Erwin L. Lutzer. How You Can Be Sure You Will Spend Eternity with God. Moody Publishers, 2015. See here to buy the book.
Erwin Lutzer has long been the senior pastor at Moody Church in Chicago. In How You Can Be Sure You Will Spend Eternity with God, Lutzer tackles the issue of assurance of salvation: How can a Christian know for sure that he or she is saved and will not go to hell after death?
Lutzer refers to New Testament passages, such as Matthew 7:21-22, which seem to indicate that there are people who think they are saved but actually are not. What, then, is the requirement for salvation? Drawing from Pauline and Johannine writings, and the Parable of the Pharisee and the Publican in Luke 18:10-14, Lutzer argues that one must trust in the imputed righteousness of Christ to be saved. One accepts Christ’s sacrifice for sins on one’s behalf, which brings divine forgiveness of sin (past, present, and future), and one accepts God’s free gift of imputed righteousness: God treats the sinful believer as if he or she lived the spiritual quality of life that Jesus lived. This differs from trusting in one’s good works, which fall short in the face of God’s holiness. Lutzer sounds like a Calvinist in that he argues that the Holy Spirit needs to awaken and spiritually resurrect a person for that person to have saving faith. Lutzer also addresses the issue of assurance and what to do with doubt. He is critical of looking primarily at one’s good works for assurance, yet he believes that a holy life should play some role in encouraging a person that he or she has been saved. Lutzer has a poignant chapter on doubt, as he discusses how a person can doubt his or her salvation yet have saving faith, and posits that doubt can play a constructive role in a Christian’s life. Throughout the book, Lutzer argues that trust in Christ is what saves, not rituals such as baptism, and he maintains that the salvation of the believer is eternally secure: it cannot be lost. In the final chapter, Lutzer lucidly responds to objections to such positions, as he offers alternative interpretations of Bible passages that have been cited in favor of contrary views.
The book is not incredibly deep, and Christians who have been around the block may not find much that is new in what Lutzer has to say. For me personally, the chapter on doubt provided helpful insights, even though Lutzer seems to vacillate between saying that believers can look at the quality of their spiritual lives as the fruit of salvation and a ground of assurance, and saying that this is not a helpful or biblical way to seek assurance. Lutzer writes in a friendly, inviting tone, as is often the case, and he tells stories of people with struggles and problems, whom he has tried to help. He also offers compelling historical anecdotes. All of this adds a tone of compassion to the book, which lightens it somewhat, since it does contain the disturbing message that non-Christians will suffer torment in hell for all eternity. Lutzer also did well to encourage Christians to let the Holy Spirit work in others rather than trying to force them to believe.
There were things that Lutzer said that initially sounded convincing, but were not as much so after some thought. For instance, Lutzer addresses the question of whether Ted Turner is saved even though he is no longer a Christian. Can a person apostasize and still be saved, since eternal security holds that a Christian cannot lose his or her salvation? Lutzer’s conclusion is that Ted Turner may not have had saving faith at the outset but may have trusted his works and misunderstood the Gospel. Maybe there is something to that, but there are plenty of people who did believe the right things (or say that they did) yet apostasized from the faith. That needs to be considered.
In terms of biblical exegesis, Lutzer was a mix of rather convincing, not overly convincing, intriguing, and mildly disappointing.
On where he is rather convincing, Lutzer points out that Hebrews 10:10, 14 states that Christ has perfected the sanctified for all time in arguing for eternal security. Lutzer notes Paul’s strong contrast between receiving salvation by faith in God’s grace and trusting in good works. He interprets Jesus’ statement about being born of water and spirit (John 3:5), not in reference to water baptism, but in reference to Ezekiel 35:25-26, in which God promises to sprinkle clean water on the Israelites to cleanse them of their impurities and to give them a new heart and spirit. There, Lutzer argues, the water is spiritual, not physical.
On where he is not overly convincing, Lutzer states that the unprofitable servant of Luke 19:22-24 is still saved, yet does not reign with Christ, even though the unprofitable servant in a similar parable is cast into outer darkness and there is weeping and gnashing of teeth (Matthew 25:30); the servant there does not appear to be saved. In trying to explain Hebrews 6, which some interpret to mean that Christians can lose their salvation, Lutzer vacillates between saying that the apostates were unbelievers, and saying that they merely lost temporal blessings but not their salvation. Lutzer does gymnastics to explain away I Peter 3:21’s statement that baptism saves.
On where he was intriguing, Lutzer interprets passages about the Son of Man denying or being ashamed of people, not in reference to the straying Christians losing their salvation, but in reference to them losing a heavenly reward. Lutzer makes a fairly decent case that Revelation 3:5 does not mean that God will blot some Christians out of the Book of Life. In arguing against the idea that Acts 2:38 presents baptism as a prerequisite for salvation, Lutzer argues that the baptism in that verse is parenthetical: its verb is singular, whereas the verbs about repentance and receiving forgiveness of sins are in the plural. This is an intriguing suggestion, but the reason that the verb is singular is that Peter there is telling “each” (singular) to be baptized.
On where he was disappointing, there were so many passages that could be addressed. Lutzer seemed to be saying that a Christian could murder someone, die, then go to heaven. How would he address I John 3:15, which affirms that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him?
Something that I found ironic: In Christ Among the Gods, Lutzer argues against Christian inclusivism by saying that God does not necessarily act according to our standards of fairness. God permits inequalities in terms of people’s access to the truth. For Lutzer, those who lack access to the Gospel may still be going to hell. In Eternity with God, however, he seems to suggest that the Gospel is more inclusive than other religions: Lutzer inquires why God would only allow the religious into heaven. For Lutzer, God would not, and the Gospel provides salvation to the struggling and the grossest sinner. In both cases, Lutzer is saying that explicit belief in Christ is essential for salvation; it is just that, in the latter, Lutzer seems to be implying that the Gospel is about God making salvation easier for people.
I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher. My review is honest.