This is the beginning of a book that is in-progress titled Salvation by Being Good. I have published several chapters as blog posts which are listed at the end of this article. Any work of this nature which is a major paradigm shift from how numerous people understand their bibles will of course raise a lot of questions and objections. Some of those I have addressed in the chapters of my book that I have posted so far on my blog and others will be addressed in future blog posts.
Salvation by works? Salvation by faith? Who’s right, Catholics or Evangelicals?
Neither one. We are judged by our conduct and we are saved by not being wicked, according to the Bible.
This may sound like “Salvation by Works” but it’s not. It’s “Salvation by Being Good”, and there is a difference. Someone who believes in Salvation by Works is someone who believes he isn’t already saved by virtue of him being a normal human being. He wakes up in the morning and asks himself what he should do today to merit salvation because he assumes he doesn’t have it to begin with.
That is a wrong assumption.
We are born saved, and it’s harder than the Church has been telling us to lose that salvation.
I’m not “working my way to heaven”. I’m just being what God made me, and everyone else, to be – a righteous soul. I don’t have to DO anything to EARN salvation because it’s been mine since I was born. I don’t start off with the idea that all men are either born separated from a holy God or will soon after birth fall into sin and thus loose whatever state of salvation they were born with. Yes, we do fall into sin, but not all sin causes us to forfeit the eternal life that God has given to all of us.
I didn’t come to this because I just don’t like the so-called “Biblical Gospel” – though I do find what the church, particularly the Evangelical and Reformed Church, preaches to be distasteful, to say the least. I came to this after 40+ years of biblical research, over six of which was full-time study while in Bible College.
What I present here I believe to be faithful to the Christian Scriptures, and the mindset of Jesus, Paul, Peter, and the rest of the Apostles and biblical authors.
A Novel Idea – Taking Jesus at His Word
This book began as I was staring for the longest time at these words of Jesus in the Parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:25-28:
“On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. ‘Teacher,’ he asked, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’
’What is written in the Law?’ Jesus replied. ‘How do you read it?’
The lawyer answered: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’
‘You have answered correctly,’ Jesus replied. ‘Do this and you will live.’”
I asked myself, “What if Jesus is saying exactly what he appears to be saying?”
What Jesus appeared to be saying is that someone, yes, even a lawyer for Pete’s sake, could make it to heaven by simply doing something rather than by believing something. Suddenly, all of my Evangelical understanding of salvation was being challenged – by Jesus Christ himself. Not just my Evangelical understanding, but my Protestant understanding of salvation was being challenged. And I had no intention of becoming a Catholic.
I still don’t.
Like most Protestants, I don’t believe God has provided any one church to be the sole arbiter of theological truth.
The Protestant Reformation kicked off by my hero Martin Luther 500 years ago had much to do with this question of, “How does one get to heaven?” This issue came to the for some time after Luther had broached the issue of the authority of his Roman Catholic Church – and actually lived to tell about it.
Since that time Protestants have adopted numerous understandings of salvation but for this book I am going to limit my comments mostly to Evangelical understanding. Evangelicals have for the most part remained true to what Luther had instigated. Evangelicalism is what I had lived and breathed for decades so I am very familiar with that ethos. After all these years I still speak fluent Evangelical.
If you are new to Christianity and don’t know what “Evangelical” is, rather than me defining it, just think Billy Graham and Southern Baptists. They are it, about as much as anyone.
What came to my mind as I stared at this verse in Luke was the explanation of Evangelicals that the reason “good works” are mentioned in relation to salvation is because anyone who has a true and genuine conversion to Jesus Christ, anyone who becomes Born Again, as I had become in the Spring of my Freshman year at Pacific Lutheran University in my dorm room in Stuen Hall, would naturally produce good works. This is how us Evangelicals understood salvation. You get saved, then the nature of your works changes for the better. If your works are bad that’s proof that you don’t have a genuine faith in Christ. For some, it means you never did have genuine faith, no matter what you might want to point to to indicate that you had at some point in your life a vital and living relationship with God through his Son Jesus Christ.
While I didn’t doubt that it is true that a conversion to Christ will make a person a better person, or that the good Lutheran kids at PLU who had faith in Christ all of their lives would be better people than if they had never had faith in Christ, the longer I stared at the words of Jesus the less this truth helped to explain what I was reading. The more I stared the more I wondered what that Evangelical explanation had to do with the price of tea in China, as they say. It didn’t explain why Jesus said the way to eternal life was by doing something. Why would he give this “prescription” for salvation to a lawyer if Jesus didn’t believe it was all the lawyer needed to do? Why not give him what Evangelicals believe he must understand in order to have the “right answer,” which is to believe Jesus will die for his sins or if he lives long enough he must believe that he had died for his sins? Jesus had an opportunity to give him the Gospel but passed up that opportunity as if he didn’t care what would become of that poor fellow at the end of his life.
Someone asked Jesus how to get saved and his answer was to do something. That was his “prescription” for salvation. And that something wasn’t to believe in Jesus. As I was staring at that scripture, that fact was staring me right back in my face.
Well, alright, the lawyer was looking right at him and hearing his words. Of course he already believed in Jesus, so that part of his salvation was already taken care of.
But wait, was that enough?
What Kind of Faith Are We Talking About Here?
There were others who saw Jesus and heard his words, and “believed in Jesus” just as much as Nicodemus did, like some of the Pharisees, but Jesus clearly thought they were children of the Devil on the Highway to Hell long before AC/DC came up with a song about it. So for an Evangelical it wasn’t just belief in Jesus that saved, it was a particular belief about Jesus that saved, such as believing he died for our sins. It had to be a right belief, not just any belief, or merely a belief in his existence.
In Evangelical thinking a generic belief in Jesus wouldn’t be good enough if it’s belief that saves, else those dastardly Pharisees who encountered Jesus would also be saved!
In what we would call an evangelistic message this Jewish lawyer, one of the ones Jesus came to save, wasn’t given this vital piece of information in Jesus’ prescription to him. Absolutely no theology was discussed to make sure Nic understood the right thing about the Jesus standing right in front of him. Neither did Jesus tell him that he didn’t love anyone as himself. Nor did he tell him, “See, you don’t love God with your whole heart because you can’t. The Law just shows your depravity and need for faith in me to be acceptable to God.”
He didn’t do any of that but what Jesus did do was double down on his prescription by showing the racist lawyer the part that he wasn’t doing by teaching him that “loving your neighbor as yourself” meant loving all of your neighbors as yourself, not just the ones of his own ethnic group. Jesus bested the lawyer by closing Nic’s mental escape route so he wouldn’t think he could get away with not loving certain members of his society just because he did love his own people. Loving some while not loving others wasn’t going to cut it. It won’t give him – or you – the access code for the Pearly Gates. If you don’t love your neighbor as yourself, you’re going to be sent the other way. On the Highway to Hell.
Notice that besides loving our neighbors as the means to inherit eternal life Jesus also said to love God with all that’s within us. Some surmise that either nobody can actually do that or they start adding hoops for people to jump through in order to love God. Jesus answers that by saying, “If you’ve done it unto the least of these, you’ve done it unto me.” What they were to do was see the hungry or thirsty or a stranger or someone needing clothes or sick or in prison – and help them. It all comes right back to “Love your neighbor as yourself.” He’s simply requiring people to do something that anyone can do, not something no one can do. That’s how you love Jesus, according to Jesus. And that’s how you love God.
One can certainly make a case that for a Jew like Nicodemus living in a covenant community, loving God means more than just loving your neighbor. God did, we know, have specific requirements for his Elect. But they were only for them, not for everyone else. If we are to put religious requirements on non-Jews we are going way beyond anything God ever said.
Am I Missing Something Here?
After holding this thought in my head of people actually doing something rather than just believing something to gain entrance to heaven, I read through much of the Bible to see if I had glossed over other places that taught essentially the same thing. After all, this wasn’t my first time at the rodeo. I had previously read Luke chapter 10 numerous times without being struck by the obvious implications of what Jesus was saying. What else had I glossed over?
I found numerous scriptures in support of this idea, especially from Jesus, but surprisingly I found them even from Paul, even in the very book quoted most often by Evangelicals to counter this idea, the book of Romans.
I found that the prevailing litmus test for people being in good standing with God, from Genesis to Revelation, was their conduct. Wicked evildoers are the ones on God’s bad side, and righteous, or good people, are accepted by God.
Yes, people are “saved by faith, and not by works, lest any man should boast”, and we will discuss what that means, and what it doesn’t mean, as we get into it.
Paul Understood Jesus the Same Way
As with going through all paradigm shifts I ended up having more questions than answers, as you probably will. But eventually those questions got answered, without a whole lot of difficulty really, even questions regarding those statements by Paul in Romans and elsewhere that are classic “proof texts” for Evangelical Soteriology (Doctrine of Salvation). Much confusion stems from ignoring one of the basics of how to interpret scriptures: read statements in context. If we do that most of the “proof texts” for Evangelical salvation theology fail to be proof texts.
Speaking of Romans I would like to share another scripture that I must have read a hundred times throughout the decades without noticing the obvious. I would like to invite you to stare at this one for a good, long time.
C’mon, Facebook and YouTube can wait. Just 10 minutes? Even 5 minutes? This could change your life!
This is the one that for me “sealed the deal” and made me a true believer in Salvation by Being Good. It makes it clear that Paul was not a believer in Evangelical Soteriology:
“God will give to each person according to what he has done. To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life. But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger.” (Romans 2:6-8)
What should have been obvious to me from the first time I read Romans while I was living at and attending Pacific Lutheran University, a rather expensive private college – mostly paid for through financial aid from you the generous taxpayers of the United States of America, God bless your Socialist souls – a university run by the denomination named after the Father of the Protestant Reformation – is that Paul believed that you can get to heaven, or at least keep being saved, by doing something. That something is “doing good,” as worded in the NIV translation.
Notice this book is about Salvation by Being Good, not Salvation by Doing Good. Why? To further emphasize what it’s really all about – being good. Good people of course will do good things instead of bad things. Salvation by Being Good further distinguish this from Salvation by Works, which I get accused of teaching just about every time I get into it with just about anybody. I’ll show you why Salvation by Being Good is not Salvation by Works as we continue.
Ezekiel Said the Same
Because it takes three to make a pattern I’d also like to include an Old Testament prophet with Jesus and Paul as avid proponents of Salvation by Being Good:
As I live, said the Lord GOD, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked; but that the wicked turn from his way and live. If a wicked man turns away from the wickedness he has committed and does what is just and right, he will save his life. (Ezekiel 33:11, 18:27)
There you have it: a prophet before Jesus, the most influential apostle after Jesus, who we are told refuted the idea, and the Savior himself. All preaching Salvation by Being Good, as representatives of everyone else in the Bible who taught the same.
Now you know how to get saved. If you need to know, “How good is good enough?” just ask God. It’s the Holy Spirit’s job to convict you of your sins. You don’t need me to tell you what I think about it.
But of course if you have nagging questions because of how you’ve understood that in the past or you want to be better able to teach others what the Gospel of Jesus Christ is, this book is here for you. I hope it helps.
There are many more scriptures from one end of the Bible to the other that say the same thing. These three are my three favorites when I need to use brevity to get the message across unambiguously. These I take at face value and understand the rest of what Paul said in light of those plain words that are simple enough for a child to understand.
Mankind’s Default Setting: Saved
People just can’t get away from the idea that the “default setting” for mankind is “unsaved” and so man must do or believe SOMETHING in order to get saved. Just being a normal human being who doesn’t give a rat’s behind about religion isn’t good enough. Some of us say we don’t believe in the doctrine of Original Sin but we just can’t get away from it. Even some of the proponents of what has been called the New Perspective on Paul of which I touch on below can’t get away from it.
Part of my aim in this book is to get the idea across that everyone is saved until they do something drastic to forfeit that salvation. That something is whatever is considered in scriptures to be living a life of “wickedness” and is the opposite of “doing the right thing,” otherwise known as, “righteousness.” This is why “love your neighbor as yourself” is such a good litmus test for salvation and why Jesus used it in Luke 10:25. To me it makes things simple, easy to understand, and puts the focus where it needs to be and where the Bible puts it. If you love your neighbor as yourself, you will be righteous, walking in the Way of Jesus and you will be in right standing with God, faith or no faith, Christian or otherwise.
Moral Influence Atonement vs. Penal Substitution Atonement
This book will be pitting two competing concepts of atonement against each other: the Moral Influence Theory of Atonement vs. the Penal Substitutionary Atonement Theory of Atonement. Penal Substitution, generally the only known concept of salvation among Protestants, will be explained and then shown to be an unfortunate interpretation of numerous scriptures.
Moral Influence will not be so much explained but assumed in what I present, other than this short explanation:
Jesus died to demonstrate his and God’s love for mankind so that wicked people would be influenced to turn from their evil ways and live. As Jesus said, “If I be lifted up (on the cross) I will draw all to me.” It was to influence mankind toward righteous living, and that righteous living is what saves people from eternal damnation. The crucifixion is a rather graphic demonstration, what those in the field of Education would call an object lesson which is a striking practical example of some principle or ideal. Remember, the story of the crucifixion was passed around verbally for decades before being written down and passed around in writing, and most people in that day and age were illiterate so only heard the story by word of mouth. Being such a monumental event ensured that the message of love would get transmitted as far and wide as possible.
The message of the Cross is threefold and simple:
- Jesus loves God enough to go through torture and death to accomplish God’s will. As Jesus said right before he was crucified, “The world must learn that I love the Father and that I do exactly what my Father has commanded me.” (Jn. 14:31) What better way for a prophet to get heard as God’s spokesman? Performing miracles might get you a local audience, while sacrificing yourself gets you a world-wide audience.
- Jesus loves us enough to go through all that for our benefit.
- God loves us enough to see his beloved Son suffer at the hands of sinners to get this message across to everyone who needs it.
The crucifixion demonstrates love. Love is a powerful force. It moves people. That’s the point.
When an evil person turns from his wicked ways due to the message of the Cross of Christ then Jesus has saved him. If that wicked person believes that Jesus died for his sins and was raised to life by God but decides to continue in his wicked ways then his faith in Christ has done him no good. He might be a believer, he might even be a person of great faith, but he hasn’t been washed in the blood and he isn’t saved.
The Righteous Get a Different Salvation
So far I have been talking about wicked people being the ones whose salvation is in question. What about the righteous, the ones Jesus said he didn’t come to call to repentance in Luke 5:32? The point of him saying that wasn’t because nobody can be righteous by their own efforts, it’s because the unrighteous were the ones who needed to repent, that is, do an about face with their lives, or they would entirely miss any eternal blessings God had for his Elect. These were the Lost Sheep of the House of Israel that he said were the only ones he came for in Matthew 15:24.
Many say there is no such thing as people who are righteous apart from having faith. I was surprised to find the Bible is chock full of people who were righteous because of how they lived, not because of what they believed. That led me to dig into the verse in Romans where Paul said, “There are none righteous, no, not one,” and understand what he was really saying so we wouldn’t have a contradiction with the rest of the Bible which shows that men not only can by their own efforts be righteous and acceptable to God but darn well better do just that, or face the consequences. I devote a whole chapter to that.
For the righteous, Jesus did not spend much if any of his ministry efforts, other than to disciple a hand full of men in the Way so they would become good examples of what it means to be a follower of Christ so they could be legitimate witnesses about Christ and what he taught. Paul, on the other hand, does devote quite a bit of his epistles to what Jesus’ death and resurrection and faith in him will do for them in terms of making them better people, even more like Christ, a man who was like God as much as any man could be. Peter also confirms that the sufferings of Christ were meant to bring people to God, saying, “Christ also has once suffered for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God.” (1 Pet. 1:18)
Jesus Died for All
So yes, Jesus died for the whole world. For the wicked he died so they could become righteous, overcoming the bondage of their sins and thus saved from both that bondage and the eternal consequences of remaining wicked evildoers. For the righteous Jesus died so they could also overcome any bondage to any sin, and thus be saved from those sins, even if those sins don’t lead to eternal damnation. As Jesus said, he came to give abundant life. There’s no indication anyone needs to wait until they die and go to heaven to live that abundant life. It’s for the here and now, for both the righteous and the unrighteous.
God Is Just
Along the way I discovered that my own understanding of God being a just God, as with most Protestants, had been trapped in my modern legal paradigms. Even before that I suspected that God would not condemn people to eternal damnation for something over which they have no control. It turns out my suspicions were right. I will explain biblical justice as it was understood by Jesus, Paul, and the rest of the saints. I think you will be glad to know that what your heart and soul have been telling you is right in line with the prophets and Jesus who chastised Israel for their injustice.
Understanding the justice and mercy of God will eliminate the burden you might have for the salvation of your loved ones who you know deep in your heart should not be punished in the afterlife. If you are an evangelist or have the burden of a soul-winner this will relieve some of your burden and give you a new lease on life and a reconstituted ministry knowing that the Good News is that God is not separated from his beloved creation due to something beyond our control such as sin, and he isn’t going to hold us responsible and damn us for that over which we have no control.
And everyone breathes a collective sigh of relief! God really is a just God, it turns out.
God is easy to figure out. How do you treat your kids? God is better than you.
This understanding of what it really is that God wants from us people has brought me peace, joy, and freedom. I am sure it will for you as well. Together we can share this with others and watch the Kingdom of God grow and change the world even more. Together we can join with Jesus in his ministry as described in Isaiah 61:1-3,
“The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me; because the LORD hath anointed me to preach good tidings unto the meek; he hath sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound; to proclaim the acceptable year of the LORD, and the day of vengeance [against the destruction of sin] of our God; to comfort all that mourn; to appoint unto them that mourn in Zion, to give unto them beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness; that they might be called trees of righteousness, the planting of the LORD, that he might be glorified.”
The New Perspective on Paul – Is This That?
The New Perspective on Paul says that the modern church has by and large misinterpreted the Apostle Paul by making him someone who believed that his fellow Jews got it wrong in thinking they could work their way into heaven. According to the New Perspective, the Jews weren’t trying to work their way into heaven to begin with so Paul wasn’t about trying to convince them that it couldn’t be done. Paul had a different issue with the Jewish mindset which is that some of them, particularly the societal elites such as the Pharisees, assumed they were in right standing with God simply because they were descendants of Abraham and Israel who scrupulously observed the Law of Moses, even while their actions demonstrated they were children of the Devil headed for Hell. The Paul the Apostle was one of them at one time when he was Saul the Pharisee.
There has been much ado about the New Perspective on Paul. Before giving it much thought I was already well into writing this book. I suspected that what I had come to understand through my own Bible study was right in line with this new theology which was really not new at all. After looking into it further I discovered I had on my own landed right square on the New Perspective. I am happy to add my name to the growing list of advocates.
This book of course is not a scholarly addition to this “new” perspective, which for much of my intended audience will elicit a sigh of relief. My aim has been to make this understanding more accessible to a non-scholar; to the many involved in Bible studies in our churches and homes, to the bloggers and authors, to the pastors who are responsible for feeding the flock, and for the evangelists sharing the Gospel to a lost and broken world.
I don’t consider myself to be an evangelist. That’s not my gift. My gift is teaching. I would like to teach evangelists what the scriptures have to say about the plight of humanity and God’s response to that plight, so they are presenting an accurate message to the world.
I would also like to see churches and parachurch organizations who have written Statements of Faith grapple with the same questions I raise rather than ignore them as is evident by their Statements of Faith. Even better than that, I’d love to see the elimination of Statements of Faith used as litmus tests for who is considered to be an official member of any Christian organization. I’d rather see churches and para-church organizations give their members the freedom to believe what they want and actually trust that the Holy Spirit is leading them. If what you believe, after all, is not what determines your admittance into heaven, it shouldn’t be what determines official membership in our earthly organizations.
More than likely I have picked up on ideas from the scholars of the New Perspective as they’ve been filtered through social media and the numerous discussions I have had on Facebook and theologyonline.com. Other than some of the terms used and the name of this book I can’t say for sure that any of my ideas expressed here are original. I really don’t remember who or what, other than the Holy Spirit and the Bible, influenced me along the way. I wished I could give credit where credit is due. That said, I hope this book offers some ways to view things and ways to word things that scholars and authors can take up and run with in their efforts to educate all of us Christians.
This book weds Moral Influence Theory with The New Perspective on Paul in a way I have not seen. I believe doing so provides a robust and fairly comprehensive alternative to the prevailing understanding of our day. This prevailing understanding purports to harmonize all that is said about salvation in our Bibles, but it ultimately fails. Worse yet, it portrays God as opposite of how we want God to be portrayed. I believe this book goes a long way in restoring an understanding of God where we can honestly agree with the Apostle John that “God is love.”
In time, I hope you agree.
In addition to this introduction to Salvation by Being Good I have written the following chapters. I have posted them on this blog. They include: