Upon leaving Christian Philosophy class somewhat perturbed and despairing after having listened to the teachings of Scripture trampled by the philosophies of men again, I came to a sad realization, namely that we as Modern American and Evangelical Christians have absolutely lost the great doctrine of Justification by Faith. I am sure that there are many who are standing by quick to object to such a charge, but I am fully convinced that the justification by faith that we preach today is not the same Justification by Faith that was heralded by the great reformer Martin Luther neither does it resemble anything taught by Christ or the apostles. Additionally, since this great doctrine is by necessity one of the great pillars of the Christian religion, its loss has had profound effects on subservient doctrines, so much so that our tainted minds cannot even begin to fathom the depths of their distortion. I am not quite sure of the goal of my writing this, for I am nearly convinced that we are so blinded by our presuppositions on the matter so as to beyond retrieval. I pray that God might grant grace to me as I write and to you, the reader, as you think upon this most weighty of doctrines.
Justification by Acceptance rather than Justification by Faith
As those who claim to be Evangelical Christians–those who bear the very word Gospel (euangelion) in our self-made title, one would think that we would be quite sure about the Gospel to which we claim such allegiance. Yet in spite of our nominal allegiance, we find in modern Evangelical Christianity in place of the Gospel call given exclusively in Scripture by Christ and the apostles, namely, “Believe and repent!”, there is now almost exclusively the call: “Accept Jesus Christ as your personal Savior, and ask him into your heart.”
What ought to be quite startling is that the phrase we have so endeared—”Accept Jesus Christ as your personal Savior” is never used by anyone in the New Testament. Never. And this is not merely a point of semantics, for “accepting Jesus Christ” and “believing in Jesus Christ” are not synonymous phrases. In fact, they are quite different, and its shift is indicative of the philosophical shift that has occurred within the Western Church.
The Propagation of Free-Will Philosophy
If you think just for a second about the differences between “accepting” something and “believing in” something, it becomes quite apparent why the shift in language has changed from that of the Bible and the reformers. “Accepting” something by necessity demands an act of the will. It is an exertion. It is a work. It, in its connotation, is an evaluation of possible choices and choosing that which is most advantageous to the soul. In the case of modern evangelism, it is demonstrating to a person that life with Jesus is better than life without Jesus and to convince that person to say a prayer that “seals the deal” and causes the Holy Spirit give birth to him. The great majority of modern evangelism works in this way, be it done in “Hell, fire, and brimstone” presentations or in pretty tracts that purport an abundant life in Christ.
On the other hand, faith or belief in something is quite different from accepting something. Faith is not an exertion of the will. Faith is not a choice. It is a natural ascent to that which is true because one knows it to be true. For example, one believes that the sun will rise in the morning, because he has experienced a sunrise every day of his life and thereby knows that it will rise again. Faith in Jesus Christ is no different than faith in the rising sun. One believes that Jesus Christ is Lord because he has experienced Jesus Christ. He believes in Jesus Christ because Christ had shown himself to him. Just as Paul on the Damascus road saw Christ because Christ burst out of heaven and revealed himself to him, and then Paul by necessity believed, so God shines “in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2Cor. 4:6), and we believe.
Faith, therefore, is by its nature a natural reaction to a supernatural revelation. Just as a tap on the knee with a rubber hammer produces a reflexive kick, so God’s revelation of himself to a man creates in that man faith.
For this very reason, Scripture does not hesitate to say at some times that a man is justified by faith and at others that he justified by the work of Christ. For faith is not work that adds to the work of Christ, but it is the natural reaction of the revelation to our hearts that God has set us apart for himself through Jesus Christ. The apostle calls this action by God the “circumcision of the heart by the Spirit” in Romans 2:29, for we who were once far off have been brought under the Covenant and set apart for holiness and obedience through the work of Christ so that he might be the firstborn of many brothers (cf. Rm. 8:29).
Acceptance: Making Faith a Work
As we discussed earlier, the great difference between “acceptance” and “faith” is that the former is an exertion by reason and the latter is an affirmation of what one sees and experiences. The shift in language from the biblical and reformational “Believe and repent” to the present “Accept Jesus as your personal Savior” is an accommodation to human philosophy not to greater understanding of biblical truth. Our post-Enlightenment and American minds are so destroyed by our thoughts of liberty and pursuits of happiness that we cannot begin to grasp doctrines that teach otherwise. So instead of being transformed by the renewal of our minds by Holy Scripture (cf. Rm. 12:2), we are conformed to the philosophies of this world and attempt to ram the triangular peg of Scripture through the square hole of human philosophy.
Therefore in today’s context, faith is no longer a meritless assent to the work of the Almighty, but it is the work of our souls “to get right” with God. Despite clear teachings to the contrary, we explain away texts that do not fit our philosophies (and never explain them for that matter), or we avoid them altogether. We then take the analogies and pictures that Scripture gives us to show our whole dependence of God, and we twist them so as to make us the meritors rather than the meritees. If, for example, we were confronted by Nicodemus today and were asked to give instruction as to how the old man might be born again, we would not answer like Christ, who said “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (Jn. 3:8), but we would say, “Accept Jesus as your personal Savior, and then you will be born again.” You know, just as we accepted our parents as our personal parents before we were born the first time around.
For this reason, we cannot comprehend what the apostle writes in Romans 3, “Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith. For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law (vv. 27, 28). We cannot comprehend this saying, because we can boast in what we call “faith.” If faith is truly looking at the option of Jesus Christ and looking at other options and accepting Jesus as our Savior on our own accord, then we do have something to boast in. We can say of ourselves, “We were more intuitive than those who do not believe,” “We are more predisposed to godliness than unsaved Jane over there,” “We are just smarter than every atheist that is on the planet,” etc. But if faith is, as John Piper put it, merely the cry of a newborn child of God, then we have as much reason to boast in our faith and salvation as a newborn has in crying and being born.
Next: The Doctrinal Ramifications of the Death of Justification by Faith