Question: If you have read it, could you give me your opinion of Robert Shank’s Life in the Son (Bethany House, 1989)? Thank you very much.
Response: I appreciate Shank’s call for holiness and full submission to our Lord, allowing the life of Christ to be expressed through us as His disciples. From that standpoint, the book is a solemn reminder of “what manner of persons [we] ought...to be in all holy conversation and godliness” (2 Pt 3:11). On the other hand, I have a number of problems with the book. I will give you my opinion, but you must decide for yourself in light of God’s Word.
I cannot agree with some of Shank’s statements about Christ. For example, on page 244: “The fact of His peculiar relation to God doubtless entered His consciousness only gradually, as He matured, and was a precious truth which, more and more, He grasped by faith....[A]t the age of twelve, at the time of His visit to Jerusalem, Jesus was conscious of a special relation[ship] to the Father, doubtless without any full understanding of the implications as yet. But...the first overt affirmation of His divine Sonship came to Him on the occasion of His baptism....Even so, the fact of His divine Sonship yet remained for Jesus a truth to be grasped and held fast by faith.”
On the contrary, Jesus was and is both God and man; and as God he must always have known “His divine Sonship.” When the One “whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting” (Mi 5:2) was brought forth in Bethlehem in a virgin birth in fulfillment of Scripture, God the Son did not cease to be all that He had ever been with the Father from eternity past. Yes, just as His human body grew so did His human understanding (“And Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and man” - Lk 2:52), but His manhood cannot be divorced from His deity. That His deity was clothed in humanity did not cause Him to cease being God; and if God, He surely must have been aware of that fact.
Nor can I agree with Shank’s rejection of the eternal security of the believer. His denial of that truth seems to arise from the belief that one must live a good enough life to keep one’s salvation. Biblically, however, our security (like our salvation) is solely because of Christ’s payment of our sin’s penalty and His life being lived through us. Typical (in order to justify his position) is his quote of Professor John Murray of Westminster Theological Seminary:
The perseverance of the saints reminds us very forcefully that only those who persevere to the end are truly saints.... Perseverance means the engagement of our persons in the most intense and concentrated devotion to those means which God has ordained for the achievement of his saving purpose.
How can one be certain of being truly engaged “in the most intense and concentrated devotion,” particularly in view of Shank’s constant reminder of the deceitfulness of our hearts? If that were not cause enough for concern, Shank lists seven requirements of life without which one has no assurance that he has not fallen from grace. This is the very error (salvation by works) for which Paul reproved the Galatians: “O foolish Galatians, who hath bewitched you...? Received ye the Spirit by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith? Are ye so foolish? having begun in the Spirit, are ye now made perfect by the flesh?” Paul never faults the Galatians for not living good enough lives; he faults them for looking to their good works as evidence that they are saved! And, unfortunately, this is exactly what Shank teaches.
He summarizes what he considers to be the minimal requirements of assurance thus:
It is sheer presumption for anyone to ‘know’ he has eternal life who is not trusting in Christ with a sincere heart [TBC agrees.], keeping His word and commandments, walking as He walked, loving the Father and His will rather than the world, loving his fellow Christians and practicing righteousness rather than sin. Anyone who presumes to have the inner witness of the Spirit under other circumstances is mistaken.
Shank’s view leaves us with some serious problems, namely: (1) The requirement for “keeping saved” is uncertain. “Loving the Father and His will...loving his fellow Christians” and “practicing righteousness rather than sin” raise the question of exactly what is meant (i.e., loving how intensely and in what practical ways?).
(2) Biblical standards of the requirements he lays out can only condemn us because we can’t live up to them. “Loving the Father” is not a biblical term, but rather, “And thou shalt love the LORD thy God with all thine heart, with all thy soul, and with all thy might” (Dt 6:5). Does Shank himself live up to that standard at all times? If not, then by his own rule he is lost. As for “loving his fellow Christians,” again the biblical standard is much higher: “thou shalt love thy neighbour [this includes everyone] as thyself” (Lv 19:18). No one has ever done this except Christ himself! Even if I thought I had lived up to this high standard I couldn’t be certain because I would have to rely upon my deceitful heart to be the judge.
(3) If I did live up to the standard Shank sets, then I could boast before the throne of God that although I was saved by grace, yet I kept myself saved by my own works. Surely that fact alone is enough to discredit the whole idea of losing one’s salvation which, no matter how it is stated, must inevitably depend upon one’s own works. Thus, salvation would be kept and merited by works, an idea which repudiates the gospel.
Yes, Paul did write, “Examine yourselves, whether ye be in the faith” (2 Cor:13:5). Thus we can certainly agree with Shank that the lack of a sincere trust in Christ and a desire to live wholly for Him in holiness of life, unless repented of, are indications that one’s eternal destiny is in serious question. No person content to live in such condition has any basis for assurance of his salvation, and we would never encourage such a person with the statement “once saved, always saved.” Such a person needs either to repent as a child of God or to get saved and become a child of God.
I would also disagree with Shank’s interpretation of Hebrews:6:4-9. Rather than describing an apostate who has turned from God, I believe these verses declare that if one could fall away then it would be impossible to get saved again. That the example is theoretical for purposes of illustration is apparent from this final statement: “But, beloved, we are persuaded better things of you, and things that accompany salvation, though we thus speak.” In other words, what has been said (“If they shall fall away”) is not something that accompanies true salvation. We deal with this in more depth in our tract, “Once Saved, Always Saved?”