It's been so long since I wrote the first two essays on this topic that I had to go back and read them again to remember what I had written. What I am trying to do here is work through some of the problems I have encountered when well-meaning Christian leaders conduct "interviews" designed to determine the spiritual condition of a candidate. The candidate might be a child being interviewed for a place at the Lord's Table or church membership or enrollment in a Christian school. Adults are also interviewed for the same reasons. There are any number of situations in which churches, schools, presbyteries, etc. seek to determine the spiritual status of another person.
I have observed that we tend to get stuck in a few well-worn ruts in these interview sessions. There seems to be a "tradition" of Christian interviewing that has developed over the years. Interviewers are looking for the right words and phrases. When we hear them, we relax and move on. If we don't hear them, we become very concerned. And not only are there distinctive phrases we are hoping to hear, there are also words that set off flashing red lights and alarms.
In Part II we saw that at the Last Judgment (the final interview) the authenticity of every professing Christian's faith will be judged based on his life and work. As I said last time, this does not mean we are saved by our works. Nor does it imply that somehow our good works will have to outweigh our sins. There will be no righteousness/sins balance sheet. What it does mean is that everyone who says, "I love Jesus" or "I love God" or "I was saved at age 16" or "Jesus died for my sins" or even "I'm saved by grace alone" will have the authenticity of his orthodox verbal profession either certified or invalidated by his life.
What are the implications for the interview process? A couple of things. First, we should rely more on the references of people who know the candidate. If we get good reports about the child from his parents, that should be given more weight than his nervous answers to questions hurled at him from a room full of older men. If the parents we are interviewing for our school don't have all their theological ducks in a row, then we should give due weight to the testimony of other's about their marriage, work, and general life in church community.
But even when we do get pristine pure Evangelical testimonies, that doesn't mean that the candidate is automatically acceptable. One must also carefully consider their life and reputation. Paul advises that a candidate for the presbytery "must be well thought of by outsiders," and that deacons must be "tested first" and "prove themselves blameless" (1 Tim. 3:7, 10). A widow who is being evaluated by the church for special care must have "a reputation for good works: if she has brought up children, has shown hospitality, has washed the feet of the saints, has cared for the afflicted, and has devoted herself to every good work" (1 Tim. 5:10). It seems to me this wisdom applies to every situation where we are trying to ascertain the authenticity of a profession of faith.
Second, we should be very careful not to accuse a candidate of "salvation by works" simply because they talk about their obedience or faithfulness. Let's say that a child is asked if he believes he will go to heaven when he dies. The child responds:
Yes, I believe so.Now the child is just confused and the interview has tanked. The interviewer was looking for the child to say something about Jesus dying for his sins. But he was asking questions that confused the little boy. He was not asking questions about the basis of his forgiveness, like: why is God able to forgive your sins? Or what did Jesus do for us that our sins might be forgiven. Rather, the interviewer was asking questions about assurance. How can the child know he is going to heaven? Questions about assurance are sometimes answered in the Bible by reference to our lives.
Interviewer: That's wonderful. How do you know that you are going to heaven?
Child: Well, I've been baptized and I believe in Jesus.
Interviewer: But how do you know for sure that you are going to heaven?
Child: Well, I also am obedient to my parents and try to live like a Christian.
Interviewer: Okay, but will that get you into heaven? When you get to heaven and God asks you why he should let you in, what will you say?
Child: I will say I'm a Christian and have tried to be obedient.
Interviewer: But how can you be sure you are going to heaven?
Child: I'm not sure what you are asking. I'm sorry.
"And by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments" (1 John 2:3)A faithful, obedient life (not sinless) helps assure us that we are truly the Lord's. It's not "works righteousness" for a child to find some comfort in his obedient relationship with his parents. It's not evidence of the heresy of "justification by works" for an adult candidate to point to his faithful life and service in the church when asked about the genuineness of his faith.
"If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love" (John 15:10).
There's a lot more to say about this. I'd like to give some more examples of interviews gone wrong with an analysis of the reasons for the failure. But that will have to wait until next time.
Continued in Part IV