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"Hard-Believism," "Easy-Believism," and Sola Fide

By Joseph P. Braswell
April 30, 1998

While I am quite critical of the "no-lordship" or "easy-believist" view of salvation that is associated with L. S. Chafer, C. C. Ryrie, Zane Hodges, Robert Lightner, and Hal Lindsey, I must confess that I can nevertheless understand and appreciate certain concerns expressed by its proponents that might seem to make their understanding of sola gratia and sola fide ("only by grace" and "only by faith") appealing. Sadly, I know of churches in which salvation is something difficult to obtain, something that takes considerable effort and an arduous self-preparation for the reception of saving grace. We can dub this arduous path to salvation "hard-believism."

Obtaining salvation in such "hard-believist" churches is something akin to a wrestling match with a reluctant deity; it is a contest of strength whereby salvation is to be wrested from his grudging grip by sheer force of will and determination. People come forward to the altar in order to "pray through" and "tarry," persistently pleading with a god who hides his face and seems hard of hearing, in order that they may be heard and perhaps persuade him through many tears and loud cries to save them.1 Vows and promises have to be fervently made to this ill-disposed or apathetic god in repeated supplications. There are well-defined steps to the process of seeking salvation, even involving one's tarrying in a state of desperate misery and anguish, anxiously awaiting this god's decision to grant salvation. Sometimes, apparently, this god is almost persuaded, and members glowingly speak afterwards among themselves about how so-and-so was almost saved (he will have to come back next week and try again—trying harder and tarrying yet longer). The strength and purity of an individual's faith, the intensity of an emotional experience of penitence, the depth and totality of his surrender, are all deciding factors in whether his god responds, in whether he deems an individual's prayers to merit an affirmative answer; if not saved, he did not try hard enough, did not seek diligently enough, did not prepare himself—sanctify himself—sufficiently. Sadly but expectedly, some who have "come forward" repeatedly finally give up in despair, resigning themselves to a fate of hopeless reprobation because, apparently, they simply could not attain to the requisite level of fever-pitched intensity in their fervent prayers for salvation; they could not excite themselves to a perfect faith.

Generally, the "no-lordship" proponents understand us advocates of lordship salvation to be putting forth something similar to the above scenario. They see us "lordshippers" as asserting human conditions—meritorious works—when we, in the name of the Lord, demand repentance and the confession of Jesus as Lord. Given the stress on what man must do that can be found in some churches, I can appreciate the concerns of the "easy-believists" and sympathize with their reaction, even while maintaining that they are misinterpreting sola gratia and sola fide and are overreacting by going to the other, equally erroneous extreme. How then do we lordship advocates differ from the "hard-believists" that have shut up the Kingdom by creating a legalistic obstacle course in the path of those who, crushed by the heavy burden of their trespasses and the terrors of a guilty conscience, would come to Jesus and be saved from their sins?

We "lordshippers" differ from the "hard-believists" precisely because we do most heartily affirm sola gratia and sola fide, but, unlike the "easy-believists," we affirm these principles in their original, Reformational sense. To see this, we must go back to Martin Luther and his great Reformational discovery of justification by faith alone. However, in order to do this, we must get beyond the mythical and romanticized Luther of the mystical "tower experience" and rediscover the historical Luther: Luther the Biblical scholar and theological professor, situated in the context of his times and the theological paradigm which he assumed and in which he operated in his studies.

Luther's Background

Luther was an Ockhamist and, more specifically, a disciple of Gabriel Biel and the Nominalist tradition of late-medieval Scholasticism that stemmed from the philosophy of William of Ockham. Central to this theological tradition was that which we might call a covenant theology (though one not to be confused with the covenant theology of later Reformed thought).2 The Ockhamists distinguished between the absolute power of God (God in his sovereign freedom and ability) and the law-order which God has in fact somewhat arbitrarily ordained to govern the world. This latter was a covenantal order that established the rules God has chosen to follow in his dealings with his creatures, the rules by which men shall be judged and thus the rules that define the righteousness God requires. Though God is inherently absolutely free, in terms of his sovereign omnipotence, to do whatsoever he will in the created world (a wholly contingent realm), and an unlimited range of possibilities remains in the abstract open to him by virtue of his omnipotence, he is, by virtue of his own gracious condescension, voluntarily self-constrained in his actual exercise of power. This is a self-imposed limitation set by his faithful commitment to upholding, and acting in accordance with, the covenantal order of governance he has sovereignly ordained. He has bound himself by his free will to act in and administer covenantal justice (justice defined relative to the wholly contingent rules governing the economic order he ordained). He has established a contingent order of covenantal causality (or consequence) that is nevertheless sure—assured by his faithful upholding of it.

Accordingly, in speaking of just deserts and what is a man's due, a distinction must be made in Ockhamist theology between condign merit (intrinsic value) and congruent merit (a relativized value determined by the graciously tempered covenantal standards). If a condignly meritorious deed requires absolute perfection, a congruently meritorious deed need only be judged by the lower standard of what the gracious covenant demands (in which an obligation cannot in fairness exceed native ability to fulfill the obligation). Though Ockhamists recognized the fact of sin (but, in good semi-Pelagian fashion, not the fact of a total depravity), little difference exists between the native ability of man within the original order of creation (what unfallen man would be able to do) and his native capacity within the postlapsarian order of redemption (the somewhat diminished capacity of a sinner), for the Fall primarily resulted in the loss of the donum superadditum—a supernatural grace-gift possessed by unfallen Adam to supplement his natural state—and thus in a loss of supernatural capacities. Nevertheless, since there is also (as with the order of creation) no necessity to the order of redemption, then, in terms of the generality or commonness of redemptive grace that functioned as the foundation of a redemptive order of the new commandment, the rules and conditions of that economy of redemption, once it has been freely ordained of God, must be established by him in a manner that is consistent with the divine intent to save and therefore must (in a virtual return to Pelagianism) be suited to the native abilities of all men. The natural man must be able to avail himself of the possibility of salvation, fulfilling whatever conditions God sets.

As this covenant theology plays out in its doctrine of salvation, Ockhamism affirms a justification of the righteous. Man must merit that final (eschatological) justification and will be judged on the last day strictly according to his works. However, the meritorious deeds of righteousness that meet with God's approval and are the conditions of final justification are only of congruent merit, are only righteous because God in his liberality has graciously willed to call them such and impute justifying righteousness to them, however minimal and negligible their inherent virtue (their condign merit). They fulfill the conditions set by the covenantal order and not some demand required by God's own intrinsic character, by the absolute demands of his own holy nature. Because of this accidental or contingent relation between the virtue/condition and the attributed value, the "rate of exchange" is determined solely by God's will—his liberality and goodness. The condition that must be met in order for one to merit salvation is "that which in man is"—that which man is morally capable of performing. While, according to the principle of distributive justice operative in the covenantal order, a genuinely moral act—a good work—was necessary (it had to have some intrinsic merit, some genuine measure of actual "praiseworthiness," as an inherently virtuous act, a morally good deed), the standard was nevertheless lowered enough by divine liberality so that the requirement was something man, despite his sin, could meet by his native powers (a natural act, not the result of a supernatural act of grace in man). God in his generosity, according to his condescending goodness, graciously imputes greater value (congruent merit) to the morally good work than it actually, inherently possesses (its condign merit). Thus, salvation by works was set against a backdrop of grace—albeit, a general grace (the covenantal order)—in order to accommodate the reality of imperfect virtue and relative righteousness so that men need only do their best. God realistically expects only that of which man is capable of performing, blessing it as though it were truly perfect righteousness.

In the nature/grace scheme of medieval thought, this naturally moral act that met with God's requirement prepared one for grace and became the entry-point into the supernatural life of the work of grace—the process whereby one became progressively enabled to do even greater morally good works, was made righteous by degrees. Under grace, the bar of what constitutes congruent merit was raised proportionately as "that which in man is"—the capacity to live righteously and do good—increased by growth in grace; the condition placed upon man became ever more demanding commensurate to the present state of new life (the developed habit of righteousness) that had been inculcated in him by his progressive appropriation of grace through the appointed means of grace.

Luther's Breakthrough Insight

Luther was concerned with the initial condition of receiving grace. Obviously, the Scriptures spoke of this condition as faith, but many theologians took this to mean The Faith: the acceptance of—assent to—the articles of the Catholic Faith (the creeds) and a submission to the magisterial authority of the Roman Catholic Church. This submission (which placed one in the church) was concretely expressed in the receipt of holy baptism, and thus baptism was seen as the initiation into the sphere of grace, the impartation of supernatural life that must be then matured through diligent use of the sacraments and rituals of the church and prescribed deeds of charity that served to form faith into perfect love of God (that virtue which had condign merit in final justification). Faith is indeed counted for righteousness, but it is a faith working through love—a love of God shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit, as these statements would be understood within the medieval-Roman Catholic sacerdotalist system.

Over against this formalistic conception of faith, Luther came to understand faith as an attitude directed towards God, rather than merely an attitude directed towards the church in assent to the Faith (a body of teaching) and submission to the church's authority. He saw this faith-attitude as humility, but (in terms of the Ockhamist scheme and medieval theology in general) he initially understood humility as a virtue. Accordingly, he held that the meritorious act that man must perform in order to receive grace was a humbling of himself before God in acknowledgment of his need of grace, of his lack of condign merit. In this humility man, from a profound sense of lack and of destitution, seeks mercy and thus prepares himself for receiving grace by being hungrily open to God's action and imploring it by humble supplication. It was as Luther became increasingly aware of the contradiction involved in this humility of faith (to wit, it is humbly recognized in penitent confession unto God and prostration before him that there is nothing good in man by virtue of which he can stand before God and claim to possess any merit whatsoever in the sight of God) that he decisively broke with the scheme of meritorious conditions and retreated from the idea of justification's depending upon "that which in man is." Justification could not be because of faith (faith as the condition); it was through faith (faith as a receptive response, an affirmation and appropriation).

This insight was a radical break with the synergistic soteriology of medieval Roman Catholicism. Salvation was not a cooperative and collaborative effort wherein God and man, working together as partners, each contribute their respective parts. On man's side, this partnership of mutual effort involved man's developing the grace thus far received, thereby preparing himself for yet more grace, being made increasingly more righteous by doing righteousness until he at last becomes truly worthy of final justification. In the view Luther came to hold, however, that which man did was no longer seen as meritorious in any respect; man could not prepare himself to be a worthy recipient of grace by any action on his part. This meant that the foundation of the present work of grace in the life of man had to lie elsewhere than in man and what he has done. The foundation of saving grace was outside man, wholly a work of God on our behalf (for us).

The Roman Catholic conception certainly appealed to the historical work of Christ, but this dimension of objective redemption (the "for us" of the Cross) was coordinated with the dimension of human response in their synergistic scheme; the application of the grace made possible by Christ's action was actualized in man only by man's works of righteousness such that this human effort contributed to the accomplishment of actual salvation, and was integrally a part of the meritorious foundation of man's salvation.

Luther's move dispensed with this coordination of the two dimensions of past and present, objective and subjective, thereby concentrating everything exclusively on the historical work of Christ (solus Christus). To say this was to say that Christ is our righteousness before God, that we have a passive and alien righteousness: not what is in us, and dependent on what we do (active righteousness), but that which has been done for us and outside us in Christ. Faith was now seen by Luther as full confidence in the work of Christ, a trust in the sufficiency of that work as the sure basis of a right relation to God and therefore of full salvation—the guarantee of justification. Against the uncertainty that marked the medieval view of the outcome of the Last Judgment and the verdict that would there be rendered (can we ever really know that we have truly done all that we could?), faith, as Luther now saw it, could be a full assurance in our possession of justification because our new status before God (a status possessed by virtue of our being in Christ) is Christ's status before God (the beloved, well-pleasing Son) and is as secure and unchanging as Christ's enjoyment of his Father's favor. We know we have eternal life because we know that we are accepted and approved by God for Christ's sake, not by works of righteousness that we have done (which, even when judged by a sliding scale of congruent merit, may or may not be sufficient).

Faith in its humility before God acknowledges that there is nothing good in man, that he has no merit in God's sight and thus has no contribution to make to his own salvation, thus throwing himself upon the sheer mercy of God, investing all confidence in the grace of God manifested in the Christ-event and holding fast to the promise of the gospel: viz., that God freely forgives sins for Christ's sake. In its humility it confesses total depravity and total inability, the absolute necessity of divine monergism (God working alone) in the salvation of man. Such faith is not a meritorious condition for grace (such would belie its confession of absolute unworthiness) but an acceptance of grace; it is as empty hands held forth to receive a handout and humbly admits to this emptiness, this lack, this abject neediness and dependency on unconditional grace—sheer mercy—from the God who must graciously provide all that is necessary (sola gratia). Were faith a condition, this would undermine its character as confidence in the sufficiency of work of Christ. Indeed, as Luther came increasingly to understand in his ongoing reflections, faith cannot be a condition for grace simply because it is itself a work of grace—a supernatural gift and the expression or manifestation of the new life of righteousness imparted to us wholly by grace, a fact which necessarily follows from the recognition of man's native incapacity (total inability, total depravity). There is no natural capacity for good in man, no active righteousness apart from grace; faith, therefore, far from being all that the natural man can do apart from grace to prepare himself for grace, is the certifying manifestation of the Spirit of Christ in that man who has been effectually called and monergistically placed into the state of grace whereby he knows that his acceptance by God—his righteous status before God—altogether depends on what Christ has done for him, that he has been completely forgiven of all his sins for Christ's sake. The assurance of faith—its certitude—is the witness of the Spirit testifying to the elect that they are the children of God, having been adopted to sonship through the redeeming work of Christ that was finished at Calvary.

The Ockhamist Character of "Hard-Believism"

Returning now to the problem of "hard-believism," it is apparent from the example with which we began that such churches view faith as a condition and that they view salvation synergistically. They have bought back into the same sort of Ockhamist covenant theology which Luther and the Protestant Reformation repudiated. They are still concerned with the merit of "that which in man is," of what man is capable of doing in preparation for receiving grace. The quantity, strength, and purity of faith thus becomes an urgent concern, and the working up of sufficient faith to please God falls upon man and his efforts. Lost, therefore, is the Gospel teaching that faith the size of a mustard seed (the smallest of seeds) suffices; that we can pray, "Lord, I believe; help thou my unbelief"; that God is as the waiting father, ready to receive and welcome with open arms and loving embrace the prodigal son (even running out to meet him eagerly); and that Christ, inviting all to come unto him for rest, promises that none who so come will be turned away. Lost, in other words, is Luther's emphasis that it is not the quality of the act of faith itself that is of consequence, but the object of faith: that to which one's faith (however imperfect and faltering) is directed and in which it comes to rest—the Lord Jesus Christ. God does not respond to us (our initiative); we respond to him, responding in faith to the Christ who seeks out and saves sinners. We respond to Christ as he addresses us and calls us in his word of invitation to come, as he is presented and comes to us in the gospel proclamation. This response of faith is nothing but believing what the gospel announces and promises, personally laying claim to the promise as a promise addressed to us and applicable to us.

If we rely upon our personal experience, we will either engage in the self-deception of a legalistic self-righteousness (feeling righteous) or we will have only the despair and disillusionment that results from our failure to obtain righteousness by our efforts (feeling guilty). Accordingly, "hard-believist" churches are filled with Pharisees and hypocrites (trumpeting a false spirituality and a false holiness) and with the despondent who, unable to work themselves up into the lather of perfectionist attainment, cannot find a gracious God.

Luther's Sola Fide Versus "Easy-Believism"

Having seen that "hard-believism" is indeed a repudiation of Luther's affirmation of sola fide, must we now address the "easy-believists" who claim that they are the true heirs and contemporary champions of the Reformation's principle of sola fide? In answering this question negatively, it is important to note that Luther fully believed that this faith was itself the God-imparted presence of righteousness in us. Faith constitutes a principle of active righteousness that renews and transforms us ethically (a change of moral character). By imparting faith, God has begun a work in us; he has imparted experiential righteousness to us to sanctify us.

This sanctifying faith is the same faith as justifying faith; it is saving faith in Christ. It has no merit before God (it is rather his gift to us) and is not that righteousness which avails for justification; faith and justifying righteousness are distinct, for the basis of justification is the "alien righteousness" of Christ's fully accomplished redemptive work for us, a perfect work on which faith merely rests, contributing nothing. This faith-response is nevertheless the presence of new life and new righteousness in us, the principle out of which good works issue forth. Luther emphatically insisted that he held a very active view of faith, a living faith necessarily productive of good works. Chiefly, he maintained that this faith manifested itself in a continuous state of repentance and an acknowledgment of Jesus Christ as our Lord.

Luther, treating the Apostles' Creed in his Small Catechism, comments on the Second Article, "I believe in Jesus Christ . . . our Lord," in a way that shows that, for him, saving faith is commitment to the Lordship of Christ. Faith is not merely knowledge of, or intellectual assent to, the fact of Jesus' Lordship; it does not simply recognize and acknowledge that Christ is the Lord, but it also owns him and addresses him as our Lord. Faith, by confessing Jesus as our Lord, recognizes the existence of a special covenant relation that solemnly binds us to Christ's Lordship in his capacity and office as covenant Lord whereby we are his people, consecrated to him, belonging to him, and under his rule in a special way (one that is distinct from his general, cosmic rule over all). It is clear that Luther here teaches Christ is personally confessed by me to be my Lord, the Lord with whom I have personally to do and to whom I must render an accounting. I recognize his right, the legitimacy of his claim; I acknowledge my obligation to obey and serve him as my Lord. Accordingly, I must relate to him as my Lord and respect him as such, acknowledging the propriety of his claim to my loyalty and my responsibility to serve him diligently. Saving faith takes this shape of obedient submission, for we should so fear, love, and trust God as to do his will and keep his commandments.

Easy believists cannot appeal to Luther and the Reformation tradition for their peculiar view of sola fide. Luther conceived of sola fide in a deeply theocentric manner, ascribing all glory to God. Luther held that one could keep the first two commandments of the Decalogue—having no other gods and not taking the Lord’s name in vain—only by faith. Faith therefore restored the Law of God to its proper function by ending the perversion of the Law by legalism and the idea of works-righteousness—a form of idolatry and a barrier to loving God (the fulfilling of the Law) and giving to him all glory. As such, faith was true (though imperfect), active righteousness and obedience to the Lord, and only that which was not of faith was sin.

Salvation by faith alone did not let man “off the hook” with a free gift that had “no strings attached” (a case of God’s serving man). This gracious salvation was the necessary condition of man’s truly serving God in selfless devotion; we are saved unto good works, made capable in Christ of doing works in the Spirit that are truly pleasing in the sight of God our Father. Only because man need no longer concern himself with saving himself was he set free from the self-absorption of medieval religion in order to love and so fulfill the Law. Both “hard-believists” and “easy-believists,” though in different ways, have succumbed to this sinful self-concern and self-exaltation, refusing to submit to the righteousness of God that effects salvation.

We must understand Luther as addressing the problem of man’s total inability—the bondage of the will to sin—so that man may be set free from the thrall of sin’s dominion, dead to sin and alive to God. This liberation of the captives was from the power and dominion of sin that had enslaved man; it was a release from the realm of sin, delivering man out of sin into the Kingdom of Christ (i.e., under the jurisdiction of his Lordship), so that man, no longer under the sway of sin, might be enabled and empowered to serve God acceptably from a heart renewed by grace and, because freed from guilt, made right with God. Because the reconciliation effected through justification by faith reconciled both sides to each other, ending the estrangement—the enmity—on both sides, Luther did not consider the liberty of the gospel liberation from sin to be a freedom for an unchanged (still rebellious, still fleshly) man to continue in sin as one granted a license to sin. Luther insists that, while the justified, who, despite the accompanying work of renewing and transforming grace in them, remain always sinners (not perfect) in this life, that same faith which lays hold of justification in Christ is also marked by a spirit of continual repentance over remaining sin such that the justified are always penitent and cannot take their sins lightly nor fall into moral laxity.

Conclusion

The gospel is glad tidings, not that we can be self-righteously puffed up in a pharisaic spiritual pride, boasting of our personal holiness and our attainment, nor that we can now sin with worry-free impunity as those who have obtained “fire insurance.” It is rather the joyously good news that we have been set free to be the people of God, in order “that we, being saved from the hand of our enemies, might serve him without fear in holiness and righteousness all the days of our lives,” as those saved from sin and unto good works. This is good news indeed!

  1. I am somewhat reminded of the priests of Baal crying unto their deity from morning until noon in their contest with Elijah and of Elijah’s mockery of them (1 Kin. 18:26-29). I cannot refer to this reluctant deity as God—the true God. Whatever god they seek to appease and propitiate by such Baalist supplication is not the God revealed in Christ Jesus as rich in mercy, the God who invites us to come to him.
  2. I would argue that dispensationalism has far more in common with this Ockhamist “covenant theology” than does Reformed covenant theology in even its most scholastic presentations.

Topics: Biography, Reformed Thought

Joseph P. Braswell

The late Joseph P. Braswell did undergraduate and graduate work in philosophy at the University of South Florida, but his real interest was in theology and Biblical studies. He published several articles in various journals, including the Westminster Theological Journal, Journal of Christian Reconstruction, and the Chalcedon Report.

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