I started this series with a quote from one of my students. I will also end the series in the same way (I have permission from both students to use their quotes). Here I will simply post a student’s statement where he/she puts forth a view of salvation at odds with the biblical witness and what I hope was my gentle correction. The exchange illustrates many of the topics that we have discussed in this series.
I tend to be a pretty black and white thinker, so to me this is somewhat simple at first glance. If people here in the West don’t want God’s grace because they think it is enough that they are “good people,” that is our fault. It is the fault of those spreading the gospel and not making it clear that it takes more than good works to get to heaven. For those who have been given much and still resisted it, well too bad. They had the option to choose Him over and over and over, and they chose not to, so it is their loss. That being said, I think that if at the end if they are on their death bed and ask, with a “sincere heart,” for Jesus to be their savior, He would rescue them from eternity in hell. I just remember Jesus is love sick for all of us, and if there is a chance that we would choose Him, I don’t feel He would deny that, just like the man on the cross next to Him whom He told he would seen in heaven.
This is indeed quite logical, and I do very appreciate your highlighting the gracious heart of God!
On the other hand, logic can get us into trouble when it causes us to miss parts of Scripture. It is tempting to build a theological system so that I can understand how everything works. The thing is, we could argue this way: Jesus is good. Choosing Jesus is a good thing. Therefore, the person who decides to exercise his free will and choose Jesus made a good choice. Therefore, they are a good person. They are saved because they are a good person.
The problem is that the Bible says that Jesus came for sinners – that is “not good persons”. People who don’t deserve His goodness! In Ephesians 2:3 it says that before God changed us we were *by nature* children of wrath! In John 1, 3, and 6 it is crystal clear that persons are spiritually born “from above” and “not by the will of man”. In Romans 5 it says that God justifies the ungodly – and He does this for the person who “does not work”. In other words, it is something that He does to them.
Part of the solution of course would be to say that a person decides to follow Jesus continually during their life because Jesus already chose them and gave them faith in Him so they would choose Him. But why do we not want to say this? Is it because we want to see something good in us? Because we don’t want to give Him full credit? Maybe it is because we want to believe that He will give everyone a chance – even though it says that without Him we are spiritually dead like Lazarus?
The Bible does say He desires all to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth. At the same time, we know it doesn’t happen that all are saved. It’s tempting to want to explain all this logically, but we can’t. There is a lot that is happening here: the reality of God’s election of saints before the world begins, Satan stealing seeds out of person’s hearts, even people who are Christians resisting His Spirit….
In short, perhaps we can only say this [with confidence]: if we are saved, God gets all the glory. If we are damned, we can only blame ourselves….”
It is the power of God’s promise that raises us from the dead – who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. And just what is the content of this Promise-message that does such marvelous things? I think the seventeenth century Lutheran theologian Johannes Quenstedt, commenting on 1 John 3:16, said it particularly well:
This is the love of God; rather than banish men eternally from heaven He removed Himself from heaven, clothed Himself with flesh, became the Creature of a creature, enclosed Himself in the womb of the virgin, was wrapped in rags, laid in hay and housed in a barn. Nor does His love stop here; but after a life spent in poverty and adversities this love drives Christ to the ground on Olivet, binds Him in chains, delivers Him to jailers, cuts Him with the lash, crowns Him with thorns, fastens Him with nails to the Cross, and gives Him to drink the cup of bitterness. And finally this love compels Him to die, to die for adversaries and enemies (Rom. 5:6). Continuously and in these sundry ways Christ, who thirsts so greatly for our salvation, declares His love and mercy toward the human race. [i]
This message is no mere proposition, fixed in “dead books”, but is the living voice of God that comes to us – and which we hear in all of its glorious materiality.[ii] Of this humble mercy which paradoxically brings forth powerful victory, Luther, who always emphasized the importance of the oral proclamation of the Word of God, says:
…when David overcame the great Goliath, there came upon the Jewish people the good report and encouraging news that their terrible enemy had been struck down and that they had been rescued and given joy and peace; and they sang and danced and were glad for it [I Sam. 18:6]. Thus this Gospel of God or New Testament is a good story and report, sounding forth into all the world by the apostles, telling of a true David who strove with sin, death, and the devil, and overcame them, and thereby rescued all those who were captive in sin, afflicted with death, and overpowered by the devil. Without any merit of their own he made them righteous, gave them life, and saved them, so that they were given peace and brought back to God. For this they sing, and thank and praise God, and are glad forever, if only they believe firmly and remain steadfast in faith.[iii]
[i] Quoted from the book by Preus, Robert. Doctrine is Life: Essays on Justification and the Lutheran Confessions, St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2006. p. 44
[ii] Bayer, 48. He also says here: “This voice is not a passing breath that perhaps is the occasion of an inward recollection of something which has supposedly been there and which one can therefore recognize”, and quotes Luther saying: “The gospel signifies nothing else than a sermon or report concerning the grace and mercy of God… it is…an oral sermon and a living Word, a voice that resounds throughout the world and is proclaimed publicly, so that one hears it everywhere.” (WA 12:259, 8-13; cf. 275, 9-12; LW 30:3)
[iii] LW 35: 358, partially[?] quoted in Bayer, 49.