I’ve been thinking about the idea of Scale Theology. That’s the snappy term occasionally used in my church (and probably others, I can’t imagine it’s unique) for a belief in salvation by good deeds. The essence is that when you die, if the good stuff you did outweighs the bad, you get a pass into Heaven. If not, well, you can imagine what happens. Obviously, any church which teaches salvation by grace through faith does not subscribe to Scale Theology.
Naturally, I agree that Scale Theology is useless nonsense. There are several reasons for this. First, is there anyone on the planet who would believe they hadn’t done enough good? And if there were, would it be true? Second, everyone’s idea of what constitutes “good” deeds is different. One person might think it means going to church, being nice to people, and respecting authority. Another might think it means being on the front lines of battle. Another might believe it’s all about how much money you donate. Third, ditto on the idea of “bad” deeds. We might all agree that, say, Hitler was one seriously bad man. But how about the kid who bullied you all through middle school? Is he as bad? You might think so, if you’re the seventh grader getting beat up. Finally, how much good one would have to do to outweigh the bad is also in question. Take that middle school bully. What would he need to do to make up for his childish actions?
Having established that I don’t in any way subscribe to Scale Theology, I do want to bring up one minor issue. Churches that emphasize salvation by grace through faith sometimes fail to acknowledge that we also need to do good things. It’s often framed in terms of “storing up our treasures in heaven” or that doing good deeds demonstrates that we are showing outward signs of an inward faith. Sometimes, the balance is tipped in favor of volunteering at church rather than giving our time and money outside the church. In any case, churches often go overboard in trying to make sure no one is confused about our salvation not being dependent on our actions. Churches that encourage, emphasize, and celebrate social justice may be sneered at, and are often perceived as promoting the dreaded Scale Theology.
The problem with that kind of open condemnation is that it’s unfounded. Social justice-oriented churches don’t necessarily buy into Scale Theology. It’s not that anyone believes that the power of salvation rests squarely on G-d’s shoulders. It’s that social justice Christians believe that we are called to, that we must, be obedient to Jesus. The difference is not in whether a person or church subscribes to Scale Theology. The difference is in why one thinks good deeds are important. We don’t do good deeds to buy our ticket into Heaven. We don’t do it to earn brownie points with the Lord. We don’t do it because it’s going to make someone proud of us, look good on a college application, sound important at a job interview, or make people like us better. We do it because Jesus expressly stated that we are to care for the needy. He said it plainly. He said it in parables. He said it repeatedly. The Apostles lived it. Paul repeated it. James nearly pounded it into the ground. Which part of that are we not getting?
Another flaw when talking about Scale Theology is the belief that anyone who isn’t a card-carrying Born Again is automatically in the Scale Theology camp. There’s no room for anyone to have natural compassion. Doing good is dismissed as a misguided attempt at purchasing the admission to the Pearly Gates. But what if it’s not? What if we simply can’t admit that it isn’t the mere act of putting faith in Christ which drives the human heart? There are people out there who, believing there is no god, think it’s our responsibility to care for one another. There are people who sincerely don’t want others to suffer and are brokenhearted over the terrible things that happen to people. Out of that compassion, they work to care for life on this planet in all its forms. I know these people exist; I’ve met them. Not one of them thinks that doing good in this world is the basis of getting into Heaven after death. (It’s especially important to note that many of these people don’t even believe there is a heaven, or anything else, after death. Therefore, Scale Theology is irrelevant.)
We need to stop worrying about whether focusing on doing good is sending the wrong message about salvation. We simply need to begin living as Jesus intended us to.