Beware Under-Realized Soteriologies
Posted on July 5, 2012
I was inspired by a comment by my colleague Dr. Brian G. Mattson to devise the monikers over-realized and under-realized soteriologies (if, unbeknownst to me, someone has beat me to the punch, I hereby grant full credit). I borrow the concept from 20th century debates concerning realized eschatologies (views of the future): to what degree does the eternal, coming Kingdom of God and Christ invade our present, pre-consummation era? If Geerhardus Vos is correct that soteriology (view of salvation) is a species of eschatology, I’m especially on track in extending the language. The question is how much of the “not yet” intrudes into the “already” of the already/not yet Kingdom blessings? To what extend does the glorious future invade the inglorious present?
By over-realized soteriologies I denote those views of salvation that situate too much emphasis on the “already” of salvation. We think right away of perfectionism, of deeper-life devotionalism, and of the prosperity gospel.
Perfectionism is an old error, holding that Christians can gain a sinless status in this life, before the eternal state. The Bible seems obviously to refute this view (Rom. 7:14–24; 1 Jn. 1:8–2:2), despite the fact that it also teaches we can live a life of consistent victory over sin (“consistent” does not equal “perpetual” [Rom. 7:25–8:4]).
Deeper –life devotionalism, much like perfectionism, suggests a second stage of the Christian life beyond justification, forgiveness, adoption and sanctification: some who “go deeper” with the Lord in private sacrifice and devotion can live lives that, if not perfect, rise above the common lot of Christians who struggle daily with the world, the flesh and the devil. The problem here is that it’s hard to locate in the Bible any support for two such diverse classes of Christians. While it is true that Christians are all at different stages of growth in grace, all have been definitely sanctified and none has more access to the benefits of salvation than another.
The prosperity gospel is of more recent vintage. This is the idea that God wants all of his people to be materially prosperous all the time and that if they’re not, they lack faith. This idea is so preposterous that it hardly (but only hardly) needs refutation (anybody remember Job?). While it contains a degree of truth — that long-term obedience elicits long-term material blessing (Dt. 28:1–14) — it absolutizes and therefore oversimplifies a single principle and becomes an error. The eternal state (which will be here on a resurrected earth [Rev. 21:1–4]) will indeed bask in prosperity, but we’re not there yet.
Each of these errors (and others) are examples of over-realized soteriologies.
Then there are their opposite numbers. I’ve already observed how Mark Galli, Managing Editor of Christianity Today, declares that Christians can expect only to “muddle along mired in sin” in the present life. Mark writes in part:
“… I’m pretty pessimistic when it comes to claims that we can be “radically transformed” by the gospel in this life. I believe most of the transformation language in the New Testament is spoken in hope; that is, it refers to our life with Christ at the end of history, when everything will be transformed, root and branch (see Philippians 3:21, for example).
This is very strange. Paul’s point in Romans 6:1–4 is that in union by faith with our Lord’s Cross and resurrection, we are raised to a life of obedience. We are “no longer . . . slaves of sin,” since “he who has died [that is, the one who is united to Jesus] has been freed from sin” (vv. 6–7). Paul proceeds to teach that Jesus’ redemption has liberated us from the power of sin.
Perhaps more compelling is Paul’s breathtaking argument in Romans 8:9–17:
But you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you. Now if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he is not His. And if Christ is in you, the body is dead because of sin, but the Spirit is life because of righteousness. But if the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who dwells in you. Therefore, brethren, we are debtors—not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. For if you live according to the flesh you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of bondage again to fear, but you received the Spirit of adoption by whom we cry out, “Abba, Father.” The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him, that we may also be glorified together. (Emphases supplied)
For Paul, the same Holy Spirit power that raised Jesus from the dead resides with believers and energizes them to live lives dominated by obedience (“righteousness”) and not sin (“the flesh”). To say that we can expect only to “muddle along mired in sin” is to say that the Spirit’s resurrection power is impotent to overcome a life dominated by sin. Paul makes abundantly clear that the same Holy Spirit who raised up Jesus from the dead and will one day raise us up from the dead has presently raised us up from a life of sin to a life of obedience. Future resurrection power is now partially — and powerfully — operative.
Mark cites Philippians 3:21, “[God] will transform our lowly body that it may be conformed to His glorious body, according to the working by which He is able even to subdue all things to Himself.” This is a glorious promise, but it in no way hints that we should expect only to “muddle along mired in sin.”
Similarly, Tullian Tchividjian, Senior Pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church, writes:
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus wants to set us free by showing us our need for a rightness we can never attain on our own–an impossible righteousness that’s always out of our reach. The purpose of the Sermon on the Mount is to demolish all notions that we can reach the righteousness required by God–it’s about exterminating all attempts at self-sufficient moral endeavor.
So, in the deepest sense, the Sermon on the Mount is not a goal, but a wall we crash into so that we finally cry out “I can’t do it!”
This is a remarkable conclusion. Right in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount Jesus declares (Mt. 5:19–20):
Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these [Old Testament] commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.
That is, “I am expecting you to obey my words (as well as the words of the Hebrews Scriptures).” There can be no doubt that without Jesus the Messiah, we can do nothing (Jn. 15:5), but not one shred of evidence exists in the Sermon on the Mount that Jesus is advocating, in Tullian’s words, “an impossible righteousness that’s always out of our reach.” Certainly the Sermon on the Mount is difficult, but for disciples (that is, those empowered by the Spirit), it is not impossible.
How discouraging and disconcerting is Tullian’s teaching that we are powerless to obey Jesus’ commands! What disservice this teaching does to the sin-shattering work of the Cross and the victorious resurrection!
Never Surrender to Under-Realized Soteriologies
If over-realized soteriologies underestimate the present power of sin, under-realized soteriologies underestimate the present power of the Holy Spirit, activated by the redemptive work of Jesus Christ. Under-realized soteriologies comport with a depraved world that beats down Christians and discourages them into assuming that they must simply throw in the towel and wait for the eternal state to get victory over sin. It can also simply be an excuse to disbelieve and disobey. After all, worldly Christians don’t want to work hard to obey God; that’s one factor that makes them worldly Christians — it’s much easier simply to go along with the sinful flow of a depraved culture.
Don’t surrender to the lazy and unbelieving trap of under-realized soteriologies. Jesus died to save you not just from the future penalty of sin (Rom. 3:19–25) but also from the present power of sin (Rom. 6:14).
Salvation means salvation from sin — and although a residue of sin still accompanies us (ergo: over-realized soteriologies are wrong), it has no claim on us and no longer enslaves us (ergo: under-realized soteriologies are wrong).
Ours is a realized soteriology, a present salvation. Battle with sin is a battle you and I can win, by God’s matchless grace.