Bible Study Fellowship (BSF) has done much good, teaching people the Bible. But I hope, like any other ministry, they are open to some constructive criticism.
This past semester they went through the Gospel of John. I was disappointed to read how often the Notes changed the promise of life from a message of salvation through belief in Jesus, to a message of salvation by obedience. It seems they do this most often by redefining faith to include good works.
But you be the judge of that.
Some Good Insights
Now, I’m not saying the Notes are rubbish. Not at all! For example, here are some good things in the Introduction Lesson:
“Eternal life comes only through personal belief in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, whom the signs reveal” (BSF Introduction Lesson, p. 3, emphasis added).
I’m glad the Notes say that you get eternal life by belief in Jesus. Amen! But I have to ask, what is the opposite of “personal belief”—impersonal belief? What is that? This kind of language can confuse people because it suggests there might be different ways of believing (impersonal vs personal), instead of different objects of faith (the saving message vs a non-saving message). The truth is, if you believe in Jesus—if you are persuaded that what He promises is true—you have eternal life. Period. It doesn’t matter if your faith is “personal” or “impersonal.” That’s not a Biblical distinction.
Something else I appreciated is how the Notes teach that eternal life is a present possession for believers:
“Unending life and joy reaching forever into eternity—that is eternal life! Believers receive this gift immediately. God never makes His children wait until after death, at the judgment seat, to receive life. When people truly believe in Jesus, they have (present tense) everlasting life and have ‘crossed over from death to life.’” (Lesson 4 Notes, p. 4, emphasis added).
I’m glad the Notes emphasize that believers have eternal life “immediately” and that it reaches “forever.” But what does “truly believe” mean? What’s the difference between believing in Jesus for eternal life and truly believing? I worry that BSF is saying that you can believe in Jesus for what He promises—eternal life—but not “really” believe if you don’t show it through your behavior.
I think my worry that BSF is redefining belief to include behavior is confirmed in the notes on John 3:36. That verse says,
“He who believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not obey the Son will not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him” (John 3:36).
Now, Jesus’ point is very clear. We are commanded to believe in Him and unbelief is disobedience. You ought to believe in Jesus for eternal life, and if you don’t, you are doing something culpably wrong. However, this verse is definitely not teaching that obeying God in our behavior is what it means to believe. It is not saying that good works are part of the definition of faith itself. But that’s how the BSF Notes take it.
“Two opposite attitudes and accompanying actions result in two opposite and eternal consequences…The attitude of faith involves the action of obedience…” (BSF Lesson 4, p. 5, emphasis added).
This is very bad.
First, it redefines faith as an “attitude.” That’s unclear. What’s an attitude? The Collins Dictionary says, “Your attitude to something is the way that you think and feel about it, especially when this shows in the way you behave.” Well the condition of salvation is not thinking, feeling, or behaving. It is believing. So taking the popular English meaning of “attitude” as the condition of salvation is not only confused, it also implies that works are a condition of salvation.
Second, BSF makes the condition of salvation faith plus “accompanying actions.” Isn’t “accompanying actions” another terms for “works”? Are the Notes saying we are saved by faith plus accompanying actions?
Third, BSF specifically redefines faith to “involve the action of obedience.” That’s even more explicit. Are they saying that if you “really believe” your faith will involve obedience? It sure sounds like it.
Put those three together and the BSF notes teach salvation by works. They teach the condition of salvation is obedient faith plus accompanying actions. That is not the saving message. That is the exact opposite of the saving message.
I’m sure many people attending BSF do not believe in salvation by works. I’m sure many people leading BSF do not believe in salvation by works. I’m sure many of the writers and editors of the Notes do not believe in salvation by works. But that’s what the Notes teach (in places).
If you aren’t convinced, then consider what the Notes say about John 5:24. Here is the verse,
“Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears My word, and believes Him who sent Me, has eternal life, and does not come into judgment, but has passed out of death into life” (John 5:24).
Again, Jesus very simply makes belief the condition of eternal salvation. But here is what the BSF Notes say,
“Whoever trusts in Jesus and commits wholly to Him ‘has crossed over from death to life.’ Immediately, at that moment in time, Jesus gives eternal life. This life cannot end, for it comes with Jesus promise that they ‘will not be judged.’ All who receive life from Jesus are free from God’s condemnation. They need not fear final judgment and eternal death” (BSF Lesson 7, p. 4, emphasis added).
Although I appreciate the Notes’s emphasis on eternal life as a present possession and the implied promise of eternal security, I have to loudly object to redefining the condition of salvation from simply believing to “trusting in Jesus and committing wholly to Him.” What does that mean? Building on the other Notes, “committing wholly” to Jesus must include actions, obedience, and other works.
That’s a big problem. Let me ask you—how on earth can you know if you’ve wholly committed to Jesus through actions of obedience? How long does it take for you to know? How many actions of obedience does it take to pass from death to life? How much do you need to do before you know that you “really believe” and need not fear final judgment and eternal death?
Pay Attention This Semester
I have not read through the Notes in detail. From what I saw, they contain many profitable insights. But I think they can be improved by removing the references to salvation by works and making it clear that the only condition of eternal salvation is to believe in Jesus for what He promises—eternal life that cannot be lost.
I understand that BSF will be going through Romans this semester. Do me a favor. Pay attention. Specifically, pay attention to how the Notes present the condition of justification. Paul repeatedly says it is by faith apart from works. He couldn’t be clearer. Will the BSF Notes agree, or will they try to say that works, behavior, actions, attitudes, and so on, are also necessary to be saved? Let us know.