Steve Holmes and Alan Jacobs are two of the most thoughtful, insightful evangelical theologians around today. When they line up together on an issue, and you don’t, it’s usually safe to assume they are right and you are wrong. (Fortunately, since one is very Anglican and the other very Baptist, this doesn’t happen as often as you might think.)
Recently they’ve both written articles arguing that, although they hold to the traditional view of sexual ethics, holding to the revisionist view doesn’t make a person a false teacher. That perspective will cause some people to agree strongly, some to disagree strongly, and some to wonder what to think. But I want to focus on a particularly fascinating—and, I think, ultimately wrong—reason given for this view, especially in Steve’s article. The argument, essentially, is that ethical behavior does not put a person’s final salvation at risk.
For Steve Holmes, the central evangelical claim of sola fide (“by faith alone”) should settle the discussion. If you start adding further conditions of behavior, or lifestyle, to the need for faith in Jesus, you undermine the gospel itself:
It matters to me desperately that salvation depends on our embracing of the forgiveness offered in Jesus and on nothing else. Nothing else. “Sola fide” is not an interesting theological slogan for me. It is—literally—gospel truth. Add this or that condition, and you begin to justify the murder of members of my college or inhabitants of my village. More importantly than that, even, you begin to query the salvation of those who have put their faith in Jesus. . . . If my faithful and affirming friends have no hope of salvation, then nor do I.
Alan Jacobs endorses Steve’s argument entirely, which is significant, but also adds a slightly different angle. Drawing on the fact that Paul rebuked Peter in Galatia, not for being a false teacher but for failing to “walk correctly” in relation to “the truth of the gospel,” Alan writes:
So if you can be as wrong as Peter was about something foundational for the gospel and still not be denounced as a false teacher, then I think it follows that if people do not “walk correctly” in relation to biblical teaching about sexuality, they likewise need not be treated as pseudodidaskaloi but can be seen as brothers and sisters whom those who hold the traditional view patiently strive to correct, without coming out from among them, speaking with the patience and gentleness commended in 2 Timothy 3:24–25 [sic].
In other words, as well as agreeing with Steve that “by faith alone” means that sexual (or presumably any) other behavior cannot jeopardize anyone’s eternal salvation, Alan also argues that the scope of false teaching is limited to denial of the gospel itself, rather than to matters of “walking correctly.” Our actions, ultimately, shouldn’t prevent us from being regarded as believers, as brothers and sisters.
This is a thoughtful argument, and one with which many evangelicals, especially from a Reformed background, will identify. After all, we were all saved before we had produced a single good work, weren’t we? If ethical behavior can disqualify persons from final salvation, then what happens to assurance, or the perseverance of the saints? And if obedience—relationally, sexually, morally, financially—is essential for salvation, then haven’t we lost the gospel?
Not the Only Thing to Be Said
The problem is, there are lots of New Testament passages that warn disciples away from behavior that would jeopardize their entry into the kingdom. Jesus is emphatic about this point in the Sermon on the Mount: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father in heaven” (Matt. 7:21). “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:20). “Every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. . . . Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Matt. 7:17–19). As we continue through the Gospels, he tells story after story about people whose behavior—their treatment of money, other people, the poor, and so on—excludes them from the kingdom to come.
Paul, sometimes regarded as more of a soft touch on works because of his famous emphasis on justification by faith, is equally clear in his warning passages. “If you live according to the flesh, you will die” (Rom. 8:13). “If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him” (1 Cor. 3:17). “Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you” (1 Cor. 6:9–11). “Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Cor. 10:12). “Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry. . . . I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God” (Gal. 5:19–21). “For you may be sure of this, that everyone who is sexually immoral or impure, or who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God” (Eph. 5:5). In these texts, and frequently, Paul clearly connects obedience—and not just faith—with inheriting the kingdom.
Then, of course, we have John the Baptist (“Bear fruits in keeping with repentance”), James (“Faith without works is dead”), Hebrews (“If we deliberately go on sinning after we have received knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left”), Revelation (“As for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers . . . their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulphur”), and so on. Listing texts like this is an unpleasant exercise, in many ways, because it skips over all the glorious passages of grace, freedom, hope, and forgiveness that surround them, without which none of us would have a hope. But it also serves a purpose in this context: our actions can put us at risk of final judgment. Faith without works is dead, not just sleepy. Sola fide is gloriously, beautifully true, but it’s not the only thing to be said.
Faith Yields Fruit
I’ve deliberately avoided talking about either the ethics of same-sex sexual relationships (both Steve and Alan take the traditional view, for which I’m thankful), or the question of whether those who affirm such relationships should be called false teachers. Alan’s argument about the scope of New Testament language for “false teaching,” in particular, is worth considering, and I’ve previously made a similar argument myself. But if we start saying that the logic of sola fide means we cannot use the threat of final judgment to warn people—if we’re no longer able to say, with Paul, that “those who do X, Y, and Z will not inherit the kingdom of God”—then we’ve gone into dubious territory. To take the most extreme example, if I were a professing Christian who was regularly murdering people, it would do me no good at all to be assured that my salvation wasn’t at risk. It absolutely would be, and anyone who loved me would tell me that.
As Protestants are fond of saying, we’re justified by faith alone, but the faith that justifies is never alone. Rather than being a frightening idea, this is actually one of the most comforting truths of all. As I trust God, works naturally follow. As I walk by the Spirit, and abide in Christ, I bear much fruit. Producing lemons is no effort at all for a lemon tree. It’s only orange trees that find it exhausting.