The controversial statements by Alan Chambers and the criticism by Robert Gagnon rehearse age-old issues that Christians have wrestled with since the beginning: What exactly is the place of works after one is saved? What difference do they make, if any? I've been asked to respond from a Wesleyan Arminian point of view.
It is one of the most basic tenants of Wesleyan Arminian theology that salvation is not complete at the new birth (or justification). The Wesleyan Arminian stresses that in fact there are three tenses to salvation for the believer—"I have been saved (the new birth), I am being saved (sanctification), and I shall be saved to the uttermost (glorification)." The Arminian does not believe that a person who has only experienced the new birth has completed the salvation process, or that the rest of the process is inevitable and foreordained. Nor does the Wesleyan Arminian believe that the behavior of Christians subsequent to conversion is irrelevant to whether or not they are being sanctified presently, or will be saved to the uttermost eventually.
Put in Pauline terms, it is perfectly possible for a person to experience the grace of God in the form of the new birth, and not end up in the Kingdom of God, or heaven for that matter. I like to put it this way: You are not eternally secure until you are securely in eternity, and this of course stands at odds with the fundamental Reformed position on this matter. In sum, Wesleyan Arminians believe that immoral behavior or apostasy subsequent to conversion can affect one's holiness, one's sanctification, and one's eventual glorification negatively. One cannot save one's self by certain patterns of behavior but one can certainly impede or even destroy one's relationship with God through sin whether moral or intellectual sin. God's saving grace and forgiveness is not cheap grace, and it does not rule out such a possibility. Furthermore, it seems reasonably clear to Wesleyan Arminians that this was the view of both Jesus and Paul. Let me illustrate.
Jesus, as it turns out, has quite a lot to say about believers being in danger of going to hell. In the Sermon on the Mount, we have pronouncements like "unless your righteousness [and here Jesus is clearly not talking about imputed righteousness, he is talking about the character of his disciples themselves] exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees you shall never enter the Kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 5:20). He goes on to warn that if one insults a brother or sister by calling them a fool, he is liable to hellfire (5:22). Jesus also warns that the gate is narrow into the Kingdom of God, not because God's grace is limited, or God has chosen only a few to enter, but precisely because people choose the easy way in life when it comes to their behavior (Matthew 7:13-14)
The two-ways discussion in early Judaism was always about a choice between one course of behavior, to be avoided, and another to be embraced (see many examples in Proverbs). Jesus' advice is no different on this score. In Matthew 7:21 Jesus goes on to stress that it is not those who merely call Jesus Lord who will be saved, but those who do the will of the Father who will enter the Kingdom. Why were some turned away? Matthew 7:23 tells the tale—because they were doers of evil.
Again, the Sermon on the Mount was Jesus' teaching for those who were already Jesus' disciples, and undoubtedly the First Evangelist intended this same teaching to be a guide for his own Christian audience. Jesus was not into making idle threats that could never possibly become real penalties. Read again the parable of the sheep and goats in Matthew 25. While good behavior is not enough to get one into the Kingdom of God, it is perfectly clear that bad behavior by disciples of Jesus can certainly keep them out of it.
The same Paul who once said, "we have all sinned and fallen short of God's glory," also said, "Now the works of the flesh are obvious—sexual sin (porneia), impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like this. I am warning you as I have warned you before those who do such things will not inherit the Kingdom" (Gal. 5:21). Here again, the focus is on the behavior of Christians subsequent to conversion.
John Wesley too had plenty to say on the subject of moral and intellectual apostasy, namely that it is possible for Christians, and therefore they must guard their hearts and indeed their conduct closely. Read, for example, his sermon, "On the Wilderness State." The idea that salvation has nothing to do with holiness or sanctification when it comes to human conduct is simply an unbiblical theology of salvation. Holiness of heart and life is what God has in mind when he calls us to be holy, and it is wrong to presume on the grace and forgiveness of God as if it were a great big eraser which nullifies the effects of our conduct altogether, subsequent to conversion.
When it comes to same sex sexual behavior, the New Testament is clear enough that this is a sin under any circumstances. Alan Chambers does not deny or try to water down the biblical teaching on this subject as some would do. He simply thinks God's grace trumps such behavior, though Chambers would still call that behavior sinful.
One thing that surprises me in the controversy over homosexuality is the failure to recognize that when it comes to behavior, Jesus is just as strict as Paul is about sexual matters. Take for example Jesus' teaching on marriage and singleness in Matthew 19. Here Jesus basically outlines that a disciple of his has only two options: fidelity in heterosexual monogamy or celibacy in singleness. There can be no doubt that Jesus is affirming first of all that to have a marriage where God brings two people together requires one male and female, precisely because: 1) God made the species male and female; 2) because God brought them together and "joined them together" and because 3) only a male and female can couple and create a one flesh union which has the capacity to further populate the species. In other words, Jesus' view of marriage is limited to heterosexual monogamy, which is not a big surprise since this was also the view of all early Jews who wrote on the subject in that whole era.
Furthermore, the only alternative Jesus allows is being a "eunuch" for the sake of the Kingdom. Everyone in Jesus' world knew very well what a eunuch was. Jesus even expands the category to those who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the Kingdom, that is, have forsworn any sort of sexual behavior for the sake of the Kingdom.
The reason for stressing all this is simple. Neither Jesus, nor the writers of the New Testament allow that same-sex sexual behavior or relationships are capable of being holy relationships, much less relationships that lead to holy matrimony in the Christian sense. Nor do either Jesus or Paul suggest that God's grace somehow works as I once heard someone describe at a Bible study many years ago. This young person was a new Christian, and her testimony has to be taken in the context of the sexual revolution that was going on in the '60s and early '70s. "The way I see it, it all works out very well," she said. "I like committing sins and God likes forgiving sins."
While Chambers does not try to suggest that homosexual sexual behavior is not a sin, in effect he tries to bring in the same trump card, God's forgiveness, in order to suggest that one's behavior (in this case, one's sexual behavior) will not negatively affect one's salvation. I'm afraid the writers of the New Testament would strongly disagree, and the man who wrote the tract "Thoughts on Celibacy" (namely John Wesley) would entirely disagree as well. Behavior matters when it comes to final salvation because final salvation involves entire sanctification, and present salvation involves progressive sanctification of heart and life, belief, and behavior.
Robert Gagnon has a right to be disturbed about Mr. Chambers's recent pronouncements. It is not an act of compassion to encourage people to embrace a view of salvation or sexual behavior that requires less in regard to holiness than both Jesus and Paul required of us. Indeed, it is recipe for disaster.
Ben Witherington is professor of New Testament for doctoral studies at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore Kentucky. He is the author of many books, and his most recent—on grief—is published by Christianity Today: When a Daughter Dies.
Today's other related articles on salvation, grace, antinomianism, sexual ethics, and other matters include a news story on Alan Chambers's recent statements, a Reformed response from Michael Horton, and a CT Classic on "Lordship Salvation."
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