By Jonah Haddad —
Talk of alchemy summons images of medieval occultists, cloaked and hooded, studiously hunched over archaic scrolls as the glow of sconce-mounted torches illuminates their cloistered laboratories. As sparks fly from blackened crucibles, the glowing smoke of unseen elixirs rises and disperses against vaulted ceilings.
Alchemy might seem like the stuff of fantasy novels, but historically, much of the alchemist’s study of the natural world centered on a singular goal: to transform base metals into gold. So far as I know, no one has successfully accomplished this task. Centuries of failure coupled with modern advances in natural philosophy have caused the science of alchemy to fall into obscurity. And yet the arcane art of alchemists is alive and well today, seeing an unintentional resurgence.
This may sound a bit shocking, but in a certain metaphorical way, the 21st century Christian Church is responsible for breathing new life into the alchemist tradition by mistakenly, slipping into the superstitious belief that we can transform the sullied grey lead of meager human performance into the glimmering gold of salvation. Our own tarnished human nature foists upon us the belief that under the power of our own devices we can convert our ruined souls into something spiritually pure.
Humanity’s sin-induced proclivity toward self-guided salvation taints even our way of reading Scripture so that, without the direct guidance of the Holy Spirit, we unwittingly adopt a diminished view of grace and opt for an elevated and lopsided emphasis on human efforts. In doing this we define salvation as mere faithfulness to Christ through identification with a Christian community. Our alchemist tendencies incline us to forget that there is no faithfulness without faith and no faith without grace (Eph 2:8-9).
The true gospel
The base metal comes in the form of various works of righteousness. Likewise, the gold we wish to create is eternal salvation in the presence of God. In the crucible of the modern evangelical church, many have unknowingly taught and practiced a gospel of soteriological alchemy—the belief that the idol of human effort can be melted down and rewrought into Christ and all the benefits of knowing Him.
By itself, soteriology is simply the branch of theology concerned with the work of the triune God in bringing about salvation through the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ the Son who laid down his life at the cross. When obscured by the unholy alchemical belief that man can transform his fallen, base nature into a new creation in Christ by his own power, the true gospel is compromised.
There is one true gospel, and this is the good news that God’s Messiah has been sent to dwell among human beings (John 1:14), to suffer the effects of their sin by their side (Heb 4:14-16) and to restore God’s people and creation to its original intent (Col 1:19-20). The gospel relates God’s redemptive plan that culminates in the sacrificial death and glorious resurrection of Jesus Christ (1 Cor 15:3-8), which manifests in the lives of those who are being saved by God’s grace in accordance with their profession of faith, to the praise of God’s glory, which will be fully revealed at Christ’s return and at the restoration of all creation (Eph 1:3-14; Rom 5:1-2; Rev 21:1-8).
Essentially, the Gospel is the good news that God has done for us what we could not do for ourselves: restore the relationship between God and humans through the payment of our debt of sin with the blood of Jesus Christ the Son (Rom 5:8-11; Col 1:21-23), so that we might be filled with God’s Spirit and know the glorious grace of the Father through faith and obedience in this life and through glorification in the life to come (Rom 8:1-17; 2 Cor 3:18).
Numerous factors contribute to our substitution of the true Gospel for a false performance-driven theology that dilutes the gospel and deprives us of the fullness of Christ. We fall into soteriological alchemy any time our spiritual starting point becomes centered on something we do, rather than on who Jesus is and what He has done.
We fall into alchemical tendencies when we forsake a life of discipleship, thinking that a unique spiritual experience from our past (a prayer or response to an altar call) will somehow spare us the trouble of walking with Jesus in true discipleship. Soteriological alchemical propensities are subtle—they creep up on us, snuffing out the life-giving gospel of our salvation.
The alchemist and gospel boredom
The gospel must not fluctuate with the times. Human philosophies vacillate like a pendulum or like the waves of the sea (Eph 4:14; 2 Tim 4:3), but the gospel is a foundational truth of our faith (1 Cor 3:10-15). Soteriological alchemy thrives when we become bored with the gospel—that is, when we tire of the same old truth and the same old Christ, opting instead for the false freshness of liberalism, social crusading, mysticism, antinomianism and so forth. Gospel boredom is a failure to know and experience the overwhelming beauty, glory and majesty of Jesus Christ. When we fail to know who and what He is, we lose interest.
Imagine you have access to the most advanced entertainment and communication device on the market (be it a smart phone, computer or television) and yet you never learn how to turn on the device or navigate its many systems, tools and applications. No doubt, you would promptly lose interest in the device, never fully appreciating what it can do.
When we forget the essentials of the gospel or fail to grasp the wonder of the gospel by exploring the richness of God’s Word, we naturally lose interest in it and turn to pursue something we think to be fresh and original. We foolishly tire of the only One who can sustain us, just as the Israelites tired of God’s sustaining provision of manna in the wilderness (Num 11). In our folly, we seek to add something, anything, that might ameliorate the flavor of the seemingly bland grace we have failed to savor.
The alchemist and the fragmented gospel
Soteriological alchemy thrives on a fragmented and dichotomized gospel. We want a Savior without wanting a Lord. We want the benefits of Christ without Christ himself. We want justification (the declaration of righteousness) without sanctification (the process of conforming to the holiness of God). Yet, salvation and lordship are two sides to the same coin.
The benefits of Christ and the person of Christ are inextricably linked. Those He justifies He also sanctifies. Jesus is objectively and historically the Savoir of the Christian by virtue of His atoning death, and He is Lord of the Christian by virtue of his victorious resurrection and glorious reign (Eph 2:6-7).
It is impossible to have heaven without having Christ. In the same way, it is impossible to receive the imputation of Christ’s righteousness in our lives without being conformed to Christ’s image by the transformative and purifying work of the Spirit who indwells us (Rom 8:1-17; John 15:1-17).
God’s grace gives us a whole Christ—an entire Christ. If we are to have the whole of Christ, we must not take the parts of Christ we like and throw out the rest. We must not simply seek the gift. Rather, we should strive to know the gift-giver Himself.
Remember, when we were children, we liked to visit our grandparents because they spoiled us and gave us the treats our parents might not offer. But as we grew, we learned to love our grandparents for their own sake. We learned that we could not fragment the gift from the giver, nor our delight in the gift from the person who gave it.
The alchemist and the gospel of self
We venture to try our hand at soteriological alchemy whenever our spiritual life circumvents who Christ is, in favor of who we are; when we scorn what Christ has done, in favor of what we do. There are no shortcuts to the gold of knowing God and the treasure of deathless eternity. Someone had to purchase these invaluable riches.
Until we understand where God is ultimately taking us, we cannot properly situate ourselves as agents of healing in this broken world. The gospel is an offense (1 Cor 1:18). It offends our natural tendency toward self-reliance. It offends our reliance on our strengths and abilities. It offends our fundamental desire to be our own god, our own disciple and our own divine revelation.
When we believe in Jesus Christ, we commit the ultimate sin against the god of self. You see, the mantra of modern mankind is, “Believe in yourself.” We use it as a self-blessing to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, to dream big and to achieve much. But this sorcerous incantation will never save. To believe in oneself is to believe in an already-failed body, mind and soul. We need something outside of our broken selves if we are to experience true salvation.
It has been said that the only thing we contribute to our salvation is the sin that makes it necessary. Indeed. It is by grace we have been saved.
The alchemist and gospel revision
We must discern alchemists’ attempts to employ tenuous exegesis of Scripture which leads to definitions of faith that stand outside the substrata of rudimentary gospel truth. Faith cannot be reduced to mere obedience or faithfulness. Nor can faith be reduced to mere identification with a believing community.
Faith itself is a gift of unmerited favor (Eph 2:8-9).2 . Our epistemic (knowledge) relationship to God is a highly nuanced symbiosis of an involuntary God-given state of belief and a Spirit-directed conscious acceptance of the truth that manifests itself through faithfulness to Christ. The underpinning of Christian faithfulness to God is Christian faith. Some see faith as more about obedience and common interest in the Kingdom than a set of beliefs that correspond to an objective reality. This, however, is a needless division of categories.
It strains credulity to posit that actions or behaviors can be sundered from mental states, such as faith, belief or intellectual accent. What we do says something about what we claim to believe. It is unnecessary, and even dangerous, to completely dichotomize human belief (faith) and action (faithfulness) as if the two were unrelated, or to favor identification with Christ through participation in a community over and above a heartfelt profession of faith in the person and work of Christ (Rom 10:9-10). By faith we have been declared righteous, and by faith we live righteous lives (Rom. 1:17). The good news is that our faithfulness is itself a grace of the triune God, to the praise of His glory!
The failure of soteriological alchemy
The gospel is ironic. Christ took the sin of the world, that those who believe might be rid of the ultimate consequences of sin in their lives. Likewise, by dying to self, we attain life. By allowing Christ to humble us, we are exalted. The weight of the gospel is the very thing that lifts us up. The burden of the gospel is the very thing that empowers us. The irony of the gospel is not that we transform our own meager efforts into salvation, but that we receive God’s efforts which transform us as we walk in faith. Try as we might, we cannot alter the substance of our fallen condition and convert our base perdition into salvific gold. God alone has the power to save. Alchemy will always fail.