A friend recently asked my opinion about a famous Bible teacher charged with heresy because of his view of the relationship between faith and good works. Here is the substance of my response:
I’ve spent hundreds of hours researching this very topic (exegetical theology, systematic theology, and historical theology), and I wrote two dissertations relating to this issue and have finally come to believe that most of our Puritan forefathers understood it (or at least expressed it) better than we often do.
The best answer in this case is the simple answer: faith alone saves, but the faith that saves is never alone. We’re not saved by works, yet we are never saved without works. God does not look at our good works and justify us, but justification without good works is spurious.
We cast all of our faith, all of our hope, all of our expectations on the crucified and risen Jesus Christ who loved us, and gave himself for us. He accomplished our salvation at Calvary and from the empty tomb. When we are united him by faith (alone), we’re also united to resurrection victory, and that victory includes — in fact, necessitates — good works. If works are lacking, this omission only proves that we are not united to the crucified and resurrected Lord.
I’ve known people to go way, way into the weeds on this issue and come back no better than when they started — and often worse. Eternal life is not a reward for good behavior, but neither can there be a salvation minus good works.
As simple as it may sound, this is a good summary of precisely what I believe the Bible teaches.
Ours is an age of autonomy (“self-law”). Of course, autonomy has been around since the Fall. What’s different today is that the secular West has created sophisticated rationales for it. It’s not just that man is autonomous; it’s that man should be autonomous, and any other way is unnatural and enslaving. Man hasn’t simply broken free from God’s law; he’s now trying to break free from creation itself.
Transgenderism is one such attempt to vanquish God’s created order. Man’s imagination mustn’t be subject to any constraints. Man has a right to be anything he wants to be, and if anybody gets in the way, that impediment must be legally removed. Male athletes that see themselves as transgendered must be given the right to participate in women’s sports contests. It doesn’t matter than this move disadvantages women: contra-creational rights trump women’s rights.
This autonomy has moved into the church. More churches and ministries are capitulating to so-called same-sex “marriage” and “- attraction.” This includes ministers and churches in such allegedly conservative groups as the Sothern Baptist Convention and the Presbyterian Church in America. The fact that these views and acts are flatly anti-biblical seems not to matter. What’s most important is conforming to what Francis Schaeffer called “forms of the world spirit.” The driving force in Western culture today, postmodernism, unleashed radical autonomy, especially sexual autonomy. It must tower over all else in culture, even in the church.
This is an attack on the very roots of the covenant: that God is the suzerain and we are the vassals. Jesus is Lord, and we are his subjects. This isn’t a decision we make only at conversion. We must make it again every day: will we surrender our will and desires to our King, the one who bought us with his own blood? The great Swiss reformer Heinrich Bullinger’s successor, was correct, therefore, when he declared that
[T]he entire some of piety consists in these very brief main points of the covenant. Indeed, it is evident that nothing else was handed down to the saints of all ages, throughout the entire Scripture, other than what is included in these main points of the covenant…. Compare, if you will, the law, the prophets, and the very epistles of the apostles with these main points of the covenant, and you will discover that all of them return to this center as if to a target.
But we aren’t only oath-bound to God; he’s oath-bound to us. He promises he’ll never leave us or forsake us. Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord (Rom. 8:35f.). And by nothing, I mean nothing. He promises to answer our earnest prayers, meet our greatest needs, give us the strength to defeat the world, the flesh and the Devil. We don’t bow to a weak, ineffectual suzerain. He’s King of kings and Lord of lords. He rules from the heavens and rides on the clouds and accomplishes his will in the earth. No one can thwart his purposes.
If today you feel overwhelmed, weak, impoverished, rudderless, know this: you have a great suzerain, a great King, who is covenantally bound to you. It’s not simply that he might help or might not. He’s willingly tethered himself to you by covenant. He can’t do otherwise. Some things God cannot do, not because he is not all-powerful, but because he has willingly bound himself to his promises. One of those promises is to be perseveringly faithful to you and me as his covenant people. Hold him to his covenant promises. He delights when we remind him of his promises to us, because that shows that we take his word seriously (Is. 45:11; 62:6–7). Take God at his covenant word.
Before the 19th century, the right kind of life was determined by how you conformed to the Bible or to nature or to reason or experience. But after Romanticism, the best life was the life in which you live out what you’re privately believing and feeling. This is the “authentic” life. The “inauthentic” people try to please God or their parents or friends or the wider society’s expectations. The authentic people are “true to themselves.” They “follow their heart.”
It’s Rousseau’s world, and we just live in it
This complete historical inversion started with the strange but influential French thinker Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Almost everybody before Rousseau believed that human society helps man to be better than he could be as an isolated individual. Human institutions like the family and church and the guild (business) elevated human existence. Rousseau turned this idea on its head. He believed that we’re born into the world innocent, free, and happy, but then human society and culture enslave us, dehumanize us, sadden us. The institutions around us like our parents and friends and church and job conspire to chip away at our true, authentic selves. (By the way, in this sense Marx was deeply Rousseauian.) The goal of life is to rip away these social barriers so that we can be truly authentic.
Today we hear this sentiment all the time: “Be true to yourself.” “Bernie Sanders is not a regular politician; he’s authentic.” When rock stars go wild on stage, ripping off their clothes and breaking guitars, we admire them, because they’re expressing what they really are. There’s even a name for this: “expressive individualism.” You validate your unique individualism by expressing yourself, often wildly and bizarrely in public. The idea that it would be better to conform to standards of decency and order, better yet, God’s word, would just be to put a crimp on authenticity.
Authenticity has now become a badge of social status. This is especially true with diet. Think only of the great push for eating only food that is organic, local, and sustainable. If you eat this way, incidentally, I’m in no way criticizing you. I’m criticizing the lust for authenticity on the part of people who don’t merely eat this way, but want to be known as eating this way. In the words of Andrew Potter, it’s a form of “conspicuous authenticity.” It’s a way of distinguishing themselves from the eating habits of the bourgeois, the unenlightened, the common herd.
For this reason, Rousseau himself was the sworn enemy of social convention. Society was made up of a hierarchy, and he hated that. The lower classes deferred to the upper classes. There was bowing and curtseying. Different classes wore different kinds of clothes. Rousseau hated all of that. For him, people should be judged by the intensity of their conviction and feelings. Social convention demanded that people be courteous, use certain conventional language, stand and talk in certain formal ways. Rousseau considered all of this artificial, totally inauthentic. It’s better for people to say exactly what they are feeling on the inside at the time. It’s not just that they could be rude, loud, thoughtless, and overbearing. They should be this way, as long as that’s what they’re authentically feeling.
The lust for spontaneity
This meant, not surprisingly, that romantics prize the spontaneous rather than the planned. If we plan or prepare or premeditate according to certain standards, we’re surrendering to external norms. But if we say and do things spontaneously, in the heat of the moment, we’re authentic. If we write out our prayers beforehand, we’re not being true to ourselves. “Let’s be spontaneous!” In every situation, we must “let it all hang out.”
Faithfulness, therefore, must take a backseat to spontaneity. Quietly attending the Lord’s house week by week and fulfilling your duties to the Lord is boring, formulaic, and inauthentic. The best Christians are those filled with passion, energy, who love to make a public spectacle of their devotion to the Lord.
Sitting here on the eve of the inaugural Runner Academy, I was thinking of the course of Christianity and the cultivation of intellect over the last two and a half centuries.
A common and injurious error at the time of the Enlightenment was for many Christians to assume that the Christian Faith could be defended by autonomous human reason and that Enlightenment presuppositions, properly employed, would lead right back to the doorstep of biblical Faith. This view made more sense in English Enlightenment, which was more conservative than the French Enlightenment, which was radically secular. In both cases, however, it ended with the triumph of autonomous reason, crushing biblical truth and, eventually, everything else in its path. Please read Beiser’s The Sovereignty of Reason for a captivating verification of this historically evident verdict. Christians cannot beat intellectual autonomists at their own game, and they should never try. Rather, they should demonstrate, as Herman Dooyeweerd argued, the radically religious character of all human thought, Christian or non-Christian. Christian thought employs reason in God-honoring ways, and non-Christian thought employs reason in God-defying ways. Reason is not substantive; it is instrumental.
Today, the problem is altogether different. We live in a profoundly anti-intellectual age, in which emotion, intuition, “passion,” and “escape from reason” (Francis Schaeffer) are king. Far from committing themselves to a heightened use of reason and submitting it to the Lord, most Christians are again trying to beat the world at its own game, this time, the game of anti-intellectualism. The notion that the Faith is rigorously reasonable and intellectual frightens many of them, and, in fact, they want nothing to do with such a cognitively rigorous Christianity.
A goal of Runner is not to restore the Enlightenment apostasy of autonomous reason. But neither is it to ape the mindless, passion-laden anti-intellectualism of the postmodern world. Rather, it is to restore the Christian mind, fueled by the Christian heart, the core of man’s being, and of which the mind is an aspect, and inculcate a true Christian world and life view that challenges modern secularism and paganism, both autonomous reason and mindless anti-intellectualism, with the claims of God’s infallible word by the power of the Holy Spirit.
I have been mulling possible reasons why the European nations (e.g., Holland, Germany, GB, France, etc.) have lost the Christian heritage, beliefs, and cultural basis since the Reformation. The US is also on this path, at an alarming rate and accelerating rate. I really don’t have an answer for this. It seems somewhat complicated, there are competing “gods”, and it takes different form in various nations. The French Revolution was a disaster (as far as I know). I once heard that France has never recovered as a world power since then. The Enlightenment pushed the nations into rank humanism. Neo-Darwinism has provided an “reasonable” alternate world view that has lured many away from Christian faith and values.
We visited the maritime provinces in Canada last year and saw churches in every town. Some were still in use, others have become museums, and others are abandoned. One was used to store motorcycle parts. What a tragedy!
I am sure that there are books written on all of this. So…would you be able to recommend something? Or maybe I am mistaken and there really is no comprehensive evaluation of the reasons for the decline Christianity.
Thanks and happy Father’s Day,
I’m sorry this response has taken so very, very long. The question you pose is a difficult one, because I am sure that, historically speaking, there is no single answer.
The general answer is that the West has turned away from the Triune God. Of course, how specifically have we done this? To my mind, there can be no doubt that Enlightenment was the beginning, and it has worked out its relentless, poisonous tentacles in every area of life. Yet I must assert this with a degree of qualification, because the Scholasticism of the Middle Ages laid the groundwork for the Enlightenment, as Roman Catholic historian Christopher Dawson has shown. In other words, the apostasy began in the church (afterward, liberal Protestantism helped it along much earlier than Roman Catholicism did).
Of course, today’s postmodernism and revived paganism embrace very different premises from Enlightennent, but all of them would’ve been impossible apart from Enlightenment.
Perhaps the single best book I’ve read on this topic was not even written by a Christian, but rather by a New Age scholar (yes, there are such people). It is entitledThe Passion of the Western Mindby Richard Tarnas. It reads like a novel, and is a truly remarkable book….
Christian leaders who until the last five years stood for biblical truth and historic orthodoxy are caving in record numbers to what Francis Schaeffer called “forms of the world spirit”: Cultural Marxism (“social justice”), “wokeness,” ideological feminism, same-sex “marriage” and “-attraction,” “Christian socialism,” and upgraded Darwinism. These “thought leaders” among evangelicals, the Southern Baptist Convention, the Presbyterian Church in America, the Gospel Coalition, and numerous churches and other ministries decry “toxic masculinity,” “white privilege,” and the literal historical account of Genesis. Faithful followers, accustomed to trusting their leaders, are unsettled and perplexed. Has the church in the West really been guilty of “systemic racism”? Must Christians accept same-sex desire as normative? Are males simply presumed to be guilty of misusing power with females? Is insisting on the historicity of Adam and Eve a barrier to the Gospel? It’s no wonder so many in the pews are anxious.
Christian leaders can be sincere but misled, there can be little doubt that the
chief impetus behind the current wholesale defection is simply craven
compromise, the desire to curry favor and popularity in an apostate age suckled
on individual autonomy. When leaders change their views on historically (and
biblically) settled issues just a few years after these issues have become
unsettled (and re-settled as apostasy) in the wider culture, we can be confident
that we’re observing compromise, not sincere rethinking. A shift would be more
laudable if it cut against the grain
of the cultural fabric: if, for example, a Christian college president
concluded that his institution should issue a formal declaration repudiating Obamacare,
or that after much prayer a pastor proposes the church amend its statement of
faith to expressly oppose both garden-variety KKK racism as well as Left-wing “affirmative
action” racism. It takes no courage, Francis Schaeffer taught us in the late
60’s, to wear blue jeans as an anti-establishment statement when almost
everybody is wearing blue jeans.
Meanwhile, followers, church members, laypersons, and patrons would be well advised to heed these items of counsel. First, the fact that your leaders change doesn’t mean you must change. The Bible is replete with warnings to errant leaders of godly followers, issued from the old covenant prophets to John the apostle. The calling of leaders is precarious precisely because of their measure of influence (Jas. 3:1). But sheep are not required to follow errant shepherds, and certainly not wolves. Don’t simply assume a pastor or popular speaker is faithful to the Lord. Don’t suppose that the size of his audience (or number of Twitter followers) is the measure of his faithfulness. Examine his (or her!) teaching in light of the Scriptures. If the apostle Paul commended his followers for scrutinizing his own teaching (Ac. 17:10–11), you can be certain that he expected all Christian followers to follow their lead.
Second, don’t be sentimental about institutions. If they leave the Faith, you must leave them. Churches that were once faithful to the Lord have drifted toward heresy (like City Church-San Francisco). Christian ministries that once championed Biblical faith have become little more than social clubs (the Salvation Army is a striking example). Christian colleges and seminaries that began with godly men on their knees wishing to establish a training center for devout young Christians have been gradually infested by unbelief, higher criticism, socialism, Darwinism, and Cultural Marxism. This is true of every Ivy League college, and increasingly true of a number of evangelical colleges and seminaries (like Wheaton and Azusa Pacific). Christians associated with these sorts of churches and institutions sometimes feel a sentimental loyalty: “I’ve been attending here for 40 years, and I feel comfortable.” Or, “My parents are buried in the church cemetery.” Or, “I’m a graduate of this college or seminary and just can’t pull away.” And they allow their sentimentality to blind them to the apostasy before their eyes. Many continue to support this apostasy with their attendance and money. This is wrong. Abandon apostasy and redirect your prayer, time, effort, and money toward orthodox, Bible-believing, uncompromising, culture-reclaiming churches and ministries. The fact that sectarians draw the lines too quickly and narrowly (over denominational distinctives, for example) doesn’t mean there are no lines. There are bold, God-drawn lines, and they must not be crossed.
Don’t Stay Mute
in the Face of Evil
In Ephesians 5:11 Paul writes, “Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them.” We don’t have the luxury of obeying only the first half of that verse. The second half of that verse puts pressure on today’s craven Christianity, which says, “I know that I must avoid sin, and I’ll obey to please God. But other people have to make up their own minds. They’re responsible for their own actions. That’s their business, not mine. I’ll just go about my own life.” But that is precisely what Paul does not say. He commands, first, that we separate ourselves entirely from the works of darkness. He also commands that we expose those works. In other words, it’s not sufficient quietly and covertly to avoid evil. We must overtly expose it. The prime reason that we today find this expectation distasteful is that we have a diminished view of God’s holiness. God deplores sin. It diminishes; it deranges, it destroys, and it damns. Curbing sin is a God-honoring act. We must, of course, curb it first in our own lives, and only then in the lives of others, always charitably; and we must never limit that exposure to the “private” sphere. We must expose cultural evils no less than individual evils. The Bible places a high premium on unity, and we dare not sunder it for “light and transient causes.” But Cultural Marxism, homosexuality, and socialism are not light and transient causes.
Ours is an age of rampant social depravity but, in addition, and even more tragically, pervasive defection within the church. It is analogous to what happened about 100 years ago when Protestant liberalism captured almost all of the mainline denominations in the U.S. and England. We will win the war, but there will be no victory without battles. We must stand charitably, firmly, without rancor, but also without flinching. Remember at all times that our great enemy is Satan and his minions. Soon in eternity we must stand before the Lord. Until then our charge is: Stand your ground in the evil day (Eph. 6:13).
 Francis A. Schaeffer, The Great Evangelical Disaster
(Westchester, Illinois: Crossway, 1984), 111–140.
 Of course, justice ( =
righteousness) should be social, and a culture must be just, according to God’s
moral law, but this is not what most “Social Justice Warriors” mean at all. They are simply Leftists with a pious veneer.
 Francis A. Schaeffer, The Great Evangelical Disaster, 99.
 John Calvin, Commentary on the Epistle of Paul to the
Ephesians in Calvin’s Commentaries
(Grand Rapids: Baker, 1993), 21:310–311.