A few days ago I told a little story about a justification test being administered at the Pearly Gates. If you missed it, you can find it here. And now comes a magnificent article on the same subject by Mark Jones over at Ref21.
It is not a trivial point. Years ago a woman, talking about D. James Kennedy’s approach of asking people what they would say at the Pearlies if they were asked “why should you be allowed in Heaven?” — with the correct answer being something like “because of the death of Jesus alone” — responded along the lines of “gee, I hope I remember to say that.”
The point is a simple one. We are justified by faith in Christ alone, and that is not the same thing as being justified by correct answers about justification by faith alone.
But in the comments to my post, a worthy objection was raised and it needs to be addressed separately.
“Except Paul says in Galatians that those teaching a Gospel of faith-plus-works are anathema, and says to those following that so-called ‘Gospel’ that Christ is of no benefit to them. Doug is using an extreme no one is playing at here. When the Romanists add works, our complaint is not that they fail to be 100% perfect on the exam, but simply that they add works — that is, they do the thing that makes Christ of no benefit to them, and everyone teaching that message is anathema.”
This point is well-taken, up to a point. What about those who, by advancing false methods of justification, reveal themselves to be false brothers? What about those who craft systems that attempt to lean treacherous merit ladders against the walls of God’s great city of grace? This includes, by the way, those whose systems of merit are entirely confessional and which insist that we deny merit entirely. When the heart is darkened, an adamant denial of all merit ladders is the most treacherous merit ladder of all — that thing is virtually invisible.
But the point I have been making is not that you cannot be damned because of a denial of sola fide. Of course you can. Paul warns the Galatians the way he did because that was a matter of some urgency. But our issue is quite a separate one — whether everyone who is confused or muddled by false teaching is equally damned. In Galatians, Paul is attacking wolves. We have turned it into a justification for attacking mangled sheep. Precisionists often operate as the clean-up crew for the wolves, finishing them off.
Look at it this way, and let us leave Roman Catholics out of it for just a minute. Could a man be damned because of his connection with the circumcision party? Of course. They were dogs and evil workers (Phil. 3:2). They were unruly, vain talkers, and deceivers (Tit. 1:10). That said, could a man be saved and useful to Paul in the work of the gospel despite his connection to the circumcision party? Well, again — because of God’s inexorable grace — of course. “And Jesus, which is called Justus, who are of the circumcision. These only are my fellow-workers unto the kingdom of God, which have been a comfort unto me” (Col. 4:11).
If Paul can pal around with Justus, I can pal around with good Roman Catholics (who are, for that reason, bad Roman Catholics). But — also in imitation of Paul — I reserve the right and responsibility to attack merit mongers wherever they might be, whether in the Vatican or in some high confessional tower overlooking Escondido.