Justification by Death?
by R.C. Sproul
In the sixteenth century, Christendom underwent one of the most extensive and serious schisms in its history. The chief article that caused the controversy to end in division was the doctrine of justification by faith alone. The Protestant Reformation was not a tempest in a teapot. The issue that divided the Roman Catholics from the Protestant Reformers was not a secondary or tertiary doctrine. The dispute focused on the essence of the gospel. Some have argued that sola fide (faith alone) is central to the Christian faith but not essential. I contend, however, that it is essential to the gospel in that, without sola fide, we do not have the gospel. And without the gospel, we have no salvation.
One would think after so many centuries of dissemination of the doctrine of justification by faith alone, particularly in Protestant countries, that the doctrine would be firmly entrenched in the minds of Christian people. But such is not the case. Those who hold to justification by faith alone are clearly in a minority. More popular views are the doctrines of justification by works and justification by a combination of faith and works. These really reflect not so much Christian views of the matter as a Muslim one. In the Muslim view, a person’s eternal destiny is determined by the scales of justice. If one’s good works outweigh the bad deeds, then the person goes to heaven. If the bad deeds outweigh the good deeds, the person goes to hell. This view is held by many professing Christians, who still entertain the idea that they can gain entrance into heaven and into the kingdom of God by living a good life. As long as they refrain from egregious sins such as murder, grand theft, or adultery, they think they have kept their moral slates clean enough to get them past the gates of judgment.
As fallacious as that view is, there is a view even more insidious in its subtlety and thus more pervasive — the cultural view of justification that is widely held in the West. That doctrine is the doctrine of justification by death. It is an implicit universalism that assumes everyone goes to heaven when he or she dies. Perhaps the most rank evildoers, such as Adolf Hitler or Joseph Stalin, may not make it, but the average person certainly has nothing to worry about.
I was informed of how pervasive this doctrine is when I asked my son, when he was a child, the second diagnostic question made popular by Evangelism Explosion. I asked him: “If you were to die tonight and God were to say to you, why should I let you into My heaven, what would you say?” His eyes lit up and he looked at me with a shocked expression as if the question I had just proffered was the most stupid he had ever heard. With a simple shrug, he said, “Well, I would say He should let me in because I’m dead.” In other words, “Doesn’t everyone who dies enter into God’s redeeming presence?” Here was a son of a father who was by profession a theologian — a Reformed theologian — who not only had failed to grasp the doctrine of justification by faith alone but wasn’t even sidelined by a doctrine of justification by works. He was content to rest on his assumption of justification by death.
Of course, my young son’s confession of faith, or the lack thereof, is by no means an isolated instance in our culture. Nothing transforms sinners into valorous saints more miraculously or more frequently than death. Go to the funeral of the most wicked sinner you know and you will hear a eulogy that guarantees that person’s entrance into the kingdom of God.
What drives this pervasive belief in justification by death? I think there are several factors. One is a misinformed idea of the character of God. We are told ad nauseum that God loves everyone unconditionally. The necessary inference that people draw from that is simple: If God loves me unconditionally, then there are no conditions that I must meet in order to enter into heavenly bliss. In a sense, God, if He is loving, is obligated to give me eternal life.
The second driving factor is a widespread denial of hell. The whole concept of hell is so ghastly and difficult even to comprehend that we have a visceral response of denial to it. We cannot imagine any of our loved ones ever being assigned to such a dreadful place. We also find in our culture a rejection of the whole idea of a final judgment. Never mind that our Lord taught again and again that each one of us will stand before God and will be held accountable for his or her sins — to the extent that even every idle word we speak will be brought into judgment. No one escapes the judgment of God. We all must stand before that final tribunal and be judged not on a curve, not according to how we stack up against other people in this world, but how we stand according to God’s standard of righteousness, a standard that none of us will ever reach.
The Bible speaks of two ways in which people die. There are those who die in faith and, because of that faith, are linked to the atoning work of Christ and receive the benefits of His atoning work, including entrance into His kingdom. The other way that the Bible speaks of dying is dying in sin. Those who die in sin are those who die in a state of impenitence. Such people have never bowed the knee to the living God and cried out from their helplessness for His grace. Instead of clinging to the cross and coming with nothing in our hands, it is our nature as fallen creatures to try to bring something in our hands that will pay the price that needs to be paid for our redemption. This is the height or, perhaps, the nadir of folly. The only thing we can be sure of is that death will give us judgment. The question is, do we have that faith by which we are linked to the righteousness of Christ and all the benefits of His ministry on our behalf, or will we stand alone at that judgment bar of Christ?