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Posts Tagged ‘Sola Scriptura’

Salvation By Works In American Evangelicalism

The Protestant Reformation demanded many changes in the theology of the Church. Perhaps one of the biggest theological shifts was the idea that one’s salvation could not be earned by any human work: penance, alms giving, purchasing indulgences, baptism or participation in the Lord’s Supper (i.e. the Eucharist or Communion).  Admittedly, these last two regained prominence and authority in some Protestant branches.

American evangelicalism developed in the later 18th century and matured in the 19th century. Influenced by Puritanism, then Scottish Presbyterianism, and later a Methodism with a uniquely American flavor, American evangelicalism gained astounding influence well into the 20th century despite Liberal theology’s attack on its basic tenets and Fundamentalism’s failure against scholasticism.  Perhaps its hold upon the American psyche was so strong because it appealed for a “heart-felt religion” vis-a-vis a rational Christianity built mainly upon propositional truths and tenets.  American evangelicalism aimed for a change of mind through the heart.

This is not to suggest that American evangelicalism threw out belief tenets and systematic theologies. Rather, these came to confirm what one felt was true.  Thus, Mormonism would appeal to the “burning in the bosom” and the material evidence that something was true or not.  It was only following the primary appeal of American evangelicalism at the popular level.  Later much of Pentecostalism and then the Charismatic Movement of the late 20th century would make the same appeals for one’s faith.

Maintaining its Protestant Reformation roots, American evangelicalism still claims the truths recovered for the Church: the priesthood of all believers, sola scriptura, sola fide and sola gratia.  Nevertheless, it seems to be a natural propensity for the Church in whatever form to religionize in order to control.  This is true within American evangelicalism too.  Perhaps no greater example within evangelicalism is the very thing that gave it mass appeal – “the heart felt” faith or religion by experience.

I am not advocating a hyper-rationalism. God made his human creation emotional beings.  Tying head and heart together is a frequent theme throughout Scripture.  However, it becomes dangerous when one’s salvation is determined by whether or not one has had a particular religious or emotional experience.

Flowered Crown, July 2010

Flowered Crown, July 2010 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

Recently reading about the life of Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain), I was struck by his experience within American Presbyterianism of the 19th century. Not only was one’s salvation in constant question so as to attempt to make sure (though one never really could) that he or she was a part of God’s elect, but it seemed that only a particular religious or emotional experience could really confirm to the seeker whether this was attained – assurance of salvation.  Without such an experience, one was left with the demoralizing thought that he or she was numbered among God’s predestined damned with no possible relief.

This was the conclusion that Samuel Clemens was to arrive at in his life after attempting all he knew how to guarantee his salvation. Albeit, he did so as to gain favor with the object of his affections, Olivia Langdon, and her family, particularly her mother.  This was long after his younger years when he and his brother, Orion, seriously considered entering ministry!  No doubt his upbringing with his devout mother played an important part in his life.  Nevertheless, Clemens seemed to forever feel that God had “elected” him for salvation.  So, he went on his merry way with his life.

This same drive to experience religion at the emotional level later came to define much of Pentecostalism. Rather than become the mark of one’s salvation, it marked one as being Spirit baptized and empowered, even Spirit-filled in some circles.  I have often remarked that it became the Pentecostal version of Confirmation; once one had the emotionally religious experience of speaking in tongues, then one had arrived spiritually; nothing further was needed really.  Those who for some reason never gained access to this emotional experience, no matter how hard they attempted it, were left to feel like second class citizens in God’s kingdom.

As a leader in Assemblies of God churches, I have been dismayed at the emphasis or desire to have some type of emotional release at a church altar or in a revival meeting without real life transformation. Like its spiritual roots in American evangelicalism, the goal has become the experience rather than the desired effect – life change.  The emotional assurance that one is at peace with God or experiencing God’s presence takes precedence over obedience to God.  In worship, emotional engagement becomes more important than whether worship engages believers to change their ways in the light of God’s grace and greatness.

It has caused me as a former church leader to consider whether American evangelicalism’s emphasis or focus upon an emotional experience or response is just another “salvation by works” trap. It would seem so if that experience becomes the litmus test of whether one is saved or, in the case of Pentecostalism, Spirit-baptized.  If it is truly a work of faith through grace (ala Reformation theology) that is available to the priesthood of all believers according to the Scriptures, then why attempt to push it through the sieve of emotionalism?

Probably no one thought through this better than Jonathan Edwards who preached and pastored at the birth of American evangelicalism during the First Great Awakening (1703-1758). His short writing, “Religious Affections,” does bring balance to the extreme intellectualism of his age and the emotional exuberance the Great Awakening revival was stirring in many people.  He still helps us today distinguish between what are reliable and unreliable emotionally spiritual experiences.

Both the human mind and heart are unreliable measurements for true spirituality in the way of Jesus. This is probably why Jesus used word pictures like “fruit” and “harvest” as the true indicators of spiritual knowledge and experience.  The Apostle Paul picks up on this also and emphasizes to the Corinthians and the Galatians that experiences are not an indicator of spiritual maturity, let alone authenticity.  Rather, a life changed that exhibits it in behavior and attitudes is the real indicator.  The Apostle John made the indicator even more simple by saying, “It’s how you love others.”

We probably prefer an emotional spiritual experience to indicate our salvation rather than how we really live and get along with others. It makes us feel better about our selves because there is a touch of self-justification about it all.  However, God’s judgment and measurement of our lives is not going to be determined by whether we wept at an altar, spoke in tongues, was slayed-in-the-spirit, got teary-eyed during a song, laughed uncontrollably, had visions, prophesied, or felt a burning in the bosom.

No.  I think the good Lord is going to only want to know one thing about our spiritual journeys while we were here on earth, “Did you unconditionally love and serve others in my name?”  Answering, “No.  But I had a really good time!” is not going to cut it, I think.  Neither is defaulting to, “No.  I never felt that you were with me.”  To either response, God will hold up his son, Jesus, given for us and only want to know, “Did you believe him and so follow him?”  Then our lives will speak for themselves.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, (2010)

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Charismatic Indulgences

I am enjoying facilitating a class at our church on the Protestant Reformation.  I love to read and study history; especially church history.  The characters, issues, and drama make for some very interesting reading under the craft of a good historical scholar and writer.  Admittedly, under a good scholar but bad writer, it can also be absolute drudgery!  However, there a plenty of great historical story tellers that make history come alive to those interested.

One of the aspects of studying history that always amazes me is how much we do not learn from it.  As much as I would like to believe that humankind is on an ever evolving incline of knowledge and understanding, a study of history shatters that delusion.  Knowledge and technology have not made us any better.  I like to repeat a quote I heard years ago which asserts that “to suggest humanity is better off because of technology is to suggest that a cannibal is better off with a knife and fork.”  Instead of progressive improvement, we seem to be in a constant cycle of enlightened discovery and abject stupidity.  Nevertheless, this is what makes studying human behavior and history fascinating and entertaining at the same time.

For instance, one of the abuses of the church the reformers wanted to purify from the Church was the abuse of indulgences.  Some Reformers did not want to do away with the practice of indulgences all together, but just correct their abuses.  Others, such a John Wycliffe and Martin Luther, could find no biblical warrant for their practice and wanted the practices of indulgences done away with completely.  The reformation tradition follows Wycliffe, Luther, and others in their assertion that any church tradition and practice must be established solely upon biblical evidence.  This assertion is one of the main reasons why Protestant churches emphasize Scripture – translation, study, and knowledge – above all else.

The practice of indulgences was long practiced in the Catholic Church.  It is still practiced today.  It is closely tied to the Catholic theology of Purgatory.  This is another doctrine that Protestants and Reformers rejected because of lack of Scriptural evidence.  A broad explanation of indulgences proposes that the good works of Christ and the saints have been deposited in heaven for all Christians in the treasury of merit.  These merits may be applied to the sins of Christians at the approval of the pope and applied to individuals by archbishops, bishops, and priests.  The application of these merits enables one to avoid paying further for their sins in purgatory.  Extreme abuses preceding and following Martin Luther’s time allowed these indulgences to be bought with money.  Thus, sin became a really money maker for the church.

Aside from the biblical and theological problems that indulgences and purgatory pose for biblical Christians, the Protestant Reformation recaptured the New Testament doctrine of God’s grace displayed and applied through the death and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah, God’s son.  Martin Luther, studying Romans and Galatians, came to the conviction that God’s grace cannot be purchased or earned.  It can only be received as a free gift.  Both the temporal and eternal forgiveness and salvation human longed for and needed was only available through faith in what Jesus Christ accomplished on the cross and in the resurrection.

As much as the Protestant Church would like to think that it is free from the influence of such doctrine and practice, one needs only to watch or listen to the selling of God’s grace in today’s Christian marketplace.  While salvation may not be up for sale, the grace of God to work miracles, provide, give guidance, and heal surely is in today’s popular Christianity.  It can be purchased by sending in an offering or purchasing a book or other materials.  At such a low, low price, God’s grace for healing and wealth will be released.

The Protestant Church has its own forms of relics too.  By purchasing prayer cloths, anointing oils, Christian jewelry, and other such items, and extra measure of God’s grace will flow in blessings to the believer.  All types of shamanistic items are sold to the unwary in hopes that the favor of God can be purchases instead of appropriated through simple faith.  It seems, in coming so far in history, we have not gotten very far.

The same grace that is made available through faith in Christ’s work that brings salvation is also available for all the other blessings of the Kingdom.  Why do we think they be can bought or sold?  They are given freely by grace.  They are “charismata” – grace-gifts given to us out of the love of the heavenly Father and his son, Jesus.  They are made available to everyone.  There is no need for a mediator – priest or televangelist.  We are asked, individually and communally, to come in faith believing “that he is a rewarder of those that diligently seek him.”

Pink Rose in Bloom, Bush House Gardens, Salem, Oregon, 2009

Pink Rose in Bloom, Bush House Gardens, Salem, Oregon, 2009 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

The Charismatic and Pentecostal stream of Protestantism is particularly caught in this trap of heresy and unorthodox practice.  Perhaps what is needed is a new reformation or a new “protest” that rebukes those responsible for such abuses.  Not only do they mislead the faithful.  They are profiting just like their Catholic forefathers upon the misery and sinful conditions of people who are needy and vulnerable.  Instead of selling them “a bill of goods” that will not profit their followers, they should be pointing them to the grace that is in Christ Jesus for every blessing.

Unfortunately, the same problem that caused the faithful 5oo years ago to fall into this trap and error is still prevalent today.  It is a lack of knowledge of the Word of God and its basic doctrines.  Unlike 500 years ago, however, the Bible is available to us in our own language.  We can read it and study it for ourselves.  We have learned teachers and preachers who are proclaiming the truths of the Scriptures.  What seems to be lacking is an attentive audience.

This sort of reminds me of the church Jesus chided when he revealed himself and his plans to the apostle John.  It seems that even though we live in an age where we can see, we are still blind (Revelation 3:17).  We live in a country that is rich with the teachings of God and access to biblical truth, and yet we are so poor.  It appears that Western Christianity is clothed with beautiful religious garb, but we are really naked.  Perhaps we do not know how wretched we really are if so many of the faithful in our Protestant, Bible-believing churches can fall into such error.

A start for all of us might be to study our history.  We need to rediscover what was lost and then found in the Reformation.  Some of the Reformers and Protestants paid for the discovery and practice of these truths with the ultimate price.  Perhaps then we would appreciate more fully today where we are in human history and the opportunities we have around us by way of Bible teaching and tools.  Most importantly, hopefully, we would refuse to fall back into the errors from which the Church in large measure was rescued.  Like Martin Luther, maybe we need to take a hammer and nail and post them in a prominent place so we will not soon forget.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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