by Al Maxey

Issue #501 ------- September 6, 2011
In the contemporary idiom, grace is a happening
rather than an achievement, a gift rather than a reward.

Sam Keen {b. 1931}

Can We OBEY the Gospel?
Reflecting Anew on Three NT Texts

For those of you who, like myself, are products of the Stone-Campbell Movement, you are likely very familiar with the evangelistic plea for all those deemed to be lost to "obey the gospel." Okay, let's be honest with ourselves here -- what is generally meant by that phrase, as it is used among "us," is: "be baptized." Those who get baptized have "obeyed the gospel." Whenever a new family moves into our community and desires to "place membership" with one of our congregations, one of the first things the leaders wonder is, "Have these people 'obeyed the gospel'?" ... which, of course, really means: have they been baptized (and, preferably, by one of "our" preachers in one of "our" buildings). If they were baptized by a Baptist, then clearly they haven't "obeyed the gospel." Sadly, we've come to believe that the "Good News" is that God will save those who are baptized. Thus, to "obey the gospel" is to "get to the water," and the sooner the better. I actually had a person tell me a few years ago (he was part of a nationally known evangelistic campaign effort among Churches of Christ) that he prided himself on being able to take a total stranger from "doorstep to baptistery" in just 15 minutes!! Brethren, such a mindset is absolutely abominable! And yet, this "rush to the river" is quite understandable whenever and wherever people assume that the Good News is something that must be obeyed, and that this obedience is fulfilled in the waters of baptism. Baptism, then, becomes the sacramental "point of salvation" for the sinner, who is declared to be "saved" by God the split-second his nose breaks the surface of the water of the baptistery (and who would be cast straight into the fires of hell if he died one second before baptism -- after all, he didn't "obey the gospel").

K. C. Moser (see my tribute to this godly man in Reflections #392), who was a champion for Grace among those of our Movement, noticed this tragic tendency to equate baptism with "obeying the gospel," and he spoke out strongly against it. He wrote, "Suppose I should remotely hint that baptism is not part of obedience to the gospel, what would be the response? I have long noticed that most any position is tolerated just so it appears to exalt baptism, even at the expense of faith or the blood of Christ" [Firm Foundation, vol. 51, Feb. 6, 1934, p. 2]. No, Moser was not diminishing the place or importance of baptism. He correctly regarded it as an act "that embodies faith ... yet, it is nowhere called 'obeying the gospel.' Much less is it the only means of 'obeying the gospel'" [ibid]. Moser ended his article on this matter of equating baptism with "obeying the gospel" by stating that this view constitutes "a fundamental error which a better understanding of the doctrine of salvation by grace through faith would correct. Brethren, for the sake of our souls, let us never get too big to restudy our position" [ibid].

Perhaps our "fundamental error" in this whole matter is in the view that one can OBEY the Good News. I was pondering this just the other day, and it struck me -- HOW does one OBEY good news?! If someone comes and tells you that the hurricane bearing down on your city has suddenly turned and moved out to sea, what is there about this good news that demands obedience?! Rejoicing, yes ... thanking God, yes ... relief, yes. But, obedience?! HOW does one OBEY good news?!! Nevertheless, if I had a dime for every time that I have heard the plea from our pulpits to "obey the gospel," I would be a rich man! So, where did this phrase come from? Well, in point of fact, it comes from the NT writings. There are three places within the NT where this phrase occurs (although none of them have anything to do with baptism -- that connection came from men, not from Scripture). Therefore, "obey the gospel" is apparently a biblical concept. I say "apparently," because even though this phrase ("obey the gospel") can be found within many of our versions of the Bible, it is nevertheless my conviction that these three verses have been woefully mistranslated and thus misunderstood, a fact that has negatively impacted our doctrine and practice (especially within our own Movement)! Notice these three verses (and each will be quoted from the KJV):

In each of these three passages, the writer speaks of those who have NOT "obeyed the gospel," and the consequences that will befall them for this failure to "obey." Again, however, the question could be raised: "obey what?" What specifically about "Good News" demands obedience?! The traditional answer we have heard all our lives is -- baptism. That leaves one wondering about the apostle Paul's following statement to the Corinthian brethren, however: "For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel" (1 Cor. 1:17). Paul apparently felt he could preach the gospel to others without being under any compulsion to perform baptisms. Again, this is not to suggest that baptism isn't important. It most certainly IS. To equate it with the gospel message, however, or to suggest the gospel could only be "obeyed" through baptism, is clearly in contradiction to what Paul teaches. Yes, baptism has an essential part to play for all those coming to God through Christ, but there is no evidence in Scripture that baptism constitutes "obedience" to the Good News! Once again, one has to wonder: HOW does one OBEY good news?! On the other hand, the above three passages clearly state that harsh consequences will befall those who do not "obey the gospel." So, how does one reconcile all this? What are Paul and Peter actually teaching in these passages?

First, we should point out the fact that the Greek word Paul uses (that the KJV renders as "obey") is a different word than the one used by Peter. The apostle Paul used the word hupakouo in Rom. 10:16 and 2 Thess. 1:8, while Peter chose the word apeitheo in 1 Pet. 4:17. Although both of these words can be translated by "obey," the concept of obedience is not the primary meaning of either word!! Following the lead of the KJV, however, our religious terminology has fully embraced and incorporated the phrase "obey the gospel" to such an extent that we repeat it almost daily without any real thought about what we're actually suggesting by this phrase. Many of the more recent translations and versions of the NT also keep it, as it has become quite familiar to us and would undoubtedly upset some people if the wording were altered. But, is this phrase truthful?! Does the phrase "obey the gospel" truly reflect what Paul and Peter sought to convey to us? I am convinced that it does not. And I am far from alone in that conviction among biblical scholars. Let's notice the words used by these two apostles.

The word Paul chose to use in both of his passages is hupakouo. It is a combination of the preposition "hupo" (which means "under") and the verb "akouo" (which means "hear"). This word literally means "to hear under, i.e. to listen attentively" [The New Strong's Expanded Dictionary of Bible Words, p. 1424]. "To listen; to hearken; used of a person who, on a knock at the door, comes to listen who it is" [Thayer's Greek-English Lexicon of the NT, p. 638]. "To give ear, hearken; to listen" [The Analytical Greek Lexicon of the NT, p. 414]. The preposition intensifies the meaning, and thus suggests a careful, focused listening or hearing. Thus, whereas some individuals only hear a speaker, others truly "pay attention" to the speaker. It is the latter that is suggested by this term. The expectation, of course, is that if one will truly "pay attention" (listen attentively) to the Good News, then they will believe it ... accept it as Truth ... embrace it as God's gift of grace. Others, who just let the gospel "go in one ear and out the other," are not likely to either believe it or accept it. Thus, truly listening to the gospel, and coming to understand the gospel, is critical with respect to how (or even if) one will welcome this Good News into his/her life. This is why Jesus, more than once, urged those around Him to "Hear, and understand." Christ also said on a number of occasions, "He that hath ears to hear, let him hear." In other words, as we used to be told in the military, "Listen up!!" Something important is being said; you need to hear it.

So, what is Paul saying in his two passages? He is simply lamenting the fact that so many have chosen NOT to "listen attentively to" the gospel. In fact, he points out that Isaiah experienced the same thing when the Jews, hundreds of years before, also refused to "listen to" (and thus come to believe) the words of God through the prophets. "For faith comes from hearing the message" (Rom. 10:17). The gospel message (the "Good News") is proclaimed to bring about faith within the hearts of those who hear the message with understanding. This faith will then move/motivate these believers to respond to the message -- a response that will be ongoing throughout the remainder of their lives, and which will be evidenced in a number of ways. These various evidentiary acts of faith (of which baptism is merely one of many) are vital within the life of the genuine child of God, however none of them constitute "obedience" to Good News, rather they reflect the faith of the individual who heard the Good News, and then chose to hearken to it and embrace it by faith. The subsequent acts merely manifest that faith in a visible manner for others to witness.

Therefore, even though the KJV used the word "obey" in Paul's two passages (and there are some other versions and translations that also use this word), "hearken is better than obey" in these verses [Dr. Marvin Vincent, Vincent's Word Studies, e-Sword]!! Saving "faith depends on hearing the message, that is, hearing it with understanding and acceptance" [The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 10, p. 114]. This is why you will find a number of versions that have translated Romans 10:16 with the word "heed" [NASB, RSV, Amplified Bible] or "hearken" [ASV] or "accept" [NIV, NCV]. They each recognize that what Paul is lamenting is that so many have refused to "hear and understand" (and thus accept as Truth) the gospel of our Lord. We are saved by grace through faith (Eph. 2:8), and faith comes by hearing (Rom. 10:17), therefore how tragic when one will not HEAR the Good News. Paul is not talking about "obeying" the gospel, he is talking about "hearing" it and understanding it. Our various responses of faith (of which baptism is merely one of many) come afterward. It is this of which Paul speaks earlier in his epistle to the Romans -- "We received grace and apostleship to call people from among all the Gentiles to the obedience that comes from faith" (Rom. 1:5). Our faith compels us to respond to the dictates of our Lord. When He commands, we obey. We are commanded to love one another, for example, so we comply. These commands are not in "obedience" to the Good News, however. Rather, they are the evidence of our faith, a faith that heard and welcomed the Good News of the GIFT of our salvation. As saved persons, we then spend our lives in obedient and loving service to Him who saved us. What He asks, we do -- not to be saved, but because we are saved.

The word that the apostle Peter chose to use in 1 Peter 4:17 was apeitheo, which means "to disbelieve (willfully and perversely); believe not; unbelieving; to refuse to be persuaded, to refuse belief" [The New Strong's Expanded Dictionary of Bible Words, p. 970]. It means: "Not to allow one's self to be persuaded; to refuse or withhold belief (in Christ, in the gospel)" [Thayer's Greek-English Lexicon of the NT, p. 55]. In Kittel's massive Theological Dictionary of the NT, this word has "acquired the sense which is now characteristic, namely, that of refusing to believe the Christian kerygma" [vol. 6, p. 11]. Kittel points out that this word "stands in antithesis" to the word meaning "to believe" or "to have faith" [ibid]. "To refuse belief, disbelieve; who will not be persuaded" [The Analytical Greek Lexicon of the New Testament, p. 37]. "Since in the view of the early Christians, the supreme disobedience was a refusal to believe their gospel, apeitheo may be restricted in some passages to the meaning: 'to disbelieve, be an unbeliever.' This is the sense that seems most probable in 1 Peter 4:17" [Arndt, Gingrich & Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the NT and Other Early Christian Literature, p. 82].

So, what is Peter saying to us in this passage? Simply put, he is saying that judgment will begin with the household of God -- with believers -- as the genuineness of their faith is examined. Just imagine, then, what must befall all those who have "believed not the gospel." Their refusal to believe the Good News will result in their destruction (which is bad news). Paul laments those who would not listen to the gospel, while Peter laments those who would not believe it. The consequences in both examples are severe for the persons in view. To take these two words in these three passages and make them some kind of series of proof-texts for baptism being one's act of "obedience" to the gospel is unconscionable!! These passages teach nothing of the sort, and we should cease misapplying them to that end. Yes, baptism has its purpose --- it is a vital response on the part of those persons who have both heard and believed the Good News; an act of faith that manifests that saving faith in visible form through this symbolic expression of trust in the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is a participatory act, as well, in which we portray our own death, burial and resurrection to a new life -- life which is granted by His grace and received by our faith and portrayed by our immersion. Can we obey Good News?!! NO, we can't. However, we can hear it and understand it; we can believe it; we can rejoice in it; we can celebrate it. God's Good News is not LAW we are forced to obey -- it is LOVE we are favored to receive. It is a free gift. Thank God for His Grace -- now that is Good News!!

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Readers' Reflections

From a Reader in Pennsylvania:

Brother Al, Congratulations on reaching the 500 mark!! I'm looking forward to the day when I receive issue #1000 of your Reflections.

From a Minister in Tennessee:

Dear Brother Al, I just finished digesting your article "Contemplating Our Commission," and I congratulate you once again on bringing the clarity of the Gospel to light. We've become so baptism-centric that it is no wonder we've missed the weightier matters of grace, discipleship and relationship with our Creator! I think I've figured out why some view your teaching as no less than "heresy." It requires an honest and soul-searching thought process to examine one's beliefs in light of Truth (especially when one is "safe and sound" within their "box"). Thus, it is difficult to consider, and to admit, that some of what is being "safeguarded" inside our "box" is actually in conflict with what the Bible teaches! Authentic faith, and a true relationship with Jesus, must always be open to discerning between Truth and Tradition. Thank you, Al, for helping us to break through the walls of our "box," and for challenging us to know God more intimately, and for enabling your readers to spread their wings and know the freedom of living in the light.

From a Minister in Kenya, Africa:

Dear Brother Maxey, Thank you for your message on the meaning of the Great Commission. What you wrote is indeed the truth, and it was so timely for the church here in my country. We thank you again!!

From a Reader in Florida:

Dear Brother Al, I have followed your writings for quite some time now, and appreciate the fact that you attempt to make people think (including me). I don't think we have ever met, but it would seem that you and I have some very similar views and passions concerning Christ. I just wanted to thank you for your efforts! Keep up the good work!

From a New Reader in [Unknown]:

Brother Maxey, Please add my email address to your mailing list for Reflections. After reading several of your articles that friends have forwarded to me, I feel that your studies are very accurate and Scriptural. Thank you.

From a Reader in Georgia:

Brother Al, I was reminded by your latest Reflections ("Contemplating Our Commission") of just how much I am discipled by YOU!! Certainly, I believe that I am able to disciple some, but I also need that same measure of discipling in my own life. Perhaps as we grow and mature, we are more able to discern who is, and who is not, speaking Truth, and are thus able to choose wisely whose feet to sit at. I am sincerely grateful for your time and energy and gifting that you share with us. Be blessed!!

From a Reader in Connecticut:

Brother Al, "Contemplating Our Commission" was another very persuasive and convincing challenge to really "study" the Scriptures. In the absence of "hell fire and brimstone" preachers and the nodding of heads in unison, in those hours of quietness away from such antics, you truly helped me to honestly and objectively "study" passages like this one in Matthew 28, and to grasp at the hem of freedom! Thank you!

From a Reader in New Mexico:

Brother Al, Thank you for yet another masterpiece ("Contemplating Our Commission") ... But, it has brought up something that has bothered me in the last several years. I grew up in THE (one true church) Church of Christ, and I think I believed that all I really had to do to be saved was get baptized. I am not sure of my age at the time, but I was probably 14 or 15, and I was baptized in a ditch (moving water) in Southeast Missouri. After graduating high school in 1950, I enlisted in the Air Force and went to Korea during the war, where my life certainly did not produce any fruit of the Spirit. My conclusion now is that I was baptized long before I had any real discipling. Oh, I believed that Jesus was the Son of God, and I could recite most all of the Church of Christ proof-texts, but was I really a Christian?! After the Internet became available, I began to do some searching. I found Carl Ketcherside, and saw that he'd grown up not too far from where I did. Once, while visiting my family back in Missouri, I mentioned Carl Ketcherside to them, and after seeing the look on my mother's face, I knew that I should never mention Carl again! Then I found a volume of Leroy Garrett's Restoration Review online, and was very impressed by it. During this time I also found you!! Between the three of you, I have studied myself out of the Church of Christ dogma, and am now simply an ever-learning disciple of our Lord and Master within the universal One Body of Christ Jesus. My question to you is: Do I need to be baptized again now that I have had some real discipling, and now that I have a much better sense of what it means to be in Christ? Brother Al, you are doing such an important work, and I pray for you regularly!!

From a Reader in California:

Bro. Al, I heard a great story about the preacher Henry Ward Beecher that I think you can appreciate, especially in light of some of the criticism that you receive. It seems that Beecher was getting ready to speak when somebody out in the audience sent a note up to him. On the page was the single word "Fool." Beecher got up to speak and said that he'd just received a letter from someone in the crowd. He said that oftentimes he had written a letter, but had forgotten to sign his name, and that he had known other people who had done the same thing. Beecher said that on this day he had witnessed something that he had never seen before -- someone who had signed their name, but had forgotten to write the letter!

From a Reader in Kentucky:

Dear Brother Al, I enjoy your Reflections enormously! I am also anxious to read your thinking on marriage, divorce and remarriage. Please send me a signed copy of your book Down, But Not Out (my check is enclosed). Thanks for all you do!

From a Minister in Mississippi:

Dear Brother Maxey, I am writing to subscribe to your Reflections. I am so grateful for your spirit of love and display of grace. God is certainly using you to bless not only all of His children, but especially those of us within the fellowship of the Churches of Christ. Your writings are a breath of fresh air to a young minister like myself, and I look forward to continuing to read them and to learn from you in the future. Grace and peace to you!

From a Leader/Author in Churches of Christ:

Dear Brother Al, Your observations about the "Great Commission" are an accurate exegesis of Matthew 28:18-20. One becomes a "disciple" at his/her initial stage of learning, and then continues in "converting" his/her lifestyle into Christlikeness on the journey of faithfulness through life. The thrust of the New Testament epistles is for disciples to continue the discipling process. Have you ever noticed that in the epistles there is a strange absence of brethren being rebuked for not being "soul winners"? The emphasis is on Christ's place in redemption and the need to have His attitude. Maybe the decline in church growth would cease if we would get back to the imperative of "making disciples as we are going." Thanks for this stimulating Reflections article!!

From an Author in the Christian Church:
(An Email sent to his Readers)

A brother writes on Jay Guin's blog site, "The current divide, which I refer to as 'the conservative/progressive divide,' is not like any of the other divides, because it is not about whether _____ is authorized under CENI. Think about it --- from 1906 until the very present, every Church of Christ division of consequence has been over whether some particular practice is 'authorized': instrumental music, missionary societies, located preachers, fund-raising (other than freewill offerings), multiple Communion cups, support for orphanages and the Herald of Truth from church funds, etc. Every split was driven by the false hermeneutic that we borrowed from the Zwinglians and Puritans (known as the Regulative Principle)." Church of Christ sects began splitting earlier than 1906, and indeed each was based on differing views of CENI hermeneutics. But, thanks to the current leading of Rick Atchley, Jay Guin, Max Lucado, Al Maxey, and others, members of the Churches of Christ are finally seeing that sectarianism itself is sinful. The "Regulative Principle" (source of CENI hermeneutics) is not apostolic, but was brought over from earlier sects. The apostles didn't claim that their writings were to be understood as a new code of laws. However, CENI treats the inspired writings as a new code of laws. Legalism is deadly, never life-giving! Is not the Way of Christ a way of life and love which leads to unity in Him?!

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