The Fourth Gospel is the only evangelistic book in the Bible(John 20:30-31). Its repeated message is that all who believe in Jesus Christ have everlasting life that can never be lost (cf. John 1:12; 3:16; 5:24; 6:35; 11:26). The writers of the epistles, unlike the Apostle John in the Fourth Gospel, were writing to born-again people who already knew that the sole condition of regeneration is faith in Jesus Christ. Thus whenever they would write about justification, they were not evangelizing their readers.
The Lord made it clear that once a person has everlasting life that person “shall not come into judgment” regarding his eternal destiny (John 5:24). That one statement alone should be a show stopper for the idea of a final judgment of the works of believers to determine their eternal destiny. There is no such judgment.
The Final Justification Concern
Evangelical scholars from a Calvinist perspective once championed justification by faith alone. This stemmed from the cry of the Reformers, sola fide, which means by faith alone.
However, over the past decade or two, Calvinist scholars seem to have abandoned the alone in justification by faith alone. Sola fide has in effect become just fide.
At the recent ETS annual conference in Atlanta, the theme was justification by faith. I must admit that when I saw that, I didn’t think anything of it. However, it is odd that the theme was not justification by faith alone. While not all ETS members are Calvinists, the majority are.
At the conference, speaker after speaker, including leading Calvinists, spoke of things like final justification, the final judgment, justification by works at the final judgment, and examination of our works to ascertain who gets into the kingdom. Frankly, it was shocking and disheartening.
Years ago Calvinists would never say or even imply that a person justified by faith alone might not make it into the Kingdom. Yet at this conference I heard that again and again.
Evangelical scholars today are somewhat in agreement, both Arminians and Calvinists, that there will be a judgment at the end of the age in which each person’s works will be evaluated and those whose works meet God’s standards will get into the Kingdom and those whose works do not meet the standard will be sent to the lake of fire.
Assurance of one’s eternal destiny is now viewed as a bad thing by most Evangelical scholars. Fear of one’s eternal destiny is viewed as an important motivating factor in getting believers to produce the kind of works necessary to achieve final justification.
Why Not Start the Discussion in the Fourth Gospel?
The term justification is not found in the Fourth Gospel. Instead, the Fourth Gospel speaks of everlasting life or simply life (e.g., John 11:25; 14:6).
Let’s start with the obvious statement that anyone who has everlasting life is also justified before God. There is no such thing as an unjustified regenerate person or a justified unregenerate person. If you are one, then you also are the other. At the moment of faith in Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit regenerates the person, and God the Father declares him righteous.
The current concern over final justification is based on the theory that justification can be lost. If a person justified by faith alone cannot lose his justification, then talk of final justification is a mere formality and is of no concern. However, if justification can be lost, then one must fear not being finally justified.
But if we start with the Fourth Gospel and the doctrine of regeneration, the concern evaporates like steam escaping from a whistling teapot. Why? Because the Lord Jesus repeatedly makes clear that once a person is regenerated, he is eternally secure. He said that the one who believes in Him “shall not perish,” “has everlasting life,” “shall not come into judgment [concerning his eternal destiny],” “has passed from death into life,” “shall never hunger,” “shall never thirst,” and “shall never die” (John 3:14-18; 5:24; 6:35; 11:26). Those are all statements of the security of the believer.
There is no such thing as a judgment that will one day determine whether a person who has received everlasting life by faith alone will actually keep it and get into the Kingdom. All who have everlasting life have ever-lasting life. It lasts forever. It never ends. If it could be lost, then it isn’t everlasting life and what the Lord Jesus promised is not true.
People Have a Hard Time with Sola Fide
The bottom line is that the free gift of everlasting life doesn’t make sense to most people. The idea that a person could have everlasting life that can never be lost simply by believing in Jesus seems ludicrous to most people, even most people in the church today, even most pastors and theologians today, even most Calvinist pastors and theologians today. That is why they rail against easy believism, cheap grace, and antinomianism. That is why they speak of final justification by works before God, the final judgment, and the absolute necessity of personal righteousness for a person to be able to enter the Kingdom.
That is why, in my estimation, most Evangelical scholars today do not begin the discussion of soteriology, the doctrine of salvation, in the Fourth Gospel. That Gospel is too difficult for their position. Indeed, it contradicts their position. So instead they start either with the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) and Jesus’ call to discipleship, or they start in James or in the Pauline epistles and discuss the doctrine of justification.
It is high time that John 3:16 become popular again in Evangelical circles. But for that to happen, there will have to be a move toward the Fourth Gospel. As long as Evangelicals find ways to mute the message of the Fourth Gospel, they will be plagued by doubts about their eternal destiny.
As one who had a very hard time with the doctrine of sola fide for years, I understand the concern. I feel for such people. Lack of assurance of one’s eternal destiny is a terrible thing. People straightjacketed by tradition are spiritually and emotionally ill. Sadly most churches promote eternal insecurity and hence most church members fear spending eternity in the lake of fire. That is not a healthy way to live. It is not what God wants.
The late Dr. John Mitchell of Multnomah Bible College famously said, “Read your Bibles.” That is great. If I might slightly modify his saying, I’d say read the Gospel of John. Until you have a clear grasp of the promise of everlasting life, keep on praying and keep on reading the Fourth Gospel. Once you have that message down pat, share it, for we live in a world that desperately needs that message.