Sunday, January 29, 2017

The Present Recipients of Justification through the Faith of Christ: Part 3 (Christ’s teaching on earth; Christ’s message to the seven ecclesias; the great white throne judgment)

Christ’s teaching on earth consistent with James and the Hebrew Scriptures

We find in Christ’s teaching to Israel during his earthly ministry perfect harmony with what James and the Hebrew Scriptures affirmed concerning human righteousness and how an Israelite was able to be just before God and worthy of salvation. What Christ affirmed (both implicitly and explicitly) concerning how people were justified and saved was, for thousands of years before his earthly ministry began, “the only game in town,” so to speak. This is not to say that no changes took place whatsoever after Christ began his earthly ministry; rather, the changes that did take place can be understood as being simply a continuation of (and a building upon) the “salvation program” that was already in place for Israel and the nations at that time.

At this time in history, it became the case that an Israelite’s faith in God could not be separated from faith in his Son, Jesus Christ. Faith in Jesus – that he was the Christ, the Son of the living God (Matt. 16:13-17) – became just as important as faith in Yahweh, the one God of Israel. This is made especially evident in John’s Gospel account, where one of the central themes of the book is that faith in Jesus as the Christ and Son of God is essential to having eonian life (John 20:30-31). Despite the emphasis in this book on believing that Jesus is the Son of God, it would be a mistake to think that, during Christ’s earthly ministry, “faith without works” was sufficient for an Israelite’s being righteous before God and worthy of an allotment in the kingdom during the eon to come. For Christ, the faith that was essential to an Israelite’s being righteous - and thus worthy of salvation - could not be separated from their conduct.

According to Christ, if an Israelite wanted to be saved and enter into the kingdom of God, their righteousness had to “super-abound” more than that of the scribes and Pharisees (Matt. 5:20), and it’s clear from the immediate context that this involved doing the precepts of the law (vv. 17-19). This sort of “super-abounding” righteousness is clearly the same sort of righteousness referred to as having been possessed by men such as Noah, Daniel and Job (Ez. 14:14, 20).

Although the righteousness that made an Israelite worthy of entering into life in the eon to come undoubtedly involved the heart rather than the external conduct only (we find this point emphasized throughout Christ’s teaching), it’s also clear that an Israelite’s conduct was in no way irrelevant or unimportant to his being righteous. According to Christ, it was not “workers of lawlessness” but rather those who were “doing the will of [his Father] in the heavens” who would “be entering into the kingdom of the heavens” (Matt. 7:16-23; cf. vv. 24-27). When asked by a young man what one needed to be doing in order to have life eonian in the kingdom of God, Christ replied, “If you are wanting to be entering into life, keep the precepts” (Matt. 19:16-17). Christ went on to name five of the Ten Commandments, as well as what he considered the second of the two “greatest precepts” given to Israel: “You shall be loving your associate as yourself” (vv. 18-19; cf. Mark 12:29-34).

Christ also warned his disciples against being “snared” by the temptation to break one of these precepts with the following exhortation: “Now, if your right eye is snaring you, wrench it out and cast it from you, for it is expedient for you that one of your members should perish and not your whole body be cast into Gehenna. And if your hand should ever be snaring you, strike it off and cast it from you, for it is expedient for you that one of your members should perish and not your whole body pass away into Gehenna…It is ideal for you to be entering life maimed, rather than having two hands, to be cast into Gehenna…” (Matt. 5:27-30; Mark 9:42-48). For an Israelite to “save” or “find” his soul – i.e., be worthy of eonian life after Christ returns to set up his kingdom - he had to “renounce himself and pick up his cross and follow [Christ],” and be willing to have his soul “destroyed” during this lifetime on account of Christ and the evangel (Matt. 16:24-27; Mark 8:34-38). To be unwilling to do this (seeking instead to “save one’s soul”) was to “forfeit” and “destroy” one’s soul, with regards to being worthy to enjoy life in the eon to come.

According to Christ in his “Olivet Discourse” (which pertains to events that will be taking place during, and immediately after, the second half of the 70th heptad prophesied in Daniel), all believing Israelites who will be alive during the time of “great affliction” must remain “vigilant” (Luke 21:36), “watchful” (Matt. 24:42; 25:13), and “faithful” (25:21-23). They must avoid being “snared” and “deceived” (Matt. 24:4), and must “endure to the consummation” in order to be “saved” (Matt. 24:13). We know that the “consummation” Christ had in view in this verse refers to his coming in power and glory at the end of the eon, and that being “saved” means being worthy to stand before Christ at this time and to enter into life in the kingdom (Luke 21:28-31). And based on John’s words in Rev. 14:12, it can also be reasonably inferred that the “enduring” which Christ had in mind entailed “keeping the precepts of God and the faith of Jesus.”

According to Frank’s position, Christ’s death – from the moment that it took place - automatically changed everything for every person alive on earth at that time, with regards to how one was justified and saved. That is, Frank’s understanding was that the truth which Paul dispensed to those in the body of Christ concerning justification became, from the time of Christ’s death onward, a universally applicable and relevant truth that everyone alive on earth had to understand and grasp if they were to be saved and “be on board” with what God was doing. Frank’s position seems to assume or require that a new administration began when Christ died, and that everyone was, from that point on, expected to understand and believe what Paul affirmed in Romans and Galatians concerning justification.

Although Frank’s position seems to require this view, I see nothing in scripture that supports it. Even according to Frank’s position, we have absolutely no reason to think that, during almost the entire decade following Christ’s death and resurrection, any of Christ’s twelve apostles – Peter included - had any inkling whatsoever that anyone would, or even could, be justified by faith apart from works, and that this justification was based on the faith of Christ when he died for our sins. Their belief concerning the kind of righteousness required for salvation was in complete agreement with what James wrote in his letter to the twelve tribes. Their view on this subject underwent no change during this period of time, because there was no reason for it to. No new, paradigm-shattering revelation had come from Christ that challenged what they believed concerning the inseparable connection between faith, works, righteousness and salvation.

Christ’s message to the seven churches consistent with his teaching on earth

What we read in the Gospel accounts is, of course, very much in contrast with what Paul clearly taught concerning both the eonian expectation and the justification of those saints who, in his day, constituted the body of Christ. With regards to those in the body of Christ, no sin committed prior to our death – or prior to our being snatched away to meet Christ in the air - can possibly jeopardize our eonian salvation. This is because (as argued earlier) our justification is “through the faith of Christ Jesus,” and the righteousness to which this justification pertains is absolute rather than relative. Our faith does not have to “have works” in order for it to be living, saving faith, since it is not our faith that is the basis of our justification, but rather Christ’s faith.

Although a new administration was given to Paul and involves Jews and gentiles being justified through the faith of Christ, it needs to be emphasized that the “salvation program” according to which Israelites could be saved - and which Christ affirmed during his earthly ministry - did not terminate for Israel at the time of Christ’s death and resurrection. Nor did it terminate when Paul’s administration began. What changed during the time period covered by Acts was not the termination of the old program of salvation for Israel, but rather the introduction of a new program of salvation at the start of Paul’s administration (which, from that point on, ran parallel with Israel’s “old” salvation program).

That the salvation program according to which Israelites could be saved during Christ’s earthly ministry did not terminate with Christ’s death and resurrection is evident from the post- ascension words of Christ himself. In the 2nd and 3rd chapters of the book of Revelation, we find Christ delivering messages to the “messengers” of seven different churches in Asia. Although I believe these churches will all exist at a future time (and were not in existence at the time John wrote Revelation), it should be noted that a fulfilled, “historical” interpretation of Revelation 2-3 (which views these churches as contemporaneous with John at the time he wrote) is equally consistent with the position being advanced in this article.

Regardless of whether these churches existed in John’s day or will exist at some future time, the point that needs to be emphasized is that Christ’s messages to these churches all presuppose the same view of salvation as that found in both the Gospel accounts and in James’ letter – i.e., one’s being worthy of life during the eons of Christ’s reign is dependent on both faith and works/conduct. From the perspective of the to whom Christ delivered the words in these chapters, their future salvation is not something that will come to pass irrespective of what they do and how they live; rather, to be worthy of having life in the kingdom during the eons of Christ’s reign will require continued obedience, diligence and faithfulness. And if they “stumble” in this regard, repentance will be absolutely necessary (followed, of course, by a commitment to doing what they were doing before they were in need of repentance). In short, their being saved at the consummation will require “conquering”:

“I am aware of your acts, and your toil, and your endurance…But I have against you that you leave your first love. Remember, then, whence you have fallen, and repent, and do the former acts. Yet if not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, if ever you should not be repenting…To the one who is conquering, I will be granting to be eating of the tree of life which is in the center of the paradise of God” (Rev. 2:2-7).

“Become faithful until death, and I shall be giving you the wreath of life…the one who is conquering will not be injured by the second death” (Rev. 2:10).

“I will give to each of you as your works deserve…the one who is conquering and who is keeping my acts until the consummation, to him will I be giving authority over the nations” (Rev. 2:23, 26-28).

“I am aware of your acts, that you have a name that you are living, and are dead. Become watchful, and establish the rest who were about to be dying; for I have not found your acts completed in the sight of my God…Yet you have a few names in Sardis who have not soiled their clothes. They will walk with me, dressed in white, for they are worthy. The one who is conquering will be clothed thus in white garments, and under no circumstances will I be erasing his name from the scroll of life. I will confess his name before my Father and before his messengers.” (Rev. 3:1-5)

As noted earlier, this view of what makes one righteous and thus worthy of life in the eons to come is precisely what James affirmed in his letter. One’s being “just” (and thus “justified”) depended on “discharging the royal law” and doing the sort of works by means of which one’s faith was perfected. Failing to “endure trial” by transgressing the law (and thus “working sin”) jeopardized one’s future salvation, and disqualified one from obtaining the “wreath of life” (which, as we’ve seen from Christ’s words above, means being worthy of life during the eons to come rather than having one’s name erased from the “scroll of life” and being among those who will be “injured by the second death”). Their justification was not “through the faith of Christ,” because if it was, there would be no danger of their losing or forfeiting the “wreath of life,” or of their being erased from the “scroll of life.” Their receiving eonian life would be just as secure as Christ’s present life, since the basis for their deserving it would be Christ’s own righteousness, rather than their own.

What about the "Great White Throne Judgment?"

Before considering the rest of the “circumcision letters,” I’d like to conclude this section with a few remarks on the “great white throne” judgment described in Revelation 20:11-15. In this passage, we read of “the dead, the great and the small, standing before the throne.” We read that scrolls will be opened, and that, in addition to these scrolls, there will be a scroll opened that John identifies as being the “scroll of life.” John then tells us that everyone he saw appearing before the great white throne were “judged by that which is written in the scrolls in accord with their acts” (vv. 12-13). John later added that “if anyone was not found written in the scroll of life, he was cast into the lake of fire” (v. 15).

The belief of most students of Scripture throughout history – and, perhaps most notably among those in the body of Christ today, A.E. Knoch - is that no one being judged at this judgment will be “found written in the scroll of life.” That is, it is commonly believed that all who will be appearing before the great white throne will end up being cast into the lake of fire. One of the beliefs that seems to underpin this popular view is that the standard by which God will be judging people at this time is God’s absolute righteousness – i.e., the righteousness that is “through Jesus Christ’s faith,” and which is “for all, and on all who are believing” (Rom. 3:21-22).

However, when we keep in mind that there were righteous, believing pre-Israelites (such as Abel, Enoch, Noah, Melchizedek, Job, etc.), the view that all who will be judged at the Great White Throne will be cast into the lake of fire is very much undermined. This category of righteous people - being non-Israelites - will not be among those raised by Christ at the "former resurrection" (Rev. 20:5) to enjoy an allotment in the land of Israel during the millennial reign. And we have no scriptural reason to deny that they’ll be among those judged at the great white throne judgment. However, since Hebrews 11 leaves us little doubt that they will have an allotment on the new earth during the last and greatest eon, we can conclude that their names are written in the “scroll of life.” The people in this category (i.e., righteous pre-Israelites) are not, therefore, going to be cast into the lake of fire. And if that’s the case, then the same can be said for righteous non-Israelites who lived in subsequent time periods – including those alive today, who aren’t members of the body of Christ.

Now, if the standard by which people are going to be judged is the absolute righteousness of God, then no one outside of those in the body of Christ will be found in the “scroll of life,” and will be able to avoid being cast into the lake of fire. Since some – perhaps many – human beings will, in fact, be found in the scroll of life, then it follows that the standard according to which people will be judged at the great white throne is not the absolute righteousness of God. Rather, the sort of righteousness that will qualify people for inclusion in the scroll of life (and thus eonian life on the new earth) will be a relative righteousness.  

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