by Shawn Lazar
Readers of this blog know that our organization reviews dozens of books, so when I critique the Beacon Dictionary of Theology, it isn’t to pick on the Church of the Nazarene. I just happen to be reading that book this week. But if what is taught in the Dictionary reflects what is believed by many, if not most, Nazarene churches, it is important to point out how they are preaching a confusing gospel message.
In a previous blog, I noted how the Dictionary redefines faith to include good works. That makes works a condition of salvation. It isn’t as obvious as openly teaching that we are saved by faith plus works, but teaching that we are saved by faith that works amounts to the same thing. Works become part of the condition of salvation either way.
Sadly, the confusion I noted under the entry for Faith is also evident on the entry for Justification.
On the one hand, the Dictionary appears to teach justification by faith apart from works,
The ground for justification is faith in the redemptive activity of God in Christ. This excludes the view of good works as providing the basis for justification (p. 298).
If you heard that from the pulpit, wouldn’t you think that Nazarenes believed that justification was by faith alone? Wouldn’t you think that good works were not a condition of salvation—that they were “excluded” from being that basis?
Well, you’d be wrong. In the very same paragraph it goes on to say,
Moreover, faith is more than just trust in God’s Word, or assent to theological propositions, but essentially reliance upon God and commitment to Him as the Redeemer (p. 298).
According to the Dictionary, they specifically say that trusting Jesus’ promise of everlasting life is not enough to be saved, and that believing (i.e., assenting to) the theological proposition that Jesus gives everlasting life to believers is not enough to be saved.
In plain English, they are saying that simple faith in Jesus is not enough to be saved. Instead, you also need something called “essential reliance” and “commitment.”
Of course, the entry doesn’t actually explain what “essential reliance” and “commitment” are, so anyone hearing this message from the pulpit would now be very confused about the condition of salvation. What do we have to do? How do I know if I’ve done it? How long do I have to do it for? What does it feel like? What does it look like?
We don’t know.
At least, not from this passage.
But when you read this entry along with the entry on Faith, it is pretty clear what is meant—essential reliance and commitment means doing good works. In other words, while they claim to believe in justification by faith, they actually believe in justification by works.
This salvation by works message isn’t as obvious as you would find in the Catholic Church, or the Orthodox Church, or the Mormon Church, but it’s there all the same. Whether you believe you are saved by faith plus works, or faith that works, you believe a false gospel. Whether you think you are saved by faith plus circumcision, or faith that circumcises, someone’s going to be in pain!
I don’t know if this teaching is standard in Nazarene churches. But my guess is that Nazarenes who have been taught this kind of theology are probably not clear on the condition of salvation.
So let me be clear: it is by faith in Jesus’s promise of everlasting life.
That’s the only condition.
Now, the condition of being a good disciple—who is growing in his faith, growing in holiness, and growing in intimacy with God—is faith that works. I’m not discounting the importance of doing good works. I’m just putting those works in their proper place. The cart comes after the horse.
But the condition—the only condition—of being born-again and spending eternity with God is to believe in Jesus for everlasting life: “whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).
If you are persuaded that promise is true, you have everlasting life as a present possession, and you cannot lose it.
No works required.
Read through the Gospel of John. I dare you to come to a different conclusion.