The Bible and Saving Faith
This is an edited transcription of a seminar Ralph Winter gave on June 1, 2005.
When we go back to the Bible we meet both Jesus and the Bible. As I was growing up I somehow got the idea that you could be saved by quote, “accepting Jesus as Savior.” Or that there there was such a thing as a quote, “saving knowledge of Christ.” Or that you could, quote, “pray to receive Jesus.”
But there is nothing in the New Testament that would lead to the conclusion that accepting Christ as Savior is saving faith. Even the phrase “saving faith” is dangerously likely to imply the adequacy of a purely intellectual faith. This latter idea led easily to the idea that the New Testament brought a new, easier way to belong to God. Of faith, not works. In the Old Testament people had to obey to be saved. Ugh. In the New Testament they just had to believe. Believe certain doctrines like Jesus died for my sins.
The common view of things is getting people across a line into a circle, a bounded set. The idea is that if you get inside the boundary you go to heaven. If you’re still outside you won’t. Rather we should talk about a centered set. A center to which we are all drawing closer, and I assume only God knows where a boundary is.
It was not until the New Testament that there was deeper understanding of the fact that there is an intelligent adversary personality which we must fight against.
I once read a book in which I discovered to my surprise the statement that certain forms of Christianity were further from the Bible than certain forms of Islam. I’m not sure if he was referring to the 14 million Ismailis in Northern Pakistan, who believe that Jesus is the Son of God. Later I learned that Mohammed, in insisting that Jesus did not die but was taking directly to heaven, was not denying the deity of Christ but was protecting it from the implication that the Jews had the power to kill him.
I learned that in all the Koran, no one is more highly exalted than Jesus who is presented, unlike Mohammed himself, as having the attributes of divinity, and that the concept of the Trinity refused by Mohammed, was in fact a perverse concept that we ourselves today reject.
Then in my own teaching at Fuller I finally realized that the volcanic blast of the Greek Bible, that is to say, when the Bible finally appeared in the Greek language, which was a very, very widespread language, that sent ripples in all directions. When it invaded the Greek and Latin world it produced Eastern Orthdoxy and Roman Catholic traditions. It’s later impact on the Semitic world was Islam. It’s later impact on the Teutonic world was Protestantism. It’s impact on the Ango-Saxon world was Anglicanism.
All these traditions are quite defective in many ways if we compare them to the Bible. Islam is, in some ways, more defective, because Mohammed did not have access to the entire Bible, any more than the Christians he dealt with had. But Luther did. But in other ways, Islam is closer to the Bible than evangelicalism. And unlike the Catholic traditions, Muslims at least don’t have a goddess to whom they must pray.
I continue to understand the Bible better. None of the early followers of Jesus called themselves Christians. That term meant something like “Messiah-nut,” and was an outsiders’ term of derision that only 300 years later became a political term for the Greek and Latin forms of Christianity and by now is claimed by people from Jehovah’s Witnesses to Mormons to Christian Science.
What did believers in the New Testament call themselves? It is even possible that in a Semitic language, like Aramaic, that Jesus spoke, or Syriac, or Arabic, they called themselves Muslims. And of course, for 600 years, Christians in the Semitic sphere prayed to Allah, before Mohammed was born. And 30 million pray to Allah today with Allah right there in the Bible.
The Bible also liberated me from the zany idea that at a certain time in history God switched gears, to which a distinct knowledge of Jesus was from that point on, in the entire world, essential to salvation. Now that idea, this insight, in turn liberated me from the idea that Cornelius would not have made it to heaven had Peter not gone to his house and told him about Jesus. By contrast it is now clear that if anyone in the Bible was headed for heaven, Cornelius was. Peter enabled Cornelius to be saved from the assumption that God preferred the Jews and their culture and that to please God you had to become a Jew. He was rescued from that delusion, which of course didn’t prevent him from talking to God and God talking to him, as the Bible portrays.
That is, Peter did, as we do today, introduce people to Christ as the Redeemer of all mankind, not just the Jews. Indeed, that he is the only means of salvation, whether in the Old Testament they knew a lot about him or not. Knowing details about Jesus was a marvelous new insight, but it was not itself essential to salvation.
We have to get back to the Bible. We have got to realize that our Christianity has developed a sales talk that isn’t really faithful to the Bible, and that many of our traditions are really foreign to the Bible, and that doesn’t mean we should throw them all out, but that doesn’t mean that some of them are in contrast to the Bible, which is very, very dangerous.
Now, to me, the biggest difference between the Old Testament and the New Testament, in some ways, anyway, is not that we now have superior knowledge of the nature of God, by looking at the face of Jesus Christ, and seeing the glory of God. Now that, of course, is spectacular, even if not essential. But the really astounding difference between the Old and New Testaments, is the fact that you have 237 references to Satan in the New Testament and not one in the Old Testament, practically. As a person. The word satan in the Hebrew simply means adversary. God himself is a satan. God was a satan when he opposed a certain prophet. He was an adversary.
But it was not until the New Testament that there was deeper understanding of the fact that there is an intelligent adversary personality which we must fight against. If Satan is the one who perverted and distorted all of nature, and developed the outlandlishly violent suffering that goes on every moment of the day in all of nature, with all kinds of creatures killing each other, if this was Satan’s activity, along with dragging down Adam into a post-fallen original sin, a new damaged creation, we have monumental obstacles in becoming what God wants us to be. We were born depraved to some extent because of the Fall. Because of Satan’s influence.
It isn’t just getting saved, getting secure, but it’s getting enlisted. When you were listed in the Lamb’s Book of Life, you’re also enlisted in an armed force, in a military operation. Disease, which is probably the most prominent reality among human beings today, and also among animals—disease is primarily the work of Satan. And we should be deliberately focusing on that.
It makes sense to say that as long as people get to heaven it doesn’t matter how soon they die or how badly they suffer. Just so long as they get to heaven. You can easily say that, and that’s logical.
But you can’t quite say that it doesn’t matter to the glory of God. It doesn’t affect our understanding of the glory of God for people to be dragged down prematurely into death, into disease, into suffering. We can’t say that, can we?
We talk about evangelism and social action as if they are both nice things to do. But we do not normally understand the fact that the very gospel we preach is undermined by the pervasive assumption since Augustine that evil in the world is primarily God’s initiative and it’s our part to resign ourselves to it and to ask God what his mysterious purposes are, and maybe have to wait until heaven to find them out. That does not empower our gospel at all. Thousand and thousands of marvelous evangelicals live in two worlds. One the church world and one the real world, in which, as a matter of fact, it doesn’t make any sense.
Ruth Tucker’s recent book, Walking Away from Faith, underscores the fact that a very large number of thinking adults really don’t respond positively to that kind of a God.
What are we trying to get people inside this line for? Not merely that they should be saved, of course, and that gets them closer and closer to Jesus. Not merely that they would understand the wonders of God himself in the flesh. But that we would become enlisted. That, with Jesus we would be focused on a battle in which we would be involved. We would be following him not only as Savior and Lord, but also as Commander-in-Chief of an army.
The evils and corruptions and diseases and suffering of our time and poverty and injustice, and the terrible things that are happening—these are the work of Satan. We don’t fight them because we believe in social action as well as evangelism. We fight them because we do believe in evangelism—of a God who does not identify with those things.
If we want to come to the Bible, the Bible talks about “the Son of God appeared for this purpose, that he might destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8). The implications of that for mission and for restoring the glory of God in the minds and hearts of the peoples of the world, is very, very prominent, in my opinion.