by Al Maxey

Issue #472 ------- January 20, 2011
We know truth, not only
by reason, but also by the heart.

Blaise Pascal {1623-1662}

Cornelius and Balaam's Ass
Was this Godly Centurion as Damned
as a Donkey prior to his Baptism?

Okay, now that I have your undivided attention, I suppose I need to explain the title of this present issue of my weekly Reflections. From July 3 - October 31, 2008, I participated in a rather lengthy published written Debate on Patternism with Darrell Broking, a very ultra-conservative, legalistic patternistic preacher in Mountain City, Tennessee. Near the close of this written debate (which was being promoted in Contending for the Faith magazine, and also published, as it was happening, on the web site of the Church of Christ in Spring, Texas, where David Brown, the editor/publisher of CFTF, is the preacher and an elder), he left that position and moved to Pensacola, Florida. Darrell then did some writing for the publication Contending for the Faith, and he also appeared as a speaker during their Lectureships. He has since been severed from the fellowship of the Contending for the Faith faction as an "apostate" for some difference of opinion between them. During our debate, however, he was their "champion," and they applauded his efforts to "expose" the heresy of that "liberal Al Maxey." In the course of our written debate, the topic of baptism came up. Darrell's view was that one was damned to hell until the moment a person's nose broke the surface of the water in the baptistery. Then, and only then, was this faith-filled, penitent, confessing disciple of Christ saved. I presented to Darrell the following scenario, to which I requested a response of either "True" or "False" -- "If a penitent believer, having confessed Jesus as Lord, DIES of a massive brain aneurysm while standing in the waters of the baptistery, and this occurs just two seconds prior to this person being immersed, then he dies in a LOST condition." Darrell responded, "TRUE" [August 26, 2008, 4th Affirmative, p. 29]. Mr. Darrell Broking had previously asserted during this debate (which assertion prompted my above T/F question), "Before baptism all people in need of salvation are still 'doing evil,' and therefore do not have the approval of God to worship Him." "There is no salvation before the point of baptism for the remission of sins, period" [August 9, 2008, 3rd Affirmative]. Based on these statements, I asked Darrell yet another T/F question (also on p. 29 of the 4th Affirmative) -- "After the Holy Spirit was poured out upon Cornelius, and during the time he was 'exalting God,' yet before he was baptized in water, this man was unsaved, separate from a relationship with God, and 'doing evil' in the Lord's sight. True or False?" To this Darrell Broking made the following response -- "TRUE. Cornelius was no more saved when he spoke in tongues than was Balaam's ass."

This is a perfect example of sacramentalism (Reflections #470), a theological view that I find totally inconsistent with the teachings of the inspired New Covenant writings. Yet, Christendom is literally filled with such fallacious doctrine, which infests virtually every denomination (some much more than others). It's a dogma that serves as a catalyst for some of the most outrageous religious pronouncements and pontifications one can imagine!! For example, this dogma teaches that a person who has studied the Scriptures, and who has come to the conviction that Jesus Christ is God's Son, and who has a deep faith in the truths revealed in the Word, and who has genuinely repented of his sins, and who confesses before others his deep, abiding faith in the Lord, and who desires to demonstrate his faith in baptism, and who is standing in the water excited about this visible testimony of faith, and who dies suddenly one second before being immersed -- that person is utterly damned and will be cast headlong into hell where God, according to the traditional view, will torture him for all eternity. Brethren, I will be very blunt here -- such teaching, in my view, is nothing less than blasphemy against the Lord God Almighty!! If you genuinely believe such teaching to be true, then you have just portrayed our loving, merciful, just, compassionate Father as the ultimate Monster!! It is a twisted theology that will compel a "gospel preacher" to declare someone who was "a devout man, and one who feared God ... and who gave many alms ... and who prayed to God continually" (Acts 10:2), and who revered God (vs. 35), and upon whom the Lord Himself poured out His Holy Spirit (vs. 44), and who spoke with tongues, "exalting God" (vs. 46), to be "no more saved than was Balaam's ass" until such time as his nose broke the surface of the waters of the baptistery. Such teaching, in my view, is nothing less than heresy.

The hardened sacramentalists, however, will rarely, if ever, budge from this position, and will generally condemn to "an everlasting, fiery hell" anyone who dares to differ with them on this. The "Sacrament of Baptism," therefore, has become for them the very split-second in time that a penitent sinner appropriates God's gift of salvation, and failing to complete this sacrament, even by as little as a fraction of a second, will send a person into eternal torment! Thus, in their view, Cornelius was utterly damned, even after God poured out His Spirit upon him, and was headed for hell (praising God in the Spirit all the way there) until the moment he finally got to some water. Wayne Jackson, in an article that he penned about Cornelius in his publication The Christian Courier, wrote, "The fact is, the supernatural work of the Holy Spirit in this case had nothing at all to do with Cornelius' personal salvation." All our God was doing was simply sending a message to the Jews present that day that Gentiles were entitled to admission into the One Body also -- but ONLY at the point of baptism. They were still godless wretches until they got to the water. Of course this passage doesn't say that, but that doesn't stop the sacramentalists from "speaking where the Bible doesn't speak." They will also very quickly come back with an appeal to Acts 11:14 in which Peter was "to speak words to you by which you will be saved, you and all your household." Yes, this is very true. BUT, saved from what, and saved when? Neither is specified within the text. The assumption of the sacramentalists is that they were being saved from hell, and this occurred at baptism. Both are speculations, however, that are not validated in any way by the text. Perhaps Cornelius and his household were being "saved" from living the rest of their lives without the blessed knowledge that their Messiah had now come. Thus, they would be saved from having to spend the rest of their days living under bondage to law, and would now be free to live under God's grace. Cornelius and his household would be saved from the futility of seeking to establish their own righteousness through meritorious works. We could go on ... and all of these would be valid, and biblical, "salvations." Even if we allow that "saved" refers to their eternal salvation from the second death, the text still does not specify the precise moment in time when that salvation was bestowed. That it occurred at the moment of immersion is merely an assumption.

Yes, the apostle Peter had some "good news" for Cornelius and all his household. On the other hand, the Lord God had some "good news" for Peter and his fellow Jews. In Christ Jesus, the walls of exclusion have been torn completely down, and we are each a part of the One Body. God had accepted Cornelius because of his faith, just as He had accepted Peter and his companions. Salvation is by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8-9), and this was equally true whether one was a Jew or a Gentile. God cleanses whom He will ... and His will is to cleanse those who possess genuine faith in Him. Before Peter even knew he was to be called to go to the home of Cornelius, God gave him a vision about this very truth (Acts 10:9-16). Even after being shown the vision three times, "Peter was greatly perplexed in mind as to what the vision which he had seen might be" (vs. 17). However, it was spelled out pretty clearly --- "What God has cleansed, no longer consider unholy" (vs. 16). Peter later grasped the meaning of this, saying, "God has shown me that I should not call any man unholy or unclean" (vs. 28). Why is that? Because "God had cleansed" Cornelius, and He considered him to be "holy" (set apart unto Himself). And God demonstrated this fact to Peter and the Jews that day by the powerful outpouring of His Holy Spirit in a visible manner.

When did God cleanse Cornelius? The sacramentalists will insist it was when this man finally got to the water. Peter disagrees, although he certainly acknowledges the importance of water baptism!! A passage often overlooked in this study is found in Acts 15. At the Jerusalem Council, which met to consider a very important debate being waged in the early church at that time, the apostle Peter stood up and made the following vital declaration -- "Brethren, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. And God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them, giving unto them the Holy Spirit, just as He also did unto us; and He made no distinction between us and them, cleansing their hearts BY FAITH. ... And we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they also are" (vs. 7-9, 11). God, who knows a man's heart, perceived in the heart of Cornelius a genuine faith, and the Lord God bore witness to that saving faith by imparting His Holy Spirit! Thus, as Peter states, it was by God's grace and Cornelius' faith that he was cleansed. Peter could not have been clearer!! There is no sacramentalism here! You will rarely, if ever, hear the legalists refer to this passage in Acts 15. Indeed, they wish it would vanish into thin air, for it completely defeats their deadly dogma.

The great theologian Matthew Henry (1662-1714), in his Commentary on the Whole Bible, made the following astute observation, "As Abraham was justified by faith, being yet in uncircumcision, to show that God is not tied to a method, nor confines Himself to external signs, so also the Holy Ghost fell upon those that were neither circumcised nor baptized." Yes, this fact bothers some people, "but it is by our mistaken notion of things we create difficulties to ourselves in the methods of divine providence and grace." Matthew Henry goes on to emphasize the importance of water baptism, however, as an ordinance of the church to which the saved are each obliged to render obedience (just as they're commanded to observe the Lord's Supper), not as a grace-imparting sacrament, but as a grace-affirming sign. "The reception of the Spirit, be it noted, was not looked upon as a substitute for baptism in water. This baptism was rather the due response to the divine act" [Dr. F. F. Bruce, Commentary on the Book of Acts, p. 231]. It is the action of God's Holy Spirit by which a penitent believer is placed into the universal One Body of Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 12:13 --- Reflections #353), however it is by our own submission to the ordinance of water baptism that we visibly testify to that divine act and, in a real sense, physically, spiritually and emotionally participate in it (just as we do, in like manner, in our symbolic participation in the Lord's Supper). It is a "participatory point of reference" for those of us who live within the parameters of both space and time. If our faith is genuine, it will demonstrate itself in the manner prescribed by our Lord God. We show forth our genuine faith to those around us, and affirm it not only to them, but to ourselves, in water baptism, which is a vital enactment of the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In that participatory event we both demonstrate and affirm our faith. This act is not a sacrament, as God's grace is bestowed as He perceives in our hearts that genuineness of faith, but a response of faith which is of vital importance to our testimony unto ourselves and others of God's acceptance. "God, who reads the hearts of men, saw the faith within them. And God accepted these Gentiles and cleansed their hearts by His Holy Spirit as soon as they believed the gospel" [Dr. F. F. Bruce, Commentary on the Book of Acts, p. 306].

Yes, it is my firm conviction that God accepted Cornelius "by grace through faith," and that he was thereby cleansed by the Spirit and a part of the universal Body of Christ. In other words, he was saved, in every sense of that word. He wasn't as "damned as a donkey," but was rather fully accepted by God! However, Cornelius, as one of God's children, had obligations and responsibilities (which would continue throughout his life, as they do throughout our own). One of the immediate ones being that he needed to demonstrate his faith to those who were there gathered (which evidentiary act would thereafter be recounted by Peter many times for the benefit of the Jews back in the city of Jerusalem and its environs). It was an absolutely essential testimony and affirmation; one not to be refused or put off. Matthew Henry has paraphrased the reasoning of Peter in the following way: "Can we deny the sign to those who have received the thing signified? Are not those on whom God has bestowed the grace of the covenant plainly entitled to the seals of the covenant?!! Surely those that have received the Spirit as well as we ought to receive baptism as well as we; for it becomes us to follow God's indications, and to take those into communion with us whom He hath taken into communion with Himself." By virtue of their submission to the ordinance of immersion, they testified to the reality of their faith, participated representatively in the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and were embraced as brethren by their fellow believers.

Brethren, I realize only too well that my understanding of the "Cornelius conversion" flies in the face of the traditional view embraced by many within my own faith-heritage. Without doubt, this will infuriate a number of people. However, I must be true to my convictions which are based on my study of God's Word. The more I examine the Scriptures, and I do so very carefully and prayerfully, the more I am convinced that baptism is not a sacrament. Salvation is by grace through faith. If that faith is genuine, it will show/evidence itself throughout our lives in a number of ways (repentance, confession and baptism being among the first of these). These evidentiary acts are not optional, but neither are they sacramental (a difficult distinction for the legalists to grasp). Some will no doubt claim that I have no regard for baptism; that I no longer believe it is necessary. This is simply not true!! If anything, my regard for it has increased, for I now believe I have a better appreciation for its significance as an evidentiary act, and as a point of reference and point of participation in the eternal realities it reflects and represents. May God help us to grasp His grace more perfectly, to receive His free gift in simple faith, and to embark upon a life filled with countless acts of love and gratitude, both toward Him and our fellow believers.

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Readers' Reflections

From a Reader in China:

Brother Al, Whenever we reduce worship to an hour or two on Sunday, distilling it down to five random acts that are tenuously contrived from cutting and pasting of Scripture to the individual's taste, and discontinue it as a function of our daily lives, we have committed a travesty. We have profaned it by turning it into a biblical checklist. And when we lose sight of the value of being with each other, laughing with each other, holding each other when we are hurting, and helping each other up when we are down, we've robbed ourselves of one of the greatest things we could ever experience: a Family. Not a corporation. Not a non-profit charity. Not an outreach group. A FAMILY. This is what the Hebrews writer was trying to give to us. The writer was encouraging us not to rob ourselves of our family, our lifeline, our support system. Brother Al, God bless you in your studies, and thank you for putting all your studies out there to help enrich my own! You are a blessing to me, my wife, and the family we share here in the People's Republic of China!!

From a Reader in Texas:

Brother Al, I have really enjoyed reading your Reflections for several years now, and I can't even begin to describe how your writings have brought me to a deeper understanding of God's Truth in regard to the legalistic way I was brought up. Please keep up the good work. Your Reflections Archive is a great study reference. Thank you, and God bless you!

From a Reader in Georgia:

Brother Al, As the many comments from your readers strongly suggest, many are now thinking for themselves, and are being impacted through your writings by a very active Holy Spirit. Many, who had been floundering in legalistic dogma, have now found great freedom and satisfaction in His Grace! These souls are jewels in your crown, Al. By the way, it should make you feel like God is on your side when you read the hateful remarks of men like Daniel Denham and David Brown. Whew!! I would be totally embarrassed for anyone to know that I had written such vitriol. Brother, the world is getting on board the Grace train, and you are being used by God to play a role in this. What a thrill it must be to be used by God to set men free from slavery to legalism and fear!!

From a Reader in Texas:

Dear Brother Al, That was a great article! This probably explains why house churches and small groups are growing the way that they are -- people are needing more fellowship and encouragement time together. I see David Brown linked you and Rick Atchley together again. Good for you! That's better than being linked with the Pharisees, who could bring about the downfall of our fellowship.

From a Minister in California:

Bro. Al, So you're a "mindless, miscreant, big belly brother, serving the devil's eatery." Wow!! Please don't tell Denham and Brown that I have a bigger belly than you do!! Al, that was another great Reflections.

From a Minister in Tennessee:

Brother Al, I see that two of our favorite brethren (Brown and Denham) have taken the time to show their "love" by letting you know that you are still going to hell, right along with the rest of us. Soldier on, brother. May God's grace reach out to them, just as it has to us, and may it one day soften their hardened hearts so they too may cry out, "Free at last; thank God Almighty, I am free at last."

From a Reader in Texas:

Brother Al, The mindless comments by men like David Brown and Daniel Denham brought back so many painful memories of encounters with men like them that I was in tears reading their words of contempt for you, Al. I have been free from this kind of so-called "Christian" for several years now, thanks to you, and others like you, who truly know the meaning of TRUTH. I don't know how you manage to stay calm in the face of such attacks, but I do want you to know that many pray for you daily. We need you so badly to keep us all on track with what God truly wants from our lives. These men have no clue, and they never will. May God have mercy on their souls. His blessing to you for all that you do!

From a Reader in Arkansas:

Dear Brother Al, I have owned cattle most of my life. I have bought calves and cows of all ages, and I kept them for varying amounts of time. It is necessary to see the animals regularly, and to gather them into a pen, so the first thing I do with new additions is to train them to come when I call. That is very easy to do. You place them in a restricted area, and then you feed them whenever you call them. You could use a whistle, or the horn on your truck, or your voice, but every time you call them, you feed them. If you do that for a week or so, you can turn those animals out anywhere, and, if they can hear you, they'll come running to you every time you call them to assemble to you. Why? They want some of that sweet food. But, if you call them and do not feed them, even a few times, most will begin to ignore you. On occasion, I have called cattle and tried to fool them by putting a few rocks in a bucket and shaking it as if it were feed. That will work maybe once or twice. The point of this illustration is simple -- if you feed them, they will come, but when you stop feeding them, and try fooling them, they won't come, and this is true whether we are talking about cattle or people! Scripture admonishes elders to feed the flock. However, if you ask some elders how they feed the flock, they look at you like you are playing "stump the band." Until elders themselves begin taking on that responsibility, instead of leaving it to the ministers, the Church of Christ will continue to wallow into obscurity.

From a Reader in [Unknown]:

Bro. Al, I really appreciated the article you wrote on our purpose for assembling. I am working my way through it, and, of course, it is quite a challenge to examine what I believe to be true, and what I practice, in contrast with what you have brought to our mind from the Scriptures. I really like this challenge, and I will no doubt benefit from it. Brother, I really enjoy reading your articles, and this one was excellent. Thank you for the concern and love you show in your writings.

From a Reader in Washington:

Brother Al, Outstanding job, as usual. I find it hard to understand how you have the time to read all of the material that was sent to you and still come up with such an outstanding summary of them in so short a time!! What you wrote expressed my own understanding completely. I have always thought I might be one of the few who felt this way about our assemblies, but it is very encouraging to see that I am not alone. May God richly bless your work.

From a Reader in Florida:

Bro. Al, This issue of Reflections on the assembly was a refreshing cool mist on a hot summer's day!! Thank you so much for addressing this "taboo" subject.

From a Minister/Author in California:

Brother Al, Your words on why we assemble expressed my views to a "T." How we have missed this truth only demonstrates how easily we are led by the falsity of the status quo, repeating it over and over until it is ingrained. Thanks for taking the time to summarize our "one another" times together.

From a Reader in Colorado:

Dear Brother Al, John Ruskin observed, "Quality is never an accident. It is always the result of intelligent effort." Your Reflections are "quality." Thank you for your continued efforts to present evidentiary truth over tradition.

From a Reader in North Carolina:

Brother Al, That was a bold and powerfully written article! I have to confess that, like others, my attitude toward the assembly has deteriorated to the point where I have little motive to attend. Going to the assembly in the Churches of Christ was such drudgery when I was a young man, and, even now, attending the assemblies of other denominations is much the same for me. I guess I feel as many do -- why keep going through the motions week after week? What is the purpose? The only times I ever felt really close to our God and His people were during the times I served as a counselor for a teen Bible camp. There was so much laughter, singing, praying and even playing together in support of one another, and in it all there was the building of relationship with Christ. I would just soak up all of that wonderful "family time." Thank you for this article, Bro. Al. It has disrupted my morning routine and stirred up my soul for some serious self-examination. God be with you this week.

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