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A Different Way to Understand Salvation Through Faith

Summary:
One of the trickiest aspects of Protestantism is the notion of “salvation through faith alone,” as opposed to works. This is obviously a huge area of theological controversy, with many nuances in each denomination’s position. (This Wikipedia article gives an idea of the issues involved.) For our purposes here, the reason this doctrine seems so perverse from a worldly perspective is that a serial killer who repents on his death bed “goes to heaven,” while a law-abiding, friendly guy who simply can’t believe thousand-year-old stories about a guy walking on water “goes to hell.” One of the classic verses to support the Protestant position comes from Romans 4: 1What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh? 2For if

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One of the trickiest aspects of Protestantism is the notion of “salvation through faith alone,” as opposed to works. This is obviously a huge area of theological controversy, with many nuances in each denomination’s position. (This Wikipedia article gives an idea of the issues involved.)

For our purposes here, the reason this doctrine seems so perverse from a worldly perspective is that a serial killer who repents on his death bed “goes to heaven,” while a law-abiding, friendly guy who simply can’t believe thousand-year-old stories about a guy walking on water “goes to hell.”

One of the classic verses to support the Protestant position comes from Romans 4:

1What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh? 2For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. 3For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” 4Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. 5And to the one who does not work but believes ina him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness…

Someone in my Sunday school class pointed out an interesting aspect of this (famous) example of Abraham. The point at which the Bible actually says, “And he believed the LORD, and He counted it to him as righteousness,” doesn’t actually occur until Genesis 15:6. And if you click the link and look at the context, you’ll see that earlier in that conversation, Abram (sic) actually didn’t understand how he was going to enjoy the blessings God had been promising him for some time, because Abram had no direct heir. It was only then (in Genesis 15: 4-5) that God spelled it out exactly for him, that Abram would have his own son as heir–even though Abram and his wife were very old at this point.

(To be sure, from the beginning God was promising Abram that he would be the father of a great nation, but it’s not until Genesis 15 that Abram directly brings up the issue of him being so old and still lacking an heir.)

Now if I understood him correctly, what the guy in my Sunday school class was getting at, is that Abram started obeying God (imperfectly) from Genesis 12. And this was some pretty serious stuff; God told a 75-year-old man to pack up all his stuff and move to a different country!

So we see a nice contrast between faith and works: Abram did a pretty brave thing and obeyed God’s difficult command, but that wasn’t what made him righteous. (And it’s a good thing too, because Abram obviously committed sins along the way.) It was only when Abram believed the promises of God that he was saved.

Now that I’ve laid out the context, here’s my thought: If you’re thinking of heaven as a magical place where angels are strumming harps, and you get in by accepting Jesus regardless of your sins, whereas hell is a furnace where you burn forever if you fail to love God, then yes it’s difficult for a non-believer to make sense of that system.

However, what if it’s more like this: God has promised paradise to those who trust in Him. To the extent that you believe Him, you are saved…right now. You have heaven on Earth, to the extent that you believe everything the Bible says about God’s character and what He has in store for His children.

If instead, you are cynical and doubt that there’s really a “higher power” or “something that makes sense of it all,” then the nature of man and what we do to each other–all the pointless cruelty and suffering–is a living hell. People can try to deal with it by drinking, drugs, or writing existential tracts, but it takes a loving Creator to fill the void.

Robert Murphy
Christian, Austrian economist, and libertarian theorist. Research Prof at Texas Tech and author of *Choice*. Paul Krugman's worst nightmare.

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