Tuesday, September 28, 2010

We Are Not Saved By Law

Today I want to start a short series of posts that look more closely at a very common line of reasoning that I hear quite regularly in conversations with Armstrongists. I am going to break the whole reasoning into parts and deal with the parts one by one. It starts like this:

"We are not saved by law, we are saved by grace through the shed blood of the Messiah."

In every way, this sentence, taken alone, is directly in agreement with mainstream Christianity. It is absolutely a true statement. Unfortunately, this sentence cannot be taken alone because of what is left unsaid.

See, most Armstrongists have a great understanding of what parts of the law they keep, not so great an understanding of the law they don't keep, and little understanding of what it means to be saved. The differences between justification, salvation, and glorification were never once discussed in all my years in the organization. In fact, most think they are not saved... yet. 

"Saved" and "forgiven" are very much confused one for the other. To put this first part of the reasoning into understandable words so that most mainstream Christians could understand what the thinking really is, we would have to change it to this: "We are not forgiven by law, we are forgiven by grace through the shed blood of the Messiah,"
It's an accurate statement, but why would we have to change it like that? Because, as I said, most Armstrongists do not believe they are saved at this time. They do not believe anyone is saved until they have lived a full life in this age and died, then Jesus will return and resurrect the faithful. That is the time when they will know if they are saved or not. If they find themselves resurrected to glory, then they were saved. If not, then not. Right now they just believe they are temporarily forgiven, and live under terms of a flimsy sort of law-based grace.

Armstrongists believe that Jesus came to die to forgive us for past sins, and now we live under a sort of on-again-off-again grace where our present sins will be forgiven if we ask, but God's grace is not permanent! It only lasts until the next sin. After the next sin, there is no sacrifice of Christ for you until you repent once again and ask God for forgiveness. (Better ask quickly!)

No one in this system is ever truly certain that they have received forgiveness, however, because the forgiveness is contingent upon performance. Adherence to the law is the very essence of repentance. An attempt to keep portions of the law must be made to prove to God that one is repentant, then God will forgive only after He sees this effort. But if forgiveness is contingent upon performance, and here you are asking for forgiveness for your poor performance, then how can you ever be certain you've received forgiveness?
Why would lack of confidence in works-based forgiveness surprise the reader, seeing as though this system believes salvation itself will be a surprise when Jesus returns? Can forgiveness truly be less of a surprise than salvation? If you believe that you are not saved at this time, how can you know if you are truly forgiven at this time?

I take exception to this whole notion. Forgiveness is not earned. No one needs forgiveness because we keep a law, but because we've broken it. No one received forgiveness because we have kept a law, but because a merciful God knows we have not. 

The forgiveness is not like the law-keeping - temporary and partial and begrudging. The forgiveness is permanent and true and freely given, undeservedly. The sins are removed as far as the east is from the west, and what was red as scarlet is now white as snow. Permanently!

The astute observer would say, "What is being described by the Armstrongist system isn't grace at all. It's legalism. It's earning forgiveness by works!" And that would be absolutely correct!
The system is legalistic to its core. Only those who keep a certain list of laws will be saved, and all who do not will be condemned. All Herbert Armstrong did was try to fit that round peg of Old Covenant legalism into the square hole of New Covenant grace. He justified sitting on a fence between the two Covenants, fulfilling neither. 
BUT none of this applies inside the mind of the adherent of this system. You see, the adherent holds two opposing views at the same time. This is a condition known as "cognitive dissonance." At one and the same time they do not believe their law-keeping is earning anything, while they also believe law-keeping must be done or Jesus won't forgive. It's more or less semantics. The word "earn" is tossed out in favor of "prove." "We aren't earning," they might say, "we are proving our repentance." But it still misses the point entirely.

I need to compare and contrast a few things, or I feel this idea could be missed. The point of the Gospel is that salvation and forgiveness cannot be earned or proved by our own means, thus God stepped in and did what we cannot do. The "good news" is that these things were completed. The ransom is paid and the breach is healed. This is the foundational Christian message.
Just look at the concept of proving anything to God. God already knows what is in our hearts. Even so, who proves? You do! Where is the focus, then? On you, and your efforts! The idea of needing to perform works of law to prove something to God literally un-does the underlying point of the Gospel.

The focus is not on the redemptive work of God and His Holy Spirit changing the heart by His holy presence in us by faith, but on our own rote repetition of an external code that can never truly change the heart. The focus is not on God's presence making holy, but on our efforts making holy through law-keeping. The focus is not on grace by faith alone (both grace and faith being gifts of God). The focus is not on the light of Christ. The focus is not on the fruits of the Spirit being shared with the needy, but adherence to some law to save our own hides. The focus is not on God's perfection, but our imperfection and our frustrated incapacity to be perfect. The focus is not on love, it's on fear. The focus is not on the desire of God to heal and save a hopeless world that He so loves that He sent His only Son, no, it's on some unreasonable need to pay penance and placate an angry God.
Indeed the thrust of the whole teaching is on the idea that you've been given a reprieve from death, so you'd better be very thankful and not mess up again... but if you do, you'd better be plenty fearful and appease God by demonstrations of false piety through partial-lawkeeping, because He's going to come and destroy all who don't. The truth is that again and again we would hear the word "qualify" spoken from the pulpit in tandem with this fearful version of salvation. But we never knew if we had qualified or not. And in the light of this reality, we can see that we were indeed attempting to earn something with God!

Now that we have a better idea on what is meant when the word "salvation" is used, and that the idea is grossly flawed and uncertain, we need to consider what true salvation entails. Let us start by asking, "Just what do you mean, 'saved'?" 
Does salvation mean:

a) "Ehhhh, kinda less out of trouble than before, but still on some cosmic hit-list"?
b) "Safe for the moment, but as soon as I stumble again, all my sins are again in the spotlight and I am un-saved"?
c) "God has done what He said and totally taken all my sin on Himself in order to redeem me even though I deserve none of it; I have really, genuinely been granted salvation"?

Despite what is said in this first part of the reasoning, what goes on in the deepest heart of an adherent to the Armstrongist view of salvation can be summed up in one word: "IF". And that word, if we are completely honest with ourselves, will always lead an Armstrongist to answer that question with b).
Where is the Rock? Where is the Sure Foundation?? The words "if" and "qualify" are a house on sand! Of course Jesus Christ is a sure foundation, but knowing that He is a sure foundation, important as it is, does nothing if we're not building on that foundation. We can recognize the sure foundation and yet insist on building our house on the shifting sand. We can cry "Lord, Lord" and miss out on salvation because we refuse to do what He says. And He says to build on the sure foundation. He says to have faith! The pivotal idea is that the foundation is sure for us now! If we're not sure, then something is wrong -- and that something is called "lacking faith." In other words, if we're that uncertain then we don't really trust Jesus, do we?

Inherent in the very idea of salvation is the concept of permanence. When we are saved, we are saved! We are not maybe saved in the future at some uncertain time, we are saved because of our faith in what Jesus did 2,000 years ago. Jesus did what He said He would do. He said "It is finished." He did it! There is nothing tenuous about this. There is nothing unreliable or uncertain or unsteady. To simplify the idea with an example, let's compare this to a kitten in a tree. If you save a cat from a tree, then that cat is saved from the tree. End of story. There is no exception that stipulates the cat must never climb again or it will be left there forever. The cat was unconditionally brought down. It was brought down, not because it deserved it, but despite the fact that it could not deserve it. It was not brought down because it showed a desire to get down on its own, but because it could not make it down on its own. The cat was not required to climb half way down to earn being brought the rest of the way. The cat was saved. Period. If anything, all the cat had to do was not kill itself or climb away from your reach. The cat is saved, and the same conditions apply even if the cat goes up the same tree again (hopefully it has learned its lesson). But the cat did not get itself stuck willfully, nor does it climb up again out of spite. It does what cats do. And humans sin because by nature we are imperfect. God knows this.

Here is where I will get complaints about promoting "once saved always saved." Armstrongism is vehemently contrary to Calvinism. I am not arguing here for Five Point Calvinism, or any other system for that matter. All I am saying is that even those who come to grace and stipulate that we always have the option of wilfully walking away from God and knowingly turning to evil and purposefully losing our salvation have still come to grace, and still stand unwaveringly firm in that grace. Of course they think it absurd that anyone who has tasted grace would make such a ludicrous decision to intentionally walk away from it. But the Armstrongist system barely even tastes grace, never completely trusts, and clearly has no sense of permanence in their view of salvation.
To most mainstream Christians, this view of "salvation" appears wholly unsavory. Why would anyone choose to follow this system? We at ABD have speculated on that for some time now, and all we can conclude is fear and pride. There was deceit, of course, deceit which counts on our Biblical and historical ignorance, but the deceit feeds on fear and pride. The fear ropes people into the system, and the pride prevents them from leaving it. There is fear of death, fear of disappointing God, fear of prophetic Tribulation that is never more then "three to four years away", fear of being part of an erroneous religious system, and a host of other fears. The pride is the real kicker. The pride comes in when we were told over and over that we were the "one true church" and "the elect" - a group of hand-selected representatives of the correct system of worshipping the true God, which system had been hidden from the world by Satan and only now in the last days was being revealed to the elect by God's Apostles, and all we had to do was cling to this system of laws until we die and the world would worship us because we were going to become Gods as God Himself is God. Whether born into the system or roped in, we were all of us governed by fear and pride.
However that system turns out to be a cherry-picked selection of Old Covenant laws that violates the true Gospel of grace by faith and leads to little else than false pride and frustrated failure. Pride is perhaps the greatest challenge to this site; how do we get through to people who believe they are already as correct as anyone can be and who abhor the very idea that "Maybe I am wrong."

To round out this post, I would like to mention the Rich, Young Ruler of Matthew 19.
It never ceases to amaze me that every time I go over this topic, someone turns to Matthew 19 and makes this claim:
"When the rich, young ruler in Matthew 19 asked Jesus what he had to do to be saved, Jesus replied '...if you want to enter into life, keep the commandments' (v. 17). Then Jesus lists specific commandments to verify that He was referring to the 10 Commandments. So we have to keep the 10 Commandments in order to enter into life."

On the surface, that would be a fine idea. We at ABD have nothing deeply against keeping the 10 Commandments, even a seventh-day Sabbath. It's when we use the 10 Commandments as a weapon to judge and condemn others (or themselves) that the problem comes in.
But let's look at these verses more closely, because this quote didn't happen in a vacuum. Let's be certain we are not proof-texting, because if it were so simple as "keep the Ten Commandments" then why did Jesus have to come and die for our sins? Why weren't the Jews saved from Sinai? The Pharisees were exceedingly strict about law-keeping, why weren't they saved? Why is the COG7 and the SDA churches not also saved? For that matter, why aren't the Seventh Day Baptists saved? They all keep the 10 Commandments. And why did the conversation between Jesus and this young man continue?

The young man replied to Jesus, "All these things I have kept from my youth" (v. 20).
If it were so simple as "keep the Ten Commandments" then we would be done right here. Salvation achieved. Right? He kept them, did he not? Is that not precisely the argument Armstrongists are arguing when they claim "So we have to keep the 10 Commandments in order to enter into life"?

Of course it's not. What's left unsaid is more important than what was said. It's never just the Ten Commandments. The list always grows and grows. Armstrongism also teaches three tithes, seven Holy Days, seven Holy Day Offerings, adherence to clean/unclean meats laws, and various other regulations and laws, and then there had to be the right name for the church, and then the right Apostle. The legalistic requirements grow and grow! To which we always ask "If these laws are so vital to salvation, then why don't you keep the law?"

And Jesus continued "sell all you have and give to the poor" (v. 21). And how did the man react? He went away (v. 22).
Clearly the idea is nowhere near as simple as "keep the Ten Commandments."
But let's not overlook the incredibly important point that all of this happened before Jesus died, and He is speaking in terms of the Old Covenant, toward the people of the Old Covenant, during the period of the Old Covenant. The New Covenant had not come in yet. We have gone over the concept of the Covenants several times on ABD, and I won't do it again here. Look in the FAQ or the Categories page for more info on this. Suffice it to say that Armstrongism is an attempt to blend the Covenants. No one can place New wine into Old wineskins, or put an unshrunk patch on Old cloth (MAT. 9: 16-17). It ruins both!

Do we think the man's reaction came as a surprise to Jesus? Absolutely not! Jesus knew this man's life story before he opened his mouth. Jesus knew he had kept the 10 Commandments. Jesus knew he would go away before he introduced himself. This story only exists to glorify God, not to promote law-keeping (much less partial law-keeping). We need to read on and see what the point of this conversation was. You see, Jesus was teaching His disciples a lesson, not this young man.

(MAT. 19: 25-26) 25 When His disciples heard it, they were greatly astonished, saying, “Who then can be saved?” 26 But Jesus looked at them and said to them, “With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”

Jesus didn't say, "With men it is possible, somewhat." Jesus didn't say, "With men it can become possible if you keep trying long enough." Jesus didn't say, "With men it is possible if only they keep the Ten Commandments." No, he said, "With men it is impossible." In other words, the rich, young man was about as cream of the crop as there was, and even with him it was impossible. The Ten Commandments were never going to save him. All of the law-keeping in the world cannot save a one of us. The rich and powerful? Forget it. This astounded the disciples. "Who then can be saved?" they exclaimed!

No one by any effort of their own can add one ounce of salvation to themselves, or add one iota to what Jesus did for us. It is absolutely correct to claim "We are not saved by law, we are saved by grace through the shed blood of the Messiah." If only people believed that! If only people trusted that!

Next time I plan to continue this line of reasoning and look at the Armstrongist view of repentence.

It is important that you understand; Everything on this blog is based on the current understanding of each author. Never take anyone's word for it, always prove it for yourself, it is your responsibility. You cannot ride someone else's coattail into the Kingdom. ; )
Acts 17:11


Heidi Korthuis said...

To me, when I read these scriptures in Matthew about when the apostles questioned Jesus on "who can then be saved", it is also showing me another example of Jesus teaching the apostles that the new covenant has emerged.

What a well written insightful article. Thank you!

xHWA said...

Hi Mission!
Thanks for commenting and sharing your insights with us.

We, of course, pass all credit to the One to whom it is due. But thanks for the compliment.

Oh, if only people would understand the differences between the two Covenants. The Old is gone. GONE gone. Not mostly here. That understanding alone would clear up so much.
I think the problem is so complex, and so different for so many people. There's not one article that can answer everyone's questions.

Do stop in again, and keep sharing your thoughts with us. :)

Jack Wellman said...

This is so true. I came out of the Worldwide Church of God (Armstrongism) but they have reformed, although I am a pastor of another church now. James 2:10 For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all

Those who use this verse say: "See, everyone breaks at least one point of the law and that makes him all guilty of breaking all the Law. No one can keep the Law. Only Christ did that." Then thinking they are further proving their point they quote the next verse.

Galatians 3:10 For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse: for it is written, Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them.

Fantastic work. Spot on the mark of truth. Jack Wellman

xHWA said...

Thanks, Jack! Your input is appreciated, and we agree with you. No doubt you remember how those verses you cited were regularly misapplied in the old WCG.

Glad to have you here, and glad to have your support. Do come back for more. Feel free to borrow what you'd like to pass on. And please tell others we're here.

God go with you. The peace of our Lord be on you.