Debatable: Can Christians Embrace Sin and Still Be Assured of Their Salvation?
[Note: "Debatable" is a occasional feature in which we briefly summarize debates within the evangelical community.]
The Issue Over the past year Alan Chambers, president of Exodus International, has repeatedly expressed his belief that a Christian can actively engage in homosexual behavior---or other sins---and still enter the Kingdom of God. "I do believe they (people living an active gay Christian life) will be in heaven with me . . . if they have a relationship with Jesus Christ," Chambers said in a 2011 interview.
After Robert A. J. Gagnon, associate professor of New Testament at the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, wrote a 35 page article criticizing Chambers' theology and calling for his resignation, several other evangelical theologians and thinkers weighed in to address the question: Can Christians embrace a same-sex lifestyle and still be assured of their salvation?
Position #1: Gagnon claims that Chambers position "severs the integral connection between faith in Christ and a life led by the Spirit of Christ."
Suffice it to say, no one can know for certain when a believer crosses the line into falling away. It is not a question of earning salvation (which the New Testament authors clearly state cannot be done) but rather of letting Christ live within oneself, to which faith (if it is true faith) always says 'yes.'
Rebuttal #1: Chambers responds by saying that Gagnon's focus on homosexual behavior rather than other sins is hypocritical:
Chambers: Well, I find it interesting first that this all centers around the issue of homosexuality and we don't bring in any other sin issue into the picture - the ones that are running rampant within our churches largely go unaddressed. Issues of pride and judgment and gossip and slander and other types of sexual immorality, gluttony, you name it. I think it's hypocritical and inconsistent for us to attack this one group of people over any other group of people that are within our churches today. If we were talking about one of their sin issues we wouldn't have addressed this at all. I find that hypocritical and inconsistent.
You know my issue isn't whether gay people go to heaven or straight people go to heaven. The point that I'm trying to make is that we as believers can have security in Christ when we are believers. We will all struggle, we will all fall prey to some type of sin, some will fall prey to the same types of sin over and over again. I don't differentiate between this one sin struggle than any other.
Position #2: Ben Witherington, professor of New Testament for doctoral studies at Asbury Theological Seminary, weighs in from a Wesleyan Arminian perspective:
It is one of the most basic tenants of Wesleyan Arminian theology that salvation is not complete at the new birth (or justification). The Wesleyan Arminian stresses that in fact there are three tenses to salvation for the believer---"I have been saved (the new birth), I am being saved (sanctification), and I shall be saved to the uttermost (glorification)." The Arminian does not believe that a person who has only experienced the new birth has completed the salvation process, or that the rest of the process is inevitable and foreordained. Nor does the Wesleyan Arminian believe that the behavior of Christians subsequent to conversion is irrelevant to whether or not they are being sanctified presently, or will be saved to the uttermost eventually.
Put in Pauline terms, it is perfectly possible for a person to experience the grace of God in the form of the new birth, and not end up in the Kingdom of God, or heaven for that matter. I like to put it this way: You are not eternally secure until you are securely in eternity, and this of course stands at odds with the fundamental Reformed position on this matter. In sum, Wesleyan Arminians believe that immoral behavior or apostasy subsequent to conversion can affect one's holiness, one's sanctification, and one's eventual glorification negatively. One cannot save one's self by certain patterns of behavior but one can certainly impede or even destroy one's relationship with God through sin whether moral or intellectual sin. God's saving grace and forgiveness is not cheap grace, and it does not rule out such a possibility.
Position #2: Michael Horton, professor of theology and apologetics at Westminster Seminary, weighs in from a Reformed Calvinist perspective:
If there is no biblical basis for greater condemnation, there is also no scriptural basis for greater laxity in God's judgment of this sin. It is as unloving to hold out hope to those who embrace a homosexual lifestyle as it is to assure idolaters, murderers, adulterers, and thieves that they are safe and secure from all alarm. Nor will it do to say, "Well, we're all idolaters, etc.," since here---in 1 Corinthians 6---Paul's concern is not to beat down legalistic self-righteousness but to warn professing Christians that they cannot worship Diana on Tuesday and Jesus on Sunday. Paul's point is clear: For Gentiles, sexual immorality (including homosexuality, within proper social boundaries) is normal, but to take that view is to exclude oneself from the kingdom of Christ. A proud sinner defiantly ignoring the lordship of Christ while professing to embrace him as Savior is precisely what Paul says is impossible. These passages do not threaten believers who struggle with indwelling sin and fall into grievous sins (see Romans 7 for that category); rather, they threaten professing believers who do not agree with God about their sin.
Rebuttal #2: In his second response, Chambers says the "great gay Christian debate is never-ending, one-dimensional, and somewhat pointless":
None of this is rocket science. I am not a Bible scholar (though I greatly appreciate them and their role in my life and in this discussion), but I am a believer in the one true Christ and nothing gets more attention or time in my life than him. While "theologian" isn't in my title, I do take studying God's Word seriously and read it more than any other book. So, as others identify as Wesleyan Arminian Christians, Calvinist Christians, Anabaptist Christians, gay or ex-gay Christians, I have to admit I am just, simply, irrevocably, a Christian. I am not smart enough and don't have enough time to know how those other labels would fit or serve me or those to whom I have been called to minister.
Let's get to the point. According to John 3:16, "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish, but have eternal life [emphasis by Chambers]." It is this verse that the majority of end-zone evangelists use to win people to Jesus. No one in Christendom---to my knowledge---is up in arms about this common practice or commonly used verse. And, while I don't hear anyone in recent days arguing over who can come to Christ, I do hear plenty of people arguing over who can stay in him.
Let's go a little deeper. Read Romans 6. All of it. It's abundantly clear: believers are no longer slaves to sin but to righteousness. That means we have been sanctified---made righteous---completely. It does not say in Romans or any other place that we won't sin; it says that because of who we are in Christ, sin is not our master---even if we make it so.
Scoring the Debate: As usual, it's hard to improve on the assessment of Denny Burk, Associate Professor of Biblical Studies at Boyce College:
Chambers says in the CT piece that he doesn't have the time or the inclination to understand different theological systems. But I would argue in this instance that he really needs to understand this one. He is leading a ministry whose mission is "to minister grace and truth" to homosexuals. Yet he's embraced a view of salvation that would lead homosexuals to believe that all they need to do is believe in Christ momentarily. After that, they can apostatize without that having any negative impact on their assurance of salvation. (I once heard a "free-grace" proponent argue that a person can believe in Christ for one minute and then worship the Devil for the rest of his life and still be considered a Christian.)
As president of Exodus, Chambers has been a compassionate leader ministering to individuals struggling with same-sex attraction. But his advocacy of a non-lordship view of salvation, often mislabeled as "free grace," is both dangerous and unintentionally hateful. Nothing in scripture hints that God will overlook our embrace of sin as long as we once mumbled the "sinner's prayer" in between bacchanals. Indeed, Paul makes clear in Ephesians, that such "sons of disobedience" are condemened:
For this you know with certainty, that no immoral or impure person or covetous man, who is an idolater, has an inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience.
If we love our neighbors we will present them with the undiluted Gospel---true grace, rather than a cheap substitute. It's only if we hate our neighbors that we can tell them they can profess with their lips that "Jesus is Master" while daily enslaving themselves to Satan.