Boo! Scared Holy (or frightening sheep within the fold so that they may be righteous)

image: ‘All Souls’ Day’ – Artist, Jakub Schikaneder (1855–1924)

Happy Halloween everyone. It’s that time of year again. This one is different though. This Halloween is the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. Luthermania. With the celebration approaching we are hearing a lot of talk about the enduring significance of the Reformation.  We hear also a retelling of many basic principles of the Reformation and the post-Reformation remains thereof. I am seeing a lot of conferences and special worship services that focus on those key truths revived in the Reformation. That’s a good thing. We are asking many good questions.

For example: What is the Church and its function? What is faith and its function? What is grace and its function? What is the place good works? …in salvation? …in the Christian life? …in the end?

It’s not all good though. Recently I heard an explanation about the ending of the ‘Sermon on the Mount’ that brought back unpleasant memories from earlier days. I heard it in my ears now as then – like a cry of terror, rather than a plain explanation of the text. It’s that chilling line where Jesus says, I never knew you. Depart from me… (Matt 7:23).

Their plea went something like this:

Christian, when you stand before the Judgment will Jesus recognize you as one of his? See here how Jesus warns us that some of us who have done many good things in his name will be cast into our outer darkness. Christian do you want you to hear Jesus say, “I never knew you”? Will you be shocked to find out in the end that though you have called yourself a Christian, though you have lived the Christian life, though you have given your time, your money, your effort to Jesus, he will turn to you and say, “Depart from me”?

Is this plea an good example of the adage given to young pastors? Your job is to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable”? Clearly, this approach to the text of Scripture may need to be tested for steroids.

One of the benefits I have come to enjoy about locating my creedal and confessional commitments in Reformed theology, broadly speaking, is that I find this tradition of theology by its nature a guard against errors that are very common in other traditions of the Church. But I notice that the above faulty interpretation of Matt 7:23 shows up in those who claim to Reformed theology as well as any other traditions.

Is Jesus really addressing the Christian in Matt 7:23 with those threatening and terrifying words? I don’t think so and in this case it probably won’t be your preferred theological tradition that will keep you from doing damage (like that above) to the text. What it calls for is good ole fashioned, work-horse exegesis and hermeneutics.

Thus, the question I put before you (the question I don’t hear being addressed): Does pressing for good works toward “final salvation” bring with it unintended negative consequences?

In a future post I will offer a detailed explanation of how we should use proper exegesis and hermeneutics to read and understand Matt 7:23. To the main purpose of this post I speak now to that question, especially for us who teach or preach the Word and may misuse a passage to brow-beat or scare the Christians we mentor when actually…

  1. …the text we are using is not the right text for that objective
  2. …and if we’re honest with ourselves we should see that forcing our view on the text is in direct contradiction to one or more absolute truths stated elsewhere in Scripture. Is Jesus really and truly going to say to Christians at the Last Day that he doesn’t know them? Of course not, but I have heard over the years many sermons or talks warning Christians with Matt 7:23 that Jesus may say to you, “I never knew you. Depart from me.”
  3. …and our use of fear tactics may be – and often is – the wrong motivator toward life-long devotion to Christ and Christian holiness. We have a ship load of many positive motivators in Scripture already. Why twist a passage of Scripture to create a negative one? …and a false one at that?
  4. …then as a result of the above missteps our tone may turn acidic and even argumentative which is not a way to “comfort” nor “afflict” the sheep within the fold.

Currently in the Reformed community there is a bit of tussle going on about “the necessity of good works.”

What I see missing in this debate about “the necessity of good works” is talk about the pastoral impact on the congregation, the people in our churches. We might calculate what impact will come of it in the future, but the effects of the teaching may not be ready for a full inspection for some time. However, we do have recent history that gives us a quite vivid insight into the use of scare tactics on the redeemed for the sake of their Sanctification.

It wasn’t that long ago in our American church history that Puritan theology (Calvinistic at least in its foundations) gave its adherents the double-dread that they must wrestle with the question of their Predestination by election at the front of their salvation and wrestle with the question of their Perseverance in good works at the consummation of their salvation. Am I one of the elect? What are the “visible signs” in my life? Am I doing enough good works? Will I have done enough in the end? In short, what if the Lord says to me on that Judgment Day, “I never knew you”?

Modern historians report to us about “Puritan angst” or “Predestinarian malaise” in New England such that “the agony and the ecstasy” of their salvation doctrines drove the economy and productivity as well as their turbulence of soul (1). Clearly, many Christian and secular historians and humorists have overstated the psychological condition of the times. The popular jest that “Puritanism is the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy” is good for a chuckle, but as in any situation there are at least two sides to the story (2). These critics protest too much, so much that they lay bare their wrangled motives more than a well-studied history.

But within New England, in the lower states and across the pond we do find in diaries, sermons, pamphlet battles the signs of “overwrought consciences.” That should at the very least lead us to ask from a theological perspective why that was so. Why would the robust doctrines of Calvinist teaching yield such fret and worry in those who profess them?

The thesis of this post is that we may think holding in front our people, those we mentor, our children and our fellow pastors and teachers the notion of good works as necessary for “final salvation” is just the kind of motivation they need to get busy, to drop those bad habits, to drive harder for Christ in all things. Sounds good, doesn’t it?

Perhaps not. Before and concurrent with the “rigors and terrors” (3) of Puritan theology we also see a robust stream in Reformed theology that pressed upon its readers or hearers how they must be about their Father’s business because their “final salvation” depends on it or expressed in similar terms. In fact, that was in the 17th and 18th centuries a common and according to some “the confessional” view on good works subsequent to justification. However, I think we can show that there was and still is – shall we call it a minority report – a view in Reformed theology that good works are not a necessary condition for “final salvation” (or final justification as some have called it). More on that in another post.

When the Puritan angst had finally burned itself out the next shift in American church history was one of weakness of doctrine and practice such that its hardened ground was a fertile soil for the beginnings of Mormonism, the Stone-Campbell movement, the Millerites followed by the Seventh-Day Adventists, later on the Jehovah’s Witnesses and other groups.

Back in the Puritan era they used a variety of proof texts (like Matt 7:23) to press for “visible signs.” The sum of their preoccupation with this was that the Christian – if he is indeed a true Christian – should be willing for others, especially church leaders to make a full examination of those “signs.” And so they did. Externalism gained steam oddly enough from the remains of a chilled Covenant theology. Church leaders driving the sheep toward “necessary good works” soured into layers of Externalism which resulted in dullness and a loss of piety for you guessed it, “good works.” When authoritarian interpretations of Scripture and attitudes that match them take prominence in the life of our churches the under-shepherds may be in the peculiar practice of giving from the right hand what the sheep need and then with the left taking it away. I’ve spoken with and tried to console many a Christian who feels like the sword of Damocles is over his head regarding their Sanctification.

These and more are the unintended negative consequences of telling Christians that they need to live so as to not be among those who will hear Jesus say, I never knew you. Depart from me. Like the old woman in Jakub Schikaneder’s painting, ‘All Souls’ Day,’ praying at the tomb – the grief may not only be for a dear one departed, but a grief also mixed with angst on the question of “final salvation.” Will there be enough good works that he (or I) may not hear Jesus say, I never knew you? The painting gives no answer and sometimes our misinterpretations of Scripture don’t either.

In the next post, we will look at how to interpret Matt 7:23 in its context.

Then after that a post or two on “the necessity of good works.”

1. Peter Thuesen, Predestination: The American Career of a Contentious Doctrine, KL275.

2. H.L. Mencken, Sententiæ: The Citizen and the State, p. 624.

3. Robert V. Wells, Facing the ‘King of Terrors’: Death and Society in an American Community, 1750-1900, 5.