“Enter ye in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat: Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.”
— Matthew 7:13-14 (in the King’s English)
“When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished, saying, ‘Who then can be saved?’ But Jesus looked at them and said, ‘With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible’.”
— Matthew 19:25-26
It is still scandalous to say what the Scriptures say, which is that no man who doesn’t take up his cross is worthy of Jesus (Mt. 10:38). Many are they who want to extrapolate from sola fide to something that is not fide at all. They assume oddly that because faith alone justifies, real faith may be alone, unaccompanied by works, or that the sum total of salvation is justification alone and not also sanctification.
We saw this in the relatively recent “Lordship salvation” debate, in which many solid Reformed brothers helpfully affirmed the classic doctrine of “faith alone” while also affirming what the Bible both says and implies: saved people are changed people. To have Jesus as Savior is to have him as Lord. It is not legalism to say the new birth begins a new life. Yes, we still battle the flesh—crucifying it daily—but this in itself is a change from the old life, in which we cared nothing about battling the flesh. We still have sin in us, but we are conscious of it, convicted about it, and concerned to be rid of it. This is not works salvation; this is the fruit of salvation.
Obeying the commands of God does not save us, but it is the way we prove saved. This is the testimony from Abraham onward to the new covenant. It is the testimony of James—So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead (2:17)—and of Jesus himself—”If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15).
What self-professing “easy-believists” think is that they are upholding the free gift of grace by insisting one can believe without actually changing, that one can have the benefits of Christ’s salvation without actually worshiping him as Lord, and some will charge the “hard-believists” with being scandalized by grace. This is because easy-believists are doctrinally dense and categorically confused. They say all one needs to be justified is belief—which is true—but they are hard pressed to define what belief is. They cannot explain how one can trust without, you know, actually trusting. Trust for the easy-believist becomes an idea, not an actuality. It is something intellectual, or less. The “faith” of the easy-believist means Hebrews 11 should consist of only ellipses. John Calvin says faith is an empty vessel, but it is held up to be filled. The easy-believist’s faith may be called a fog, except even a fog is visible.
Martin Luther ran up against this problem himself, writing in his Commentary on Romans:
Faith is not something dreamed, a human illusion although this is what many people understand by the term. Whenever they see that it is not followed either by an improvement in morals or by good works, while much is still being said about faith, they fall into the error of declaring that faith is not enough, that we must do works if we are to become upright and attain salvation. The reason is that when they hear the gospel they miss the point. In their hearts and out of their own resources they conjure up an idea which they call belief which they treat as genuine faith. All the same, it is but a human fabrication, an idea without a corresponding experience in the depths of the heart. It is therefore ineffective and not followed by a better kind of life.
Commenting on this, John MacArthur goes on to say about the easy-believist’s notion of faith, “It’s not faith at all. They just call it faith.” Luther again:
Faith, however, is something that God effects in us. It changes us and we are reborn from God. Faith puts the old Adam to death and makes us quite different men in heart, in mind and in all our powers. And it is accompanied by the Holy Spirit. Oh, when it comes to faith, what a living creative active powerful thing it is. It cannot do other than good at all times. It never waits to ask whether there is some good work to do, rather before the question is raised, it has done the deed and keeps on doing it. A man not active in this way is a man without faith. He is groping about for faith and searching for good works but knows neither what faith is nor what good works are. Nevertheless he keeps on talking nonsense about faith and good works. It is impossible indeed to separate works from faith just as it is impossible to separate heat and light from fire.
And there’s the key! Not only does the easy-believist hold to a faith that is essentially Jello, only less substantial, while claiming to hold more firmly to a scandalous grace, he also underestimates grace.
I am a hard-believist. I am a hard-believist because I take Jesus at his word when he says easy is the way to destruction and hard (or narrow, if you prefer) is the way to life. I am a hard-believist because I take him at his word when he says that with man, being saved is impossible. I am a hard-believist because I believe salvation isn’t easy: it requires the death of Christ. It requires new birth. (Anybody know what a baby has to do to be born?) It requires nothing short of spiritual intervention. It requires quickening, resurrection, cured blindness and healed deafness, a softened heart—none of which we can do for ourselves. We need radical intervention. We need the command of God, “Let there be light!” We are helpless to be saved. We simply can’t do it. Paul writes in Romans 8:7, “For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot.”
We require rescue. If it were easy to believe, more people would do it.
I am a hard-believist not because I think we have to do things to be saved, but because we can’t do things to be saved. I am a hard-believist not because I think life change is required for salvation but because life change is required of those who are saved. I am a hard-believist not because I deny grace, but because I affirm it. This is what I mean:
In the end, the essential trust here is not that our “life change” justifies us, but that those whom God justifies, he sanctifies. We trust that God is pleased to credit Christ’s perfect righteousness to our account, but that he is also pleased to actually make us righteous, to faithfully complete the work he began in us, to spiritually plant and grow righteousness in our lives. The Bible calls this fruit, and by this fruit we are known as Christians. This is not a denial of grace, but an affirmation of real grace, of the only grace there is, which is the grace that comes in the gospel that is power.
The grace by which we are saved does not stop at enabling some philosophical ghost we would like to call “faith”; it is the power by which we are saved and being saved (1 Cor. 15:1-2). Grace powers justifying faith, and grace powers corroborating good works. Grace powers new life.
The easy-believist, on the other hand, posits a de-powered grace, a grace effectual for a belief that requires no according action, a faith that needs no evidence, a new birth that leaves us stillborn. Their gospel is Sanka. It’s near-beer. Friends, don’t mess with that stuff. The free grace of God is transforming.