I think we are all familiar with the Four Spiritual Laws booklets, either because we have used them, or we have had them inflicted upon us. The booklets are useful, but they allege that there are spiritual laws, akin to natural laws, and that we can use these laws to change spiritual reality, just as we can use natural laws to change physical reality.
I take issue with the whole concept of spiritual laws, because it implies that there are rules that God must obey. If God must obey rules, then the rules are greater than God, and God is not God. No, God is the sovereign King of the universe. Because God is a sovereign monarch, He is bound by no laws; He can do whatever He wants. So there are no spiritual laws at all; there is only God’s will. The reason there appear to be spiritual laws is because God generally wants the same thing all the time.
However, we can discuss the sovereignty of God some other day. My whole purpose in bringing it up is to introduce the following text from Romans, which is familiar to us as one of the four spiritual ‘laws’ in that little yellow booklet.
This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished—he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.
—Romans 3:22-26, NIV
Righteousness Comes to All Who Believe
The first sentence of this passage says, “this righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe” because there is no English verb that corresponds to the noun “faith.” In this sentence, the word that is translated by “believe” is really the verb form of the word “faith.” It really says something like, “through faith in Jesus Christ to all who are faithing.” However, since we don’t have a verb for “faith” the translator has to substitute either “believe” or “trust.” Probably because of the way this passage is traditionally translated, the translator chose “believe” rather than “trust,” even though “trust” would be more accurate. I have a modern German translation of the Bible (Die Bibel in heutigem Deutsch) that never uses the German word for “believe” at all. The translators always translate this Greek word as the German word for “trust.” Sometimes I wonder why our English translators aren’t that smart, because it would clear up some misunderstandings.
In English, the word “believe” has three meanings, and only one of them expresses the meaning of this Greek text:
- If you say, “I believe she is in her office, let’s go see,” you mean that you have good reason to suspect that something is true.
- If you say, “I believe in angels,” you say that you agree with the idea that something is true.
- If you say, “I know that John will do the right thing; I believe in him,” that is the sense of the word “believe” that the translator and the Greek original mean here. It means to have faith in a person; it means to have a relationship of trust and obedience.
When the translator writes, “This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe,” we could take the wrong meaning of the word “believe” and go away with the impression that believing in Jesus is something like believing that five times five is twenty-five. You might even think that as soon as you are convinced that Jesus is someone special, you’re in! However, that is not what Paul meant, because all the demons believe that way and they are not saved. What Paul is saying is that righteousness from God comes through trusting Jesus Christ; it comes to all who have a trusting relationship with Him.
Do you believe that Jesus died on the cross to save you from your sins? The demons believe it; they were there. Do you believe that Jesus is the Son of God? The demons believe it, and they are even willing to say so, as in Luke 8:28. But do we live in a relationship with Jesus that consists of trusting Him, the kind of trust that causes us to obey Him? Ah, that’s the way to go! No demon can claim to do that. That is what Paul means.
The righteousness from God is not something that is complete on Tuesday at noon when you realize that Jesus is Lord and say it out loud. That’s the beginning of your salvation, not the perfection of it. The righteousness from God is something that comes as you grow in reliance, trust, and obedience. If you have asked Jesus into your heart, congratulations, you have a good beginning! Now ask Him into your hands and feet as well.
All Have Sinned
Oh, this one is not a speed bump at all, you say. “All have sinned and come short of the glory of God” is why we quote this passage in the first place, to show that all are sinners in need of Christ. However, have you noticed that it does not say, “All have inherited Adam’s sin and are in a status of sin, even if they haven’t done anything bad in their lives”? Under St. Augustine’s influence, that is what we think this says even though Ezekiel 18 says it isn’t true. Maybe it is even true, but that is not what Paul says. He says, “all have sinned.” In other words, because Adam gambled away the family fortune, we grew up in a bad neighborhood, and so we have all actively and deliberately made sinful choices. We can’t weasel out of this one at all. We can’t push the blame off on Adam. We have to accept responsibility for our lives.
Nowhere in the Bible does anyone say, “Ask Jesus into your heart, and you will be saved.” Oh, it would be wonderful, because it’s easy. The Bible requires something a little more embarrassing than the Four Spiritual Laws booklet:
Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.”
With many other words he warned them; and he pleaded with them, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.
—Acts 2:38-41, NIV
Do you think we have an easier way to salvation because we have made great spiritual progress, or do you think we are deceiving ourselves because we are lazy and we would rather criticize the splinter in our brother’s eye than admit we have a beam in our own?
The Bible does not tell us that salvation comes by saying a spiritual truth out loud as if it were a magical incantation. It does tell us that we are saved by confessing, repenting, being baptized, trusting Jesus Christ to know the right things to do and therefore obeying His commands. If you have asked Jesus into your heart, ask Him into your hands and feet as well.
All Are Justified Freely by His Grace
Whoa, here’s the real speed bump! Paul says that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace.” That means that the people who have sinned and the people who have already been justified are the same people. In fact, it means the whole human race has already been justified!
This does not mean that everyone is already saved. It says justified, not saved. The word “justified” simply means that Jesus made it possible for them to choose salvation. In effect, that Jesus has purchased tickets to heaven and has graciously pressed one into the hand of each and every human being. Everyone is predestined to go to heaven. Predestination is not the same as predetermination. For example, if you go down to the bus station, you will notice that all the buses have signs on the front indicating their destination. If you see a bus with a sign that says “New York City,” you could say that the bus is predestined to go to New York City, because its destination has been set in advance. It does not follow, however, that all buses that are marked New York City actually get there. They might get into an accident. The driver might get drunk and drive everybody to Poughkeepsie instead.
Jesus has given each human being a ticket to heaven. No one can steal it from you. You cannot misplace it, but you can fail to use it. So Paul is teaching us that Jesus has redeemed everyone, and that is why anyone, even you, can be saved by having a relationship of faith, trust, and obedience with Him.
We know that no one is predestined to go to hell, because of Jesus’ prophecy of the Last Judgment. Jesus says:
Then he will say to those on his left, “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.”
—Matthew 25:41, NIV
The eternal fire was prepared for the devil and his angels. It was not prepared for people, therefore no one is predestined to go there. This is like the prophecy that Jonah preached against Nineveh. There is still time to escape through repentance.
I know this contradicts John Calvin’s theory of double predestination, which didn’t make it into his Institutes of the Christian Religion until the very last edition before his untimely death. All of the early church fathers except St. Augustine disagreed with Calvin’s ideas about free will and predestination. For example, Irenaeus (the disciple of Polycarp, who was the disciple of the Apostle John), wrote an extensive essay defending free will against what was then the pagan teaching of determinism.
One of the reasons Augustine converted to Christianity was because of a thought experiment[*] in which he disproved determinism and upheld free will. It is safe to say that Calvin, who lived over 1,400 years later, was wrong on this point. Perhaps if he had lived longer, he might have had time to discover that it wasn’t until Augustine’s old age, when the Roman Empire was collapsing around all around him, that he became very pessimistic and reverted to the determinism of his previous religion, Manichaeism. Augustine’s pessimism also fit the spirit of the age in which the Protestant Reformation took place, so it worked its way into Calvin’s systematic theology. Fortunately, Calvin was a reformer, not a prophet, so being wrong on a point does not diminish him.
Jesus paid the price for everyone to go to heaven. Each of us already has, so to speak, a ticket in our hand that says, “Admit One to Heaven.” So all we have to do is confess, repent, be baptized, and live a relationship of trust and obedience in Jesus Christ to use that ticket. Let us do everything in our power to make sure that everyone understands the value of that ticket, so that no one is lost.
A movie ticket doesn’t do you any good until you press it in the usher’s hand as you enter, now does it?