctification” refers to an event which has already occurred in the saint’s past. It refers to the divine miracle wherein the divine seed of righteousness is planted in one’s inner being. On the other hand, it refers to the process of maturation wherein that divine seed of righteousness grows and matures over time, transforming the saint’s subjectivity bit by bit, a little at a time. In this latter sense, sanctification is something that is now ongoing in the saint’s life; a process which is now progressing and is not yet completed. This is why the New Testament can move back and forth between referring to sanctification as if it were something which has already occurred and referring to it as a present ongoing process. A helpful analogy might be the way we speak of buying a home. On the one hand, having signed all the legal documents, I can say that I have bought a house even while I still must make payments to a bank that owns a larger share of the house than I do. On the other hand, it makes perfectly good sense to say that I am now buying my home—in the progressive present tense. (Back to text)
(6) See II Corinthians 13:5. (Back to text)
(7) Note, however, II Peter 1:4-11 upon which I comment elsewhere in this paper. Faith is not a sufficient condition for inheriting eternal life if it is not accompanied by other qualities that give evidence the faith is the result of saintly subjectivity rather than the result of some aspect of an evil subjectivity. (Back to text)
(8) The parable of the four soils in Matthew 13 is another passage that seems to be teaching this same concept. (Back to text)
(9) Compare the parable in Matthew 13 where Jesus taught about the tares sown among the wheat. (Back to text)
Notes for Earle Craig
(1) Gerstner, John. The Rational Biblical Theology of Jonathan Edwards, Vol. 1. Orlando: Ligonier Ministries, 1991. (Back to text)
(2) Ibid., p. 84-85. (Back to text)
(3) Ibid., p. 95. (Back to text)
(4) All scripture references are from the New American Standard Bible, copyright The Lockman Foundation. (Back to text)
Copyright April 1992 by McKenzie Study Center, an institute of Gutenberg College.