Humanistic Solutions for Sin
Crisis: Once a man sees himself as a sinner in need of a right relationship with God, his mind becomes a spiritual battleground. The devil tries to sell him false remedies. All these remedies have at their core the same lie—that it is within a man’s own power to eliminate sin and satisfy God. All attempts to correct the human condition by human means are forms of the religion known as humanism. Three humanistic alternatives to the gospel remedy for sin are especially popular.
- Self-reform. Many men try to salve a bad conscience just by trying harder to do right. But the effort to gain sainthood through self-reform is nothing new. Throughout history, both before and after the New Testament was written, there have been countless men who have sought moral purity through a philosophy or religion of self-denial. Yet, in the opinion of Scripture, none in this multitude of monks, yogis, and fakirs has succeeded. Scripture’s verdict is, “For all have sinned” (Rom. 3:23).
- Works of righteousness. Many men troubled about their bondage to sin have sought relief through good works. They might give money to help the needy. They might become involved in community service. They might even go to live among the poor in a third-world country so that they might teach them ways of improving their standard of living. But do such works take away sin? Titus 3:5 says, no.
The reason works have no saving value is given in Ephesians 2:8-9. If you could get to heaven by good works, there would be some who just made it and some who made it with plenty to spare. But God does not want any saint in heaven to feel superior to his brother. Nor does He want anyone to think that heaven is what he deserves—that God owes it to him. God owes no man anything. He gives us wonderful things solely out of His free goodness.
- Religious rituals. All religions except Bible religion place hope in man’s own efforts to overcome the problems of life.
- Polytheism. A man can avoid trouble in this life by giving honor and offerings to the gods who control his destiny. The afterlife is a shadowy unknown.
- Hinduism and Buddhism. The highest good is to practice meditation and other disciplines that aid escape from material reality into union with the All, which is a state of unconsciousness to self or any other real thing in particular.
- Confucianism. A man can do no better than to revere his ancestors, preserve social traditions, and practice self-restraint. There is no heaven to hope for.
- Islam and all other cultic offshoots of Christianity, including Mormonism, Jehovah's Witnesses, and a host of others. To gain heaven requires strict fidelity to the cult and its rituals, as well as a willingness to defend or expand the cult by whatever means necessary.
- Catholicism. Salvation is by taking the sacraments.
- Secular humanism (the antisupernatural religion of modern man). Life is just a journey to the grave, yet by the continuing development of his knowledge and power, man can evolve into a being of godlike greatness, and human society can become a utopia.
The Real Solution
The Bible offers only one way of salvation, and that is by faith (Eph. 2:8-9). The principle sola fides (by faith alone) was one of the rallying cries of the Reformation. The other was sola scriptura (by Scripture alone). The first set forth the basis of salvation; the second, the basis of authority.
Erroneous Conceptions of Faith
Hardly anyone disagrees that we need faith. After great tragedies, such as the 9/11 assault on America, many voices proclaim that only by recourse to faith can we recover from despair and avoid defeat. But “faith” means many different things. The several wrong conceptions of faith include the following.
- Faith with no object. When someone recommends faith, the right question is, “Faith in what?” Many people do not attach it to any particular object. In their view, an objectless faith is enough. They confuse faith with a sort of nebulous confidence that everything will turn out all right. But such confidence, disregarding the hold that evil has over man and society, is naive.
- Faith in a powerless object. In response to the question, “Faith in what?” many people readily give an answer. They say, “Faith in America,” or, “Faith in the future,” or even, “Faith in mankind.” But here again, their confidence is misplaced. They fail to understand that history is not on an upward course, but a downward course, and that man and his institutions are sliding ever deeper into wickedness (2 Tim. 3:13).
What alone can save? The best-known summary of the gospel is a verse that most Christians have committed to memory, John 3:16. “Belief” is a common New Testament synonym for “faith.” On the authority of this and many similar verses, all evangelical Christians agree that to be saved, a man must believe in Jesus. Saving faith is faith with an object, and its object is Jesus Christ (Acts 20:21).
But we cannot stop here. In witnessing to others and in casual discussions with people we know, we find many who say that they have faith in Jesus. But unfortunately, they do not have a saving faith. Why? Because they have a wrong idea of Jesus. Perhaps they think He was just a good man. By “faith in Jesus,” they mean that everything will go well if we follow His example. Or they think He fully realized the divine potential in all of us, and “by faith in Jesus,” they mean that we too can become divine. Besides these false Jesuses, contemporary religion is promoting many others, none of which has power to save.
To understand saving faith, we must look closely at the many New Testament texts that tell us how to be saved. See John 1:12; John 3:18; Acts 20:21; Acts 4:12; Romans 10:13; 1 John 5:13. We note two things.
- According to these texts, the proper object of faith, or belief, is Jesus Christ.
- Yet they are more specific. Saving faith is faith in His name.
The next obvious question is, what is His name? Before Pentecost, Jesus was known as Jesus of Nazareth to His enemies, as Master or Rabbi to His disciples. But on Pentecost, the day marking the beginning of the Church Age, Peter announced what we read in Acts 2:36. Henceforth Jesus was known as the Lord Jesus Christ, Christ Jesus the Lord, or Jesus Christ the Lord. This is the name that the seeker after salvation must believe and confess (Acts 16:31).
The requirement to believe in Jesus’ name makes it impossible to be saved through any false Jesus. We must believe in the real Jesus, the Jesus who is both Lord and Christ.
The Components of Jesus’ Name
What do the three components of His name signify?
The name Jesus. The object of saving faith is the flesh-and-blood man known to history as Jesus. The name Jesus therefore speaks of His humanity.
The requirement to believe in Jesus implies that the seeker after salvation must understand that He is a real human being. This elementary condition denies any hope of salvation to people seduced by either of two damnable heresies.
- Ancient Gnosticism taught that Jesus was a supernatural being who merely pretended to be a man—who was aloof to real pain and suffering even during His crucifixion. To seek salvation in the nonhuman Jesus of Gnosticism is therefore futile. John connects Gnosticism with the spirit of the antichrist (1 John 4:3).
- The necessity of putting one's faith in a real, historical man exposes the danger in another heresy as well—modern neo-orthodoxy, the form of theology that still dominates many mainline denominations. This pernicious system of doctrine alleges that whether or not Jesus was a great man and even whether or not He existed are questions irrelevant to faith; that the value to be found in Christianity depends not upon the man Jesus, but upon the idea of Jesus; and that a man can exploit this idea and the language of religion to create for himself an uplifting religious experience. Those who embrace this heresy mouth praise to Jesus, but think of Him only as a noble fiction. So long as they withhold the love and devotion due the real Jesus, their religion is vain.
When I was a student at Wheaton College, I took a course in contemporary philosophy of religion from Kenneth Kantzer, later the editor of Christianity Today and a leader of new evangelicalism. He chose me together with some other students to accompany him on an outing to hear Karl Barth speak at the University of Chicago. Barth, generally regarded as the father of neo-orthodoxy in a form professing allegiance to the central tenets of Christianity, was making his farewell tour of America. What I heard did not leave me impressed, although I was very young. I sensed that his religion was hollow. In fact, his reworking of Christian faith was merely a spin-off of fashionable existentialist philosophy, which put self and self’s experience at the center of reality. It seemed to me when I heard the man that he was almost apologetic for his dabblings in heresy.
Neo-orthodox Christianity sounds no different from the traditional kind, but it is nothing other than a sophisticated exercise in hypocrisy.
The name Christ. Christ is the Greek translation of the Hebrew word Messiah, which means "the anointed one," implying "the one commissioned and sent by God."
In the Old Testament, the term designates the man whom God would send into the world to put away unrighteousness (Dan. 9:25-26). The term "cut off" is used frequently in the law of Moses to signify a judicial sentence of banishment or death. The prophecy here clearly implies that the Messiah (that is, Christ) would be unjustly put to death by the rulers of His people. The Messiah must therefore be the same as the suffering servant in Isaiah (Isa. 52:13-53:12). From this text we learn that God's hand of punishment for our sin would fall upon Christ, not us. As our sin-bearer, Christ would suffer and die in our place.
We have said that to be saved, a man must believe that Jesus is the Christ, and we find that the Christ of prophecy is the One who would come to save us from our sin. Thus, to put faith in Christ means to receive Jesus as Savior. A seeker after salvation must understand and believe that a complete payment for his sin was made by Jesus when He died on the cross, and he must trust in Jesus alone for salvation.
The necessity of accepting Jesus as Savior was central to the message that Paul carried throughout the Roman world (1 Cor. 15:1-4). In this summary of his own evangelistic preaching, Paul affirms that a man is saved by receiving the gospel (the good news) that Jesus died to put away sin.
The name Lord. The word Lord means “ruler,” and indeed the Bible teaches that Jesus is the rightful ruler of everything (1 Cor. 10:25-8; Eph. 1:20-2). One day in the future, every man and woman who has lived on this earth will acknowledge who He is (Phil. 2:9-11). Therefore, we have a simple choice. We can either confess His Lordship now in this life or wait until that future day when it will be too late to accept God’s offer of life forever. He deserves to be called Lord because He is God (John 3:16), the highest Being in the universe, and because He created all things including mankind (John 1:1). As the author of our existence, surely He has the right to govern our lives so that His purposes in creating us will be fulfilled and not frustrated.
It is true that a seeker after salvation must believe in Jesus as Lord, but we must avoid two distortions of this requirement.
- It does not mean that a seeker after salvation must make Jesus the Lord of his life in a practical way, by starting to obey Him. A change of behavior acceptable to God is impossible unless it is accomplished by God’s grace through God’s power. You receive His power when the Holy Spirit comes to indwell you at the moment of salvation. So, you must be saved first before you can practice true righteousness. Anyone who says that you cannot get saved until you put sin out of your life is a false teacher, because he is degrading salvation by faith to salvation by works.
- The requirement to believe in Jesus as Lord does not mean that the sinner must recite His name as a formula, saying perhaps, “I believe that Jesus is Lord.” In fact, it is possible to be saved without fully comprehending this truth. Many have been saved in response to gospel invitations that failed to identify Jesus as Lord although they presented Him as Savior. It is better, of course, if a sinner hears the gospel in a fuller version, clearly stating who Jesus is, but he can be saved even through a more abbreviated version.
Why? Because although a sinner may not grasp the Lordship of Christ, he can still be saved if he has a truly repentant heart. Think of what repentance means. Sorrow for sin is no sorrow at all unless it is accompanied by a desire to be righteous instead of sinful. The repentant sinner may not put this desire into words, but if he is truly repentant, his driving motive will be to escape from sin’s bondage and to win the freedom of life without sin. Also, he will understand that to live righteously, apart from sin, means that he must do the will of God, his rightful Lord and Master.
Repentance therefore involves a fundamentally new way of seeing self and God. Eyes newly opened to spiritual reality recognize for the first time a whole series of sobering facts. Self has been chasing foolish dreams offensive to God. In this conflict between two perspectives, self has been wrong, but God has been right. God’s law deserves to be obeyed, but self has never kept it. God is righteous, but self is a sinner. Self's attempts to build its own moral universe, with good and evil defined to please self, have merely succeeded in trampling on true righteousness, as defined by God. Only God has the right to say what is good and evil. In other words, only God is the Lord, with the right to dictate how people should behave.
Thus in true repentance a person bows the knee to God and places himself under God’s command. But it so happens that Jesus is the same God he has decided to serve. So, whether or not the repentant sinner has come to a theologically correct conception of Jesus, he is in fact making Jesus his Lord. Yet any ignorance in this matter will not last long, because the Holy Spirit will soon instruct him that his God and Lord is Jesus. Then, if he has truly decided to accept God’s direction—if in fact he has forged a new relationship with God based on repentance—he will certainly respond with faith. He will without quarrel believe in Jesus as Lord. So, even though at first he may not understand enough to call Jesus Lord as well as Savior, his repentance is accepted by a merciful God as meeting the requirement to believe on Jesus’ name.
Despite our long discussion of the gospel, it is really very simple in essence. To be saved, you must do this. You must tell God that you are sorry for your sins. Then you must ask Him to save you through the Lord Jesus Christ. That’s all you must do. Of course, these can’t be just words. You must mean everything you say.
Sometimes in dealing with children, we urge them to ask Jesus into their hearts. The language is figurative, but if presented properly, it contains all the essential truth. If you use this approach, make sure the children understand that something is wrong with their hearts. Make sure they understand also that the reason they need Jesus in their hearts is to fix the problem. It is best to tell them clearly that He will deliver them from the punishment for sin because He has already suffered it on the cross, and that He will deliver them from the power and presence of sin by assuming leadership in their lives.