As R. C. Sproul has pointed out in numerous places, the prevalent belief in America today about the mode of justification is not sola fida, nor is it justification by works, or some combination of the two. It is in fact sola mortalis, or justification by death. That is, the only thing most people believe is required to be ushered into the glory of heaven after we die is to, well...die.
How did this come to be so? Where did our culture adopt such a non-biblical idea of justification in the face of contrary claims of scripture and of pretty much every church, conservative or liberal, up until very recently?
I think it is the innate humanism that resides in the heart of all of us. We continually walk away from the stated claims of the gospel and back into our natural state of, I-can-do-this-for-myself. It is the antithesis of the gospel to rely on ourselves for our own justification, yet it is our natural tendency. As one author put it recently, we don't need heretics in the church to pull us away from the gospel...all we need is a good night's sleep. Our natural character (fallen souls) pull us away from the gospel unless we are continually reminded of what it says and what it means.
So what conclusions can we draw from this, given it is true?
One, we need fellowship with other believers. Christianity is not a go-it-alone religion, as going-it-alone usually results in a therapeutic religion rather than a relationship with Christ.
Two, study of history, particularly historical theology and church history, is critical if we are to avoid making the same mistakes over and over again. It seems like anytime a new controversy turns up in Christianity, its not long before someone points out that this controversy has happened before, and was dealt with by some council about fifteen-hundred years ago. As G. K. Chesterton once said, 'The wit of man is insufficient to invent a new heresy.' I think he's right.
Three, we need to hear solid biblical exposition, especially from our pulpits on Sunday mornings. Deistic therapeutic moralism won't cut it. (Yes, I renamed that...see this post for why.) We need to hear the word of God and see the Word of God in our worship. In many places, that's not happening.
Four, we must always reforming. We must constantly test ourselves against what orthodox Christianity has always believed and be less enamored with innovation and more enamored with faithfulness. God doesn't change. Why is it that we always desire change, even when change isn't warranted?
Five, we need to stop talking about justification as sola mortalis. This is the hardest for many of us, especially if we have family and friends who are not believers. If you spent much time on my blog, you know of the respect I have for the US Marine Corps. They are all honorable men. Yet there is a common belief, spoken openly amongst Marines, that when a Marine dies, he goes to guard Heaven's gates. Even Marines need Christ if they hope to guard Heaven's gates. I pray they all heard the gospel, but I fear it is not so. We can't continue to talk like semper fidelis is the same thing as sola fide. (Though I'm sure that is a tradition that will not change.)
And six, in order to accomplish number five, we need to start talking about these things before someone dies. We need to proclaim the good news of Christ- sola gratia through sola fide, and why it is vitally important (pun intended). And in conjunction, we need to keep praying for those we know who are not believers, so that when they come to faith in Christ, we can rejoice with them that they no longer hold the view of sola mortalis.