There are often two distinct levels when discussing an issue of Christian doctrine or practice. There is the level of personal conviction or belief, and the level of perceived interaction with others. For instance, when discussing such an issue as serving alcoholic beverages at a New Year’s Eve party, comments are often made such as “I’m fine with beer and wine, but I would never actually serve them at a group event, since it might cause problems for someone else.” Personal conviction is trumped by a sensitivity or strong responsibility to protect others from their own lack of ethical behavior. In reality, I actually believe that the outward perception is quite informative of the person’s own views, but that is not really my point.
This same sort of movement is made with regard to doctrine, how one expresses them, and what range of liberty is granted in wrestling with a particular doctrine. So, for instance, many people with whom I’ve interacted believe that one cannot discuss obedience as a part of the Christian life without all sorts of disclaimers to ensure justification by faith is not undermined. In many cases, the concern is given expression not in terms of the person’s own view (e.g. that my discussion of obedience is somehow weakening their faith in Jesus) but rather at the broader level, that my carelessly spoken words might cause others to be somehow more inclined to attempt to merit their salvation.
I believe both these concerns, those tied to ethics and those tied to doctrine, are fraught with error because they very pointedly level accusations at Jesus, that he was careless and incompetent.
On the third day there was a wedding at Cana in Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus also was invited to the wedding with his disciples. When the wine ran out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what does this have to do with me? My hour has not yet come.” His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” Now there were six stone water jars there for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus said to the servants, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim. And he said to them, “Now draw some out and take it to the master of the feast.” So they took it. When the master of the feast tasted the water now become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the master of the feast called the bridegroom and said to him, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and when people have drunk freely, then the poor wine. But you have kept the good wine until now.” This, the first of his signs, Jesus did at Cana in Galilee, and manifested his glory. And his disciples believed in him.
For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’ 19 The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is justified by her deeds.”
Jesus was careless in the extreme. By the sort of standard I highlighted above, he behaved recklessly and in a way contrary to how good Christians should behave. He provided over a hundred gallons of wine for a party that had already consumed all the wine on hand. He went to parties with the wrong sorts of people, not to stand aside and frown, but “eating and drinking.” Jesus did not have the sensitivity that so many today believe is essential to a proper Christian ethic.
Likewise (and this is my main point), Jesus’ teaching seemed to disregard and even contradict a whole hosts of concerns that are perceived as vital today on that second level, sensitivity to others.
And a ruler asked him, Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life? And Jesus said to him, Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone. You know the commandments: Do not commit adultery, Do not murder, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother. And he said, All these I have kept from my youth. When Jesus heard this, he said to him, One thing you still lack. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me. But when he heard these things, he became very sad, for he was extremely rich. Jesus, looking at him with sadness, said, How difficult it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God. Those who heard it said, Then who can be saved? But he said, What is impossible with men is possible with God. And Peter said, See, we have left our homes and followed you. And he said to them, Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not receive many times more in this time, and in the age to come eternal life.
Astonishing! Jesus is asked point blank how one is saved, and he answers in terms of things the man must do, all of which are tied to obedience, either to the Mosaic law or the specific call of Jesus. Notice that the question is specifically tied to inheriting eternal life, not meriting salvation. You inherit something because you are a child, not because you earned the inheritance. One does not merit an inheritance, because it is not a wage. So the ruler has asked the perfect setup question for Jesus to delineate faith versus works, but instead flubs his way through an answer that only highlights obedience. Returning to my point above, Jesus discussed doctrine in terms that sound awful ambiguous with regard to justification by faith. He did not offer disclaimer after disclaimer to ensure his audience did not misconstrue his words and immediately go seek to merit salvation.
My conclusion from all of this is fairly narrow. We should not have to be paranoid when discussing the Bible and its doctrines. If we are wrestling with the very words of scripture, we should not have to constantly pay homage to a doctrine that is not relevant to the passage at hand. Now, in so far as the Bible interprets the Bible, there will certainly be interactions between various doctrines and passages, but that is not the issue I’m addressing. Rather, at that second level of concern discussed above, we should be able to discuss, for instance, a passage that talks about some form of works without constant paranoia that someone will assume we are trying to earn our salvation. For instance:
When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. Then the King will say to those on his right, Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me. Then the righteous will answer him, saying, Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you? And the King will answer them, Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.
Can the final judgment be discussed in the terms presented here? Is it possible that Jesus wanted us to focus on this view of the final judgment without adding a bunch of disclaimers like, “Of course, the final judgment doesn’t really have anything to do with your actions or obedience.” Can obedience even be discussed without reference to merit? I believe it can be and should be, for the simple reason that the Bible does. Just as in my personal ethic, where I feel liberty to offer wine to my dinner guests without hiring a P.I. beforehand to figure out if they’ve ever had a negative interaction with alcohol in the past, so too I feel liberty to discuss the doctrines and stories of God as espoused by the Bible, without boxing with shadowy fears that are utterly absent from the writers of the Bible themselves.