Baron von Munchausen pulling himself and his horse out of a swamp by his hair.
The Disturbing Armstrongist Concept of Qualifying for the Kingdom
“"FOR by GRACE are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God; NOT OF WORKS, lest any man should boast…!” …First, what do WE believe? Perhaps some few have thought we of the WORLD TOMORROW program, and of the staff of The PLAIN TRUTH magazine, believe in salvation BY WORKS! So, at least, it has been said of us! But we DON'T! WE BELIEVE, THOROUGHLY, EVERY LETTER of that scripture you just read!” (Garner Ted Armstrong, “Are You ‘Under the LAW,’ or ‘Under GRACE’?” 1963.)
The fabled Baron Von Munchausen rescued himself from deep mud by pulling himself out by his own bootstraps. Earlier in the era of high technology, this metaphor was used to refer to starting computer systems. The dilemma was “we need the system to start the system.” So bootstrapping software, like a scaled-down operating system that automatically runs when power is supplied, was created for startup purposes. Hence, we now “boot” mainframes, laptops, and workstations. There is an analogy here between this technical usage and Armstrongist soteriology. It is an analogy about bringing yourself to life. A critical component of Armstrongist soteriology is a process called “qualifying.” Qualifying will be the focus of this essay. And unpacking this concept will tell us if Garner Ted Armstrong’s statement above is genuinely descriptive of Armstrongist soteriology or if the statement is just facile.
Note: The Appendix at the end contains quotations from Armstrongist literature. The first numbered statement in the Appendix, for example, will be referred to as Q1 in the text. There is no single, crisp definition of “qualifying” in Armstrongist literature that I could find. So, I have had to attach this Appendix to assemble its meaning from scattered publications. This is the downside of decentralized booklet theology.
“Qualifying” and Dualism in Armstrongist Soteriology
Herbert W. Armstrong (HWA) defined salvation as the resurrection (see Q2). It is an end-of-life event. It is the outcome of struggling to accomplish good works over a lifetime. This struggle is referred to as “qualifying.” At times in Armstrongist writing, qualification is a separate but parallel track next to salvation. Salvation is considered a gift (see Q1) and qualification is considered training for a position of responsibility or role in the Kingdom of God. The idea is that you might be a city manager or mayor under the government of God. At other times qualification is extended to salvation itself. You can find a Good News article titled “Qualifying for Eternal Life” written by Charles Hunting. Salvation is essentially eternal life. More explicitly, in another place, HWA writes that if you do not undergo spiritual development (qualifying) in this life you will lose salvation (see Q4). The Bible does not speak directly of qualifying except in one scripture and that will be cited later.
The principal features of qualifying are:
1. It is performing works over a lifetime, variously described, but including overcoming, overcoming human nature, overcoming Satan, developing holy, righteous character, and spiritual growth. (see Q3, Q8)
2. If one qualifies, one will receive salvation. (see Q7)
3. If one does not qualify, one will not receive salvation. (see Q4, Q5)
At this point, I believe we should all become astute ornithologists and observe that “If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it’s a duck.” This is salvation by works. And it stands in contravention to the opening quotation by Garner Ted Armstrong.
In some Armstrongist publications, salvation is portrayed as a gift by grace through faith. The quote from Garner Ted Armstrong above comes from an article of this type. Other articles may focus principally on qualifying, which, we have seen, is a surrogate term for salvation by works. And then there are articles where both concepts co-reside. The fact that Armstrongist soteriology encompasses both “by grace through faith” and “works” (qualifying) creates an internally inconsistent duality.
This duality can create semantic confusion in some of the articles dealing with salvation in Armstrongist publications. The burden of Armstrongist soteriology is carried by two concepts: the term salvation can have the mainstream Christian meaning of being saved as a gift by grace through faith while qualification emphasizes being saved through performance. The latter entails the meaning of “earned” because it is something that you must do in order to receive something. It is a transaction, not a gift. These two concepts stand in opposition to each other but can occur together or separately in published material. The two concepts are never really merged, nor can they be and still remain Biblical, so they form a static duality. The reader must constantly be aware of this duality, of the tension between these two concepts, when reading Armstrongist material. Any particular writing may follow one line of reasoning or the other or both.
The implication of this duality is captured in the following formula:
Salvation = Grace plus Faith plus Works
The formulation above stands in opposition to the Christian formulation which is typically:
I have read elsewhere in Armstrongist publications that since the works are not the follower’s works but works of God carried out through the follower that Armstrongist soteriology cannot possibly be salvation by our works. In other words, Armstrongist salvation looks and behaves like salvation by works but it is not really so. This is a novel attempt at resolving the issue of faith versus works and assumes the follower is a kind of biological robot who must execute determined actions but is not really a participant in those actions. This interpretation denies any vestige of personal free will and undermines the principle of reward for works.
The concept of qualification is in the New Testament but it is lost in the KJV translation. It stands out in the ESV translation of Colossians 1:12:
“… giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light … He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son…”
“Qualified” here is the Greek word hikanoō and in most Bible translations this word is translated as “qualified” or “enabled.” In this scripture, we see that God has already qualified us. Not only has he already qualified us, but he has also already transferred us to the Kingdom of God. This means that any good works subsequent to conversion done by the Christian proceed from salvation and are not a factor in the causation of salvation. Also, one can deduce from the Armstrongist approach, that any transferal to the Kingdom of God must be held in suspension awaiting the completion of a lifetime of acceptable works, which belief is in conflict with the second verse above.
Another illuminating scripture is Galatians 3: 21 (ESV):
“…For if a law had been given that could give life, then righteousness would indeed be by the law.”
But the Abrahamic precedent is that righteousness is by faith. This means that keeping the Law never has a life-giving functional role in the formula for salvation. So, the “works” term in the following formula renders the equation invalid: Salvation = Faith plus Grace plus Works. Emphasis on works tends towards a praxis, if not a doctrine, of perfectionism (see Q9). There is nothing wrong with trying to be perfect. There is something very wrong with believing that you are perfect and it will result in your salvation – that you have qualified. This amounts to an utter rejection of Pauline theology.
Salvation cannot be bootstrapped. In the real world, Baron Von Munchausen must resign himself to forever being stuck in the mud. Salvation is not our work but the work of God’s grace in our lives. This motivated Paul to raise the absurd idea in his discourse with the Galatians that they seemed to believe that they started with the Spirit and now are being perfected by the flesh. Faith does lead to action, however. It is just that actions are not a cause of salvation but are correlated with salvation. To take the phenomenon of these good actions, which are an outward sign of justification, and subsume it into a concocted program of “qualification” is to loop back to salvation by works – to start with the Spirit and try to finish with the flesh. Without a doubt salvation as a gift is good news. But salvation as something that must be gained by inconstant and unreliable human force against impossible odds is unreservedly bad news. And in this distinction, we find a watershed divide in soteriology between Christianity and Classical Rupertism-Armstrongism.
Appendix of Armstrongist Quotations
This source material comes from Classical Armstrongism of the last century and not the Post-Classical Armstrongism of the many current, small Armstrongist denominations.
1. The Armstrongist marquee statement about salvation:
“Remember we shall be rewarded according to our works or spiritual growth, but salvation is a free gift.” (HWA, Mystery of the Ages (MOA), P. 254.)
2. Salvation in Armstrongism defined:
“…To be glorified fully with Him, to enter into the God family, the very Family of God, the Kingdom of God, and be born by a resurrection into that Kingdom (Phil. 3:21). That is what salvation means.” (HWA, “What is Salvation?”, Tomorrow’s World Magazine, November-December, 1970)
3. Qualifying is the same as spiritual growth:
“He who qualified by spiritual growth and development only half as much shall reign over five cities as his reward.” (MOA, p. 254.)
4. Failure to grow spiritually results in the loss of salvation.
“But what of the person who thought he “had it made into the kingdom” without spiritual growth and development? He shall have taken away from him that first portion of the Holy Spirit—he shall lose the salvation he mistakenly thought he had.“ (MOA, p. 254)
5. Qualifying is not just about training for a role in the Kingdom; it is about opposing sin in your life which relates directly to salvation (see point 6 below).
“Now He's (Jesus) gone up there to receive His crown, and when He comes, He will be crowned with many crowns. And He's coming back to earth soon and to bring you your crown. But you have got to qualify, Jesus had to qualify. He had to live above sin. Now you have not done that, I have not done that, but we have to repent of the way we did, and never do it again.” (HWA, “Are You Qualifying of Disqualifying Yourself?”, Sermon Transcript, Feast of Tabernacles, no date.)
6. And Obedience to law is a pre-condition for salvation:
“Jesus tells us that our OBEDIENCE to the Ten Commandments is an absolute PREREQUISITE to receiving God's gift of eternal life (Mat. 19:16-17).” (Ambassador College Bible Correspondence Course, Lesson 17, 1966.)
7. Qualifying is not just to rule in the Kingdom but to enter it at all. Inheriting the Kingdom is defined in WCG literature as salvation (see point 2 above).
“THAT'S WHAT YOU ARE CALLED FOR BRETHREN, AND IF YOU CAN'T DO IT, YOU HAVEN'T YET QUALIFIED; YOU'RE NOT READY YET FOR THE KINGDOM OF GOD. “(HWA,” Are You Qualifying or Disqualifying Yourself?”, Feast of Tabernacles Sermon, No Date)
8. “Qualifying” is equivalent to the term “overcoming.” Overcoming is on the critical path to salvation.
“In seven other places in Revelation the word "overcometh" is used to designate a person who has qualified. “ (Charles Hunting, “Are You Qualified For Eternal Life - Now?”, Good News Magazine, August, 1966.)
“If you continue overcoming, growing spiritually — and all this actually through God's power — you shall inherit the Kingdom of God, and be made immortal to live forever in happiness and joy!” (HWA, “What do you mean…SALVATION?”, 1973)
9. Finally, the idea of qualifying inevitably leads to the ideas that you can keep God’s law and perfectionism:
“Then God will give you the Holy Spirit, through which you will receive the love to keep His law.” (Roderick C. Meredith,” Is OBEDIENCE to God Required for Salvation?”, 1956.)
”If you are really following Christ — LIVING as He lived, DOING as He did — keeping God's LAW as He did…” (Garner Ted Armstrong,” What Is REAL REPENTANCE?”, The Plain Truth Magazine, December, 1972. )