I want to hypothesize that the basis for the opposing perspectives in the “Rob Bell debate” that has swept through evangelical Christianity lies in different understandings of the doctrine of justification by faith. The concept of justification by faith is developed throughout the Pauline epistles. The following two passages seem to capture it the best:
Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand.
By grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God–not the result of works, so that no one may boast.
To put in a nutshell, justification by faith means that we cannot earn “peace with God” through our efforts. Whatever the “faith” is that saves us, it is the “gift of God” rather than “the result of works.” But how can you believe something without making an effort to believe it? It would seem that there’s inherently an effort involved in having faith at least if it means making a decision of some sort. The different resolutions to this puzzle are the three major strands of evangelical Christian thought.
1) SINCERE PERSONAL DECISION-ISM
This is a term I would coin to describe the understanding of faith typically offered by Baptists and other proponents of human free will who think that God dishes out heaven and hell in response to whether or not we have made a “sincere personal decision” to follow Jesus. We have faith if we have responded to Christ’s atonement by “deciding” to accept His salvation. The problem with this perspective is that the “personal decision” becomes the work that “earns” salvation, which violates the principle of justification by faith.
2) PREDESTINED FAITH INSTILLED BY GOD
The Calvinist resolution of the puzzle of justification by faith is to say that God predestines our ability to have faith. The reason our faith is not itself a work is because God plants it in those who have been predestined to have it. God decides to damn or bless us based upon a decision God made before the beginning of time. This way of describing God is a stumbling block for many people but it does resolve the problem of justification by faith.
3) LIBERATION FROM SELF-JUSTIFICATION
The Wesleyan approach to this problem is to say that Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross has more to do with persuading us that God loves us than persuading God that He should forgive us for our sins. We are justified by faith because faith in God’s mercy is what liberates us from the prison of self-justification, a state in which we seek in vain to earn God’s approval through our works. So faith is not a work because we’re not proving anything to God with our faith; instead we’re liberated from thinking that we have something to prove to God. As a Wesleyan, I would say that self-justification itself is hell because it inherently creates an irreconcilable separation from God. The purpose of the cross’s atonement is to break us free from self-justification so that we can enter into God’s holy presence without fearing or hating God.
I don’t think that “sincere personal decision-ism” can avoid the heresy of works-righteousness. While Calvinism seems doctrinally orthodox, I worry that it creates an unnecessary stumbling block by making God look like He “unfairly” rewards or punishes us for His own behavior. Though I recognize that God’s mode of existence as Creator is not analogous to ours as creature, I don’t think most people including myself can get our heads around that reality. The other problem I have with both Calvinism and “sincere personal decision-ism” is that they aren’t guarded enough against the real dangers of self-righteousness/self-justification, which is the miserable state of being that I think Christ’s justification saves us from.
The purpose of all doctrine is discipleship. Jesus says that what matters is our fruit. As 2 Timothy 3:16 says, all scripture’s purpose is for “training in righteousness.” Paul also tells Timothy in 2 Tim 2:23 to “have nothing to do with stupid and senseless controversies.” What matters about what we believe about salvation, heaven, hell, etc, is the impact it has on our Christian discipleship. Paul writes that “knowledge puffs up but love builds up.” If our theological debates serve the purpose of puffing ourselves up, then they are of Satan. If they serve the purpose of building the church and helping people get past their stumbling blocks, then they are fruitful.
This doesn’t mean that we jettison all controversial teaching so as to accommodate worldliness. What it does mean is that we shouldn’t be controversial just for the sake of feeling more hard-core in our beliefs than other believers. The time when it’s appropriate to be controversial is when discipleship would be compromised otherwise. That’s all for now.