Is Christianity Based on Fact or Fiction? – Program 3

By: Dr. John Ankerberg, Dr. John Gerstner, Dr. R.C. Sproul; ©1982
What must you do to be saved? How can you be in good standing with God? How can you even know if you’ve done enough to please God?


Tonight on the John Ankerberg Show you will hear two professors debate the question, “Does Christianity rest on fact or fantasy?” John’s first guest, Dr. John Gerstner, received his Ph.D. from Harvard University. From 1950 to 1980 Dr. Gerstner was professor of Church History at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and is currently visiting professor at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and professor at large for the Ligonier Valley Study Center. He has authored more than 30 major theological articles and has written 18 books. He has also been a contributing editor of Christianity Today. John’s second guest, Dr. R. C. Sproul, received his doctorate from the Free University of Amsterdam. He is currently the adjunct professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics at the Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, Mississippi and president of Ligonier Valley Study Center. Dr. Sproul has written 10 books and numerous theological articles. And now to begin our debate would you welcome our host, John Ankerberg.

Program 3: Does Christianity Rest on Fact or Fantasy?
How Can You Know You Have Peace with God?

Ankerberg: We are privileged to have Dr. Gerstner and Dr. Sproul with us. And Dr. Sproul has been enunciating some questions that many people across our country have concerning Christian truth claims. But we have proceeded to a point where we are talking about how a man knows that he is at peace with God. And right there we have many Roman Catholic friends that say, “Yes, you must have faith.” We have many Mormon friends that would say, “You must have faith.” There have been many other friends of many other groups that say, “You must have faith.” And then they say you must have something besides that or your faith is not enough. And they will mix it with, say, baptism; they will mix that with good works, and they say, “God weighs that. Faith is not enough.” Would you please comment on this whole thing of salvation?
Sproul: Alright, John, we know here, we’ve already established that I am not the historian here, he is the historian. But I am familiar with the fact that the biggest rupture in Christian history was over that point, “How is a man saved: by faith alone or faith plus works?” Let’s look at that for a second. Dr. Gerstner, I am assuming that as a Protestant church historian and the rest of you would affirm justification by faith alone?
Gerstner: Amen.
Sproul: Is that what you mean?
Gerstner: Amen. But not by the faith that is alone, as you know.
Sproul: Well, alright we will leave that to decide when we get to those technicalities. But you are saying that it is faith and faith alone, and that’s the classic Protestant position as we all know.
Gerstner: Amen.
Sproul: The Roman Catholic Church anathematized that in the 16th century. Did it not?
Gerstner: Yes, at Trent.
Sproul: Okay, and it never really repealed that, so the Roman Catholic Church demurs it. It doesn’t believe in justification by faith alone formally and officially. They believe that something else is necessary. But the point, Dr. Gerstner, is they have solid biblical basis for doing it. Does not the Bible itself in St. James’ epistle, I am sure you are well aware, in the second chapter when it points to the classic example of Abraham, the father of the faithful, offering his son Isaac on the altar, does it not say explicitly, “Therefore, we see that a man is justified by his…,” [James 2:24] you fill in the blank.
Gerstner: “Works, works.”
Sproul: By his works and not by faith alone. And if that isn’t the clearest repudiation of Luther and justification by faith, what could it be?
Gerstner: That’s a clear repudiation of the Trent doctrine and a thorough endorsement of Luther’s doctrine of justification.
Sproul: Dr. Gerstner, if you can handle that….
Gerstner: But I have to admit that Luther didn’t realize it.
Sproul: Alright, but if you are going to do… you are going to pull them as that rabbit out of the hat, and I want to hear it.
Gerstner: Okay, it’s a very easy rabbit….
Sproul: But you do grant that the words, let me spell it out, the words are there, “that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.” [James 2:24]
Gerstner: And not by faith alone.
Sproul: But yet you are standing with Luther saying that it is justification by faith alone.
Gerstner: Alone.
Sproul: Apart from the works of….
Gerstner: Apart from the works.
Sproul: Alright, how do you square those?
Gerstner: That passage in James 2 is a classic statement of the fact that faith can’t be alone apart from any works. It’s alone as far as the active union with Christ is concerned, but it has to be faith. That means that real faith is the same thing as working faith. You remember in that second chapter of James how James points out that the devils have faith in the sense that they know there’s a God, [James 2:19] and they undoubtedly know about Jesus Christ, but they don’t trust Him and it is revealed by the fact that they don’t obey Him. Abraham is used as the model of a person who not only knows God, but trusts Him and the proof of it is that, in the case he mentions, he was willing to sacrifice his own son.
Sproul: When is he justified, Dr. Gerstner?
Gerstner: He was justified the moment he trusted. His leaving Ur of the Chaldees was an evidence that he trusted. His going to Mount Moriah to offer his son Isaac at the divine command was evidence that he trusted. All those things were evidences and the faith apart from that would be of no value at all. The justification absolutely requires that faith. And that’s what James is driving at. I’ve got the last word on this. The passage actually comes to a conclusion with the same text from the Old Testament that Paul, the great preacher of justification by faith on whom Luther leans so strongly relied namely, all of this was evidence that Abraham, you fill that in, Abraham believed God! [James 2:23]
Sproul: Believed God.
Gerstner: And it was accounted to him for righteousness.
Sproul: Let me see if I understand it. You went through that awful fast on me, okay. What you are saying is that they are not talking about the same justification?
Gerstner: They are talking about exactly the same kind of justification. They are talking about a faith which, being alive, must be alive. That’s all. Paul says it in his way when he says, “Can we who are dead to sin live in it any longer?” [Romans 6:2]
Sproul: So really then what you are saying is that those works have to be there….
Gerstner: They have to be there.
Sproul: …or I am not justified?
Gerstner: On that particular point Rome couldn’t be righter.
Sproul: Alright. So really then, justification is not by faith alone?
Gerstner: Justification is by faith alone, but not by the faith that is alone.
Sproul: Wait a minute. You are giving me an Excedrin headache here. A minute ago you said I’ve got to have works or I am not justified.
Gerstner: That’s right. You’ve got to have works or you are not justified. But you are not justified….
Sproul: So works are necessary for my justification?
Gerstner: That’s right, because you don’t have real faith unless you have works. Faith without works is not sick, not anemic, not dying; it is dead, Dr. Sproul. [James 2:17] And justification is by faith alone.
Sproul: I’m still lost….
Gerstner: Works don’t contribute anything to the justification there, the reality of the faith, the evidence of the faith….
Sproul: A couple of times here you’ve run a little phrase by me. You said, “Justification is by faith alone, but not….
Gerstner: …by the faith that is alone.”
Sproul: “By the faith that is alone.” Now that’s clever. What does it mean?
Gerstner: What it means is that that faith which is an act of union with Jesus Christ, if it’s real faith, it’s a working faith. If it’s not a working faith then there is no justification because there is no faith. It isn’t that justification isn’t by faith alone. I wrote something on this many, many years….
Sproul: Wait a minute. Let’s see if I know it: The faith is shown to be true faith by the works. Is that what you are saying?
Gerstner: Exactly.
Sproul: So that the works justify the faith, the faith leads me to Christ, Christ justifies me. Is that what you are saying?
Gerstner: I couldn’t do better.
Ankerberg: Alright, R. C., I would like you to pursue this thing. I think we are still in a little bit of a fog level about what is this thing that you are talking about, justification by faith.
Sproul: I want to pursue it because we are talking about what Luther called the article upon which the church stands or falls. And we are talking about the issue that destroyed the unity of Christendom. Gerstner, I am not sure whether this was a tempest in a teapot according to what I hear you say. You are telling me that both are really necessary, faith and works. Isn’t that what Rome has been saying?
Gerstner: They are both necessary in Rome’s opinion as the foundation of one’s salvation. What we say is Christ alone is necessary. He is apprehended by faith. But it must be a living faith; and the evidence of that is the work that follows from it. Neither the faith nor the works actually save anybody. It’s Christ alone who saves, but the act of union, the being en kristoo by faith is what unites us with Christ who does the saving. But that faith has to be genuine. That’s the only point and no merit either in the works or in the faith. Where it merits is in Christ alone, and Rome cannot accept that.
Sproul: Well, let me see if I can play Lt. Columbo here for a second. Let me see if I understand you here. What I hear you saying is only Christ can save.
Gerstner: Amen.
Sproul: Alright. I can’t save myself.
Gerstner: You cannot. Your faith will not save you.
Sproul: How about my works?
Gerstner: Your works will not save you.
Sproul: Why won’t they?
Gerstner: Because….
Sproul: If I am sorry for my sins and I live a good life, why won’t that do it?
Gerstner: You don’t live a good life, for one thing. When you were represented in Adam, really were perfect, you fell and the world fell with him and you were born in sin just as I was and everybody else. [Romans 5:12] And all the days of your life if you ever do anything that’s good it’s always a bad “good work.” You don’t do it because of the love of God. You could never save yourself, Dr. Sproul; Christ alone can do it. And He offers salvation to you full and free. Just take it. That’s all.
Sproul: Just take it, but how do I get it?
Gerstner: Just receive it. He offers himself to you. You take Him and if you really do….
Sproul: If I really, really do. If I really take Him. Just really receive Him like I hear these evangelists preaching to me?
Gerstner: You will be living godly in Christ Jesus.
Sproul: Then I don’t have to do any good works?
Gerstner: You can’t receive Him, truly, without doing good works. That faith, if it is a genuine faith, is a working faith. It’s a live faith. Faith without works is dead faith, you see.
Sproul: Okay. So let me see now. What I hear you saying is that I have to do the works?
Gerstner: You have to. It contributes nothing to your justification.
Sproul: But the works don’t count toward my salvation?
Gerstner: They don’t contribute to your justification if you want to be very precise. You are going to have an eternal reward, so don’t say they don’t count, but they don’t contribute….
Sproul: They don’t get me into heaven?
Gerstner: You won’t get into heaven without them, but they are not the basis. Can we get that? Christ alone is the basis. And I think….
Sproul: Christ gets me into heaven, but my reward in heaven is given….
Gerstner: Every cup of cold water given in His name will have its reward. [Matt. 10:42]
Sproul: Okay, so there is some benefit to my doing works?
Gerstner: Amen, amen.
Sproul: Alright, well isn’t this an awfully pedantic point, kind of a hair splitting to divide all of Christendom? I mean, doesn’t Rome believe that? How does that differ from what Rome is saying? They say we have to have faith and we have to have works in order to do what God requires.
Gerstner: Yes, but you see the way Rome conceives of that is that that faith by which you receive Christ actually puts you on the way to doing good works, and those good works entitle you to eternal life. In other words, Rome doesn’t say you can save yourself alone. You have to trust in Christ and then He enables you to do these good works. But the good works, Dr. Sproul, according to Rome, not Christ, but the good works are what give you the title to eternal life. And that is absolutely fatal. Nobody can be saved by what he does on the basis of what he does. He is saved by Christ alone….
Sproul: Isn’t the Roman Catholic view here saying that God gives me the start, He gives me some help; now with that help I get enough strength, I do the good works, and those good works make it necessary for God to save me because they earnestly deserve heaven? Is that what you are saying?
Gerstner: Ultimately, yes. That’s what Rome is saying.
Sproul: But I couldn’t do that without Christ?
Gerstner: That’s right.
Sproul: So I still need Christ and I still need faith?
Gerstner: You need Christ to get you, as you say, on the way. Rome is, after all, in the Christian tradition. You know it does believe the Bible.
Sproul: Alright, but what do we mean then by that “alone”?
Gerstner: Alone is the fact….
Sproul: Why are you being so rigid that you insist that it has to be this one way?
Gerstner: You see, I repeat once again, Dr. Sproul, en kristoo, in Christ, is the salvation, because Christ is our salvation. He is our sanctification, our justification. He is the wisdom of God. The being in Christ is an act of faith, see? And nothing that flows from that faith is in any way the basis of our justification. Christ is altogether and absolutely and all alone for justification. That’s why Luther went to the block on that.
Sproul: So what you are saying is that what really matters is what I put my trust in?
Gerstner: Yes, as long as it happens to be Christ. He is able to sustain your trust and make it everlasting.
Sproul: But what if I trust half in Jesus and half in myself?
Gerstner: Well, because if you trust only half in Jesus, of course, you will be lost because you need Him altogether, and the trust in yourself for the other half is absolutely misplaced. You couldn’t possibly earn your own salvation. You know that.
Sproul: Oh, I certainly wouldn’t try, I don’t think, Dr. Gerstner. But I just want you to say one last word to us on the central importance of this doctrine.
Gerstner: Well, what I am trying to say here and what’s absolutely indispensable to it is Christ alone is our salvation. If we are going to be very technical justification isn’t by faith, alone or otherwise. Justification is by Christ only. He is the only Savior. The faith is nothing but the act of union with Christ. But for the fifth time, it has to be a live faith, a real faith. And a real faith will bring forth good works. We are not in the slightest bit less enthusiastic about works than Rome. The only thing is, Rome thinks that those works entitle her to eternal life. We know those works entitle us to absolutely nothing. Now, God is giving us a reward of what Augustine called a reward of grace. But even those works don’t merit any reward, and they certainly don’t bring any justification. It’s a difference between having Christ or not having Christ.
Sproul: It’s grace and not merit.
Gerstner: It’s grace and not merit. It’s as simple as that.
Ankerberg: Dr. Sproul, tonight you have been asking Dr. Gerstner questions, sincere, honest questions that many people have. Many people want to know how do you feel about the questions you have been asking and the answers that you have been receiving. What do you actually believe yourself?
Sproul: Okay, John, I’ll just say it as quickly as I can. My function here tonight was to be a foil to Dr. Gerstner, because I am a theologian myself. I am a Christian. I am convinced of the truth of Christianity. I would stand shoulder to shoulder with Dr. Gerstner and the responses that he gave. What I was trying to do tonight, though, was to get this man, who is a premier apologist, to speak quickly, precisely and acutely to questions that I have to deal with all the time from people who are very distressed with the voices of skepticism or their own doubts that they are wrestling with in their own lives. And, of course, I tried to make it clear that yes, I am a theologian, I am convinced of this. But I was trying to press him to speak briefly to very, very complex issues. I might add, issues that we could cover in much greater detail.
Ankerberg: And I think we ought to point out that when you were at graduate level work…
Sproul: Oh, yes, this man was my mentor and….
Ankerberg: And you were not always a Christian?
Sproul: Oh, no. I was not always a Christian. And I certainly did not always share his convictions here, at least, in the sense in which I’ve lost these debates so many times to him that I can do them in my sleep; because as a student I went there and I would raise these questions myself. And we would go at it hammer and tong for hour after hour until, in fact I had a statement on my desk that “I am required to submit to the evidence, even if I don’t like the evidence.” I didn’t like what that man was saying, but I couldn’t escape the evidence of it.
Ankerberg: What would you say to many students that are listening to you tonight that are in the position that you were formerly in? They are fighting the evidence, what brought you through?
Sproul: I’d say, keep fighting the evidence, but do it as honestly as you know how in this sense: I don’t think that Christianity rests on credulity. The concept of faith that runs around our culture is a concept of blind faith that is utterly repugnant, in my opinion, to the New Testament. The New Testament is addressed to our understanding. That faith is a trust of the heart, of the emotions, of the will, of all those things. It’s not just simply an arid, dry intellectual process that we are talking about. But that heart cannot beat with passion for Christ if the mind doesn’t first become convinced of its truth. And the Bible is directed both to the mind and to the heart. It says, understand this with your mind, see it, acquiesce into it and when you see the truth of it, then by God’s grace and the work of the Holy Spirit, then perhaps you will also embrace it in its sweetness and its loveliness and its desirability. But there been a fracture in our day between faith and knowledge as if the Christian life was built upon sheer leaps into the darkness. That, I believe, is an offense to a Holy God.
Ankerberg: Alright, question here.
Audience: Dr. Gerstner, in an earlier segment you mentioned that you agree with 95% of what the Baptist believe and not 5%. Would you clarify that please?
Gerstner: I wonder if anybody can guess what the 5% is with which I don’t agree? But there really is. That’s the fundamental doctrine, of course, where we pedobaptists, that is those who baptize infants, on the basis of their relationship to believing parents and so on, differ with our Baptist brothers and sisters who believe in what is called “believer’s baptism.” That’s the most basic difference.
Now, it is perfectly true in the history of the Baptist movement that there were particular Baptist who were reformed and there were what we call General Baptist who are Arminian. Now, I am Reformed; and as I said in my conversation with Dr. Sproul, historically speaking there have only been three basic theologies: the Reformed, the Arminian, and the liberal. The liberal doesn’t deserve even consideration. It is pseudo-Christianity. It’s not the real thing. So strictly speaking in the whole history of the Christian church there are only those two theologies. As far as the Baptists are concerned they are divided on that point. Some are reformed and with them I agree on their reformed theology. Some Baptist are Arminian, and I disagree with that Arminian type of strain.
But the 5% where we disagree, until we come to see which one is in error on that point, because we both agree one of us is wrong. God does not talk out of both sides of His mouth. If He is teaching believer’s baptism only, I am wrong and if He is a teaching a covenantal conception which calls for the baptism of children, then the Baptist are the ones who are doing the sinning. But that’s our area of difference. But what I am trying to say it’s a real area. But it doesn’t begin to compare with the vast area of definite agreement even among evangelicals, not to mention those Baptist who are reformed.
Ankerberg: We thank you gentlemen for being here tonight. We really appreciate this.

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