In church we are going through a video curriculum by Tim Keller, on the subject of grace (Gospel in Life: Grace Changes Everything). I am a fan of Keller in general; I have heard some sermons and both Amy and I got a lot out of his book The Meaning of Marriage. This DVD series has been rubbing me the wrong way from from the first session, however. Church services not being the best places to express these disagreements, here we go…

Keller is working from an understanding of the Gospel that I think is fairly typical in evangelical and Reformed circles. He says that there are basically three options in life: the Gospel, the irreligious way of rejecting the Gospel, and the religious way of rejecting the Gospel. The Gospel is that God has accepted us graciously, of His own accord, and quite independently of anything that we have done or can do. The irreligious way of rejecting the Gospel is to simply not believe in that: atheism, agnosticism, or whatever other -ism you please. Then finally the religious way of rejecting the Gospel is to ignore God’s gracious act of accepting us by trying to earn our own salvation through doing good works.

Even as I write that out, it’s seems so obvious from an evangelical Christian perspective that I’m a little surprised that I disagree with it. Part of it is, certainly, that one of Keller’s major applications is to challenge people about their reasons for trying to obey God and do good works: are you doing that to try to win God’s approval—or to manipulate Him into doing what you want—or are you doing it simply out of a renewed inner nature? I think that leads people into endless cycles of self-doubt regarding their own sincerity, which is a nasty thing to do to a person. Anyone in this world making an effort toward good works and sanctification should, in my opinion, be patted on the back rather than smacked down with an accusation of having impure motives.

Moreover, I wonder whether any of us ever do anything for a single reason. I don’t take my kids for a walk, or to a museum, without intending to have a good time myself. I don’t even eat a meal without “mixed motives” of desiring fellowship, needing nourishment, and the sensual enjoyment of the food itself. Things can certainly be done for the wrong reasons, but I doubt even then there is a single motivation. So then, to hold anyone hostage to purity of intention seems, if not mean-spirited, then at least deeply unfair. That’s a personal reaction. But being who I am, there of course needs to be a more reasoned critique.

To begin with, I wonder whether many people are in fact concerned about earning their salvation—which, for now, let us take to refer to ending up in Heaven rather than Hell. I think that this was very much the concern of Martin Luther, who launched us down this path. But I suspect that on the whole most people are not tortured by the incompatibility between their sins and the holiness of God. Instead, I would imagine that most people are indifferent to the consequences of their sin—and I think that is true of Christians and non-Christians alike.

But this reading goes against the grain of the Reformation-influenced understanding of the Gospel, which contrasts a works-based righteousness that comes from obedience to the Law, with a faith-based righteousness that comes through the work of Christ. The message of the Gospel then becomes something like, “Stop trying to earn approval by obeying God, and try instead to accept that God has accepted you, on the basis of Christ’s work.” Suffice it to say that such a conception of salvation does not lend itself to a particularly robust theology of justification.

Almost as an aside, I was impressed by a Catholic critique I heard one time, that this approach to justification merely replaces the insecurity people feel over having done enough good works, to an insecurity over whether they believe sincerely enough. I believe that this critique is correct to dissociate the feeling of insecurity from a particular theological belief. I have often said to myself, and I believe I have said to groups, that if you’re worried about earning your salvation, the problem isn’t your theology, it’s your relationship with your father.

The alternative to this conception of the Gospel is to understand that Christ came to perfectly fulfill the vocation of Israel, and that by being incorporated into Christ, we become part of the true Israel, the true people of God. Books are written about this, but a few adjustments to our understanding of key terms can be mentioned. The key starting point is to observe that all of the places that Paul discusses salvation through faith in Christ, apart from the works of the Law (Romans, Galatians, Ephesians) are places where he is explicitly concerned with the relationship between Jews and Gentiles. So the question is not the means by which we are justified—obviously, the people of God will be justified by God—but whether the badge of membership in the people of God is the works of the Law (such as circumcision of kosher restrictions) or faith in Jesus Christ. This conception also helps us to understand why Paul is so positive about the Law, while being so negative about Israel: because it is not the Law that failed, but Israel that failed to keep the Law. I find this argument basically convincing, though I would not expect this paragraph alone to convince anybody.

But if that conception of justification is accepted for moment, then it becomes easy to understand Luther’s preoccupation with the (supposed) dichotomy between faith and works as a product of his own background as a monk and—one cannot help but observe—as a child of a very demanding father. Luther really could have had that emotional baggage to deal with; I don’t think that most people do.

As I mentioned briefly, salvation is often equated in evangelical circles with justification, which is in turn associated with getting into Heaven. (I will assume in faith that we are all on the same page in believing in the Resurrection, with Heaven being understood in the Revelation 21 sense of God-with-humanity-on-Earth.) That is a very narrow conception of salvation, because it neglects the spiritual formation of individuals. We come to new life completely ill prepared for new life, and completely unable to live the kinds of lives that we need to live. Apart from an emotional high at the beginning of faith, sanctification is a long, hard slog. I like to imagine my assurance of justification as a free ticket to participate in a marathon: it’s wonderful to be accepted, but the truth is that I’ve never run more than two miles at a time in my life.

I’m not worried about going to Hell: I’m worried about going to Heaven. My natural self-absorption make me an ideal resident of Hell. But I have none (or, shall I say to avoid false modesty, far too little) of the virtue, character, wisdom, knowledge, and graciousness to fit me for Heaven. Let us set aside the grotesque parodies of Dante, and assume that somehow at Death everything wicked in me evaporates, and that I am saved, though through fire. Even a generous assessment of the state of my soul suggest that what will be left is a cinder with a name tag.

And this is of course of course to say nothing of the work we have to do here on Earth, and how we need to be formed properly before we can accomplish it.

(These concepts are described very clearly in Dallas Willard’s Renovation of the Heart and, in a less focused presentation, The Divine Conspiracy. A reference in the latter lead me to A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life by William Law, which is probably the best book on spiritual formation I have read so far—I hope to review it soon in this space. A memorably provocative claim in The Divine Conspiracy is that Christians who trust Christ’s death for their salvation while making no effort to put His teachings into practice, act as if Christ were an idiot who didn’t actually know very much about life.)

To bring this to a conclusion then, I certainly acknowledge that striving to obey God can arise out of a manipulative or transaction understanding of salvation—though I do not believe that this is anywhere near as prevalent as is commonly assumed. I believe moreover that there is an entirely appropriate emotional reaction of personal inadequacy when we consider the high calling of Christ—as expressed, say, in the Sermon on the Mount, or even in one of Paul’s throwaway lines on how we should behave. The feeling of inadequacy comes from genuine inadequacy. The negative emotion is of course offset by Christ’s finished work, and the continuing encouragement that we have both from Scripture and the community of faith. All of it needs to come together to motivate us to continue in good works for the reason that Paul endorses in Romans 2:7, to seek glory, honor, and immortality.