Upon what does salvation ultimately depend? On our faith in and acceptance of Jesus as our Savior or on the good works that follow faith? This is such a well-worn question in Seventh-day Adventist circles that the answer may seem obvious. Once we accept Christ as our Savior, we will want to do His will, even if our good works aren't what save us. We cannot possibly earn salvation, but we do express our loyalty and commitment to Christ by seeking, with God's help, to walk in Jesus' footsteps.
But there's one problem. Biblical passages that deal specifically with judgment tell us that we are judged by our behavior. Not one passage says explicitly that we are judged by our faith in Christ, with good works trailing after.
Isaiah 59:18: "According to their deeds, accordingly he will repay." Jer. 17:10: "To give every man according to his ways,... and according to the fruit of his doing." Micah 6:8: "What doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?" Ezekiel 7:3: "I will judge thee according to thy ways." Matthew 10:42: "Whosoever shall give... a cup of cold water... he shall in no wise lose his reward." Matthew 16:27: "He... shall reward every man according to his works." Matthew 19:17: "If thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments." John 5:29: "And [they] shall come forth; they that have done good, unto the resurrection of life." John 14:21: "He that hath my commandments, and keepeth them, he it is that loveth me:—and I will love him." Acts 10:35: "In every nation he that feareth him, and worketh righteousness, is accepted with him." 1 Corinthians 3:8: "Every man shall receive his own reward according to his own labor." Galatians 6:9: "Let us not be weary in well doing: for in due season we shall reap, if we faint not." 1 Peter 1:17: "'Who without respect of persons judgeth according to every man's work." Revelation 2:23: "I will give unto every one of you according to your works." Revelation 14:12: "Here are they that keep the commandments of God and the faith of Jesus." Revelation 20:12,13: "And the dead were judged ... according to their works." Revelation 22:14: "Blessed are they that do his commandments, that they may have right to the tree of life."
How shall we harmonize these passages, which emphasize works, especially in the judgment setting, with an equally formidable list of verses that emphasize the role of faith?
Reconciling the two positions
The task of reconciling the seemingly divergent positions is possible if we recognize two central facts: (1) God is just; (2) A great majority of those who have lived and died either never heard of Christ or didn't hear enough to evaluate His claims. This majority includes all the world's population before Christ was born and most of it since His birth. Even today, with all the technological advances in communication, the majority of the human race has not yet been exposed to gospel.
Are all those who never heard the name of Jesus to be lost? How could they be held responsible for not having faith in Christ and yielding their hearts to One whom they have never heard of? Would we expect this from a God who, surely, is more just than any human being?
I have heard innumerable sermons and read innumerable articles proclaiming faith in Christ as crucial to salvation but which pass over this significant theological dilemma.
There is one way, I believe, that the doctrine of righteousness by faith can be reconciled with judgment by works. God is the source and inspiration for all that is good. He speaks through the Scripture and through the Holy Spirit. If those who have never heard of Christ respond to His Spirit as it speaks to them, a judgment based on behavior gives them the same opportunity for salvation as those who accepted the good news when it came to them. Does justice demand anything less?
Consider those who believe that faith in Jesus as their Savior qualifies them for salvation, with the understanding that such a profession will lead to appropriate behavior. Now, take a look at the religious landscape of America. Between 36 and 40 percent of Americans are churchgoers. A high percentage of these regard themselves as "born again" Christians. Most may accept Jesus as the Son of God who died for their sins; most, doubtless, believe in Him as their Savior. They are not insincere in this belief, even if their general behavior and lifestyle are little different from that of the average, decent, law-abiding unbeliever. If no one knew that they attended church, they would have little or no reason to suspect that they were Christians.
"Accepting Christ" must mean more, therefore, than mere verbal profession, church attendance, Bible reading, liberal giving, engaging in prayer, and active witnessing. The test of Christian commitment is not how much we attend church or read the Bible or pray but how we behave when not doing these things. This radical perspective meshes the teachings of Jesus with biblical verses about the judgment. Unless "accepting Jesus" significantly affects our total behavior, professing faith in Him is just sounding brass and tinkling cymbals. So if Christians, too, are judged by their behavior, that behavior demonstrates whether their acceptance of Christ was merely superficial verbiage or whether it penetrated to the core of their being. Thus the behavior criterion becomes equally applicable to persons who affirm they are Christian as to those who, whether wholly or largely ignorant of the good news, nevertheless welcome the quiet promptings of the Holy Spirit in their lives (See Romans 2:12-16.) God's justice prevails in either life, and Satan cannot accuse God of unfairness.
Meaning of Christian behavior
Christian behavior, at its fullest, means more than is commonly recognized. In addition to loving our neighbors as ourselves, it means loving our enemies. It involves respecting all of the Ten Commandments and being honest and truthful in matters great and small. It means being a good listener and being as courteous to the "little people" as to "important people." It avoids profanity and obscenity and has the humility to admit personal faults and the fallibility of our opinions. It manifests sexual integrity in all aspects of our living. It maintains a simple lifestyle so as to give generously to relieve human suffering and spread the gospel. It has the ability to meet adversity with a measure of cheerfulness and a continuing trust in God. Of course, no one fully lives up to all these Christian attributes, but unless our behavior is different from that of unbelievers, being a Christian is a rather empty way of life.
Few pastors stress the full spectrum of Christian behavior. They may emphasize kindness and compassion. But if they speak of sacrificial living or if they condemn non-marital sex and divorce, they will make many parishioners so uncomfortable that some may migrate to churches that tell them what they prefer to hear. As a result of these omissions, churchgoers are often comfortable with an undemanding lifestyle that makes little noticeable difference.
Some will protest that no one can live "good enough" to deserve eternal life. They are right. But by responding to God's Spirit when He speaks (through Scripture, sermons, individual influences, or through direct communication), we become objects of God's eternal grace and mercy. Our lives can reveal a spirit of obedience and a willingness to be led of God that places us where we may become the beneficiaries of God's eternal grace. God will not, however, extend that grace to those who spurn Him or His spirit.
How "good" must one's behavior be to merit God's ultimate mercy? No one can answer that question but God, who alone knows the heart and its predominant desire to seek what is good and right or its tendency to give primacy to hedonism, social acceptance, pride, selfishness, and greed.
God will take account, of course, of our genetic endowment and social environment. Both these help determine our behavior, as well as our inclination toward faith. Some have a temperament and disposition that from birth incline them toward friendly, helpful, and constructive conduct; others have a rebellious spirit manifested at an early age. Some recognize their own specific sins more readily than do others; some fail more often but repent more freely. Only God can judge fairly, given all the diverse behavioral conditioning factors that exist.
It seems reasonable, therefore, to believe that God will receive into His eternal kingdom those who, given the best they knew and the genetic and environmental cards with which they were dealt, made obedience to His will the most important goal in their life.
But for those who nevertheless believe that the acceptance of Jesus and faith in Him overrules all the influence of obedience, works, and behavior and provides a single judicial criterion for determining our final fate, the question becomes, How much and what kind of faith must a believer have?
Faith ranges from a child's simple trust to Jesus' despairing cry, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" Our concern is not that we have faith or don't have faith. Faith exists on a continuum. Faith comes more easily to people with certain types of intellect and temperament than to others. This is a puzzling but indubitable phenomenon. Even for believers, faith fluctuates. It may flicker, then flame up, then fade, then revive. And do any of us doubt that faith faces far less resistance from those raised in Christian homes than those from devout Jewish or Muslim homes? Will God not take all this into account—by ultimately judging by some standard other than simply "faith in Christ?"
All of us must be cautious about quoting a verse, or a collection of verses, to "prove" a point. A single verse or even several verses strung together can be used to "prove" heresy. It is essential, then, in interpreting Scripture, to consider all verses that bear upon a given subject, to weigh them and their relationship to one another, as well as to consider their context. Jesus' teachings and example can settle most controversies. These principles won't always provide full agreement, even for conscientious and open-minded scholars, but they do of course throw definitive light on our questions and understandings.
This concept is especially important when dealing with faith and works. Often we seize upon certain verses congenial to our theological tastes while ignoring or soft-pedaling verses that challenge a cherished view. None of us is immune to this tendency.
Paul and Luther
A further observation concerning background history may shed light on the issue of righteousness by faith. Paul stressed this theme because the Jews had placed so much rigid emphasis on the letter of the law. And the law they stressed involved minutiae pertaining to ritual observances having little or nothing to do with such virtues as love, kindness, and mercy. Does anyone really believe Paul would have written as he did about righteousness by faith if the theological thought leaders of his day were health fully insisting on the importance of faith, love, and good works? Surely he was responding to a tragic misreading of God's will for human life. By stressing justification by faith as he did, he was weaning new Jewish believers away from centuries of theological misconception. If what might seem to be an overemphasis on faith (in some but by no means all of Paul's writings), Paul was looking for the best way to bring about the radical reevaluation he knew to be so needful in the Jewish-Christian mind.
Similarly, Martin Luther was reacting to Roman Catholic preoccupation with rituals, relics, indulgences, purgatory, the invocation of saints, and Mariolatry. If the Catholic Church had been emphasizing the importance of faith, love, kindness, forgiveness, etc. as "works" of obedience, would Luther have preached as he did? Certainly not.
Similarly, recent Seventh-day Adventist stress on righteousness by faith involving a certain neglect of specific obedience may well be an overreaction to a traditional legalistic emphasis on obedience in Adventism's past. A moderate reaction would have been salutary, but once again the pendulum had swung too far. For many writers and pastors today, obedience in the best sense of the word is often viewed as a footnote to God's love, mercy, compassion, and forgiveness.
The recent trend, it should be added, also seems to correspond to the post modern theological drift throughout Protestantism toward de-emphasizing obedience while dwelling on the theme of God's love and mercy. Pastors, in these member-competitive times, are closely attuned to the sensitivities of the pew.
Whatever our reaction to the line of thought presented here, it is hardly deniable that the times and trends of today's church and today's world certainly call for some careful thinking and reevaluating of our positions in this well traveled yet crucial arena of theology and behavior.