The tension between faith and works in hard line churches:
Humans are wonderfully creative, especially in making themselves scared. My hobby is filmmaking, so I have read up on what sells: horror movies. People love to be scared.
Guess what kind of churches are popular? Yep: the ones that scare you. Let’s not just go to a movie and pretend. Let’s get scared for real–let’s be afraid that God is going to pour his wrath out on us for all eternity!
So how do we make it really scary at church? Every religious heritage has figured out a way to be afraid of damnation: The hard line Churches of Christ, that I grew up in, put it this way: You have to be faithful until death (Rev 2:10), you have to overcome (Rev 3:5), you have to walk in the light (I John 1:7). Translated into the message of our heritage, that meant: no sex before marriage, and no instruments of music in worship, among other things.
But what is interesting to me is that all the religious heritages have the same fear. In the hard line Assemblies of God: If you haven’t experienced the baptism of the Holy Spirit, you aren’t saved and going to heaven. How do you know you have experienced the baptism of the Holy Spirit? Ah! You could be fooling yourself, and if you have resisted the Holy Spirit, is that the sin of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit that can never be forgiven?
Hard line Presbyterians believe that God chooses you and will reveal that choice to you by showing you good works in your life. Wow! Have I shown enough good works in my life to show that God has chosen me? Will I ever know? Can people see that God has blessed me?
Catholics have to watch out for mortal sins (as opposed to the venial) and the liberals just have to be good all the time.
Interestingly enough, most of these movements started with wonderful assurances that God had saved us, degenerating within a few generations to making certain we were unsure of our salvation. The Restoration Movement Churches of Christ made baptism for the remission of sins a centerpiece of our doctrine. What a wonderful assurance: the forgiveness of all of our sins–oops! Wait! You have to overcome and remain faithful until death in order for that baptism to be valid when you die. Future generations viewed this as being perfect, or almost perfect (or as long as you were scared you were probably okay).
The Assemblies of God had the wonderful assurance of a physical emotional experience of God’s wonderful love washing over them. But wait! Was it real? Did it really take? Did I speak in tongues? Am I resisting the Holy Spirit?
The Roman Catholics have a wonderful assurance: actually eating the body of Christ every week, receiving Jesus’ sacrifice of forgiveness from the Church, experiencing grace in rituals that bore the full weight of the Church’s backing, with hands laid on the bishops and priests all the way back to Jesus’ hands laid on the apostles. But wait! Surely not all your sins are forgiven. Surely you will have to spend a few years in purgatory cleansing yourself of some of your evil.
My personal opinion (heresy alert) is that there is no consistent doctrine throughout the scriptures on faith and works. Yes, I can point to many scriptures that say we are not saved by works, that we are saved by faith. However, I can also point to many scriptures and even parables of Jesus, that indicate our choices and our deeds are what put us in or out of relationship with God. (The story of Abraham [Genesis 12-22] shows a picture of God working through a very imperfect man throughout his lifespan.)
So my conclusion is that people pick and choose what they want in the faith and works category. Most people, instead of picking what is most healing to them (the opposite of how they were raised as children), choose the verses that echo their childhood experiences with their parents. In hard line churches it is the scary verses and stories you will hear every week. Yes, they will sing some comforting assuring songs, and read some of the comforting verses, but they will always make sure that you are not too comforted. If you are too sure of your salvation you could become arrogant, cocksure, and lackadaisical in your attitude toward obedience. The true holy feeling in hard line churches is fear and trembling.
As a psychotherapist I see many people crippled with anxiety and/or depression, people who desperately need the comforting verses in their religious belief systems. If they are/were religious, they have a long entrenched list of frightening verses to draw on to bolster their fear and discouragement.
What would happen if we believed some of the comforting verses? The verses that say we are completely and totally saved, that we are responding to God not out of fear that brings slavery, but out of joy; that we are to be bold when approaching God in prayer, because He has already given us the victory over sin and death?