“More Gospel-Centered than the Bible?” Good Works in Salvation

Kevin DeYoung tweeted earlier today:

Let’s not be more “gospel-centered” than the Bible. The Bible is not afraid of words like striving, fighting, effort, and work.

What I am inferring from this is that he is referring to people who are into excessive “grace”, or what Bonhoeffer might call cheap grace. In Puritan times DeYoung might be challenging what was known as anti-nomianism, and what today, more popularly might be referred to as the ragamuffin gospel. Essentially DeYoung, as I read him is referring to the idea that it is okay and even necessary to “work” out one’s salvation; and I wouldn’t fully disagree. Of course the reason I am writing this quick post is because I do ultimately disagree with DeYoung; it’s his informing theology that concerns me. 

DeYoung is a Young, Restless, and Reformed pastor/theologian who thinks about work, effort, striving, fighting, etc. from a certain perspective; at least when it is in reference to someone’s personal salvation. It is this informing theology, of DeYoung’s that I, of course, see as the problem. Because DeYoung believes that Jesus unconditionally elected certain people for salvation; because he believes that Jesus only died for these chosen few; and because he believes that a sign of people’s election is persevering in good works, when he calls for folks to not be more “gospel-centered” than the Bible, he is calling for them to essentially prove their election. It is from striving and working out one’s salvation that these elect individuals can assure themselves that they are one of the elect for whom Christ died. In the olden Puritan days they would call this experimental predestinarianism, because it was an experiment proven emperically through works which could demonstrate if an individual was truly one of the elect. 

Of course the problem with attempting to prove one’s salvation was that it turned the person inward to themselves. This corrective that DeYoung is calling for comes from a certain theological vantage point. But is it really in alignment with a gospel of grace? 

A genuine gospel of grace doesn’t ground one’s assurance of election or salvation in what they do. Instead the ground of salvation in a genuine gospel of grace is in the vicarious humanity of Christ and what he has done for us. It does not tell people to do things from a ground in an abstract decree of election, but instead it challenges them to look directly and immediately to Jesus Christ. It encourages the bruised reeds out there to understand that strife, effort, work, etc. have all been carried out for them in what Jesus has done for them in his humanity. It calls people to a life of participation and gratitude, and to live obediently to the Gospel of grace only in and from the life of Christ through union with him. There is no call to prove one’s election through perseverance in good works and striving. But this is what stands behind DeYoung’s statement. 

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6 comments

  1. Thanks for this clarification re. the tension between faith/grace and works or working to prove show one’s salvation. The idea of one “looking (sic) directly and immediately to Jesus Christ” is a very good, simple (conceptually) and practical way for us to conduct our daily lives.

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  2. This just came up in Sunday school yesterday and was bothering me. 2 Peter 1:10 was cited:

    “Therefore, brothers, make every effort to confirm your calling and election, because if you do these things you will never stumble.”

    Specifically it was tied to the “make every effort” earlier in the passage to say (without what seemed to me sufficient interpretive warrant) that acquiring the qualities listed there is the means by which we confirm that we are elect.

    I just kept thinking, though, “Do we really want to say that the only way for people to have any assurance is to see certain levels of good works and qualities in themselves? Isn’t that dangerous?”

    That said, I did find myself pondering what exactly Peter does mean here. Any thoughts?

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  3. I don’t think that fits into a dogmatic construct that was constructed 1600 years later per se. I simply think Peter is calling for people to live holy lives for in that there is great confidence. But I don’t think he was teaching experimental predestinarianism.

    My forthcoming chapter in our next EC book (which is going to press on the 30th of this month) is on assurance of salvation in Calvin, Barth, and Torrance. I critique an inconsistency in Calvin on some of this, and then use the vicarious humanity of Christ as a better way to go.

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  4. Caleb, I agree with Bobby that I don’t think the 2 Peter passage is teaching an experiential predestinarianism or the practical syllogism. As always, context is key, and in light of the entire first chapter, it seems clear that Peter regarded the recipients of his letter as called and elect. Nowhere does he address them as though their standing was in doubt. In fact, Peter says in verse 1 that he is writing “to those who have obtained a faith of equal standing with ours by the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ”. To isolate verse 10 and read it as though it were teaching some form of experiential predestinarianism seems to do violence to the overall context.

    I think that perhaps a better explanation of this verse can be found when contrasted with the opening verses of chapter 2 where Peter is concerned to warn his readers of the false prophets and teachers who “secretly bring in destructive heresies” and seduce people to follow their sensuality, falsehood, and greed. In this light, the exhortation to confirm one’s election does not becomes some kind of introspective test to bolster one’s assurance, but rather a means by which Peter’s readers will be better equipped to identify the false prophets and teachers whose lifestyle presents a direct contradiction to the holy life to which Peter calls his readers in chapter 1.

    As an interesting note, Peter even states that the false teachers can only “deny the Master who bought them” (2:1) and that their punishment will be the worse on account of their knowing the way of righteousness and rejecting it (2:20). To me, this sounds a lot like “gospel wrath” that Torrance talks about, and this would obviate to some degree the idea that Peter is speaking of the kind of predestinarian scheme that informs DeYoung’s comments.

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  5. I agree, Caleb, it’s all about context context context. And as far as theological and inner-logical stuff goes it’s always Jesus Jesus Jesus and the Triune God in the Bible; not abstract decrees (decretum absolutum).

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