Tuesday, November 20, 2012

On Interviews & Testimonies, Part II

Continued from Part I.

Another problem I've observed in interviews conducted with the intention of discovering the authenticity of someone's faith has to do with a popular set of "diagnostic" questions.  Of course, we have to ask diagnostic questions of the one being interviewed.  It's not so much the questions that are the problem; rather, the answers that are given need to be wisely analyzed.  Whatever answers our questions provoke must be carefully evaluated.  Too often we react to the sound of certain words and phrases and are too eager to jump to cookie-cutter conclusions about the person's spiritual status.  So what am I talking about?

Probably the most popular set of diagnostic questions for evangelically oriented elders and boards are the two Evangelism Explosion (EE) questions:  

1.  Have you come to the place in your spiritual life where you can say you know for certain that if you were to die today you would go to heaven?

2.  Suppose that you were to die today and stand before God and he were to say to you, "Why should I let you into my heaven?" what would you say?

I've used these questions many times in my conversations with people and on evangelistic forays into the neighborhood around the churches I've served.  They are not bad questions.  They can be productive conversation starters.  But evaluating the answers given to these questions is a lot harder than is commonly thought.  For one thing, we need to be very careful about jumping to quick conclusions about somebody's spiritual life and relationship to God based on their short, off-the-cuff answers to these two questions.  I've seen young Christians and wiser elders draw unwarranted conclusions about a person's "unsaved" status simply because the person being interviewed didn't answer these questions with familiar terminology or used words and phrases that evoked "works righteousness" fears.  And conversely, just because a person knows all the right lingo in response to questions like this doesn't mean they are genuine believers. Are these issues for which school and elder boards are thoughtfully prepared?   I want to unpack this a little bit more.

First, because many evangelical Christians have been asked these or similar questions all their lives, they may mistakenly conclude that their encounter with God at death will be all about providing him with the right answers to similar questions.  I'm convinced some people actually believe that what will be required of them at death is giving theologically correct answers to God's diagnostic questions.  That the focus will be on what they say or even how they think about themselves and Jesus' life and work.  Now, what I am about to say is going to sound odd and even wrong to a lot of evangelicals, but hear me out.

Our evaluation before God at death will not be conducted as an interview and we will not be judged based on what we say or think.  Our words will have very little, if anything to do with it.  As Jesus warns near the conclusion of his Sermon on the Mount, "Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my father who is in heaven" (Matt. 6:21).  The authenticity of our professed faith—of what we say we believe—will be evaluated according to how we have behaved.

Don't twist what I am saying here.  We are saved by grace through faith alone because of the finished work of Christ on our behalf.  Our works do not merit or earn God's favor.  We simply trust his promises in order to be forgiven and delivered from sin, death, and the devil.  Even so, it is clear from the Bible that the authenticity of our faith will be evaluated by an examination of our behavior as professing Christians.  People can say all the right things, but if their lives show no evidence or fruit of a lively faith, then their theological precision will count for nothing.

Think about another passage from the Gospel according to St. Matthew.  In chapter 25 Jesus tells the story of the sheep and the goats before his judgment seat.  Jesus says to the sheep, "Inherit the kingdom prepared for you. . . for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me. . ."  You know the rest of the story. The sheep are surprised. "When did we feed you and welcome you?" they say.  Jesus responds, "Truly I say to you, as you did it to the least of one of these my brothers, you did it to me." And, of course, the goats didn't show any mercy or care for the needy and so they are condemned.

The judgment is all about the behavior of the sheep and goats.  But these good works are not really works that earn the sheep heaven because the sheep don't realize that they have done anything special. Caring for other people was such a part of their (redeemed) nature, that they were produced "naturally"—like a good tree naturally producing good fruit.  In the same way, the goats don't realize that they have done anything wrong. "The Great Surprise" may be a more appropriate title to this text than "The Final Judgment."

The righteous are surprised. They haven't kept score. Their left hand didn't seem to know what their right hand had been doing (Matthew 6:3).  This makes it pretty clear that the works of the sheep did not earn them acceptance with the King. They did not show mercy to Jesus' brothers for the purpose of meriting eternal life for themselves.  They weren't looking for a reward, so they are surprised when they get one.  We have to be careful not to misread the parable.  The sheep are not blessed because of the quantity or quality of their accomplishments.  Jesus doesn't say in effect, "Here, you guys get to come into heaven because you have earned it with these drums full of industrial strength good deeds.  That is enough to merit my love and favor.  Come on in."  No.  The "good works" of the sheep, the blessed, the righteous, are not presented as "meritorious good works."  The King does not say that the sheep have compiled a fine moral record and so deserve to go to heaven.

Having said that, we have to recognize that at the last judgment our works will be evaluated and they will reveal our true allegiance.  It is the universal testimony of the Bible that the last judgment will examine our behavior, our lives in order to uncover the authenticity of our professed faith.  If you don't like this, if you want to avoid this, then you will have to invent another religion.  Because the Christian faith is pretty clear.
"For the Son of Man is going to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay each person according to what he has done" (Matt. 16:27).
"Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment" (John 5.28-29).
But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed. He will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury. There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. For God shows no partiality (Rom. 2:5-11).
For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil (2 Cor. 5:10). 
Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. . . and the dead where judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done (Rev. 20:11-12).
Notice what is highlighted in these passages on the last judgment. It's not that every little moral infraction of the law gets dragged out for all to see. There's no indication that this will happen for Christians. After all, we are forgiven. And notice, too, that there's no mention of super-works or great heroic acts of "spirituality." Rather, the overall shape of our lives is examined. What is revealed is the dominant theme of our lives, especially how we lived in relation to one another. And that's because we are not saved because we did not sin or because we performed enough good works of sufficient quality. Rather, our salvation will be proven by the kind of life we lived by God's grace.

Zechariah and Elizabeth were not perfect, sinless saints.  But Luke characterizes them this way: "They were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statues of the Lord" (Luke 2:6).  Something similar is said of Job (Job 1:1), of Simeon (Luke 2:25), of Joseph of Arimathea (Luke 23:50), and others. When the Apostle John warns, "If anyone says, 'I love God," and hates his brother, he is a liar" (1 John 4:20) or when he says, "Whoever says 'I know him' but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him," he is not talking about sinless perfection.  He is talking about living humbly before God, regularly confessing our sins and accepting God's forgiveness, and seeking to conform our lives to the dictates of love as they are fleshed out in the commandments.

So what does this have to do with our interview process?  I'm out of space, so I'll tackle that in the next installment.

Go to Part III.


Unknown said...

Fantastic series of essays.

I think the distinction that you are pointing out is between our internal disposition to God/Jesus and our report of our internal disposition. These remain conflated in the American evangelical scene and worse they remain conflated in the (Southern) American Presbyterian (and Reformed Baptist) scheme of examination.

If articulation is not a part of definite sanctification (wholly given at the time of conversion) then it seems the scheme doesn't really do what it sets out to do. It's faulty on its own account. There's no biblical evidence that the examination system will let it the faithful and exclude the faithless.

Also there's a hidden value that exclusion of faithful is an acceptable result while inclusion of the faithless must be avoided at peril. I am not sure that they trade-off has been truly articulated biblically. I have seen a tacit appeal to Jer 31: "We all KNOW that everyone in the new covenant has faith." But I can't buy that exegesis.

Keep the posts coming.

JWC said...

Jeff, one question that has occurred to me: If we were to consistently apply our principles, when would we ever have to conduct such an interview?

It seems to me that a baptized person ought (apart from the strictures of the BCO...) to be eligible for the table. So, we would never have to interview our children for admission to the table.

Furthermore, when we receive new members, we should receive them on the basis of 1) their baptisms, and 2) their transfer from good standing in another Christian church.

I guess the one time we would still find ourselves doing this is upon "interviewing" an adult convert for baptism?

Just thinking out loud...

Jeff Meyers said...

I agree with this, JWC. I also do interviews with parents for a local Christian school. Some schools interview prospective children as well. And we also interview candidates for the offices of elder and deacon in the local church, as well as candidates for ordination in presbytery. So there's all sorts of situations where we do interviews. I'm not so much defending every type of interview. Rather, I'm saying if we are going to do interviews, then let's think about their limitations and dangers.