The enduring legacy of the Protestant Reformation is salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. For those of us who worship in Protestant churches on Sunday morning, we stand on the shoulders of giants and heavily rely on, much of the time in innocent ignorance, the influence of the reformers in our theology, our worship, and our church life. We are indebted to and should be forever grateful for the servants of old who have helped clarify Scripture and forever changed our soteriological understanding. What could be more beloved among Protestant Christians than the simple message of salvation offered by our Lord in love and accepted in simple faith by millions since the time of the Reformation? No longer do we anguish over the nightmarish teaching of salvation by works and no longer do we wonder as did Martin Luther so long ago; “how good is good enough?”
And yet we may very well be ushering people through the gate of destruction because we have become too Protestant.
This article is written primarily for conservative churches, conservative Christians, and conservative ministers – and especially for those of us who love and worship in Southern Baptist churches. PhilipMeade.com receives a fair amount of moderate to liberal readership, for which I am very thankful, and I of course welcome their input on this article as well. But for a good number of moderate-to-liberal pastors and friends I know of, both personally and in the wonder of cyber-space, the gate that leads to destruction is simply not an immediate concern. If that is their conviction based on their reading of Scripture, then they should remain consistent with their belief. But for the most part, conservative churches are deeply concerned with the reality of hell, the offer of redemption made possible solely through the cross of Jesus Christ, and working toward a goal of making their churches more effective at saving souls. Not all conservatives will agree with my assessment, and yet this is for them.
I remain deeply convinced that salvation found only in Christ Jesus, an exclusionary salvation, is made possible by grace alone through faith alone. My point here is to not to make a defense of the “justification by faith” position, but to make clear from the outset my unwavering believe in that teaching. Folks come “just as I am” and can be saved by believing and repenting, not based on their good works. So, any church that teaches a “works-righteousness” is a church to flee from as quickly as you can reach the front door.
As I have attended conservative Baptist churches for many years, listened to hundreds of sermons, sat in on Sunday School classes, read books, articles, and blogs, and engaged in untold number of conversations in person and online, I am fearful today that our churches, and in particular our conservative ministers around the country, are deceiving their flock into a false sense of eternal security. The simple message of the gospel is being preached as it should – that whosoever will can come and be saved – but it is also being preached as it shouldn’t – that Christ changes hearts without changing lives. You see, changing hearts is one thing; it is much easier to preach. Changing lives is a different ballgame. That quickly leads to the perceived road of being offensive. Of being critical. Of being judgmental. And we are staying away from it with all our might, quite possibly to the detriment of the cross and to the horrific picture of us holding open the gate to destruction.
Being a Protestant must not mean that we put on blinders to the endless number of commands for our lives to bear fruit consistent with Christ Jesus. Freedom in Christ, abundant life, everlasting joy, and everyone’s favorite word – purpose, are never severed in Scripture from slavery to Christ, daily self-crucifixion, and ongoing sacrifice. To emphasize one without an equal emphasis on the other will, over time, paint an unhealthy portrait of security for the church, a portrait that I feel is nearly completed. “I know I’m a Christian” are the words a middle-aged man said to me during a counseling appointment a few weeks ago. “I’m so very glad to hear that” I responded, “the Bible makes clear that we can be certain of our salvation.” I continued, “tell me, how do you know?”
“Because I made a decision when I was 10.”
As the conversation progressed, I ask him about his spiritual life, his walk with Christ, and his growth as a Christian since age 10. Each question was met with blank stares. Sensing the direction the conversation was heading, and recognizing my concerns for his spiritual life, he blurted out once again, this time with some force, “I know I’m a Christian.”
I hope he is right. It is not my responsibility or privilege, nor is it any pastor’s, to separate the sheep from the goats. God alone judges the hearts and lives of men, and at the end of the day, only he knows who will enter the kingdom. We are given the means as to how we can be sure of our salvation, but we are not given the permission to judge others with finality.
Still yet, there is a balance between eternal judging, which is reserved for God, and being faithful to the teaching of Scripture which God has revealed for us. And more often than not, pastors and Christians are not willing to boldly express concern for a person’s expressed faith in Christ in light of their daily living for Him. The man in my example above is not to blame. He faithfully recited the words and teaching he has most heard through the church: Make a decision, let God save you, then we can worry about the rest later – at least you are saved. It should cause our knees to buckle.
We need to read the book of James again without trying to gloss over it with Reformation rhetoric. We need to meditate on the words of Christ when he says, “if you want to be my disciple. . . .” There are some difficult words that follow about daily taking up a cross. We need to be terrified that Jesus has already told us that “not many will enter” the narrow gate (Matthew 7:13). We need to be bold, faithful ministers and laypeople who care enough for people that we are, at times, willing to make them answer tough questions.
I believe there are many, many more unsaved people sitting comfortably in our churches than we would ever dare think. I believe we must continue to faithfully teach justification by faith, but are mandated to preach what that justified person looks like. I believe the greatest sin in the world would be to take the simplicity of the cross and lead people to hell with it.
It’s time to close the broad gate. It’s time to open the narrow.